Where I live, McDonald's is not an option. Nor is Applebee's or Dunkin' Donuts or Pizza Hut. In fact, not only does our one and only local diner close at 7 pm on weeknights this time of year, but unless you wanted to swim six miles, after 9 o'clock at night, you wouldn't even have the option of taking a ferry ride to the mainland for fast food if you really had to have it.
Needless to say, folks around here eat dinner at home. A lot. Especially this time of year, when even the pricier restaurants close for a month or two. My town has exactly zero restaurants open for dinner in the month of February. In summer, we have more options on Martha's Vineyard, but some years back the year-round population (which is a demographic significantly different from the perceived demographic most mainlanders conjure up based on the publicity generated around summer visitors) voted to prevent fast food restaurants from getting a foothold on the island. (We don't have Wal Marts or Home Depots, either.)
What we do have out here is a lot of potlucks. It's potluck central. Whether we're raising money for a local fisherman who needs cancer treatments or screening a movie at the community center or just celebrating the solstice, tradition calls for a potluck. To me, these things make so much sense. First off, you get to share the load for cooking dinner. (I'm thinking this idea might translate well for busy families anywhere who want to try more home cooking and less fast food.) Secondly, they provide a much-needed social outing, as winter on a (snowy) island can be a bit isolating. This year is particularly tough, with a high percentage of Islanders out of work. But again, there's an aspect to potlucks that people everywhere could benefit from -- practicing the lost art of cooking for neighbors. Most of the local churches out here have weekly soup suppers, too. And it goes without saying that when someone dies, armloads of home-cooked food show up at the back door (not the front, of course, this being New England).
While small-town life on an Island might drive a lot of people crazy, I think in many ways the resulting culture of home cooking (and the forced separation from fast food) is a gift. Our physical boundaries help us in other ways, too, by creating a natural food community that can come together a little more quickly and nimbly to affect change. For example, while the national media has recently been focusing on the monumental efforts to create Edible Schoolyards in some big cities, here on the Island a whole community of parents, teachers, kids, and small business people, led by the non-profit group Island Grown Initiative (IGI), decided to join forces two years ago to build vegetable gardens in each of the Island's seven schools. Not only have they accomplished that goal, but they've also put in place a robust curriculum -- and teacher training -- to assure that the gardens are as exciting and educational to kids as they were intended to be.
One of IGI's other successful programs began when they initiated a dialogue between local farmers and school cafeteria chefs. The lunch ladies had been working with the same abysmal budgets and restrictive contracts that schools everywhere do, and not a leaf of local lettuce had landed on the lunch plate of a local school cafeteria in years. (And this on an island with a rich agriculture heritage.) Now local farmers -- some only miles up the road from a local school -- are finding ways to deliver excess produce to the schools at a price they can afford, and it's a win-win for everyone.
Recently, while I was out in the "real world," I began to think about how incredibly lucky we are here because of all these things. I was thinking of this because I often get discouraged when I read the sustainable news; I begin to think that real change will be long and hard -- and maybe even impossible.
But for the first time in a long time, I felt a great surge of hope when I listened to sustainable guru Fred Kirschenmann speak at the Edible Institute in Santa Fe a few weeks ago. (The first Edible Institute was organized by Edible Communities to precede the annual gathering of the publishers and editors of the now 62-strong Edible magazine group.)
Listening to Kirschenmann, I began to think that maybe people really are beginning to understand that the problems with our food system are not just economic or political, but that fundamentally, our food crisis is a social, cultural, and spiritual one. Kirschenmann argued that the food revolution has truly begun, and to take heart; while there may only be 3 to 4 percent of us onboard right now, we don't have as far to go as we think. He said that only 25 percent of colonists were in favor of the American Revolution; and look how that worked out! He also argued that people are hungry to redevelop a true relationship with food. (And that commodities aren't cozy.) And that more and more folks are wanting to know where their food comes from, to learn how to prepare it, and to maybe even grow some.
Soon after I got back from that trip, Michele Obama announced her Let's Move campaign. Wow, I though, that percentage of revolutionaries may grower faster than we think. Michelle Obama is a godsend. I think she gets the whole picture: Yes, it's a necessary and great idea to get junk food out of schools, but until parents decide it's a good idea to sit down and eat dinner together several nights a week, our relationship with food isn't going to change.
And then, just yesterday, I listened to Jamie Oliver's absolutely mesmerizing and inspiring TED address, and I thought, he just may be the biggest revolutionary of all. Really, I could just hug that man; here he is dedicating his life to the cause -- to helping obese people, one-on-one, learn to cook real meals. It makes me feel like we cooks can make a difference. And by we cooks, I mean anyone who can roast a chicken or stir-fry broccoli. If you can do those things, show someone else how to. If you can't, call me. Well, maybe try Jamie first.
Follow Susie Middleton on twitter @sixburnersue. Susie's vegetable cookbook, Fast, Fresh & Green is coming this April from Chronicle books.