Tuesday, August 31, 2010

I call my egg Mariah

I’ve been traveling a long food road  for most of my life, and that road was at first a circling, curving, hilly one, filled with daily routines like eating watermelon slices on Grandma’s kitchen stoop after supper at the end of a long hot farm day, with all the tired men and women and kids there in the dusk, sitting on the well platform; talking and slurping. I am bent over the glistening black-speckled, salt sprinkled crimson crescent I hold in both hands between my rolled-up overall-covered knees, my bare-feet plunked in the sand below, toes slightly curved inward, spitting seeds that will sprout between the stones, those sprouts surely trampled on our everyday tromping. And things like the milk pail slung inside the kitchen door after each evening’s milking, and long hot strawberry days.

Then that road straightens out into a highway, and alongside it are big barns filled with dairy cattle day and night. You see those barns in Vermont, too, and they look almost idyllic set in those green fields. But where are the cows? Not a sign of one. They’re never outside – their entire lives are spent in that barn, being fed hay and grain and antibiotics and hormones. That’s the reality of BIG for you – these farms milking from 225 to a whopping 1400 cows, with not a ray of sunshine or blade of green grass to satisfy their four stomachs.
Is BIG a bad word when it comes to food?  Umm, well, half a billion eggs from TWO Iowa farms were recently recalled in the salmonella incident.

Yep... Half a billion eggs from just two farms!

Those eggs came from chickens raised in chicken ghettos – slave chickens raised in tiny cages, their beaks cut off, their bodies managed impersonally like lifeless little cogs in a machine.  Those were 99¢ a dozen supermarket eggs or even $2.50 – who knows what they cost. In the long run they cost way too much.
But I don’t worry about salmonella or anything else when I break an egg into a frying pan, because my eggs come from chickens that peck here and there, into cow pies even, under the sun and trees, in the fresh air. They live like chickens should, according to the wisdom of old Mother Nature. And you know what? There’s really no reason to be eating supermarket eggs if you live in Vermont. I can’t drive a mile in any direction from Wallingford without seeing an Eggs for Sale sign plunked in someone’s yard, and I pay anywhere from $2.50 to $4.00 a dozen for them. The thought of 99¢ eggs makes me gag.

I could grow my own layers and meat birds, but I have a shameful secret, and that is I don’t particularly like chickens. I grew up with them, you see – Grandma raised them for eggs and flesh, and I found them dirty excitable things who invariably pecked me when I slipped a small hand under them to steal their eggs. They didn’t peck Grandma – Oh no! – they bent over backwards for her to steal their eggs. Maybe it had something to do with her calm, musing air as she scattered grain and seeds for them in the chickenyard, clucking along with them; or the way she would bend over and capture one and stand up smoothing its rindy feathers against her bosom.

About as far as you can get from my attitude toward chickens (and much closer to Grandma’s) is that of Farmer Bill, who stopped by last Saturday to drop off a dozen eggs from his own chickens, and while he was at it also brought me a pint of hard-won raspberries from the earlybird vendor at the Farmers’ Market, and a copy of his Chicken Things newsletter that he puts out a couple of times a year. I opened the egg carton and the eggs within left me in no doubt that they were fresh as the dawn, still stippled with grass and who knows what.  He apologized: “I almost forgot them, and didn’t have time to clean them.” They were heavenly, the palest of pale yellow, pink, and green – or was that blue? – and giving off that ineffable scent of grass and chicken.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not one of the lucky people who regularly eat Farmer Bill’s eggs (though I am one of the lucky people who regularly eat eggs from Sunset Farm and other vendors at the Rutland Farmers’ Market), and the reason I was receiving these was an email I received from Ms. Bill a few days ago in which she told me about the flock of chickens that resides on their almost-off-the-grid farm in Danby, with which I was immediately fascinated.

