Tuesday, April 29, 2008


...the moral of the morel...
A trinity of early spring foods have sprung up very early. It used to be Mothers’ Day when Lew Parquette would announce that first morel hunt – a little special something for my mother on her day – bags upon big brown grocery bags picked full of crenellated, brain-like, cone-shaped mushrooms for her to clean. Can you believe it? I can’t. Actually, it was my job to clean them – thousands of mushrooms bobbing in a great sink full of cold water – drudgery personified. Once I escaped that southwestern Michigan place to school, my mother would put them, in net bags, into the washing machine on gentle cycle. What a tedious job it was to clean those morels.
Here I am, talking of cleaning the things instead of the keen and totally involved excitement of hunting them, and the excruciatingly beautiful taste of them. I suppose that’s what comes of what almost seems like industrial foraging – I’ve never found that many morels since – but it’s also an indication of some numbing mind-set that I grew up with. All excitement and beauty must be tempered by duty and finally resentment.
Dad, an orphan, while seeking and desperately needing excitement and beauty, was so afraid of those qualities that he insisted we children eat hunks of bread with our morels in order to dilute whatever toxins the exotic things might have. At least he knew and taught us the beauty of them, and had the sense not to put them into a white sauce or stuff them into something or something into them. They were fried in butter. That was it! Yum! I mean YUMMMMM to the nth degree!
Leo’s mother, on the other hand, dipped morels into flour and then fried them. When we were first together, Leo and I fought desperately over which technique to use – he won, but only because I came to see that a bit of flour – or cornstarch – stiffened them into a nice crisp bite. I like a nice stiff bite.
Morels are liable to make you lewd. You’re out trespassing on a southeast-facing cliff composed of rocks with water seeping over them, and soil on top of that, and trees and leaf-litter on top of that, a few cows peering over the edge of the cliff at you, and there is that heart-stopping moment when, from the corner of your questing eye, you glimpse that first hump where the top leaves have been pushed up by something growing through them, that tell-tale, striated mottling of the crenellated brown and cream and gold crown, and the eye jerks back to it. Most often it’s nothing, some poplar seed necklace flung there, but once it IS a morel, that first one, you zero in on that and bend or kneel to pick it while your eye sweeps around 340 degrees, and there’s another at 10 o’clock and way in the periphery another at 7, and suddenly these mushrooms, these fungi, are popping up under your nose – where a moment before they weren’t, now they are. It begins to rain, and except for skidding in the muck as you stagger up the steep cliff to the next morel you hardly notice. And then it pours, and you take off your shirt – you would strip stark naked if need
be – to collect all the morels you’re finding as you struggle to take shelter under a ripped up rootball of a humongous tree that may head south down the slope at any moment. The dog hunkers beside you. “Finally!” he says, panting. “You should GROW up!”
And probably you should. There must be easier ways of finding mushrooms. Dad found them in old apple orchards under ancient trees, along stream banks, near the town of Breedsville, Michigan, where he was born. Why must I insist on climbing the roughest cliffs for them? Because that’s where we’ve always found them here. Well, except for those first Vermont morels that we discounted – because after all this was not Michigan – that grew around the stump of an elm that had died in our front yard. Wow, we said, those look just like morels but it can’t be, we’re in Vermont! I cannot believe how ignorant we were! Now we know there is no earthly reason to fear a morel, because it is one of those unmistakable mushrooms – nothing else looks like it.
Except they come in all sizes from an inch or so high to 4 inches, and from dark brown and cream to blonde – like P2’s holding here. They should be a regular conical shape, though.
I still clean them a bit, but never soak them in water. Just brush the outside of any forest loam or critters, then slice them in half and brush out the central hollow stem. Occasionally you’ll find a slug. Ugh. Just avert your eyes and scrape it out. A bit of flour and sizzling butter do wonders for slug slime.
And if, wonder of wonders, you find too many to eat, just let them dry on the mantel and eat them at any stage. My mother cooked them and froze them, if I remember correctly, which really doesn’t do much for their texture.

