What Would Aldo Do?

It was mid morning and I was pondering the grits I had left on the stove, when a crash in the leaves over my right shoulder caught my ear. Apparently, mine was not the only ear caught as what had been a cacophony of foraging squirrels stopped in an instant. I could hear nothing. My first thought was that the red-shouldered hawk who frequented this corner of the farm must have taken one of the squirrels. Slowly I turned to look behind me, hoping to see the mantled wings of a hawk guarding her prey.

I scanned the eerily quiet woods. Something moved fifty or sixty yards out. It was not a hawk. This was a mammal, but too small small to be a deer. Coyote, perhaps?

A couple steps was all I needed for a clear, positive identification. Bobcat. The feline moved slowly but without apparent concern through the woods on a line which, if unchanged, would bring her within twenty yard of me. The squirrels remained silent. I had forgotten my binoculars that morning, so if I wanted a closer look, my rifle scope would have to do.

As she passed behind a large oak, I lifted the stock to my shoulder and took aim. She walked with her mouth open, her head low in a perfect line. I wondered what the occasional flick of her short tail was communicating. When she paused and turned her head towards me, I froze. She seemed to look right through me, her tufted ears poised to gather evidence of any move I would make. She turned her head the other way revealing large white eyespots on the back of her ears. Looking back to her front, she continued on her way.

Coming even with me she entered a blackberry tangle, disappearing. When she reemerged, she was thirty yards away and passing me. Through the scope she felt close enough to touch.

Her path angled towards me, crossing broadside in front of my stand. I was taken by the mechanics of her shoulders, how her head remained steady, her large feet silent.

When she looked away from me, I became acutely aware that the crosshairs of my scope were squarely on her vital organs, just behind her shoulder–the kill zone. My finger was on the trigger. I pulled my finger away, out of the trigger guard, and reached for the safety. It was off. I did not risk clicking it back on and attracting her attention, but gripped the stock with my full hand, finger safely away from the lever that could take her life.

In that moment, I remembered a note Aldo Leopold made in his shack journal about shooting a bobcat while deer hunting on his farm along the Wisconsin River. He made the entry a couple decades after seeing a “fierce green fire dying” in the eye of a wolf he shot in New Mexico, an incident he used to illustrate the need for change in our relationship with predators in his essay Thinking Like A Mountain.

It is hard for me to imagine the same man who wrote such impassioned words about what “tingles in the spine of all who hear wolves by night, or who scan their tracks by day,” pulling the trigger on a bobcat, but he did. Then again, I had just had my finger on the trigger.

Like the rest of us, Leopold was a complex man. He was a hunter and a conservationist. He recognized the the importance of “every cog and wheel” that keep the biotic community running smoothly, and he enjoyed taking not only his “meat from God,” but the shooting of non-game species as well.

WWADI did not pull the trigger that morning, but for just an instant perhaps I could have. Some instinct had me ready, even if my rational and emotional minds pulled me quickly back. To run my fingers through the coat of a bobcat is compelling. To take its life for that opportunity, was not something I could do.

How Leopold, so late in a life so rich with evolving thought and understanding as to lead to his Land Ethic, was able to pull that trigger, I don’t understand. Yet, he did. Like I said, Leopold was a complex man.

The bobcat’s path changed again. She turned to move directly away from me. Five yards on her new trajectory, she pause, crouched, lowered her head and sniffed at something in the leaves. Perhaps she smelled the deer I had dropped there a week ago–my “meat from God.”

ImageAnother ten yards away from me, she jumped effortlessly onto a thirty inch downed oak. A second tree of similar size lay perpendicular across the first one like a pair of pickup sticks. She reached forward and pulled herself up until she was nearly vertical, then looked back over her shoulder for a moment, this time right into my scope. A quick jump onto the top log and she disappeared over the other side. I clicked on my safety, lowered my rifle, and lifted my cup. The tea was cold. As I stared into the woods in the direction she had gone, I heard leaves rustling behind me, then more to my right. As the woods came back to life, I climbed down from my perch and walked back to the house for breakfast.

