Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Yellow Sky

On a yellow-sky day last week I got in the car, dropped the dog off for a bath and, wondering at precisely what point life had become stranger than science fiction, went to check out the blackberry patch at the top of the cemetery. I needed to find some reality. The patch was still there, it was still very hot, insects still hummed in the tall grass – it was a lovely, quintessential summer afternoon – except that the sky was still that ominous tinge of yellow. A breeder of anxiety, that yellow. A breeze came up – not so much breeze as sustained light wind that seemed to droop from the higher ridges of West Hill.

There was the patch, the long curving canes, the ferocious, flesh-tearing bear-claw thorns, but there was no reward of large, heavy, pendulous, juicy berries. None! I wandered through the whole area where I had spent so many humming hours last year picking those sweet drupelets to my heart’s content and found – nothing but weeds and bare canes. There were still the swales in the long grass where some large, tough-skinned animal seemed to have roiled about flattening some bushes, but why roil when there were no berries? It could not have been an ecstatic roil. The simmering bear-tension that I usually experience when picking blackberries on a hot day on an out-of-the-way hill , especially without my dog , and particularly in the bee-kept spot where I USED to pick before those berries, too, disappeared, did not replace the yellow-sky unease. In this place, today, no berries, no bears, no bees.

I got in my car, rolled down the windows, turned on the radio, hung my left arm out the window, and turned right at the road instead of left to go home. That tingly sixties feeling lifted me – was my hair cut in a DA (short for Duck’s Ass) as we used to say, cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve of my white t-shirt, and dual mufflers burbling away? How long it had been since I had, without thought, just “taken a ride”! It is simply not done anymore. As my carbon footprint engorged, I slowly drove the twisty little road, looking to left and right and noticing that, if there were no blackberries, the salmon-berries looked to be a big prize in a few weeks. The road curved down, met 140, I glanced at my watch – still almost an hour to pick up the dog – and took a right, even further from home!

“Squawk, Squawk, Squawk,” went the radio and a tinned voice unemotionally spoke the words tornado, heavy rain, hail the size of grapefruit, and ended with “This is a dangerous storm.”

This was the kind of yellow-sky weather that struck terror into our hearts when I was a kid growing up in southwest Michigan. I remember twisting around in a rope swing hung from high in a tree in an otherwise open field, leaning back as I spun and looking up at that pieplate high sky, so blue and at once yellow and, at the exact moment that wind came up, my father loping across the field at me, grabbing my arm and hauling me off to the southwest corner of the basement. He was terrified of tornadoes and had all the rules memorized – open the southwest windows a crack, huddle in the southwest corner of the cellar, if you don’t have a cellar go outside and find a eastnorth ravine in open country and lie in it. Once, driving past the cemetery when the wind had come up in a yellow sky, he skidded crazily to a stop, ran out into the graveyard and dove behind a gravestone – on the southwest side of it, of course. Another car careened to a halt and a woman ran toward him. “Get your own damned gravestone,” he is reputed to’ve hollered.

When we moved to Vermont, so long ago now that I consider myself a Vermonter, we delighted in the knowledge that there were no tornadoes here, and would get our bikes out and ride gleefully under yellow skies, taunting them and tasting the rain, when it came, in our teeth.

I pulled into a driveway, turned around and headed back to the village. I no longer felt comfortable or gleeful biting raindrops. There was something seriously out of whack with our weather, with our insane and criminal federal government, with our own Governor Gladhander, whose sole purpose seemed to be to veto any worthwhile legislation, from energy to healthcare to anything at all that might encourage diversified, sustainable, small farming; with a public so bloated and helpless that it could not find an effective course to govern its own government; with our entire industrialized food chain... ad infinitum.

So I drove to the Davenport Farm just south of Wallingford. It soothes the soul to visit a farm, quiets those nasties crawling beneath the skin to see that there are still people living the life and growing the food. I would pick some corn.

A Davenport daughter, Jennie, has posted the place colorfully – Park Here, Get Your Bags Here, Put your Money Here – $3 for a dozen ears. “You may drive Back,” and I drive on a farm track curving between the cows and sheep and horses. Another helpful sign with an arrow into a field, “This is not ready yet. Keep driving.”

I meet Alan in his old car and we stop to chat. He turns off his engine. A bag of corn is by his side. He tells me he eats six ears for supper until the season’s over. We talk about the yellow sky. “Yup, thought it was gonna rain but it held off till lunchtime, then still didn’t know if it was gonna rain, didn’t know if I should mow, so I spent the afternoon at Emerald Lake.”

