Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A Pail of Milk

A pail of milk slung inside the kitchen door at dusk, steaming a little if the air is cool, still a little frothy on top from zinging into the bottom of the pail; gotten from the doe-eyed, sweet-faced little Jersey cow eating her green grass all day, ambling along from sun to shade to sun again, and finally munching her way back to the barn, lugging her evening udder swinging heavy against her legs.

That particular pail of milk is a memory and, though it is a sweet, sweet memory, I had no desire, whatsoever, to drink a glass of milk icy from the refrigerator, poured out of a pail or a plastic carton, even if it was labeled organic or local, or unpasteurized and labeled not at all. A little cream in my coffee, a bit of yogurt here and there, some crème fraiche over a dessert – that was the extent of my dairy needs. That and crooning “aaaay bosssss” to any cow I encountered. Oh, and tossing down a few capsules of calcium everyday.

And when friends marveled over the unpasteurized whole milk they got from a neighbor farmer I was wont to say that in a real farmer’s life whole milk was an oxymoron: that pail of milk was poured off into jars and pitchers and put into the fridge and not until it was icy and the cream had risen and could be scraped back would I accept a glass of it. As I remembered. No icky clots of cream in MY glass of milk, thank you very much. Cream itself was much better used over berries or made into butter.

They looked at me pityingly, but didn’t say much after that.

...making butter while the sun shines...

But then I decided I wanted to make some butter. This is the time of year that animals are eating fast growing green grass and when you eat of their flesh or the products of their flesh – butter, cream, milk, eggs – you are getting a nice helping of all the omega-3s they are converting that grass into, as well as helpful amounts of vitamins, such as D and A. You can even buy an 8 ounce jar of especially potent clarified butter online for an especially potent amount of money. Why not, I first wondered, just stock up on butter made at this time of year and freeze it?

Omega-3s. They are the offspring of Alpha Linolenic Acid and gotten from the leaves and green parts of plants. They are the opposite arm from Omega-6s (linoleic acid), and a balance between the two is essential to the health of our bodies, from our brains to our bones to our organs to our very souls. But omega-3s oxidize quickly and so, to reduce spoilage and create a longer shelf life, food processors have worked hard to eliminate them from processed food. In addition, industrial food producers have unwittingly cut out the omega-3s in their products by keeping their animals indoors and feeding them grains and silage. Simplify, simplify. That’s the short of it.

The long of it is taken by Susan Allport, a science writer, in her rigorous little book, The Queen of Fats: Why omega-3s were removed from the western diet and what we can do to replace them. Allport’s thorough study asks the question, “...though cholesterol and saturated fat have been reduced in the American diet, heart disease continues to afflict just as many Americans – and we’re now facing epidemics of obesity and diabetes. Saturated fat and cholesterol were supposed to be the problem, so where did we go wrong?” She follows the studies done on fatty acids from before anyone knew the various and competitive components of fat up until the present, when there have been “...many thousands of studies linking deficiency in omega-3s to a long and growing list of illnesses,” but which have been swept under the rug by various political and industry entities who like things just the way they are; and, of course, a public that has as hard a time reading scientific reports as I do.

Which all means, of course, that we need to go out of our way to get our good omega-3s – by eating dark green leafy vegetables, as well as other bright vegetables and fruits; finding really free range meats and animal products; and finding a good source of non-scoured pharmaceutical grade cod liver oil. Little fishes are full of good omega-3s, fishes such as sardines and anchovies packed in olive oil, NOT cottonseed or soy oils. As a matter of fact, most seed oils are preponderantly omega-6s and therefore to be avoided. To do all of this we need to support our local farms, markets, and co ops so they can continue to support us.

Easier reads are two books I’ve mentioned before – Mary Enig’s and Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions and Eat Fat Lose Fat, both of which sing the praises of unpasteurized milk, cheeses, butters, creams, yogurts and kefirs. Like the egg, whole unpasteurized milk is designed to nourish the young. From a clean and healthy dairy, it is the perfect food.

...KISSing Dr. Strangelove...

Of course, various state and federal agencies wish the whole idea of unpasteurized milk would just disappear. It’s much easier to keep an eye on things if everything is uniform, and pasteurization just makes sure that, clean or dirty, a dairy’s milk is heated until any undesirable – as well as desirable, indeed, necessary – microbe or bacteria is dead. It’s a variation on the rather rude admonishment, KISS, which I’ve always read as “Keep it stupid, Simple.” Nevertheless, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture allows the sale of unpasteurized milk if all sales take place on the premises where the milk is produced and are limited to less than 25 quarts of milk per day. The sales must be to the final end user of the raw milk, and no advertising is permitted.

