As evidenced by the myriad winter solstice celebrations around town, winter has officially arrived.
On the off chance that any of us warm-weather lovers were still clinging to fantasies of fall, temperatures plunging into the single digits brought an undeniable wake-up call. Perhaps one of the reasons I’ve been reluctant to embrace winter in the past was the inevitable disappearance of one of my favorite things about Kentucky springs, summers and falls: the fabulous farmers markets.
However, thanks to an incredible program by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, I’m taking a giant leap forward in my relationship with winter. Thanks to the Kentucky Proud program, we can still revel in the consumer joys and personal health benefits of buying local produce by indulging in the abundance of these regional products.
Isn’t the name alone enough to send you running to the corner store to stock up? Even before I knew what it represented, I was hooked — it seems like most of us who call the Bluegrass home have a sense of pride in our state that I haven’t witnessed anywhere else in the country. It’s mysterious, although I think it’s probably a combination of the mixed reputation Kentucky has had in the past (who hasn’t heard a bad Kentucky joke told by an Indiana neighbor?) and all the wonderful things this beautiful corner of the bioregion has to offer.
Aside from a great marketing moniker, the program is an amazing tool for building and supporting a local food economy and providing the infrastructure for local growers to get their products into the hands (and mouths) of savvy consumers. As a statewide program that promotes buying and selling local foods and crafts, Kentucky Proud supports relationships between local producers and sellers and helps retailers with advertising and promotion. Producers apply for membership and can then put the program’s logo on their packaging so consumers know they’re supporting the local economy.
The program, only four years old, has already grown to include 1,500 local farmers and artisans. More than 50 local restaurants and grocery stores in Louisville alone offer Kentucky Proud produce and wares.
The program’s endearingly simple website, kyproud.com, offers county-specific searches for vendors that carry KP products, including canned produce like tomatoes, pickled delicacies, mouth-watering salsas and incredible jams, preserves and fruit butters, along with a variety of other local delicacies such as eggs, meat and dairy products. Also available are wonderful baskets, woodcrafts, candles, incense, toys, pet products and herbal remedies, all locally produced.
While you can enjoy KP offerings year-round, it’s especially nice during the winter months when the markets are closed and incorporating local produce into your diet seems more daunting. In some ways, this kind of local eating is even easier than going to a market, as KP goods are popping up in more and more places around town. Recently, the program partnered with the grocery chain Save-A-Lot, which announced it would sell goods in more than 100 stores across the state.
While I encourage you to go a step further and support your locally owned grocers, such as Amazing Grace, Rainbow Blossom and Valu-Market, all of which offer many Kentucky Proud items, you can even find the logo at Walmarts across the state.
It’s a win-win situation for producers and consumers, because as we all know by now, locally produced food creates a healthier community — physically, socially and economically.
A quick glance around one local venue revealed Kentucky Proud eggs, microwave popcorn, uniquely blended salsas, smoked meat, fire-roasted peppers, canned tomatoes, milk, sumptuous cakes and a dazzling array of preserves and jams.
Another benefit of the program is that it helps tobacco farmers who are navigating the ever-changing waters of the tobacco industry and trying to find other ways to make a living, in addition to supporting growers challenged by general economic fluctuations.
As a reflection of the innovative spirit that is perhaps central to the state pride so many of us feel, creativity is fueling the program’s success. One of my favorite examples of this Kentucky genius is how the program helped dairy farmers in Barren County create a new product to stay afloat in the unstable economy. Working with Winchester-based Ale-8-One soft drink company, they developed a locally produced product: Ale-8 salsa, a delicious concoction made from vegetables produced by northern Kentucky farmers.
Not only does the program benefit the producers who need to distribute their products and the consumers who want to live healthier and more sustainable lives, it’s also helping many independent grocery stores looking for a niche — it costs less to send products across the state than for transport nationwide or overseas. So not only does that make it more cost-effective for the producers and the grocers, it’s obviously better for the environment, as it means less fossil fuels burned to get your food onto the kitchen table. For a point of reference, the average farm product travels 1,500 miles to its seller. Buy Kentucky Proud and turn this embarrassing reality into a distant memory.
As with all the random and unexpected things and people with which I constantly fall in love, I’m also inexplicably enamored of the KP website, an oddity I can’t wrap my brain around, because I avoid computers and the Internet as much as possible. It humbly promotes the concept with an engagingly simple text that says it all: “When you buy Kentucky Proud, you’re giving your family the best. And you’re helping your community by keeping your food dollars at home. Buying Kentucky Proud is easy. Look for the label at your grocery store, farmers market or roadside stand. Our secret ingredient is the hard work and dedication of Kentucky’s farm families. Find out why ‘Nothing else is close.’”
Is it just me, or is it endearing?
As the new year is just around the corner (or perhaps already here, depending on when you’re reading this), the recipe I’m including features black-eyed peas, which are not only a Southern staple but a must for any gastronomic celebration of New Year’s Day — they are thought to ensure abundance and luck in the coming year. The asterisk denotes items you can find under the Kentucky Proud logo.
Kentucky Proud Hoppin’ Jane (the meatless version of the Hoppin’ John, which you can also make by adding some Kentucky Proud ham to the recipe)
2 tablespoons oil
2 cups onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced*
2 cans tomatoes or salsa*
1 can roasted peppers, chopped*
1 tablespoon honey*
1 teaspoon chipotle chili powder
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 cups cooked brown rice
3 cups cooked black-eyed peas
Salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
Hot sauce (there are some amazing local hot sauces out there, try several)
Corn bread (look for corn meal from KP — or save time and buy their mix — it’s delicious, and I’m not generally a fan of mixes)
Heat oil in a very large skillet. Add the onions and cook over low heat until translucent. Add the garlic and continue to cook until the onions are golden. Add the tomatoes, peppers, and herbs and cook about five minutes, then add honey. Add the rice and peas and season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir together well and simmer over low heat for 15 minutes. Add a bit of water or cooking liquid from peas if the mixture needs more moisture.
Serve with plenty of hot sauce, freshly baked cornbread and greens for prosperity!