A Pinch of Knowing
BY DANIEL GIRALDO
When you’re inside a Captain D’s, you don’t typically think of highbrow ingredients and high-class cuisine. Your eyes are fixed on images of golden, deep-fried menu offerings. Your nose is taking in the delightful aroma seeping out from behind the counter—it reminds you of when Grandma would fry catfish in the kitchen. Your stomach growls at you angrily, suggesting you’re taking too long, and that another customer might jump ahead of you in line.
Chances are you’re in a hurry. This is fast food, after all. So it’s understandable that your senses have hijacked your mind and that you’re not thinking about where your meal is coming from or the amount of time and energy that went into getting each component of your fish sandwich together and in front of you. Food, in this context, is just fuel: cheap, affordable, and consumed hurriedly in large quantities.
Matthew Callahan wasn’t thinking about the elevated dimensions of food either when he worked at a Captain D’s in Cleveland, TN—the one off of APD 40. As a senior at Bradley Central High School, his only concerns were soccer, college, and Meghan, his high school sweetheart who would later become his wife. For a much younger Callahan, there wasn’t anything else; becoming a chef was the last thing on his mind—food choices and consumption rituals, even less so.
Today, seventeen years later, Callahan is both owner and chef of The Five Point Square, a farm-to-table restaurant in Cleveland. He thinks about food every day—especially its refined quality stemming from slow, caring cultivation and from friendly proximity. In an interview with Catalpa Magazine, he recounts his culinary journey of transformation—one that took place in and out of the kitchen—and he explains why he’s such an avid proponent of the farm-to-table movement.
“Farm-to-table is about embracing what’s available,” Callahan says. “It’s about place and working with the seasons.” Also known as farm-to-fork, farm-to-table is a restaurant concept turned social movement that promotes local food and area farms. It boasts transparency in agricultural practice as well as traceability of food origins. It’s about supporting farmers that you can actually talk to rather than industry conglomerates. You can thank the farm-to-table movement for promoting farmers’ markets and community farm shares.
One of the earliest restaurants to practice a farm-to-table philosophy was Chez Panisse (pronounced shay pah-nees), based in Berkeley, California. The restaurant was launched by food activist Alice Waters in 1971. Since then, several other similar establishments have opened across the Golden State, though the roots of the movement can be traced back, arguably, to the Green Revolution—a movement against chemical fertilizers, and pesticides. Since then, chefs and farmers alike have been focusing on ethically sourced ingredients and taking steps in the direction of informed consumption.
KNOW YOUR FARMER, KNOW YOUR FOOD
A year before opening his restaurant, Callahan met Bertus, a South African farmer that had just made the move from Atlanta to Decatur, TN, with his wife. The couple was living in an unfinished cabin on several acres of untamed land. They’d only just begun making their rounds to local farmer’s markets with their first harvest of the season. That afternoon, on the corner of 1st and Parker, in an empty field now known as First Street Square in Cleveland, Bertus and Callahan planted the seed for a partnership that would continue to be fruitful for years to come.
“I wasn’t leaning towards that particular idea,” Callahan states, referring to his restaurant. “The concept actually found me.”
Noting his relationship with Bertus, he emphasizes that it was his food hero, the Chattanooga-based Chef Daniel Lindley, owner of Alleia and former owner of St. John’s, who initially introduced him to the concept. As the chef de cuisine at Alleia, a Chattanooga-based Italian restaurant, Callahan quickly realized that the entire eating experience could be made more appealing when restaurant patrons understood exactly where their food came from.
“Did you know that 40 percent of young adults don’t know that milk comes from cows?” Callahan asks rhetorically. He’s smiling, but shaking his head. He’s referring to a 2012 study conducted in the UK. The study didn’t include Americans, but Callahan brings it up to relate to our own nation’s decline in knowledge concerning food. He blames the American food industrial complex—that is, supermarkets and fast-food chains. He calls them “one-stop shops”, likening them to gasoline stations.
