Interview: Renee Brooks Catacalos
Publisher and Editor of Edible Chesapeake

August 18, 2009

Writer, businesswoman and local foods advocate, Renee Brooks Catacalos joined me in a conversation about her love of cooking and experiences in the local foods movement. As the publisher and editor of Edible Chesapeake, a magazine that celebrates local and seasonal foods, she is passionate about sharing stories and information on eating locally and supporting local farmers. I find her story to be an inspiration to those who want to eat well and those who love to cook (or at least want to cook better).

Renee Brooks-Catacalos, Publisher and editor of Edible ChesapeakeHow did you become the editor and publisher of Edible Chesapeake? Did you start the publication?

I took over Edible Chesapeake at the end of 2006 from a couple who started it in 2005. The first issue I published was Spring 2007, so it’s been two and a half years.

How has the experience running the publication been?

It has run the gamut of experiences that any new business goes through. There’s the fun and excitement of being deeply involved with local foods and the people in the movement. The experience has also included a learning curve on how to run a business and a magazine. It has also been great learning more about what happens on the farms and with food in our area. And it’s really gratifying to see how much people want to know about the source of their food.

Why is eating local so important? Why should people eat locally?

A lot of reasons. One, local, seasonal foods taste fresher and you feel good about knowing where your food comes from. Two, you’re supporting local farmers. If we don’t support the local farmers who are growing vegetables and fruits for our tables, then the only farmers left will all be growing corn for high-fructose corn syrup. And three, eating locally helps to protect our own environment when the land is put to use in better ways. When eating locally, we all feel better and society is the better for it.

Summer 2009 cover of Edible ChesapeakeHow did you become interested in food and food issues?

I did have some professional ties to food before taking over Edible Chesapeake. Also, my paternal grandfather was a chef by trade at Blackie’s House of Beef in D.C. My grandfather was a discerning cook by his profession, and my grandmother was a discerning cook because she just was. I come from a cooking family, so I grew up with an appreciation for food.

My grandmother was also a serious baker – cakes, pies, and she made preserves. She also had family that was still farming, so they had access to fresh foods. Cooking and a passion for food have been there in my head and consciousness since way back.

I also learned about seasonal foods and eating locally when I lived in Turkey back when I worked for the State Department as a diplomat. I was in Istanbul for two years. Everything there was seasonal, which was a way of eating that I wasn’t really aware of. They had wonderful peaches that weren’t always available, but when you could get them, they were phenomenal.

When I came back to D.C. in late 2001, the locally-sourced restaurants here had just started to come on the scene. Todd and Ellen Gray of Equinox were focused on seasonal, local foods in their restaurant, and Ellen asked me to do some public relations work for them. These chefs were on the forefront of doing things with local foods. In being around them and in my work with them, that’s when I really learned more about the issue of eating locally and saw it first hand from someone who was working on these issues every day.

But I also thought, “If I wasn’t working here, I wouldn’t be able to afford to eat here.” That’s when I began to think about how to take this kind of great, local food from a high-end restaurant level to one where people can eat this and have access to this in their home.

The eat-local challenge

In the summer of 2005, I challenged myself to see if I could eat only locally-grown food from within 150 mile radius of my house in University Park, Maryland for an entire month. A friend of mine, Kristi Bahrenburg Janzen and now the managing editor of Edible Chesapeake, also joined me in the challenge along with our families.

We spent several months before August, the month of the challenge, thinking about what we ate and researching how we could eat locally and where we could get local foods from. Once we began the challenge, it involved going to the farmers’ market three to four times a week.

We also had to drive to farms in the area (my first farm visit was to Springfield Farm in Baltimore County) to buy pastured meat and eggs. Now, most probably 75 percent of the farmers’ markets I visit (and there are lots more of them now than there were four years ago!) have at least one egg vendor and one meat vendor.

We cut things out that we couldn’t get from the area. My husband is from the Southwest, so we usually eat a lot of Mexican and Tex-Mex food. During the challenge, we had to give up rice and avocados because they don’t grow in this area – even dried beans.

We couldn’t find locally-ground corn, but we eventually found some local cornmeal. For the first couple of weeks, I was grinding wheat myself to make bread because there weren’t any commercial mills in Maryland that grind locally-grown wheat. Then I found a mill out in Virginia, Wade’s Mill in Shenandoah Valley that would grind local wheat.

If it wasn’t local – with the exception of salt, pepper, olive oil, coffee and tea – we didn’t eat it. We didn’t eat bananas. We didn’t eat sugar. In our baking, we used honey, maple sugar, or maple syrup.

