Tuesday, May 27, 2008

For Governor: A Man with Food and Farm Savvy

For someone who grew up in New Jersey, “in farm country but not on a farm,” Anthony Pollina has certainly been successful in facilitating a voice for Vermont’s farmers in the time that he and his wife, Deb Wolf, have made Vermont their home, some 30 years now.

And on the other end of the food chain he’s not a bad cook, either, though he hastens to say that he and Deb both cook, and she does the bulk of it. But when Deb took their daughters, Maya and Allessandra, skiing on winter Sunday afternoons, Anthony, who says he’s “not really big on downhill skiing,” would stay home and cook for them. On the way home from the slopes, famished, they’d often call to see what he’d made them. “They’d be greeted by the smells of roast chicken as they came through the door,” he told me recently. “Food is culture,” he says, “Comfort. Food has the ability to help us transcend bad moods and problems. While the girls were growing up we always sat down to dinner together. Lots of times when I had meetings or the campaign trail kept me going late, I’d arrive home and they’d be waiting supper for me.” There’s a little wonderment in his voice at that moment. Gratefulness. It’s a good memory.

The girls have grown up and are off on their own now, but they still return home and, taking after the examples of both their parents, esteem the culture of food, often cooking meals for the family on their visits, especially now when both Anthony and Deb are hot on the campaign trail for Governor.

I first met Deb and Anthony a few weeks ago at an open house in Pawlet and found them both sincere, warm people, passionate in their quest, calmly telling stories about consensus – helping farmers get together to work for their own greater good; and telling of the role Anthony played in starting The Vermont Milk Company – a farmer-controlled plant that skips the middleman to produce real Vermont ice cream, cheddar cheese, and yogurt.

Anthony founded Rural Vermont, as well, a statewide farm and rural-advocacy organization that has been a national leader in dairy policy and free trade, working to outlaw GM seeds and bovine growth hormone. Rural Vermont is the reason you can buy a chicken to roast directly from the farmer; the reason that Vermont farmers will be well-situated to grow the valuable crop of hemp as soon as the federal government allows it, if the governor signs the bill. The hemp bill was enthusiastically endorsed by the legislature but is sitting on the present governor’s desk right now. If he doesn’t sign it, it’s just another veto, another of his passive votes against Vermont’s farmers.

Rural Vermont is the reason the excellent Vermont dairy farmer can sell up to 50 quarts of farm fresh milk each day directly to the consumer who wants it.

As we drove down to Pawlet I was happy to be about to meet the person who was so instrumental in working on these important food and agriculture programs, and also remembering an interview in Salon.com with Alice Waters I’d read just a few days before. She was disappointed that none of the presidential candidates were talking about exactly those subjects – food and agriculture. “They're talking about the diets of children, but they're talking about Band-Aids. We're not seeing a vision,” she said, and the reason for that was, “because we have been thoroughly indoctrinated to believe that food is not important.” I suspected that Anthony Pollina did not fit into that category, and I wondered what changes he would make in the system if he was elected Governor.

I didn’t have time to talk to him a great deal at the open house, but when I called him a few days ago he was forthcoming in his easy-going, conversational way. He’s the kind of guy you feel like you’ve known all your life. I peppered him with questions.

“I want to work with the dairy farmers to find a way to take some of the milk off the commodity market and keep it in Vermont.” He stressed that this is not something the state would finance, but would facilitate the farmer/entrepreneurs to do themselves. “We’ll find ways to invest in infrastructure so farmers can process their own products and retain more value in what they sell. And not just in dairy. We need regional meat processing plants. We need a distribution network.”

He talks about establishing a Vermont Fair Trade Label for products that people in the big northeast cities would look for, knowing that it appeared on excellent products for which farmers received a fair price. “A market study was done on Fair Trade fluid milk which found there was a significant market in Boston, for which people would pay significantly more because it would be locally identified, free of synthetic hormones, and priced fairly, just as they do for Fair Trade chocolate and coffee,” he told me.

So Monsatan is not your idea of a good company? I asked slyly.

“Monsanto would have no place in our Vermont. They want to bend nature to their liking, and they want to own and control food,” he said. “Bigger is not necessarily better,” he mused. “What we are relearning in Vermont is what worked and came naturally years ago. Nature works, and if we work with nature we will have a food supply that is adequate and healthy.”

The Pollina’s vegetable garden used to be quite substantial. It’s smaller now, and Deb does most of the gardening. But the girls are grown, their lives are busy, and there’s always the farmers’ market. “We go to the farmers market every Saturday if we’re not involved in something else. It’s a cultural thing. Social. We see a lot of our friends there, many of whom are farmers. It’s the thing to do.”

