With a heavy dose of roller-coaster riding thrown in. I should start out now by saying that there was a happy ending to the day, because you will start to wonder midway through...
Disclaimer & Confession: Throughout my life, my mother has been a real stickler for buying local. She makes a great effort to eat only at locally owned restaurants and I have to sneak to Chili's. So I feel as if the message is not particularly new, and sometimes (confession time) I feel as if the message is a little overzealous. Buy local buy local buy local. Yeah yeah yeah. I heard you. I KNOW that it means more money stays in our region, not just in terms of income, but also taxes, donations, etc. Don't you ever just want to go shopping without thinking about it? Additionally, I feel like the world that we live in today is so inescapably global and complex. Sure, you can buy something from a local shop, but where did that item come from? You can even buy something from me at Anthology - let's just say, for example, a headband. I made it, most of your money goes to me personally as a commission check or to Anthology (and most of that money goes to rent - p.s. that's the Goodman Foundation, also local and full of good deeds). I even used that money to buy fabric at a local fabric store, Stitcher's Crossing. But where did that fabric come from? Where was it made? NOT in Madison, I can tell you that much. So, I think that if you examine the chain long enough, quite often, it will lead you back to some distant location.
So, there's my ambivalence, right at the start for you. Now, onto my day yesterday. I awoke early because my parents were out of town and Mom wanted me to get potatoes, tomatoes and green beans at the Westside Farmer's Market so that she could make salad nicoise. While at the market, I saw the Metcalfe's Sentry deli guy with a WAGON, loading up on produce. Now, I have to tell you, that is an excellent advertising campaign. Right away it endeared Sentry to me. I also do love to see restaurant chefs loading up at the Farmer's Market.
After the market, I stopped at my parents' to drop off all the produce and eat my croissant, then on to pick up my sister and head in to work. We had a busy morning to start, I was feeling good from all the projects I'd finished up the night before, with the added glow of chocolate croissant and seeing the Sentry deli guy.
Things quieted down a bit in the afternoon and I checked my email and made the mistake of following a link that appeared on the Yahoo front page. The headline was the U.S. middle class is being wiped out and here are the stats to prove it. I feel like the girl in the horror movie whom the audience is shouting at: Don't go in there!!!! And now we go plunging down, down, down. This is utterly disheartening and I'm afraid that it taps into some of my own experiences as a small business owner (which is the discouraging feeling that the System talks about how wonderful small businesses are but pretty much does nothing but throw up hurdles to make your job harder). Combined with my feelings on the present political climate and the state of the economy, the depressing statistics of this article indicate that the rich - the lobbyists, corporate America, the politicians, are really just out to keep the riches for themselves. I don't know what the Senators and the Representatives think they are doing but if I got paid that much to get so little accomplished in a day as they do, I would be feeling guilty and bad. The free market is NOT going to make the world a better place. It's had a chance and it is just making itself richer. Oh, do I sound like a Socialist?! Well, I won't make this post any longer but let's just say that I was feeling discouraged and disillusioned and if I hadn't had to put on a happy face for the customers, I would have been throwing myself across my bed in tears.
But there is the customer to think of, not to mention my sanity. It was a little bit of a Gone with the Wind moment. After wallowing in feelings of, "What can one person do in the face of all this?" what to start with? Well, for one thing, one person can spend as little money as possible in ways that benefit someone who is earning 300 to 500 times more money than their employees. I don't care how many lives you hold in your hands, how many important decisions you make, even if you are working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, that means you are earning almost $2000 per hour. That is NOT right. All of a sudden the message that I was being given earlier (the pleasures of shopping at the Farmer's Market) come around to be something to consider for the rest of the day. Like, how about spending money with people who either do the work themselves or who are much closer to the work not just supervising the supervisors who supervise the supervisors of the supervisors of the work?
