Meatless Monday: Green Grass Roots And A Beacon of Hope From Signal Mountain

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The world's leaders did not come together for us in Copenhagen. The folks of Signal Mountain, Tennessee did. Signal Mountain, population 7,500, is the first town in the United States to pass a green foods resolution, a written commitment to local farming and sustainable practices.

Signal Mountain beat out nearby Chattanooga, as well as Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and the rest of the country. To David Cook, who initiated the town's green foods resolution, coming in first is beside the point.

"We don't have a choice," says the teacher and columnist at the Mountain Mirror, "Green food resolutions are going to have to be passed and looked at everywhere."

Wish the folks gathered in Copenhagen had felt that way.

Farm Sanctuary,the non-profit advocating on behalf of animal rights came up with the idea for the proposal. "We felt it was time to make a statement and make it clear what the profound consequences of our food choices are," says Gene Baur, Farm Sanctuary's co-founder, president and longtime vegan. Farm Sanctuary's website suggests wording for the initiative and ways to build community support. Cook took the idea and ran with it. In an article, he challenged the town council to adopt the resolution. They passed it unanimously.

It illustrates the message Raj Patel puts forth in his hot-off-the-press release The Value of Nothing (Picador, $14) -- we've got to step up, every one of us. "We've been taught to sit back and consume properly," Patel says, but that shut-up-and-buy mentality led us into the biggest economic tumble since the Depression.

"We need to be fearless," says Patel. "We need to take personal responsibilty with government and corporporations. It's not, 'If I vote for this dude everything's goint to be fine,' it's 'There's half a dozen community groups around my neighborhood I'm interested in and I'm ready to get involved." If any good can come from this dismal economy, it will come from people "relying on and building community."

It only took one man's actions to launch a green foods resolution with townwide support. Okay, no one is going to come out against health, environmental preservation and sustainability, the things the green foods initiative advocates. But Signal Mountain town councilman and former mayor Paul Hendricks aims to turn the resolution's pretty rhetoric into action.

Hendricks, a longtime Sierra Club activist, says, "We'd like to get a farmers market going here. We have CSA [community-supported agriculture] and some small farmers who do organic farming. The more you can decentralize food growing and energy production, the better it is for the environment."

Wish the folks in Copenhagen had felt that way, too. Unlike the Copenhagen climate treaty, the Signal Mountain green food initiative "didn't become highly politicized," says Baur. "You had folks who cared about the issue" and came together to make it happen.

Signal Mountain and The Value of Nothing are lessons in empowerment and activism. I hope Signal Mountain's green food resolution inspires other cities and other citizens. It's a great start, but it's only one action. Solving the world's problems "is a complex thing," says Patel. A single resolution, treaty or act is not enough. ""It has to be a bunch of things."

And they have to come from you. Cook, who teaches courses in democracy says, "So often the lesson my students -- and I -- realize is that real change is going to take place from below, and rarely from above."

As we enter a new year and a new decade, positive change can happen, but only if we all play a part. As Patel says, "The whole idea of The Value of Nothing is it doesn't take much to open wide the world."

Hopping John

Social activism is the key to a happy new decade. But a pot of hopping john couldn't hurt, either. Eating hopping john on New Year's Day allegedly brings good luck. Traditionally made with pork, this version loses the pig but retains its humble origins. If you want to trick it out with tomatoes, salsa, tofu bacon or what-have-you, knock yourself out. Make it on New Year's Eve or even the day before. Flavor improves over time and hopping john reheats like a dream. You'll have a nourishing, cheap meal ready to go on a day when some of us are too tired and bleary-eyed to cook. And there's a bonus -- the sturdy rice and beans dish sops up a hangover. Happy New Year.

1 cup black eyed peas
3 cups of water
6 cloves garlic
1 dried hot pepper
1 bay leaf
2 cups vegetable broth
1 cup brown rice
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 jalapeno, chopped
3 ribs celery, chopped
1 big bunch collard greens, sliced into thin ribbons
juice of 1 lemon
sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Soak beans in a bowl of cold water for 4 hours or up to overnight. Drain peas.

In a large pot, bring 3 cups of water to boil over high heat. Add black-eyed peas, 2 cloves of garlic (whole), pepper and bay leaf. Skim off any beans that float. They're duds.

Reduce heat to low. Simmer beans uncovered for an hour and a half until beans are tender, not mushy.

Add brown rice and the 2 cups of vegetable broth. Cover and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes. Don't lift that lid. Turn off the heat but leave the pot on the burner and let hopping john sit.

Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion, jalapeno, celery and the remaining 4 garlic cloves, chopped. Saute for about 5 minutes, stirring, until the vegetables soften.

Reduce heat to medium. Add greens by the handful, and cook until wilted, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes.

Fluff rice and beans. Remove whole garlic cloves, dried pepper and bay leaf. Fold collard mixture into rice and beans. Squeeze in lemon juice and season with salt and pepper.

Splash on the hot sauce and enjoy.

Serves 6.