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Vermont’s Specialty Food Industry Booms, As Do Waistlines

May 1, 1995

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) _ When she’s not lobbying at the Statehouse, Shawn Banfield often can be found helping out at her family’s business, the Country Store on Montpelier’s Main Street.

The store plays up its Vermont products, lining the counter with Lake Champlain Chocolates, the refrigerators with Cabot and Grafton cheeses, the freezers with McKenzie sausage, and the beer cooler with Catamount, Otter Creek and Long Trail ales.

The products have at least a couple of things in common, Banfield says. They’re all delicious. And if you have a steady diet of them, ``it’ll kill you.″

Anyone who doubts Vermont’s booming food industry leans more toward fun than nutrition need only glance through Vermont Gourmet & Specialty Food Products, a catalog distributed by the state Department of Agriculture, Food and Markets.

Under ``Candy, Confections, Chocolate,″ you’ll find 28 listings ranging from truffles to peanut and walnut brittle to buttercrunch. Under ``Prepared Vegetables and Specialty Vegetables″ you’ll find only six items.

There also are as many entries for fudge _ six _ as there are for grains and seeds.

Still, those who profess concern for Vermonters’ health are philosophical.

Gov. Howard Dean, a physician, takes a forgiving attitude toward the indulgences urged by his Agriculture Department. In fact, it could be argued Dean is in denial.

``The fat and sugar in Vermont specialty foods don’t raise your cholesterol,″ Dean said with a laugh. ``It’s Vermont fat, so it’s OK.″

And while the sausages and cheeses and chocolates abound, Vermont does produce a wide range of whole-grain breads and no-fat salsas.

``Look at some of the products that are coming out,″ said Dr. Jan Carney, Vermont’s health commissioner. She noted that even Ben & Jerry, those Waterbury-based wideners of waistlines, have a line of low-fat yogurts.

Banfield’s father, lobbyist and Country Store co-owner William Shouldice III, noted that specialty foods by their very nature tend to be sweet or fatty or both.

``They’re treats,″ he said. ``People don’t ship to friends and family across the country, or give as gifts, weeds and seeds.″

Surely, Vermont’s most famous fabricator of fun, fatty foods is the aforementioned Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc., the company that has based its fortune on the idea that sure, it’s high in fat, but it’s from Vermont, so it must be OK.

The company’s newest flavor? ``Chubby Hubby″ _ vanilla ice cream with chocolate fudge swirled in it, studded with chocolate-covered pretzels filled with peanut butter.

Spurred by the Ag Department’s offering, people around the Statehouse offered a range of theories as to why so many Vermont food-makers like to live off the fat of the land. For instance, they suggest, maybe a place with Vermont’s winters needs a lot of comfort food.

Others suggest that average Vermonters will be saved from the wages of fat by not being able to afford the prices of many of the state’s specialty foods.

``A lot of these things are more attractive to out-of-staters than Vermonters,″ Common Cause lobbyist Toby Young said. ``A Vermont label has a certain romanticism to it.″

Marialisa Calta, a free-lance food writer and frequent contributor to The New York Times and Eating Well magazine, cited Vermont’s status as a well-loved vacation destination as a contributor to the foods’ success. People across the country can eat something from Vermont and ``take a little vacation,″ she said.

A cover letter with the Ag Department’s catalog noted that more than 200 companies currently are making more than 1,300 Vermont specialty food products, and it seems there are always more in the works.

A Statehouse radical, Rep. Terrill Bouricius, a member of the socialist Progressive Coalition party from Burlington, first recited a litany of complaints about the market-driven food industry. But just in case he should ever decide to become a capitalist, Bouricius has an idea.

``Oak, birch, beech,″ he mused, nodding toward the windows of the Statehouse cafeteria. ``Just about every tree out here produces some kind of sap. They probably taste horrible, but if you put a Vermont label on it and put it in tiny, ornate bottles, out-of-staters would probably snap it up.″

Oak, birch and beech sap? Well, you are what you eat.

End Adv for Wed AMs, May 10

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