With the year waning, I can’t help but reflect on the 12 months that were. I contemplate all aspects of life as Dec. 31 nears, career especially. My finances are always a close second. I’m one of those geeks who has been fretting about retirement since I was 19. As I look ahead to the opportunity that seems to come with the changing of the calendar, I have all these ideas about what I hope to achieve. I find myself pondering what’s worth pursuing, what’s worth taking the risk, what’s better left to brew for a while. Fortunately, I always have this website as a diversion. And reflecting on the year that was in food is a welcome distraction from the other heavies. In 2011, I had a long list of experiences to whittle down to my absolute favourite and most memorable moments in food. This year, however, was decidedly more low-key for me when it came to dining excursions. A big reason for it was focusing more of my time on the Garden of Eating — Niagara, the residential fruit picking program I run that harvests unwanted fruit and donates it to local social organizations. Sometimes I also had the sinking feeling that some food-focused events were getting away from being moments to build community, share knowledge and nourishment, and merely becoming places to be seen. And, well, that’s not my scene. At times, it felt more like competitive eating and left me longing to get back to what food really means to me. Nourishment for the soul, body and community. So rather than particular moments, this year I’m reflecting on the people who inspired me in 2012 — many have inspired me for much longer — and helped keep me grounded, brought me great joy with their company, generosity and kindness, and fed me well.
Linda Crago, Tree and Twig Heirloom Vegetables
This will be no surprise to anyone who has read this blog regularly. I’ve called her my Niagara mom, ribbed her for convincing me to try the 100-mile diet in 2007 and she keeps me supplied with beautiful vegetables. While I didn’t get out to Linda’s farm in Wellandport this year nearly as much as I would have liked, I found my thrill on the front porch of a downtown St. Catharines home every Tuesday where I picked up my weekly Tree and Twig CSA basket. After seven years of getting Linda’s veggies, the once unfamiliar edibles, such as Jerusalem artichokes (seven years ago, I thought they might be ginger), mustard greens and green zebra tomatoes, are now like old friends. Still, Linda is one who likes to challenge eaters and there’s often something new and different tucked away in those peck baskets I was lousy at returning every week. I always get schooled in food thanks to Linda, and her weekly baskets have not only kept me fed, they’ve made me more creative in the kitchen, and more daring in my own garden. Without her, I wouldn’t have known how easy it is to grow garlic or that you shouldn’t plant peppers close together if you plan on saving the seed because they have a tendency to “canoodle.” Without her, I might not be the kale fan I am today and a life without leafy greens, I’ve learned, is a dull one.
Tamara Jensen and Adam-Hynam Smith, El Gastronomo Vagabundo
These two are Niagara’s power couple. They are immensely talented, serving up delicious, original food from their mobile kitchen. And both are so creative, from the naming of their dishes, to their marketing and getting food truck eats into the mouths of the masses. This year, they took on archaic bylaws in St. Catharines that stifled the entrepreneurial spirit of food truck operators and won. Where rules once prohibited El Gastronomo from pulling up to a curb and serving food in the Garden City, they now have more freedom to be a bona fide eatery on the move. And happiness is seeing them parked on Lake Street at Montebello Park, drawing people downtown and to a beautiful greenspace for equally beautiful food. But these two are also incredibly generous, willing to lend their time and talents to help the people who support them, including being part of food shindigs that double as fundraisers for local charities and causes, such as breast cancer. They were more than willing to cook up a fundraising feast for the Garden of Eating — Niagara in the fall, though a lack of location put the idea on hold this year. Niagara is lucky to have these two. Tamara, originally from the Ottawa area, and Adam, from Australia, came here because they saw the potential of this region and a legion of fans is grateful they did.
Mike Gretzinger, Teacher
I could probably write an entire tome about how Mike inspires me. For the past two years, Mike and his class of culinary students have canned a ton (yes, a full ton) of pears and crab apples for the Garden of Eating — Niagara, so that some of the fruit that’s not so great to eat out of hand, but still delicious with a little help, can be donated to local food banks. Last year, more than 160 jars of Kieffer pears went out to Community Care of St. Catharines and Thorold. This year’s haul, about the same count, went to Project Share in Niagara Falls. The Garden of Eating — Niagara wouldn’t be what it is without Mike and his students. They also preserve tons (again, this isn’t hyperbole) of donated fresh local vegetables for food banks, and prepare and serve meals to hundreds at charity dinners, including the Salvation Army’s annual holiday feast for people who might otherwise go without one. He’s always on the lookout for opportunities for his students to learn how to put together a delicious meal. No task is too big or too small and most remarkable is that Mike does it all without a complaint, even though there are times, because of his Parkinson’s disease, that he could have much to lament. This guy is more than an inspiration, he’s a hero.
Rowan Shirkie, Our Community Food Store
Some know him as Foodsnark. To me, he’s Shirkie, gardening buddy, unloader of rose hips, member of the Garden of Eating board and champion of food security. Rowan is part of a group that has been working for the past couple of years to bring a co-operative grocery store to downtown St. Catharines, which is a food desert. He has helped on countless Garden of Eating picks, even picking up my slack when a family emergency this fall kept me from leading some harvests. And he’s a great help in the garden, having turned the soil that surprised, entertained and sustained us in Grackle Garden, the yard we borrowed to grow food this summer. Rowan is an all-around good soul with a sense of humour that never fails and a perspective that is refreshing. Quite simply, he’s just a good friend.
