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Chef supports a return to our food past


Not long ago, American families got busy this time of year, saving the harvest for winter.

Every regional culture from the South Louisiana Cajuns to Iowa's Swedes and Norwegians, Scots in Appalachia and Germans in my home town of Jasper, Ind. had their own traditions of harvesting, preserving and cellaring.

These traditions included butchering day, when families would get together, bring the hogs in and make everything from fresh cuts to be eaten soon to cured ham and bacon that later would be smoked and stored in the larder for the cold months ahead.

One of my most vivid memories from fall was making sauerkraut. It was quite a sight for young eyes, huge piles of cabbage shredded by hand, then disappearing into a giant whiskey barrel with handfuls of rock salt to inhibit bacteria and aid fermentation.

The whiskey barrel went onto the back porch, where wild yeasts did their thing for six weeks until this salty, briny delight was ready, soaking in the liquid that would preserve it for months.

There was canning of fruit preserves and pickles of all kinds, not just cucumbers, but odd combinations of green tomatoes, onions, peppers, cauliflower, you name it. It all had to go into the pantry somehow or be lost to the looming freeze. Each jar or crock contained something interesting and special, but most importantly, it was connected to the garden or farm, family and community from which it came.

In recent years, the most exciting development in the farm-to-table community of farmers, chefs, shoppers and diners has been the piecemeal revival of these many traditions. Today, we are on the verge of a renaissance of old American foodways that promises to bring the best modern technology entwined with a sense of place and belonging that has been lacking in our industrial food system.

The whole hog phenomenon has been a highly visible example of this revival, with chefs buying direct from small local farms to fabricate their own charcuterie. More restaurants also are canning and preserving to extend the local bounty for their diners' tables.

It's becoming clear where the farm-to-table movement is taking us, and it's great news for diners. The chefs of the future will be doing the labor that families used to share as part of their yearly harvest.

The benefit to the public is obvious; you can eat better than you ever have while chefs do the work of rebuilding those connections between the garden, farm and your table.

Paul Fehribach is the chef and owner of Big Jones, 5347 N. Clark.

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