...romping in the ramps...
The prophetic connotation of things coming in threes, trios, certainly predates Christianity and lodges deep in our pagan consciousness – indeed, my dog may well think in terms of threes – and yet by using the word Trinity, because I liked the sound of it, I’ve given it a Christian connotation. And if we stick with that connotation, certainly the morel is God the Father, the central and most impressive of the three spring foods I’m talking about here. In that case, the ramp, the wild leek, would be, in my estimation, The Son.
The wild leek is a gorgeous plant with a pure white bulb, fringed with white and thread-like roots and enclosed in a slimy sac-skin, like any other allium or onion. The bulb shades at the throat into pink, into magenta and then spreads into wide, spear-like dark-green leaves that look for all the world like lily-of-the-valley.
It plants itself, again, on that rocky cliff, along with trillium and dog-lily, often wedging its bulb under rocks and roots and growing in a semi-circle with its siblings. The best way to harvest them is to stick a broad-bladed garden knife on the outside of the circle and nudge one out of the soil by pulling the stem towards the center of the circle while prying from the bottom.
The head snaps out, if you’re lucky, just where the roots attach to it. Wipe one off on your jeans, slough off the skin, and eat it immediately, then take a bunch home and spray them with the garden hose in the yard to get the slimy skins off them – the skins will clog a kitchen sink quicker’n scat! Put them in a big bowl with a little water in it – they make a beautiful edible bouquet. A leek literally cracks at the bite of the tooth – they’re crisper than the ultimate radish – and that’s why they’re so difficult to dig up, and the taste is sweet and garlicky and oniony. I like to eat them – again, my tastes are very simple – raw, dipped in sea salt, with some good aged gruyere and a hunk of crisp French bread either dipped in olive oil or slathered with butter.
...fiddlin’ with the fiddleheads...
Now the Ghost – and my amateur theology is no doubt completely wacko here – following this line, would be the fiddlehead. I think I like to pick them better than to eat them.
Just as they’re uncurling from the mother corm, still curled tightly together and each ensheathed in a copper paper, snap them off and take them home. Spray them with a hose in the yard to get as much as possible of the copper paper off them, for they, too, will clog a sink, then parboil them, drain them into a colander and spray off the rest of the copper sheath with cold water. Then you can sauté them, or make a fiddlehead quiche, or simply dress them with sliced leeks and a sweet ‘n’sour vinaigrette. They’re one of the first spring green things and their taste is grassy. I don’t dislike them – and I do very much like the quiche – but I don’t love them. But I find them, gather them, and eat them. That’s about all I can say.
I remember one spring day many years ago, when my daughter was perhaps a pre-teen, when I took a sharp right off Rt 7 coming home from Rutland, and she wanted to know, with dread in her voice, where we were going. When I told her I just wanted to see if the fiddleheads were ready yet, she positively yowled “Noooooooo-ooooo-ooo!” You would have thought she was kilt. Once out in the swamp, though, she became as engrossed as I in picking them. Okay, that’s enough, let’s go, I said. “Just one more fern,” she begged, crouching across the mulch. And then, a few years later – how time does fly – she arrived half an hour late to my house, saying, “I stopped to get some fiddleheads,” handing me a bag of the delicacies.
Michael Pollan notes that “foraging for wild plants and animals is, after all, the way the human species has fed itself for 99% of its time on earth.” In my opinion we are incomplete humans if we cannot connect with that ancient practice.
Dad didn’t know ramps from scallions, and scoffed at the idea of eating baby ferns, but nevertheless he awakened the concept of foraging in my heart with the luscious morel, and I awakened it in Zoe’s with fiddleheads and ramps. My son P2 is content to let someone else do the picking, but doesn’t mind eating the fruits of it or posing as a poseur – that’s him in 1985 with two big, blond morels that he didn’t find. The first time we sat down to a platter of butter-fried morels I urged him to try “just one,” and to his murmured “those aren’t bad,” and his reaching for his 5th in as many seconds, he got his hand smacked and an admonition that, in the future, “he who finds, eats!” and to take it a little easy. Shades of my dad, Lewis Parquette. P2 must be on the next rung of evolution, though, and manages just fine by waiting at the table to appreciate what others have found out in the muck.
...the heart of downtown rutland...
As many of you know, the dynamic and charismatic Rebecca Jeran-Ruben has stepped down from the increasingly demanding position of General Manager of the Co-op into that of Grocery Manager. Becca had been Interim GM since November of 2006, when one of her first gambles-that-won was to dramatically increase the Co-op’s inventory of products. Slowly that move blossomed, aided and abetted by the public’s response to Becca’s welcoming warmth and her untiring dedication to the Co-op’s mission of providing affordable access to good food and other products to members and the wider community.
Working with the Co-op’s active and energetic Board of Directors – of which I am very pleased to be a member – she added another primary aim – that of sourcing as much local and regional product from our local farmers and producers as possible, an action which, in the last year, has gained such momentum as to render the Co-op a completely changed marketplace from a year or so ago, and making it – as some people have mentioned to me with, and I kid you not, tears in their eyes – the downright Heart of Downtown Rutland.
Becca was not a manager who had to have her fingers deep in every pie. She had a very good idea of the limitations of her time and energy, and she did not look a gift horse in the mouth nor try to micromanage what others were perfectly capable of accomplishing. When a small group of us decided to work on getting a kitchen into the Co-op, and when the Farmers’ Market wanted to use the space in the back of the Co-op for a Winter Market, Becca gave the go-ahead with the caveat that she herself would not be able to micromanage the projects but would certainly facilitate them.
The Board became very active in these projects, no one more than Dennis Duhaime, Produce Manager, who acted tirelessly as job captain. Way less than a year after the original go-ahead decision was made, the beautiful new prep area and kitchen is finished – almost all of it built by volunteers incredibly generous with their skills and time; a wonderfully successful Winter Farmers' Market is just completing its first season under the leadership of Greg Cox and RAFFL; and the Co-op is in the midst of many energizing Downtown Rutland developments.
At just about the same time that Becca was making her decision, regretfully, to step down as GM, she made another momentous announcement – that the Co-op had just reached and surpassed the first $1 million in gross sales!
Now the Board of Directors – and it is hoped that Becca will become one of them – is deep into the exciting but daunting task of searching for a new dynamic and energetic GM to seize the reins and lead them into the exciting future to which these developments point.
But my full-fledged thanks go to Becca here, for making – and accepting the help offered – the last two Co-op years simply amazing.
...last chance...
The last Winter/Spring Farmers' Market will be indoors at the Co-op on May 3 from 10 to 2. That means May 10, the Saturday before Mothers Day, will be the first market back outside in Depot Park, and it promises to be bigger and better and even more festive than ever before. What a great year it's been!
See you there -- In and Out!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

