Monday, December 20, 2010

Holy Yum!

This king of salads has a place on the holiday table
It’s hectic, Sunday, got to write a column, looking forward to friends this evening, going to Albany to pick up my daughter tomorrow (looking forward to driving home on Winter Solstice AND full moon), and so I’m making and writing about THE Caesar Salad.

Besides making a great supper salad, especially, perhaps, in this solstice/new years season, it makes a refreshing breakfast – if you manage to squirrel a bit away – for the morning after. In this way I can have friends over, take pix, eat well, finish up the column tomorrow – the whole thing like a jigsaw puzzle, fitting it into the little pockets of time that this season repatterns.

This isn’t the original Caesar salad but I do believe it’s Craig Claiborne’s, from when he was the  food guru at the New York Times. I’ve made it many, many times and once had it served to me in an airport hotel restaurant where the waiter made it tableside.  I mean THIS Caesar salad. I’ve had lots of others that just don’t measure up.
The recipe, circa 1978, which is also taped (like the corn bread) to my messy cupboard door,  reads like this:
Caesar salad
Had this since time began.
- Combine and let steep -
1 clove garlic, smashed, with 1/2 cup olive oil
- Begin to make
2 c. croutons in garlic oil
- Tear
1 or 2 heads romaine lettuce
into a bowl.
- Sprinkle with
1/4 c. grated parmesan
1/4 c. crumbled bleu or Roquefort cheese
- Combine
1/2 c. olive oil
1 T. Worcestershire sauce
3/4 t. salt (?)
3/4 t. freshly grated pepper
drizzle over greens and toss.
1 raw egg
1/4 c. lemon juice
several anchovies (to taste)
on top and toss until no egg color remains.
- Add and toss
Garlic croutons.
This is the perfect Caesar – yes to anchovies, yes to raw egg, yes to getting your hands into it and tossing, tossing, in the prescribed stages, until every last leaf is a bit limp with its unctuous goodness.

If you hate anchovies then don’t make this salad. If it’s only the texture of anchovies – and I dislike the little feathery bones – then chop them finely, or melt them over very low heat in a small frying pan before adding them to the greens. But this salad is nothing without the umphy umami that the anchovies add.

If you (sniff) Do. Not. Eat. Raw Eggs, then don’t make this salad, because ditto – if not umami then that egg contributes something just as important. If you buy your eggs, as fresh as yesterday, from a nice local farmer who lets her chickens roam around outside and helps them perch fluffily and huffily on roosts under shelter at night, and even coos to them sometimes below their own clucks, you have little to fear except fear itself.
If you want to be more local, use local spinach for the greens.

The recipe itself is a bit problematic. The olive oil and garlic, for instance, don’t add up. I do it this way., starting an hour or two, or a day or two, before you will serve the salad.

1) Smash a clove or two of garlic and put it with ½ cup olive oil into a 1 cup measure.  Add  a tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce, a sprinkling of salt and several grinds of black – or white – pepper. (I believe the ¾ teaspoon of salt has a question mark after it for good reason – it might be too much. Add a sprinkling, then wait till the end and taste to see if it needs more.) Set this mixture aside.

2) Make croutons. Cut 4 to 6 slices of – I like Baba Louis white sourdough – bread into ¾ inch cubes and let them sit out for a bit, then coat the bottom of a wide-bottomed frying pan with a skim of olive oil. It should have a bit of depth. Slice a clove or two of garlic thinly and add to the warming olive oil over medium-low heat. When it begins, just barely, to brown, toss the bread cubes into the oil until they’re coated. Watch them very carefully, shaking them and tossing them often so they don’t burn. You want them to get crisp and golden and a little dried out, but not burned. When they’re done – and that might take half an hour – sprinkle with salt, toss, and set them aside.

3) Wash 2 large or 3 small heads of romaine  (or spinach), shake it damp, wrap it in a thickness of paper towels, put it into a plastic bag and into the fridge until making time.

Ready to make the salad?

4) Tear the greens into a bowl (which could be rubbed with yet another clove of garlic), sprinkle with at least ¼ cup grated Parm and bleu cheese each, and then the olive oil/Worcester mixture and toss with your hands. The reason for this is that you want each leaf to be almost... massaged with the oil and cheeses. Think sensuous.
massage, massage, in this whirl of a holiday season: Photo by Wendy Hybl Fannin

5) Break the raw egg over the greens (maybe break it into a dish first. Just in case...), sprinkle the lemon juice over, then the anchovies, and toss and toss, massage, massage, until not a speck of recognizable egg shows. Taste for salt and sprinkle with more if needed. Ditto pepper.

6) Sprinkle the croutons over the greens and toss once again.

Holy Yum!

And have a seriously sentient solstice. See you next year!
Monday morning breakfast... Mmmm

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

the many faces of hunger

thanks for permission from Jeff Danziger to reprint
When my mother saw Injun Joe* and his wife Mary tramping up our long driveway she’d exclaim, “Oh, Lord, here they come again,” in spite of the fact that it had been a month or so since they’d shown up the last time. It was common knowledge that the little old man and the little old woman would periodically (when the Check came in) walk from their shack in the woods about a mile from our house to the tavern in a neighboring village five miles further on, where they would get roaring drunk until the sheriff drove them home. They stopped at our house to pick something up that we saved for them. I think it was newspapers, though I have no idea what earthly good newspapers would have done them.

In return they insisted on giving us some of their government subsidy brown rice or some other brown grain. My mother never used it. It was common knowledge that it was weevily. Mom seemed to resent those visits. I didn’t know why – they really were no trouble – but I got the feeling that it was maybe just that these two poor old Indians had the nerve to think they could give us something that we needed or would deign to use. And maybe also that the sight of them brought up a vestigial fear of impoverishment and hunger.

There were many ways we were impoverished, but hunger for food was never a problem. We were farmers in an extended family of farmers – our entire lives revolved around food. We had fresh milk everyday and butter and eggs and a chicken in the Sunday pot, vegetables from the garden, preserves, bushels of apples and potatoes in the cellar. We had pork from the annual slaughter. We had beef. It was really GOOD food, not the kind of crap that poor people eat today when a bag of chips and a soda pop are cheaper than a bunch of carrots and much more filling.

And it’s not just poor people. A few years ago I sat in a government office talking to an official. Behind the adjoining desk was a woman* whose upper arms fell away in tanned folds of fat above her elbows. One of those elbows rested upon the desk and regularly flexed to allow her forearm and fingers to descend to a carton of little orange cheese thingies and then rise to feed her mouth, which was set amidst several cheeks, jowls, and chins. Note that she was not wolfing down porterhouse steaks with their attendant mouth-watering fats and juices nor glasses of whole milk nor rounds of fully ripened cheeses, in fact, nothing made by nature, but tiny little crisp factory-fashioned morsels made of the most refined flours and sugars and oils, so far away from anything that grows from the earth that they were unrecognizable as food at all. A beautiful woman resided inside those layers of fat, a still-healthy one, it seemed. But if she wasn’t diabetic yet, she surely would be soon, because it’s a simple case of cause and effect: sugar and refined grains cause obesity and diabetes and other deathly diseases as well. And there goes that hand again, into the carton and there it goes fingering the evil little devils into the mouth.

Putting a face on hunger is not the easiest thing. In our world hunger crosses money boundaries, and in our world the hungry are most likely not skin and bones with bloated bellies – they are, not to put too fine a point on it – the fat people, and they may or may not know that they are hungry; and they may or may not be monetarily poor.

I asked friends and acquaintances if they’d ever been hungry, and their thoughts on hunger. After I recounted my Injun Joe story to my friend Susan, she recalled her elderly mother a few years ago asking her to pick up a “tramp-lock” at the hardware store. Susan said, “I don’t know what a tramp-lock is, Mom.” Why, it was a chain lock to go inside the kitchen door so that the door could be opened thus far and no farther, so that a dish of food could be passed out with no danger of the recipient being allowed in. It made me think of tramps and hobos and stews, but I had never heard the term before. So of course I Googled it and found only one reference to the term. It was used in the book, “Afloat and Ashore on the Mediterranean, by Lee Meriwether (1904). A tramp-lock was used for guards to open prisoners’ doors enough, ostensibly, to hear the priest down the corridor saying mass.