Some Thoughts on Wilderness

I must have been about ten years old when I peered from the windows of my parent’s Ford station wagon on a late evening drive home from Grandma’s house. Asphalt, neon lights, and power lines passed by. From the windows of other cars and businesses, silent figures watched me watching them.
As we made our way down that thoroughfare, I imagined trees, wildlife, and darkness. I wondered how that place might have appeared a hundred, two hundred, a thousand years before, and why we needed so much light in the middle of the night, why we paved so much. A deep sadness sunk in. That night I prayed with the fervency of a young boy who knew his God would answer a prayer of faith for an opportunity to turn back the clock. I didn’t know where we went wrong, or even how, but I knew that somewhere along the line we had taken a wrong turn and the only way my young eyes could see righting that wrong was through an act of God. That was neither the first nor the last time I prayed that prayer.
Over the next decade I struggled with the God whose answers never came, and with a deepening sadness over the disconnect I felt every time I walked on paved streets, watched a bulldozer level another woodlot lot to build another business or house, or strained my eyes for constellations lost to light pollution.
I wondered why I didn’t hear the adults around me addressing these issues. Surely, they must feel the same things, I thought. Surely…
Then, somewhere around my twentieth birthday, I was introduced to Aldo Leopold’s book A Sand County Almanac. In the foreword to that book, Leopold spoke of “a shift of values…achieved by reappraising things unnatural, tame, and confined…”  Later, in his essay The Green Lagoons, Leopold wrote “Man always kills the thing he loves. And so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness. Some say we had to. Be that as it may, I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in.”
For the first time in my life, I felt as if someone else felt the things I felt, shared in my sadness, understood.
As  middle-aged man, I now understand that regardless of prayers, God will not turn back the clock, we will not be granted a do-over. It is up to us.
I recently looked over a map of all the federally designated wilderness areas in the United States, and was shocked at how little there is. In 1924, largely due to Leopold’s urging, the Gila Wilderness was designated in New Mexico. Forty years later, the Wilderness Act was passed and since then almost 110 million acres have been given that highest level of protection.
One hundred and ten million acres sounds like a lot, but of our total land, it is only about 5%, and nearly half of that is in Alaska. In the contiguous forty-eight, total wilderness is equal to about the size of Minnesota.
When Leopold returned from school to find his boyhood swamp drained, he wrote. “My hometown thought the community enriched by this change. I thought it impoverished.” Jesus and John the Baptist went to the wilderness to fast and pray. And Henry David Thoreau wrote that “In wildness is the salvation of the world.”
My beliefs have changed a lot since the days of riding in the back seat of my parent’s station wagon. Perhaps that young boy was wrong about God answering his prayers. Maybe he just needed to go to the wilderness to hear the answer. Maybe the answer was that he needed to do something about it, that it is up to us.
Currently, there is a bill before congress that would designate about 20,000 acres of the Cherokee National Forest in East Tennessee as wilderness. It wouldn’t cost anything. In fact, it is all currently being managed as wilderness anyway. Don’t we owe it to our young people and young people to come to pass that legislation? Mustn’t we ensure that the young always have wild places to be young in? After all, their salvation just might depend on it.
Contact your representatives in Washington and urge them to pass the Tennessee Wilderness Act.

Crossing the Road–A Chicken’s Journey

While I’m posting old articles, I thought y’all might enjoy looking back at this one–also from the Pulse.

“The ground was frozen solid so I couldn’t bury her,” she began slowly. “It was during that week of sub-freezing weather…” Her voice trailed as she thought back to the trying morning in question. “It took awhile,” she continued. “But I managed to break open the compost and bury her there… underneath a cushaw cross…”

Candice Dougherty, assistant manager at Crabtree Farms in Chattanooga, went on to explain how she had been the only one at the farm that morning—a “snow day,” she called it. She worked in the office for a while before deciding to check on things in the greenhouse. When the big white chicken she lovingly called “Chicky,” didn’t meet her at the door, she began to worry. She scanned the greenhouse. She didn’t have far to look. On her left, a few white feathers stuck over the edge of a fifty-gallon water bucket.

“That bucket is big—about two-and-a-half feet tall.” Dougherty said, her brow furrowed with disgust. “She had to put some effort into getting up there, but she couldn’t get back out…she was stiff as a board. I saw her and just started cussin’.”

