Thursday, August 16, 2012
Chef John Foster: Gleaning the fields worth the effort … just ask the homeless, hungry
The cool weather this past weekend made me think just a bit about leaving one season and going into the next. As crazy a summer as it’s been, I don’t know if I should be glad to see it go or hope that it hangs on just a little more for the roller coaster ride it’s given me.
When I talk with local farmers, they are resigned to the facts and take the one-day-at-a-time approach. When the growing seasons are over, they will pack up the market, glean their fields and plan for next year. There is some good news in that philosophy; the Farm to Table Dinner on the 25th of this month will be an exclamation point on the market’s year, and the Incredible Food Show on the 27th of October will be one last public display of the resiliency of the farmers and their dedication to their craft.
But there is also a principle followed by some and promoted by certain area groups that oftentimes is missed at the end of every year. We have a kitchen garden at Sullivan University for the culinary students’ use. By the end of the growing season the students are used to picking herbs and select vegetables for their dishes, so they have made a trip to the garden a regular thing.
What we will try to do this year is add one element almost as old as life itself, at least life on the farm and in the fields. This year we will hold a class on gleaning. If you haven’t heard the term, don’t be perturbed. Although the practice has been around since Biblical times, and has many modern-day variations such as the ubiquitous dumpster diving, gleaning is still very much a behind the scenes, slightly stigmatized, almost hushed-up tool to find and gather any leftover food in the farms and fields of rural America.
The purpose is to feed the poor, destitute and any strangers that may arrive on the doorstep of the church or shelter. To mention this kind of aid, at this time in history, in the wealthiest country in the world seems to be heretical. But the truth is there are poor people in America, a growing number of children, and if we can educate more people on the value of skills like gleaning we may just be able to put food on the table where there is none now.
It’s quite simple really; after the last harvests are done most fields lie fallow but filled with the dietrus of summer and fall. In the past, groups of women would be allowed a certain number of hours in the day to go into the empty fields and glean what they could of leftover vegetables not able to be sold or used for feed by the farmer. In some cases the church would act as the impetus to set up the appointed times, but in recent history secular groups have broadened the circle to include shelters and community centers who often see the hungry on a daily basis.
In the worst case scenario, the farmer would glean first, especially if the harvest was poor or the impending winter was predicted to be harsh. There are benefits to several groups here as the hungry will find food and the farmer will get his fields cleaned up for winter planting. The final stage of gleaning is to find ways to utilize less than ideal product in order to make the food palatable.
Is the work of gleaning worth the effort? Ask anyone who has been homeless and hungry if even some “spotty tomato soup” could help fill his or her belly and you would find an enthusiastic guest. Can anyone glean? Well, while most people are healthy enough, you have to have permission to do so in someone else’s fields. Start with your garden and take what you find to your local food bank, provided they can accept produce. Or contact organizations in your area that do practice gleaning or at least promote it. Seedleaf has gardens of their own that they glean every year, and they do take volunteers to help glean and then cook on a regular basis.
I think sometimes that we have no concept of beginning, middle and end when it comes to our food systems. A lot of us fall in the middle, where the food appears in the grocery stores, piled high in the bins, and we really don’t think twice about where it came from, and where, after we purchase a small amount, the rest is going to go. We need to refocus, and we are starting to on the front end. But after the crowds are gone and the lights go out, the reminder has got to be a reminder that, 1,000 years ago or not, we fed the hungry with our leftovers; it’s time to do it again.
John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Chef Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been an executive chef, including at the popular Dudley’s Restaurant, and a restaurant owner.