Like many Vermonters I know that it’s essential to move our present governor out from under the golden dome in Montpelier. Vermont stands still while he’s there. I didn’t talk directly to Anthony – Governor Pollina, I trust – about health care, the economy, energy, or anything, really, except farms and food, but the health of our farms and food economy has direct implications for everything else in our little rural state. Which brings me back to Alice Waters: “’The destiny of nations depends on how we feed ourselves’" she quoted Brillat-Savarin, then continued, “That's a really important thing. I want whoever's running for president to say that. The destiny of our nation depends on how we nourish ourselves.”

I want whoever is running for Vermont’s governor to say that, too, and Anthony Pollina obliges, in spades, and with history to back him up.


Most years these first few weeks of the Farmers’ Market in Depot Park are pretty sparse. There used to be a ceremony of one or another city notable throwing out the first radish. I believe it was discontinued because there were never any radishes, but this year it might happen again!

Besides planting fall crops to keep the winter Farmers’ Market going all year, farmers are learning they have a bigger customer base and how to provide for it. Other reasons there’s so much produce at the beginning of the season? Greg Cox tells me “Farmers are pushing the envelope, growing in sealed tunnels, using remay to protect the seedlings, all because there’s a lot more consumer demand. Local food is becoming competitive in price again, as well as being far fresher and better tasting. All because of energy and transportation costs.”

As well as fat red radishes there are baby beets, full-blown lettuces as beautiful as flowers, micro-greens, and all kinds of cheeses, meats, real flowers, bedding plants and breads and baked goods. The Rutland Farmers’ Market is bigger than ever, too, extending another fifty feet north, to accommodate the growing number of vendors. Be there or be square!

... a humble pie for gentler chiders...

It wasn’t with a great deal of excitement that I wrote about fiddleheads several weeks ago, and I’ve been gently chided for that (thank you, Gentle Chiders), but later I did make a fiddlehead quiche and it was extraordinarily good. Of course, I did have some ramps. I sautéed them to put beneath the fiddleheads, and their flavor permeated the pie, making it at once elegant and humble. If you’re not in a microclimate in which you can still get fiddleheads, the Co-op does have them, and they also have copies of this recipe:

Make a single 9 inch crust: (I always make crust in the food processor.)

1 cup (5 oz) all purpose flour
1 scant teaspoon sea salt
1/3 cup butter or lard or mixture (3 oz)
2 tablespoons +/- cold water

Whisk the flour and salt together, then cut in the fats until pebbly, and stir in enough water to allow it to come together into a smooth ball. Roll out and fit into a large pie plate (mine is 10" in diameter and 1" deep). Set aside or in the freezer.

To Make the Filling:

The formula for any kind of custard is 1 egg +1 yolk + 1 cup whole milk or mixture of milk and half and half. I used unpasteurized whole milk, and it was very creamy. I also added an extra yolk to help with that extra 1/2 cup of milk. The finished quiche had that wonderful custard that separates into soft rectangles of goodness. That has a lot to do with the egg/milk quality plus the regulation of temperature.
Bring the oven to 450 degrees.
1 dozen ramps OR 1 large shallot or 1 dozen scallions + 2 cloves of garlic
butter and olive oil
2 ½ cups cleaned fiddleheads
1 cup grated cheddar cheese (or more)
¾ cup sliced spicy sausage, or crumbled bulk, cooked rare
1 large egg + 2 yolks
1 ½ cups creamy milk
½ teaspoon sea salt
grating of nutmeg

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

In a sauté pan, over low heat, sauté the ramps or scallions and garlic in butter and olive oil until limp and slightly golden. Add a little water or white wine if they’re browning too fast and aren’t getting soft fast enough. Remove from heat and let cool a bit.

When the pot of water is boiling dump in the fiddleheads, partially cover, bring back to the boil and boil for 3 minutes. Drain in a colander and spray with cold water. Shake the colander to get any excess water off, then let drain over the sink until ready to use.

Whisk the eggs together so they are well combined but not frothy, then whisk in the milk, salt, and nutmeg.

Scatter the cheese over the bottom of the pie crust, spread the ramps or onion mixture evenly over the cheese, scatter the sausage and then the fiddleheads over that, then pour over the milk/egg mixture.

Bake at 450 degrees for 10 minutes; then turn the oven down to 325 degrees and bake for another 20 minutes to half an hour. A silver knife will slide in and out cleanly when done.

...5 Mondays with Peter in June...

