Back to the future

Think the local foods movement is a novelty? Vermont Folklife Center’s archives show otherwise.

It’s tempting to think of the localvore food movement as trendy, but a little historical perspective is in order. The interest in local foods is having a revival today in Vermont, and the Vermont Folklife Center, a statewide organization based in Middlebury, researches and records the history of local food production and its preparation through the years.

Gregory Sharrow, the center’s co-director and director of education describes the raison d’etre for the Vermont Folklife Center as connecting with “the people who know” to create a documentary record, then sharing their knowledge with a broad public audience. “We do this to help bridge the many differences that shape us,” says Sharrow.

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From the family photographs of the Flynt family, courtesy of the Vermont Folklife Center.

Connecting past to present

“By some accounts, the term ‘localvore’ (or ‘locavore’) came into use in 2005 and first entered the dictionary in 2007,” notes Roger Allbee, of Townshend, the state’s secretary of agriculture from 2007 to 2010, who serves on the VFC’s board of trustees.

“My 97-year-old mother asked a few years ago what the term meant and when I stated it was about local foods, she asked, ‘What is new about that?’

“Local foods, their growth, and their further preparation — all these concepts have a long history in Vermont. In my mother’s generation, and even in my own, ‘local‘ meant planting a big garden in the spring, canning the produce in the summer and fall, and maintaining a root cellar for storing vegetables.

“‘Local’ meant raising a few chickens for eggs and meat, a pig for ham, bacon, sausage, and lard, and cows for milk and cream. ‘Local‘ meant sugaring in the spring.

“And the cycle continued.

“An extensive study of the future of Vermont, Rural Vermont : A Program for the Future , produced in 1931 by the Vermont Commission on Country Life, recommended that a garden of at least one-half acre be adopted on farms and homes to supply ‘vegetable for the summer use and for a winter supply to be canned or stored.’

Connecting people, bridging cultures

Sharrow says the Folklife Center has “conducted literally hundreds of projects, ranging from the artistry of Abenaki basketry to the experience of families fleeing war and political violence who have recently been resettled in Vermont.”

The center has provided background research for the 1993 series Never Done: Farm Life in Vermont , which aired on Vermont Public Radio and won the Gold Award in Public Affairs from the Corporation from Public Broadcasting that year.

For Never Done, “ we interviewed farmers throughout Southern Vermont, including the late J Maynard Miller of Vernon,” says Sharrow, who notes that the interviews for that program are “having an unanticipated renaissance, in large part because a growing audience is finding the themes they explored — local agriculture, foodways, and sustainability — [are] increasingly relevant” to the interests of today’s Vermonters.

Sharrow says the farmers interviewed for the series looked back on their life’s work. “Not surprisingly, food was a key category, and the detailed accounts captured in these interviews opened a remarkable window into the era when practically all food was locally produced and everyone by definition was a localvore,” he says.

As a case in point, Sharrow cites an interview with Katharine Flint Duclos in 1990. Duclos, of Braintree, was 103 years old when she died in 2010.

“Katharine was born in 1907, so her knowledge of farm culture reached back to the very beginning of the 20th century — and one of the things she was most eager to speak about was food,” Sharrow says (see sidebar).

“Apples were central, and Katharine describes their various uses in detail, from dried apples to boiled cider and cider brandy. She goes on to describe the range of farm-produced meats that were part of their daily diet — duck, chicken, turkey, beef, and pork (not to mention wild game) —and how they smoked, froze, and ‘chipped’ beef, brined pork, and prepared and canned blood sausage.

“Katharine also describes the home production of butter as a market commodity and her father’s unwilling but eventual transition to shipping fluid milk.

“And she establishes a rich social context for all this activity, from apple paring and corn husking bees to the now-arcane tradition of the wedding night chivaree, when the bride and groom were ‘serenaded’ and treated the neighbors to candy and cigars.

Conversing about local food

“This is the wonder of interviewing,” Sharrow says: to have access to “direct, first-person accounts that lay out an area of inquiry in rich and illuminating detail.”

The Vermont Folklife Center has been sharing 16 food-related excerpts from DuClos’s interview with audiences around the state, most recently in Southern Vermont.

“Hearing from Katharine is proving to be a provocative way to frame a conversation about locally produced food today,” Sharrow says, describing those excerpts as “just the tip of the iceberg.”

“With more than 5,000 audio interviews in our archive, there is much material to stimulate creative thinking as we look into the future and rise to the many challenges that face us today,” he notes.

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Every fall, wild apples: a snapshot of Vermont localvore food from the early 20th century

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Every fall we would go and pick apples, wild apples. And we girls all helped. Then we would take them over to Perley Terry’s cider mill and we’d make cider. Dad would take barrels over. We load the barrels in with the apples. And when he got those barrels of cider home, he would let them down into the cellar, there was stone steps that went down the cellar, he’d take long ropes, put on each end of the barrel, and a man would each take a rope and they’d let that cider, that barrel roll carefully down the cellar. And then after he got it in the cellar they put it up onto some beams, just little low beams, high enough so you cold set a jug underneath the spout.

He put up five, six barrels of cider every fall. That was just as much a part of our food as not. And quite often at night he’d pop up a big popper of corn and bring up some of that cold, hard cider and we’d have popcorn and cider. Then of course one barrel he would doctor, and put in a few raisins and a little sugar when it got just right, and that would be something special that the men drank. We didn’t have any of that, but just plain hard cider we kids had that.

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