But I didn’t think it was necessary, or even possible, to find enough unpasteurized milk to make, say, ten pounds of fast-growing-green-grass butter to put away for the year; I thought I’d start with locally produced butter from a commercial source. Surely our cows were eating grass in this green season!

Not especially true, John Thomas of Thomas Dairy told me. What green grass they do get is in this season, until around the 4th of July, but many farmers don’t have enough pasture to graze their animals, and they need what land they do have to grow corn and hay. “When we still had cows,” he said, “we let them out at night to keep them out of the heat of the day. We had a lot of land that couldn’t be used for anything but grazing.”

In an email, Annamarie Clark, of Cabot Cheese, whose butter Thomas distributes, told me that their cows were pastured from April to December.

Well that’s okay, I thought. Cabot spring and early summer butter should be a pretty good source of vitamins and omega-3s if you knew when it was made. I called Cabot and talked to another person, who told me that unsalted Cabot butter had a four month or 120 day sell-by date. In other words, if you wanted May or June grass-fed butter you would stock up on that which had a mid-August to Mid-October sell-by date. And you could probably begin looking for that butter now.

I asked him, too, why Cabot pasteurizes the milk they turn into cheese even though the law says that cheeses aged more than 60 days can be unpasteurized. He said that by law they needn’t be pasteurized, but to receive US Department of Agriculture certification they must.

I’m thinking Dr. Strangelove, here, but things were about to get stranger.

I had noticed that the Organic Valley milk carried by the Co-Op was ultra-pasteurized. Organic, granted, but heated to within an inch of its life. When I talked to the dairy person at the Co-Op, she told me that Organic Valley gets their milk from eighty Vermont farms (among others), but is sent to Wisconsin for processing. The milk of another producer, Organic Cow, is shipped all the way to Colorado for processing, so of course both companies have to ultra-pasteurize their milk or it would be sour by the time it got back to Vermont! The Co-Op is trying to bring in a smaller organic milk producer, from Vermont, whose milk will be pasteurized but not ultra-pasteurized, and won’t have been flown all over the country. They also carry Thomas’s (pasteurized but not ultra-so) milk which, even though not labeled organic, would seem, by far, the best bet to me.

“Big” seems to be the adjunct of going organic, which is another contradiction in terms. Thomas’ would like to be known as organic, but they are perfectly satisfied being a small company, and so will probably not seek certification. A farmer down the road from me said they’d considered going organic, but would have to be quite a bit bigger, and they’re already running short of pasture.

...in which I visit the farm...

But sitting at my desk and talking about cows had given me an itch to see one and to smooth its soft nose and rub its nubbly horns. I drove up to a farm that had been recommended to me by the “unpasteurized milk underground.” There I was given the tour by three small and well-behaved dogs. I worried over a small Jersey with an immense udder (hours from milking time) who was joyously wound around some long grass, chewing with abandon, her big brown eyes laughing up at me. She was not tethered or secured in any way at all. I hallooooed and yoo-hoooed to no avail and, just before I got back in my car, saw the little Jersey switch her bony rear into the barn.

That night I called and made an appointment with Mr. Farmer to get some milk the next morning. I told him about the unsecured cow. “Oh, that must’ve been Dumber,” he said. “She’s about to be disappeared. She’s driving me nuts, can’t keep her in.”

“Dumber?” I said.

Ayup,” he said, “Dumbest’s already gone. She’d walk right through a fence, know what I mean?”

I didn’t ask him about Dumb.

Next morning I arrived in the midst of much activity. The vet was there filing down the teeth of a horse. Ms Farmer told me that horses’ teeth grow in slanted and they need to be filed flat so they can get a grip on their food. “Go ahead, look around,” she said. I wandered around a bit with the dogs, had a good look at the horses in their stalls, and petted each and every one of the calves that were in their little plastic houses and tiny pens just outside the milk house, allowing my hands to be suckled in their eager mouths.

Ms Farmer showed me into the milk house with its big stainless steel tank, how to turn on its thrumbulator to mix the cream back into the milk, how to hook the spigot to the tank, how to turn it on. She filled some pails with milk for the calves. I took one of the buckets and, as I was fitting it through the window and into its bracket, she said, “Careful, she’ll head-butt it in her eagerness.” Splash. Once it was settled, the calf plunged her whole sleek golden head into the milk.

Finally, I took my jug of icy-cold milk and started home. On the road I met Mr. Farmer wheeling a large yellow plastic wheelbarrow and leading a cow. In the wheelbarrow was the latest calf, born just as I was filling my milk jug. On the winding, narrow road home I followed, with infinite patience, a farmer on a tractor with a baler on the back.