Another person told me, “Tramp lock reminds me of monasteries and churches where they still have special windows where foundlings (babies) can be left.” She went on to say, “Handing out food, feeding the poor (the sharing of bread & wine) has a long history in Christianity, and shame is still associated with that type of charity.” She found it interesting that in those terms the giver and receiver did not have to see each other.” Yes, shame is a big part of this, isn’t it? No matter how undeserved by either party.

“Like, REALLY hungry?” asked one friend. “Like, shoplifting a package of cheese to get through the day and not knowing about tomorrow? Like, panhandling enough for a box of crackers or swallowing pride to ask neighbors for something, anything? Even, gag, dumpster diving?” He paused. “Actually, yes, but not for many, many years, and never for more than a few days. But I do remember and I am always mindful of how much I have and how long it would last. Right now, in the house and garden, I could probably stretch it for about three weeks, if I had to.”

That sounded like “food insecurity” to me, and I asked what could be done about it. He said, “We need a community infrastructure to wean ourselves from the big business of food – food prepared for us, food conveniently packaged, food that has traveled too many miles, fast food, junk food, food marketed by brand instead of nutritional value.”

We kind of have that here with the Farmers’ Market and the Co-op, but what about the people who can’t afford that kind of food. Let them eat cheap meat and vegetables from the grocery store that have been adulterated by the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, antibiotics and hormones? Or a bag of chips and a can of soda? You know that that’s going to come back and bite us when we have this enormous diseased wave of people that society has to care for one way or another.

When I asked the question of Carol Tashie of Radical Roots Farm, she said, “Personally, I have never been hungry. Amazingly fortunate – especially when you think of the entire human community. What percentage of people on this planet could say that? What percentage in this country? In this state?”

When I talked to Carol’s partner, Dennis Duhaime, last Saturday at their stand at the Farmers’ Market, he told me they took a load of butternut squash down to the city for Thanksgiving, and gave it to a person who operates – entirely on his own – a little storefront soup-kitchen in Queens, and that he made squash soup from those Vermont butternuts to feed the hungry. I love this – a couple of people making a difference with no diminution from bureaucracy.

In that same spirit, RAFFL operates a Grow-A-Row program for which farmers and gardeners contribute some of their product to the Community Cupboard and BROC; and the farmers regularly contribute leftover produce after the market is over. Still, the Mission and the Community Cupboard and BROC need each and every one of us to contribute food and/or labor to help them feed the hungry.

Another friend wrote: “There is hunger in every community. My wife and I work at the Sunday Breakfast Mission in our town and serve between 150 to 200 meals Sunday evenings to homeless men, women, and CHILDREN! We don't see them during the day, or do we just choose not to see them? Some of both I believe. I encourage you no matter where you live give some of your valuable time to help feed another human being!”

In a Newsweek article, “Divided We Eat”, Lisa Miller has a conversation with a Brooklyn localvore and writes, “Over coffee, I cautiously raise a subject that has concerned me of late: less than five miles away, some children don’t have enough to eat; others exist almost exclusively on junk food. Alexandra concedes that her approach is probably out of reach for those people. Though they are not wealthy by Park Slope standards—Alexandra works part time and Dave is employed by the city—the Fergusons spend approximately 20 percent of their income, or $1,000 a month, on food. The average American spends 13 percent, including restaurants and takeout.” The woman answers, “This (buying local) is our charity. This is my giving to the world... We contribute a lot.”

You know, in this era of declining middle class and the rise of the ultra-rich and corporations with the rights of individuals, we are likely to be seeing more and more hungry people – there is greed abound in this land – and that hunger may be the result of impoverishment and/or ignorance, or simply the brainwashing power of mega-corporations and even the medical establishment. “We have rich farmers feeding lousy food to poor people,” writes Michael Pollan, “and poor farmers producing great food for rich people.” But here in Vermont we have great farmers needing our patronage – those of us who can afford it – so that they, and we, can continue to take care of our hungry, whatever face they wear.

So yes, once again, Support Your Local Farmer, but in addition call one of the following and ask them what you can do to help:
And when you hear the phrase ‘common knowledge’ dig a little deeper. You might be surprised at what you find.
simple foods like apples and squash are cheap and easy to prepare,
but some people don't know how to prepare them. Heck, some people don't even have a kitchen.
*I've taken the liberty to use what might seem to be stereotypes of the 'drunken Indian' and the fat lady eating crap, but please know that the first is simply an observation of the prevailing attitudes in the 1950s and the latter is my own observation as truthfully if not tactfully as I can describe it.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Cornbread Chronicles

My messy cupboard door -- very handy!

Taped to the inside of a cupboard door in my kitchen is a recipe for buttermilk cornbread. I like that it’s simple, calling only for cornmeal, no flour, and that it uses buttermilk, which I adore, and just before it’s put into the oven the leavens are added – baking soda and baking powder, along with some salt –to, in effect, react with the buttermilk and create an explosion. Then it’s scraped  into the greased, smoking hot cast iron skillet in which bacon has been rendered and put back in the oven for 20 minutes.

I like it in theory, but my family is unimpressed, and so I don’t like it in fact. In spite of the buttermilk/baking soda catalyst, it’s really quite a heavy slab. And, if you heat the pan with bacon in it it’s liable to end up burned to a crisp.  Beyond that, there was something... missing, something not quite right with it.

But after a very interesting, if esoteric, conversation on-line with some food academics about the practice of adding lye to water in which to cure ripe olives; and after I confessed that several years ago I used Drano (a new, unopened can) as the lye in question and never had I tasted more buttery olives; and after I began to think about how lye or other such esoteric ingredients are used in other food processes, I had an aha moment about that cornbread.

Note: Lye, the result of filtering water through wood, or other ashes, is also called potash (as a matter of curiosity, Samuel Hopkins, of Pittsford, was granted the first US patent in 1790 for an “improvement in the making of pot ash or pearl ash by a new Apparatus and Process.”), or sodium hydroxide, and is incredibly alkaline, and very caustic. Indeed, it should not be stored in glass bottles because it eats the glass.  Slaked lime can be substituted for lye in some instances.
You see, the reason Mexican cuisine, so heavily based on corn, has proven healthy over the eons is that somehow they learned very early on to soak the corn in, in effect, lye. Mexicans burned sea shells and limestone and added the ashes to the water in which they cooked the corn kernels because they’d found it took off the kernel’s hard-to-digest hulls; and as a revolutionary by-product, as Rick Bayless writes in his book, Authentic Mexican, “... their bodies felt more strength: The corn now gave them more minerals like niacin, more protein at their service, perhaps more calcium. They had made the one nutritionally energizing discovery that could yield a strong race: nixtamalization (from the Nahuatl nextli, ‘ashes’ [and tamal, “dough”]).”

And that brings me to the real underlying unease I had with that cornbread. You like to think that what you put on your family’s table has more going for it than just good taste – you like to think that it is good for them, that it contributes to their well-being.  While, to my mind, bleached white wheat flour has very little going for it, cornmeal, except for being gluten-free, has very little more. But if I were to substitute an energized, nixtamalized  corn product for that cornmeal, wouldn’t I be happier? And so I tried it – substituting 3 to 1 a mixture of masa harina to grits for the cornmeal – and the results were phenomenal!
While some people nixtamalize their own corn, I wasn’t ready for that.
The Ingredients -- cold pan, frozen cracklings, ready to go in the cold oven

I had some Bob’s Red Mill Masa Harina and Corn Grits or Polenta. The masa is very fine, like a flour, and the kernels from whence it comes have been slaked with lime; while the grits are not nixtamalized but are coarse cut, and so contribute texture to the finished cornbread, and texture is always good. And instead of the bacon, I melted half a cup of cracklings (leftover from rendering lard) in the pan.

And perhaps it should be mentioned, I swapped out my old tins of baking powder and baking soda for new. They do wear out, you know.