Lauren O’Malley Norris, Gathering Niagara
Earlier this year, I got an email from Lauren, newly anointed farmers market manager in Niagara-on-the-Lake, asking to pick my brain for contacts to help her achieve her vision of the market as a hustling, bustling community hub. I wasn’t sure how much help I’d be but in the end, what resulted was a newly minted friendship. The NOTL market became the place to be on a Wednesday evening when it hosted a supper market, equipped with food trucks, farmers, wineries and all kinds of beautiful offerings to nosh while getting know new folks or catching up with old friends. At its peak, the supper market brought in more than 2,000 people hungry for their next meal and a little conversation. She is truly someone who has a knack for bringing people together and that has been proven again in her new incarnation as Gathering Niagara. As GN, Lauren has brought a supper club to NOTL on Friday nights, organized lunch markets for the Shaw Festival’s movie series through the winter, started coworking groups, social media discussions over coffee, and other community get-togethers that not only draw residents of NOTL but folks from throughout Niagara. She has big, creative plans for 2013, which I have no doubt will be the year of Lauren.
She does have a proper first and last name, but Mama likes to be known as Mama. So that’s how she’ll be known here. Follow her on Twitter and you’ll find a woman dedicated to feeding her family the best food possible and working her culinary creativity in the kitchen. But she’s also someone with an incredible amount of empathy and kindness. She demonstrated it quite beautifully this fall when she encouraged readers of her blog to donate a jar of peanut-free butter to their local food bank. Peanut butter is a staple of food bank donations, but as Mama so wisely pointed out, that’s of little help to those with a peanut allergy. For her 40th birthday, she wanted to donate 40 jars of peanut-free butter to food banks and found many kind souls to help her do just that.
Tara O’Brady, Sevenspoons
Talented in the kitchen. Talented at the keyboard. Talented with a camera. Tara is one of those people who is easy to envy because of her ability to write food literature that makes you hungry for more, while also being able to sum up her lyrical words in stunning photography that’s art, not food porn. Her website, Sevenspoons, has documented seven years of Tara’s magic in the kitchen and has been recognized by the likes of Saveur, Gourmet, Bon Appetit and Kinfolk — those publications in which most writers can only dream of seeing their byline. Though those are bragging rights to, well, brag about, Tara is exceptionally humble, thoughtful and continues to tell meaningful food stories that show more than tell. She puts thought into every word and evokes beautiful imagery and emotion with every sentence she pens.
Kyle Paton, Rise Above Bakery
I am the worst person to guess someone’s age. So when I found out earlier this year while putting together an issue of Business Niagara that counted Kyle among the 10 up and coming entrepreneurs in Niagara, I was floored to learn he was only 24. That’s because his talents belie his young age. As the owner of Niagara’s only vegan restaurant, Rise Above, Kyle has perfected the vegan donut, demystified seitan for omnivores and created not only a restaurant but a community space in downtown St. Catharines. He has graciously allowed me to host two Niagara in Jars canning swaps there, even adding some of his own amazing home preserves to the trading. Kyle is kind, thoughtful in the execution of his creations in the kitchen and an immense talent, who, if I think too hard about it, can make me feel like I wasted my 20s, but mostly who I feel we’re lucky to have in Niagara.
Kyla Pennie, the Niagara Local
By day, Kyla, like me, works a day job that has little to do with food. By evening and weekend, she’s out pursuing her passion and that is cataloguing just about everywhere to dine in Niagara for her site, the Niagara Local. From the greasy spoons to the haute cuisine, Kyla is penning quick hits one bite at a time to help people find the region’s restaurant gems, And she should know. Her husband runs one, the Smokin’ Buddha, in Port Colborne. I look forward to reading more of Kyla’s chronicles of where and what she eats on her website, which serves as a much-needed local dining guide. She’s filling a void that has long existed in Niagara by creating a one-stop website for anyone wanting to find a restaurant in any corner of the region and championing all the greatness being served on a plate near you.
Bryan Gilvesy, YU Ranch
He’s not from Niagara but I wish he was. Still, our loss is Norfolk County’s — and everyone’s — gain. I met Bryan years ago as a cub reporter for the Simcoe Reformer. He was a regular go-to guy for us scribes during the height of the mad cow crisis that crippled Canada’s beef industry. Since being a regular quote, he has become a champion of farming to better the planet, using a method called Alternative Land Use Systems (ALUS). It takes marginal farm land out of production with the aim of bettering the eco-systems that sustain us all. He is, in short, brilliant and can host an impressive feast. Last year, I was invited to his dinner and a tour of his farm near Tillsonburg, home to a gorgeous herd of Texas Longhorn cattle. I was the only vegetarian in the group and while I know Bryan would have loved to convert me that day, instead, he and Chef Tracy Winkworth were the most generous hosts, serving me vegetarian feast that was more akin to a religious experience. Even the meat eaters were jealous. This year, I bought my mom a ticket to the dinner for her birthday and for weeks she raved about the food, has since made the trip to Waterford where Winkworth dazzles at her Belworth House restaurant, and learned much about food and farming from a fascinating guy. That’s Bryan’s goal, it seems. And he does it so well with boundless passion.