COOKING IN THE CAVE: Local cornichons, goat cheese, and honey mustard changed my mind about the small-town culinary scene

I don’t like Minneapolis.

I visited in November of my sophomore year for the JEA/NSPA journalism convention.

There was little fresh produce available, and the little that there was commanded a high price.

Want a side salad with tomato? $18.

How about a side of guacamole with your chips? $14.

Most menus featured chilis and stews, filled with meat, beans and potatoes. And I suspect that a lot of the food I ate was canned.

I get it. Minneapolis is cold. It’s not near a coast. Fresh produce is expensive.

So naturally I was apprehensive on my recent trip to visit colleges in middle-of-nowhere towns in the Northeast. I mean, I will live in one of these cold, remote places for four years!

What could that possibly mean for my diet? Am I going to subsist on chili con queso and beef and barley stew? Canned food?

Absolutely not. I was pleasantly surprised—shocked really—by the small-town culinary scene the Northeast has to offer.

I’m not saying that Burlington, Vt., is full of fresh fruit in the winter. But it is full of local hand-crafted food products and root vegetables. And the restaurants are making a valiant effort to keep other produce on the menu at an affordable cost.

I started my trip in Vermont, which was still blanketed in snow in early April. Driving from Burlington to Middlebury College, I spotted small roadside food markets. Some specialized in producing goat cheese, others chutneys and jams. One shop was dedicated to maple syrup.

When I rolled into Middlebury, it sank in how small and remote the town was. I can probably count all of their restaurants on one hand.

I was a little disheartened.

Before the campus tour at Middlebury College, my mom and I went to the student union to grab a snack.

There I  discovered a sushi bar, and a sushi chef who makes fresh rolls daily.

And the fish was actually fresh! I’ve had worse sushi here in Sacramento, where we have much easier access to the daily catch.

Later, for an early dinner, my mom and I stopped at the local deli-bakery.

My mom had a sandwich with housemade pâté, local cornichons, and local mustard—and some arugula that was shipped in from elsewhere.

I had a sandwich with local goat cheese, local honey mustard and local onion—and some lettuce and tomato that was shipped in from elsewhere.

Both sandwiches were delicious. I’m a sucker for pâté and cornichons. And the light, fresh goat cheese in my sandwich was the best I’ve ever had.

As my mom and I drove throughout the small towns of the East Coast, we began to see a clear trend.

All the restaurants tried their very best to source as many ingredients as possible from local producers. The fresh produce that they didn’t have easy access to had to be shipped in, obviously.

But the stars of the small-town cuisine were locally sourced foods made by small businesses. Sure, the tomato on my sandwich wasn’t the freshest. But the great local products made up for that. And at least they made the effort to put the tomato and arugula there!

I did love the colleges that I saw, but now I know that I won’t have to live off of canned food. What a relief!

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