Building a Healthy Food System in Rural America

By David Goodman, "Foodtopia," July/August 2009

How a handful of organic farmers, world-class cheesemakers and a locavore restaurant transformed Hardwick, Vermont—a poor, rural town—into a foodie mecca.

"An inspiring article by the always-inspiring David Goodman. Thanks for running it. Jules Older, San Francisco, CA "

The future of food, I’ve been told, may be found in a hardscrabble town of 3,200 in northern Vermont. But as I walk down the main street of Hardwick, a former granite-quarrying town, there is nothing that would indicate this is the new food utopia heralded by The New York Times. I pass the Chinese take-out joint, catch the charred whiff of a burned-out building and finally stop catty-corner from the laundromat and police station. Then I spot it: a cheery pumpkin-colored building with floor-to-ceiling windows and etched on the glass: “Claire’s: Local ingredients. Open to the world.” I step through the restaurant door, and I am immediately transported.

This locavore haven in an otherwise struggling outpost of rural America is hopping. Young people in jeans hobnob comfortably alongside a clutch of stylish older women and a few men in jackets and ties. A waitress struts purposefully across the bright maple floor balancing a Moroccan vegetable tagine that trails heady scents of cumin and garlic. My head snaps sideways as an aromatic curried soup of sunchokes, carrots and pistachios is ferried to an expectant patron.

Kristina Michelsen, tonight’s casually dressed maître d’ (and a co-owner), motions for me to sit on a bench seat; my wife, Sue, takes a chair across the square cherry table. Our server pours water into small Mason-jar glasses. The place has the folksy feel of a diner, and it seems only natural to greet the people around me. And so I do: the man in the suit at the next table drives a snowplow and owns the gas station in town. Two tables down, an author visiting from Boston is here with his girlfriend. At another table sits Linda Ramsdell, owner of Hardwick’s Galaxy Bookshop and also a co-owner of the restaurant.

Our waitress returns with a delicious appetizer of baked Hartwell cheese with cranberry chutney and sprout slaw. The cheese has a soft texture like Brie, and it melts in my mouth. Kristina explains that the cheese, made in small batches by artisan cheesemakers at Ploughgate Creamery, a few minutes up the road, is typical for Claire’s: much of Claire’s food is grown or produced within 45 miles of the restaurant. In northeastern Vermont, where winter lasts six months, that’s saying something. Underscoring her point, she gestures to two young women who have just walked in, one in a soiled Carhartt jacket. “There are your cheesemakers, Princess and Marisa, owners of Ploughgate,” she says. “And over there is Pete Johnson, one of the farmers who grew your salad,” she adds, pointing to a blond man several tables away. “Here,” she says with a proud smile, “the celebrities are the farmers.”

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