Although the plain cornbread was too good for words, next time I added about a cup of frozen corn kernels to it, caramelizing them first in a frying pan in the time it took the oven and skillet to heat up. And the time after that I added some chopped jalapenos along with the corn, and sprinkled Cabot cheese over the top. Now, I imagine that a handful of cubed ham would be very nice. Maybe some cumin seeds.

Because this is light, fluffy, moist, robust, crispy-bottomed, ham-fisted cornbread! It’s very accepting. And it’s very forgiving, as I found out one afternoon when I was making it as my contribution to our Sunday Cocktails at Five. I shoved the hot skillet back into the oven, spanked my hands together – job well done! – when my eye lit on the little bowl of leaveners! Yikes! I had forgotten to mix in the baking soda, powder, and salt at the last minute! I stood frozen for a split second, swore, tore open the oven, scraped out the pan into the bowl – all those lovely cracklings no longer on the bottom, cheese on the top, but stirred altogether in with the leaven -- scraped it back into the pan and back into the oven. It was... still VERY good. You can’t ruin this stuff!
This isn't a great photo, but you can see the texture is light and moist, and there's a nice skin on the bottom of the piece on the right. Yum!

Of course I couldn’t leave well enough alone, so I called Maya Zelkin who I knew could tell me something about making masa nixtamalera. I was answered by Maya’s young son, Manolo, who told me his mother was at a pottery show. I was about to say goodbye when I realized that Manolo could probably tell me how it was done. “Oh sure,” he said, “I’ve done it hundreds of times.” It involved, he said, buying big sacks of “I think dried” dent corn, and soaking them “or maybe cooking them” in water with “slaked lime”. Maya told me next day that she boils the corn in the lime water until it’s soft, then let’s it soak overnight.. Next day they rub the skins off the kernels, “but we don’t get anal about it. You can drive yourself crazy that way.” Then she grinds the kernels with a Corona grain grinder into a soft dough from which she makes tortillas. I’d like to try stirring buttermilk and the leavens into it for cornbread. Maya invited me up to participate in this process when the nutziness of the holidays is over and I accepted.

Buttermilk Corn Bread
  • 1/3 cup of bacon grease or lard, or ½ cup of cracklings
  • 1 egg
  • 2 cups buttermilk (you may need more)
  • 1 1/4  cups masa harina (5 ounces)
  • 1/2 cup grits (3 ounces)
  • 1 scant teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 scant teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 heaping teaspoon salt
  • (optional) 1 cup corn kernels, drained; chopped jalapenos to taste; cubed ham; grated cheese; whatever... I think apples might be good...
Put the grease, lard, or cracklings into a cold 10” cast-iron skillet. Put the skillet into a cold oven and set the oven to 450°. (Just because you think I’m lardcore, do. not. skimp on the fat. There is none in the batter, itself, and you have to get some unctuosity in there somehow.)

Whisk the egg and then whisk in the buttermilk. Whisk in the masa and grits. Set aside.

Into a small bowl measure the baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside in a prominent place so you don’t forget them.

Prepare whichever optional ingredients you might choose to use.

When the oven reaches temperature, take the skillet from it and place it on a burner (careful! I leave a potholder draped over the handle to remind myself not to grab it).

Add whatever optional ingredients you desire to the buttermilk/cornmeal mixture. If it’s too stiff stir in a little more buttermilk – it should be thick but stirrable. Add the baking powder/soda/salt mixture to it, mix it all up and pour and scrape the batter into the hot and smoking pan. Sprinkle the cheese over the top if you’re using it, put that hot skillet back into the hot oven and bake for 20 minutes.

That’s it!
Note: While I am talking to Maya I am also making one last batch of plain cornbread. The pan is heating while we talk, and then the pan is ready and I tuck the phone beneath my chin and scrape the buttermilk mixture into it and put it in the oven, set the timer to 20 minutes, talk some more and as we’re saying goodbye I notice the little red bowl of leavens sitting still on the counter! The timer now reads 10 minutes. Too late. Apparently I’m making a big, fat tortilla!
The leavens and salt -- What you should. NOT. FORGET!

Yes, I am aware that talking about turkey today would’ve been relevant, but you could always make a cornbread stuffing. Stuff it, shove it in the oven, and it’ll get done in a couple hours. Make your mashed potatoes, your squash, your Brussels sprouts, your pumpkin pie (all locally grown, of course). It will all be delicious if you’re not afraid of salt, butter and fowl fat, and hugs from your relatives and friends – and please don’t be. Enjoy your family, your company, and/or your waiter.  Think what you would like to be able to say on November 25 of 2011, and make it happen in this year in between.

Think hard, now!

Monday, November 08, 2010


Radical Roots Brussels Sprouts
Boardman Hill Produce
Foggy Meadow's Turnips
Mendon Mountain's Apples
Tweed Valley Farm Shiitakes
 I had been thinking about hunger and community and the relationship between the two when I walked through the Co-op on Wales Street into the first session of Rutland’s Winter Farmers’ Market. There, hunger had no place, though it was all about food, and community reigned; and so, predictably and soon, I was grinning like a fool, as Carol Tashie observed.

She and Dennis are new Winter Market vendors this season with their Radical Roots Farm booth. They, along with Jim Sabataso at Sustainable Rutland, and RAFFL, are sponsoring a Localvore Thanksgiving again this year. Radical Roots is also raffling off  a Bounty of Thanksgiving Vegetables, and they have some beautiful ones.

Of course, to some of us the combination of local with Thanksgiving is no oxymoron, only the natural thing to do. To get some ideas on HOW to do it go to one of their websites for recipes and recommendations.

The big medievally-atmosphered space has new lighting this year, and a new roof to prevent those deluges we used to have to avoid, which, actually, should keep in a little more body heat, too.

Hilary Adams-Paul’s The Domestic Diva is continuing its reign from the summer, with sumptuous offerings to eat out of hand or take home for dinner. And Young La continues to ladle up her enormously popular Asian noodles (gluten-free) and eggrolls, too; while Sheila at Burnham Farm offers quiche and soups and pot-pies.  There are samosas and Ana’s Empanadas, and, in the future, Daniel Pol will be making crepes from his Ooh La! La! booth.

Caroline Kimball and Conor Falcon, interns at Foggy Meadow Farm, are new faces that we got to know from the summer market. They’ll be leaving soon for unimaginable western adventures – living in a tepee in the Montana winter! – but swear they will be back here to settle down and farm!

Foggy Meadow and Greg Cox’s Boardman Hill Farm are proving to be fantastic new farmer incubators. This summer’s Alchemy Gardens farmers, Lindsay Arbuckle and Scott Courcelle, are graduates of the two, and Sally Beckwith of Foggy Meadow told me that many of their interns have gone on to farm full-time.

The Yoder Farm was new last year, with their beautiful selection of dried beans and popcorn and it is really good to see them back;

as it is Joe Bossen with his Vermont BeanCrafters’bean burgers. He came in the middle of last winter and looks like he’ll be around all this season. 

Kevin Evans, from Groundworks Farm in Florence just moved here from New Hampshire. He and his partner, Margaret, are offering produce and sprouts (I liked the lentil sprouts), pastured chickens, and a chocolate croissant that will now be my weekly Saturday morning carb and sweet splurge.

Almost as wonderful as the food, and the things to eat with,
Ray Powers, inimitable baker of Bear Mountain Sourdough Breads
Yvonne Daley, shopping and schmoozing
The Co-op's lovely Bess Lewis
Michael Manfredi of Boardman Farm
Greg Cox of Boardman Hill


are the faces: 

Michael was the hero of the summer when he took over running Boardman Farm in the absence of the legendary Greg Cox who was recuperating from knee surgery.

Steve Kyhill strummed and sang for the first Winter Farmers' Market


These are only a few of the vendors and foods and visitors, but I hope they give you some idea of the festive varieties in store for you.
I will continue to think about hunger – and would love to hear your thoughts about it – but for  now it’s all about community, local and beautiful food, and the people who make it and eat it.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The State vs Tristan and Max

Sue Thayer in her garden

Tristan Thayer, the eldest of Sue and Alan Thayer’s three children, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2002. Nevertheless, given the circumstances, he continued to live a full and giving life until he died on May 29, 2005, at the age of 25, from the effects of that leukemia.