Granted, it was the best of days on the farm: a beautiful summer day, a new calf, some good milk. I could imagine it in mud-season, or on a frigid February morning, the deaths and accidents and disappointments. I could imagine all the pitfalls of farming, had grown up with them intimately. But when it was beautiful there was nothing that could beat it. Farming is a noble venture and the farmer a noble being – that’s all there is to it.

...a glass of milk...

At home I lugged my slippery jug of unpasteurized, fresh-from-the-cow, creamy milk into the house and slung it up on the counter. I looked at it, at the moisture forming on the glass, and thought, Now what am I going to do with a gallon of milk? Well, first of all, I thought I’d just have to have a glass of it. It might be the first glass of milk I’d drunk in thirty years, but the occasion seemed to demand it. I unscrewed the top, and plunged a dipper to the bottom and brought it back up.

When all is said and done, when all the pros and cons have been considered, telephone calls made, emails exchanged, books read, laws obeyed or disobeyed, memories proven faulty, it takes only one taste to tell you what’s real and what’s fake; what’s healthy and what’s not; how we need to live our lives.

I filled that glass. I took a sip. I paused. Was I really going to cry over a glass of milk? I stood at the counter and drank straight down to the bottom. It was the taste of my childhood. It was indescribably delicious!

This column was originally published in the Rutland (Vermont) Herald on June 19, 2007

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Rhapsody in Rhubarb

...rhubarb & tulips...

Last spring Wallingford got new sidewalks and I watched with interest as the sidewalk-builders cavorted importantly in their heavy high-topped boots among the pink tulips that bloomed at the sheer edge of their work zone. No, I needn’t move the tulips, they told me; and I said, mostly in jest, that if the tulips were still standing when the sidewalk was done I would make them a rhubarb pie. Massive wrinkled leaves of a clump of rhubarb shone bright and dark green behind the tulips, you see, and the thought came unbidden, whimsically, straight from the top of my head and out of my mouth.

Impassively, the men went on jack-hammering the old concrete, constructing forms for the new walk, pouring new concrete and then grooming it. The process took long weeks, even months. Big machines roared, the men leapt and shoved and pushed and poured. The tulips remained, pretty little heads became ragged on their own, dropped their petals to reveal seed heads ripening beautifully, broad leaves still curving like panting dogs’ tongues, then paling, bedraggled but safe.

Eventually, the flag-women, two gorgeous young people, wondered when the rhubarb pie would appear. The men, who cavorted even higher and more purposefully when the flag-women were near, began to mention it, too, and I understood that I had made no idle threat, but would be made to perform pie legerdemain.

... treat or threat...

I wasn’t sure if the promise of a rhubarb pie would keep my tulips safe. Some people love it, but for some the mere suggestion elicits a puckering of the mouth.

If you grew up with rhubarb you probably think of it as a treat: from the first time you toddled alone out to the patch of towering broad leaves, with their hint of strength and poison, grabbed a thick red stalk and leaned your slight weight back against it and then towed it back into the kitchen. There, someone Big trimmed off the leaf for you and handed you a little dish of sugar, and you plunged the raw end of the stalk into the sugar and took your first hardy crunch and felt the sourness and sweetness contract the corners of your eyes. You were hooked. When you got older, then, that first rhubarb pie made your eyes widen: it was Spring. You were about to taste an omen, a token, an icon, a memory, your imagination.

It’s an ancient plant – traced to 2700 BC in China, and to 1790 for the American roots – and it was used, like most bitter spring plants, as a tonic, to get the digestive system going. And it’s an old-fashioned plant – you seldom see a dooryard of an old house – extant or vanished – without a lilac and a flourishing specimen of the pie plant, as it was called. How many first-haying suppers, tables crowded with dead-tired and famished haying crew, did a rhubarb pie or two, or three, not grace?

And yet I think of the rhubarb pie as the passion of a sophisticated palate that won’t be satisfied with quick and easy fixes, that appreciates the difficult art of a food that so many people relied on before things got all-sweet-all-the-time. Like the tastes of asparagus, dandelion greens, fiddleheads and ramps, not to speak of morels, we anticipate that of rhubarb with a kind of greed that comes for foods that are strangers to a world increasingly prone to a canned blurring of the seasons. They speak, gently but pungently, of spring.

Rhubarb Custard Pie

...the crust...

My grandmother’s crust was pale, never golden, even white. She used lard, and sometimes a bit of butter. It was slightly salty, never sweet, so that it was a flaky foil to any filling. Flaky? When your teeth bit into it they slid off each other, then through with a click, as though biting into a scrumptious, slightly salty, richly greasy, layered shaley stone. It was the queen of pie crusts, the one everyone else aspired to. After Grandma died, Aunt made the pies, for her crusts were closest, even though she would grunt, "Humph, not as good as Ma's, but..."