When I walk into the Co-op and see Peter McGann behind the cash register my eyes immediately flash to the counter to see what goodies he’s prepared for his customers today: Will it be his famous potato omelette, Tortilla Espagnola? Jalapeno Cornbread and salsa? Guacamole? Whatever it is you know it’ll be delicious. Peter has studied Japanese cooking with Elizabeth Andoh, Mexican with Diana Kennedy, Far Eastern with Paula Wolfert, and others. Somehow he’s learned all their tricks, and if you’re quick you might learn them from him. He’ll be giving cooking demonstrations and hands-on lessons in the Co-op’s new kitchen on the 5 Mondays of June, Starting with Spanish, and traveling on through Japanese, Mexican, Moroccan, and Italian. There’ll be 8 to 10 lucky students in each 5PM to 8PM class, which are filling up quickly. $25 per session or $100 for the series.

...local or organic...

I love this pin! “Know Your Chicken,” it says. People are puzzled by it, but it means, know where your food comes from.

Joel Salatin, the dynamic speaker at the Rural Vermont Annual Meeting a few weeks ago in South Royalton, the Virginia farmer of Polyface Farm made famous by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, sheds some light on this matter: “We never called ourselves organic – we call ourselves ‘beyond organic.’ Why dumb down to a lesser level than we are? If I said I was organic, people would fuss at me for getting feed corn from a neighbor who might be using atrazine. Well, I would much rather use my money to keep my neighborhood productive and healthy than export my dollars five hundred miles away to get ‘pure product’ that’s really coated in diesel fuel. There are a whole lot more variables in making the right decision than does the chicken feed have chemicals or not. Like what sort of habitat is going to allow that chicken to express its physiological distinctiveness? A ten-thousand-bird shed that stinks to high heaven or a new paddock of fresh green grass every day? Now which chicken shall we call ‘organic’? I’m afraid you’ll have to ask the government, because now they own the word.”

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

...for want of a hamburger...

Nick Ronfeld and Kim Stewart have their way with Chicken Marsala over Linguini

Where we used to TGIF immoderately and with great enthusiasm at the Back Home Café – the original – back in The Day, nowadays we’ve formed a habit of walking down to Sal’s South in Wallingford to have a carafe of red wine and a bite to eat. It’s a most enjoyable thing to do, as well as prudent if the carafe is a large one – we can walk home. Walking is good after celebrating, almost as good as dancing.

But the point of this whole thing is that I find myself unfairly stigmatized because I ordered a hamburger the other gorgeous evening, sitting on the big stone patio and watching the sunset. Yes, of course, Sal’s is known for their pasta dishes, the delicious Chicken Marsala (with mushrooms) over linguini, for instance. But sometimes a person just wants a bit of protein without all the starch and cream so, though I searched the menu over for that very thing and did not find it, I knew there must be a hamburger hiding there somewhere.

Not only that, but Kim, who once was my favorite waitress in the world, waited patiently while I said I wanted a hamburger, even egged me on, asked me, with one arched eyebrow, “And how would you like that done,” and stood by patiently as I decided that it would be medium instead of medium rare, and asked her – rather, told her – that of course that would be free-range beef, right? Maybe from Ann Tiplady’s farm down on Hartsboro. “Oh,” I added, no bun, of course, but “with a thick slice of onion?” Kim stood there with her pen held over her pad. I noticed she wasn’t writing. It was getting busy. She’d humored me enough. She has a baby at home, and a husband, and a life, and customers clamoring at every table before she could go home to them. Everyone was looking at me. “What?” I said. “What!”

“I’m waiting to find out what you’re really going to order,” said Kim.

“I’m ordering...” I began. God, I’m slow.

I ended up with an appetizer portion of meatballs, mostly because I’d held everyone up for too long already. They weren’t exactly what I was looking for. That would’ve been the dark, crusty, salty bite through the hamburger’s well-grilled outside to the spilling of pink-to-red juiciness inside, complemented by the crisp sweetness of the onion.

Well, Sal’s might never have stooped to serve a hamburger – as everyone and his brother have told me gleefully since – but times are’a changing, and maybe they should.

...jiggidy jig...

Perhaps you don’t know how Sal’s got its start. It was on Friday Nights at the Back Home Café – the real Back Home Café, started by Will Patten back in 1971 – when Sal Gullo started hand-making pizza with a genuine, hippy-dippy whole-wheat crust. Friday nights were live music nights at the BHC, and a pizza or two along with a jug of wine was the perfect stimulus to get you out on the floor dancing your fool head off, then back to the table for a sip and a bite. Some of you remember, eh? It was great fun, kids and all. We lived in Rutland then, on Oak Street, so it was by way of Shanks Mare or bicycle that we got home again, jiggidy jig.

