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.
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.