Thursday, February 25, 2010

Friendship and Good Cooking

I met Peter Roberge, the new Executive Chef at Skagit Valley Hospital. He is masterminding a culinary revolution at the hospital, and I am more than thrilled to see this happening.

The hospital, until recently, served typical institutional cooking -- instant mashed potatoes, industrial-strength gravy and overcooked frozen vegetables.

They didn't cook. They defrosted. I know. I worked at the hospital these past two years. The salad bar was a little bit decent, I must admit, but a large portion of the staff avoided the cafeteria and brought takeout or food from home.

Comes now Peter Roberge, representing Thomas Cuisine, a company that has been awarded a contract for the hospital kitchen.

Roberge said, "We make everything from scratch." I could not believe my ears, but I went to the cafeteria yesterday to check it out --- fresh string beans! Tasty, al dente. Red cabbage shredded and served in a mound. I like cabbage to be cooked until tender, so Roberge did it just right for me. I figure if you want raw cabbage you can have coleslaw.

Anyway, the meal included pork tenderloins -- not overcooked until they were dry as a bone, but still juicy, served with a lightly-herbed mustard sauce.

I no longer work at the hospital, but I dreamed of this day. You can eat at the cafeteria now -- the food is good.

Local Produce. I met Roberge at the Farm-to-Table conference on Monday -- a meeting of local growers and those who would buy from them -- like the Food Co-op, some of the area restaurants, and people who organize farmers markets.

Roberge was there because he wants to buy the best of the local produce -- and he will find it, from potatoes to leeks to endive to mushrooms.

I challenged him. Isn't it more expensive to buy fresh produce, plus the extra labor in preparing it for the table? He said, "I don't care what it costs."

Roberge was not being glib, but quite practical. In fact, he has raised prices at the hospital cafeteria, but, because the food is so much better, more people are eating there. In other words, the fresh local produce is paying for itself. Isn't that good news? People will pay for quality.

It ties into the great health care debate. Americans spend 10 percent of their money on food, and 17 percent of their money on health care. The proportions are exactly backward. If we spent more money on good food, we would get sick less often and our health care costs would decline.

Friendship: an excerpt from the Frog Hospital book, to be published this summer

Much has been said about the American family -- the family is the strength of our nation, the values of a family are so very important, and we need to keep and cherish those values.

Not to defend or define those values here, but to mention something equally important -- friendship.

Friendship is not unique to America, but we might compare our society to the undeveloped world where the extended family is the norm, in Latin America or Africa where a man counts his relatives in the dozens -- large families that depend on and care for each other. In countries where the government is often rapacious and confiscatory, where social services are nonexistent, the extended family is the sole tool for survival. Care of the elderly falls on the children and grandchildren -- there is no choice in that, and less virtue because there is no choice.

The extended family, this large and warm unit, is also the main source of corruption in poorer countries. If you have a government post, and your cousin needs a job, you will take care of him. If your business prospers, all your relatives will line up with their hands out. It is your duty to care for them above others.

It’s not merit, but relation, that allocates the rewards of society in those countries.

America is different. We send our cousins Christmas cards, but we don’t expect to feed them. Even a brother, applying for a position, would be subject to close scrutiny. “Sure, if he’s qualified,” we would say, but not for a favor.

Blood is thicker than water, and many of us would make a great sacrifice for our close kin, but the sense of fairness, and of equality for all, is so strong here, that the corruption of family ties is at a minimum.

What we have instead is friendship -- smaller, nuclear families and a web of friendship that unites and levels the country. Friendship is freedom. You choose your friends. Friendship is responsibility, because the friends you choose are a reflection on your character. Friendship is voluntary, even a long-standing friendship must be earned from time to time in small or large ways.

We might do a favor for a friend, or even surrender our lives, we might support them in illness, or go their bail, but it is always because we choose to. That’s freedom in America.
The family is good and essential, but it has never been enough.

Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

send mail to:

Fred Owens
Box 1292
LaConner WA 98257

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