Tuesday, April 05, 2011

on not making a habit of anything

A 150 year old fern at Pierce's Store?

Mercury is retrograde so I put my writing Haflingers away, slip on my traveling Mucks and take off up Shrewsbury mountain to play with masa.

I keep thinking of everything in terms of Venn diagrams, how circles overlap and create a common center. So if we were to describe that day in those terms we would have the three circles of Maya, Lindsay, and me overlapping into a common center of = Tortillas! That’s oversimplifying, of course. We would have to have a big circle named Chet, and a little circle named Iris to be at all complete, and the Iris circle would have to be sliding into and between the bigger circles in a bubbly little way, occasionally even being osmosed into them with no rupture at all of any perimeter. I have no doubt that Iris is not a perfect three year old, but you couldn’t prove it by me!

Lindsay and I were there to learn about nixtamalization – soaking corn kernels in some kind of ash or lime treated water before grinding them into masa and making, well,  tortillas, for instance. Maya  had learned the technique in Mexico years ago and is generous with the knowledge.

So. There we were, in the back-of-beyond in a pretty much off-the-grid house, in a small kitchen with a roaring wood range, performing that time-honored dance of women slipping by each other in small spaces in order to achieve gargantuan tasks, comparing notes and solving the problems of community and world at the same time. We took turns lifting the kernels from the limewater, picking off loose hulls, and rinsing them. All three of us took turns grinding them, twice, while Iris, toes curled onto the edge of a kitchen chair, handed us balls of once-ground masa for the second grind.

(Oh, how I wish I had not forgotten my camera that special day!)

Maya added a good amount of coconut oil to a pot of beans and slid them into a scorching oven. We flattened small balls of masa in a tortilla press that Chet had made, and flipped them onto the hot range to cook. I kneaded some of the raw masa with buttermilk and leavening to make cornbread, slid it into the oven, and realized it was the kind of hot that I had not experienced since grandma’s wood range back in the good old days. Whew. We stripped off more layers.

When the tortillas were done and the cornbread had proven to be more of a corn pudding, we took them into the other room where a table was set charmingly with pickles and salsas and kimchi and cheeses to join the beans and tortillas and Chet joined us and we had a lovely repast with lively conversation. I don’t know when I’ve had a meal so delicious.

Manolo greets customers at the store recently

Another day, another Venn diagram. Leo and I drive up to Pierce’s store – located at the apex of Cold River and Lincoln Hill Roads, and at the entrance to the seasonal CCC road to Plymouth – to see what’s kicking.  Maya’s son, 12 year old Manolo, mans the cash register while Maya knits in the corner of the room. It is bustling and friendly and bright, as it has been whenever I’ve visited, and I sit down to talk with Maya while Leo gets himself one of Rob McKain’s blueberry muffins and some coffee and sits down at one of the tables in the back. Where there’s no shortage of people with whom to chat.

Pierce’s, of course, has come back to life, with only a few years of dormancy between this new life and the old one, which had lasted well over a century.

Some of us know that soon before she died Marjorie Pierce – the last in the family of Pierces who owned and ran the store – made a deal with Preservation Land Trust hoping to give the store continued life. A group of energetic people worked with PLT to decide what form the reincarnation should take.

Selling local products and making the store a community source of goods and gathering place – as it always had been – were in the lead. It would be a cooperative. It would not define itself as ‘organic’, particularly, but would serve the community, saving its members the long trek to Rutland every time they needed a cup of sugar or a loaf of bread. You’ll  find Bud Lite as well as Vermont brews, even a few packs of cigarettes, on the shelves, and a package or two of Purdue chicken in the freezer along with locally grown ones.

It’s worth noting, though, that the products from local artisans and farmers contribute a great deal to the well-being of the store, and to the entire community of Shrewsbury. Something like $13K stayed right there in the community last year as a result of farmers and artisans having a market for their product and customers the opportunity to buy it.