Blessedly, he died literally in the bosom of his family.

One of the reasons Tristan was able to live so fully while the foul disease continued to sap his strength and energy was the marijuana he learned to grow so beautifully and, it must be said, illegally. Planting seeds in spring and harvesting in fall, according to nature’s dictates, he was able to smoke the ‘weed’ to counteract the debilitating nausea caused by the disease, the five rounds of experimental chemotherapy, and the two stem cell transplants, one from himself and one from his younger brother, Max, with which it was treated.

His mother told me, “Cannabis not only made it possible for Tristan to eat enough to recover every time they killed his immune system, (but) it helped him assimilate his life in his time of dying.” Tristan told her, she said, “that each round of chemotherapy was like 'jumping through a ring of fire', and the pills they had to offer just made him 'sick and unable to function'.” And then she said, “Tristan had no time to waste.”

Brother Max thinks that the reason that Tristan was able to meet his death so beautifully and generously was due to "...the gentle relief that marijuana provided him. He could accept his life, find joy in it and see it for what it had taught him; cannabis was a conduit for that insight.” The plant is historically the choice of seekers, after all.

Tristan, Lucy, and Max - 2004-2005
Ironically, Tristan and their sister, Lucy, were the Thayer children who enjoyed perfect and vibrant health from the times of their births. It was the youngest, Max, who suffered a medical emergency when he was an infant that left his kidneys scarred, and around whom the family gathered protectively and over whom they worried since he was 28 days old. For most of his life Max suffered a lack of appetite and chronic nausea which made him almost unable to eat, certainly unable to flourish, and that caused him to be unable to participate in many of life’s routines – his schoolmates never knew if he could be expected to attend classes on any given day. Max needed a new kidney and keeping as healthy as possible was essential.

Before he died, Tristan realized that Max’s symptoms could be alleviated by smoking marijuana, but Max was reluctant. “I was surprised,” he says now. “It seemed so strange, and so I didn’t really give it a chance.”

In 2005, Max almost failed out of school. He considered quitting. “I just didn’t feel up to it!” Tristan was gone, but Max decided to give the marijuana a chance. The difference was dramatic. He smoked as much as he needed – before the nausea could get to him in the morning and before meals – and he started having success.

In the fall he went back to school for his senior year. It was a splendid year. “I aced a lot of classes. I got involved in activities. I had a really good time. I just felt... better.”

In 2004, “An Act Relating to Marijuana Use by Persons With Severe Illness” was passed in Vermont that allowed one flowering plant to be grown by patients with cancer, AIDS, HIV, or multiple sclerosis. But kidney disease and Max’s symptoms were not included in it. In spring, Max’s mother Sue planted marijuana for him. Illegal? Well, yes, but what mother would quail before illegality when her child’s well-being was at stake; when she knew – had seen them up close and personal – that the effects of it could play a crucial role in maintaining her child’s life.

Sue is a Master Gardener. Her gardens up in the mountains east of Wallingford are legendary and regular attractions on garden tours – Tristan’s grave is the center of one of them – and she grows naturally and organically.

In July of 2007, when the gardens were thriving, an amendment was passed to the Medical Marijuana Bill that included patients with debilitating illnesses that produce persistent and intractable wasting syndrome, severe pain, nausea, or seizures – exactly Max’s symptoms.

There was only one hitch: Medical marijuana must be grown inside. 

No matter how much land you have, no matter how discreet you might be, no matter what healthy gardens you are capable of growing, Medical Marijuana must be grown inside where room(s) must be dedicated to that growing, where electric lights and climate control must be utilized (using electricity and heating/cooling power that might double your household energy cost) to simulate the natural seasons (which are available free outside), and where chemical fertilizers and pesticides must be used to simulate nature’s own healthy growing conditions. Not exactly the kinds of things that severely ill people should be ingesting, and a whole lot more work than they can probably do and possibly afford.

Planting the gardens had been a kind of grief therapy for Sue. She had planted them at just about the anniversary of Tristan’s death. The marijuana plant is a beautiful plant – more beautiful, one might judge, than its cousins Foxglove, Poppy and Datura which produce, respectively, digitalis, opium, and atropine, all potentially useful drugs but also potentially deadly, and all of which you can see growing in most of our gardens. There is nothing deadly about marijuana or the useful chemical it produces, Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is used for recreational, medicinal and spiritual purposes.

On August 2 of that year state police showed up at the Thayer gardens, hacked the plants down, destroyed them, and charged Sue with growing an illegal substance.

“It was heartbreaking,” says Sue, “to see those beautiful plants destroyed and know what benefit they would have been to Max, remembering what comfort they had brought to Tristan.”

A recent photo of Max
Although that legal cloud has hung over the Thayer family these three years, it was absolutely glorious when Easter Sunday of this year found Max traveling to Burlington to get a new kidney! The operation was successful, and Max is gradually getting used to feeling better, learning to eat, going to college, and building up his strength, though he is and will be all his life on a regimen of drugs that must be impeccably managed. He has started a blog about his mother’s court case. He is an amazingly intelligent, clear-thinking and passionate but gently speaking 22-year-old.

In August the Vermont Supreme Court denied Sue the chance to tell her story in a juried trial.
Her defense is one of “Necessity”, which admits the criminal act but claims justification. In other words the harm avoided (Max’s debilitating symptoms and possible death) must outweigh the harm caused (by planting marijuana), and the situation must present no reasonable legal alternative.

And indeed there was none when Sue planted the marijuana, because it was not legal to use marijuana for alleviation of Max’s symptoms. Once the law was amended to include Max’s symptoms, mid-summer, she lost that justification because she would then be allowed to grow marijuana, but only inside. So what is her crime? Not that of growing marijuana, but of growing it outside.

Indeed, as Chief Justice Paul Reiber put it in the findings, “The irony is that a statute that aimed to decriminalize certain uses of medical marijuana has effectively criminalized defendant’s actions in this case.”
This story, I think you’ll agree, is an amazing story – a tragic one, heartrending, but with glimpses of an almost otherworldly joy, and it must be heard!

A conversation about marijuana is difficult to have – though volumes have been written –  because there is something about it that makes people uncomfortable. But talking about a mother who has lost one child and sees the possible loss of another, and the concomitant misery the disease produces that can be alleviated by the planting of a simple... seed into the ground,  is a different matter. I cannot think of any mother who would not do everything in her power to keep her children safe and pain-free in the face of disease and death, no matter its legality.

I would. Wouldn’t you?
Sue Thayer with daughter, Lucy

This post was published in the Rutland Herald/Times Argus on 11/14

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

gentle cream

Every morning there they are – the players of my a.m. – the coffeepot, the coffee, and Thomas’s Half-and-Half.

Yes, I love my coffee. My coffeepot? Not so much! A great, black, overpriced monster, so officious you’d think it would do more than make coffee; but if that IS all it can do you’d think it could do it without being so intrusive. Always flashing its little red eye at me!  “Girl! Clean me!” Or, “Girl! Change my filter!” Insisting on beeping every morning – just what everyone needs in the morning, five shrill electronic beeps –  to tell me the coffee’s ready.

Which is insane, of course – am I not standing here staring at you as you begin to gurgle, making sure you haven’t decided to spurt great puddles of black greck all over everything? Did you think I would forget my first coffee injection of the morning? Are you not gurgling into a vacuum bottle that will keep it hot? And please, do let me remind you that it is MY coffee, so get busy!

As for the coffee itself, my favorite lately is Pierce Brothers’ Holy Smokes – organic, Free Trade – from the Co-op. I grind it all at once when I buy it because I don’t like the noise of the grinder first thing in the morning (hint hint, Mr. Coffeemaker!). And I mean! Really! How freshly-ground does this old palate need it to be?

My VPR mug sits on the counter next to the monster. I pour my Thomas’s half-and-half into it before the coffee. It’s my cream of choice except when I have whole, unpasteurized raw milk from one of my neighboring farms.