spring can't come too soon

...will that circle be unbroken...
The untimely death of (Chef) Beat (Bee-aht) Schonbachler shook up circles upon circles of people all the way from Switzerland to Wallingford and Rutland and New York and, well, the world. It’s not that Beat was a self-important person who inflicted himself on others – far from it – he was so entirely unassuming and warm and genuinely interested in others that people loved him from the first time they laid eyes on him, and they passed him from one circle to another as though he were a gift. Suddenly, passing from one circle to another you, yourself, might see him in an entirely different milieu from the accustomed one and think, “Isn’t that Beat? Now what’s he doing here?”
That’s what his big brother, Stanti thought the first time Beat came to America, by plane, and then to Wallingford, by taxi! “That was maybe 15 years ago,” says Stanti now. “Beat and our friend Bruno got off the plane in Boston and – thinking in terms of Swiss distance – put up their hands and said, “Taxi!” Several hours later the lace curtains of the Victorian Inn at Wallingford were twitching as that taxi pulled into the drive. “Isn’t that Beat? Now what’s he doing here?” said Stanti and his wife, Soo, as they recollect bittersweetly today.
You might have known Beat as the acting Chef of the Victorian Inn and/or of the now closed eponymously named Stanti’s in Rutland, or, more recently, as a bartender at The Pub in Wallingford. Though he was 42, he was ‘that sweet boy’ to me.
When my son called me and told me of Beat’s death – speaking of circles – I immediately called Stanti and Soo to give them my tearful and shocked condolences and to ask what it was that I could do to help. Of course there was nothing! Of course Stanti and Soo were continuing on with the dinner/dance they had long planned for that night. Brunch would happen the next day, too, because, just like the theatre, this show must go on.
Nothing I could do! I took Stanti at his word, but when I stopped by the Inn’s kitchen later that night, there was Danny Constantino, who owns Constantino’s Italian Imports on Terrill Street – also a deli and grocery – standing there with his apron already on. He had been told the same thing as I– “No, no, there is nothing you can do” – but showed up anyway, prepared to work. And work he did. It’s what you do in times like these.
And then on Thursday, the day of Beat’s funeral, Danny stayed back at the Inn and headed up a crew – many of whom had come in from far-flung places simply to help – to create the incredibly tasty Italian brunch that mourners were met with in early afternoon, and that forced Stanti to, for once, take himself out of the kitchen. There was a funeral to attend – that show, too, must go on.
Some people were too enervated to do much more than hold a glass, but others, like me, exhausted and impatient with sadness and the roller-coaster and whirlpool of grief, filled up a plate with sausages and various salads and ate with friends, barely speaking. My friends left and I filled up another plate and ate alone and said, when asked, “I’m eating for Beat!” And I did feel that way – sustenance pulling me back from the unthinkable brink. And from the looks of the plates and depleted bruncheon spread – "there was not a morsel left,” Soo told me later – I wasn’t the only one. We filled it up and shoveled it in, and when we were satiated we ate a little bit more and afterward did indeed feel better, and able to talk and rejoice in the different circles of people who had come to feast and to mourn the Beat they had loved. And it didn’t harm the cause that the food was delicious.