“Jeezum Crow,” I say, “What a life!” He grins and starts up his engine and we move apart. The Davenports live several miles away, up on East Street in a mobile home, but they spend most of their time at the farm, the girls with their horses, Chris and Alan mucking up, milking, mending fence, planting, harvesting.

It doesn’t take long to pick a dozen ears of corn, but I stand there in the field remembering how high those stalks were when I was a kid and the cows broke through the fence into that tempting cornfield that was like candy to them. They would gorge themselves and bloat – their three stomachs are made for grass and can’t handle corn – and if we didn’t get them out of the maze soon enough they might die. I was little, though, and a corn-labyrinth spooked, half-ton cow would not be standing still and looking at me in her usual curious way.

A cow is designed to forage on grass, which we can’t, because they contain as part of their stomach a 45 gallon fermentation tank, called a rumen, in which bacteria convert grass-cellulose into protein and fats. But industrial farms feed them grain, primarily corn, in order to make them fat and marketable as fast as possible – instead of having to be raised for 4 or 5 years to mature into beef, they can be force fed for slaughter at a little over a year. Several different antibiotics are necessary so they don’t die from the side effects of the corn. Too, feeding them corn and other grains acidifies their usually pH-neutral stomach, so bacteria that grow in this unnaturally acidic brew can also reside in ours. Bacteria that grow in a grass-fed animal’s sweet stomach cannot survive in our acidic ones. Those are good reasons to eat grass-fed beef.

Watching a cow eat grass is a fascinating thing – they wrap their tongue around an area of grass, gathering it together into a tuft, and then bite it off between their front incisors and dental pad. They lift their heads and stare off into the distance as they grind that grass down between their rear molars to begin the process of digesting it in one of four stomach compartments. Every once in awhile they bring it up again, chew it a little bit more, their jaws moving rhythmically side to side, then send it on back down. Then they dip their heads and wrap their tongue around another area of grass. I imagine they don’t look as happy and peaceful in a feedlot with thousands of others, eating corn, standing knee-deep in manure.

The sky is still yellow, the wind out of the southwest still blowing, but I’m feeling a little less anxious standing out in a cornfield thinking about those sweet things, cows.

Back home, I empty the ears of corn on the deck table.

This is not the first corn of the season, but it seems uncommonly good this year, so I’m still grilling it, leaving the husk on, just stripping off the tough outer green leaves and cutting off the tips of silk –neatening it up a bit – before throwing it on the grill. So far, this season, I’ve made a corn pudding, and some corn fritters like Leo’s mother used to make, and maybe I’ll freeze a couple of bags of it. We eat a lot while it’s in season, and not much at all the rest of the year because, well, it’s not very good and I hate to contribute to the cornification of our land and our bodies.

I read labels and try to avoid anything that is made out of corn grown on the 90.5 million well-pesticided and chemically fertilized acres of corn that are planted this year, but that is not so easy when something as innocuous and misleading as “natural raspberry flavoring” may come from that industrial corn.

Industrial meat is fed it and made of it, as well as soft drinks, breakfast cereals or snacks, vitamins, corn oil, citric and lactic acid, glucose, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, ethanol – for beer as well as cars, sorbitol, manitol, xanthan gum, starches, dextrins, MSG. And that’s a short list.

Michael Pollan, in his Omnivore’s Dilemma says, “There are some forty-five thousand items in the average American supermarket and more than a quarter of them now contain corn.” It’s in toothpaste, cosmetics, disposable diapers, cleansers, wallboard and joint compound, linoleum, fiberglass, adhesives.

Dan Barber, a New York City chef and writer interviewed in Salon magazine, points to a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey and growing, “where oxygen depletion is so severe that very little marine life can survive there. The Gulf of Mexico's fishing industry has collapsed.” And he explains, “If you look at a map, you can trace your finger from the Gulf of Mexico up through the Mississippi River and right into Iowa, corn country. The chemical fertilizers leach into the soil and drip down into the Mississippi River. And people who rely on the Mississippi for drinking water and water irrigation are experiencing all sorts of problems. But the greatest demonstrable casualty is the gulf's dead zone.”

The really wonderful thing about those 90.5 MILLION acres and their conquering offspring is that they receive government subsidies under the farm bill. 200 MILLION acres of Corn, rice, soybeans and wheat, combined, account for 70 percent of the total subsidies allotted to farmers, and the biggest are corn and soybeans, which are used interchangeably in many so-called “value added” products. My anxiety is growing.

