Why local? An experience with a MH&T “food run” and a visit to Poplar Hut

My name is Lena Martin, and I am a Colby environmental policy major and art minor. This January, I am interning with Maine Huts & Trails (MH&T), working to answer the questions, “Why does MH&T make it a priority to source and serve as much local food as possible?” and “How can MH&T educate their community about the impact and importance of their commitment to local food?” This week, I went on a “food run” with Hut Manager John “Young Gun” Winter to restock Stratton Brook Hut and Poplar Hut, and spent an overnight at Poplar Hut with hut staff members Rose Morgan and Connor Phillips, and two kind guests.

Loading Allagash, Baxter Brewing, and Maine Root products for delivery to Stratton Brook and Poplar Huts.

The “food run” began by loading orders and purchases from Allagash, Baxter Brewing, Maine Root, Island Farm, Crooked Face Creamery, Carrabassett Coffee, Jordan’s Lumber, and Tranten’s family market into the MH&T van. I noticed that although John is on a tight schedule during food runs, tasked with loading products from several locations in Kingfield and delivering them to the backcountry within an afternoon, he doesn’t rush when he’s interacting with food producers. The food producers are community members, and he knows them, so there’s news to catch up on. There’s also advice to be given and received: at Carrabassett Coffee, a mid-pick-up discussion ensued about the ideal water to Carrabassett Coffee grounds ratio. Back in the van, I learned that farmers also give John guidance about when and how their vegetables should be used. The information sharing reminded me of the term, “co-producer”, coined by Slow Food, which is a global organization founded to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and combat people’s dwindling interest in where their food comes from. The term “co-producer” refers to a consumer who takes interest in those who produce food, how they produce it, and the problems that they face in doing so. Co-producers not only purchase food, but seek information and advice to gain an understanding of what a healthier, tastier, and more responsible diet means in their region. I am glad to observe MH&T’s role as a co-producer, and hope that like other aware and informed co-producers, MH&T motivates farmers and food suppliers to safeguard their workers, their environment, and the quality of their products.

After all the supplies were loaded in the van, John and I intended to make our first delivery to Stratton Brook Hut using a snowmobile and a sled. We were in for an adventure: after uncovering the snowmobile and loading the sled, we discovered that the snowmobile’s suspension was blown out. We had a cold wait in the van, but were rescued by Operations Director Mike Spurrier, who came over the river and through the woods with a different snowmobile, taking over the Stratton Brook delivery. John and I moved onto Poplar Hut, and this time, we were successful in delivering supplies.

A load of supplies ready for delivery to Stratton Brook Hut.

At Poplar Hut, I was served a delicious dinner made by Rose, including Morrocan Shepard’s Pie, broccoli with spicy balsamic vinaigrette, and warm multigrain bread. Rose was able to tell the other guests and me which parts of the dishes were grown locally. Everyone exclaimed at how good the food was, and as we ate, I enjoyed discovering that the other guests and I knew people in common, as they and I are all southern Mainers.

In the morning, I got up as Connor was beginning to make breakfast to interview him about food. Connor gives a talk at Poplar Hut called “Food of the Future”, and I learned that he has always cared about local food because of his family connection to Michael David Winery in Lodi, California. Michael David Winery developed the Lodi Rules certification, which is a set of over 100 rules geared toward environmental, social, and economic sustainability, vetted by scientists, academics and environmental groups alike to become the most thorough set of sustainable standards in California. The MH&T commitment to local food is one reason that Connor is working as part of the hut staff. Another reason that Connor is working for MH&T is that he loves to cook, and I am pleased to report that his breakfast was just as good as Rose’s dinner.

Poplar Hut Master Rose, enjoying breakfast made by Connor, and engaging guests.

Obviously, food is a central part of our lives – we eat (ideally) three times each day, and have routines, likes and dislikes, and traditions surrounding eating – but sometimes, meals become rushed events amidst other tasks. This week allowed me to consider how much work goes into a single meal at a hut between food sourcing, food orders, food pick-ups, sled runs, carefully chosen recipes, and skillful and time-consuming cooking. It makes sense for guests to be informed about what they are eating, and for them to take the time to sit down together and enjoy the warmth and the tastes of what they are served. The dinner and breakfast I ate at Poplar Hut were the centerpieces of my stay. I skied out with plenty of food for thought, and I think the other guests did too.

The clear morning view from the Airport Trailhead.