Farm to Fork: the Omnivore’s Dilemma
by Ingrid Hart
The first meal I ever ate in Yosemite National Park was lentil soup cooked on a wood burning stove by my college roommate Elida, a seasonal employee in the summer of 1983. The earthy, heart-warming concoction was divine after a full-day’s hike near Yosemite’s iconic Half-Dome. Yet we still dreamed of a time when our cash flow would allow us a full-course meal at the historic and grand Ahwahnee Hotel. Twenty-six years later, our dream came true. We shared a rock-star meal with the Ahwahnee’s Executive Chef, Percy Whatley in the hotel’s crown jewel dining hall, framed by Yosemite Falls and Glacier Point.
Dining family style with a Hell’s Angels approach to etiquette, we feasted on wild mushroom ravioli and truffle cream; an antipasto platter rich with artisan cured meats; free-range chicken with gravy, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce; ocean-friendly halibut from Monterey Bay with Vancouver clams and local organic greens; hand-harvested scallops with pork-belly (Chef Percy called it umami, or the fifth taste following sweet, sour, salt and bitter). For dessert we sampled six kinds of sorbet, my favorite being passion fruit—imagine a sky-high Fourth of July firework bursting in your mouth, the flavor exploding, then slowly disappearing, leaving a naughty smile on your face. Elida grinned and claimed she always dreamed of dining at the Ahwahnee but said, “This dinner surpassed all of my expectations.”
Chef Percy Whatley
We were both delighted when Chef Percy told us that almost all the fresh produce served at the restaurant came from within a 150 mile radius of Yosemite National Park. Call it the “Farm to Fork” movement. “Sustainable agriculture is the cornerstone of the slow food movement,” said Chef Percy, a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America and a 20-year cooking veteran of Yosemite, the last four as Executive Chef. “We live near the San Joaquin Valley, California’s breadbasket. We are committed to local resources for organic produce, free-range chickens, and grains. In Yosemite, it’s easier to think about the environment. We are on the cutting edge of this movement.”
Chef Percy, a soft-spoken and sincere gentleman credits Yosemite’s Greenpath, an environmental stewardship program, for green-lighting the movement. Delaware North Companies Parks and Resorts (DNC), Yosemite’s contracted concessionaire, agreed to his suggestion of partnering with sustainable agricultural vendors, telling him to “keep your costs down—organic is expensive.” Since 1999, Chef Percy’s been taking a humble approach, quietly purchasing local products from at least 40 vendors citing his personal passion for allowing the high quality of the food to speak for itself. “Every time I shake hands with the little guy, I develop a working friendship. There’s always a good exchange between a farmer and a chef. I like to see the emotion behind the farmer. It makes me feel good—plus, our customers benefit.”
After the inspirational meal, Elida and I take the shuttle bus back to Curry Village where we are slumming it in the cabins. At nearly $500 for a night’s stay, the Ahwahnee Hotel is still too rich for our budget—I guess some things never change. Still, our home in the forest among the cedar and pine trees surrounded by three thousand-foot granite cliffs keeps us giddy and happy. We lie on our backs outside our cabin’s deck, and look up at the plentiful stars. “This feels umami,” my college friend sighs, contented. I agree, it is a slice of heaven—sweet.
Farmer Tom Willey
What’s Growing On?
In the world of Farm to Fork I know the fork well—but the farm, not so much. To school myself, I visit the Ahwahnee’s prime purveyor of produce, a 75-acre certified organic, family-owned farm called T & D Willey Farms. Fresh. Local. Organic. That’s the motto of this Madera farm in the San Joaquin Valley. Watered by snow melt streams from the Sierra Nevada, the rich alluvial soils of this region make up the most productive farmscape on earth.
I’m sitting in the passenger’s seat of Tom Willey’s electric cart as we drive the 75 acres of his and wife Denesse’s Madera farm. We motor past rows of French Breakfast radishes, Rosa Bianca eggplants, Russian kale and more than 50 varieties of crops—all organic, a Garden of Eden. At this farm, there is no mechanized harvest. In fact, the yellow crookneck squash are picked with white cotton gloves to protect the vegetable’s sensitive skin. Talk about a labor of love.