I finish grooming the last ear of corn and find a worm at the tip. I flick it out with the scissors. At least MY corn hasn’t been sprayed to within an inch of its life.

The sky is yellower than ever, the radio is tin-canning about the “dangerous storm” and the fire is ready. I throw the corn in the cooker and close the lid. I turn it a few times with tongs, and after twenty minutes or so it’s good to go. Just as we finish gnawing down 3 ears apiece there is that sudden deep-breath relaxation in the atmosphere, the thunder booms, the lightening cracks and rain begins to pour down. Anxiety dissipates and it is finally possible to take a deep breath and, more importantly, expel it completely.

Mexican people have long called themselves The Corn People, because of their dependence on it as the staple of their diet for thousands of years; but carbon analysis finds that North Americans are made of far more corn than Mexicans, though we ostensibly eat far less of it. The story of corn and how it has invaded our land and our bodies is truly the stuff of science-fiction.

But for now, just like the rest of the public, I’m bloated – with corn, at least – and want nothing more than to sit on the porch, breathe, and watch the rain.

Governor's Inn Corn Pudding

Deedy Marble gave me this recipe years ago. It’s based on her grandmother’s New England Corn Pudding. They had a lovely casual way of serving it at the Inn, in Ludlow, at the time – simply carrying the casserole around to each table and spooning it onto each diner’s plate.

450 degrees

2 cups whole kernel corn , cooked

8 tablespoons flour

8 tablespoons sugar

4 whole eggs (large)

1 teaspoon salt

1 quart whole milk

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Stir flour, salt, sugar and butter into corn. Beat eggs slightly and combine with milk. Combine milk and corn mixtures and pour into a buttered 2 quart baking dish. Bake, until nicely browned, about 45 minutes, stirring with a long-pronged fork 3 times during baking, breaking the surface as little as possible.

First Published in the Rutland (Vermont) Herald on august 28, 2007

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

It Takes a Commitment

...handmade, homemade, pretty good, but where’s the tomato...

Consider the restaurant. I don’t find myself going out to eat very much with food as the destination, but mostly for “doing lunch” or “grabbing a bite” before a show at the Paramount or during Friday Night Live, or after a gallery opening, with friends. When I do make it a point to go to a certain restaurant, it’s because I expect to find something on the menu that intrigues me.

The other day I “did lunch” with my visiting friend Dana at The Back Home Again. I like their food – it’s simple and filling and not too expensive, and the venue is convenient and intriguing. I love all the hand-smoothed curving, carved wood and splotches of leather, and windows in odd places, and the little nooks. And I adore their fruity mate’ – quite often I stop in on a hot day and carry out a humongous one to a meeting. I admire the Tribes’ energy, their ability to get things done in their own idiosyncratic way. Case in point, they have developed a good-tasting spelt bread that is higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates than wheat bread, and it’s something that others have despaired of doing. They even grow much of the spelt on their farm in Bellows Falls. It’s all very hand-made, down-home, and pretty darned good.

That day I asked for their special, a grilled cheese made with Cabot Cheddar, and asked them to grill a “juicy slice of tomato and one of onion – fresh from the field, of course,” with the cheese. To my surprise the waiter couldn’t “be sure the tomato is local.” I was dumbfounded: “Don’t you get your produce from local farmers at this time of year?” I asked. He didn’t know, couldn’t swear to it. “The problem is that local tomatoes are irregularly shaped, we can’t get uniform slices out of them, and there’s a lot of waste.”

I let it go, and ordered the grilled cheese/tomato/onion anyway. The tomato was pale pink and hard. I was saddened at this. It’s a damned shame when a local eating place can’t put a slice of fresh tomato on a summer sandwich.

That evening I was slicing tomatoes that Dana had brought from her Virginia garden. They were utterly delicious.

But irregular. The little bottom belly-button was lopsidedly close to the stem end.

“Look,” I showed her accusingly. “Irregular,” I shouted. “Can’t slice that!”

“Toss it in the compost,” she crowed. “Useless.”

We ate it, slobbering voraciously, over the sink.

A day or two later I was watching Vermont Public Television’s Feast in the Making, which showcases chefs who use local foods, farmers who provide it, and people who eat it. A segment on Vermont Herb & Salad Company in Benson briefly flashed a list of their customers. I rewound and paused, and there, before my very eyes was the name of the Back Home! That led to me check out their website, where I found these words: “At the Back Home Again Café we use organic and locally produced ingredients whenever possible.” That was what I had assumed before talking to the waiter. I must say I’ve seldom had to do so much backwards investigation to disprove my point and vindicate a self-maligned entity. I made one more call and achieved vindication. Mea Culpa, I guess, my dear Back Home, but where’s my tomato?