She wrote, “We've been keeping the same chicken flock going since 1987. Our original chickens came from a farmer friend who had been interbreeding for years on his farm in Little Compton, Rhode Island, so we started with a mix of Araucana,  Rhode Island Reds and who knows what else.  Early in the 1990s we brought in some Buff Orpingtons and Silver Spangled Hamburgs to add to the gene  pool, and along with them came a free chick which turned out  to  be an Araucana rooster, so that strain got boosted.  A few years  later  I got some fertile Rhode Island Red hens from a friend.  Ever since, the flock has proliferated by hens going broody and hatching out their own chicks.  Half of the chicks are roosters, and we butcher them  on the farm and eat the meat.”

Of the chickens’ present life, Farmer Bill writes, “This farm is an ultimate fantasy destination – if chickens elsewhere knew about this place they’d want to vacation here. Green grass... begins right outside their doors; they have barnyard, meadow, forest, and front yard and orchard, and each has what I now view as ‘that special place’ that makes all the difference, a contentment spot, a ‘mini jungle’, a spot of close trees, bushes with open shade underneath. They spend hours a day as a flock just sitting in their jungle rest retreat...” 
He goes on, “I see the farm as a place where the chickens have the opportunity to express their ‘chicken-ness’ to the maximum. They can make choices (they like that) and go from one mini-environment to another and they like the trip, I can tell.” Bill particularly likes being able to afford his chickens the cow-shelter, “an open-sided shed of sunshine and shade mix, usually containing a couple dozen chickens, a cow, and a goose – the perfect pastoral scene.”

I’ve seen these chickens and the farm and I can attest that these are happy chickens. And now I’ve eaten the eggs, too. I ate a pale green one and my Breakfast Partner got a pale pink one. I called my egg Mariah. BP’s egg went unnamed and right down the gullet. The yolks were bright yellowy-orange, the whites stood right up, not spreading around, so the finished fried egg looked like a golden patty, not an insipid pancake. Yes, they were delicious.

Mariah is the one on top

Ms. Bill told me, “About 10 years ago, scientists recognized that eggs that come  from chicks hatched out by mother hens contain a bacteria that is a natural protection against salmonella.”  Factory chicken farms do not leave the chicks with their mother/breeders long enough to acquire that bacteria.

And then she said this, stating my own thought:
“It strikes me as perverse that our society has ruined something so beautiful as the production of an egg. Chickens are amazingly smart creatures, with far more personality than most people give them credit for. Locking them up in cages where they barely have room to turn around, keeping them indoors all the time, feeding them who knows what (well actually I do know and it involves taking the hens that die at the factory and shipping them to a production facility where they're processed into chicken feed...), is so inhumane, and most people don't seem to know or care.” 
Farmer Bill teaches a select few some tricks, such as climbing upon his shoulder and eating treats out of his hand. He thinks that,  “what makes a chicken a pet is getting a name.” For instance, the rooster pictured on Bill’s shoulder is named Speckles, for his speckled breast.

Farmer Bill and Speckles, photo by John Geery
You will probably not be eating Farmer Bill’s eggs – they are very difficult to get ahold of, being in very high demand – but you certainly have many other sources for excellent eggs. Hie thyself to the Farmers’ Market, for instance...

You might want to get off the food highway, if you’re on it, and get on a small macadam road that curves and climbs into more interesting, and delicious, food terrain.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

minding my own (garden) business

These not-very-attractive structures provided the structure for the flourishing garden above

With magnificent beneficence I handed off my 35-year-old flat garden to Leo this summer, while I took on some rather unattractive black plastic bins in which to plant my new garden. It’s the newest – and most severe – transition in my garden since thirty-five years ago when we came here to build a life in this shabby old brick house and its bare – except for a couple of lilacs and  three maple saplings – half-acre corner-lot-that-(now)-thinks-it’s-a-farm.

