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