VPT’s Ann Curran tells me, “We'll begin the series [Feast in the Making] anew
on Wednesday, Sept. 19, at 7:30 p.m. Programs repeat the following
Saturday at 12:30 p.m.” Catch it if you can!


Nevertheless, it is disturbingly true that most restaurants do not find the opportunity to serve much local food. High price and the lack of a central distributor are the factors most often cited. It seems to me that a savvy entrepreneur will solve the latter problem very soon. Or perhaps one of the existing distributors will take up the slack – Vermont Fresh is out there. Burlington Foods. A few others I’m not acquainted with. As for high price, we’re used to cheap food which almost always comes from big, farm-bill-subsidized industrial-agriculture somewhere out in the mid-west or west if we’re lucky, China and Chile if we’re not. Increasingly, I am aware that it’s useless food, dead food, not only full of bad things like hormones and pesticides and chemical fertilizers and antibiotics, but lacking in the good ones, like vitamins and minerals and omega-3s and enzymes and CLA and substances that we do not even know we need.

What is our responsibility here? Why, for those of us who can even POSSIBLY afford it, to feed the local farmer by buying his product until he is strong enough to feed us all. It is an abomination that poor people can more cheaply buy Twinkies than a bunch of carrots. The new farm bill deals very little with these issues and, if passed, will delay for another five years the impetus to deal with them.


It is doubly heartening, then, to listen to chefs who are totally enamored with fresh and local food.

Three Tomatoes’ Keith Paquin guesses that 90% of their food is gotten direct from the farmer, and he sings a siren song of producers’ names: Apple Hill, Vermont Herb & Salad, Singing Cedars, Boardman Hill, Vermont Fresh Pasta, Red Hen Breads, Maple Meadow Farms Eggs, King Arthur Flour, Cavendish Game Farm.

And though Hans Entinger of Country Man’s Pleasure does not buy directly from farmers, he does buy from Black River Produce, for their fish of unparalleled quality, and also their produce which, when possible, they get from Vermont farmers. But I have reminded him of something, and he says, thoughtfully, “I should! I should get out to the Farmers’ Market.”

I am very well acquainted with my friend and neighbor, Chef Stanti’s penchant for shopping locally – you’ll see him at the Farmers’ Market if you get there early enough, selecting vegetables and berries and cheeses to serve at his Victorian Inn at Wallingford, and he seeks out the best Vermont grown eggs and chicken. And butter: “Vermont Butter and Cheese makes a very, very good butter! With sea salt. Very outstanding,” He gets 100% of his produce locally, in season, most of it from Boardman Hill Farm.

I don’t even have to call Chef Robert (Hobare) at Café Provence in Brandon to know what a relentless seeker after local products he is. But I did anyway. “Tomatoes from Woods Market, goat cheese that I buy from Blue Ledge Farm, veal from a local man who brings it to me every two or three weeks; most of the vegetables from Nora’s Secret Garden from May to October.” He gets winter produce from the people at Black River Produce, who get much of it from the Vermont Fresh network.

“The majority of our provisions are local,” Robert says. “When someone comes from New York City or Boston and stops in and asks for a nice meal, I think we should be able to offer them local products.”

I tell him my story of the pink hard August tomato. He’s more forgiving than I am. “It’s a big decision when you decide to use local products, because we pay more than for California products and it’s a lot of work because we need to take advantage of it when it’s in season. It takes a commitment.”

“I think you’ve given me my title,” I said with satisfaction.

These, of course, are not the only restaurants who use a preponderance of local foods: north, south, east and west I can think of more that I didn’t consult, but you will notice that they are almost all relatively high-end restaurants.

I am not sure if it’s for lack of commitment that less-expensive restaurants don’t use more farm fresh foods, or if the time and money expense is just something their clientele will not accept. Or perhaps it’s that when you become passionate about your ingredients you become heedless of expense and your customers begin to pay a little more for the quality. Do they think it’s worthwhile? I guess they’ll let you know in the long run.


Conspicuously missing from these chefs’ litanies are most free-range meats, and that’s because there’s no central way of getting them, they are expensive, and they aren’t available not-frozen. Meat is a seasonal product when it’s grass-fed and not factory-farmed, and most of the northeast’s slaughtering takes place in the fall. Even well-aged beef won’t survive that long.

