Monday, July 18, 2011

Ben Hewitt

On Friday night, I went up to Concord to listen to Ben Hewitt read the first chapter in his new book "Making Supper Safe", One Man's Quest For Food Safety.  He was entertaining and very good natured during the exchange of ideas and thoughts and answering people's questions after the reading.  It sure gives me a whole new view on dumpster diving.  And made me think twice about the "I Love Bacon" cookbook he was standing near while speaking!

I was struck by many things as I sat there, wishing I had brought my camera. It was a small crowd of folks, perhaps 20-25 that came out on the night of a massive street festival to hear him speak.  We were serenaded by a Rod Stewart cover band the entire time we were listening to the reading as they performed mere feet from the front door.  They had shut down Main Street and there were hundreds of folks wandering around our Capital City.  I did not have prior knowledge that the festival was taking place, and enjoyed the fact that as I was walking to listen to a farmer speaking, I was struck by the scente of the petting zoo and horsedrawn hay ride .  In a pretty large city.  It gave me pause and a smile, a great beginning to an enjoyable hour and a half listening to Ben. 

When I entered, I was late (see above street fair for explanation...parking was a nightmare) and he had already started reading. I tried inconspicuously to locate an empty seat and, being alone, I was able to find one in the front row.  I always enjoy listening to an author read their own work because they give it the inflection and tone they meant for it to have, not the one we hear in our own heads.  The chapter was a funny and telling tale of Ben's friend Edward, who has been dumpster diving for 10 years.  He even found 50 pounds of brie once which he promptly baked up for his family for a holiday gathering.  The moral to the chapter seemed to me to be the waste that happens in our country because something is a day or two past a date code and how his friend basically eats like a king dumpster diving on this stuff.  Though I'm not sure I'll be rifling through any Waste Management containers anytime soon, it sure gave me pause to think about just how much we do waste in our country and how avoidable it would be on many levels.  There are people all over the world starving to death, and we're throwing away gourmet cheese because it's past the date code.  And if you think about how absurd that really is because cheese is made with MOLD after all, so what exactly would be the harm of it developing visible mold past the date code?  Kind of silly. 

I noticed some things that perhaps others may not have noticed about Ben. His style was very conversational and welcoming. He was intent on a friendly and non combative discussion after his reading, and my feeling, as he was a little cautious in his tone at times and how he spoke about topics like USDA rules and incorrect use of antibiotics for livestock, was that he had been met perhaps a time or two with resistance from people to his well thought out and well researched ideas and facts.

I also noticed that his hands were calloused and he had a grease smudge on his arm.  Both of these things endeared him to me as I thought, "This is a man who's on the front line of farming.  He's not sitting in an office building, never smelling manure or feeling sun warmed soil, he's in the trenches doing it.  This is the man who's book I want to read, this is the man who lives what he's writing about, not just a corporate 'farmer' spewing the company line".   He brought water to drink during his reading in a quart Mason jar.  Yep, I was gonna like this guy.   I also noticed the enthusiasm he has for his topic, he's not bored with the subject matter, it inspires him and he's passionate about it.  Just like I am.  One of those kindred spirits I've talked about here before.  I really love connecting to a kindred spirit, something a little magical happens in the world when we find one. 

As I listened to the question and answer period, there were lots of great questions about food, antibiotics use and dumpster diving.  One man seemed really intent on learning more about that topic, which I found interesting.  I wondered to myself if he was going to go behind the natural food market across the street and see what was what back there in their dumpster?  Ben had also brought up the great topic (and one I've tried to explain to others around me when they ask how we afford to eat like we do) that food is about priorities. Our country has the cheapest food in the world based on our income. 

We spend a very small amount on food in our country, certainly a whole lot less then it costs to raise that food.  Ever wonder why that is?  How is it that we can pay less for food then it costs to fertilize, plant, apply copious pesticides, harvest, package and ship food?  Because the vast majority of corporate "farms" are subsidized.  Yes, it costs less in the store, but believe me, you are paying for it in your tax dollars each and every minute you work.  And a large number of the businesses that are receiving your tax dollars are not paying taxes themselves.  They even get to receive subsidies for the fuel to ship all that food to your Hannaford's (or Shaw's or Publix, where ever it's sold in grocery stores).  And in some cases, they are paid millions of your tax dollars NOT to grow food.  That's right, not to grow.  Yes, you will pay more for local food at a farm stand because they are not subsidized.  The farmers that grow the food to nourish you in your own town have worked the many hours it takes to do this, pick, harvest, get that food to market all without the subsidy that conglomerate food producers are given.  They toil long hard hours, yet, they have to compete with those same conglomerate's subsidized prices for food.  Uh, oh...I'm off on a tangent, sorry about that, just a deeply held passion of mine.  Paying for food what it actually costs to raise is not cheap, ever. 

I'll get back to the topic of Ben's I was nodding in agreement to the whole time he spoke about it.  Lots of people wondered how we could, in the face of almost 14 months of unemployment, afford what was most definitely healthier but also more expensive local and organic food during that time?  Well, the answer is this.  We prioritize what's most important to us in our spending, then spend there.  Yes, you have to have heat, and electricity and fuel for the car to get back and forth to those job interviews, but we didn't need to go out to eat 3 times a week, or have the expensive cable, or the latest and greatest clothes for our kids.  We basically just stopped spending money on anything that wasn't absolutely necessary in our lives.  If you take that down to a basic level, just spend on what is absolutely necessary, well, you can get by on so much less then you imagine. 

And the other way we managed this is that when you have a relationship with farmers in your own community like we do, it's a give and take situation.  One of our local CSA's requires deposit and payment in full long before the food actually starts rolling in.  That's inherent in the CSA model, you pay up front so that the farmer has the funds to buy the seeds, equipment and fertilizer beforehand.  Well, over the course of time that we've been members, we've also become dear friends.  And they allowed me to pay in installments when I needed to as more important to them then the money was that we were able to keep feeding our family the most nutritious food possible.  This is the type of relationship you can achieve with local farmers.  I can guarantee you that if you went to your local grocery store and told them that you either wanted to work off some of the cost of the food or delay paying the full bill they would laugh you off and show you the door.  And I, in turn, help my friends out with their CSA when I can manage it.  It's a lovely give and take relationship that I treasure in my life.  It's a definition of community that has become quite dear to me and one I hope I never lose.

As the evening with Ben wound to an end, he signed books.  I brought his first book with me, which I'm in the process of reading and finding very enjoyable as well.  It's "The Town That Food Saved" which is about his home town and the amazing growth of local businesses there.  Very enjoyable read I highly recommend.  I spoke to him of local eating, and how cost prohibitive it is for us to purchase land here in our town.  Upwards of $70,000 per acre in most cases.  He agreed that is a deep concern for many wish-to-be farmers (like us!).  A nice evening, an interesting man and time to enjoy both.  Purely delightful.

Literary evenings to you, ~Peacemom


small farm girl said...

Now THAT'S the kind of evening that I would like to spend. Talking about farming and community. Give me that any day over a dinner and a movie. :)

Anonymous said...


Thank you so much for the kind commentary and especially for attending. I really appreciate the support. It's the first time I've read to a Rod Stewart soundtrack; I think I could get used to it.

Be well,

aseaman said...

I so wish I had been there with you! What a great tribute you gave the author. I also see he saw your blog and responded, super!

Dog Trot Farm said...

A most interesting post, I am going to search Mr. Hewitt's book out, thanks for sharing. BTW, the tomatoes look awesome! Hope you are enjoying the summer weather, thank care, Julie.