...eggplant & verbiage...
One must be at the top of one’s game if one would like to feed oneself a luscious Constantino’s Eggplant Parm Sub from the Terrill Street store, because Danny hands out verbiage as liberally as he does food! He’s got a sharp tongue on him, he does, but it’s a humorous one, too. At least that’s what I tell myself. But the spoils go to the brave, and that eggplant parm is very, very good, and there’s enough of it to feed at least two hungry people! They’re also available at the little cubbyhole right by the Center Street Alley entrance, but they’re transported already made from the Terrill Street location: what you see is what you get. Eggplant Parm is my favorite, but there are soups and other sandwiches that others have raved about. But I’ll leave those to Randal Smathers, our inimitable La Dolce VT restaurant reviewer, to tell you about. And his gift-of-gab can stand up any day to Danny’s.
Those circles? Of life and food and death; of friends here and friends there and friends gone? I can only hope that Beat has caused them to interconnect and loop and stand together. There will be newcomers, too, Stanti and Soo hope, as they set up the Beat Schonbachler Culinary Foundation to help kids who are interested in culinary careers.

...the winter ten...
Early spring – what we are experiencing now – is a dirty thing of old leaves and other less mentionable yard detritus, yet with green spears poking out of the mess, and great, hot, long sun when it bothers to wake up, and the fascinating intermingling odors of rot and fresh growing things. Do not hesitate to pinch off these green spears and eat them, for they’re full of the elements we need to slough off winter, although you might feel like Nigel Slater, the British chef and food writer, when he said, “The only drawback is the feeling of having committed vegetable infanticide, as if you have just cooked the vegetable version of the jelly-legged baby calf.” My only fear is that I’ll pick so much sorrel that I’ll stunt its rebirth.
For that’s the first green eatable in my garden – that sorrel that I planted two kinds of last year, and told you about. There it is – pink and burgundy and green, and indisputably rejuvenating – among those dirty old leaves, from which, each day, I pluck several spears for my daily omelet.
A daily omelet? What madness is this?
Every year, about this time, I realize – and I know I’m not alone – that I have allowed too many sweet or starchy foods back into my life, accompanied by too few long walks, and I’m bulking up and simply don’t feel very well – logy and out of sorts and just... tired. Luckily, there’s a very simple and delicious solution to this quandary, and that is to completely cut carbohydrates out of the menu for a week or two and subsist on hearty salads swathed in unctuous dressings, plump and multitudinous cheeses, free range meats and wild-caught fish, and bright, plump eggs from organic and cage-free chickens. Oh, the agony, right? Well, no. You can have the hamburger, lose the bun. Still hungry? Have another hamburger. Eat until you’re satiated, eat protein and fat and leafy greens; leave the bread, potatoes, rice, pasta and sweetenings on the shelf.
An omelet is the perfect way to eat eggs without the toast, and sorrel and cheese the perfect filling for that omelet.

