Good food is good politics these days. From Massachusetts to Texas, state governments are showing that a direct link between local farmers and the markets they serve -- the supermarkets, the restaurants and farm markets -- means not only tastier food for the consumer but also rousing support for the departments of agriculture that forge those links.
"These are beautiful little offices," explained Jim Hightower, Texas commissioner of agriculture, who wears a ten-gallon hat, cowboy boots and a Taste of Texas pin wherever he goes. At the moment he was hiking through downtown Washington, where he had just given a speech to the National Press Club on "Kick-Ass Populism and the Democratic Party."
His job had taken him to Mexico to set up a Mexico-Texas Exchange Commission and to Israel for a treaty exchanging trade and expertise between them. For a politically ambitious person, a state department of agriculture turns out to be a highly visible platform. "You want to do something, you go do it."
"We're a little controversial," he added, which is like saying a Texas oilman is a little bit rich. He likes to point out the distinction between "we can't" and "we don't."
Since he took office three years ago, Texas has opened 31 farm markets and 10 wholesale marketing cooperatives. What he and Assistant Commissioner Susan DeMarco are trying to do is develop a system to let the farmer sell directly to the buyer, whether retail through farm markets or wholesale to supermarkets, restaurants, processors or to foreign markets such as India, Egypt, South America and the Orient.
On a more local scale, senior citizens' nutrition centers in Texas are now buying directly from farm markets. "More and more of the tomatoes and peaches that consumers are squeezing on their grocery store aisles were ripened on the vine and tree right here in Texas," he has said. "They didn't spend two weeks in cold storage at some California warehouse, and consumers can taste the difference immediately."
Hightower makes it all sound a cinch. On how to succeed with farm markets: "If the farmers show up, the people will be there." He explains, "The reason most farm markets fail is that they fail to organize the farmers." His office also connected Cambodian refugee farmers with cheap land the state owned and with university agricultural experts, and now those farmers are growing Asian vegetables.
There is another trick to making this all work: First, see what the demand is. "We start with the market always," said Hightower. He had just begun a survey of Texas restaurants to find out whether they would like to have organic foods, in hopes of developing organic beef, poultry and pork production. "You are not just putting people in business," he emphasized; "you're putting them in business to succeed."
Texas is now growing blueberries and wine grapes. There is talk of pistachios and kiwis. As Hightower put it, "Texas has most climates -- except New England." And Texas has 14 to 17 million people to sell those blueberries to, without even leaving the borders of the state.
Texas is also organizing farmers into co-ops to sell commodities more efficiently. Take watermelons, for instance. Texas watermelons are some of the best in the country, claimed Hightower. But small, low-income farmers are not in a position to market them to supermarkets. By forming cooperatives, however, the farmers have been able to produce enough watermelons to interest supermarket chains.
And what about pinto beans? Texans eat a lot of them, but always imported them. Now Texas is beginning to grow its own.
Then there is mesquite; in Texas, said Hightower, it has three uses: landscaping, generation of electricity, and "selling it to Yankees at inflated prices for burning fish."
But the Texas Department of Agriculture is not just trying to sell Texas food. It is selling the idea of Texas food. Locally, the Texas taste has long been promoted by such festivals as the Athens Black-eyed Pea Festival and the Luling Watermelon Thump. And the TDA has published a Taste of Texas booklet listing 136 companies producing everything from chili mixes to Texmati rice to tamales to Danish sausage. One company sells crawfish and berries, another has mail-order Buttered Pecan Pies.
Now, like Vermont, California, Massachusetts and other states, Texas is more comprehensively promoting its local products; it has taken its Taste of Texas food show on the road to Boston and Chicago. Hightower aims to have Texas food displayed on the ethnic shelves of markets, along with Chinese and Italian foods. He is also looking to Texas' Noonday onions to compete with Vidalias in the "boutique onion" market.
Talking a mile a minute, his hands constantly in motion, Hightower discusses food as business, as politics -- and as art and entertainment. He grows his own pimientos and tomatoes, and even his own popcorn -- because, he says, "I love the sound of corn rustling."
He sees food also as opportunity: Last year Missisippi Agriculture Commissioner Jim Buck Ross got himself in a heap of sexist trouble when he asked vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro if she could make blueberry muffins, then boasted that in Mississippi men don't cook. Right after that Hightower delivered a batch of his own blueberry muffins to Austin's food columnist, explaining, "Of course they don't cook, because they have those little squinty, shriveled up blueberries." Tabletalk
*Julia Child has never been one to mince words, and once again she set her audience chuckling during a recent speech at the Smithsonian Institution when she charged that most vegetarian food tastes like "steamed health food."
*Educating the whole student is the aim of the liberal arts college, and now Dartmouth has taken its responsibility one step further by offering in its dining hall a diet plan for gradual weight loss.
*It's not enough anymore to construct your own salad from the salad bar, or stir your own fondue. La Re'colte in New York will let you cook your own dinner starting in January. You can join the chefs in the kitchen for the evening, sit down for late dinner with the maitre d', then take home your chef's jacket and certificate attesting to your accomplishment -- after you pay the check of $300. TEXAS BLUEBERRY MUFFINS (Makes 12 muffins)
These are less sweet than the customary blueberry muffin.
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1/3 cup oil
1 cup blueberries (Texas blueberries for authenticity), rinsed and drained
In a large bowl, stir together flour, baking powder and salt. Add milk, oil, and egg. Mix only until dry ingredients are moistened. Stir in blueberries. Fill greased muffin tins half full and bake in a 375-degree oven 20 to 30 minutes or until golden brown.