Shrimp Day

Saturday morning, September 20th.

I awoke to a gorgeous early autumn day: brilliant blue sky, sweet, cooling breezes with just a hint of crispness to them, and glorious sunlight filtering through the whispering sycamore and pawpaw leaves.

My nose twitched once, and I knew–I just knew–it was Shrimp Day.

I could feel it in my bones. I knew it the same way that the Canadian Geese know it is the day to start flying south. I knew it the same way that mother cows know their own calves and will not let other calves come and nurse. I knew it the way that salmon know which river to swim up in order to go to their very own spawning grounds in order to mate, and then die.

It was just instinct that told me that at that very morning, at the Athens Farmer’s Market, the Hocking College Fish Management and Aquaculture Program was setting up their stall in order to sell the living harvest of their program: pound after pound of gorgeous freshwater shrimp. It is the one day a year here in Southeastern Ohio where foodies can feel like they live on the Gulf, and can feast on delicious super-fresh seafood. As far as I am concerned, it is cause for a celebration, and I was thrilled to know that I could give Zak a shrimp dinner–or two–for his birthday, which was on the following day.

So, it was with shaking hands that I got Kat up and dressed, fed and wiped off, gathered my canvas tote bags, and stuck the checkbook in my purse. I then gathered a snack for Kat, along with a sippy cup of juice and her two favorite critters, Ticklebird and Melora the Monkey, and set forth with child in tow, in order to pick up Morganna and James downtown and head for the market, where Zak was already set up to play flute and guitar.

I left my purse behind in my hurry, but I didn’t know that yet.

As I drove downtown, I found myself singing, “Shrimp day, shrimp day, oh, yes, it is shrimp day, oh, yeah,” much to Kat’s amusement. I pulled up in front of Tony’s bar, where the two of them were sitting and waiting on the bench outside, and when they hesitated to leap into the car, I honked and yelled, “Get in the damned car already, it’s shrimp day!”

“Shrimp day?” they asked. “How do you know?”

“I just do,” I said as they buckled in and I roared off down State Street, grinning like a fiend.

To their credit, both Morganna and James were just as excited as I was at the prospect of shrimp so fresh and sweet that the little critters were still alive and kicking, so we jabbered incessantly about the different ways in which we could cook them, while speculating on just how many we needed to buy.

Last year, I had only bought a pound of them, because I had no idea how good they would be, and after tasting their sweet, delicious meat, was sad that I could not get any more at the college, as they had sold out that day. I resolved never to make such a mistake again.

So we pulled into the parking lot of the market, and jumped out of the car. I grabbed the bags, and Morganna was in the process of unfolding the stroller when I realized that a crucial piece of equipment was missing from our entourage–my purse.

I then remembered that I had left it on the kitchen counter in my rush to make it out the door with the child, Ticklebird, Melora, sippy cup, tote bags, snack and everything else intact.

“James!” I barked in my best field-marshal voice. “Go forth and see if it is indeed shrimp day, and if it is, go forth and have them ready me a bag of at least three pounds of the critters, while Morganna, Kat and I fetch my purse. And call us to let us know it is indeed shrimp day, because I bloody well want to know if I am right or not.”

So, with a salute and a bow, James galumphed off across the asphalt in search of shrimp, while Morganna refolded the stroller, stowed it in the back of the Subaru, and I jumped in and started the car with a swiftness just this side of Batman on the trail of the Joker. I refrained from peeling out of the parking lot, though we were nearly killed by an idiot making an illegal turn against the light to enter the market lot as we were leaving. (Maybe she could feel the Shrimp Day Vibe, too.)

We made it just halfway home when James called to tell us in a voice filled with wonder that yes, it was indeed Shrimp Day, and how the hell did I know that?

At which point, I put the pedal to the metal and slalomed around the pedestrians on both sides of our hill, which is inconveniently sans sidewalks.

I screeched to a halt in driveway, and leaving the car running, dashed for the door. The key stuck in the lock, but eventually turned and I ran up the stairs, burst the the kitchen door, tripped over two cats, snatched my purse off the countertop, turned and nearly tripped back down the stairs as another cat tried to make an escape through the swinging door.

I closed the door behind me, turned and opened it, then turned the lock, then closed it again, took the stairs down to the ground in two strides and jumped back in the car, and set it to teleport mode and made it back to the market in less than five minutes.

