RACHEL BEGLIN COLUMN: Understanding what's in a menu
In a grocery store, with aisles and aisles of cereal and tortilla chips and seemingly never-ending supplies of lobster and pork and beef and frozen chicken, it is easy to forget that food requires labor, resources, water, time and patience. Food doesn’t appear overnight
You drive through the McDonald’s drive-thru and ask for a cheeseburger and fries, maybe a soda. The register attendant looks at you apologetically and informs you that potatoes aren’t in season right now, so there aren’t any french fries today.
And they butchered a cow this morning, but they just sold the last burger a few cars back, so you’ll have to come in tomorrow. There’s soda, though, if you still want some -- homemade, fermented in glass jars with love. You ask about Coca-Cola. They remind you that Coca-Cola is made from corn syrup miles and miles away, so they’re waiting until the next harvest to carry it in stores again.
This, of course, would never happen. McDonald’s is more factory than restaurant, more machine than actual cooking. It’s ludicrous to imagine a 24-hour McDonald’s being out of burgers, or even butchering a cow on the same day as the burger is served.
You expect them to have every menu item available, every single day, 365 days a year. And not just our local Bemidji McDonald’s, but every single McDonald’s in the U.S. No matter that potatoes don’t grow in Florida or Arizona. No matter the proximity to a slaughterhouse or day of the week. No matter that the cows must first be impregnated to produce milk -- there will be cheese, there will be fries, there will be burgers.
While we all love the convenience of a McDonald’s and the familiar, almost nostalgic flavors, we have to admit that there is something about the operation that seems to defy the laws of nature. McDonald’s burgers will be there whether we have a good rain year or a drought, whether farmers are growing wheat or corn or soy, whether disease spreads through cow populations or not. No one talks about how a plague might impact the cost of buns; no one even knows what part of the cow they’re eating.
But there’s a restaurant now in town called Table for 7, and they’re doing things a bit differently than McDonald’s, and for that, I applaud them.
Table for 7 is a farm-to-table restaurant, which is a popular trend now as the local food movement grows. The idea of farm-to-table is exactly what it sounds like -- prioritizing single-source foods, supporting local, fresh produce, knowing who grew your food and where it came from.
But even many farm-to-table restaurants fall into the McDonald’s trap; they set a menu, and when produce runs short, they, too, look to the supermarket or a delivery truck to supplement their kitchen. Their menu might be more based on local cuisine, but Table for 7 takes it an innovative and revolutionary step further.
The menu at Table for 7 is different every week. If you want something specific, you better call ahead so that they make sure to have it prepped for you the next day. Although the menu is small, it is mighty. Featuring foods that reflect the Minnesota seasons, you’ll find dishes with quail eggs, greenhouse-fresh greens, pork chops, walleye, wild rice and so on.
What you will not find is mango or avocado, which don’t grow in this climate and maybe ought not to be so readily available, or even apple slices, because the season is still ahead of us.
Their food is delicious, but it is rightly limited by what can be humanly, and humanely, grown at this time of year. While some might be put off by this perceived limitation, wanting to order the same dish every time, Table for 7 is simply working within Earthly limits.
While recently enjoying a meal there, I heard a chef speak up to the waitress, “FYI, there’s only three orders of pork chops left.” Unlike restaurants where the freezers are stocked with animals who’ve been dead God knows how long, Table for 7 has what it has -- and nothing more. They know where pork chops come from - and it’s not a Sysco truck.
In this way, the owners’ farm, the Red Barn Family Farm, is not asked to give too much. It is not asked to cough up more pigs than the land can sustain, to make cheese or milk when there are no pregnant cows, to have carrots when the ground hasn’t even thawed yet.
Don’t be scared of Table for 7’s twist on the old-fashioned American menu. I know we all like comfort food, instant gratification, the familiarity of a chain restaurant that looks identical on the East Coast as on the West coast. I know that it is radical and new and almost unnerving to have to confront those laws of nature and remember that while food is thankfully plentiful, it is not all available all the time under fluorescent lights.
In a grocery store, with aisles and aisles of cereal and tortilla chips and seemingly never-ending supplies of lobster and pork and beef and frozen chicken, it is easy to forget that food requires labor, resources, water, time and patience. Food doesn’t appear overnight. Food must obey the laws of nature, and I celebrate the fact that we have a local restaurant in town that seeks to remind us of that.
Originally from Phoenix, Ariz., Rachel Beglin now resides in Bemidji. She is a former Peace Corps Volunteer, sustainability advocate, gardener, writer and coffee enthusiast.