Why Thomas’s? Well, 1) it’s bright and cheery and good tasting; 2) it’s local – Thomas Dairy has been around since Orin Thomas started delivering his own cows’ milk back in 1921, and now the milk comes from six local farms – as one of their wryly clever ads says, “Trucked in all the way from up the street” – and it’s owned by the grandchildren, Richard, John, Perry, and Christa (John’s daughter, Abbey, is now showing an interest); and 3) it is  gently pasteurized.

Which is to say, it is NOT ultrapasteurized – that is, cooked until you could keep a pail of it in your pantry for months and not a creature would take the slightest interest, unless it accidentally tripped on a box of Jell-o and fell in and drowned. Almost all the organic milk you can buy is ultrapasteurized. And what that means, of course, is that our organic dairy farmers produce a wonderful product that is then picked up and shipped out of state to be processed, subjected to ultrapasteurization and homogenization, then shipped back here deader’n a doornail.

I’m standing here watching the dastardly coffee-pot when it occurs to me –  I’ll bet Thomas’s is about the only milk we can get that ISN’T ultrapasteurized. And yup, next time I look in  the Co-op’s dairy case I find that’s absolutely true.

People who haven’t been paying attention buy this organic, ultrapasteurized milk and exhort their kids to drink it – Because it’s GOOD for you! But it’s probably NOT good for little Noah and Emma, first of all because it’s cooked, and second because if Mom and Dad have been paying attention to the official line for the last half century they have certainly come down with the prevailing idea that animal fats are not good for them and so they are feeding little Carter and Madison skim milk or 1% ultrapasteurized water that has probably had dried (skim) milk solids added back into it so that it doesn’t have the mouth feel of water. Dried milk is often made by spraying milk onto a hot screen and then peeling the evaporated solids off the screen.
Eew. It’s not a good thing. And drinking milk without its natural fat just further upsets the balance between its good Omega-3’s and everything else’s Omega-6’s.

And maybe, since little Liam and Charlotte would rather drink soda, Mom and Dad have brought them sweetly flavored chocolate or strawberry milk. We are getting very far from whole, natural, or healthy here, or even the meaning of... Milk!

Anne Mendelson in her book, Milk: The surprising story of milk through the ages,
writes, “As shown by USDA and census statistics, consumption of both whole milk and butter was steadily declining during the 1950s and ‘60s while the number of fatal heart attacks rose – along with decreasing use of animal fats overall and increasing use of vegetable oils. Yet to this day the American Heart Association – which readily accepts money from manufacturers in return for putting AHA approval stickers on products like Cocoa Puffs breakfast cereal and Smart Balance De Luxe Microwave Popcorn – still inveighs against milk with the milkfat that is simply part of the nature of milk.”

Those people who feel that pasteurization is needed in order to kill off any dastardly microbes should demand with their milk dollars milk that has been heated to the agreed upon high heat (of 160° - 170°) for a short time (20 seconds)  rather than the higher heat of  280° for a shorter time (at least 2 seconds), which is what produces ultra-pasteurized milk.

Still gazing at my black plastic coffeemaker, I realize that I have never seen the inside of a dairy processing plant nor do I know the exact process Thomases uses, so I drive up to Thomas Dairy just north of Rutland and talk to John and Richard Thomas, who are cousins, and it works this way: Milk from each of the 6 dairy farms they buy from is picked up every other day – their one milk tanker is on the road every day of the year –  then fed into one of several bulk tanks built into the walls of the rather small processing plant. A portion of that milk is kept whole and the rest goes through the process of separating the milk from the cream. At that point whole milk is added back to a portion of the separated skim milk to make the 1% and 2% milk. Cream is added to the whole milk to make the half-and-half, which is 11-12% butterfat (trivia fact: half-and-half originally meant half skim and half lite cream which is 20% butterfat. Just to give you more of an idea, heavy cream is 43% butterfat and butter contains about  80% butterfat).

The next step is to pasteurize every mixture, and then all but the heavy cream is homogenized.
Homogenization consists of  passing the liquid under high pressure through a tiny orifice, making the fat globules smaller, increasing their number and surface area, which keeps them suspended throughout the more watery substance and prevents the cream from rising to the surface.

It is this last process that Anne Mendelson finds most objectionable. “...virtually all the pasteurized milk that reaches us has been centrifugally separated, recombined to standardized milkfat percentages and homogenized. These steps do more to denature milk than anything else that happens to it in manufacturing. The creamier ‘mouthfeel” and fresher flavor of whole raw milk at a well-run... dairy farm ... reflect not just actual freshness but the fact that the basic milk structure is intact. You can get nearly all the same effect from unhomogenized pasteurized milk – at least, if it comes to you very fresh and was pasteurized by the right method.” There is an added benefit to unhomogenized milk and cream – there is some evidence that the smaller globules of fat are able to get caught on the walls of the arteries and can clog them.

When I asked John and Richard, separately, whether they would consider offering unhomogenized whole milk (called cream-line milk) if they found there was a demand for it, both looked thoughtful, perhaps even intrigued, and agreed that it was a possibility.  Whole milk which is never separated, only gently pasteurized, and bypasses homogenization would simplify their process immensely, and be much less expensive to produce.

In the meantime, there’s another solution if you want your coffee cream unhomogenized. Since Thomas’s doesn’t homogenize their heavy cream, you could mix a small container of it with a quart of skim milk. That is, if you don’t mind shaking your coffee cream!

Those of you in the central/eastern part of the state can buy Strafford organic cream-line milk. It is unhomogenized and simply pasteurized. Monument Farms Dairy (that link under construction), a little north of here, also does no ultra-pasteurization, but their milk is homogenized. None of them allow their milk to contain any added hormones or antibiotics.

I asked John Thomas why it was that my half-and-half and cream lasted so incredibly long – I can leave a freshly opened carton in the fridge while I leave for a long weekend, and when I come back it’s still fresh.  He said he didn’t know, but that a lot of chefs won’t use anything but Thomas’s heavy cream because it stays fresh and sweet and always whips up nicely.  I told him that when I make crème fraiche with any other cream (and when and why would I do that?) it sometimes won’t sour and thicken at all. He’s not a cook, but he filed away that fact. I think it’s because Thomas’s is so fresh. And local! Its shelf life starts moments before you reach into the cooler to buy it.

Ah, finally – the monster emits its five beeps and I pour my first cup of coffee. I wish someone made coffeemakers locally.

Crème Fraiche
Gently whisk a tablespoon or two of good (Cabot’s) sour cream into a pint of  Thomas’s heavy cream in a bowl, loosely cover and leave in a warm place until piquantly soured and quite thick – this usually takes about 3 hours. Serve a dollop of this over pies, pot roast, or breakfast toast. For a special dessert, serve it over good preserves or jams or jellies served in very small bowls, with tiny spoons. How precious!

Originally Published as a Twice Bitten Column in the Rutland Herald 10/25/10

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

the gourmet connection

I met with a rep from Zabars recently.

It was an old e-mail from last winter that I answered out of belated curiosity, in which Sam – that’s the rep’s name – had written, and I quote, “I should like to partner with you with recipes, (and/or) submitted samples of whatever food/houseware items you choose.”

Though through journalistic integrity I could not, of course, accept anything that might color my opinion – of Zabars?? – still I couldn’t help thinking that maybe a new Cuisinart food processor to replace my 1986 model (nesting bowls, maybe easier to clean, but no doubt more shoddily made) from the fairly new housewares department on the 2nd floor down on 80th street and Broadway in New York City, would come in handy.

The first floor of the Zabar's emporium – as I’ve just found out that you probably don’t know – is full of smoked salmon, lox, cream cheese, bagels and herring salad. Olives. Cheese. They do an IMMENSE business. Zabars is probably the first New York City food name I ever learned.

But that was a different time, back in the ‘70s, when I still didn’t know how to make my own lox, or couldn’t buy it in any number of grocery and/or specialty stores. That was before I found that the best bagels in the world (as I know it) are made by a little Burlington company by the name of Myers'es. And that the recently reopened Café Terra (where Sam and I met one drizzly afternoon) serves them just the way I like them – toasted, with lots of butter and a thin layer of cream cheese.

