Friday, May 26, 2006

Odessa Piper's Commencement Address

Consumerist pointed me at Odessa Piper's commencement address to the University of Wisconsin-Madison graduating class this Spring. I'm a UW-Madison alumnus, and so it was particularly a treat to read Ms Piper's success story. She dropped out of school, and after living on a farm commune in New Hampshire, moved to Madison where she worked for Ovens of Brittany (which I remember as being the source for unbelievably good morning buns!), doing, well, everything:

Between 1970 and 1976, in what would have been my college years, I cooked at a from-scratch restaurant on State Street called the Ovens of Brittany. Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" was my bible. This was a job that also linked me to a farm in Rolling Ground, Wis. That farm was attempting, long before its time, to supply organic meats and produce to the restaurant on State Street.

My curriculum included waiting on tables and line cooking; foraging wild plums, hickory nuts and morels in the woods; hand-milking four cows on the farm and give or take a couple of goats that came in and out of the picture. It was a very comprehensive course load.

At the age of 24, in 1976, she and a partner started L'Etoile, a Madison restaurant that was a pioneer in serving local and seasonal foods. After some early extensive financial difficulties, with the kindness of creditors, she managed to turn the restaurant into a commencement-worthy success story. It has continued to thrive, and in 2001 was rated as one of the top 50 restaurants in the country. Here are some of her additional thoughts on agriculture and slow food:

Hey, if all you can afford to eat is fast food, you can still eat it slowly. And don't discount the big solutions that can emerge out of small acts of faith in an idea. In my life, I have witnessed the decline and rebirth of entire farming communities in Wisconsin. By the '70s so many small farms were losing their hold in an ever-industrializing agriculture. Conventional farming practices were sending too much of Wisconsin's best topsoil down the troubled Kickapoo River. And yet the same region now has one of the highest concentrations of vibrant, vital small family farms organic farms, sustainable farms in the country and is rebuilding its communities through a new urban/rural partnership.

I predict that the good farmers, the citizens and the partners, and educators at the University of Wisconsin and all educators of this state of Wisconsin will lead the country in the coming decades by demonstrating regionally reliant alternatives for our food systems to the current oil-dependent food distribution system that we have. And I believe that this good state and this partnership in the Wisconsin Idea are going to do much, much more.



At 10:12 AM, Blogger mzn said...

Thanks for blogging about this. I'm also a UW alum and one of my few regrets about my Madison days is never having had dinner at L'Etoile.


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