The life force on this productive farm is strong, radiating health and vitality, in large part because of the Willey’s commitment to old-fashioned farming, “We do not use any toxic pesticides,” said Tom, pointing to a stand of sunflowers—a habitat strip that attracts beneficial insects for pest control. “We focus on plant nutrient and soil quality. That’s the best possible protection.”
I ask Tom, a knowledgeable veteran of the slow food movement, what Farm to Fork means to him. “It’s about paying more attention to the path by which food reaches your plate and then tracing it back to the farm from which it originates.” His farm is a longtime purveyor to Alice Waters’ famed Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley and San Francisco’s Slanted Door. “We all need to take more responsibility and be more conscious about how we grow our food,” said Tom. “Spend your dollar on the kind of food that you want. Don’t spend your dollar on food that you feel guilty about afterward. Too many of us do it too often.”
T & D Willey Farms began working with Yosemite about six years ago. Tom told me that their friend Brenda, a free-range chicken and egg farmer in the local Mariposa area brought attention to their farm. “DNC was trying to ‘green up’ their business and a branch of that was supplying their facilities with local food growers. Procurement agents from DNC came and visited the farm, hooked us up with a local trucker that delivers to the Yosemite Valley several times a week, and we began delivering produce. Our products are at the Ahwahnee Hotel, Wawona Hotel, Yosemite Lodge and all the way up to Tuolumne Meadows at high camp. We’re very proud of our connection.”
Do Tom and Denesse ever dine at the Ahwahnee? When I ask him this, he chuckles says, “Whenever we have visitors coming from afar and we want to impress them, we take them to Chef Percy or Chef Mike at the Ahwahnee. We let them know we’re coming and they do something a little special. We see our name on the menu. It’s a great buzz. We like to go up there once or twice a year and stay overnight and have a couple of good meals. How could you not like that?”
Back on the farm, the Willeys send me home with a box of fruits and vegetables similar to what their Community Supported Agriculture cooperative customers receive—which is 15 percent of their business. “I can’t just show you this produce—you have to taste it,” said Tom, loading the box into my car trunk. Inside the box are apples, cucumbers, broccoli, lettuce, squash, basil, and a six-pack of farm-fresh eggs. I’m thrilled to see my favorite—red grapes. I pop one into my mouth and marvel at the flavor—complex, yet simple. It must be that rich alluvial soil. They taste earthy, fresh and make me zing all over. The rest of the grapes sit on my lap for the journey back to Sacramento. Farm to Fork? No way…these babies are farm to mouth—thanks, Tom and Denesse!
In Defense of Food
It’s not possible to discuss Farm to Fork without bringing up wildly successful food-guru Michael Pollan, best-selling author of Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. Pollan and Willey know one another, and there is a footnote in Omnivore’s Dilemma that includes their name—although according to Tom Willey, it’s misspelled.
I am now at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall along with a near-capacity crowd of 1,800—listening to Pollan, a Cal journalism professor, give a Farm to Fork talk. We’re all trying to get a grip on the best way to approach the pleasure of eating. The six-foot Pollan looks Berkeley-cool with his sports coat and black-frame glasses. Pollan claims we’ve undergone 150 years of diet change and that it has taken a tremendous toll on our health. “We’re no longer growing food,” said Pollan. “We’re growing food for manufacturing.”
What’s An Omnivore To Do?
How do we escape the western diet without leaving civilization? Pollan offered a few rules to help guide the omnivore’s dilemma: “If it has more than five ingredients, don’t eat it. Avoid any foods you’ve seen advertised on television. Don’t get your fuel at the same place your car does. Avoid foods that never rot—like Twinkies.”
Farm to Fork-—what exactly does it mean? I suppose it boils down to what Tom Willey told me as I departed the San Joaquin Valley: “If we think of ourselves as a biological organism, we only have two purposes: one is survival and the other is reproduction. Going about surviving and reproducing every day, there is nothing more important than what you put in your body.” It remains both an omnivore’s dilemma and solution. Michael Pollan sums it up in seven words: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
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