Thursday, December 01, 2005

Maine potatoes and the NY Times

Back in April, 2004, I was at Portland’s Earth Day celebration, hawking copies of the city’s late, great alternative newspaper, The Portland Pigeon. I met an interesting gentleman, a farmer from The County (that’s Aroostook County, to your flatlanders out there). Jim Cook, an organic farmer from Grand Isle, had a booth and we talked about farming, sustainable economies and how multi-national corporations were killing local culture. As a farmer, he obviously saw things from the ground-floor (pun intended). My intention was to look into the possibility of finding a story about farming and pitch it. We spoke by phone, but other projects and life’s busyness found the idea pushed aside.

Fast-forward over18 months later and Jim Cook and his Aroostook County potatoes, along with a Portland chef are being featured (requires free registration) in the NY Times Dining and Wine section. Lest you think that Cook is just another farmer, seeking to cash in by marketing to a wealthy niche of food snobs and high society types, think again. While selling his potatoes to specialty restaurants and natural food stores helps to keep him in business, his breed of farmer bodes well for the industry’s future. He “gets” the connection between local foods and the future health of society.

I took the occasion of the article (replete with photo) to touch bases with him by sending him an email. I’m starting to ramp up the idea percolator and farmers like Cook, who see the big picture, are perfect Mainers to speak with in helping me see the forest for the trees (or potatoes for the fields). He was as congenial as I remember him to be and I will definitely be sitting down with him some time, soon.

It’s hard not to sense his deep love for his craft and his desire to be part of the solution, I feel better knowing that farming is in the hands of people like Jim Cook (and many others). A lot of forces are at work, that might bring farming and local foods back to center stage, where they belong.

Maybe it’s not accidental that potatoes are on my radar screen at this point. It was the potato that allowed me to get to know my German immigrant farmer better than my other cousins. I remember his own local garden where he grew potatoes, as well as cucumbers, corn, tomatoes and many other vegetables. My Opa knew nothing about organic farming, but he respected his land and cared for it the best way that he knew how. I was fortunate to have experienced those late summer and early fall harvests as a youngster. There’s nothing like a meal from that which comes from your own efforts and bounty.

I look forward to having an opportunity to talk farming and local foods with Cook at some point in the not-too-distant future. For the time being, I’m happy to see Maine spuds enjoy some marquee billing in the Big Apple.


ChefDunn said...

Chef Rob Evans is a big time up and comer. I actually got to know Chef Rob while working in Portland (for his competitor). Amazingly he is one of only less than a handful of Maine Chefs that have received the cudos they deserve. Of course, there is a disproportionate number of culinary hacks around here as well. If you are cooking your filet mingon with a two pound weight on top of it you know who you are.

What always amazed me about the lack of publicity around here is the popularity of our famed Maine Lobster. Magazines and TV shows seem to always feature some famous rich chef (that can afford a publicist) from California rather that the geniuses that get the things right off the boat.

Those of us in the business of creating culinary masterpieces in this part of the world already know the merits of local ingredients. There is nothing worse than a two month old bag of potatoes from a warehouse. Good food starts with good ingredients.

Jim said...

Chef Dunn wrote, "Good food starts with good ingredients."

I couldn't agree more. Much appreciation for weighing in on my post--having someone w/ your expertise and way with food adds greatly to the topic.

I concur with you about lack of publicity many of Portland's finer restaurants receive. I've actually never been to Hugo's and now, I'll definitely have to go.

Despite the rush to mass-produce everything, including our food, regional cuisine is still distinct and unique to the geography. Sometimes you have to search for the true "local" places, but it is usually worth one's efforts. We found that out on our recent trip to Florida. I couldn't get enough of the cheese grits and catfish, or the pickled okra; did I mention the fabulous barbecue?