As for expense, I just read an anecdote from David Kamp, author of The United States of Arugula, that Niman Ranch, known for its high-end free-range meats, contracted with a fast-food restaurant to provide Niman pork for its carnitas, resulting in a dollar increase in the price of each carnita. “To everyone's surprise, the Niman connection was not a loss-leader but a bottom-line enhancer – sales of the carnitas burritos went up by 250%. Another indication that it's not just NYC and Berkeley freaks who care about better-quality food.” So money is not always the deciding factor. I would pay 50 cents extra for a sandwich with a local tomato on it.

Sometimes, at least in the case of meat, you have to travel for good food, or IT has to travel to you. In a New York Times article, “Food that Travels Well,” James E. McWilliams cites a study that found that “lamb raised on New Zealand’s clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed [grain]. In other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard.”

McWilliams goes on to argue for a looser interpretation of “Local”, advocating a hub-and-spoke system of food production and distribution, “with the hubs in a food system’s naturally fertile hot spots and the spokes, which travel through the arid zones, connecting them while using hybrid engines and alternative sources of energy...” The Brattleboro Co-op has a large section of its meat department dedicated to Wolfe’s Neck Farm in South Freeport, Maine. From chicken to beef and everything in-between, it’s comparatively local, free-range, and a delightful product. Vermont meat producers and distribution entrepreneurs would do well to look to their example.


By the way, those Virginia tomatoes had no carbon footprint whatsoever, since Dana simply brought them with her on the flight, as she did about a peck of – are you ready? – Virginia peaches! They were divine, those peaches – we ate them out of hand, juicily; we grilled halves of them alongside a Boardman Hill pork roast; I fashioned a nifty fruit-fly trap – everyone needs one with fresh peaches in the house; made a salsa for a cocktail party, and then used the rest of them in Leo’s birthday cake.

Lacking a source of Virginia peaches, you can pick up New York ones at the Co-op. And if you haven’t done it yet, stop by and look at the Co-op’s new and exciting produce department, the result of new produce manager Dennis Duhaime’s hard work and ingenuity. When you’ve caught your breath, give Dennis a well-earned pat on the back!

Peach and Tomato Salsa

Peel four peaches by placing them briefly in simmering water and then stripping off the skin, halve them to the pit around the middle equator, then thinly slice vertically, and gently remove the slices from the pit into a bowl. Add a large tomato, peeled in the same way, cut in bite-sized chunks. Mince ½ to 1 jalapeno pepper (to taste), ¼ large white onion, 1 large garlic clove, and a handful of cilantro leaves and add to the peach/tomatoes. Sprinkle with sea salt (1 tsp.), a grind of pepper, and a bit of balsamic vinegar. Let this meld together for an hour or two before dipping it up with water crackers or tortilla chips.

Peach & Blueberry Upside Down Cake:

For the topping (in this case, the bottoming): In a 10” cast iron skillet melt 1/3 cup butter over low heat. Turn off the heat and sprinkle with ½ cup brown sugar. Peel six peaches (see above), halve them, gently twist each half in opposite directions, remove the pit, and place round side down on the sugar. Sprinkle blueberries in the spaces between the peaches.

For the cake: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Into a mixing bowl stir 1 ½ cups of cake flour or 1 1/3 cups of regular flour, 1 cup sugar, 2 tsp. baking powder, ½ tsp salt. With the mixer going slowly add 1/3 cup room-temp butter, 2/3 cup milk, 1 tsp. vanilla and 1 Tbsp. lemon juice. Beat 2 minutes medium speed. Add an egg and beat 2 more minutes. Pour the batter over the fruit and bake 40 to 50 minutes. Immediately run a knife around the inside of the pan, place a serving plate over the pan and turn upside down. Leave the upside down pan for a few minutes to allow the cake to loosen. When you remove the pan use a spatula to patch up the top of the cake. Serve warm with crème fraiche or unsweetened whipped cream.


There used to be a restaurant up on the mountain that was said to’ve been the place that chefs and cooks at other restaurants would eat when their shift was over, or on their days off. Presumably that was because the chef’s chef at this restaurant prepared very simple things very well, and served something out of the ordinary, a terrine, a pate’, a pot-pie, a rabbit stew, something other restaurants did not find it worth their while to have on the menu because the average customer didn’t order it, or so they assumed.

Food Arts is a magazine for and about the restaurant industry that offers some great ideas for flavor combinations and techniques. “Semolina dusted sweetbreads with wild mushroom ragout, lardons, sorrel puree, & frisee,” is one that jumped out at me recently. I am intrigued by that. I would pay good money and time for it. But they’re not going to make it just for me.

First Published in the Rutland (Vermont) Herald on August 14, 2007