So did you find yourself cooking all the time that summer?

Yes! I called it my summer of being Ma Ingalls. You know, Ma Ingalls from the Little House on the Prairie. My kids were five and seven at the time so I presented it as an adventure for them. Plus, we were reading Little House on the Prairie.

Through a challenge like that, you find out just how dependent you are on convenience foods. There was nobody putting all of those local ingredients together [commercially packaged] that I could buy.

I understand that we can’t do 100 percent local foods all the time. You’ve got to have some source of convenience. We don’t live on the farm or have the kind of time I invested during that month of August, but we can incorporate more of these kinds of foods into our meals on a regular basis.

In the email newsletter Kristi and I started, Local Mix, we began to share with our neighbors – after they got over thinking we were crazy – the parts of eating locally that are worth going through a little effort for, and where to find certain locally-produced ingredients. 

How far we’ve come [the local foods movement] in the last four years is amazing. You have farmers such as Toigo Orchards who grow wonderful tomatoes in the summer. In addition to selling them at the farmers’ markets, they make them into a jarred pasta sauce to sell year round. That’s a local convenience food. To me, that’s a quantum leap forward.

What would you say to someone who is new to really cooking from scratch and eating locally, and who may not be fully aware of this whole issue?

The first step is learning to cook or cooking food yourself. Reclaiming your knowledge of cooking really is essential to a lifestyle of knowing where your food comes from. You’ve got to start with food in its natural state and understand how to use it. Then you want to start thinking about where your food comes from. Who’s growing it? Who’s selling it? I highly recommend reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan to really understand why people are getting into this issue of food so deeply.

One thing I’ve noticed in the local foods world, is that I’m a small minority – a minority of one often times. For instance, Michael Pollan came to speak in the D.C. area recently, and out of a 300 to 400 seat venue, there may have been two to three other Black people in the audience.

There’s no reason that there shouldn’t have been more Black, Latino, Asian or other people of color in the audience. You see Black and Latino people in the stores such as My Organic Market or Whole Foods, but you don’t see the same people as much in the food movement gatherings around these issues.

The only time I see people of color coming up in the conversations within the food movement is during discussions about accepting WIC or food stamps at farmers’ markets. But that doesn’t describe me or many Black people I know. I can shop where I want. My mother doesn’t use food stamps or WIC. We need more engagement and representation of Black people in the issues of local foods as a whole.

How did you learn to cook, and what are some of your favorite things to cook?

I learned how to cook from my family. My mother cooked. She didn’t love to cook, but she cooked because she knew she had to feed her kids. She knew cooking was something she had to do.

My sister and I both love to cook. We cook together, and we’ve done some informal teaching also – teaching friends who didn’t grow up in a cooking family.

From my dad’s side of the family, I learned the appreciation of high quality food. Not fancy food, but good, quality food. In addition to my dad’s father being a chef, my dad’s mother had a tradition of making four cakes every Christmas, a sour cream pound cake, coconut layer cake with boiled seven-minute frosting, German chocolate cake, and my favorite, a chocolate layer cake – yellow cake with Chocolate frosting – using the recipe on the Swans Down Cake Flour box.

On my mother’s side, my grandmother had less, but could make something out of nothing. From her I learned how to cook simply. She would make simple tea cakes that are just flour, sugar, milk and butter. Also cornbread, and she could fry chicken like nobody’s business, and so can my mom.

Now, I’m getting back into using all of those skills that I grew up seeing, and my family has enjoyed it. My kids are now nine and eleven, and they eat almost anything I put in front of them. They’re not picking the Swiss chard out of the sauce anymore, or turning their noses up at green vegetables. They’ll at least try things, and most of the time they’ll like it.

That’s often the biggest challenge that a lot of parents of young children have, getting their kids to eat, especially vegetables.

Right, I realize everyone is not going to like everything, but the key is exposure. I think you have to keep exposing kids to stuff. My kids still aren’t crazy about squash or mushrooms, but I put sautéed squash, mushrooms, sauce and pasta together, and they ate it! My son also loves zucchini bread. So if they won’t eat the sautéed zucchini, put it in zucchini bread!

Delicious Seasonal Recipes from Edible Chesapeake

Ratatouille (A vegetable stew of bell peppers, eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes)

One Straw Farm’s Stuffed Bell Peppers

Others

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Publisher and Editor of Edible Chesapeake
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