Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Sometimes if local doesn’t come to you, you just might have to go looking for local! At least that’s my wishful thinking here in this Pit O’ Winter: Ice and snow, freezing rain, high winds, freaky lightning and claps of thunder, icy sidewalks, flu germs, cabin fever... the most optimistic thing that might be said is... well, I forget!

Oh, right! The light’s coming back. The other evening it was almost six o’clock when we walked into a friend’s house for a dinner visit and she exclaimed, “Oh my, it’s still light!” And the days are just going to get longer and longer until June. Excuse my exuberance.

We sat down, that evening, to glasses of wine and a little bowl of guacamole. As I scooped some up on a chip, my friend said, “It’s all local, too – the tomato is hydroponic, from West Rutland, Steve Chamberlain’s wonderful garlic, onions from the farmers’ market...” and then she added that, of course, the avocado was not local, though she had got them at the Co-op. “At least they’re organic.” Well sure, avocados don’t grow on trees here, most definitely not in February, but I remembered they are at the height of their season in warmer climates, a fact I’d found out the hard way, or at least first hand, actually in a very pleasant way.

...sleuthing for local food...

Because, it so happened, a couple of years ago on one dark-of-the moon, just-before-dawn morning at the end of February, with the thermometer shuddering at 1 degree Fahrenheit, I flew out of the Rutland Airport on my way to a little island seventeen miles off the coast of Puerto Rico, in search of local food. Friends who have been visiting Culebra for twenty years or more, and who have even built a house there with other congenial couples, had told me that Culebra did not grow any food at all, that all of it was imported from the big island, the water piped undersea, and that the fish they ate were not caught in the warm turquoise waters surrounding the island but were shipped from Boston. Of course, I was aghast! If rocky and cold little Vermont could produce a great deal of its own food, certainly rocky and WARM little Culebra could do the same.

...avocado frenzy...

The first morning I was there, the women drove into Dewey, the main little town, to do some grocery shopping. At the first store there were four or five aisles of canned and boxed goods that were not so very different from the cans and boxes in our own stores in Vermont except much more limited in variety, as were the vegetables, mostly carrots and broccoli wrapped tightly in plastic.

And then, off to the side, I found a couple of flats piled high with oblong and ovoid green things which I realized were large avocados. Huge, in fact. The kind of bland tasting avocados that I never buy in Vermont. I pressed one and it was very firm but I thought that even though it might be crispy it could be flavorful.

It took me a while to realize that I had stumbled upon the only fresh and wonderful produce from anywhere near. My excitement rising, I added another avocado to my basket and, noticing that some of the green ovoid things were a bit smaller and smoother skinned – that they were, in fact, mangos – I picked up a couple of them, too. In the next grocery, the realization still seeping in that these avocados and mangos were straight off the trees, if not from Culebra then at least from the big island, I went a little crazy, filling up my basket with both items. A man came in the back door with a new shipment of fresh stuff and said, quite proudly, “We have green onions,” so I grabbed a couple of bunches of scallions. If my excitement at these humble examples of fresh produce seems a little disproportionate now, imagine what it seemed to my shopping partners then.

We made one more stop, at a liquor store and deli named El Eden, owned by Luz, a beautiful large-eyed Puerto Rican woman, and her partner Richard, who had been a dairy farmer in Plainfield for most of his known life, where we bought a couple of pounds of tuna. From Boston.

...precious food...

For supper that night, I made a dressing of lots of chopped ginger, garlic, and scallion, along with olive oil and soy sauce and the juice of a lime or two, salt and pepper and hot pepper flakes. I picked up one of the avocados with some trepidation, because they should be softer, and sliced it in half around the pit.

It. Was. Perfectly. Ripe. Perfectly! I had never handled an avocado so shortly after it had reached its peak of ripeness. A shoot was already curling out of its pit and immediately went into a glass of water on the windowsill.

I alternated great thin slices of avocado and mango on top of greens, split the scallions lengthwise in four parts and crisped them in a glass of ice water, then piled them upon the slices of fruit and drizzled the whole with the dressing.

