Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Of Mices and Spices


It is that time of year when we continually bait the mouse traps and wait for the snap, and then the flip-flop. A mouse, taken by the neck just as it prepares to enjoy an agreeable tidbit – it can’t be pleasant. But they become untenable, with their nibbling and constant leavings in our butter dish until, with growing dread, we finally bait the mousetrap, than which nothing has been found to be more effective if not humane, and find, next morning, the big mouse, the daddy mouse; the next, a smaller one; and finally, a hungry baby. A shame, but how do we live amicably side by side, the mouses and us.

Ironically, I bait the first mousetrap only hours after sitting at my computer and tearing up over the videos on the Humane Society website of the cows being mistreated so horribly by people who have lost their humanity – the videos that prompted the belated recall of 143 million pounds of beef. These are hard to watch, but I encourage everyone to take their sensibilities in hand and just do it, because it’s easy to KNOW what goes on in the big Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, from which we get most of the meat we buy in grocery stores, but we don’t FEEL it until we watch it. If we don’t immediately become vegetarian after watching, we will at least think twice about buying any but free-range meats that our accountable neighbors have raised. Because carnivores eat free animals, they don’t torture them.

The half a pig I had just acquired had been content during his life – his owner had warmed up the neighbor’s milk and fed it to him and his two doomed compatriots, and she had woken in the middle of the coldest nights to warm water to give them to drink. She had fed them the best of food, and scraped their bristly backs until they oinked with pleasure. She adored them, but she was admittedly relieved when it came time to say goodbye. They were a LOT of work.

I thought of the life taken, especially when I was up to my elbows mixing sausage meat, rendering lard, or looking over the butcher’s shoulder to make sure he was cutting it up the way I wanted it done. After watching the videos, and seeing one of his kind trapped in a cage, the size of which exactly conformed to his body, where he would spend his entire short life, raging insanely at the bars in his misery, I was glad that mine was raised kindly, but still I had no appetite for pork for awhile, nor anything else, not even a turnip.

So where is my cruelty line drawn if – even in desperation – I set a mouse trap? Is it okay just because a mouse is smaller than a pig, a cow, or even a chicken? What I’m doing here, of course, is posing the question of whether or not our quibbling decisions about what KINDS of things to eat or kill actually do not all come down to size. Small, indeed infinitesimal, animals eat vegetables, and when we eat vegetables we eat the teensie things, too. Anyone who has ever pondered the limits of time or space perhaps recognizes that universes exist not only outward towards the stars and immensity, but inward to infinitesimally smaller worlds, and there is reason to assume that the inhabitants of each assumes itself to have the right to continue to exist. A pig, a rutabaga, a microorganism, stardust, you, I... The mouse!

But back to my mousing conundrum. Responses from various friends, many of whom live in old houses like mine with inexhaustible crevices and passageways for small critters, recommend keeping a cat. While I admire cats from a distance, I do not admire their litter-filled accoutrement. Furthermore, given a choice between a playful guillotine with claws and a nice crisp trap, I’d head towards the trap any old day. Nor does being glued to a piece of sticky paper for an interminable length of time attract me. Ditto eating poison, no matter how cheese-flavored, becoming desperate for water and smelling up the walls for, as one person told me, “a really very short amount of time.” Considering.

BANG! goes the trap. Using garden gloves and kitchen tongs I toss them off into the snow under the crabapple tree. And I tell you, those little bodies have disappeared within an hour or two, or at least by next morning, because we live in a world of hungry carnivores, all of whom eat to live. At least the mouse does not go to waste. What more could anyone ask?

...appetite redux...

The Wallingford Locker is looking really good these days, from the inviting new sign painted by Donna Wilkins, chief honcho and artist of Foggy Creek Folk Art, and the gracious porch/walkway, to a larger selling floor, and yes, their new local products! “Look! Look what we’ve got!” Donny shouted when I walked in the door the other day, pointing toward the back freezer: Free-range, grass-fed Black Angus beef from Pawlet’s Maple Tree Farm, processed by Locust Grove in Argyll, New York.

Yes! I crowed.

“We’re just trying it out, seeing if there’s a market for it,” he grumbled. “It’s expensive,” he groused.

Way to sell me, Donny! Let’s hear WHY I should buy this expensive beef. Maybe because it’s eaten grass or hay up to the very end of its happy life; it’s not shot full of antibiotics and hormones, opens a pathway to healthy food that will become less expensive as more is sold and infrastructure, such as slaughterhouses, is built to satisfy demand; pays the farmer a living wage, encourages other people to become farmers, keeps farmland open and free of development, improves the health of the soil. Oh, and by the way, it really IS delicious.

