A rite of passage - attending our first parents weekend at college in Lewiston Maine during the peak fall foliage season. Touchdown in Portland, which has been receiving lots of press for culinary innovation and creative new restaurants and cafes though sushi was the choice for our late lunch on Friday - the one item very absent at the college cafeteria.
What were my expectations for this weekend from a socio-culinary perspective? A little bit of agriculture, a little New England flavor, but overall - a homogenous landscape of American highlights and lowlights (for sure this time, I would avoid shopping for food at Walmart.)
The foodservice at Bates College is exceptional. The cafeteria facility, housed in the "New Commons" building is a little over a year old and the recipient of a $2.5 million dollar grant to support the college's use of organic, natural and local products. The servery is state of the art with the majority of the cooking done at open stations within view of the students. Bulk items are done in the production kitchen (sauces, pounds of pasta, roasting). 30% of the budget goes towards buying local food - meat, bread, produce, and cheese. The program is self-operated, by Bates - not a management contract with an outside vendor (like Aramark or Compass.)
Marsha, a supervisor, who I accosted at a station, gave me a great back of house tour. What is the most popular cooked item? Chicken nuggets. What product gets replenished most often? Dry cereal.
This information stashed away and brunch in our bellies, we were off to Freeport with the hope of seeing some local farm stands on the way. It was end of season, so the stands were not abundant with vegetables but lots and lots and lots of pumpkins, winter squash and gourds. I had one of the crunchiest, juiciest apples I have ever had. We commiserated over the weather this growing season. I shared our tomato prices with one farmer, who could not believe we were selling tomatoes at $4.50/lb.
What a pleasure to look at the various pickles and preserves. I took notes and will bring them to our own Picklemeister for research. Being restricted to traveling only with carry-on luggage, meant restraint; otherwise, I would have brought home pounds of Maine potatoes, those crispy apples, corn, lots and lots of pickles and some lovely pumpkins. (Though one entrepreneurial farmer is shipping a case of strawberry, raspberry and pepper preserves. He is also launching a cooking contest program for the local community.)
Freeport was very productive and very American in several respects: all the leading stores have fabulous outlets and there were representations of iconic foods from Ben & Jerry's, to Maine candy to an LL Bean Family café and lobster shack. I was feeling underwhelmed. I was looking for some food romance and finding nothing.
Back to college-town, where we decided to look for signs of the Somali community. There are about 10,000 Somalis living in the Auburn-Lewiston area. Lisbon Street was the strip - and we visited 5 local shops, engaging the proprietors in conversation. On the shelves were 'local' foods; local for a Somali wanting to cook a native meal. Products from Bangladesh, China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan, with names and ingredients foreign to me, were available. (How about those Halal Marshmallows!)
They opened their doors and hearts to us, discussing life in Maine (cold and challenging), their cuisine (spicy with lots of grain), their journeys (long, harrowing and circuitous) and dreams (just like our own). The hospitality was warm and genuine. The landscape had gone from bland to vibrant. I could not help but think of the generations of immigrants who had settled these New England towns (or my own Russian grandparents in NYC), fleeing oppressive governments and pioneering new lives. And though the adults all had distinct accents, the children sounded like any American kid, and I wondered, Bates College - just 10 blocks away - was it a universe away or could the cultures connect?
That evening, the College sponsored a harvest dinner and a screening of Food, Inc, followed by a Q&A session with Gary Hirshberg (CEO of Stonyfield and parent of a Freshman) and Christine Schwartz, Director of Dining Services. The questions focused on how the food system functions (or dysfunctions) and what can be done to make change happen. Both Gary and Christine talked about how they have had success by setting high standards in their buying and production practices and listening to the demands of the buyers. It is encouraging, but I had a nagging feeling about our neighbors without the means to buy expensive organic food, or operate a kitchen with a multi-million dollar grant.
After the program, I spoke with Christine. I asked her whether there were any links to the Somali community from a culinary perspective in the cafeteria. To my amazement, she told me how she has been working with small scale, first time Somali farmers, encouraging them to grow produce she can buy for the school.
I spent time on the Bates website, reading the dining program and the philosophy and commitment behind it. Honestly, I was impressed by what I read. "Food and dining - Touching every aspect of living together in community. Food is inextricably woven through individual lives, as well as relationships to others and to nature. So Bates values -- commitment to environmental sustainability, social responsibility and intellectual vigor, to name a few -- naturally influence the College's approach to food."
"Central to so many areas of human activity, food can serve as an entrée to myriad social-cultural-historic issues. Courses at Bates have examined the economic outlook for Maine growers, foodways of ancient Greece and Rome, food writing as a mirror of American culture and eating practices as an aspect of personal identity."
There is no question about the enormous gulf between the mainstream Maine community and the Somali immigrants. Likewise, there are gaps in our food systems, where industrial production devastates our environment and our health. But a ray of hope, an opening from a corner one would never expect - a small college thinking globally and acting neighborly, will begin to make a small difference. Small-scale farming, community eating and local purchasing practices will open a door.In the long journey that lies ahead to social and food justice, this is a brilliant and powerful small step.