We buzzed past Zak who was playing beautiful flute music at the entrance of the market and dodged the huge early fall crowds of people milling about, shopping, talking, campaigning, visiting, gossiping and generally standing right where I wanted to be. Morganna, to her credit, did not run over any old ladies, small children or musicians with Kat’s stroller, and Kat refrained from tossing either her Ticklebird or Melora Monkey from said stroller. (She saved that trick for later after the shrimp were safely bought and stowed back in the car while we went about our usual, more leisurely shopping missions.)

We arrived at the shrimp stall, breathless with excitement. After determining that the nice gentleman who heads up the Fish Management and Aquaculture Program would indeed take a check made out to Hocking College for his shrimp, I bought six pounds of still kicking water beasties. While students netted up my bounty and weighed them and bagged them, two Ohio University students came up and evinced interest in the shrimp. “Do they taste good?” they asked me.

“They are sweeter than any shrimp you can buy at the grocery store, because they are so fresh,” I answered.

When they saw them flipping their tails and wriggling, the two young ladies blanched and said, “But how do you cook them–they are still alive!”

So, in one breath, I rattled off this recipe:

“Take some beer–two bottles worth, and six lemons, cut in half, and some salt and pepper and spices–Old Bay Seasoning is best. Put them all in a pot with enough water to cover however much shrimp you have bought. Bring this to a boil–throw in a hot pepper or two if you like, or some pepper flakes, and let it boil nicely for about ten minutes to get a nice tasty broth going. Then, dump your shrimp in–once they are iced, they go into hibernation, and won’t feel a thing. As soon as they turn from blue to pink, which will take seconds, they are done. Fish them out, twist their heads off, toss the heads back in the pot, and put the headless shrimp on ice. Melt butter, put some Old Bay in it, squeeze lemon juice in it along with a bit of the cooking broth, and shell your shrimp, dip them in the butter stuff and eat them. Save the shells and put them back in the pot with the heads. Simmer this mixture until you have reduced the liquid by half. Strain it and you have shrimp stock which you can use in soups, jambalaya, sauces or whatnot. Two recipes in one.”

Their eyes widened, and they grinned. “Well done,” one said. “You sound like a professional.”

I bowed and said, “I’m the chef at Restaurant Salaam, come in and see us sometime.”

I then picked up my two bags of shrimp and wove my way through the crowds back to the car. Along the way, I spread the news to friends and neighbors that it was Shrimp Day, sending several more customers over to the stall for their fix of Appalachian home-grown seafood.

Later that night, after a crazy-making shift at the restaurant where we kicked ass and took names, and Dan and Leah worked the crowd with dazzling displays of drumming and dance, Dan and I came home to reinact last year’s late-night shrimp feast, although this time, we cooked and ate three pounds of shrimp instead of just one. (I had seen Dan in his side yard practicing his whip cracks on my way to work. Needless to say, I turned up his street, pulled over and rolled my window down. “You’ll be wanting to come home with me after work tonight, I yelled. “Why?” he asked. “Shrimp Day!” I answered–and he grinned and said, “You don’t have to ask me twice!” I then tore off towards the restaurant, happy in the knowledge that Dan would be sharing in the celebration that is Shrimp Day.)

After Zak put Kat to bed–I was still unwilling to let her try a food which is so likely to cause allergic reactions–we sat down to a feast of shrimp boiled in a broth of beer, lemons, Old Bay seasoning, fresh garlic, onions, chilies and smoked paprika. Dan sprinkled the still-shelled shrimp with a generous amount of Old Bay after I twisted their heads off and tossed them back into the pot, then I made a dip of melted butter, a bit of Old Bay, lemon juice and a few drops of the cooking liquid, and we had at the headless wee beasties. After we were sated–and even Dan refused to eat the last four shrimp which went into the pot along with the shells–Zak played music while Dan and I sat and talked and digested. The stockpot simmered until Dan went home. I strained the precious quart of shrimp stock into a container and tossed the heads and shells into the trash.

Shrimp Day was a marvelous, delicious success, and since our feast started around eleven pm, it made a great beginning to Zak’s birthday.

Too bad it would go downhill from there.

A Meditation on Heads-On Shrimp: To Suck, Or Not To Suck?

