Tom Ross: It's all about living closer to your dinner

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Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Tom here.

— I'm pleased to report that great-grandma Sadie Slayton's hand-cranked ice cream maker still is freezing custard and saving the world's energy supply.

We had a special dinner in Madison, Wis., on July 15, the day after my mother's 80th birthday. It wasn't a birthday dinner; rather, it was a re-creation of the traditional Fourth of July dinner we used to eat on the picnic tale when I was growing up.

Most of the food we ate, including the dessert, originated close to home. My sisters picked the sweet corn from a friend's field, the green beans were picked just five steps outside the door of my parents' home, while the pea pods and baby potatoes came from Madison's farmers market.

The only item on the menu that originated in the industrial food chain that we often depend upon was the fried chicken. The dessert was homemade vanilla ice cream, cranked in a device that is more than 100 years old.

It's ironic that there is a growing movement in America today to attempt, as much as possible, to consume foods that were produced locally and in season. In another era, it wasn't optional.

My father, as long as I can remember, has grown his own cucumbers to brine and can his own dill pickles. They are more garlicky and peppery than the pickles that come from the supermarket.

The pantry at 5 Blue Ridge Court still is packed with neat rows of home-canned tomatoes, jellies and, of course, several varieties of pickles. Some of those carefully dated jars are now more than five years old, and it would be best if they were never consumed.

Relying on homegrown food wasn't a trendy thing when my parents grew up on a farm in Oregon during the Great Depression. It was a natural necessity.

My father recalls the dinner his family consumed on the Slayton Ranch at the Fourth of July always was a special one. It was a special day not just because of the observation of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but because it always produced the first chicken dinner - and the first ice-cream treat - of the season.

The Slayton/Ross family didn't eat drumsticks in June because the roasting chickens hadn't put on enough weight until the seventh month of the year.

In theory, they could have enjoyed ice cream sooner, but it was a time-consuming project that wasn't indulged until the holiday.

It was a given that before you could freeze ice cream, one had to milk the cow and gather eggs from the chicken coop. However, it also was necessary to drive into town and purchase a block of ice that later had to be chiseled into chunks with an ice pick before you could add it to the wooden bucket that held the icecream freezer.

I served homemade ice cream at the home of friends in Steamboat on July 4. But there is a significant difference between my freezer and the one owned by my great-grandmother Sadie.

When I made ice cream July 4, I made the custard from scratch, poured it into the freezer, added ice and rock salt to the bucket and plugged the unit into an electrical outlet next to the garage. Back in Madison on July 15, I quickly noticed that Grandma Sadie's freezer lacked an electrical cord. Instead, we sat in the front yard conversing while we took turns hand cranking the freezer. That way, the dasher constantly stirred the custard and assured it wouldn't freeze into a bunch of fatty lumps.

Great-grandmother Sadie was old school, all right. But I'm here to tell you that the difference between a hand-cranked ice cream freezer and an electrical model is more significant than mere degrees of nostalgia.

Unlike my grandma's ice cream freezer, mine burns fossil fuels.

In her new book, "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a Year of Food Life," author Barbara Kingsolver observes that when we sit down to dinner in America today, the food on our plates has traveled an average of 1,500 miles before it is served.

We commit almost as many fossil fuels to transporting our food as we do to growing it.

Do we as individuals have a realistic chance of changing food production in America? That one is open to debate.

But the people reading books like Kingsolver's and Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma: a Natural History of Four Meals" aren't random kooks. Recently, the waiting list for "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" at Bud Werner Memorial Library had grown to 30 names.

You don't have to be a tree hugger or a global warming activist to change your eating habits. If you could have licked the dasher when we pulled it from Grandma Sadie's hand-cranked wonder last week, you'd be camping on an eBay auction right now. You'd be trying to buy an antique icecream freezer. And you'd be burning calories instead of oil so you could consume more dairy fat.

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