I wondered how a fat and awkward bird like that could get to the top of such a big bucket, so I asked Dougherty if she ever saw her fly. “No, not really,” she responded. “If you’d walk away (from her), she would scream. “I’m comin! I’m comin!” She went on to describe a big bird with a wobbly gait that would run after her, flapping its wings, never getting off the ground.

Around the corner from us, Farm Manager Joel Houser was listening to our conversation. “We went from being repulsed by her to falling in love with her,” he added.

“Chicky” went by many names in her last 30 days, but most folks called her Chicken Little. Her odd way of wobbling when she walked, the curious way she cocked her head and looked up at folks, and the way she followed farm workers and visitors around like a puppy made her irresistible to almost all who met her.

Chicken Little’s journey to Crabtree began on the morning of December 3rd, 2009. Allison Fellers was driving home from taking her son to school. It was 7:45 and the self-proclaimed “not-a-morning-person” was still in her pajamas when she saw something wobbling around in the middle of the road. “It didn’t know if it should go right or left. It was stuck there in the road…” When a man in a minivan slammed on the brakes, narrowly missing the confused bird, Fellers pulled over, turned on her flashers, ran to the middle of the road, knelt down in her multi-colored, polka dot flannel pajamas and down slippers, said a prayer, scooped up the chicken, and ran back to her car.

Chicken Little was “near death” and “covered from head to tail in chicken poop” When Fellers found her lost in the middle of Broad Street in front of the Pilgrim’s Pride processing facility. She put the chicken in the front seat, but it immediately jumped to the floorboard where it sat, unmoving, eyes closed, all the way to the farm.

Chickens were not new to Fellers. Before she and her husband John moved from Signal Mountain down to the Southside neighborhood of Cowart Place, they kept egg-layers for a while, but this was unlike any chicken she had ever encountered.

“It didn’t have the natural shape of a chicken. I don’t know if it was the lack of feathers…” Fellers recounted how her whole car reeked of chicken feces and how the chicken was “practically bald with just a few sparse feathers here and there.”

Speaking of factory farm chickens in general, Mike Barron, greenhouse manager said, “They have a tough time standing on their own. They are bred for muscle size but don’t develop strength.”

In spite of the fact that Crabtree is a vegetable farm and doesn’t raise any animals, Chicken Little was not the first chicken dropped off at the urban farm. “Someone brought us a rooster that didn’t like kids,” Said Joel Houser, farm manager. “We fattened it for a few days and then ate it, so when (Fellers) called, we thought, Great, another one to eat! When we saw it, though, we knew we couldn’t eat it.”

When the folks at Crabtree first saw (and smelled) the disheveled chicken Fellers delivered, nobody thought it had a chance at survival.  Dougherty opened the passenger door and looked down at the smelly mess in the floorboard. The chicken didn’t even open her eyes as she reluctantly wrapped her arms around it and lifted it out of the car. Eager to distance herself from the filthy bird, Dougherty immediately set it down in the parking lot. Looking for a response, she poked it. The chicken fell over. According to Dougherty, “You could touch her eye and she wouldn’t even blink.” The crew had plenty of reservations, not the least of which was disease. But since the farm had no resident chickens whose health they needed to worry about, and since they were certainly in a better position to keep her than was Fellers, they let the sickly bird stay, and despite their less-than-positive expectations for the pitiful-looking fowl, they decided to do their best to care for it.

“We put her in the greenhouse to protect her from Hawks…put in a bowl of water and a winter squash, and she didn’t touch it. She didn’t know what real food was. Didn’t recognize it,” said Dougherty, clearly disgusted by the state of the chicken.

For the first couple of days, the poor, disheveled and disoriented chicken hunkered under the protective cover of the greenhouse without eating a thing and barely moving. Then Dougherty decided to try something different; she scattered a little multi-colored popcorn on the ground in front of Chicken Little and the bird immediately went for the yellow corn, devouring it but ignoring the other colors. “Must have looked like whatever they fed it where it was raised,” Dougherty reasoned.