And, wait a minute, what can one person do? In addition to all that shopping? Hey, about owning a business that spends its money on people who make the stuff that they sell, not supervise the supervisors of the supervisors. Gosh, I love computers. A few clicks of the mouse and I could call up our total sales history (anytime I need a pick-me-up, that's one of the first things that I do - phew! we've sold a lot!). Now, no one is perfect and we do have things we love and had to have which do come from bigger companies; there are how-to books and art supplies that are manufactured overseas, but I am pleased to tell you that about 50% of our sales are of items made here in Wisconsin. Another 25% of our sales are from individual artists or small presses or less-than-five-person operations within the U.S. Most of the frames in our button picture frames are made in Cincinnati, Ohio, and let me tell you, it is really hard to find picture frames that are not made in China.
That article is full of depressing statistics but it is also a bit of a call to arms (literally, since I had visions of storming the castle with a pitchfork). I'm not sure that I have much hope for changes in the way that the wealthy of the world behave, but I think there are ways that I can live that satisfy my desire to share the wealth that I have and to live in a just manner (goodness but I have a long ways to go). For the moment, it circles back around to the matter of buying locally, and making more of an effort to put my money where my mouth is.
And you might think we are at the end of the day there, but I have the cherry on top. I promised you a happy ending, didn't I? I received a dinner invitation to L'Etoile - second night of their opening at their new location. Oh la la! Super deluxe and quite a treat in so many ways. Many of us traditionalists had reservations about the new space - more open and glassy and contemporary than the cozy charm of their old space. But it gives them more room that they are clearly ready to grow into. They made some major improvements to the energy efficiency of that old glass bank so they get points for that. And a window seat is a pretty fine view. We watched the sky change from day to night, pink tinged clouds reflected in the building and the night-lit Capitol appearing as a bright reflection.
The menu is a simple single page - one side has the tasty offerings in three courses, the other side is two columns of sources of their food, most of it local. Talk about being rewarded for shopping locally! Our table went with the taster's menu, or chef's menu.. I forgot what it was called... essentially a prix fixe. Each person gets their choice of one item from the first course, mid course and third course, plus a choice of dessert. The portions are slightly smaller this way (the server herself said it was so they didn't have to roll us out at the end of the meal). Perfection. Simply perfection. At the end of the night, I left with the feeling that I had been utterly pampered and had dined well but wasn't full to the point of illness (and since when did we start equating that with satisfaction?). I feel like inviting Jamie Oliver to go there so he knows there is some hope for the U.S. diet.
I didn't bring my camera and I'm sorry for that, but perhaps you'd feel I was just bragging. The presentation of every single plate was absolutely exquisite. I know, I'm raving, but I'm not exaggerating. Here is their menu in full. I had Frisée with house-made bacon lardons, raspberries, warmed Fantome Farm chèvre; Voss Organics heirloom tomatoes, warmed mozzarella, basil, squash blossom; Cornmeal-crusted wild Alaskan halibut, bacon-creamed uni corn, braised collard greens, mashed potatoes. A delicious Bellini, plus sips of a tawny port and some other sweet dessertish wine. For dessert, oh dear, they haven't updated their dessert menu online. It was a lovely moist dark chocolate cake with something like a coffee/beer ice cream with sea salt caramel and dark chocolate sauce. And there was an amuse bouche beforehand, and a little sweet something else afterwards. One dining companion said that if she could have vegetables this way all the time, she would become a vegetarian; another dining companion said that beef like this (Fountain Prairie Farm dry-aged ribeye, haricots verts, mushrooms, mashed potatoes, confit onions,
cabernet jus, bone marrow-blue cheese compound butter) was why he never could become a vegetarian and the third dining companion indicated that said beef was the most delicious he had ever had (he's not young and has probably eaten at sophisticated restaurants on almost every continent so that's saying something).
As I drove home, I was feeling kind of teary, but in a good way. It had been an exhausting day but my really positive experiences were built around the community that is here in Madison and the satisfaction of farm-fresh tomatoes, good company, delicious food. I even started picturing a world for myself where a visit to L'Etoile is a regular thing. I'm not talking every month or anything, but saving up skipped corporate-profiting expenditures to earn the reward of a night at L'Etoile seems like a fine way to proceed.