Then, we created a vegetable garden in the southwest corner of the lot. It flourished, over the years, from a flat square to raised beds held in check with cinder blocks, rocks and this-and-that-and-various-other-shards –and-detritus to serve as walls and dividing points. Fifteen years ago, when Tomato Imperative! was published, I spent much time being photographed among my jungle of tomato plants out there. But since then I have spent many-too-many hours cursing my neighbor’s Box Elder tree that has increasingly encroached on my garden’s space, until now it blots out any speck of afternoon sun from 2 or 3 o’clock on. It gives the owners a sense of privacy, though, and they’re not about to cut it down on accounta my garden!

Well Damn! Aren’t vegetables, isn’t food, more important than the shade of a shallow-rooted junk tree that grows like a weed? But wait! At the same time – somehow ignored by me – an oak tree grew midway on the southern perimeter of my yard that, when he planted it, Leo told me would be a small tree. It grew inexorably, with a shadow that progressively ate into my morning sun time until, these last couple of years, my vegetable garden transformed into a shade garden. Hostas, anyone?

These things happen so slowly, so incrementally, that it renders us stupid! Perhaps, I thought, the downward spiral of my vegetable garden was directly connected to my developing a black thumb! I decided to test that hypothesis last summer when I placed a leaf-composting bin – a round black heavy-plastic thing about 2.5 feet high and 2.5 feet in diameter, with 1 inch perforations all through it – that I’d got at East Creek Plaza at the Rutland County Solid Waste facility – in one of the only spots in the entire yard that got full sun most of the day. That happened to be on the very northwest corner of the lot, on the side street, behind the boatshed, about as far away from the kitchen and from my casual view – and therefore, enjoyment – as it could be.

I filled it half-full with the previous year’s chopped leaves, then added well-composted horse manure, my screened vegetable compost, and soil from the shaded garden. In it I planted a sungold  and a brandywine tomato, nasturtiums, Serrano peppers, and a butternut squash, parsley, ad infinitum, and let ‘er rip! She did beautifully well – that is, before the dreaded late blight turned my tomatoes into nasty monsters. But the peppers lasted us all year, the nasty urtiums were vibrant, and the squash fed us till Christmas.
This was early season last year with my first experimental container

So it wasn’t my thumb, I thought, as I stood on the porch and looked out at my shaded yard: It was the damned tree! But, I said to myself, Which tree? I had no control over my neighbor’s tree, but I DID have control over that ‘small’ oak that towered 50 feet in the air (or was it 100? In my mind it was Redwood-sized) that shaded the entire yard. That and the white pine on the southeast corner that had grown from a throw-away sapling from the Vermont State Fair 25 years ago into the towering and not very attractive thing that it was now. A call to ‘tree-flyer’ Barker to take them down , and I could move my vegetable garden to the middle of the yard!

“Cutting down two perfectly healthy trees?” my daughter chided. I flinched – how could I justify that? Easy! Vegetables were more important than trees. So was light! And sun! “Well you’d better get your arse in gear, then,” she said threateningly, “and make sure there’s a garden there next summer!”

In the fall I had my young yard-worker – Kyle LaMothe – chip up all the leaves with the mower, then rake and move and heave them (“You’ve got more leaves than a forest,” he panted) into the center of the yard, thickly layered (a foot deep) over a large section of forgettable perennials, and the rest were layered over the beds in the existing garden. In November Tree Flier did, indeed, show up to take down those two trees. A few days later we got the first substantial snow and, as a result my yard looked like a war zone all winter.

Come spring, I was out straight with work and had only time to glance askance at my new ‘garden’ and the wreckage in the yard. Imperceptibly, though, the wreckage declined, and that was because Leo was solidly and stolidly spending any free moment using a come-along and a splitter (maul and wedge), punctuated by the occasional rasp of a chain-saw, to clean up the mess.
Below, the first photo looks southeast -- the pine tree gone; second photo south -- the oak tree, too!

