If you're at all familiar with East Atlanta Village's trusty bodega, Urban Cannibals, you probably know they're not just your average neighborhood market. The fierce ladies behind the shop, musician Doria Roberts and Chef Calavino Donati, are tireless advocates of local, organic, sustainable food, and consider their purpose as a neighborhood bodega a step or two higher than simply supplying the 'hood with milk and sugar.
Last year, when Doria released her latest album, she decided to throw the traditional (and wasteful) touring model out the window, instead performing intimate house shows paired with a supper prepared by Calavino. That planted the seed for Farm to Ear, an initiative that combines local music, local food, and healthy doses of advocacy. The suppers will revolve around conversations on food justice and sustainability, with local bites served and local tunes for your listening pleasure. The first Farm To Ear supper of the summer is this weekend, so we asked Doria to give us the lowdown on what to expect from the project. True to the Urban Cannibals we know, the answers are ambitious, innovative, and straight-up awesome. No surprise there, though.
SCOUT: Tell me the backstory on Farm to Ear — what inspired you to launch this project, and what made you decide to combine your powers as a musician and as an advocate for food justice?
DORIA: Well, after 15 years I’d pretty much put down the full time touring musician mantle in 2008 to support my wife (Chef Calavino Donati) in her food ventures. The economy was making it hard for both of our industries but I had the option of staying home yet still do what I do. When we opened Urban Cannibals together in 2009, I was thrown in the deep end of learning about the food industry. I thought the music industry was wasteful with all the stuff that gets thrown out like plastic jewel cases and the carbon footprint of touring, but the food industry is just as bad—and maybe even worse because the waste affects people’s access to food. Since I’ve always done some sort of advocacy with my music, it wasn’t a big leap to decide to combine the two.
So, I was planning to release a CD that was all about promoting sustainability in the music industry because my last CD was being produced when Hurricane Katrina hit and, when the cost to press the CD tripled within three months of that, I learned that jewel cases are made from crude oil and the price was a direct result of that disaster. The new case I decided on is made from recycled guitar wood and there’s also an untreated poster that also doubles as the lyric sheet, there’s recycled jewelry and a bunch of local food treats. But, the store was also starting to take off so leaving it to support the CD wasn’t really an option.
We were talking one night and contemplating just shutting it down for a few weeks so I could get out there again and I thought “Why not just take the store with us?” We were just on the Food Network and got national exposure so it made some sense to capitalize on it branding wise. I decided to do just house concerts (which are so much easier to book than traditional venues) and then have a local dinner at each show so Calavino had a role in it. We thought it’d be a great way to spread the word about what we’re doing while also learning about what other folks are doing in their communities and how they’re solving food access challenges. When faced with the issue of cost and travel, we came up with the idea of doing the majority of it by train since it’s the greenest form of public transportation there is and relatively inexpensive when considering car rentals and gas prices. This would also make it easier to keep a traveling video blog about our experiences as they’re happening since we wouldn’t be tied to the wheel.
SCOUT: Urban Cannibals has been one of the most vocal proponents of food justice in town (to me, anyway). At what point did you begin to make this your mission?
DORIA: Right from the start. It was always our intention and was in our mission statement before we opened. The name Urban Cannibals is part of that and refers to how we “feed off each other” in urban communities the way our pioneering rural ancestors did through bartering services and resources and through community groups like urban gardens, neighborhood clean ups, etc. Even our tag line “We Serve People” is part of our Ethos. It’s an obvious play on words but we believe in the value of social entrepreneurship and being good stewards. The bottom line is, of course, important but not when it creates disparity or is at the expense of our well being or the well being of our community. This economic downturn has been horrible, but on the upside (if there is one), it has essentially forced people to get to know their neighbors. People aren’t vacationing as much so they’re more aware of their surroundings and compassion is growing because the gaps are closing so to speak. We’re not only spending more time in our communities, we’re spending more money on local businesses by default, which is the best way to jumpstart the economy on a microcosmic level.