We grilled the tuna on as hot a fire as we could make – which wasn’t, of course, hot enough – only minutes upon each side so that it was caramelized outside while leaving the middle red and warm, or at least that was the aim. We grilled thick-sliced red onion until it was still crispy but warm and caramelized; and then we sliced the tuna as thinly as we could and piled the red onion on top and drizzled the dressing over that, and we ate. Everything was good, but the mango and the avocado were outstanding. And that dressing... I’m going to make that tonight!

We ate those local avocados for several following lunches, halves of them, drizzled with garlic and olive oil and a bit of balsamic vinegar and salt and pepper, and with tiny shoots of cilantro that my friend was growing in flats on the porch. We ate them with spoons from the shell.

Of course, those were the most delicious avocados I have ever eaten or probably ever will, and that is because the search for them, their serendipitous appearance, my relief at having recognized them, the fact that they turned out to be ripe in spite of my initial doubts, made them food hard-gotten, almost missed, therefore precious.

...roosters, wild cats, and bombs...

I continued my sleuthing for local Culebran food, but to little avail. I picked up some island literature and read that the island had been predominately agricultural in the 1800s and that wood, turtle oil, turtle shells, salted fish, tobacco, cattle, pigs, goats, country cheese, sweet potatoes, plantains, pumpkins, beans, yams, garlic, corn, tomatoes, oranges, coconut, cotton, melons, mangrove bark, charcoal, and turkey had been produced and exported in 1800.

I talked to Luz, who murmured how convenient the big island was for food supplies. Culebra is not semi-arid, but ARID. It has NO water – no rivers, no lakes or ponds (but that had not stopped the folks in 1800). She talked about the awful, invasive, thorny acacia plants that were imported to feed the wild goats that used to roam the island, and how it glommed onto the gracious growing conditions and grew such large thorns that the goats couldn’t eat it, after all, and it took over the island. Fronds of acacia that are broken off into the roads are capable of puncturing the tires of those unknowing folk who drive over it.

“No one eats the goats,” said Luz, “and there aren’t that many left now.” And, “No one eats the chickens” that flocked everywhere, and “No, you can’t get fresh eggs – they all hatch into new chickens,” (which you could surmise by the cock-crows that filled the air before dawn each morning), and “no one grows vegetables because of the lack of soil covering the volcanic rock.” And then she said something puzzling – that “there was a United States military base here until recent years and they did practice bombing here, and that activity wasn’t conducive to farming or tourism.”

I had heard mention of the military base, and I had seen old rusting tanks decorated with graffiti, and I had seen artists’ renderings of the tanks that looked like protests, and they puzzled me. They were jarring next to the beaches of white sand soft as cream, and I didn’t know what to think of them.

And what could that have to do with two to three thousand people sitting in their little houses upon that rocky soil, upon the creamy sanded beaches that surrounded the fish-filled turquoise waters, not going outside and scratching little gardens into their earth and pulling fish from their waters, and preparing them in their kitchens and sitting down to eat them with their families? What was it that made an entire island of people give up one of the basic rights they were born with, that of feeding themselves with their own good food? The truth was dawning upon me, but I still had not connected the dots. I could not see the truth hidden there, just as I had not been able to see the avocados loaded onto the flats underneath the shelves of the grocery stores. I was looking too straight ahead, my peripheral, truth-seeking vision blinded.

But a pamphlet I read on the plane coming back to Vermont finally provided something to flesh out my poor, parched imagination; something to explain the inertia of the Culebraneses in the matter of food, and most things else. Its words were stark: “In 1901-1975 US military used the island for military exercises and a firing range. The destruction to the reefs and the psyches of the inhabitants will take decades to heal.”

Imagine! An invasive government (ours) had used that beautiful little atoll as target practice for 74 years, had moved the people out or resettled them between its ammo stash and bombing target, and inflicted the noise and the stench, and the fear of unexploded missiles upon them. It reminds me of the warning Ike – a Republican, let me remind you, and a military man – gave us when he stepped down from office, “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

Back home again I googled the matter and found that different forms of cancer are rampant on Vieques, Culebra’s larger, neighboring sibling island, where the military only recently pulled out, and also on Culebra. The cancers are linked to depleted uranium poisoning, which is linked in turn to the bombing and artillery exercises which took place on the islands. The cases to have both Vieques and Culebra declared super fund sites are still pending.

Nice that we live in Vermont, where such things don’t happen, eh? But Culebra and Vermont do share some of the same problems. Don’t fewer and fewer people concern themselves with preparing, not to speak of growing, their own food? Isn’t more and more land being bought by wealthy people whose aim could not be further from that of using their fields to grow food? Don’t more and more large companies – whether military or industrial – want the land for their own nefarious purposes, and try to own our food supplies, and often poison our soil? Culebra stands as a stark reminder – Control the food supply and you control the people!


On top of one of Culebra’s steep mini-mountains there is a restaurant known as Juanita Bananas. Upon grinding to a stop at the restaurant, the visitor is met with astonishing sight – ripe tomatoes hang from vines under a greenhouse overhang, grow from white pvc piping all sheltered and overhung with big leaves of oregano, and wide-leaved trees hang with the green fruit of mangoes and papayas, plantains and bananas, lemons, limes, guavas. There are small red fruits with tiny question marks attached to the hanging end of them that prove to be cashews, one to each fruit. In the ground and in planters and growing from the pvc piping are sage and basil, small and fresh growing lettuces and cilantro, green peppers and chilis and long, blue eggplant. Parked nearby is, incongruously, a motorcycle. Chef and owner, Jennifer Daubon, with her husband, Javier Cabrera, have created this little paradise, growing real, indigenous, fresh food, straight from the soil (and water), preparing it in Jennifer’s kitchen and serving it onto our plates.

...local avocados...

Culebra is a beautiful little island with stretches of the most exquisite beaches you’ve ever sunk up to your ankles in. The people are friendly and outgoing, with a culture that is almost expatriate, and an inimitable loyalty to their damaged island. With people like Jennifer and Javier to repair it and bring it back, I think it will survive. And on days like this – is that sleet pinging against my windows – I think they might need my help! Add to that I’m developing a real itch for local avocados. Can’t get local avocados around here. LocaVocaDo!

this column was first published in the Rutland (Vt) Herald on 02/19-08

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Solemn Celebrations

Reading the obituaries one recent morning I said, Awww, Mrs. Book died! Leo couldn’t recall a Mrs. Book, but I reminded him of taking a ride last fall, looking for the West Haven Nature Conservancy, getting turned around on the back roads of Benson and West Haven, and stopping at a porch sale at Book Farm on Book Road. Oh, now he remembered. The conductor of the porch sale was the lovely and energetic 87 year old Mrs. Frances Book, as she told me in our brief acquaintance.

“Of course we bought a book,” said Leo.

“Of course,” I agreed, “and a jar of concord grape jelly.”

I wouldn’t have bought the jam – I love wild concord grape jelly, and would have to hide it from myself – but Mrs. Book told me she had gathered the grapes with her own hands and cooked down the juices, and I like to honor that kind of thing. I remembered all this when I read Mrs. Book’s obituary, wondering, as usual, at the weird conundrum with which all humans live – that our days are numbered, and when you’re 87 you must be even more acutely aware of this sad fact. But Mrs. Book had been cheerful and bright on her old fashioned screened porch that day, with a definite sharpness to her conversation – one sensed she would not be chary with her opinions, and that she had a great deal to do with that farm being as beautiful and prosperous as it appeared.

A few days ago I was taste-testing a new product I’d found at the Winter Farmers’ Market – Castleton Crackers, made and marketed by Whitney Lamy. She has three varieties – Rutland Rye, Middlebury Maple, and Windham Wheat, all made by hand with Vermont grown ingredients. It occurred to me that the tempting (and addictive!) things could host something sweet as well as savory. I went to the fridge, rummaged around in the back of it and pulled out a jar of grape jelly. As I opened the half-full jar, I realized that this was Mrs. Book’s jelly – there was her name on the label.

It is a solemn celebration, eating something that one of us has made who has since passed away off this earth, and it reminded me of eating my grandmother’s mincemeat the Christmas after SHE was gone. Though they’re gone they continue to offer nourishment. And yes, Whitney’s crackers and Mrs. Book’s jam have definitely become a part of me, all too bodily.

Buttered crackers and jelly – now there’s a childhood treat – eaten while hunched over a book at your grandmother’s kitchen table, perhaps with a big glass of milk straight from the cow. And I’m here to tell you it tastes just as good when you’re 63 as it does when you’re 13 – and, I’d guess, at 87, too.

...food with dignity...

It’s doubtful that I have any vegetarian readers left. Or, for that matter, any readers who prefer not to associate their cryovacced porterhouse with the animal it came from. Apparently the photo of the poor rabbit corpses with their livers exposed just did some people in. It was bad enough, the marrow bones, and before that it might have been the chicken feet, and so I promise you I will not talk about the pigs’ head here. Instead, I will concentrate on celeriac, turnips, rutabagas, carrots, and potatoes. We have fresh spinach, too, at the Winter Farmers’ Market, which has been growing all season, since August and with no signs of ending between now and March, which used to be the hardest month. But this year, March will bring us fresh-grown greens of other kinds, the result of farmers knowing they would have a mid-winter market for their products. Hooray!!

I know that if you are a vegetarian you don’t eat things as big and messy as pig’s head, but when you say, “well, I’m eating vegetables and I am not harming a thing,” I wonder if you’re not thinking what a relativist statement that is. Anything that has to eat to stay alive eats other things that might wish to stay alive or have always just trusted that they WOULD stay alive. Perhaps – what do we know – even the turnip – not to speak of the little forms of life that are eating it, too.

I was up at the Farm Show in Barre the other day and picked up a bumper sticker from Rural Vermont’s booth: It reads Food with Dignity. What that means will differ, I dare say, with each of us, but what it means to me is, if you’re going to eat meat, please have the grace to see it in the field, on the hoof, and perhaps even participate in the process of taking it from the hoof to the table. And then? Eat it all! Even the livers.

...but I don’t eat meat...

And if you’re vegetarian or vegan? I like the way Sheryl Rapee-Adams thinks and writes in her blog, entitled Furry Learning Curve, at http://network.bestfriends.org/Blogs/Detail.aspx?b=1323 Although she was vegan for years and now lives mostly vegan along with a couple of carefully-sourced dairy and egg products, it is much to her level-headed credit that Sheryl is not content to rest on vegan laurels. Instead, she is thinking about what she IS eating while she’s NOT eating animal flesh or by-products. In a blog dated October 30, called “Vegan or Local,” she looks at some vegan products and their sources and compares them to the organic animal equivalents that are locally available to her. For instance, the “natural buttery-spread” she used instead of butter. Along with some down-to-earth comments on corporations and tracing the backgrounds of each of the ingredients in the “buttery spread” – each of which come from yet another corporation – she wonders, “Who am I really supporting when I buy Earth Balance? Am I helping animals by using this product instead of local, organic, Vermont butter from goats and cows with whom I am personally acquainted?”

Then she looks at Vermont Butter and Cheese, the company that makes the (delicious) butter she considered switching to. “The dollars earned for producing Vermont Butter & Cheese products support a small, private company and its Vermont employees... Spending dollars on their products also creates a demand for small operations that care about the animals who live and die for the products.”

In a blog entry named, “If you love animals called pets, why do you eat animals called dinner,” she writes, “Perhaps the quote should be something like, ‘If slaughterhouses had glass walls, the current predominant system for farming and slaughtering animals would change overnight.’ In another, she writes about Barbara Kingsolver’s book, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” in which Kingsolver pokes some rather rude fun at vegans. While providing a thoughtful review of the book, Sheryl takes Kingsolver gently to task for those passages: “I believe that Kingsolver's values are compatible with my own, and that her book can be a powerful (and delightfully written) teaching experience for everyone who wants to consume more consciously and live a little lighter on the earth. I feel sad because in belittling vegans, Kingsolver may have lost a chunk of her sympathetic audience.”

Sheryl’s a delightful and thoughtful writer. Check out that blog!

...a fowl roasting...

A pang of envy used to shoot right through me when I read of the bodies of food one might buy if one were Lyonnaise, and able to attend the winter street market in that smaller French city. A poultry seller had quail, pigeon, three kinds of chickens, duck, guinea hen, fresh magret de canard (duck breast), fresh duck and goose fat by the pot, her own duck gizzard confit, fresh gizzards, livers, and hearts, chicken wings, duck wings, necks of all the birds (for stuffing), various poultry and game carved and placed on brochettes for grilling, stuffed and tied rotis and galettes, rabbits – whole and parts – and, in season, small wild game of every kind you can imagine.