To Make A One-Person Omelet: Gather your sorrel or other herby greens – not too many – and grate your cheese – quite a lot, if you please – and crack two eggs into a bowl and whisk them just until the yolk and white are commingled. Put a small pan over high heat, and when it is hot add a knob of butter – a tablespoon or two – and when that melts tip the pan to lubricate the whole bottom and sides, and when the butter has turned brown pour the eggs in all at once. Shake the eggs to cover the whole bottom, and begin lifting the edges and tipping the pan so that the uncooked egg flows underneath. This takes a minute. Strew the sorrel or other leafy greens over the omelet, then the cheese, fold the omelet in half, turn the heat off and let the turned omelet sizzle for a moment, then flip it onto the other side and let it brown for a moment, then slide it onto a plate and grind some sea salt and pepper over it. Eat.
This takes, including the walk to the garden to pick the sorrel, 5 minutes. At most.
Richard Olney, whose words in
Simple French Food taught me to make and perfect this omelet, writes, “Finely chopped fresh marjoram will fuse with eggs to produce an omelet of singular fragrance. A handful of tender young sorrel leaves, raw and finely shredded, will, on the other hand, permeate the eggs with none of sorrel’s qualities, but, because of its disposition to ‘melt’ instantly in contact with heat, the effect of fragile, disembodied sourness laced in suspension through the body of the omelet is not less exciting.”

Eggs and butter together? Nothing finer. They come in handy combined asparagus and other spring vegetables, or even slathered over a steak, especially when they come in the form of an eggy and buttery Hollandaise Sauce: This recipe can be halved, the parts of it can be prepared and set up beforehand to be finished just as the asparagus is done steaming, and the fussy but tasty shallot and wine reduction omitted if you’re short of time. If it breaks or curdles whisk hot water into it, tablespoon by tablespoon. The recipe is from Saveur’s Beauty of Butter issue #109.

For the Reduction: Put into a skillet over medium-high heat, ¼ cup white wine vinegar; ¼ cup dry white wine; 10 black peppercorns; 1 large shallot, finely chopped, and simmer until reduced to about 2 tablespoons. Strain through a fine-meshed sieve and let cool.

Continuing: If you have a double boiler, use that, or find a pan that a large bowl can sit in without touching 2 inches of water in the bottom of the pan. I use my kitchen-aid metal bowl and a deep saucepan. Bring the water to a simmer in the pan. In the bowl, beat 8 large egg yolks and whisk in 1 cup melted and slightly cooled butter, along with a bit of salt if the butter is not salted, a squirt of Tabasco sauce if you like, and the reduction if you’ve made it. (As you can see, the essentials are egg yolks and butter, and perhaps salt.)

Set the bowl over the simmering water and whisk until it thickens – 4 or 5 minutes. Remove the bowl from the heat, and whisk in 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice and ¼ cup hot water until the sauce is smooth. Keep warm.

We slathered this on asparagus for my son’s birthday dinner, and dunked lobster bits into it instead of drawn butter. It was pretty good.

Now I’ve been gorging myself for a week on these omelets, and those sausages and unctuous salads, and cauliflower roasted in cream and cheese, and my carbohydrate cravings are gone, and my appetite has receded too. I’m halfway through losing those Winter Ten – pounds, that is, the usual suspects that show up every year – and well on my way to my goal in this coming week. I feel TONS better.

I’ll start adding things back into meals gradually, things such as beans, and spring and summer vegetables as they come along, yogurt, and my favorite, thinly sliced Bear Mountain Honey-Oatmeal bread once in awhile. And I’ll probably be on easy-street until I notice, next February (aargh!!) probably, that pasta has become a large part of our meals, and I’ll have to drop back into no-carb mode once again. Oh, what an awful prospect!!

...potluck, crapshoot...

Community dinners – Yumm! All that crisply roasted pork or ham or chicken, lovely vegetable casseroles, steaming hot cauldrons of mashed potatoes, tasty crisp succotash, something maple, homemade rolls. Well. We’ve been to a few lately that were, to put it mildly, disappointing: pork roasts that tasted like they’d been boiled; watery frozen vegetables from the bargain section of the supermarket freezer section; bought pies. Such is my faith in home cooks and their goodness, that I could hardly believe it.