Aren’t they so pretty? They look like a pile of tiny dragons to me–all fierce with pointy scarlet and pinkcarapaces and claws and long graceful antennae. I can easily imagine them soaring among the roiling clouds of a thunderstorm, tossing balls of shimmering blue lightening back and forth at each other, their tails curling up and around in sinuous swoops and whorls.

Not too many Americans outside of the Gulf region have seen, much less eaten heads-on shrimp. Shrimp fishermen of course have not only seen shrimp with their heads intact, but have probably also eaten a few of them. Regular folks may have eaten some shrimp heads at sushi bars where they are often served deep-fried (apparently, they are shatteringly crunchy and taste like the ultimate shrimp chip–I will have to try one at my nearest opportunity) and Asian-Americans are probably quite familiar with shrimp heads and their fantastic flavor, but for the rest of us–especially those of us who were born and raised in landlocked states–shrimp heads are an unexplored territory consisting of the mysterious and possibly frightening innards of a crustacean.

I know that I had never eaten the head off a shrimp before in my life, but when I bought a pound of live shrimp at the farmers market on Saturday, I didn’t have much of a choice, really. In order for shrimp to be sold live, and thus completely and utterly fresh, they must have their heads attached to the rest of their bodies. It is just the way of things–decapitated shrimp cannot be sold alive.

I bought them, and the faculty member of the Hocking College Fish Management and Aquaculture Program who’d help hatch and tend them, sold them to me handed me a plastic trash bag filled with ice and shrimp. I put them in the trunk of our car and merrily danced off to home where I lovingly placed them in the refrigerator with another heaping pile of ice to put them into a tranquilized state. And then, we went off to do more errands, and I tried to put the thought of the shrimp heads out of my mind. But really, even as we browsed in the bookstore, and even as I showed Kat picture books, and shopped for magazines, in the back of my brain, I was thinking, “I know Zak won’t eat the heads. And no matter how good they are, I cannot possibly eat the heads from a whole pound of shrimp on my own…so what do I do?”

See–the thing is–even though Zak was born in Baltimore and raised in Miami, Florida, his taste for seafood was acquired at a very late age, and blossomed under my influence. That means he spent the first twenty years of his life in two places known for fantastic crustaceans, and he never touched a single one of them. And though he is a serious danger to boiled shrimp now, and I have seen him peel and eat his way through a pound of them all by his skinny lonesome self, those shrimp were sans heads. I was pretty sure that I could never sell him on the idea of twisting off the head of one of the wee beasties, and sucking out the treasures that lay hidden inside, no matter how sweet and intensely flavored they were.

When it was time to cook them, we called our friend Dan, and he came over to help us out with the shrimp eating. He also stayed in the kitchen to watch me clean, cook and partially shell the shrimp, and he helped take some of these photographs you will see here. I didn’t bring up the issue of the heads as I pulled the shrimp out of their bed of ice, and lay them in a colander to give them a good rinse under cold running water. What I did notice, because it was impossible to miss was the fact that several of these beautiful crustaceans were females–it was patently obvious that they were because of the copious amounts of roe–eggs–they were carrying in their back swimming legs.

I felt like a natural history lecturer as I pointed out to Zak, Kat and Dan the female shrimp and their roe (that would be those orange splotches along the tails of some of the shrimp in the photo of them raw in the colander). Now, I have never eaten shrimp roe, but I have eaten caviar, salmon roe, flying fish roe and crab roe, so I knew it would be tasty. I just wasn’t sure how my dining companions would feel about it.

They did crowd around to see the eggs when I pointed them out, and there was commentary about it, but no declarations of desire to eat it were forthcoming.

So, I decided that what I would do was cook the shrimp whole in a boil flavored with beer, lemons, cayenne chiles, whole black peppercorns, garlic wakame seaweed and Chesapeake Bay Seasoning. After they were done (a process which would take bare minutes), I would fish them out of the boiling liquid, and dismember them, cutting off their heads, which would be tossed back in the pot, and scraping off the roe, which would also return to the simmering liquid.

When the shrimp were shelled, I’d add the shells, too, and let this mixture simmer for about an hour, until an intensely flavored shrimp stock was produced. This, I figured, I would use to make shrimp etouffee next week if the shrimp folks were back and selling their delightful little dragons again. (And, if they aren’t, I will order some really good Gulf shrimp from an online purveyor, because I am not wasting that stock on some pallid frozen nasty things from the supermarket.)

