By Daniel WeintraubJoanne Neft has been eating local since before it was hip. As founder of the Placer County farmers market, it was just what she did.
Nearly every Saturday in Auburn, rain or shine, hot or cold, for 20 years Neft has been there, filling bags with fruits and vegetables and plenty of meat to grace her table for the week to come.
Now the rest of the world is catching up with Neft, and she welcomes the company.
Her new cookbook, “Placer County Real Food: Recipes and Menus for Every Week of the Year” (Auburn Printers, $28), is a how-to guide for eating fresh food in all four seasons. It includes 52 menus and recipes for meals from the farmers market year round. (Go to her website, placercountyrealfood.com, to purchase it or for a list of area stores that carry it.)
Neft’s book was inspired by her disappointment every fall, when the bustling crowds of summer deserted the market in the jurors’ parking lot of the Placer County courthouse. While 1,500 to 2,000 people would jam the market in summer, the farmers saw half that many people, or even fewer, on winter weekends.
“I remember thinking, the farmers, I wonder how they eat during these months,” Neft said in an interview. “There is nobody to buy their produce. They said, ‘A lot of people aren’t interested in turnips and parsnips and rutabagas and celery root. They don’t know how to fix it. Others don’t know what to do with broccoli and cauliflower and cabbages.’ ”
Neft began the project after lunching with a friend around Christmas in 2008. Neft served squash soup, greens, chicken, some mandarins and persimmons, and an apple pie for dessert – everything from the local farmers market.
Her friend expressed admiration for the menu and the source of the food.
“She said, ‘I don’t know how to go to the market and eat local every day.’ ”
So Neft decided to show her, and the rest of us, how it is done. Along with professional chef Laura Kenny, Neft hosted a dinner for four friends on the first Monday in January. On the menu: lamb shanks, carrots, German butterball mashed potatoes and apple pie.
Neft and Kenney did the same drill every Monday night for a year. The book is a collection of those menus, recipes and stories, organized by week in a way that makes it easy to follow or adapt. It is much more than a cookbook. The stories within it bring the region’s farms and food to life.
“One of the things that book does is really put a face to the people who produce the food that feeds the rest of us,” said Christine Turner, Placer County’s agriculture commissioner. Turner said she has seen a resurgence of interest in local foods.
“People are starting to ask a lot more questions about ‘Where is my food coming from? How is it being produced? What’s going into the production of that food? How far has it traveled?’ ” Turner said.
Karen Killebrew, president of PlacerGROWN, which promotes local food in the county, said the book has created a buzz that she hopes will translate into a better educated population.
“We had a huge wave of people moving into Placer County from other areas in the past 10 years, and a lot of those people didn’t understand what it meant to live in an agricultural zone,” Killebrew said.
As those people become more knowledgeable about locally grown foods, she said, they might also become advocates for policy that preserves local farming.
While the foods Neft features in the book are from the Placer County market, most of them are available throughout California and beyond at the same time of year. Neft hopes her book will become a model and push the local food movement to new heights.
“Right out our own back doors is healthy, fresh, in-season produce, every day of the year,” Neft said. “We should be eating that produce.”
This article also appeared in the June 2 2010 issue of the Sacramento Bee.