Still, Zabars is, to me, an iconic name, retaining a certain mystical food romanticism from years back. And if Café Terra would spread a little of that Zabar’s lox on that Myers bagel over that cream cheese, and sprinkle that with thin crescents of onion, that would be all the better.

It was founded by Louis Zabar who emigrated to Brooklyn from the Soviet Union in the early 1900s in order to escape the pogroms. In Brooklyn he rented a farmers’ market stall. By 1950, when he died, he and his wife Lillian owned 10 stores. The 1995 obituary of Lillian Zabar in the New York Times quoted sons Saul and Stanley as saying “The business was started in 1934 and now has about 35,000 customers a week and $40 million in sales a year.” A move and expansion in the 1970s made Zabar's one of the largest supermarkets in Manhattan and one of the best known specialty stores.

In our meeting, Sam told me that when he retired to his Vermont house in Pawlet (for years he’d flown himself back and forth from New York City to Pawlet), he’d asked Saul – an old school friend – what he could do for Zabar’s in Vermont. And the reason for our meeting boiled down to the fact that Saul Zabar set Sam to gain more recognition of their on-line site,, and more name recognition, Period.

Oh, I said, everyone knows Zabars.

“Vermonters don’t,” said Sam. He had a bit of a thing about Vermonters and their perceived unworldliness. I was patient. I didn’t correct him.
“Maybe food writers do, but not most Vermonters,” he said.

I gazed at him. Maybe some salmon caviar, or even some nova lox.

“So Saul’s idea was for me to get in touch with food editors and writers and provide whatever they needed – recipes, whatever.”  The list had dwindled, to... recipes. To... whatever! He paused and looked at me and shook his head slightly, “but you don’t need recipes, do you?”

I shook my head. Nor Cuisinarts, either, I supposed. Nor lox. Nor caviar. 

“And you write about local food. Do you ever write about gourmet food?” I thought that oxymoron over for awhile and decided not to even try to go there.

Come to find out, he had sent the Herald newsroom piles of bagels and cream cheese and herring salad, and they didn’t seem grateful. “They even seemed kind of angry about it,” said Sam. And they didn’t even call me, I thought! But, Yes, I said, there’s something about disciplined journalists not accepting...

“They acted like it was a bribe or something,” said Sam.

I shook that off and really did try to help him. But, I said, we don’t raise our own salmon or smoke it. So when someone has a yen for it it would make some sense to go on-line, at least to some people, and order it from Zabars dot com.

“But,” he shook his head dismally, “how to get the name out there?”

As we parted he said, “Remember, Zabars will provide you with whatever you need.”

I said, But we don’t need anything from Zabar’s. Zabar’s needs something from us.
He nodded sorrowfully.

For the next hour I walked around the Co-op, up Center Street, to Depot Park and the Tuesday Farmers’ market, and asked everyone I met if they knew what Zabar’s was. None of them did.

So, maybe a paper cup with Zabar’s printed on it. I’ll settle for that.
That meeting must have been still in my mind because when I read this recipe by Francis Lam on the site it jumped right out at me:
Silky Marinated Salmon
•    About 2-3 ounces of salmon per person as an appetizer
•    Lime juice, as needed
•    Extra virgin olive oil, as needed
•    Salt, to taste
•    Green chiles, minced, to taste (optional)
•    Horseradish, grated, to taste (optional)
•    Dill, chopped, to taste (optional)
•    Pink peppercorns, ground, to taste (optional)
•    Shallots, minced, to taste(optional)
1.    Cut salmon into 1/4" – 1/8" strips. Set them in a bowl just a little bigger than you need to hold them. Season with salt and toss lightly.
2.    Combine olive oil and lime juice in a ratio of 2 parts of oil to 1 part lime, enough to cover the fish in the bowl. Heat the mixture with any of the optional flavorings to 110 degrees. Whisk together as much as possible, and toss with the salmon.
3.    Let salmon marinate in the warm liquid for 15 to 20 minutes. The heat won't cook it, but will speed up the marinade's penetration into the fish. Remove fish from marinade and serve immediately with salad greens, toasts, or however you'd like. Or leave the fish in the marinade for a few hours or overnight for a more traditional ceviche effect.

So I picked up some frozen Alaskan sockeye salmon, wildcaught, from the Co-op (good choice on the Monterey Aquarium’s website), and ceviched it. And it lived up to its name, all silky and pink and full of savory sweet salmonness. And I bought some frozen Myer’s Bagels from Café Terra and some Philadelphia cream cheese, and had myself a nice cream cheese and ceviche treat!

I want to say congratulations and thanks to Café Terra’s original owner, Jen Hogan, and new owner, Jake Pluta, for keepin’ on keepin’ on. It has free web connection, so it becomes the place to have some good coffee or tea and a bagel or soup or sandwich while you’re checking Facebook or chatting with a friend. It’s a light and airy place, chock full of original art, and it’s open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday and until 9 p.m. Friday, when they offer entertainment. Just up Center Street east of Wales.

And don’t forget – check out We wouldn’t want them to think we’re just a bunch of  ungourmeticized Vermonters!
Published in the Rutland Herald 10/12/10 in my Twice Bitten column

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

seasons’ crux

A week ago I was leaning over the counter eating a yellow watermelon and finishing up Diana Gabaldon’s last book. The yellow watermelon tasted so sweet and so refreshing and it had a clean, fermenty smell, as well, and I imagined this elegant enclosed thing lying in a field on the end of a vine for so long – all this long hot summer, really –  in someone’s field – I think this one came from Woods’ in Brandon – growing larger and rounder, the delicious seed pod from that small yellow blossom, under the sun and the rain, to end up here in MY kitchen, satisfying MY hunger.
We take the mysteries of the growing season so much more for granted than we do the mysteries of fall. We eat directly off the vine, with very little preparation, because everything is so glorious it’s best just fresh. Plants are a great leveler, feeding rich and poor alike, in great houses and humble – in both you find people gnawing corn off the cob.

The mystery of this crux is that some of us are still picking basil off the bush, tomatoes off the vine, and cutting okra from its plant, too, even while mountainsides are turning crimson and gold and colored leaves rain off the trees over the deck and you have to pluck them out of the tarragon before you pick it. Our frost comes later and later.
...fried veggies...
That’s what we’ve been eating most of all this highly prolific summer – vegetables – and one of my favorite ways of preparing them is to fry them. Eggplant, green tomatoes, just-ripe tomatoes, zucchini, okra. I slice them (except I leave the okra whole), dip them into a tempura batter and fry them in lard that I rendered from pork fat I sourced at the WAWWEE (We Are What We Eat Eats) store in Gassetts, just this side of Chester, or in some butter and olive oil. Yum! I’m not tired of it yet.
Nor this: one fine afternoon a friend dropped off some bass that he’d filleted from fish he’d caught that morning. He and a friend leave Wallingford at 3AM for Lake Champlain and are back by 8, he said. With a plethora of fish. What a treasure. Thank you, Robert!
I dipped those beautifully cleaned filets in egg and then panko crumbs and fried them in olive oil and butter, but I could have dipped them into the tempura batter instead. 
Here’s a technique for that batter from Elizabeth David. It’s an excellent coating, and I think it’s the oil in the batter that keeps the coating on the food rather than in the grease:
Take 4 ounces of flour, about a cup, and put it into a bowl. Add 3 tablespoons of olive oil and a pinch of salt, then gently and slowly whisk in “3/4 teacup of tepid water” until the mixture is about the consistency of somewhere between thick cream and half and half. Let it sit for awhile to let the gluten relax, and, when you’re ready to use it, whip one egg white and fold it in. Dip your food into it and fry it up.
Take advantage of that simplicity while you can, before the first frost, and then, while you wait for all those leaves to come off the trees, you might like to take to the road to see the autumn sights and refresh your palate with some un-New-England tastes before you settle into those long-simmered winter things.