Oh, you might say, but she is not dealing with an American buyer. And if you did say that, then you would be surprised at the little knots of excitement at different corners of the Winter Farmers’ Market every Saturday, and if you wandered over you might see, as I did a couple of Saturdays ago, a woman considering a little corpse of a guinea hen, or Pintade, as it is called in France. It was, as seller Sue Carey explained, New York dressed, which meant that the little naked head and skinny legs and feet were still intact. The reason? To keep the fowl moist. Apparently this was the dressing desired by certain New York City chefs.

Ever helpful, I explained to the prospective buyer that they would be useful in making a stock of the bones once the pitiful, bluish little thing had been roasted. She glanced at me imperiously above her glasses and said, “I am NOT without cooking experience,” and went back to examining the fowl. I zipped my lip.

Just by happenstance, standing along with us in front of the bowl of ice and guinea fowl, was Wendy Jackson from the Red Brick Grill in Poultney. One of their regular dishes is pintade, and she told us how to prepare it – with a little cider! “Won’t that wilt the skin?” asked my imperious predecessor, still worrying over her guinea fowl, head and feet attached. “Oh, my, no,” said Wendy, “and if you spoon the drippings over it a couple of times the sugar in the cider will make the skin even crisper!” I wasn’t convinced, but was curious.

There was only one guinea fowl left in the bowl of ice, and I snatched it up – a skinny, bluish thing wrapped in plastic, totally unprepossessing. And mine was not French Dressed.

For the Pintade: Wash under cold water, pat dry. In an earthenware casserole pour some cider, put in a grill to keep the guinea fowl above the cider (I used a flat pierced cast-iron piece that keeps a roast above the drippings in a cast iron frying pan. Be imaginative). Place the fowl on the grill, breast side up. Dab butter over it, sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place around it 2 parboiled carrots cut in chunks; 1 shallot, sliced; and 2 cloves of garlic, sliced. Sprinkle fowl with cider. Roast at 375 for 20 minutes, baste with drippings, roast another 20 minutes. It will be glazed and crisp on top, cruelly white on the bottom. Turn it over, baste, and roast another 20 minutes.

This 2.08 pound thing turned out wonderfully, the skin mahogany colored and substantial, very crisp, even the breast that was closest to the steaming cider/broth for the last 20 minutes of cooking. The meat was tender and flavorful, with a faint appley sweetness, slightly darker, and possibly, but only slightly, chewier than chicken. It was moist, in spite of my having roasted it a full twenty minutes longer than Wendy instructed. I liked this dish very much, and Leo, with his discerning tastebuds thought it tasted like chicken.

...not pig’s head, but...

Later, I was glad to know that I had not scored the bird with the feet and head attached, because I found out that the entrails were also intact, as one horror-stricken buyer later informed me. I was puzzled by this, because although I am familiar with the practice of hanging a game bird whole for a week or so, until it smells foul and the feathers begin to fall out – this is called “developing the flavour” – I had never heard of a plastic-wrapped whole fowl, and could not begin to tease out the reasons for it.

Nor could Chef Robert of Café Provençe in Brandon, although, of course, that’s the way he had learned as an apprentice, in France. “My first dish in cooking school was a duck – which I had to clean. I had never cooked before and it made me a little sick.” But he mused that on his last trip to France, “no guts,” in the French kitchen. Musing on, Robert said, “The Chinese age ducks, but they are gutted.” And then he tells me something really interesting. “When you roast a woodcock the body is left whole and when it is done the entrails are taken from it and mashed with butter to make a little mousse, which is served on a crouton along with the roasted bird. But that is because every time a woodcock takes off it poops. So the entrails are very clean.” Now I’d known that woodcock entrails are meant to be eaten on a bit of toast (they are extremely small birds) but now I knew why!

...it all evens out in the end...

“So yes, you should eat mostly plants, but if you’re going to eat meat, your meat should eat mostly plants. And I think that’s really a big part of where we’ve gone wrong with raising cattle in this country: feeding them grain”... Michael Pollan in an interview in Gourmet Magazine.

...wait, wait, wait. what about that pig’s head...

I told you. I’m not talking about it!

This column was published in the Rutland (Vt) Herald on 02/05/08