On a recent Sunday, seven of us huddled around a large, semi-circular granite altar of sorts. We donned the appropriate traditional garments and took our pre-ordained places, which were already set with ceremonial spirits, mats of slim bamboo canes, and knives – big, shiny ones, and small, pointy ones.

A number of petite metal bowls atop the gray rock block held diverse offerings – in some, simple vegetables or raw fish. In others, a magical green paste said to bring tears to the unwise. Scattered amongst the bowls were pairs of tiny sticks, also of bamboo, that tapered slightly at their ends.

The high priestess approached, heavily tattooed and pierced right through the lower lip with a silver-colored ring. She took her place of honor behind the marbled slab and began to conjure. To impart. To enrich.

This high priestess, Ashley Sayre de Rivas [profiled elsewhere in this issue] wasn’t leading us through some sort of neo-pagan ritual; the aprons were to protect our clothes, the spirits were of the fermented rice variety, the bamboo mats were for the rolling of sushi, and the knives – big, shiny, small and pointy – were for the cutting thereof. Ashley – this high priestess – was teaching us to make sushi as we sat in the demonstration kitchen at Frankie & May Fresh Grocer.

Nestled deep into the corner of an attractive, L-shaped strip mall behind the CVS on 12th and Peninsula, it’s easily overlooked. Like a skittish deer, it appears to be peeking out from the dark of the deep forest, shielded by rich, brownish-red brick columns and hunter-green awnings.

But Erie’s ritualistic epicureans know exactly where it is; aside from Frankie & May’s well-known and well-attended cooking classes, their café and its unique grocery offerings have been drawing local gourmets with an almost-religious fervor.

The Bible recounts the first historical instance of a human eating – and it didn’t go so well.

Adam’s foray into the forbidden had a number of implications, not the least of which has been humanity’s conflicted relationship with food. Today, humanity has moved further from that garden than ever before, forced instead to inhabit a culinary wilderness that is both damaging to the body and to the environment. In much of the world, cubicle lunches and dashboard dinners have reduced both our food knowledge and our food preparation skills to sinfully low levels.

But like no other grocer in Erie before it, Frankie & May Fresh Grocer found a way to address all of these issues with a unique business plan most often found in bigger, more diverse cities.

“We’re offering very high quality ingredients for a fair price,” said Amy Cuzzola-Kern, founder of Frankie & May. “I think that makes us different.”

She speaks with an air of unlikely gastronomic authority. Born and raised in Erie, Cuzzola-Kern attended the University of Michigan, the University of Pittsburgh, and then Case Western Reserve where she earned a Ph.D. in Social Welfare Policy; she then spent 20 years working in the nonprofit and philanthropic communities, including a stint as former Congresswoman Kathy Dahlkemper’s district director.

While in Congress, Dahlkemper served on the United States House Committee on Agriculture, which is often thought of as one of the least influential, least-noticed committee assignments in existence; certainly not as sexy as Appropriations or Foreign Affairs. However, ‘ag’ is where scads of first-term representatives often start their careers, usually to their great chagrin. Not so with Dahlkemper.

“She wanted to be on the ‘ag’ committee,” Cuzzola-Kern said. “Agriculture is Pennsylvania’s number one industry. And in western Pennsylvania, it’s a huge industry.”

While working for Dahlkemper, Amy’s focus necessarily shifted to local agriculture. “I did travel around the district quite a bit,” she said. “I saw fairly quickly that we grow a lot of food in western Pa., and I became very quickly interested in improving access to the food that’s grown locally.”

She’s talking about the “locavore” movement, which was born of the sustainability crusade; locavores are people who strive to eat food that is produced locally – often within a hundred miles or less. Although Amy’s experience with local and regional producers of everything from grain to beef to ice cream led her to believe that she could expose consumers to artisan-quality local and regional products at competitive prices, another serendipitous connection sealed the deal.

“My husband’s family business is the C.A. Curtze Company,” she said. “It’s a fifth-generation family business started in the 1800s by his great-great grandfather. They’re a wholesale broadline distributor and a very competitive company regionally and nationally. I recognize the value they bring to the community and the quality food products they have, and I thought, well, you know, we could kind of form a partnership.” While not a formal partnership, relations between Frankie & May and Curtze are close, on a number of levels.

With all the players in place, Frankie & May Fresh Grocer – named after the grandmothers of the co-founders – opened in January 2012. Amy founded the business with a partner but is now operating as sole proprietor – a local woman, operating a local business, buying local products from local vendors, and selling them to local people.

Grocers with a local focus, like Frankie & May, cobble together dozens of local and regional brands from mom-and-pop-style shops rather than run with the ubiquitous store-brand idolatry practiced by most major chains.

“We have about five core vendors, and another complement of 35 other vendors,” said Amy. “I would say 80 percent of what we have in the store is derived from local vendors.”

Amy elaborated as we toured the store. “Milky Way Meadows is a local Amish farmer; he’s got great cheese,” Amy said, pointing at the cheese case. “The majority of cheeses that you see are all artisan Pennsylvania cheeses. The Citterio brand of products is a Pennsylvania company. The corned beef, roast turkey, roast beef, the ham – it’s cooked here. Bread is baked here, every day.”

She went on to authoritatively rattle off an impressive and extensive list of local products from places like Edinboro (Beelzebub’s Salsa), Meadville (Marcie’s Homemade Ice Cream), and Saxonburg (Franklin Farms).

One of the obvious benefits of all such locavoraciousness is exactly that – local products made or handled by local people bring – and keep – local dollars local.

The implications of this particular economic activity cannot be overstated. According to Sustainable Connections, a nonprofit based in Bellingham, Wash., “…Studies have shown that when you buy from an independent, locally-owned business, rather than a nationally-owned businesses, significantly more of your money is used to make purchases from other local businesses, service providers and farms – continuing to strengthen the economic base of the community.”

Another not-so-obvious benefit of this bioregionalism is the reduction of energy required for the production and/or the transportation of food from farm to family; on a global scale, the impact of a greater reliance on local cuisine could have an astonishing impact on the carbon footprint associated with the burning of fossil fuels. Indeed, food that is produced responsibly but then sits on a truck for a cross-country journey is food that is still grown in vain, environmentally speaking.

This article by Cory Vaillancourt was originally published in the Erie Reader on Nov. 14, 2012. You can find the rest of this article here.