Food Matters: Gratitude check, being thankful for community food | AspenTimes.com

Food Matters: Gratitude check, being thankful for community food

Amanda Rae
Food Matters

LIKE A BIRTHDAY for many locals, Thanksgiving celebrations in Aspen seem to last a full week. Which is fitting because this most American holiday focuses on good food and gratitude, both abundant here.

I kicked off the holiday by returning to my original stomping grounds past the roundabout, where the Snowmass Rotary Club, the Snowmass Chapel, and the town of Snowmass hosted its annual John Bemis Community Potluck Dinner in collaboration with the Westin Snowmass Resort on Sunday, Nov. 19. I was excited to attend the event for the first time, and participate in the revered side-dish competition by seizing the opportunity to bake a pie for the occasion.

We got the first sign that this is a longstanding, well-orchestrated affair upon entering the conference center, when I asked a Rotarian how many guests his club expected in this massive ballroom. "Oh, about 500," he responded, quite nonchalantly.

Turns out that this was the 28th annual (!) free event, also a nonperishable food drive for Lift-Up. One side of the room was devoted to a hearty buffet line of standard fare: turkey, ham, gravy, mashed potatoes, herbed dressing (or "stuffing," depending on one's provenance), cranberry sauce, and a towering assortment of rolls. Elsewhere were three separate lines, where guests shuffled by folding tables crammed with side dishes, salads, and dessert. Each category was supplied by home cooks according to the first letter of one's last name.

My group was assigned dessert, so I prepared a Colorado apple pie with a cheddar cheese crust. I'd found the recipe via America's Test Kitchen, a favorite resource for thoroughly tested, slam-dunk dishes. Those not familiar with New England tradition inquired about the combo: Nibbling a slice of sharp cheddar cheese alongside a wedge of apple pie is pretty much gospel in Vermont, homeland to ATK founder Christopher Kimball. (Really, there's a line in Vermont legislation about the state food, apple pie: "When serving apple pie in Vermont, a 'good faith' effort shall be made to meet one or more of the following conditions: (a) with a glass of cold milk, (b) with a slice of cheddar cheese weighing a minimum of 1/2 ounce, or (c) with a large scoop of vanilla ice cream.")

Vermont is also where my parents met, at Sugarbush in the Mad River Valley, and just a short drive from the Massachusetts town where I grew up. Since I'm unable to be with them for Thanksgiving, I decided to combine that heritage with local Western Slope fruit in a classic crowd-pleaser. Judging by the empty glass plate I picked up after the event, the pie was a hit.

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The ballroom was bustling. After an hour or so spent mingling over pre-supper drinks, reserving seats around one of the large circular tables, and perusing dozens upon dozens of dishes lovingly prepared by fellow area residents, it was time to hit the food. By the time we passed through lines for dessert, turkey and fixings, and salad, in that order, we didn't have the hunger to try any side dishes. We chatted with our fellow diners about nothing in particular, which was all anyone needed to feel connected. We left feeling full, in every sense.

A few days later, Aspen TREE hosted its 10th Annual Farm-to-Table Free Community Meal at the Hotel Jerome. We snagged seats at 5 p.m., the first of three seatings, together estimated to feed 1,400 people. Last year my friends and I served plates; this year we agreed to clock community service hours elsewhere, since the glut of volunteers for this particular event makes adequate work slim and maneuverability tight. An #aspenproblem, all the way.

Aspen TREE has a lot to be thankful for this year, as it recently earned approval of a long-term lease at Cozy Point Ranch that will expand operations from 2/3 of an acre to about 12 acres. This will allow the nonprofit to grow more food and support an expanded crop of local farmers.

Aspen TREE executive director Eden Vardy was proud to note that this year's Community Meal successfully sourced 75 percent of ingredients from within 35 miles of our seats in the Jerome ballroom. The remainder hailed from Colorado farms slightly farther afield.

Vardy shared the property's plans: Create a farmer incubation plot system, similar to a community garden system but for beginning farmers, as well as a "tool library" that aids farmers who lack the capital to purchase major equipment required to achieve their goals. Aspen TREE aims to build a commercial kitchen for use by food entrepreneurs, perhaps via short-term rental. A farm store that functions as a year-round farmers' market is in the works, too. Through all of these initiatives, Vardy hopes to raise awareness about Slow Money's local 2Forks Club (see sidebar), as well.

Vardy told me previously that he envisions that Aspen TREE at Cozy Point Ranch will help all farmers by removing tricky obstacles to farming.

"A little-known fact is that there's a substantial amount of infrastructure and tools required to get started in a meaningful way," he said. "If we can remove these blocks from getting into the field, then farming will really take off."

The ultimate wish is to serve as a model for other communities en route to developing a solution to our national food problem. Vardy cites statistics — the average age of a farmer in the U.S. is 60-plus; increasingly farms are shutting down production in favor of land development — which indicate that America's food system could decline by 40 to 60 percent without major innovation. Compounded with the effects of climate change, these trends suggest a bleak future for a centralized food system.

The bright side: "Because the Roaring Fork Valley has done such a wonderful job at preserving open space, we have this incredible opportunity to leverage that community resource in a way that takes care of all of us without doing any developement," Vardy said. He calls it a "magnifying-glass effect."

"What happens here is really seen on the world stage," Vardy said. "Most anyone who enters the Aspen or Snowmass community drives past or flies over Cozy Point Ranch — it really is the gateway. If we can express to our visitors that these are our values, this is what we stand for as a community, and we're taking the lead on this, then that makes a statement that ripple-effects across the nation."

How lucky we are to live in a place that truly feeds community — and that's worth gratitude year-round.

amandaraewashere@gmail.com

SHOW THEM THE MONEY

Aspen TREE executive director Eden Vardy also serves as managing director of the 2Forks Club, a local nonprofit investment club that gives zero-percent-interest loans to beginning farmers and entrepreneurs in the Roaring Fork Valley. Since it began in April 2015, the membership-driven 2Forks Club has supplied $120,000 to budding businesses.

“It’s one more resource to help alleviate the burdens of getting started here as a farmer,” Vardy says. “They do much better than the national statistics. On average a beginning farmer makes $25,000 a year. That doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room. It’s a Catch-22 because without that tractor, they’ll be stuck at $25,000; with that tractor maybe they can grow their business to $50,000 a year. 2Forks Club helps to get those farmers in a position where they can scale more quickly.”

AspenTREE: aspen-tree.org

2Forks Club: slowmoney.org/2forks-club

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