So. Now it was up to me. It occurred to me that I’d had such good luck planting in that plastic leaf composter last summer that I should utilize the remaining ones right in the front yard, and determine from the results what contours exactly the permanent garden should take. At the end of the season, if they were placed correctly, we could just put up some retaining walls, pull up the cylinders and rake out the soil into beds.

So that’s what I did – I filled four composters, right in the middle of the yard, with the chopped leaves, compost, and soil, then added some Winterwood Farm shellfish compost that I got from a Farmers’ Market vendor last winter. In them I planted tomatoes – Sun Gold, Celebrity, Brandywine, Striped German, and Pratico; as well as French filet beans and eggplant; peppers – Hungarian wax, Serrano, and early Jalapeno; Crookneck yellow squash; and some very long, very prickly Japanese cucumbers. In smaller containers set in full sun I planted basil, okra, and Rosemary.
 Below a Sungold Tomato, eggplant, and peppers are just planted.

Okra is a member of the hibiscus family, as shown by its blossom

I weed standing up. I harvest standing up, which is particularly nice when it comes to the beans.

In the old, flat garden – which now, too, gets much more light – Leo tilled in that thick layer of chopped leaves and planted greens and carrots and brassica. My self-seeding herbs still grow themselves there. The peas loved the leaf-lightened soil. Never have we had such a bountiful harvest.

Dear Reader! Please join us in paying  obeisance to the absent oak tree (thank you for your life), the absent pine (good riddance), and the omnipresent sun and sufficient rain of this lovely summer, because our gardens do extremely well! And I’ve had zero angst stemming from the neighbor’s tree all summer, for I believe I’ve learned the true lesson of  changing what I CAN change and disregarding the rest!

These gorgeous things aren't mine but those of Alchemy Garden at the Farmers' Market.
Thanks, Lindsay and Scott

The tomatoes hung in thick green clumps for the longest time. First to ripen were the Sun Golds – several hands full every day; next was one Celebrity, which is no surprise, but what is a surprise are the enormous Brandywines and Striped Germans, and even the Praticos – ripening faster and faster every day. Which puts me in mind of tomato soups, especially this one from Tomato Imperative!.
Chilled North African Soup
We wanted an uncooked tomato soup with a Moroccan flavor. The spices are mellowed in oil and broth over heat, then added to the uncooked tomatoes to make a very striking soup. The flavors flower, gorgeous and unexpected.
•    1 cup rich chicken broth
•    3 tablespoons olive oil
•    1 tablespoon honey
•    1 teaspoon salt
•    2 thin lemon slices
•    ½ teaspoon crushed caraway seeds
•    ½ teaspoon cinnamon
•    ½ teaspoon hot paprika
•    ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
•    3 large, ripe, juicy tomatoes (1 ½ pounds) crushed
•    1 tablespoon each minced fresh cilantro and Italian parsley
•    thin lemon slices
In a small pot place the broth, oil, honey, salt, lemon slices, caraway, cinnamon, hot paprika, and ground cumin. Bring to a simmer over low heat and cook for 15 minutes. Place tomatoes, cilantro, and parsley in a serving bowl or small tureen. Strain and stir the hot flavored broth into the tomatoes. Chill several hours to allow flavors to marry and serve garnished with thin lemon slices.

Slit these spicy Hungarian wax peppers from stem to tip, take out the seeds, stuff them with Stilton, sprinkle with bread crumbs, put them into a cold oven and turn it to 450° and when it has reached that number the peppers will be done. And delicious!

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

my lunches at Sissy’s

It’s a pretty 15 minute drive for me up 140 from Wallingford to Middletown Springs and lunch, and it’s one I’ve made every Wednesday, it seems, throughout July.

Because, although Sissy’s Kitchen serves breakfast, lunch and dinner Wednesdays through Sundays, I’ve only been there for lunch; and I want you to know that even though Sissy’s is a take-out place you can usually find a place to perch – either at a table on the front porch or in the sylvan back gardens – for long enough to eat her beautiful food, much of which she sources locally and all of which she prepares with the care and expertise that her long career in food – much of it as chef/owner of the Dorset Inn – affords her.

