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.”

No comments: