It’s an unusual sight in the middle of a farm field. These chefs, white hats and all, are walking walk up a hillside in Muskingum County, just east of here.
They’ve come to see the tomatoes, corn, zucchini, peppers and melons that grow here—right here—because Huston Farms’ tomatoes, corn, zucchini, peppers, and melons go straight from these fields to our plates.
Niles Gebele, dining services manager, has worked to significantly increase the percentage of local farm products in our dining halls since he arrived on campus less than a year ago. And he sees it as part of his job to build relationships between area food providers and the campus community.
One way to do that is to get out of the kitchen, which is how Gebele, executive chefs Nellie Donato and Dan Fischer, marketing manager Matthew Dunham, and Jeremy King ’97, sustainability coordinator, ended up strolling through rows of produce that’s almost ready to pick.
Bill and Kris Huston own the farm, and they’re pretty familiar with Denison, since daughter Meghan is a senior.
Bill’s day job, so to speak, is executive director for the Muskingum-Morgan Farm Service Agency. As an employee of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, he also spent 13 months in Iraq as an agricultural advisor. Let’s just say he’s seen a lot of melons and tomatoes growing in a wide variety of places.
His knowledge is evident as he rattles off varieties of tomato (Fletcher, Rocky Top, Finish Line, Roma) and methods of irrigation (drip, tube, good old fashioned “pray for rain”). And the chefs’ knowledge of the value of fresh foodstuffs becomes clear as the group convenes inside the Hustons’ 1850s farmhouse, largely renovated by Kris, and gathers around a table covered with just-picked vegetables.
“We’ll pick to order,” Huston says, remarking that this modern-day truck farm operation has four to five hands working each day, some of whom have worked with him for 15 years.
“Most people in Ohio have never tasted, for instance, a good Ohio watermelon, because they come ripe right at the end of August and into September, which is when kids go back to school and people stop thinking about summer and watermelons,” he says. “So the only watermelon taste they know is of something that was picked far away, half ripe and gassed, that’s been sitting on a truck for a week.”
Chef Donato agrees. “The majority of our students have never been exposed to all this.”
“We obviously can’t do this year-round,” Gebele says, “our climate doesn’t support it. But we’re looking for ways to build up our freezer capacity so that we can take fresh, local produce and freeze it for use in the off-season. Using more and more local foods is a process, and we’re working on it on many fronts.” It’s an effort that’s in line with the college’s commitment to raising the bar on environmental sustainability because the use of local foods saves energy and reduces pollution.
The group in Hustons’ kitchen talks about finding ways to invite people to taste vegetables they only think they know the flavor of. Food tastes different when it’s this fresh. Even the vivid colors of the yellow corn, orange melons, and deep green jalapenos are overshadowed by the savory experience of actually eating something that you know had been grown right here.
King asks to try one of the ears of sweet corn “as is,” and everyone suddenly wants to try a bite that way. No cooking. No salt. No butter. Just real. On this day, from these fields, raw is delicious.