With limited feeding success now under her belt, Dougherty gained some hope and started experimenting. She offered a worm, but even when she draped it over the chicken’s beak, it wouldn’t eat it. Then she put some popcorn on a cushaw squash. Chicken Little ate the popcorn and when bits of squash stuck to the corn, she quickly discovered she liked that too.

Realizing that the chicken had the capacity to be taught, Dougherty waited for a sunny day, then shooed now-named “Chicken Little” out of the greenhouse. Again, she tried showing her an earthworm. This time, the more alert and less hungry chicken saw the wriggler and pecked it right up, so she gave her a handful of soil filled with worms. It worked…to a degree. Chicken Little watched the dirt and pecked out anything she saw moving, but she made no effort to scratch at the dirt, to uncover more food.

Dougherty started leaving seed, a squash, an apple or some popcorn out in the greenhouse at night. During the day they let her out, gave her free-range access to the farm.After being introduced to her new menu, Chicken Little started following Dougherty around the farm. Surrounded by enough quality food to feed an army of chickens, this one was interested only in what Dougherty would give her. One day, while weeding, Dougherty found a slug. Since her friend stood by looking for a treat, she tried tossing it the slug. The chicken took one sideways glance at the pest and pecked it up. Dougherty realized that she had a great tool on her hands and encouraged to chicken to go everywhere with her.  She took her in the hoop house (a plastic sided, tunnel-shaped greenhouse for winter growing) and Chicken Little followed along, eating whatever she threw her. Dougherty made the mistake of tossing a wilted piece of kale to the eating machine.  She loved it and couldn’t be stopped from eating it, so Dougherty imposed a new rule on the chicken with the growing appetite. No Chickens in the hoop houses! Chicken Little didn’t seem to mind the imposition, though. Dougherty taught her to eat clover and as long as she kept talking to her, the bird followed along outside hoop house, waiting for her friend to emerge, all the while stuffing herself on clover. By the end of a long day, Chicken Little’s crop looked like a baseball. “Overnight, her gullet would shrink, but the end of the day, she would be fat again,” Houser observed.

It was the following Wednesday when Dougherty says she really fell in love with the bird. The crew was pulling privet (an invasive European hedge that thrives in edge habitat) at the margin of the property. Chicken Little was right alongside. She was awkward at first in trying to eat the berries that are a favorite of songbirds, but she soon learned to scratch at the berries to reveal the inner seed. What little Chicken Little didn’t know was that she was doing the farm a huge service because unlike songbirds who spread the invasive plant when they eat the berries, then drop them in scat along power lines and fencerows, Chickens are able to totally digest the seed so that it comes out as rich fertilizer, no longer viable for reproduction.

As the chicken continued to gain strength, she started taking care of herself, too. For the first time they saw her preening—slowly transforming her previously caked feathers. “We didn’t clean her, but by the time she left here, she was beautiful and white,” Dougherty said with a proud smile. “She had cleaned herself up…her beak was a mess though—all covered with dried squash.”

I learned firsthand what a quick study the new mascot was on a visit to the farm in the middle of December. At the end of my stay, several of us chatted under an oak tree in the gravel parking lot. Chicken Little heard Dougherty’s distinctive laugh and came running over. She turned her head, pointing one of her eyes up at her companion. When Dougherty didn’t respond with an expected treat, Chicken Little just hung out with us.

Surprised the chicken wasn’t scratching the ground for food, I asked Dougherty why her chicken wasn’t eating the smashed acorns that were all around us. “Too sour?” I speculated. “No. She just doesn’t know its food,” she responded with a chuckle.
That’s all I needed to hear. Kneeling down, I picked up a broken nut and crumbled it in my hand, which I then extended towards the chicken. After the same sideways look she had given Candice moments before, Chicken Little pecked the seed bits from my palm. I pointed to the ground to show her that there was more where that came from, but she just gave me that same look. Again, I crushed up a seed in my hand. After a few of these offers, I let Chicken Little see the nut, then dropped it at her feet. That was all it took. As she ate the one I presented, her little head jerked to one side and then the other as she began to recognize the smorgasbord at her feet.  For the rest of our conversation in the parking lot, Chicken Little was fat and happy in acorn heaven.

