Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The tip of the iceberg

It seems that most non-Texans have the impression that the lonestar state is nothing more than a vast desert filled with oil executives, massive pick-up trucks, cattle, and shotguns. Some have perhaps based their preconceptions largely on the 80s TV drama, Dallas. (English-language television options were limited where I grew up overseas.) Wide open spaces. Ten-gallon hats. As I've made my way from El Paso to Austin, I have come to discover that western and central Texas towns have a lot more going on than the omnipresent guns and trucks might suggest: renewable energy (it's the #1 state for wind power... mostly headwind... in the country and a lot of work is going on harnessing solar as well), small business development, community gardening, and amazingly diverse local food. It is the last item that I'll focus on here, but should any of my loyal readers want to hear more about the others, drop me a line.

During my time through (aptly named) hill country, I had a chance to spend a few days in Fredericksburg. Thanks to my kind hosts -- David, co-president of the town farmers' market, and his lovely wife Cynthia -- I met a number of key players involved in the thriving local market and food scene. We had lunch with Kelly (founder of the farmers' market, going into its third year), chatted with the town sanitarian (the woman in charge of public health matters like temporary health permits for market food vendors... not to be confused with the sanitarium) at city hall, visited a few farmers in the region, and cooked up a storm. My kind of folks, those two.

We ate locally to a degree I hadn't previously experienced. Nearly every meal's ingredients came from a day's bike ride away: strawberries we'd picked at Marburger Orchards, brussels sprouts from Engel Farms harvested barely an hour before my arrival, burgers from Thunder Heart Bison, a finger of Texas bourbon (the first licensed outside of Kentucky) sipped while watching the NCAA men's final. I was eating locally, and remarkably well, but this was only the tip of the iceberg in terms of Texas' food culture.

The breadth of local ingredients got me thinking about the wide variety of food and drink that Texas, nearly a country in itself (it has its own national beer), produces. It seems odd that in a state with so much to offer, Texas ranks last among the 50 states in terms of food stamp programs (according to an article published a few months ago in Austin's local paper). At the other end of the spectrum, I recently read a Men's Fitness article from 2008 that claimed 6 of America's 10 most obese cities were in Texas. This expansive land of plenty has its work cut out for it. It's going to take more folks like David and Cynthia in Fredericksburg working to build a strong local foodshed, and innovative farmers like the ones I met at Sunday's urban farm tour here in Austin growing healthy food and teaching their neighbors how to grow their own, to reroute the Titanic that is Texas onto a path to avoid the twin icebergs of malnutrition and obesity. Otherwise, I fear, this gloriously large and diverse state will be a sinking ship. (What? Was the metaphor too forced?)

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

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