No More Rubber Chicken

Madison is a very civic-minded community. And a great deal of this community’s civic business is conducted, recognized and celebrated at events, typically over a meal. The calendars of greater Madison’s thousands of community leaders, philanthropists, volunteers and business people are crowded with events—breakfast, lunch and dinner—at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, Alliant Energy Center, Overture Center, the Concourse, the Edgewater or the Inn on the Park, to name a few.

It’s an ethos that should be lauded as one of our community’s great strengths. Unfortunately, at most of these events we’re relegated to eating bad food. It is a simple fact of culinary life in this city: We eat a lot of rubber chicken, and a community as civic minded as we are deserves better. It’s time to expand our notion of civics to the food we eat.

We recognize the need to separate the philosophy from the practicality, although one does follow the other. Philosophically, so much of our civic activity is in support of local people and businesses doing good work that benefits the community in healthy and sustainable ways. Why wouldn’t we apply that same philosophy to the food we serve as part of that activity?

We understand the dynamics of purchasing large amounts of food and responding to price point—that delicate balance between affordability and profit. We’re not asking these venues to go beyond their price points. We’re also not asking for all organic or exotic, hard-to-find or hard-to-work-with products. But we are saying that bad food, like rubber chicken, is no longer acceptable. And we are asking these catering businesses and event kitchen operations to take the next step toward local and high quality, even if it means smaller portions and less preparation.

This doesn’t have to be expensive. This is not a matter of show; it’s a matter of good food. There are plenty of us out there who would be satisfied with a lunch of good bread, local cheese and a healthy serving of well-dressed, local salad greens. There are times when it is certainly appropriate and necessary to serve more, but there are ways to be creative that include offering not just better choices but the option to choose from a variety of different foods.

We know this is possible. We’ve seen it done in other cities. In response to public demand, savvy municipalities like Seattle have found a way to match their food ethic to their civic ethic. The new Olympic Sculpture Park and the soon to re-open Seattle Art Museum are serving event attendees and the general public from a menu touting “passion for locally grown food, seasonal, sustainable ingredients, customized, artful and creative.” Twenty-seven local farms, ranches, bakeries, orchards and other growers and producers are listed as “our partners in sustainability.” Prices include biodegradable packaging. And, yes, it can be done here.

Jack Kaestner, executive chef at the Oconomowoc Lake Club, prepared breakfast, lunch and dinner for more than six hundred people attending the three-day, national Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education conference last year. Every item on every menu was locally grown or prepared. Months later, when Kaestner spoke to the members of Madison’s TEMPO organization, he worked with the chef of the Madison Club to offer a lunch that reflected the spirit of his speech on the importance of local foods.

Food should be an integral part of civic engagement. Sharing a meal is an act of community. It is welcoming and nurturing. But it should—and can—also reflect the values of the community. Local agriculture is surely one of those values. It’s time to put our money where our meal is.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to genuinearticles@madisonmagazine.com.

Madison Magazine - June 2007
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