Odessa Piper: Spring 2006 Commencement Address
Posted May 2006
Greetings. Thank you, Chancellor [John D.] Wiley. That was a lovely introduction that you said about me, but when I started out, my path was not so clear. I know that all of you have great dreams. I am here today to tell you what I have learned about getting to make those dreams real, and I can sum it up in five words and some change: To get there, be here and remember the little stuff.
I was, am, essentially a high school dropout and an “unwed mother,” so to speak. I was blessed with practical New England parents who gardened and foraged, because that is what practical New England parents did. Around 1968, I escaped from what would have been my final year of high school to a Luddite communal farm in New Hampshire. There I slept under an old four-poster bed under a tarp out in a buckwheat field and applied myself to learning how to grow and put by pretty much everything we ate.
Between 1970 and 1976, in what would have been my college years, I cooked at a from-scratch restaurant on State Street called the Ovens of Brittany. Julia Child”s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” was my bible. This was a job that also linked me to a farm in Rolling Ground, Wisconsin. That farm was attempting, long before its time, to supply organic meats and produce to the restaurant on State Street.
My curriculum included waiting on tables and line cooking; foraging wild plums, hickory nuts and morels in the woods; hand-milking four cows on the farm and—give or take—a couple of goats that came in and out of the picture. It was a very comprehensive course load.
Then, in 1976 when the long party that was the ’60s had, by most accounts, ended, I was “knocked up” with a restaurant. This was a rude awakening to discover that my “beautiful baby” was actually a restaurant, which was also actually a business.
My opening business partner and I effortlessly racked up over $70,000 of debt. Most of it we owed to various companies that were supplying us. Then, almost nine months to the day that we opened, I reluctantly assumed my partner’s portion of the debt as an alternative to bankruptcy. At 24, I became the sole owner of L”Etoile restaurant.
I was over my head. I didn’t know to create a budget, much less fix a broken one. The big-firm accountant that my lawyer nervously brought in to shore up my reputation with the bank had an impossible task—something equivalent to parking a World War II battleship in a space reserved for a Toyota Prius.
The back-to-the-land movement of the ’60s had not unfolded yet, with its vibrant sustainable agriculture contained within its dreams, and the gifts from the revelations and the lessons of the civil rights movement and women’s liberation and the protest of the war in Vietnam had not fully integrated into society.
Even though this accountant and lawyer charged me hefty fees to finance their learning curve, frankly there were very few businesses and business resources or professionals out there with the experience already in place to midwife these new ways of thinking.
Little did I know that a lot of other creative small businesses and artisan farmers were out there, too, floundering in the same waters. I would like to give a name to our sturdy little vessel. I want to call it the “‘Small is Beautiful,'” and bear witness that for all of us, what we had to do was create the instruction manual as we went along. Sometimes I thought it was like planting the seedlings to grow the forest, to harvest the trees, to make the wood to create the rudder, to sail through an ocean of uncertainty and chance while learning how to sail.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. This farm and restaurant where I matriculated in the early ’70s were both owned by an eccentric entrepreneurial visionary named JoAnna Guthrie. JoAnna loved the artisans of the soil and considered cooking an honorable profession. This mentor, who was both brilliant and flawed, has now passed on, but she foresaw our culture’s return to the pleasures of the table and the little arts of eating, cooking and cultivating.
This is a gift from cultures that we all can share and enjoy.
JoAnna demonstrated that vision and mission actually can be the same thing. She showed me that when the way gets hard to discern through all the noise, it is just the sound of vision “touching down.”
I want to come back to that little problem of the $70,000 debt that I owed by 1977. One day I got the dreaded call from my fish company’s accounts receivable man. For those of you too young to remember anything before sushi, fresh fish in the ’70s simply meant that it was defrosted before they loaded your order.
He told me that he was driving over to Madison on the next day from Milwaukee to meet with me regarding the thousands of dollars that I owed him. When he arrived, I fixed him a cup of coffee and tried to hide the green stains that had persisted on my hands from something I had been doing in the kitchen.