According to Houser, Chicken Little maintained her love for acorns. A few days after the acorn discovery, he pulled in the parking lot to see a flock of doves under that same oak tree, foraging for nuts. In the middle of them, one odd, white bird stood out, towering over the rest of the smaller gray birds. “She was one of the flock,” he said with a smile.

Reflecting back on the relationship she forged with her companion, Dougherty commented that she “didn’t know chickens could understand like that… She learned the sound of my voice.” And Chicken Little didn’t just recognize her voice but “knew when she was being called.”

Dougherty told me how they were out taking pictures of the farm in the snow, and she called Chicken Little so they could get a photograph of her. “As soon as she heard me call, she came running.”  The next morning Dougherty stood in the door of the greenhouse, calling for a friend who didn’t answer.

I called Pilgrim’s Pride in an attempt to learn the prehistory of Chicken Little. I wanted to ask them how she might have come to wandering around in the middle of Broad Street, covered in feces. I wondered how a chicken could live to maturity without learning what “real food was.”  I had a lot of questions.

My first call, to the corporate office in Texas, resulted in the voice mailbox of Ray Atkinson, where I left a message. I tried the local plant.

“Hello. Pilgrim’s Pride.”

“Hi, my name is Jim Pfitzer. I’m writing an article about a chicken…”
    “I’ll transfer you.”

“Hello, Rick Bailey.”
    “Hi, my name is Jim Pfitzer. I’m writing an article about a chicken…”
    “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to call Ray Atkinson. I can give you his number”

“He’s in Texas, right?”
“That’s right.
“But the chicken is in Chattanooga…”

“I’m sorry, but you have to call Mr. Atkinson.”

“But he’s in Texas…”


“But Chicken Little is right here in Chattanooga. It’s a feel-good story about one of your chickens, who got a new lease on life. I was hoping…”

“Sir, you have to call Ray Atkinson His number is…”

“But Ray Atkinson hasn’t met this chicken. It’s in Chattanooga. Perhaps you have. If I could just have a minute of your time….”

“I’m sorry sir, but it is company policy.”

“Pilgrim’s Pride has a company policy dictating that community interest stories about Chattanooga chickens can only be addressed by Ray Atkinson in Texas?”

“That’s correct, Sir.”

“You won’t talk to me at all?”

“No Sir. It’s Company Policy.”

“Can we talk about…”
    “No Sir. We cannot talk about anything.”

Perhaps it’s just as well that they wouldn’t talk to me. According to their website, Pilgrim’s Pride has the capacity to process 45 million birds per week. Even if he had talked, I doubt … would have been able to tell me about one, specific bird.

After our non-conversation, I drove over to the intersection of Main and Broad, just a half block from where Fellers and Chicken Little first met. Looking at the flatbed trailers stacked with thousands of chickens in tiny, individual cages, I couldn’t help noticing how they all looked alarmingly like the poor white bird that was saved by Allison Fellers on that chilly morning in early December, and I remember something Fellers told me about how that little bird affected her. “I changed my route taking my son to school because I can’t stand to see the trucks with all those chickens packed together…” She was quiet for moment, then added, “They’re like children. They’re innocent. God made them to do certain things…scratch in the dirt and eat bugs.” Before driving away, I thought about how different Chicken Little looked after just a couple of weeks of good food and sunshine.

Dying alone in the middle of the night, in a bucket of cold water is certainly a horrible death for a lovable bird that became the mascot of an urban farm, but at least this one bird out of 45 million found some redemption in her final days. It is certainly safe to assume that she was the only one of those millions who was loved enough to have an obituary.

In an email to friends and admirers of Chicken Little on the afternoon after her death, Houser eulogized her this way: “After many trials and tribulations, Chicken Little succumbed to a bucket of water in the greenhouse. She was a tough chicken, full of personality, who loved company. After being raised by the devil, rescued by a woman in pajamas, she found herself in her later weeks. She may not have come to us a chicken, but she died a chicken.”

A Locavore Thanksgiving

Last year about this time, I was asked by the Chattanooga Pulse to write a cover story for their Thanksgiving issue. I thought it might be nice to re-post that article here. I hope you find inspiration for a great local Thanksgiving dinner of your own.

