Poetry

The Organic Gypsy

'It's time for a different conversation about food'
Bridgett Blough outside her food truck for The Organic Gypsy.

Bridgett Blough wanted to be a gypsy.

"When I was in culinary school, I had this great idea that, instead of owning a restaurant, I could have a food truck and drive where I wanted, like a gypsy, and provide people with healthy food," says Blough, owner of The Organic Gypsy, a multi-faceted catering and food delivery business.

Now entering her fourth year of operating the business, this energetic, 29-year-old entrepreneur does, indeed, have a food truck, self-built with the help of her father, as well as a commercial kitchen at 2103 S. Burdick St. She's also a certified natural chef, having graduated in 2012 from San Francisco's Bauman College, which offers a nontraditional program of holistic, nutritional culinary arts.

During the summer, her nontraditional farm-to-table food truck can be found at Bronson Park for Kalamazoo's Lunch Time Live program, at the Kalamazoo Farmers' Market, and at the Texas Township Farmers' Market, where she hosts a monthly cooking demo. She also speaks at local libraries, serves customers at festivals throughout the Midwest, and caters special events.

Blough, who grew up in the St. Joseph area, lists her menu, services and accolades on her website, theorganicgypsy.com. Through social media, she informs followers of the truck's current locations and posts daily blogs to initiate "a different conversation about food."

"It's important that we encourage people to think about what they're eating and where it came from," she says in a passionate voice seasoned with expressive hand gestures.

The Organic Gypsy uses only vegetables, fruit, meat and dairy items from local producers, primarily in Berrien County, which she applauds for its "bounty of harvest."
"I believe in the power of that triangle between the farmer selling fresh produce to me, then me making something healthy out of it and then selling it to my customers. When that happens quickly within a small radius, it's a powerful nutritional and economic force within our community," she says.

In that vein, Blough identifies herself as "a professional hauler."

"I drive to a farm to buy produce. I haul that produce to my kitchen. I prepare and package it in small containers to fit in the truck and drive to an event. Afterward, I haul unconsumed food and dirty dishes back to the kitchen to be washed and sanitized. Then I do it all over again for the next event — haul it in, haul it out, haul it back in."

Running a food truck "is not for the faint of heart," she says. During the summer, she works 80 hours a week. A big catering event means a 16-hour day, so youthful physical stamina is a plus. Blough works primarily alone, occasionally contracting with helpers to wash, chop and prepare food but always under her supervision.

"It's an efficiency game," she says, "making as much quantity as possible with minimum effort."

Blough describes the three primary activities of her business as prep, distribution and paperwork — all completed with personal attention. "I get a lot of catering inquiries, so I answer emails and take time to determine what my clients really want." In regard to her online presence, she adds, "Social media doesn't grow itself; it takes time."

An advocate of food storage for off-season usage, Blough stocks the freezers in her commercial kitchen with hundreds of pounds of vegetables, fruit and fruit sauces. Likewise, she encourages families to freeze and preserve in order to eat local year 'round. "I try to get people to think big," she says. "Never cook one cup of quinoa. Rather, cook four cups, use part of it that night, tap that leftover the next day, then freeze the rest and pull it out when there isn't enough time to cook a meal."

Blough deplores food waste. "Forty percent of the produce grown in this country is thrown away or composted," she laments. "We need a conversation about how we can be smarter about how to use what we have and not be so concerned about what our food looks like."

She cites one of her suppliers, a certified organic grower, who is compelled by the commercial food industry to deliver only perfect specimens. "He has walk-in coolers with huge containers filled with cucumbers," she says. "These are 'mispicks' because they have a slight bend and don't stack uniformly. I buy them because I'm going to chop them up anyway. But I'm only one person, and I can't put a dent in all his 'mispicks' so he lets some of them rot in the field."

Blough, an advocate of community-supported agriculture, in which local producers sell directly to the public on a subscription basis, has developed a similar subscription-funded soup program and salad program at The Organic Gypsy.

Through the program, she offers soups in the fall and winter and salads in spring as fresh greens become available. During soup season, Blough provides a quart of vegetarian, gluten-free, mostly organic soup made from local ingredients each week, delivering it to central distribution points in Kalamazoo, Portage and neighborhoods and businesses where customers organize multiple subscribers. The program is popular with working moms who want this convenience, says Blough, who made 25 gallons of soup each week this past winter.

Even with such signs of success, Blough admits that engaging people in nutrition-changing conversations can be challenging. "People will go to a microbrewery or coffee shop and, without thinking, spend $6 on a drink or a cappuccino. But I serve two spring rolls filled with fresh veggies and herbs and an almond butter dipping sauce for $6 and people say, 'Is this all I get?' That's sometimes hard for me to take because the nutrition density of the meal I serve is way higher than the drinks."

Recognizing that she serves a niche market, Blough concedes, "It's easy to make food taste good with sugar, salt and fat, so not everyone is going to rave over my organic chickpeas or quinoa wrap."

Blough says her customers tend to be either young parents who want to provide nutritional meals for their children or people in the latter half of life seeking to improve their dining habits. She also has a few special customers, such as recovering patients on restricted diets and parents of children with extreme food allergies.

When she speaks at local libraries or gives cooking demonstrations, Blough focuses the conversation on the flavor and texture of natural ingredients. "I ask people, 'How does your food taste? How do you feel after eating? After digesting? When you go to bed at night, do you feel light or are you burping up your dinner?'"

Blough says the most interesting conversations occur with women planning their weddings. Blough views the celebratory matrimonial meal as a very important event with primal roots to our human ancestors who gathered around ceremonial cooking fires, and she chuckles about typical conversations with brides-to-be, who often don't realize the seasonal nature of the food she offers.

"They want to know my catering menu, and I ask, 'When are you getting married?' Then I explain that my menu depends on the weather and what produce is in season. In any particular week, I might have purple cabbage or green cabbage, fresh lettuce or kale."

When it comes to advocacy for healthy eating, Blough's drive to excel was sparked by her experiences as a Kalamazoo College volleyball player from 2004 to 2008 and later as a certified instructor in yoga, Pilates and exercise boot camp for women. "Because I was trained in the physicality of sport, I became attuned to how I feel when I exercise," she says, admitting that she used to think the most important component of good health was exercise. Now she says, "We can't exercise off pounds of junk food, but we can control the way we feel based on our daily choices, including what we eat. That's why we need to have a different conversation about food.

"We should have a conversation of quality and quantity, about food that's healthy and nutritious as well as tasty and flavorful. This is why I have a food truck — so I can have these conversations about food. And I really do believe in what I'm doing."

Category: 
'A Professional Hauler'

"I drive to a farm to buy produce. I haul that produce to my kitchen. I prepare and package it in small containers to fit in the truck and drive to an event. Afterward, I haul unconsumed food and dirty dishes back to the kitchen to be washed and sanitized. Then I do it all over again for the next event — haul it in, haul it out, haul it back in."
--Bridget Blough