Urban Cannibals is part of what is called the Healthy Corner Store Movement and is being built to be that place where everyone can come. Calavino’s following from her years at Roman Lily and my following from doing music are incredibly diverse. We know how to curate spaces that are for everyone without succumbing to marketing plans that shut out a portion of the population for more efficient results. We do that at UC by not only selling organic products since buying organic is just not possible for some people. We couple those products with local and conventional products. We’re trying out a business model that we hope will make “sustainable attainable” by having a variety of products that sort of subsidize each other. That way, everyone recognizes themselves when they come in and don’t feel alienated or intimidated by an agenda that doesn’t include them culturally or financially and may be more open to trying something new.
SCOUT: What are some things you'd like to see happen in the next year, or 5 years, in Atlanta's own local food movement?
DORIA: I’m already seeing it. It’s already happening and it’s awesome! Our farmers markets are some of best in the country and are getting better every year. People are more active and curious when it comes to their food and are learning how it works. They’re starting to understand that “local” is more important that organic mainly because not all small farms can afford to be certified organic even if they’re doing everything that way. Also, we’re seeing chefs come out of their ivory towers and are interacting with their customers in chef demos with hot plates, a couple of mixing bowls and three ingredients. Food and hoe to consume it is no longer a mystery and, more importantly, good food is no longer reserved for just some of the population.
One thing I’d like to see improve is more activity surrounding the issues of access to fresh food in underserved neighborhoods that are situated in “food deserts” or “food swamps”, meaning they’re overrun with unhealthy fast food. I’d like to see that and more year round support for organizations like the Atlanta Community Food Bank as opposed to just during the holiday season.
SCOUT: Your first Farm to Ear supper/concert of the summer is this weekend. Can you give me some of the details?
DORIA: We’re doing a test run of the model we’ve created with a mix of invited guests and our fans. We want the events to be spontaneous and they’ll have to fit whatever community we’re in so they’ll all look different, but we want to have a basic template to work from. The show this Sunday is just a small gathering comprised of a simple, local dinner, a show and, I guess, a type of “salon”. What the topic will be is anyone’s guess but we’re hoping some sort of dialogue or theme will emerge throughout the night and have people thinking long after the night is over. My live shows often happen this way. I usually take a quick survey of the crowd then I do my set list based on their energy and my energy so everyone feels satisfied as opposed to having an agenda when I walk on stage. So, the “details” will more or less happen “organically”—pun totally intended! But, in general, we’ll have dinner first with a local farmer “eat + greet”, possibly an artisanal demo (like how to make butter from scratch), then the show after that. Folks can e-mail email@example.com to make a reservation. It’s $10 for the dinner at 6:30 and $15 for the show at 7:30, $25 for both. It’s all ages and they’ll get the location one their reservation is confirmed.
SCOUT: Will there be more in Atlanta this year? What about other cities? What are some of your plans for Farm to Ear in the near and the not-so-near future?
DORIA: In the near future, we’re planning a slightly larger one that’s more of a block party model that’ll be co-hosted by Chef Shaun Doty (Shaun’s, Yeah! Burger) in July and then an even larger one that’ll serve as our official kick off party in September. For the first leg, we head directly to the northeast (New Jersey, DC, Philadelphia, Brookyln, Boston) and then we’ll do a leg in western New York towards the Midwest (Michigan, Chicago, Wisconsin) and then one-offs in Tennessee, North Carolina and New Orleans.
Eventually, we want to this turn into something that’s less exclusive and it only is right now because of venue size constraints. For that, we’ll have to move it outdoors in the form of block parties and daylong events at farms that can handle the impact and create a “give back” system where the shows will benefit the local food bank in a given city. Like, maybe entry is ten cans of foods instead of $10. In the end, we just want to keep connecting people with their food and with other communities in a way that’s accessible, familiar, informative and fun.