Her website bills her place as a retail outlet, and it is full of charming touches – like the twig and small lights chandelier on the porch ceiling; selected crafts of  pottery and wooden bowls and cutting boards, and her own bottled sauces and salsas as well as a selection of cookies, including the best knife-thin gingersnaps I believe I’ve ever had the pleasure of biting into (at 25¢ apiece) and other baked goods. Yum. Yum.

For my first lunch I met Elsie Gilmore there because I wanted to meet this young woman who was so kind and effective in helping my son Spencer a few years ago when he suffered the devastating loss of his house to fire. Since she divides her time between Sarasota and Middletown Springs, I had my chance. I wanted to thank her and I wanted to know what she was about.

She’s about Green – ways to lessen your carbon footprint, which you can see on her website.  I’ve watched her do that herself on Facebook, where she downgraded from car to scooter to bus to shank’s mare back up to scooter. And she’s about reaching out to women, helping them to connect and to succeed in business.

I had the Ploughman’s Lunch – a pork pie enclosed in pastry, served with potato salad, red onion jam, Consider Bardwell Dorset Cheese, hard boiled egg, sliced tomato, and sliced apple $8.95. Even though I’d fasted all morning the sight of that plate made my eyes pop and I was sure I’d be having it for supper, too. But No! Bite by tasty bite the plate was cleared, as Elsie devoured her Prosciutto, Pesto and Fresh Mozzarella cheese on Cibatta Roll. We sat at a table on the porch, and then, being nosy, scouted the gorgeous gardens out back where Sissy grows much of the produce she uses in the kitchen, with the help, it must be admitted, of the amazing gardener Paul Morgan.

Next week I had lunch with Angela Miller, the owner, with her husband, Russell Glover, of Consider Bardwell Farm in West Pawlet. I hadn’t seen Angela since last fall when we met for dinner at the Victorian Inn at Wallingford.  I’d first met her at the Consider Bardwell booth at that frigid first year festival, in 2007, of the Winter Farmers’ Market. She struck me then as a pretty blond woman, petite, retiring but warm, almost shy but forthright. We talked about cheese and I sampled. Those were some wonderful cheeses. In 2008, when finally I drove to West Pawlet and saw the gorgeous (300 acre, red brick) farm and talked to Peter Dixon, the cheese maker, I couldn’t quite square the whole thing in my head. I knew Angela had her own literary agency in New York City. Driving from NYC to W Pawlet and back each week? Melding or leaping from one end of life’s spectrum to the other? THIS woman? It didn’t compute. And, really? It still doesn’t.

But sometime this summer I picked up her new book, Hay Fever, from the Consider Bardwell stand (which she no longer womans) and it had lain on my coffee table since then. You know how it is that sometimes you’re reluctant to read something that a friend has written? What if you don’t like it? What if you find it boring, or the voice is off, or... I don’t know! Anyway, one night, when I had first begun reading The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, I picked up Angela’s book as I was making myself a supper sandwich, flipped it open on the kitchen counter and began to scan through it, like you do with a new book sometimes, trying to get the lay of the land.

It. Was. Fascinating! Angela’s voice came right off the page and into my ear. I flipped it shut, took my sandwich and glass of wine out to the porch and started at the beginning, leaving Lisbeth Salander to languish pour le nonce.

It was all there. No punches pulled. Names named. An honest –  heartrending sometimes; joyful, too – account of real life on a real farm. But this is not your ordinary farm, nor is Angela – or her husband, (whom she calls Rust) – your ordinary farmer. Rust has his own architectural practice in NYC, too. Both are very successful. Thus – as a rule – she usually drives from NYC to West Pawlet on Thursday night and back again to the city on Monday. By 8AM next morning she’s sitting in the Chinese beauty salon in her office building getting redone for her city look – nails, hair, makeup – and  taking calls from “my authors” on her cell, “they don’t know I’m not in my office.” The goats take care of her country remake every Thursday evening with their nuzzling and kisses. Angela loves her goats and they love her!