...on the road...
I met friends at Mariam’s  Restaurant, which serves African and American Cuisine, located on the main street in downtown Windsor. Not only is it a beautiful ride from here to there – we took the most picturesque route from Echo Lake Inn on Rte 100 and wended our way through South Reading, Brownsville and Ascutney to the other side of the state – but it’s totally worthwhile: Where else can you get African – in this case Tanzanian – food in Vermont? We chose to order totally African, and chatted while the young couple – Ibrahim and Jennifer Mahem (he, originally from Tanzania, she from New Hampshire) –  prepared curried goat with rice, coconut cauliflower with chicken, a spicy mango stir fry, and a platter of chapatti, a creamy African flatbread. We tore off pieces of the chapatti in which to pincer and wrap bites of each entrée. The flavors were fabulous – spicy but not too hot – sharing many with Asian food – those of coriander, cinnamon, and cardamom.

We had a dessert orderer among us and we all noodled over what she should order. Deep Fried Ice Cream, she’d had before. Cheese cake... no. We paused at the Fried Plantains with ice cream, but ultimately settled on a Squash Bread Pudding. Wow! It was wonderful, a big plate of bright orange slathered with whipped cream. Three spoons went right to it, smothered gasps of goodness emitted. YUM.  Chef Ibrahim and Jennifer had the leisure – we were the only patrons that noon – to sit down and chat with us. It turned out that he had made up the dish a few days before, simply roasting a butternut squash with clove and cinnamon (“and mebbe some cardamom,” he guessed), a drizzle of olive oil and sprinkle of salt, then mashed it with heavy cream and poured it over cubes of challah, that lightly sweet and eggy, very light bread, with perhaps a trace of cardamom in itself. Then he baked it. “I was just experimenting,” he said, having the ingredients and combining them in a playful kind of way. It was sensational. I haven’t tried making it myself from these hints, but when I do I’ll let you know how it comes out. And if you try it, let me know what you did.
Mariam’s is open Monday through Saturday from 11AM to 9PM. Put it on your calendar, for you’re in for a treat. They also do catering.  Call them at 674-2662.
I was lucky enough a week or so ago to have my second lunch at Anjali Farm in South Londonderry. Now that’s a gorgeous ride from here, up 140 to 155 and then 100 through Londonderry and then 3 or 4 miles further to South Londonderry.
Lini Mazumdar cooked for maybe twenty of us who were attending a MetaYoga retreat at the restored train depot in that beautiful village. She made a lovely Raita, seemingly more silky and certainly more tasty than the ones I’ve made. She doesn’t make her own yogurt, but buys the excellent Butterwork’s Farm one that I do (available at the Co-op), whipping it up with cucumber, spearmint, cumin and cayenne, as well as salt and pepper and a touch of maple syrup. 
Too, I was totally captivated by the daal she served (admittedly, we had worked up quite an appetite in the morning yoga and aerobics session), which she described to me over the phone afterward: Cook the lentils, any kind (wash them 3 times) in water or chicken broth flavored with turmeric and minced ginger. Then sauté cumin seeds in oil, add onions and garlic and sauté until soft. Meanwhile, parboil vegetables which could include, as hers did, potatoes, cauliflower, chard, kale, carrots, and red cabbage, and when they are partially cooked add them to the lentils and cook until tender. If you make this thick it’s a stew; thin, a soup. She served hers with basmati rice.
She described how she made her dal but there was no accounting for how delicious it was. She also served a chicken curry, also exceptional, and a holy basil tea. I could not have made that, either. Something there is that goes from her hand to the food that does not translate into a recipe. Perhaps if I stood in her kitchen and watched over her shoulder I could translate it.
Anjali Farm is owned by Lini and her husband, Emmett Dunbar. Lini grows herbs and makes elixirs and tinctures she sells under the name Lotus Moon Medicinals. She is available, also, for Indian cooking lessons and catering for events. She will come to your house and cook for you and your friends or she will cook in her own kitchen and you can pick it up from there. Call for more info and/or directions at 824-4658. MetaYoga? 802-824-5064.
Finally, just a few days ago, I was headed west and stopped at Cinco Gringos just west of Castleton on Rte 4A in Hydeville. This is a small storefront in a small mall, brightly painted with Mexican scenes, owned by a young man named Michael Jakab, originally from Fair Haven, who is also the cook along with his girlfriend Alex Lamy who recently graduated from culinary school. Michael, on the other hand, majored in communications. No matter. The restaurant – mostly takeout, has been open since last December, and it’s time we heard about it and gave it a good try.
I asked Michael what he would recommend and he said “sweet potatoes”.  Okay, I said, in what form would he recommend that those sweet potatoes come in that I could eat in my car. Well, the least messy, he told me, would be quesadillas, and so I ordered sweet potato quesadillas. I waited ten minutes and there they were, eight large triangles of flour tortillas stuffed with cheddar and jack cheese and sweet potatoes, served with freshly made salsa and sour cream. They make their own salsa and guacamole – tons of it, Michael says – every morning.
There were nice tastes in these, but they were very filling and I could eat no more than four of them and that was stretching it a bit. Others, however, were glad to finish up my leavings. I’ll be back soon to try a burrito, or maybe even chicken mole’ tacos!
Cinco Gringos is open Tuesday through Saturday starting at 11AM through the evening hours. Sundays they open at 4. Closed Mondays. They also do some catering. 278-4090.
So, eat your veggies, Folks, while these fresh summer ones last, and then take a ride to enjoy this season and the international tastes offered by young cooks along the way.
this post was published as a Twice Bitten Column in the Rutland Herald on 09/28/10

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

little cows & spotted dogs

There’s nothing like taking a ride in this season when the color is coming on and the days are high and blue and breezy, and so, a few days ago, I drove up northwest of Brandon to Spotted Dog Farm. Once there, I surveyed the vistas and spied not one cow. In fact, I’d been talking to Susan and Chic Whiting for a good half hour and the only animal I’d encountered was the enthusiastic and eponymous spotted dog, himself named Hawk, and a spotted pony that we were leading down to a corral. Oh, the registered Irish Dexter Cattle were off in a field (a breezy wave of the hand), said Susan, but I was beginning to doubt it. This wasn’t Montana, for instance, where a beeve could wander miles in its quest for grass.

But darned near it! There were 35 or so head of those diminutive cattle on 185 acres, and they were clear and way back on the back forty. Finally some black- and cinnamon-colored dots began to detach themselves from the rising treeline of one field and, like a wave, rushed the length of the field, stopping in a clump five feet away from us, heads down, necks stretched, their round nostrils whiffing and blowing bubbles, half-masticated clumps of grass sticking out the sides of their faces. These were the yearlings, half a dozen of them or so, sequestered from the mammas and babies so they might begin to learn to wear a halter and come when called.

Susan and Chic see their operation ultimately with three aims – cattle for beef, milk, and burden. At this point the meat operation is in full swing – they are able to sell the beef from six of the animals a year at the Rutland Farmers’ Market, and soon will sell from their farm store, too.

As for milking them – that’s in the future for now, and Chic and Susan doubt they’ll milk for themselves, but will raise the cows to sell for milk. And for burden. For these little cows are gentle, smart, and trainable, and can be used in pairs as farm-teams to do farm work. They will eventually – beginning with these six – be halter-trained, and sold for this purpose, too.

A person or two could own one or two of these little cows and have their own – very creamy – milk, a team, if two, to help pull up stumps or do other farm work, and, eventually, with careful breeding, beef to eat. Gee whiz, and Gee Haw.

The little cattle – boxy like angus or Hereford, but slightly smaller than the Jersey, to my eye – are fully grass-fed, grazing rotationally all the time grass grows green, and eating that grass in the form of hay in the winter, during which they retain the freedom to roam about and snuffle out what winter fodder they might, yet with the option of the open-sided barn for protection against the elements. They have their treats, too, which consist of beet pulp, the stuff that is left after beets are crushed and wrung for their sugar, then dried and compressed. They also love alfalfa squares, and apples from the many apple trees on the property.
We walked back up to the house and I sat on the porch to make some notes.

The Whitings have been here since 2001, with the first of the Irish Dexters, living in a small trailer until their house was hauled up the road in three parts. It’s a pretty house – cape on one side and ranch – with that long porch – on the other, perched on a high gentle rise. There’s a view of the Adirondacks and the acres are hilly, and were overgrown until they began the process of pulling out the Buckthorne that had taken over. What had been 300 acres belonging to the Vermont Land Trust, had been divided into two pieces. It hadn’t been farmed in maybe fifty years and, when it had been, it was a dairy farm.

