A couple of years ago, I worked on organic farms in Italy. Like many Americans, I fell in love with Italian food culture, where food production and preparation figure prominently. I picked olives and took them to the local pressing mill. When the oil was bottled, the olive farmers, their workers and the mill owners sat together to sample the oil and enjoy new-vintage wine from neighborhood grapes. The oil we bottled was only sold locally, not available outside that small corner of Tuscany. I learned that Italy has a distinct food culture of communities that share an understanding and sense of pride in the foods of their regions and their country.
American culture places emphasis on what we should eat: non-GMO, organic, low fat, gluten free, etc. Subscribing to these food choices categorizes people and gives them an identity. Sometimes the identity results in a meeting of minds. But conversation stops after identifying oneself as a consumer of organic, vegan, or dairy-free foods; there is not always more to say about the subject. National chains carry the same sorts of food from largely unidentified sources.
Sometimes food preference alienates us from one another. When admitting to vegetarianism, I often find that some automatically assume my preference means that I judge those who eat meat. In America, food culture is not local and community based, but rather a matter of ideological, social, and political identity.
A growing number of Americans long for a more unifying, community-based food economy and culture. In recent years, for example, olive oil from California has become available in specialty shops. This olive oil does not come from large mega-farms, but from small-scale farmers, and each has its own specific quality.
Here in Ohio, farmers’ markets offer regional food. Ohio falls in the top 10 states that account for more than half of farmers’ markets in the U.S. Our consumers appear to find buying locally and seasonally, directly from food producers, rewarding. Social services are taking steps toward making farmers’ market shopping financially attainable for everyone, expanding our budding community food culture.
I moved to Cincinnati from West Virginia a year ago, and am still exploring the area’s food. At Blue Oven Bakery, Ohio’s king loaf of bread, I tasted wheat grown in a Cincinnati suburb. Wind Dance Farms supplied me with a perfect dried heirloom tomato, grown in Indiana soil. At Carriage House Farms, I found nasturtium bud “capers,” the Ohio version of an Italian caper.
Northsiders are lucky to have a year-round weekly regional market. At Northside Farmers’ Market, music, food demonstrations, and events bring people together while they shop. In coming articles, I will introduce you to the foods available right here in Northside, and the farmers who grow them.
By Ana Bird
Ana Bird works at Northside Farmers Market as Market Manager, and at Imago, as program coordinator in environmental education, and authors Cincinnati food blog Our Local Kitchen. She also teaches youth ballet classes at UC and Baker Hunt Cultural Center.