But Garrison Keillor noticed the phenomenon, too, and put it into these words:

“We used to have a potluck culture in Minnesota – the sharing of food as a way of life, you do your best for me, I do my best for you. But it easily breaks down: If some folks bring homemade pies and others bring a gallon of factory-made potato salad, forget it, the potluck is over. If other people don't care to make something good, then why should we? And so Aunt Elsie's excellent fried chicken passes from the scene and we settle for a Barrel O' Breasts from KFC and meanwhile standards slip in the public schools and bankers hand out high-risk mortgages.”

Oh! So that’s how society went to hell in a handbasket!

Here’s to Spring, Readers! It can’t get here too soon!

First Published in Rutland (Vt) Herald 04/15/08

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The Right to Choose

For a few of us, drinking a tall glass of milk from the cow we or someone close to us milked last night is as natural as eating the green beans we just picked from our garden. And if we don’t drink milk, then ladling off some cream to pour over our oatmeal or into our coffee is just the way it is. Goldie’s out there in the barn getting ready to have a little snack and to give milk again, and we’re eating breakfast and will shortly pull on our barn jacket and step into our barn boots and get on with the business of the day. Or our neighbor will. We don’t even think about it. It’s just the way things are, and it’s just the way they should be – down home, close to the bone, not even a conscious choice.

But for the majority of us that’s not the case. We get our milk or our coffee cream from the refrigerator case from the store, and for the majority of us that’s not a choice, either. It’s just the way it is. We don’t give it a thought.

Given a choice between store-bought and farm fresh milk, most of us would continue on our well-trodden path, that way of doing something that is so familiar we don’t need to take any of our scarce-afforded, already chock-full time to think about it. But, forced to make a choice? Now that’s another thing. The two sides part from the mainstream, and that’s good – it’s good to be informed and to make choices for one’s self and demand to be able to make those choices. But some swerve so drastically they become a fringe, a lunatic fringe given to hyperbole – which doesn’t prove their point – and hatefulness. That’s when we’re apt to get pompous about it, authoritarian and paternalistic and bossy and worried about others who didn’t make the same choice we did. Those people are doomed, we say – either from drinking the milk of many cows from many farms that has had the last vestiges of life boiled out of it, or from getting so dewy eyed about sweet little Bossy they don’t realize the deadly germs that may lurk in her milk.

...not a song, but a thread...

But the important thing here is to protect our right to choose. And that’s what the Farm Fresh Milk Restoration Act of 2008 attempts to do. The name sounds like a song by Bruce Springsteen or an essay by Thomas Jefferson, doesn’t it? But no, it was written by Vermont farmers in cooperation with Rural Vermont, an organization that works ceaselessly in its quest to keep Vermont green and covered with farms, more power to them, and may they succeed. They’re the ones who worked with George Schenk, my old and revered friend of American Flatbread fame, a poet and an entrepreneur, a baker and a earth hearth maker, to allow your neighbor to sell up to 100 chickens to you and your favorite restaurant without the state or federal inspection which is prohibitive to small farmers. A preferable chicken any day to one stuffed into a cage under a roof all its born days.

But the main responsibility of the Farm Fresh Milk Restoration Act of 2008 is to the farms, to help them become more viable and successful, which means producing good and healthy food to satisfy demand. If a dairy farmer who is pinched in all her dealings with middlemen and state and federal agencies when she sells her milk to be pasteurized and homogenized by Big Dairy interests, had the chance to sell unpasteurized milk right off the farm at an average of $5 per gallon to people who are clamoring for it, wouldn’t that make her life business a heck of a lot more satisfying? And wouldn’t that satisfy a demand in the community for farm fresh milk? Yes, indeed, it would.

So Rural Vermont and the farmers designed this bill to allow the farmer to sell as much unpasteurized milk as he could to people who came to his farm to buy it, and he could advertise, and he would abide by a set of standards to ensure milk quality and safety and submit to inspection twice a year by a committee of his peers and experts, who would in turn report to a state committee – neither of these committees to be governmental committees.