Working with the Vermont Land Trust has been invaluable to them, a liaison visiting once or twice a year to help keep them in compliance with Land Trust rules and regulations and to offer other kinds of help. It was he who connected them with Diane Heleba at the USDA office in Rutland.  Sally Eugair, from the same office, helped them with a Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP), to bolster up some areas and protect the wetland. EQUIP helped them deal with water quality. Cindy Watrous, from USDA, helped with a cattle nutritional program through a class that Susan took in Middlebury. And Willie Gibson and the Vermont Farm Viability Enhancement Program helped them produce a business plan.

“Networking is what it’s all about,” Susan says.

These names come as easily from their lips as from those of many other farmers I’ve talked to, because these people and agencies have been generous and helpful with their knowledge. And with that help, Chic and Susan have done an incredible job with infrastructure – water lines, barns, and berming of the land into paddocks – and growing a healthy herd.

“Wanna take the (John Deere) Gator and go find the main herd?” Chic asks, and I say an emphatic YES, having feared I’d taken up too much of their time already.

Well, shades of being 12 again. It’s been many many years since I’ve been on a tractor, and this little vehicle is much like one, though it has two seats and a small truck bed. Chic drives, I ride shotgun, and Susan is in the back. She slides off to open the many gates and close them behind us.

We wind up tippy, crooked little paths, around hills, down the farm path, all the way to the back of the farm, and there we find the main herd as we stop at one end of the field. After eyeing us quizzically from afar, the herd thunders bellowing to us down the length of the field. Some of them have wide and wickedly pointed horns. Those I do not approach, though I mix with some of the hornless mommas and babies.

Then Chic turns the Gator around and leads them out of that grazed paddock up to a nearer ungrazed one. It’s a slow start – they stand watching us at first but then notice that the gate is open and Susan and Chic are calling them and they suddenly thunder after us. It’s a wild race, the little truck with a slight lead as wild-eyed, wickedly horned beasts pursue us through the brush. Susan points out the hilly patches that they’ve cleared of buckthorn and other invasives. That’s a nice job, I say, imagining the challenge of it and long days spent outside doing this work. “It’s a good winter job,” says Susan. It’s the kind of  job, I know, that beaches you in the evening in front of a fire and crock-potted stew, feeling immense gratitude at having done real, hard, grown-up work!

The cattle are now contentedly grazing on the new grass, Susan fastens the gate behind us and we return to the house.

My friend, Ann Tiplady, from Red Houses Farm in Wallingford, constantly raises the issue, “Can one make a living raising beef cattle? And if one can’t, should one be occupying oneself in this manner?”
And so I ask the Whitings if they can make a living off this way of life.

“No,” is the answer to that. A rueful “no.” Susan works as a Physical Therapist at the Rutland Hospital, and Chic, a retired policeman from the Hyannis Port area, drove a school bus for several years after moving here but now works fulltime on the farm. He tells me that it is the prevailing wisdom that you’d need 300 head to make a living from it, and that would require a farm several times the size, and then, of course, it becomes a chore. But that number would be for a regular commercial herd. The Whitings rely on ‘value added’ to make a profit, and that value added for them is that their cattle are grass-fed and  tri-purposed.

My next, and last question: Do you love this life? Would you do it again?

The answer is instantaneous: “Absolutely!”

I take my leave, thanking them for the time they’ve taken out of their busy day to show me their impressive operation. Susan says, thoughtfully, “It’s good to take a little time, good to answer questions, because it makes us think about them. Usually we’re so busy we just keep on keepin’ on. Good to stop and think about why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

The Whitings welcome visitors but ask that you call ahead (247-6076). Spotted Dog Farm is a regular stop for the Audubon Society and popular with individual groups of birdwatchers. I can only imagine what a gold and glorious spot it will be in a few weeks.

Post Script: After this column was published in the Herald, a letter was appended to the column with some thoughts on cows and horns. This is it:

Not to worry about the horns on those little cows. Dexters are very friendly. But... if the animal wanted to hurt you.... horns would be the least of your worries! They can all kill you with very little trouble, if they wanted to. I watch my cattle & they don't use their horns to fight w/ each other. They head butt.
Dexters have an extreme amount of vasiclature in their horns. Like an elephants ears, they dissipate heat, to keep the cattle cool. I have a few cows that came to my farm w/ their horns removed. Poor things suffer terribly during heat spells.
Addenda: 10/12/10 
Sue checked out this information and got this reply from Animal Welfare Approved:

Horns for thermo-regulation
There is potential for sheep, goats, cattle and bison to use their horns as part of their thermoregulatory (temperature regulating) processes. In cattle the extreme is the Ankole Watusi , a cattle breed native to Africa which has horns that can grow up to six feet long, honeycombed with blood vessels. This makes perfect sense as the Ankole Watsui evolved to live in areas where the temperature stays very high all year round.
The way the heat exchange process works is for blood to be pumped round the ‘core’ of the horn – the bit that actually has blood vessels in it – and as this blood passes close to the outside of the horn heat can be lost to the atmosphere and cooler blood returns to the body of the animal.
However, other cattle breeds evolved to live in colder environments and there is a difference in horn morphology for cattle breeds from tropical and temperate zones. Research has shown that in temperate species the surface area of the vascularised inner core is reduced while the thickness of the outer keratin sheath is increased. This limits heat loss from the horns, as in colder climates loss of heat would be a welfare negative.
Animals have evolved to adapt to their environment but this adaptation takes many thousands of years. An animal from a hot climate cannot suddenly switch from using their horns to cool themselves to stopping that heat loss. It is worth noting that antelope originating from Africa have actually been found to have frostbite at the tips of their horns when they are kept in zoos in cold countries – the cooling effect of having horns cannot be controlled by the animal.
The Dexter is obviously a temperate cattle breed; originating from south west Ireland. Its horns will therefore not be a major part of its cooling process.
Further to the points above, thermoregulation in cattle is not solely a function of having horns. There are a number of breeds and strains of cattle that are polled – that is they naturally do not have horns. A number of popular cattle breeds such as the Angus are polled cattle and other widespread breeds such as the Hereford have polled strains. If the only way cattle could heat regulate was through their horns these animals would not look very healthy.

When temperatures exceed the thermo neutral zone for cattle – at around 85F or more – the animals regulate their temperature by evaporative cooling. Evaporative cooling is mainly effected through sweating and respiration. Heat stress is a function of time, temperature and humidity, because cattle rely on water evaporation via sweating and panting to dissipate an excess of heat they have generated metabolically or absorbed from the environment. High humidity makes evaporative cooling less efficient. Cattle will seek shade when it is available to minimize the effects of high temperatures.

There are negative points to having horns for the animals and for the stock people managing their health and welfare. Animals can damage one another with horns – a boss animal whether male or female will keep less dominant animals away from feed and water with its horns. Breeding males can fight and injure one another with their horns. In the wild this is about survival of the fittest and allowing younger animals with different genetics to take charge of the herd and breed. In a farming situation this could be the incapacity or loss of your best bull. Lastly there is a human health and safety issue with handling horned cattle. A horned steer that throws its head around when it is being handled can be a considerable danger to those trying to work with it.
There are some farmers who choose to keep horned cattle and who have the particular skills and equipment to manage them – for example feeders and squeeze chutes must be specially adapted for horned animals to prevent them being trapped or injured.  AWA would never require that such farmers moved to breeding polled cattle or that they disbud their calves to stop horns growing. However AWA does recognize that for other farmers and other breeds disbudding calves may offer the best welfare for life. AWA does of course specify the age and methods of disbudding that are acceptable to minimize the stress of the operation. AWA does not allow the mutilation of dehorning – the removal of the horn once it is fully formed and attached to the skull.
Picard K, Festa-Bianchet M, Thomas D (1996) The cost of horniness: heat loss may counter sexual selection for large horns in temperate bovids. In: Ecoscience 3(3): 280-284