This lack of traceability in food origins is a relatively new concept—and an alarming one at that. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, roughly 60 percent of the nation was agrarian at the close of the nineteenth century. And for several decades afterward, subsistence farming was still a way of life. Opting to live away from the family farm has changed things dramatically. Innovations in transportation and refrigeration technologies inspired new ways to gain better mileage out of our tastebuds, adopting foodways from across the country and from overseas. Increased affordability of automobiles in the 1920s also helped fast food become synonymous with the open road. The subsequent introduction of interstates in the 1950s only bolstered these trends.
THE PRICE OF CONVENIENCE
Coincidentally, Callahan’s restaurant is situated inside of a renovated auto repair shop. He points to the garage door. “Fast food is what our nation eats on the go,” he says, “and it doesn’t seem like we’re slowing down anytime soon”—at least not with the current food system in place. Perhaps the initial thrust exerted by an accelerating America can be counterbalanced by the slowness derived from small, local farms.
“I still eat Taco Bell occasionally,” Callahan responds, when asked about his own fast-food habits. “I used to love Burger King when I was younger—it’s what my family would eat when we’d visit relatives in North Carolina.”
For Callahan and his family, fast-food was a treat rather than an everyday food choice. He takes this moment to address the cost of fast food, acknowledging price as its major appeal. However, he’s not only referring to its monetary value.
“We’re paying for convenience with our lives and with the livelihood of small farmers,” Callahan says.
And it’s our demand for cheap food that is the most taxing on Americans, creating health problems like obesity in children and adults alike. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria in our food is on the rise with evidence pointing to vaccination practices common in factory farms. These “superbugs” are even pushing back against insecticides, continuing to feed on endless rows of monoculture crops that supply the majority of fast-food chains. There’s a fundamental difference between choosing food that’s within reach of our own backyard and sourcing products from across the country or from overseas. Choosing the latter denies our nation’s soil of a rich biodiversity on a socioeconomic level. It sends a clear message: We’re not supporting our communities.
Callahan brings up food-dollars and the concept that what we purchase for subsequent consumption is akin to casting a vote for what gets shelved at our local supermarket. This power in purchasing extends beyond mere groceries, however.
“We concentrate vast wealth and power in the hands of the few whenever we choose to support supermarkets or fast-food chains instead of local agriculture,” Callahan explains.
For the latter—the farmers—food is much more than a commodity; it’s a way of life.
FOOD IS MORE THAN FUEL
We’ve been led to believe that our desires can be fulfilled by subscribing to overly industrialized and globalized markets. Both cater to our consumption habits. We’ve become accustomed to getting only what we want, whenever it is that we want it.
“We’ve forgotten how to take it easy,” Callahan says. “We’ve forgotten how to make do with what we’ve got.” This is one of the most pressing issues in food and agriculture today. Case in point: seasonal produce is now available year-round at supermarkets, which has come to be expected from restaurants—and that’s simply not sustainable.
Tomatoes, for example, are what Callahan uses to underscore this perspective. Lest we’ve forgotten, tomatoes used to be only available in the summer months, from July to late September. Yet, the Platonic ideal that is the Sandwich almost always comes served with lettuce, onion, and tomato, despite these ingredients being out of season. We’ve become increasingly complacent in our tastes. This is especially apparent in the South, where we know what we like and like what we know. The unfamiliar is often met with reproach, especially when it comes to trying new foods. True cuisine, however, is about inspired novelty blended into savory tradition; it’s about getting past what we’re used to in favor of new, sensory connections.
Callahan’s position as a chef affords him the ability to push these boundaries, to ferry individuals across imaginary borderlines of taste. It’s his responsibility not only to challenge people’s tastes but also to delight their palates. Though, as a business owner (and as a husband and father of two), it’s his prerogative to keep the customers coming—and that means appealing to the masses. When asked what people could do to affect change in their daily lives, to make a difference on a larger scale, he responds without hesitation.
“Just add knowledge,” he says. “When you know your farmer, you know your food.”
Daniel Giraldo is a poet and essayist residing in Tennessee. His poems have been published in Frontage Road and Sequoya Review, among others. He currently works as an editorial assistant for the international journal, Applied Environmental Education and Communication, and is a veteran of the United States Navy. Instagram: @danthecolombian