Up until this week, I have firmly taken for granted that good local food is accessible everywhere, as long as you know where to look for it. It may take a trip to a specialty retailer, a few phone calls or a visit to a farmers’ market, but in the end everyone is able to find something local to eat. Right? Why is that at all naïve? Someone should have let me know I live in a dream world!
This past weekend I learned a difficult Dark Days Challenge lesson. Leave it to my big sister to clunk me on the head and say “duh. not everyone gets to live like you do.” That’s what big sisters are for after all. The kitchen partner and I were in our hometown in North-Central Wisconsin this weekend for some much-needed car repairs. While he was in the garage with my dad, I decided to cook my Dark Days Challenge meal for Saturday lunch, using local ingredients from their area. My sister, who lives near my parents was headed into town to do her weekly grocery shopping anyway, so I decided to tag along for some ingredients. She would whip up something from whatever we could find and I would blog about it for the upcoming challenge meal.
Let’s pause for a moment for a bit of education about where the kitchen partner and I grew up. It’s a small town of about 8,000 people 3 hours straight East of St. Paul. 20% of the residents are over 65 and over 90% are White. The median income is about $35,000 and around 20% of the population lives below the poverty level. There are two main places to grocery shop in town (a large chain supermarket store owned by the Roundy’s corporation and a Super Wal-Mart), a few smaller family owned grocers, several convenience stores, and one natural foods store. The nearest co-op grocery store is more than 60 miles away. There is a small summer-only farmers market under 5 years old that is just starting to gain some steam. It’s a few weekly produce vendors and some crafts, but a promising start in the agriculture-based community. So when my sister and I set out on our “buy local” shopping adventure, I’m not sure why my findings caught me so off-guard. With that many choices, all in an ag-based community, it should’ve been the easiest meal ever!
I literally wandered around the supermarket aisles for an hour to find just over a dozen Wisconsin-made items. No grass-fed milk or local eggs. No local meats. Produce was for the most part USA-grown, but none from regional farmers. On the shelf at the St. Paul grocery stores I shop at (including the Roundy’s-owned stores!), I am at least able to find one or two food options in each of these departments. I was floored. disappointed. angry. confused. concerned. and hungry. Dark Days lunch was looking grim.
But we did manage to find a few locally-made products. Mostly in the liquor and cheese aisles. Way to stay true to form Wisconsin. We wouldn’t be the home of Miller Park and Cheeseheads without good local beer and cheese. My sister grabbed a pale ale for a chili she was making later in the week, and I was excited to put a bottle of Death’s Door White Whiskey from Madison, WI in my cart. We spotted cheeses from the Sartori plant in town and from Crave Brothers in Waterloo, WI as well. I may be Wisconsin-born but beer, whiskey, and cheese was NOT going to cut it.
We left the supermarket and stopped next at the small health food store. A few more local options, but a drastic change in price and quality. In a community with income challenges, paying $24.99 a pound for local meat is not going to happen. I don’t think it even happens here in the Twin Cities. And it should happen only if the products were of highest quality and freshness. Two things I couldn’t guarantee from the store’s inventory that day. I was floored. disappointed. angry. confused. and concerned all over again. and still really hungry.
At this point, I was dodging my sister’s “see…I told you so” looks and feeling pretty shameful about only bringing home a bottle of booze for lunch. Thankfully, when we pulled into my parents’ driveway I could already smell my mom coming to the rescue in the kitchen. She has tried to shop locally since I started the diet and already knew the limited ingredients I would find in town. She was grilling some bratwurst made by our local butcher and had thawed some of their homemade sauerkraut for lunch. Determined to make this local meal happen, I watched and photographed as my sister topped a flax-seed pizza crust from the bakery in town with a made-from-scratch parmesan white sauce. She sprinkled on the sliced grilled bratwurst and topped it with sauerkraut and more cheese. Not at all what I had in mind, but amazing none the less.
Tomorrow in part II of Dark Days Week 8, I will have more about our shopping trip including additional photos and some thoughts about accessing local food in rural communities. It’s the part where I processed all of that disappointed. angry. confused stuff. But for now, enjoy a slice of homemade pizza and hug your big sister if you have one. They sure make the Dark Days a little brighter.
Made by my big sister Kim
1 pre-baked pizza crust (or make your own using this recipe)
2 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp. flour
1 1/2 C. milk
1/2 C. grated parmesan cheese
1 C. shredded mozzarella cheese
2 fully cooked bratwurst, sliced into 1/4″ rings
2 C. sauerkraut, rinsed and drained
more cheese for topping
1. Make the pizza crust according to the instructions. While crust is pre-baking, melt butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. Add in flour and continue stirring until golden and bubbly. Slowly add in milk and whisk constantly until sauce begins to thicken (about 5 minutes). Stir in parmesan until melted.
2. Pour white sauce over baked pizza crust. Top with bratwurst in an even layer. Sprinkle on sauerkraut and remaining cheese. Bake for 10-13 minutes until cheese is melted and golden brown. Serve warm.