So, that is what I did. I made the boil up–two bottles of Sam Adams beer that the in-laws bought when they were here last, three lemons, juiced, and then cut into quarters and tossed in with the beer, four fresh cayennes, cut into chunks, six cloves of garlic peeled and crushed, a teaspoon of black peppercorns, two tablespoons of dried wakame seaweed, about three tablespoons of Chesapeake Bay Seasoning and about a cup or so of water. (I could have used Cajun-Creole seafood seasoning, but as both Zak and Dan were born in Baltimore, Maryland, I think that there may have been a mutiny on my hands if I had suggested such a thing. As it was, Dan had to run down the hill to his house to fetch his jar of Chesapeake Bay seasoning because mine was hiding,) This mixture was brought to a boil in a medium sized pot over high heat.

Then I put the shrimp into the boiling liquid a few at a time. The cold from the ice had sedated them to the point that I believe that while they were alive, they were in torpor–probably unable to feel a thing. I put them in a few a time because they were not of similar size–they were not sold graded by size at all, so I only cooked a few at a time so I could pull them out when they were just done. I don’t like overcooked shrimp, so I stood over the pot, vigilant for the brightening of the shells as they went from grey-blue to pink and red.

After they were all cooked, I turned the heat down to low so that the pot barely simmered.

This took about two minutes, and after each shrimp was done, I would scoop them out with my wire skimmer and pop them on top of a mountain of ice I had waiting in a serving bowl. There they waited until all of their brethren were cooked, and I could finally pop the question to Dan and Zak: “So, are we going to suck the heads out of these seabugs or not?”

The answer was, quite simply, “Not.” Just as I figured.

No matter–I began the beheading process. Considering that the shrimp had already given their lives to the boiling pot, I wasn’t too worried. All I had to do was put my knife at the back of their heads, where the head meets the tail, and cut between the plates of chitin. After that, I tossed the head back into the pot, and then start clipping through the shell that curved over the back of the shrimp so I could devein them. But low and behold, after I clipped a few shrimp, I realized that the aquaculture students had purged the shrimp before selling them. This means that they withheld feed for a short time before bringing them to market so there would be nothing in their digestive system to clean out. Amazing!

Some viscous yellow fluid seeped from some of the shrimp heads–I figured it was the brain or some organ or another–I couldn’t remember my crustacean anatomy very well from high school. It looked exactly like egg yolk and had a similar rich, unctuous flavor. I felt that I had scored a major victory when I got Dan to taste it. I scraped what was left on the cutting board into the pot, unwilling to lose a single drop of richness and flavor.

I did squeeze the head of one of the smallest shrimp into my mouth. I have to admit to liking it just as well as the crawdad heads I had sucked gleefully from their shells in the past, though the shrimp isn’t as rich and fatty. But the head has the sweetest, most complex flavors–which meant that the stock was going to be fantastic when it was done.

So, I just kept beheading shrimp. I began to feel rather like Robespierre, sending these poor innocent shrimp to the guillotine, -after- boiling them to death. No matter, I kept to my work, though in my head I would name each shrimp with the name of a French aristocrat who died during the Revolution. As I scraped the roe into the simmering stock, I began wondering of a giant, foppish masked shrimp named The Scarlet Pimpernel would come to try and save these defenseless crustaceans from my wicked clutches, but no–they were left to my tender mercies until they were all headless, cleaned and enthroned on a mountain of ice to chill.

So, while the shrimp stock simmered, I put together a simple cocktail sauce–some ketchup, some grated horseradish, some lemon juice, Chesapeake Bay Seasoning and a generous squirt of Rooster Sauce–aka–Sriracha Hot Sauce blended into a crimson incendiary condiment.

How were they?

Amazingly sweet. Dan, Zak and I made terrific messes of ourselves peeling and gobbling down those little headless aristocratic water dragons. The sauce was a spicy foil for the sweet, tender meat, and it was a great appetizer. The shells went back into the quietly simmering stock.

The largest regret I had was that we couldn’t let Kat have any for fear that she may be allergic to shrimp, though neither Zak nor I, nor anyone in our families, is allergic to them–it is best to be cautious with such a potentially lethal allergen She watched us with great big, pleading eyes, but had to content herself with the bread I had torn apart for her to eat. I felt bad because we generally share most foods with her, and she didn’t understand.

Someday, we told her, you, too, can engage in crustacean killing.