It took me years to learn to make a good crust, and that was only after I realized I had taken too seriously admonishments not to handle it too much and so it all fell apart when I tried to roll it out. I knew this, but could do nothing about it. Every time I tried to squeeze that dough together the bones in my fingers locked up.

This is the way I make it now: Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Into the bowl of a food processor put 2 cups of unbleached flour (8 oz); ½ teaspoon salt; 1/3 cup cold butter cut into small chunks (3 oz); 1/3 cup of lard (3 oz). Pulse until the mixture is the size of coarse meal. Into 1/3 cup of water put two ice cubes, and, holding the ice back with your fingers, add it slowly to the flour mixture as you pulse the machine just until it forms a ball. I seldom use all the water, so go slowly and carefully. It shouldn’t be wet, but neither should it be too dry.

(To do this by hand, whisk together the flour and salt. Cut in the butter and lard until the texture is correct, sprinkle with the water, toss with a fork until the dough comes together in a ball.)

Flour a working surface, scrape the dough onto it, knead it a bit, pat into a smooth ball and divide it in half. Take the slightly larger half (for there will be one) and roll it out and fit it into your pie pan, making sure you have a generous overlap, say about 2 inches. Set aside and roll out the top crust and leave it while you make the filling.

...the filling...

(Adapted from James Beard’s American Cookery)

Whisk 2 large eggs until foamy. Whisk in 1 ½ cups granulated sugar, 2 tablespoons flour, grated rind of ½ lemon or lime, and ¼ teaspoon salt (I do this all in the processor). Pour 4 (generous) cups rhubarb that has been cleaned, trimmed, and cut into 1/3 inch slices (it should be dry) into the bottom crust. Pour the egg mixture over the rhubarb, dot with about 2 tablespoons unsalted butter (don’t forget this step, as I often do: It’s VERY important) and gently position the top crust over the rhubarb. Again, there should be a generous overlap.

At this point I use shears to trim the two crusts evenly. Turn the overlap of the crusts under to seal, and then crimp the edges. They’ll be nice and thick and crispy when you’re done. Vent the top crust with the shears and sprinkle with turbinado sugar if you have it.

Don’t skimp on the sugar in a pie. I use practically no sugar on an everyday basis, but pies are the kind of special occasion on which, even when sugar was valuable and hard to get, it would be used abundantly.

Bake the pie at 450 degrees for fifteen minutes, then lower the heat to 325 degrees and bake for twenty or thirty minutes, or until the top crust is browned, the fruit is fork tender, and the filling is bubbling.

By baking for ten or fifteen minutes at a high heat, the bottom crust has less time to get soggy and the rhubarb gets a jump-start on becoming tender before the filling has time to boil and curdle the eggs. The long low-heat baking then thickens the custard – which will not “set” – while further tenderizing the rhubarb and crisping the crust.

... the topping...

I always serve my pies topped with a dollop of crème fraiche, which is delectably not-sweet, but tangy and unctuous with butterfat. You can buy it ready made, but I usually make mine at home. Because it’s simple.

To a pint of good heavy cream, that has not been ultra-pasteurized (Thomas’s is very good), whisk in 1 tablespoon buttermilk or sour cream just until it’s smooth – you don’t want to whip the cream. Cover loosely and set aside in a warm spot until it thickens, probably for at least six hours. You might want to think about this before you make the pie, as I did not as I wrote this recipe.


The day came, a sunny day, a hot day. I baked the pies in the cool of the morning. I made two, because that’s all the room I have in my oven, and I really did not think that among the two hundred or so sidewalk and highway workers I would find more than sixteen people who had the knack of appreciating the taste of rhubarb and would not be too exhausted to stop by. I told the staunch, patient young flag-women to pass the word; I floated the idea to the cavorting, goaty construction workers. Sweat poured down their faces and their expressions were absent. But I had done my part and so I waited, busily.

It was not until evening, as we sat on the deck with friends and cocktails, that two lovely, exhausted, generous, grime-encrusted workers showed up, kindly, I thought, to take possession of pie. I sent them on their way with extra slices for breakfast.

Two. People. I was only slightly mortified – how could they know how good my pie was.

My friend, Dave, who has a passion for rhubarb pie (and whose wife loathes it) was the beneficiary of a good portion of the remainder; as was Jake, who was in the hospital for an extended stay. My own family made short shrift of the rest of it. I ate the last piece for breakfast, standing at the counter, starting the day out right.

Wallingford’s new sidewalks are wonderful, and they were set off beautifully this spring by the staunch pink cups of the tulips that appeared right on time. The sight of them reminded me to get my baking shoes on.

This column was originally published in the Rutland (Vermont) Herald on June 05, 2007