A Locavore Thanksgiving

In 2007 Ben Zimmer, editor of American dictionaries at Oxford Press, announced their word of year, and a movement that had been building in little circles all around the country became known to the world. The new word was “locavore,” and it referred to people who make conscious efforts to eat as locally, as minimally processed, and as natural and preservative free as possible. “It’s significant,” says Zimmer, “in that it brings together eating and ecology in a new way.”

According to http://www.locavores.com, our food “travels an average of 1,500 miles before ending up on our plates.” Some of the effects of this are obvious, such as the high carbon footprint left behind by all the trucking necessary for Tennesseans to eat California tomatoes, and the amount of preservatives and processing needed to prevent spoilage, not to mention the vast scale of agriculture, that has lead to the collapse of family farms, and the sterilization of lands under the burden of monoculture. Other costs aren’t so readily clear, however, such as the reduction of the nutritional value of foods, the government subsidies that prop up farms, and the once small-time farmers that have become nearly enslaved by the huge corporations that contract them. And how about the alarming fact that many school children cannot tell you where a chicken come from or even that strawberry is more than just a flavor? And what about flavor? If your tomatoes aren’t local, vine-ripened, and chemical free, you might ask yourself what a tomato tastes like, because there is a good chance you don’t know. Or, if you are under a certain age, you might have never known.

Given the current agricultural situation, just how realistic is it to actually eat locally? Can you buy local at the grocery store? For this article, I set out to answer those questions by preparing the most locavore Thanksgiving dinner I possibly could. To help me in my task, I enlisted local cook and author of annsfoodletters.blogspot.com to help me out. Before tackling local, I asked Ann Keener to ponder Thanksgiving for me.

“There is something very special about Thanksgiving. There are no gifts to buy, no candy to gorge on, no church services to attend, no candles to light. There are simply two things: Family and Food. Thanksgiving has amazingly lived through the 300-some-odd years of our culture, from the first musket ball to the latest tweet on Twitter without being adulterated or changed. There are no new gimmicks to buy and nothing more to NEED, just the basic human desire to share the seasonal harvest bounty.

“The meaning of Thanksgiving is this: There is one day out of the entire year that, no matter how busy we are, we will stop and go home for a large, warm meal shared with friends and family. It is a deep-rooted autumn harvest festival, along with the deep-rooted desire to sit down for a long luxurious meal. It is the most amazing holiday because it is not amazing at all. And yet, the simplicity of sitting down to eat a meal lovingly prepared with seasonal ingredients like sweet potatoes and collards might just happen once a year for some folks.”

It seemed to me that at the core of locavorism is the family and food of which Ann spoke. For our experiment, we had the family part taken care of. It was Ann’s sister-in-law’s birthday, so our pre-Thanksgiving feast for twenty would honor her.
All we needed was local, minimally-processed, preservative-free food. I poked around a bit to find out what locavore experts considered to be “local.” The 30 Mile Meal Project of Athens, Ohio has a self-evident opinion, while the USDA considers 400 miles or within the same state to be a “DGD” or day-goods-distance. Others say fifty or a hundred miles is local, With such a broad range of opinions, I turned to the Taste Buds Local Food Guide, a publication of Crabtree Farms that showcases “local foods, markets, farms and food-crafters” Their focus kept them within a 100-mile radius of Chattanooga, so that is the target we adopted.

With the 100 mile goal in mind, we were ready to shop.
We would complete all shopping in one day, buying only what was available at the moment—fresh food, no pre-orders, no deliveries. We would spend the next preparing the food and serving the meal. This meant that planning the meal would happen as we shopped and while we cooked.

Shopping began with the two grocery stores I am most familiar with. At 2.5 and 2.2 miles from my house, Greenlife Grocery on the north shore and Bi-Lo in St. Elmo were pretty darned close. To make my shopping easier, I found a knowledgeable employee upon entering each store. Unfortunately, people in management at both stores informed me that because I was writing an article for publication, they were not allowed to talk with me. Bi-Lo gave me a corporate phone number, while Greenlife made the call for me and said they would get back to me when they had a response. Four days later (and two days after our meal) I have yet to hear from them.

Fortunately, not having corporate permission did not prevent me from shopping and speaking unofficially with employees of both stores, and I have to say that each had their locavore benefits. At Greenlife, I found beautiful collards, kale, and a few cuts of lamb grown right here in Chattanooga at William’s Island Farm, and a handful of meat offerings from Sequatchie Cove. Outside of those two farms, however, I found mostly a plethora of veggies labeled “U.S.A.”
Bi-Lo, while not offering anything as close as Greenlife, did stock a wide variety of vegetables in their house “Walter’s” brand, all of which are grown in the Southeast, and some of which were even certified organic, but the southeast is a big region and best I could tell, all the produce was trucked to South Carolina for processing and packaging before being trucked out to my neighborhood store, pretty much ensuring that any produce grown in Tennessee, was first shipped out of the state only to be shipped back again.

As for the centerpiece of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner…Turkeys at Greenlife were from Pennsylvania and had to be ordered, and Bi-Lo Turkeys of unknown origin were scheduled for delivery the day after our feast.
We were not off to a good start and our one shopping day was half over. Fortunately, we had one more stop on our list: The Main Street Farmer’s Market—a weekly two-hour gathering of farmers in a vacant lot just a few blocks from my house on the Southside.

With bags in hand, Ann and I made the rounds.

The first stop: Pocket Farm, located in McClemore Cove, nine miles south of Chickamauga. According to their website, Pocket Farm “adheres to organic farming practices and offers naturally grown produce free of commercial pesticides and chemicals.” And they are 25 miles from home. So far, so good.

Several bright red-orange pumpkins caught Ann’s eye. “Let’s get some of these red kuris.” Having no idea what a red kuri was, I asked her, “what for?” to which she replied, “soup.” It was clear that I was out of my league here, but excited to see what other ideas my partner might come up with.

After spending $17.00 on several of the red kuris, we moved on to Signal Mountain Farm to buy some organic green tomatoes from Thomas O’Neal. Two booths, and the miles our produce had traveled average of about 23 miles—a pattern we would see throughout our shopping spree.

In fact, every stand we visited represented a farm that was well within the hundred-mile goal we set for ourselves, with most being much closer. And along with produce, we even found corn meal for stuffing and whole-wheat flour for gravy.
When I asked Brad Swancy from Riverview Farms how far his cornmeal traveled to get to market he laughed. “From the field to the bag it was only a mile, then about 55 miles to get here.” And what makes his corn special? “It’s heirloom, non-GMO from our own seeds so we know what we are growing,” he said matter-of-factly. “And it’s stone ground, which does not generate heat, saving enzymes.”

At the River Ridge Farm stand we chatted with farmer Dave Waters about the thirteen-pound turkey he provided. He told us about turkeys who were out of the brooder and on pasture by the time they were six week old. “We use a certified organic, whole grain, soy-free feed with no by-products,” he said. When I lauded his turkeys for being so much closer than the Pennsylvania birds available at the grocery store, Waters was quick to explain that although his farm is only fifty miles away, he did have to drive them all the way to Bowling Green for processing—the closest place available, and a problem that he and other farmers are addressing.

We chose an after dinner drink from Andrew at Velo Coffee Roasters—decaf coffee roasted in a small batch to guarantee freshness twenty-four hours before purchasing. To top it off, he delivered his beans by bicycle. Talk about carbon footprint!
At the booth next door to Velo, Tom Montague told us about his Link 41 sausage. “We use pork from River Ridge and Sequatchie Cove, and our spices come from alchemy spice—all vendors at this market. That way we know that the pork is raised well and spiced with fresh spices. And our shop is right here on Main Street, so we are serving the neighborhood.” We picked up a couple pounds of Sorghum Baconage—a sausage with extra  bacon pieces added to the regular grind and a little bit of sorghum for sweetness.

As I was leaving the Link 41 booth, Montague stopped me and asked that I turn the tape back on. Looking back towards Velo, he began talking about his neighbor.