And here’s what happened to it, as far as I can gather. The House Committee on Agriculture took a really good look at it, listened to lots of testimony both pro and con, much of it from people who said raw milk will kill you or raw milk will cure you, then doubled the amount of unpasteurized milk a farmer can sell – to 50 quarts a day. In the process they realized that the ban on advertising was unconstitutional – First Amendment stuff, freedom of speech – so up go those roadside signs and notices on bulletin boards.

But the real sticking point was they could not decide if the Agency of Agriculture – whose charge it is to protect the public’s health – MUST be involved in oversight, at least by a thread. And then the bell rang, and it was time to send this bill to the Senate. And nothing, NOTHING, must interfere with that transferal.

So what we have is not enough to free a small farmer from Big Dairy interests, but just enough to enable an even smaller farmer to sell enough milk to get by. All, though, every last one of them, want an overseer made up of their own peers, to make sure that a “dirty” farmer does not cast shame upon all of their good efforts by causing illness. They so totally distrust government bureaucrats, who often act as bullies, but they will sooo have to get over it, because it looks like the Agency of Ag MUST and WILL be involved, at least by a thread, not that the agency, itself, is all that keen on adding a whole new level of jurisdiction to its manpower and budgetary duties. So. Let it be a thread.

...those who care...

Not everyone is worried and disappointed. “I would be mortified,” said Stacey Elliot of Chittenden, “if anyone got sick from MY milk! We’re so careful about how we milk, how we take care of the animals and their health, and most small producers feel the same way. So the lack of oversight doesn’t really bother me because I know I’m doing a really good job.” Stacey and her husband, Tim, have a tiny but busy farm in Chittenden, with chickens, pigs and, since the promise of doubling the amount of milk and the right to advertise, TWO cows. “We’re almost selling out of Godiva’s milk, so we went out and purchased a new Jersey last weekend.”

At the present average of $5 per gallon charged by most farmers for unpasteurized milk, even 87 gallons could bring in close to $500 extra per week which, though a pittance in farm money parlance, could go some way towards healing the sting of those constant breakdowns of machinery that are such an aggravation in the farmer’s life.

“But,” says, Lisa Kaiman of Jersey Girls Dairy in Chester, who is the sine qua non of the unpasteurized milk revolution in Vermont, “it doesn’t go nearly far enough.” Lisa milks 20 to 22 Jerseys morning and night, 4 at a time in her pristine milking parlor and sells most of the milk to an organic dairy – “And I don’t make a cent,” she claims – and the rest to enthusiastic customers who drive up her rutted road to buy the milk Farm Fresh. Lisa spent an enormous amount of time working with Rural Vermont formulating the Farm Fresh Milk Restoration Act of 2008 over the last 3 or 4 years, and she is desperately disappointed that she won’t be allowed to convert to selling all of her milk from the farm. At least this year. Everyone concerned is hoping against hope that ALL of the Farm Fresh Milk Restoration Act of 2008 will become a reality in 2009.

Lisa’s little Jerseys are beautiful and calm and friendly. Perhaps I became overzealous as I petted one’s big golden head and neck, for she wrapped them right around me and nearly lifted me off my feet. Lisa laughed. “She wants to climb right into your lap,” she said.

John Pollard’s story is slightly more dire. He plunked his dozen or so sweet little hand-milked Jerseys down on an isolated Mount Holly farm last year, and does not sell their milk to Big Dairy, but only to his own so-far-short list of farm fresh milk customers. His milking parlor is so clean I wondered where he milked his cows! I would have no qualms about spreading a gingham cloth and picnicking there.

But he doesn’t seem discouraged, and he does have hope for next year. “Legislators are hearing that more and more people are demanding the personal freedom to choose their own food and a year from now I think they’re going to hear it even stronger.”

I spoke to some passionate drinkers of unpasteurized milk. Jaynie Smith in Springfield, told me, “I buy my milk from Lisa because I know how she treats and feeds her cows and also how careful she is when she milks.” Jaynie was a registered Sanitation and Health Inspector in Massachusetts before she moved to Vermont, and it’s ironic that she describes herself as “... a bit of a germaphobe before I got trained. But the more I learned, the more I realized how important it is to build up our immunity, both by eating live foods and by exposing ourselves to the real world and not this sterilized world so many people embrace.” She’s not happy that the testing and standards have been stripped from this year’s milk bill. “I think that the testing was the public's safety net from preventing just any farm from selling their milk. There are many many farms that I have visited that I wouldn’t think of drinking milk out of their bulk tank.”

