Follow the Food Chain

Is Madison a great food town? Interestingly enough you’d probably get a spirited debate on the answer depending on whom you asked and where you stood on the question.

But here’s what I’ll tell you—there’s no easy answer. If there were we’d have splashed it on our cover. It’s what we in the business call a “sell line,” a short, snappy invitation to pick up the magazine and read more. But describing our city’s culinary culture proved beyond all the collaborative wordsmithing this editorial staff could muster.

And the more I think about it the more I think that may be perhaps the best argument that indeed Madison is a great food town. Let’s dispense with the few negatives first. While our city has a lot of restaurants and many very good restaurants, it has only a few great restaurants. The same can be said for some specialty markets like bakeries, fish markets and delis. This is likely due to a combination of factors (familiar to those looking at sectors influencing the economic development of this region), including population size, income, availability of capital, weather and a lack of awareness of the many assets we do have—the kinds of things that bring creative chefs and entrepreneurial businesspeople to a city.

We simply do not have enough local food served or available at venues like Monona Terrace, Alliant Energy Center or the Kohl Center. Great food cities do better. And we could use some more facilities to allow for the production of local goods, although there is work being done to improve that area. But back to those assets I mentioned. First and foremost is access to fresh, seasonal food grown and raised on small, local farms by people who care about both the food and the land. We’ve got great farmers and more and more people who care about supporting them; a strong network of farmers’ markets, including, hands down, the nation’s best; our community gardens, growing in number and production, are among the best in the country; and ethnic restaurants abound.

We have a loosely knit (perhaps too loosely knit) group of advocacy and policy organizations, including the Research, Education, Action and Policy on Food Group (REAP), the Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition (MACSAC), Homegrown Wisconsin, Dane Buy Local, the Institutional Food Purchasing Coalition, the Dane County Food Council, Sustain Dane and Slow Food Madison. And the regional economic development organization Thrive has put considerable resources and commitment into regional food efforts.

Madison Originals is a well-organized and well-run support and marketing group for local restaurant owners. And then there is a whole stream-of-consciousness array of food assets, including the MATC Culinary Arts Program, Babcock Dairy, specialty stores like Orange Tree and Fromagination, a moderately strong Sister City program, the irreplaceable Willy Street Co-op and the important neighborhood grocers on Regent and Jenifer streets, and great leadership from UW–Madison College of Ag and Life Sciences and the state Department of Agriculture. And perhaps most important, people. We’ve got great food people, too many to mention although you’ll find a lot of them within these pages, represented this month by Tory Miller, our Chef of the Year.

So what you end up with is a food chain that links us from seed to supper. Some cities have some links, some have others. We have them all. Oh, that and the Madison Food and Wine Show, where we will celebrate this community’s bounty and where you can meet the people and sample the goods that support our claim to greatness. Order tickets at MadisonFoodAndWineShow.com. Come to the show, get inspired, and then go out and shop, cook and eat. We live in a great food town.

Neil Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine. Reach him at nheinen@madisonmagazine.com.

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