How did the stock turn out?

Well, after an hour, I strained it by pouring it through a very fine sieve, pressing down hard on the heads, shells, and other solids to extract every droplet of liquid loveliness I could possibly manage. The rich brown fluid was amazingly complex–flavored with the essence of shrimp along with sparkles of cayenne and lemon, with hops and barley notes warming it from below, and a distinct richness from the roe. The spices danced around the edges, teasing the palate. It will make an great pot of etouffee.

(And I will have to buy extra shrimp so I can also make Thai Chili Basil Shrimp–a dish which is only eclipsed by Chili Basil Squid–but we are fresh out of squid around here.)

When I gave a tiny sip of it to Dan, his eyes rolled back in his head and he tapped a happy rhythm with his hands–which is a supreme expression of gustatory joy for him.

So, the stock is in the freezer, waiting to see if we can pick up a few more pounds of shrimp this coming Saturday for another feast of Ohio aquaculture seafood.

Images And Impressions From Athen’s Farmers Market

Saturday’s farmers market here in Athens was a nearly perfect experience of the diversity that is possible in local agriculture and food producers.

The weather, which was a cool seventy-six degrees F. and sunny, the harvest, which was at its peak for early autumn, showing the best of both summer and fall produce, and the people, who came in droves, both to sell and buy, combined to create a scene which is quintessential Athens. Farmers chatted with customers, friends gathered in small clumps to catch up on gossip, musicians gifted the community with their tunes, and kids dodged and played among the crowd.

Diversity came not only in amount and types of foods available, but was also apparent in the faces of the people throughout the market. An older Mennonite woman sold her amazing yeast donuts fried in lard and glazed with honey and sugar, while down the row, a conservative Islamic man from Pakistan and his American-born wife sold potato and pea samosas, baklava and other treats from India and the Middle East. An international award-winning local pizza place sold European hearth breads baked to a chewy crusty finish in a variety of flavors and shapes, while a native Appalachian farmer sold bitter melon gourds he had grown to a variety of students and faculty from China, India and Thailand. I heard at least three different languages besides English being spoken, and saw foodstuffs which had their origins on at least five continents represented among the offerings.

Our Appalachian heritage was well represented by the offerings of Integration Acres, which includes black walnuts and a variety of products made from pawpaws–a native fruit that tastes like a combination of banana, mango and papaya. Chris, the owner of Integration Acres, also sells other products native to the forested hills of Appalachia, such as spicebush berries (I like to think of it as native allspice–that is what the dried, round berries taste like, and it was used to substitute for the expensive spice by settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries), and hen of the woods–a meaty, delicious mushroom which grows on dead or dying oak trees, though it can also be found around maples. Here in Athens County, they can be deep orange in color with a white interior, but I have seen photographs of them ranging in color from cream to deep, chocolate brown.

Chris also produces the first commercially available local cheese in Athens County–he has goats on his farm to help manage undergrowth in this woods. Goats are browsers and help keep his stands of pawpaws from having a lot of competition for water from underbrush. Now he uses their milk to make the most delicious chevre you can imagine–creamy, tangy and tart with a smooth, nutty finish. It was amazingly wonderful–so wonderful that Casa Nueva, our local worker-owned local foods restaurant, has decided to feature a salad made from Chris’s chevre and walnuts scattered over a bed of greens and radish sprouts from Green Edge Gardens on their seasonal autumn menu. Locally grown apples add tart sweetness, and the whole dish is tied together with a dressing that features pawpaw puree. It is amazingly good–so good that I wish all of my readers could come to Athens just to taste it.

The types and amount of food available in Athens is actually quite amazing, and is in fact, getting better all the time. I know that I talk a lot about the bounty of our local food economy here in Athens and the surrounding counties, but in late September, when everywhere you look you see box after box of tomatoes, zucchini, onions, garlic, green beans, apples, pears, grapes, plums, peaches, sweet and hot peppers in a rainbow of colors, winter squashes, carrots, beets, turnips, greens of every type and description, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cucumbers and herbs, it is just hard to fathom how lucky we are here. Once your eyes have taken in the usual vegetables one expects to find in any American farmers market, you begin to notice the more extraordinary offerings. Fenugreek greens in bundles as big as a wedding bouquet. The afformentioned bitter melon. Tomatillos. Chinese long beans. Shiitake, chantarelle and lion’s mane mushrooms. Tatsoi. Bok Choi. Daikon radish. Horticultural beans. Christmas limas. Chestnuts. Hazelnuts. The list goes on and on–if you can grow it in the rich mountain soil of Athens, and if the farmer can get the seeds, someone will grow it.