That observation is worth following up. “Pasteurization ... gave farmers license to be unsanitary,” Nathanael Johnson writes in his excellent article in the April Harper’s called “The Revolution Will Not be Pasteurized”. Read it to get a new perspective on the synergy between human bodies and microbes, especially those provided to us by raw milk, which Johnson calls the “ur-food”. He quotes an expert as saying, “bacteria are... so important (to us) that researchers studying the microbes living inside us say it’s unclear where our bodily functions end and the functions of microbes begin.” Think about that. Does a wound heal, does an eye blink, because our body functions that way or because it benefits a body of microbes – those very microbes that are being pasteurized out of our food supply – to make it happen?

Jaynie has a nice perspective on pasteurization. “Pasteurized milk is a mixed bag,” she says. “It’s like a Petri dish – you’re basically sterilizing everything, and hoping that it won’t get contaminated after sterilization, because it’s a bacteria breeding ground, there’s no competition. Raw milk has it’s own fighting-back capability.” And that’s no laughing matter: two people died in Massachusetts just after Christmas from drinking contaminated pasteurized milk. This is liable to happen more often as we continue to put more trust in zapping our food to kill bad bacteria, and pay no attention or little to the processing of it.

David Gumpert wrote an article for the Sunday Boston Globe a few weeks ago called “Got Raw Milk?” and conducts a lively conversation about the subject on his blog, thecompletepatient.com, He says, “The CDC doesn’t seem to know which foods cause the 76 million (annual, food-borne) illnesses, but based on various studies, the main culprits are deli meats, hamburger, seafood, and various prepared foods from restaurants and fast-food outlets. I don’t hear anyone proposing to prohibit children from consuming any of these foods.”

Why do some continue to see only danger instead of benefit in unpasteurized milk? “Our public health and medical establishments continue to operate under assumptions stemming from outbreaks of illness a century and more ago,” Gumpert writes. “The reality today, thanks to refrigeration, improved sanitation, mechanization, and a serious commitment to quality by a segment of dairy farmers, is much different, and much less threatening.

“Of the benefits of raw milk, most proponents agree that milk in its natural state is full of beneficial enzymes, vitamins, proteins, and bacteria - most of which are altered or killed off by pasteurization. A growing body of evidence from university research conducted around the world suggests these nutrients help counter conditions as diverse as asthma, allergies, colitis, and diabetes.” In other words, all the chronic illnesses that have crept up on us over the last fifty to 100 years.

One of the tenets of the original Farm Fresh Milk Restoration Act of 2008 stipulates that consumers should buy their milk directly from the farmer, and suggests some guidelines to look for when you visit the farm. Make sure that cows graze on pasture when possible and are fed hay when in barns during winter; that cows receive minerals as supplements or from mineralized soils and plants; that grain feeding is a minor dietary component; that teats of cows are clean and dry before milking; that cows are milked in a clean barn or milking parlor; that milk is kept chilled; and that farmers are working “in tune with nature” to ensure the absence of pathogens – that is, cows are not pushed to produce large quantities of milk, the soil is fertile, and cows live in a low stress environment.

Indeed, when I spoke to Chuck Gregory, who has written several letters to the editor of the Herald warning of the dangers of raw milk, he said that he had grown up drinking raw milk and had never been ill from it. His concern, he said, “is for young parents who latch onto the latest fashion, thinking it sounds cool, and say ‘oh, let’s go get some raw milk,’ never thinking to inspect the cows and the milking process.” Which of course we all agree with, but it is a good reminder.

As is this: the goal of increasing the amount of raw milk that can be sold in Vermont is not to take pasteurized milk off the shelves, or to convert pasteurized milk drinkers to unpasteurized, but to give consumers the choice and the right to buy from their local farmers those foods they choose to consume. Prohibition of any food, whatsoever, creates cognitive dissonance in this brain!

Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the Senate approves the slim bill this year, and that both Houses buckle down with Rural Vermont to finish it next year, to provide a wholly satisfying Farm Fresh Milk Restoration Act of 2009!

Thank you, Rural Vermont.

this column originally published in the Rutland (Vt) Herald on 4/01/08