Eating (and Writing) Local

M. Jane Ross

Fredericksburg lies in the Pedernales river valley of central Texas. German immigrants settled here in the 1840s, cultivated the fertile, sandy soil, and built a solidly prosperous market town. Today Fredericksburg is a popular B&B destination; as I write, my husband and I are spending a few days in an historic farmhouse near town. As the social hub for wealthy ranch owners of the region, Fredericksburg boasts several fine-dining establishments; we chose one of these for dinner our first evening here.

We’d been sipping our wine and looking at the menu for a few minutes when the waiter came to ask if we had any questions and to take our order. The Maple Leaf Farm duck breast, I wanted to know, was that from a local producer? His reply had me scratching my head in wonder at the apparently newly expanded meaning of the word “local.”

“Yes,” he said, “Maple Leaf Farm is here in the United States.”  Which I guess made the duck breast more “local” than the rack of New Zealand lamb also on the menu.

When the German settlers had put down their roots in this valley and built their town, almost all of their diet (perhaps with the exception of grains, flour, and sugar) was local. Meaning it could be brought to market in at most a day in a horse-drawn wagon, fifty miles tops. 

Their traditional selection of sausages and smoked meats came from animals that were raised and often butchered right on the farms surrounding the town.  The green cabbages the settlers fermented into sauerkraut would have grown well in the light river-borne soil of the town and environs. The cobblers, pies, and preserves were made from fruit gathered in the groves and orchards within a few short miles of the Marktplatz. And any duck served in Fredericksburg in those days would likely have been shot along the banks of the Pedernales, which flows just four miles to the south of the historic town.

Historic farmhouse near Fredericksburg TX. MJ Ross

Fredericksburg today still does a thriving business in tasty smoked beef and pork cuts and sausages, in preserves, salsas and relishes. But duck? Perhaps there really is no farm raising ducks that fits a 19th-century Fredericksburger’s definition of local and I’m guessing that hunted duck is not going to work for a modern restaurant. But I know for a fact that the other side of Austin in Bastrop, just 100 miles from Fredericksburg, there’s a chef-turned-farmer called Sebastien who’s raising ducks much the way the German settlers would have raised their chickens, in a fenced, outdoor enclosure, with traps around the perimeter to catch the coyotes and bobcats. By 21st century standards, that 100 miles ranks as local, infinitely more local than the Indiana-based Maple Leaf Farm.

But what’s the connection between local food and lifewriting? I’m a transplanted New Zealander and I face the issue of “localness” often in my writing. When I’m writing about my upbringing in New Zealand, after all the years I’ve lived here in the USA, it takes a real effort of will to be true to what is “local” in the setting of my story. In writing of the foods I ate as a child, I have to remember that we never ate Jell-o. The brand didn’t exist in New Zealand where gelatine desserts were called jelly.

A pie was, by default, a meat pie and generally a large, single-serving size. These pies were the standard fare of school lunchrooms (never cafeterias) and of the pie cart in the town square. Local delicacies were whitebait fritters and kahawai on the West Coast, paua patties  and crayfish around the Kaikoura peninsula, Barry’s Bay cheese from Akaroa, Cox’s Orange Pippins from the apple orchards of Loburn, and Chinese gooseberries from up north (before the fruit marketing board gurus dreamt up “kiwifruit”).

 Bonnie Watkins captured the spirit of the small German communities of central Texas beautifully in her story “Aunt Kate’s Coconut Chess Pie” in Kitchen Table Stories. The resilience in the face of hard work and adversity and the plain-speaking godliness of her forebears shines through in her tale. At some point, when we stop explaining ourselves or covering our accent and our roots, we begin to recognize and cultivate our connection to our home community to create stories with authenticity and true local flavor.

6 responses to “Eating (and Writing) Local

  1. WOW, Jane!
    So much wonderful writing and information packed in this post. I love reading your posts. This one in particular has taken me to places I’ve never been — both here in the USA and in New Zealand. Chinese Gooseberries = KiwiFruit, eh? Interesting!

  2. I often struggle in my writing, with just how Texan do I really want to sound. Should I write as I actually speak, dropped g’s and all, or would that be going over the edge?
    By the way, not sure where you were dining in Fredericksburg, and I hope it wasn’t one of these, but I hear both Rebecca’s Table and August E’s are supposed to have seasonal menus featuring locally sourced ingredients. Or come to Wimberley and try The Leaning Pear.

  3. Nice article, Jane. So true!

  4. Thank you all, Lee, Becky, and Pat. I’m having fun with this theme of food as a metaphor for writing. Glad you’re enjoying it.
    Becky, I empathize with you about the Texas accent. It’s just going to depend on the context of the dialog you’re writing.
    By the way the Fredericksburg farmers’ market is closed for the winter, so perhaps the restaurants have reverted to a non-seasonal/non-local menu for now. I sure hope they’ll go back to buying local. And I’ll certainly come and try The Leaning Pear one of these days. Thanks for the tip.

  5. Thank you for sharing this soulful perspective. You brought so much to life with your words. You’ve also shed new light on what it means to write “local” and how it can nourish the universal soul in all of us.
    Blessings to you.

  6. We butchered, trapped rabbits, worked a large vegetable garden, and gleaned fruit in nearby orchards when I was growing up. We never thought of it as anything more than hard work and a way to save money for our college education, the shared family goal.
    My father in his poem “The Kind of People that We Are” about the Great Depression expresses my own thoughts on the matter–that if we hadn’t done all that, we wouldn’t be who we are today…that the character and work ethic we developed could later be transferred to anything we were to undertake. Thus it is, by unknown accretion, that our lives and our writing is built.
    Janet Riehl

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