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

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