by Melissa Pasanen
Book titles are always tricky, but the title of Ben Hewitt’s new book, “The Town That Food Saved,” put me on hyperbole alert before I even saw the advance proof. To be fair, that was only partially the fault of the title.
You’d have to live under a rock in the Vermont food and farming world to be ignorant of what’s going on around Hardwick, the Northeast Kingdom town that is the subject of this book and of the identically titled article by Hewitt published on Gourmet magazine’s website in October 2008. In fact, anyone interested in food and agriculture in Vermont is so aware of all the attention paid by everyone from Emeril Lagasse to Dan Rather that the very mention of Hardwick often prompts eyeballs to roll even as people acknowledge that yes, there are good things going on in Hardwick. There is perhaps a wee bit of jealousy involved but, more importantly, a justified feeling that there are other places in Vermont doing valuable work to re-imagine and rebuild a local food system so why does Hardwick get all the press – and now a full-length book?
Hewitt, thankfully, is sensitive to the aggressive claim his title makes and also, as a seasoned freelance journalist, he is fully aware of how the media can build a nice little story into the next best thing since sliced bread – or rather, a hearty unsliced loaf of local baker Charlie Emers’ bread, as good an icon as any to represent a return to a pre-Wonder bread food system. For journalists, Hewitt points out early in his book, Hardwick’s agriculture-based renaissance offered a story that “was just so damn…perfect…neatly wrapped in recycled paper and adorned with a big, fat biodegradable bow.” In the end though, thanks to Hewitt’s capable and insightful storytelling, Hardwick makes a very useful case history of how one rural, downtrodden town has been reinvigorated through efforts to grow new businesses that happen to be food-based at a time when America seems to have finally accepted that our industrialized food system needs to change.
While Hewitt spends some time on facts and analysis, mostly he lets the characters drive his narrative and illustrate his points, making the book a truly engaging read. Hardwick provides good material and Hewitt has an eye and ear for illuminating and often entertaining detail. (Although there are few cases of TMI - as in the case of Tom Stearns’ expertise at armpit farting.) Among the many colorful personalities, though, if there are heroes in this book they’d come in the unlikely form of Ralph and Cindy Persons, a couple “on the wrong side of 50” who might start their day with apple pie and cold pizza along with a Bud Light and Clamato “breakfast beer.” The Persons operate a mobile slaughterhouse and, Hewitt argues, “have done more for their town’s food security, quality, and accessibility than anyone else…For $50, Ralph and Cindy will come to your home, shoot your pig in the head, make a deep slice in its throat to sever the jugular veins, hoist it into the air…, skin it, remove its viscera…, and saw it neatly in half.” Their chapter concludes with Ralph Persons explaining, “I like to tell people little things…Like how to cook heart so the whole family will love it, or make liver so their kids will eat it.” Of course, Hewitt reflects, it’s little things like this that make all the difference.
The Persons are part of the old guard Hewitt describes – from multi-generation farmers to the back-to-the-landers of the 70s and early 80s – who have been doing the local food thing for decades or longer and just quietly go about their business while the media fusses over the new young crop of “visionaries.” This dichotomy, it turns out not surprisingly, is the biggest conflict in the story. As one of the old-school , hippie generation of local farmers, Annie Gaillard of Surfing Veggie Farm, puts it to Hewitt: “I think we’re all on the same page on how to make this a better planet, but they make it sound like there was nothing here before.” At least one of the lower key members of the new guard, Tom Gilbert of the Highfields Center for Composting , acknowledges this point: “There’s a lot of hype right now…We have not created a new food system in Hardwick; we’re just rebuilding and utilizing an infrastructure that was already there. I think we let the media get ahead of us.”
“The Town That Food Saved,” winds down with Gaillard extending a hand across the divide to become a board member of the Center for an Agricultural Economy, the nonprofit founded by the new generation. In the last scene of the book, Hewitt takes a spot at the bar of Claire’s Restaurant on Main Street and watches a mix of the people he’s spent time with during his research arrive to eat carefully prepared, locally raised food. He reflects on what Hardwick can teach the rest of the country about not only relocalizing the food system but also about reconnecting with each other and with nature. “We’ve forgotten that every economy is ultimately an economy that exists only with the blessing of the sun and the land…Yet we have fooled ourselves into believing that we can usurp these forces through the blunt application of wit and will and the technologies they give rise to,” he writes. “That time is coming to a close. Change or be changed: These are the choices. The people of Hardwick have chosen the former.”
It wouldn’t have made as catchy a title, but Hewitt has made his most important point: Food doesn’t save towns. People do.
Melissa Pasanen is a South Burlington-based freelance writer and co-author of the New York Times notable cookbook, “ Cooking with Shelburne Farms” (Viking, 2007). She is food editor of Vermont Life and a regular contributor to The Burlington Free Press and Edward Behr’s Art of Eating.