I got up and emailed Angela, "You never even told me you were writing a book, and it’s terrific!"

She wrote back, "That’s probably because we don’t see each other enough. Let’s have lunch."

That next Wednesday, Angela pulled up in a utilitarian van with no air conditioning. It was sweltering. She was wearing black denim jeans and a white muslin top that she worried she would drip pulled-pork sauce on (BBQ Pulled Pork on Cibatta Roll with cole slaw  5.95). I had what Elsie had had the week before, (Prosciutto, Pesto and Fresh Mozzarella cheese on Cibatta Roll 5.95). We strolled out back to the gardens and found a shady table. And talked. For a leisurely but intense couple of hours.

We talked about her voice. She told me how she had written notes through that 2008-2009 year and given them to her co-writer (the title page says By Angela Miller with Ralph Gardner, Jr), and he had captured her voice and put the book together. Later I googled him and from what I found he doesn’t hesitate to be hard-hitting. He’s written extensively for magazines and newspapers – I got quite caught up in his compelling account of the Tony Marshall/ Brooke Astor affair from last year; one in which I hadn’t the slightest interest at the time  – and is Senior Special Writer for The Wall Street Journal. Hay Fever is his first book.

We talked a lot about the mechanics of raising goats, milking them, and making internationally-acclaimed cheese out of the milk. “Most cheese makers don’t milk their own goats,” she told me. “It’s like having two full time jobs – three, if you count my agency.” (Oh, now why would we count your agency??!!)

She told me she slept in her car during kidding season, which is March and April, during which she tries to stay at the farm most of the time. “The house is too far away from the kidding barn,” she said. “I couldn’t have someone running to the house to get me every time I was needed.”

We talked of the satisfaction she gets from the mix of all the farm workers from all strata of life – from 18 year old tough-talking pure Vermonters to the Texan who travels up to W Pawlet for every kidding season. When she first went to New York City (from her mother’s organic farm in Pennsylvania), she found herself dating a publisher and their whole social scene was literary. That was when she determined she wanted publishing to be her career, not her life.

We talked a lot about the dilemma of when to separate the kids from their mothers. We talked about the tragedy of male kids, most of whom are destined to be slaughtered.

We returned again and again to a vituperative letter to the Manchester Journal that had taken Angela to task for the euthanization of a kid that the writer took totally out of context. Angela was distraught at the letter as she had been distraught at the necessary euthanization.

A neighboring farmer had stopped her at the general store. “He said, ‘we farmers know that life on the farm holds its tragedies. But we don’t write about it.’ I think I should have pulled my punches on that one,” she told me with regret.

But that’s one of the strengths of Hay Fever – she pulls no punches!

We got up to walk through the gardens. I had one last question. Angela’s in her early sixties, but doesn’t look it. And to my earnest question, “How long can you continue to do this?” there was, uncharacteristically, no answer.

The following Wednesday, I took my visiting friend from Virginia – Dana Squire – to Sissy’s for lunch. I had the Seafood Salad Roll (Shrimp and crabmeat tossed with celery and mayonnaise) 7.25, while Dana had a wrap (Fresh Mozzarella, zucchini, yellow squash, spinach, roasted red pepper, black olive tapenade, sun dried tomato puree 5.95). We sat in the back and talked, and then inspected the gardens. Dana has gorgeous gardens of her own but she was entranced. 

This week, my daughter will be visiting. I wouldn’t be surprised if  Sissy didn’t see me again! Maybe we’ll all go for dinner this time.Maybe I’ll see you there! Maybe you’ll be reading Hay Fever!