Donny’s wife, Holly, was positively beaming about carrying more local products. Gorgeously decorated cookies, for instance, from the Mt. Holly business, A Dozen Eggs. And from what I gather, the Locker will be the only place to get Burnham Hollow Pies now that the store has closed on Woodstock Avenue. They continue to carry Stonewood Farm Turkey products, and eggs from upstate. But the new product the whole Keeler/ Hagenlocher gang at the Locker is most excited about is one they’ve created – Wallingford Locker Cob-Smoked Cheddar Cheese! Now that should be a big-seller!

...yoo hoo, brunch is on...

Come this Saturday to a Winter Brunch Fundraiser held by Rural Vermont at the Winter Farmers’ Market in the back of the Co-op. We’ll be serving dishes inspired by Rural Vermont’s Local Foods Cookbook including Butternut Squash Soup, Vegetarian or Meat Strata, and Maple Apple Crisp, and of course most of the ingredients will come from market vendors. Full spread, $10 or individual items $3 to $4. All proceeds benefit that wonderfully effective organization, Rural Vermont. 802/223-7222. Brunch 11 to 1; Winter Market 10 to 2.

...nice spices...

The tastes, no matter how minute, of morels, wild leeks or ramps, fiddleheads, dandelion greens, hover in our comparatively near future. It is my considered opinion that even homeopathic amounts of whatever is in these foraged foods are important to our health and well-being, and so I imagine that is true also of some tastes that recently tempted me, and are available year around, dried, at any well-stocked health food store or Co-op to make Five Spice Powder. Measure out 1 oz star anise; 1 oz cassia or cinnamon; 1 oz or 5 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns (smells like orange peel); 1 oz cumin seeds; ½ oz. cloves; ¼ oz (black)coriander seeds (or seeds from about 5 or 6 pods) and put each, separately, into a flat-bottomed pan over low heat, shaking occasionally, until they give off their aroma. Pour them into a bowl once they’ve reached the odiferous point and let cool. Then grind in a coffee grinder or mortar with pestle. Use on ... well, anything. I made up a new snack of dipping dehydrated banana slices in the spices and eating them with a few roasted peanuts. Yum! Normal people use Five Spice to flavor rice, lentils, yogurt, and other foods to give an eastern or middle-eastern taste. I was reminded of it vis a vis braised pork belly.

...MFK Fisher on cauliflower...

“There in Dijon, the cauliflowers were small and very succulent, grown in that ancient soil. I separated the flowerlets and dropped them in boiling water for just a few minutes. Then I drained them, and put them in a wide shallow casserole, and covered them with heavy cream and a thick sprinkling of freshly grated Gruyere, the nice rubbery kind that didn’t come from Switzerland at all, but from the Jura. It was called râpé in the market, and was grated while you watched, in a soft cloudy pile, onto your piece of paper.”

This is another instance where it is necessary to read the author’s words in order to make a dish turn out as succulently as it should. I KNOW how to do it, but if I don’t read MFK’s words first it doesn’t work. She continues:

“I put some fresh pepper over the top, and in a way I can’t remember now the little tin oven heated the whole thing and melted the cheese and browned it. As soon as that had happened we ate it. The cream and cheese had come together into a perfect sauce, and the little flowers were tender and fresh.”

Darn Tootin! This is a perfect dish, all we need for supper, with the leftovers for lunch!

...what’s cookin’ rutland...

After months of work, trial and error, lines in the sand, and misfortunes that threatened to bring the project to a standstill, a small group of civilians working with PEG TV has managed to get Rutland’s first cooking show, featuring – what else – local food, on air.

PEG TV built a dream kitchen – that wide granite counter needs to be in MY kitchen – that will be available to anyone who lusts to become the next Julia Child – Whoops! Catch that chicken! – after signing up for a video training session, that is. But What’s Cookin’ Rutland is the name of the regularly scheduled show we’ve all been working on, sponsored by Chaffee Art Center and featuring Whitney Lamy as the host and Greg Cox as the regularly visiting farmer, with guest chefs – both home and restaurant – to be taped before a live audience on the third Monday of each month. Well, usually. May’s taping will be on the 12th. Our own Randal Smathers, Managing Editor of the Herald, will be cooking with the Localvores on March 17th. You can get tickets for it by calling the Chaffee at 775-0356. Suggested donation, $10.

Now, besides that first taping, the show will be seen on Channel 15 Saturday evenings at 8PM and intermittently throughout the month. You can also catch it online at pegtv.com through their streaming video service, or download it by clicking video on demand.

The first show, featuring Clarke Congdon, chef at Sabby’s, winner of last summer’s Iron Chef Contest, should be available as we speak!

This column was published in the Rutland (Vt) Herald on03/04/08

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