He explained the cashier’s check required now for twice-weekly deliveries, and then he sat back and said, “So how are you going to pay down the rest?”
As his words sunk in, I realized how completely alone I was feeling. Fighting down the panic, I quickly said, “$200 on account.” He said soberly, “I cannot accept that.”
I said, “$250?”
While I continued to fiddle with the green stain on my hands, I whispered, “$300?” Silence. Then I dared to glance up, and what I saw were his gnarly hands folded on the table and, looking up, his face.
“Try going the other direction,” he said.
“$150?” His eyes twinkled.
“I don”t think so.”
Well, he got me down to $50 a week to start. Suffice to say, his faith in the power in my little steps and in the human scale of things is what got me through.
In case some of you are wondering about the current status of L”Etoile and your reservations tonight, you can relax. I paid off all the debts, ran it for another 28 years, assembling a network of over 100 local farms to supply us. The new proprietors, Tory and Traci Miller, are a young brother and sister team that I handpicked and turned the restaurant over to last year. As I speak, they are preparing to serve L’Etoile’s 29th generation of graduates and their families.
Rising up with this young team is the next generation of young farmers, and together they are creating a cuisine that draws through our region, including the winter months, throughout the year, and they are providing an important and delicious working model for the rest of the country. This, by the way, is the Wisconsin Idea in action—these partnerships and the extraordinary support that we have received from the university.
Up until about 60 years ago, everyone ate locally. How could so much change so quickly? Futurists tell us that cultural change that used to take a millennium to occur now cycles through in something like 14 years. In 10 years from now, you are going to do something that has not even been thought of yet. These are very heady times in the American crossroads of culture and science.
John Updike said, “The world keeps ending, but new people who don”t know that keep showing up as if the fun has just started.”
So where do we actually start? Well, I want to come back to my five words: Start from where you are. To get there, to your dreams, be here with who you are now. Draw from that. You can apply this to any predicament that you are in. I promise.
Hey, if all you can afford to eat is fast food, you can still eat it slowly. And don”t discount the big solutions that can emerge out of small acts of faith in an idea. In my life, I have witnessed the decline and rebirth of entire farming communities in Wisconsin. By the ’70s so many small farms were losing their hold in an ever-industrializing agriculture. Conventional farming practices were sending too much of Wisconsin”s best topsoil down the troubled Kickapoo River. And yet the same region now has one of the highest concentrations of vibrant, vital small family farms—organic farms, sustainable farms—in the country and is rebuilding its communities through a new urban/rural partnership.
I predict that the good farmers, the citizens and the partners, and educators at the University of Wisconsin and all educators of this state of Wisconsin will lead the country in the coming decades by demonstrating regionally reliant alternatives for our food systems to the current oil-dependent food distribution system that we have. And I believe that this good state and this partnership in the Wisconsin Idea are going to do much, much more.
My point is this: Pay attention to the little steps. They all count. And if you possibly can, get lost. Explore, experiment—trust your own small acts of vision. Uncertainty is a wonderful place to start looking for the truth. You would be surprised how many parents in this auditorium are not in the careers they studied for in college. But to not alarm my university hosts, please be assured that everything that you are taught and that you learn counts.
So there were some jobs that you were tempted to leave off your resume. Remember the lemonade stand? But I have good news for you. You have already been hired for the best job out there, and that is to be you. This is your job. Take charge of that and all the other decisions and choices fall in line. Your teachers will show up everywhere—in this fine university and in places least expected, like my accounts receivable man and his faith in my ability to take those first little steps.
I want to send you out into the world, into your life and your future, with this prayer and blessing for you—that you are the next teacher. You are the teacher that is on the way.
Thank you very much.
Odessa Piper has distinguished herself as a tireless advocate for sustainability in the food and agricultural system and in her professional field of culinary arts. The success of her restaurant was due in large part to its seasonal menus and the local sourcing that is her distinctive hallmark.