In the way of things, that tradition ended but, soon afterward, Sal and Jack Elliott started Sal’s Italian Restaurant – somewhere around 1977 out on Woodstock Avenue – serving hearty home-made and home-inspired food in the Italian manner. Not too long after that they moved to their long-time home on West Street. Jack Elliot, who’s no longer involved, reminded me the other day that it was the first non-smoking restaurant in Rutland, maybe even in Vermont. And I do remember conversations revolving around that very thing: “Let’s go get a Sal’s pizza.” “Yeah, but you can’t smoke there.” “Oh, right.”

Jerry Kyhill, along with Steve (Rebo) Abraham, bought Sal out in ’81, then Nick Ronfeld bought out Rebo 11 years ago, and Jerry and Nick started the Wallingford’s Sal’s in 2001. Got that straight? Well, in any case, they must be doing something right. They’ve been around for a long time.
Stone patio at Sal's South in Wallingford

A few nights after my gaffe on the stone steps of Sal’s South, I told the story to a few friends over cocktails down at the beach. Carol said, thoughtfully, “We had some of Ann Tiplady’s hamburgers last night, and they were good, but I couldn’t really tell any difference between that grass-fed beef and what you get in the grocery store. A little more expensive.” As it turned out, Leo and I had Ann Tiplady’s hamburgers the night before, too. I thought they were juicier and also crumblier, probably due to the fact that store-bought meat is fattier and mushes together more. Otherwise I couldn’t tell the difference in taste between grass-fed and the best commercial hamburger that I used to get at the Locker, but I am perhaps more aware than most people of the way factory farmed beef is raised, and I am increasingly reluctant to buy it and eat it.


A pound of hamburger from the supermarket, or even from your local butcher, is not meat from one cow, but rather a mixture of several, possibly hundreds, with perhaps traces of thousands.

A typical beef was born out west somewhere, in Colorado or Montana or the Dakotas, and lived the life of Riley for the first 6 months, with its mother, nursing at will, roaming the grasslands it fed on as it was designed to do, free as a bird.

Then things began to get a little rough. First of all it was weaned, taken from its mother, put into a pen and taught to supplement its grass with grain and corn. After a month or so there, it was shipped to a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) somewhere, most likely Kansas, where it was confined in even more crowded conditions with huge numbers of other cattle, wading around not in grass but in excrement – they slept in it too – and were fed even more grain and corn.

The centerpiece of the CAFO is the feed mill. On one side of the mill, tractor trailers feed 50 tons of corn into it every hour upon the hour. On the other side, tanker trucks pump thousands of gallons of liquefied fat – often beef fat, in spite of the danger of disease from cannibalizing beef – and protein supplements made of molasses and urea, which is a form of synthetic nitrogen made from natural gas, similar to fertilizer spread on corn fields.

All of this is mixed with synthetic vitamins and the hormone, estrogen, as well as the antibiotics Rumensin and Tylosin. A cow was designed to eat grass; making them eat corn and grain makes them sick. Most of the antibiotics sold in America today go into animal feed. It’s as simple as that.

This sludge is fed to the animals in confinement before they are slaughtered for our dining enjoyment. Immobile confinement and a diet of grain and corn and antibiotics and hormones gets a beef to slaughter in 16 months where it used to take anywhere from 2 to 5 years.

Read that again, and repeat after me: We are What We Eat and We Are What We Eat Eats, too.

In the grasslands, on the home ranch, the sun shone, the grass grew, the cattle ate it, created cow-plops which fertilized the grassland, completing the great cycle of nutrition naturally. In the CAFO the great lakes of manure created by these confined and poisoned animals cannot be spread on neighboring farmers’ fields for it burns and poisons them, too. What is done with it? Well, besides it seeping into waterways downstream, I don’t know – it’s a little like burying spent rods from Vermont Yankee on the bank of the Connecticut River. It creates big sores in the earth’s hide that are not capable of healing themselves, and the infection spreads into our waterways and air.

Michael Pollan didn’t seem to know either – he followed his steer and the corn it would die on, but he seemed not to’ve gotten too far with that manure lagoon. For this short outline of our meat’s origins, I am heavily indebted to Michael Pollan for his thorough research in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In it he outlines several different meals and traces the components of them from sun to grass to table. The industrial meal, involving corn and beef, is an eye opener involving the mass poisoning of the American people and their air and water and land by a few companies, notably Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland who, in the midst of hunger riots, recently announced record-breaking profits.

