Breakfast of Local Champions

(Article written for an organic and local food movement)

Breakfast of Local Champions

Richard A. Ries

Perhaps the controlling theme of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is George and Lennie’s quest for their own farm. In their crystalized vision of a better tomorrow, a piece of the pie, the American Dream, they fantasize about getting a couple of acres, a cow, chickens, a vegetable patch, and, of course, rabbits for Lennie to tend. To alleviate the drudgery of drifting from farm to farm, they dream of the day when they will live “offa the fatta the land.”

For Dale Volkert, proprietor of Lake Meadow Naturals, a sustainable farm in Ocoee, George and Lennie’s dream is his daily reality – and it became a dream breakfast on March 2.  Dubbed “Breakfast in the Pasture,” and co-sponsored by Growing Synergy (a local food distribution company) and A Local Folkus (a grassroots event planning company) the repast drew over 100 guests. Many identified strongly with organic or local food; some were curious new comers. None went home with empty stomachs – and most departed with more friends, more knowledge about sustainable local farming practices, and more bagfuls of organic food sold in Dale’s on-premise store.

Dale can indeed live off the fat of the land. His ten acres resemble New England more than New Smyrna Beach. The dried lake in winter looks like cranberry bogs; palm trees are nowhere in view. Though civilization is not far off, you wouldn’t know it from the meditative, panoramic horizon, which is sliced only by the occasional heron or hawk. Steinbeck’s mythical Lennie is not there to tend the rabbits, but Brandon Kunkel, general manager of the farm, sure is. Kunkel helps oversee some 3,000 fowl – mostly Rhode Island Red chickens, but a smattering of ducks, geese, guinea hens, and a few noisy peacocks for good measure.  (One beautiful swan succumbed to a fox a few weeks ago; her lifelong mate died weeks later of what can only be diagnosed as a broken heart.) The postcard-perfect farm also boasts three heads of cow (grass fed), some goats (which can leap fences), some sheep, and a few donkeys to keep night watch over their fellow fauna.

Before or after dining, most guests opted to tour the manicured gardens and grounds. A farm with thousands of chickens might normally get, ahem, a bit rank at times, but Dale has managed to keep things under control. He does this first by planting countless fragrant rosemary plants along the long driveway, and secondly by selling any eggshells to a neighbor across county lines to feed hogs. Fig, pear, and lemon trees compete for scent.

Local vendors provided the fare: a microroast Tanzanian brew from famed Barnie’s coffee; fresh Florida organic orange juice from Log Cabin Grovesin Oak Hill; and a variety of muffins and croissants from Olde Hearth Bread in Orlando started the morning. But the special meal – equipped with fresh rosemary on the table as well as two brown eggs in straw as center pieces – continued with a hearty vegetable and bacon egg frittata dish from Norman’s Restaurant, and a shrimp and grits entrée created by Wild Ocean Seafood Market. Biscuits from Old Heath with special jams like kumquat or strawberry and jalapeno flanked the main courses. Free range chickens exercised their free range right alongside diners.

Elsewhere on the grounds, two other local vendors gave away samples of their wares. Alejandro DeVer, a University of Pittsburgh anthropologist turned paté peddler, proffered chicken, duck, and even Cornish hen pates – in packages that he himself created.  Eyal Goldschmid provided samples of his Florida Fat Cat hot sauces. Guests in the store rummaged through a laundry list of products to experience for themselves: homemade honey; handpicked fennel; tomato; kale; duck eggs and nitrate free bacon – to name a few possibilities. Jars of pickled asparagus are a farm favorite.

If Central Florida is sometimes known for monotonous malls, simulated theme parks, track housing and clogged traffic, you wouldn’t know it here. Although clouds often shrouded the struggling sun, one thing was clear: the morning’s feast was a fellowship whose faith was local food.  People did not generally come here by accident. The very act of dining on solely local Florida ingredients – sustainably created – must be considered to be a political act.

There is no single psychology to organic and local food movements. Some believe organic foods are more healthful; others do not want pesticides and preservatives in their foods. A lot of people find organic foods to be more flavorful and richer in micronutrients.  John Rife, a member of the Local Folkus team and opening the East End Market later this spring said “great chefs use great products.”  One guest, Jan Partain, said that consuming only locally grown foods simply got her in touch with nature, her roots, and history. For many who eat only organic (or strive to) or locally grown foods, social events – as well as social media such as blogging or tweeting recipes (“twecipies”) are integral parts of their lives. Conscious individuals often define themselves by what ingredients they purchase, what they eat, how they cook, and with whom they share all of these joys.

In many ways, Americans have few ways to define themselves today other than through the consumer choices they make. Merely clicking “like” on Facebook is not usually satisfying, and experiences at large superstores or franchise restaurants can feel alienating. Patronizing local farms, vendors, and restaurants is often empowering for people who want their dollars to go toward local individuals they personally know – and not the multinational corporations whose bureaucracies and policies often seem as remote and tasteless as the foods they sell.

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