Oh say can can you see beyond the jammed big box checkout aisles as Americans rev up for the Fourth of picnic parade this weekend? Let us all remember that the most patriotic food on the party menu won’t be processed, shipped 1,700 miles or stuffed in multiple 100-calorie packs. But that doesn’t mean deprivation. On my menu this weekend you’ll find what I consider the three most patriotic foods: Local beer, fresh greens and a brat from beef cattle raised on grass in a pasture.
Guess I’ve always been an unconventional American patriot. No red, white and blue holiday t-shirts for yours truly. I haven’t seen a parade in years. But I do put a lot of thought into the picnic menu. The Fourth of July reminds me to remember and rekindle Thomas Jefferson’s vision of our democracy as citizens’ everyday participation in the political system – in my case, through conscious food choices.
Make a democratic statement with your food choices this weekend. Here are the criteria that resulted in my patriotic choices:
* Protect the Homeland through Homegrown Fare
Everything needs to be as local as possible, showcasing in my case the flavors of Wisconsin. The Leopold Center now estimates average American food travels over 1,700 miles, the majority shipped by airplane, producing ten to thirty times the carbon per mile. Ain’t nothing American in decorating the picnic table with fossil fuel dependencies.
Why the brat? If you’re going to eat meat, choose wisely and eat in moderation. Grass-fed, pasture raised livestock do not eat grain and, low and behold, require significantly less oil over their lifetime than needed for feedlot animals.
I’m a flexitarian when it comes to eating. Ninety-five percent of my diet is vegetarian, eager to eat lower on the food chain and mostly from my own gardens. On the Fourth of July, though, I splurge on brats, which I just picked up from Carrie and Eric at Jordandal Farm, a few miles north from our farm.
* Deliver Nutritional Fireworks
Make sure the food delivers a nutritional punch, bringing high doses of quality nutrients to the (non-Styrofoam) picnic plate. In July you can’t beat a homegrown mixed green salad for fresh nutrition, focusing on dark green and red leaf lettuce leaves with a hefty dose of spinach greens mixed in.
* Build Community
In his book, Fermenting Revolution: How to Drink Beer and Save the World from New Society Publishers, Chris O’Brien shares how local breweries increasingly embrace ecologically sustainable production and use of local ingredients, prompting a renaissance of thoughtful discussion and debate over a shared pint. Benjamin Franklin would be proud.
My community of Monroe, Wisconsin, is home to the Midwest’s oldest brewery, Minhas Craft Brewery. On a good day you can smell the spent grains wafting over Monroe’s downtown square.
* “Give Me Flavor, or Give me Death”
If it doesn’t taste great, the above three criteria wash away. Brats need a dose of preparation to truly bring out their taste potential. Especially if you, like me, eat meat in extreme moderation – make sure you do it right.
In Wisconsin, you’ll find various schools of cooking thought on how to cook up brats. Fortunately, my neighbor farmer, Anna Zettle, tutored me in the art of brat preparation when I established Wisconsin roots a dozen years ago:
Authentic Wisconsin Brats Recipe
1. Slowly simmer defrosted, uncooked brats for several hours in beer with some chunks of onions, garlic and a dash of lemon juice. This time of year, consider adding chopped garlic scapes. An energy-efficient crock-pot works well for the simmering.
2. When cooked through, throw brat on a hot grill till nicely brown.
3. Here’s the secret step: After grilling, throw brats back into the hot beer mixture for a couple minutes before serving. This vital last step adds a dose of juicy flavor.