I’ve been quoting from the Omnivore’s Dilemma since it was published, and I’ve skipped around in it, but only recently sat down and read it from cover to cover. It’s absolutely breathtaking – I know a lot of you have it in your To Be Read pile, and I encourage you to read it now. The facts are so horrific in our food industry that sometimes your eyes glaze over because it’s like everything else – it’s too big, it’s too hard to grasp, “there’s nothing I can do!” But we can do something, we can not buy industrial food, we can vote with our pocketbooks.

Ann Tiplady’s Red Houses Farm beef spends its whole life, like the first six months of the industrial steer, munching grass. If she had her druthers, though, she’d rather have a portable slaughtering station so the beef wouldn’t be stressed out at the end of its life by being loaded on a truck and shipped to a strange, grassless place to be slaughtered. Ann sells her beef at the Rutland Farmers’ Market, both inside and out.

Ann Tiplady's ladies amble down the path to pasture

And that’s the hamburger I was envisioning as I sat out front of Sal’s South the other night. Owner, Jerry Kyhill tells me I might have to wait a long time. “We’re an Italian restaurant,” he says. “We don’t do hamburgers!” but then he tells me, “Give me some advance notice...” Please, Jerry, I’ll spend more for a grass-fed hamburger. All around me people are eating pasta or pizza for $8 to $15: I’d gladly buy into a really good hamburger for that! And sometimes I’d gladly go for Jerry’s favorite Shrimp Fra Diablo. “It’s spicy shrimp over spaghetti – nothing out of the ordinary, but tasty. Really good,” he tells me.

Leo loves the Fettuccini Alfredo, and we often order pizza, either out or in. Nick Ronfeld is the chef who divides his time, as does Jerry, between Sal’s South and Sal’s Rutland, and his favorite dish is Shrimp and Scallops in Spicy Red Clam Sauce over Linguini. Yup, I’d go for that, too, occasionally.

Kim Stewart (okay, I still adore her – who could resist the deadpan manner in which she led me on) says the pizza is great! She, and her husband, are excellent cooks, too.

...what if?...

If I had my ‘druthers, smaller local restaurants like Sal’s would use more local ingredients, including chicken and beef and other meats, as well as vegetables and fruit in season. Nick looks thoughtful at that heartfelt sentiment, and then repeats the mantra – “It’s a matter of cost – we can’t keep competitive unless everyone else used local ingredients too.”

Of course, what’s really expensive is industrial food. The system is not sustainable and it’s making the American people sick – both long term, with all the chronic diseases we have, which include diabetes, heart disease, obesity, hypertension, cancer, and depression, as well as the various psychic illnesses our kids are prone to, and it sickens the animals, the land and the economy, as well. At some point we will have to make other arrangements, and the sooner the better. What if all the smaller, local restaurants – Sal’s, Sabby’s, Back Home Again, Constantino’s, formed a little union and vowed to keep up with each other buying local food?

Someone tossed of a figure out to me the other day – one of our supermarkets sells $250,000 worth of produce a week, and ninety-nine percent of that money goes out of state and to big corporations. What if we in the Rutland area took even one quarter of that business and gave it to our farmers at the Farmers’ Market or the Co-op? That money would stay in the area and support our farmers, our health, and our landscape, as well as our economy. What if Diamond Run Mall allowed a farmer to put some cows to graze on that big grassy area that surrounds it? They’d save a whole lot of money on chemical fertilizers and lawn mowing, for sure. What if, instead of yet another MALL (yet another mall?) proposed for the area across Rt 7 from Diamond Run at the intersection of Rt 4 – what if there were cows and tracts of vegetable fields, and incubator farms? Even fruit trees? What a statement that would make to visitors coming into Rutland! What a reminder that would make to each and every one of us which side of our bread the butter is on! What a valuable resource for new farmers and people wanting to eat locally!

Yet another mall? As the same person commented rather inelegantly – “Who needs more CRAP?!” That made me remember an incident that happened a month or so ago when we were driving from Portsmouth up to Portland on 95 in a heavy, wet blizzard. Humongous trucks flew by us with all the confidence in the world, and the last, that added such insult to injury that we got off at the next exit and made the rest of the way on Rt. 1, was a Frito-Lay truck that completely whipped our small car with slush. Yup. Fritos gotta get through in spite of rain or sleet or snow.

But of course Nick has a point – Sal’s probably wouldn’t be able to stay in business if its prices were higher than other restaurants who continued to serve industrial food. Why don’t you guys get together and get with the program? I urge you to. We have to start somewhere.

...thank you, mr. pollan...

“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 by Gourmet magazine.