I haven’t even really expressed the diversity of meat, eggs and processed foods available here.

First of all, about five or six different folks make salsa around here, can it and sell it at the farmers market. You can also find applesauce, apple butter, cider and jams, jellies and preserves to suit any taste. There is local wildflower honey which not only tastes good, but can help you survive local pollen allergies with a less runny nose. There are sauce makers, and juice pressers, bakers, and noodle makers here. Heck, we even have a local winery which makes an elderberry wine to die for–talk about an Appalachian tradition.

And our meat farmers are fantastic. Most of them feed their animals on grass and locally produced hay–all of them pasture their animals and their meat shows the difference such care makes for animals. Not only are the animals healthier and happier in their lives–their flesh is not only tastier but healthier for humans to eat. We have several beef producers, folks who raise heirloom breeds of chicken which give firm, flavorful meat, a hog producer whose pork tastes like the nuts the pigs dig up from the forest floor, a rabbitry and several folks selling lamb and goat meat. Eggs here have rich nearly orange colored yolks from the chickens being raised on grass and a diet of bugs in addition to grain–many farmers here use their chickens for natural pest control and for fertilizing their fields. The eggs are the best you will ever eat–always fresh and always full of omega 3 fatty acids.

Oh, and did I mention that in the fall, you can get live shrimp here? Fresh, live shrimp. Yes, your eyes do not deceive you–those are live shrimp, harvested from the aquaculture program at a local college. More about the shrimp later- let me just say right now that not only were they live, and thus fresh–they were excellent! (I sure hope these folks come back to the market next week, because if they do–I am buying several pounds of the shrimp and making etouffee and Thai chili basil shrimp. Because, dammit–they are just that good. And if these folks don’t come back–I am going to hunt them down at their college and refuse to leave until they sell me some shrimp.)

I am sad to say I didn’t see many folks buying much of the shrimp–but well, I guess that just leaves more to myself, Zak and Dan to eat.

This is what it is like to live in Athens–there is always a food adventure around the corner. Yes, it is a small town, and as such, there are not a lot of places to eat out–not like New York or San Francisco.

But, really, what we lack in opportunities to eat out, is made up for with the raw materials we have to work with, and the lower cost of living.

It is really, truly a beautiful place to live, especially on sunny Saturday mornings in September, when the market is rocking, and the world is alive with laughter, music and fresh food.

Athens Ohio’s Amazing Bounty of Local Foods

It really is amazing to me how many locally grown and produced foods there are available in a town the size of Athens. The resident population is around 21,000 with the Ohio University population, most of them students who only live in the town for roughly nine months of the year, roughly doubling the population when the university is in session.

Even though the town is small, with a household median income of roughly $17,000 with a median family income of $53,000, (contrast this with the US household median income of $26, 000 and the US median family income of $55,000 or $63,000 for married couple families) there is a very large, very vibrant community-supported local food network of farmers, restaurants, small food processors and small food-oriented businesses extent in and around Athens. Organic, locally-grown foods are a priority in this small town, and it just takes one visit to the local farmer’s market to learn just how strong this movement is here.

The illustration above shows a breakfast made almost entirely from local produce. The strawberries were grown here, the maple syrup was made here from sap tapped in Athens county, the bacon comes King Family Farm in Albany, Ohio, the bread was baked by Crumb’s Bakery, here in Athens, (though the wheat, alas, was probably still grown in Nebraska), the milk is from pasture fed Ohio cows and the eggs are from pasture-raised hens down the road in Guysville.

It isn’t hard, or that expensive to eat food this fresh and delicious in Athens–it is readily available and more and more consumers are choosing to go with Ohio food products rather than the typical coorporate foods available at Wal-Mart.

One of the most frequently-made comments against locally produced or organic foods is their higher cost to the consumer makes them prohibitively expensive for the lower-income consumer, leading to charges of elitism among those who support organic or local foods. (For my response to the Julie Powell OpEd piece making these charges, go here.) Yet. somehow, in this most impoverished county in Ohio, which is situated smack-dab in the middle of Applachia in which many residents suffer under-employment or unemployment, there has been a concerted effort to support the availability of good, wholesome, locally produced food.

