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What Farm-to-Table Means for the Next Generation

Jul. 16, 2014

Emma Frisch, Food Network Star Finalist, Chef, Food Blogger, Former Farmer

This summer, I took my passion for “farm-to-table” to a place it’s never been aired before: America’s most loved cooking competition, Food Network Star. This may seem like an unlikely stage for slow food, where finalists cook under time-crunched challenges set forth by the formidable judges Alton Brown, Giada De Laurentiis and Bobby Flay. Still, I could not kick the hunch that I was cast because millions of viewers across the country are hungry to learn more about cooking food grown close to home. So, in the first episode I stood with wobbly knees on an apple crate smack in the middle of Hollywood’s iconic New York Street and sung, “I’m Emma Frisch, your farm-to-table guru!”

I hadn’t intended to introduce myself this way, mainly because “farm-to-table” can feel intimidating when it’s unfamiliar. But I couldn’t find a snappier way to package what made me distinct: I was a cook that had worked my way from farmer to Food Network Star. Guru or not, Bobby Flay was unimpressed by my use of the term, which he surprised me by calling “overused” and “mainstream.” I resigned myself to the uphill slog of redefining farm-to-table, but I couldn’t shake the embarrassing reality that while the phrase may be overused in niche markets like Brooklyn, most American households are hard-pressed to find any fresh produce in their neighborhood. Although, while Flay’s feedback may have missed the mark, the millennial crop of cooks and eaters is already redefining farm-to-table and enthusiastic to see it truly go mainstream.

As the most diverse generation of Americans to date, millennials have developed a cultural relationship with food that is distinct from the experience of American-born baby boomers. As a first-generation American with British and Italian roots, my parents grew food as an affordable and simple way to bring their homeland to a country where dreams come true. I was forever being caught red-handed in Mamma’s tomato patch, nestled between the English flower gardens. Her parsley bushes were the source of insufferable cafeteria trauma when she packed “green sauce” and cow tongue sandwiches. No Twinkie trades for this bambina! Once at college, it didn’t take long before I yearned to be back in Mamma’s kitchen. When I launched the first farm-to-table dining hall dinner, I was encouraged to discover that hundreds of other students felt the same way. We wanted food that tasted fresh and was prepared authentically, so much so that we were willing to sit on the floor.

With growing excitement at the table, more and more people in my generation are taking to the fields. Farming is officially back in! When I worked at Millstone Farm in Connecticut, I loved delivering flats of rainbow chard to starry-eyed restaurant chefs, suburban families and the village market. The makeup artists on Food Network Star would groan if they saw my untamed mane and garden getup of mud-splattered jeans. Manicures aside, I felt like a hometown celebrity. My generation has also fueled a new way of travel called WOOFing (Workers On Organic Farms), where farm chores are traded for room and board with rural families. As farming becomes a revived and honorable vocation, fresh fruits and vegetables have become more palpable for my generation, and we’re on a mission to share the unrivaled delight of slicing into a watermelon radish.

When I moved to Ithaca, New York in the heart of the Finger Lakes, I was inspired by a way of life that for generations has revolved around what modern America calls “farm-to-table.” People have flocked to this fertile region in search of a homesteading lifestyle, where they could live from the land and fill their other needs through barter or purchase from their neighbors. Many nights I can name the person behind nearly every ingredient on my dinner table, from the brined pork chops Heather and Brad keep stocked at their butcher shop to Nicole and Peter’s hard cider. Heck, even the cable guy left a venison jerky recipe attached to my bill and the clerk at the Korean market translated her grandma’s kimchi recipe so I could ferment the napa cabbage in my CSA. In all my travels, I have never found a place so devoted to the land yet still connected to its multicultural heritage.

I applied for Food Network Star with the hopes of sharing how this rural corner of the world was celebrating “farm-to-table” in a way that was practical and affordable, and constantly being refreshed by the next generation. I planned to share easy recipes that paired my love for seasonal harvest with my culinary roots, like the British-inspired ploughman’s sandwich with apple chutney I made on Episode 1. On Food Network Star, I’m still struggling to overcome “farm-to-table’s” broader meaning; I’m no “gourmet cowboy” or “butcher babe.” But on Sunday evening I made it through Episode 6, landing in the top half of the competition with a slogan that I feel better defines the proactive, positive and community-driven way of eating my generation is cooking up. I call it “food with roots.”

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