“An important aspect of purchasing locally is that you have a concentrated effect on a community,” said Montague, “which is easy to see in our local community, but Andrew is having a specific effect on another community.” Montague was referring to the way Gage buys his beans from a broker who knows how specific farms are growing their beans—whether they are organic or not, how sustainable they are. This attention allows him to target specific growers with specific practices instead of purchasing from the industrial complex.

From farm to farm, the stories were largely the same. Organic, sustainable, pesticide-free, and heirloom were words used over and over again to describe what we put into our bags. Unlike at the grocery stores, our problem was not in finding enough local food, but in deciding what to leave behind. By the time we got back to the kitchen we had winter squash, kale, collards, sweet potatoes, peppers, fennel, green tomatoes, sausage, garlic, broccoli, corn meal, flour, arugula, sunchokes, beets, coffee, a leg of lamb, and a turkey; and we purchased every single bit of it at the farmers market. Although we did not keep an exact count, we estimated spending around $215 with an estimated average distance from farm to table for the fresh meat and produce of around 30 miles—local by any standard!

We began our cooking around 12:30 the following day, figuring out what to do with our raw materials on the fly. We stuffed the turkey with a cornmeal/squash/sausage dressing, salted the skin, brushed on a little bacon grease, and left it to do its thing in the oven.

Ann came up with a mixed winter squash soup with just enough hot red pepper to give it a little kick.
Beets were chopped and roasted, sweet potatoes were mashed with butter, garlic and a couple splashes of Pritchard’s Tennessee Whiskey (from only 60 miles away), greens were wilted with garlic and balsamic vinegar, broccoli was steamed just enough, lamb, plugged with rosemary and garlic, roasted alongside the turkey, green tomatoes were diced and glazed to make a sweet salsa, and an amazing thin gravy was cooked down from the combination of drippings in the oven.

Finally, twenty people showed up with wine, beer, whiskey, and homemade chocolate cage and brownies for dessert.
When we sat down to eat, little needed to be said; a toast was unnecessary. Plates were piled high and spirits were even higher.
As I picked up the pieces of my house the day after the big meal, I reflected back on my conversation with Tom Montague at the Link 41 booth the day before and how he took time to share an important part of the Velo coffee story. Perhaps this is where the locavore and Thanksgiving themes overlap. It was important to Montague to make sure his neighbor was shown in the best possible light. Tom makes sausage. Andrew roasts coffee beans. Kelsey raises lambs. Miriam grows peppers. Brad grows and mills corn. Dave raises turkeys. Thomas grows tomatoes. Robin grows wheat. Noah grows greens. Ann cooks. I tell stories. And I could go on and on. I know all this not because I researched them to write a story, but because we have all chosen to engage locally and that means much more than just selling at a farmers market, it means being an active part of a community. When I was hearing about Andrew from Tom, I could just have easily been hearing about any of the twenty or so vendors at the market from any one of them. They are part of a truly local, food-based economy—something I failed to find in either of the chain grocery stores, and something that is about so much more than just a carbon footprint. The vendors at the market are a part of each others businesses and lives as well as a part of their customers’ lives; they are a community, something to appreciate and be thankful for, and something Ann had more to say about.

“Giving thanks for the most precious and basic gifts of humanity should not only happen once a year. We should give thanks to every lettuce leaf, every tomato vine, and every red beet that is pulled from the soil each time the season rolls around. We should open our homes to our friends and families often and mound their plates with the most delicious things we have to offer. We should give thanks for our grandmother’s gravy, our aunt’s soft white rolls, and our mother’s smashed sweet potatoes more often. Thanksgiving should not be the only day out of the year where the meat we are eating is more important than the cars parked in the driveway. It should not be the only day that we celebrate the hands that grew and cooked our food, and it should certainly not be the only day that we enjoy each other’s company around the dinner table.”

Thanksgiving is coming up next week, and it isn’t too late to celebrate locavore—we are blessed to have a rich bounty of local farmers and food preparers using products from those farms.

Thanksgiving is all about family and food, and we found that by turning to the local farm community for our food, we reached a little farther to be a part of a bigger family.  This Thanksgiving, before you hit the grocery store, check out your local farmers market wherever you are. See what you can buy locally, get to know your farmer, support the local food economy, and see if you don’t have a Thanksgiving dinner that can’t be beat!