How has this happened?

Through the concerted efforts of a great many individuals and groups working together toward common goals of financial support for local food growers, financial growth in an impoverished small-town and rural area, and social justice and food security for all residents.

One such committed group is ACEnet: The Appalachian Center for Economic Networks. The mission statement of ACEnet gives a taste of what the long-lived non-profit organization is all about: “he Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet) is a community economic development organization located in rural southeastern Ohio. The mission of ACEnet is to build the capacity of local communities to network, innovate, and work together to create a strong, sustainable regional economy that has opportunities for all. ACEnet uses a sectoral strategy, currently focusing on the food and technology sectors of the economy.

In each sector, ACEnet staff provides basic service that businesses need to start, expand, and create quality jobs. At the the same time, staff members encourage entrepreneurs to network with each other, sharing information and generating joint ventures that enable them to enjoy economies of scale typical of much larger businesses.”

ACEnet has among its resources what it calls the “Community Kitchen Incubator,” one of a very few health-inspected food facilities in the country that can be rented by qualified individuals (ACEnet requires users to take classes in safety, health issues and operation of the specialized equipment in the kitchen) and small businesses in order to do commercial cooking, baking, thermal processing and frozen food processing. Included in the facility are shipping and recieving docks, warehouse areas, office space and conference rooms. These facilities have enabled unemployed or underemployed entrepeneurs to start successful small food businesses with distribution throughout the local area, as well as nationwide. In addition to facilities and education, ACEnet provides support for local food businesses in the form of further education and material assistance when needed.

Another organization that has done much to build the fantastic local food movement in Athens is Rural Action, another grassroots organization that is dedicated to promoting economic, social, and environmental justice in Appalachian Ohio. One of the specific projects of Rural Action is the support and growth of area farmers by bringing them together with both individual consumers of farm products and institutions such as Ohio University, thus providing needed economic support for local farmers. Indeed, the Rural Action Sustainable Agriculture program aims to educate farmers in adding value to their products, business skills and agricultural production techniques, while also identifying potential markets and increasing sales in these markets through consumer education.

Local restaurants have also made a difference.

Casa Nueva, the local worker-owned cooperative restaurant which has been in continuous operation for more than twenty years, has made a strong commitment for over a decade in sourcing food locally from farmers and producers as close to Athens as possible. They proudly also serve Free Trade coffees and teas, and really opened Athens residents and OU students to the ideals of eating locally long before anyone had heard the word, “locavore.”

The photograph above shows the range of locally grown and produced foodstuffs that are available through outlets such as the Farmer’s Market, The Village Bakery, and even the local Kroger’s Supermarket. Here in Athens county, we have an individual tapping maple trees and making syrup, several beekeepers, farmers raising sheep, goats, chickens, pigs, cattle, trout, catfish and even shrimp, several bakers, all with different specialities including European style hearth breads, farmers growing the standard crops one would expect along with Asian vegetables such as fenugreek greens, bitter melon and snake gourd, gifted confectioners and makers of raw-food treats and almond milk. We also have access to dairy products produced in Ohio including raw milk cheeses, fluid milk, cottage cheese, butter and cream. There are even those who make pawpaw butter and “popsicles” from our native tropical fruit and ramp pesto from our native wild onion. Goatherders make glorious goatmilk soap, scented with herbs, which is available from different outlets including the farmer’s market.

We even have a grower of some of the finest mushrooms you could hope to find anywhere. Up in the photograph above, you can see some gorgeous fresh shiitake, fat and full of flavor. I want to get some in the summer when the air is drier and try to make my own Chinese black mushrooms. That would be very, very cool.

The local Krogers stocks locally produced pastas, pasta sauces, salsas, tofu, barbeque sauces, jams and jellies.

And everywhere I look, it seems that there is someone else starting up a local food business, or growing some new food or bringing a new food product to market.

It is simple to eat locally here in Athens, and I am proud to say that our family does pretty well all year around, eating most of our food from local sources. It feels good to support our local foodshed, and I am pleased to feed us all with such nutritious, delicious and not that dearly expensive food (remember the low median incomes I cited above).

But, more importantly, I am proud to be able to serve such delicious food, raised and produced with great care and love.

Athens is a great place to live if you like good food that is produced locally and sustainably.

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