As well, there was a nice over-all profit last year – its first year in this new life – which kind of belies its isolation, its far-from-anywhere location. Oh, I am reminded, it is not far from the center of Shrewsbury! And it has become a destination – a beautiful drive, delicious delicacies, and well stocked with one-of-a-kind gifts and foods.

Rob McKain bakes and cooks

Rob McKain – a chef of wide renown, especially in Shrewsbury – bakes breads and cookies and scones, and makes soups as well as a variety of other delicacies every day. Local cooks provide a take-out meal every Friday. Board members take turns staffing the store and each takes on a longer term project to fulfill. Maya, who is a newcomer to the board, is working on making the barn a presentable place for community gatherings.

Lindsay, whose last name is Arbuckle, and her partner, Scott Courcelle, co-manage the store, and have since a few months after it opened in August of 2009. See that new Venn taking form? Now Lindsay and Maya and I are circles surrounding a new center, which is Pierce’s Store. But oh yes, we are now joined by many other circles – Scott, for instance, and  Maya’s Chet, whose last name is Brigham, who was one of the early workers on getting that store reopened. And Manolo. I’m sure Manolo’s not the greatest 12 year old in the world, but you couldn’t prove it by me! Or Leo!

Scott and Lindsay were working for Americorps in Montpelier a couple of years ago. Scott grew up in Rutland and had some farm/garden experience. Lindsay, with Kansas roots, not so much; but she was interested in some of the garden lore other AmeriCorps friends were involved in. “I thought, that isn’t a bad thing to do with your life,” she told me. In the summer of ’08 they planted a community garden in Montpelier and liked the work, then looked into interning for a Rutland area farmer. They ultimately chose Paul Horton at Foggy Meadow Farm in Benson, “because we knew we’d learn a lot from him, and we did!”

At the end of that summer of ‘09 they learned of the need for live-in managers at Pierce’s Store from Rob McKain. “We immediately called the number he gave us, and went up to meet some of the members the very next day. On the drive, we brainstormed what we would say, what WE would want from a neighborhood store, a co-op, and that was community, convenience, and local food. We were SO excited, but we didn’t have any retail or managerial experience. Still, they got right back to us and said, ‘you’re the ones.’”

Last summer they planted a market garden at Greg Cox’s Boardman Hill Farm in West Rutland and sold from their booth, Alchemy Gardens, at the Rutland Farmers’ Market all summer. It was a good summer of hard work and juggling the Co-op and the garden, and a successful one, too.

Scott and Lindsay co-manage the store

They live where the Pierces did, in the house attached to the store, with the Pierce’s furniture and even a hundred and fifty year old fern. It really is like living in a museum.

I think that puts Lindsay and Scott into the center of yet another Venn diagram surrounded by overlapping circles of Americorps, local farmers, co-ops, the farmers’ market... food! And perhaps it makes them iconic of a new wave of Rutland area farmers who are going to be feeding us for the foreseeable future. They might not be the greatest young couple in the world, but you couldn’t prove it by me!

Pierce's Store can be reached at 802-492-3326
The hours are: Tuesday - Saturday 7am to 7pm
Sunday 8-5 
In Maya’s and Chet’s house there is enough electricity from a solar panel for electric lights by which to read in the evenings (a conscious choice not to support Vermont Yankee), but there is no computer, none of the other electronic time-sinks which sap our time and energies. There is no refrigerator in the house, just – in colder weather – a west-facing window-well where they keep milk from cows kept by Manolo and Grace, Chet’s sister.

Bone-broth soups bubble on the back of the range, and cooked food can be kept on the porch in cold weather. Jars of vegetables preserved in a naturally fermented state – kimchi and sauerkraut – stand in cool parts of the house. Thoughts and actions pertaining to food are a constant backdrop to lives like this, and when people ask Maya how she finds the time, she shrugs. Not too many years ago we all had to spend a considerable amount of time each day dealing with food, and look what’s happened to our food supply once we were relieved of the chore or, put another way, deprived of the pleasure.

Maya Zelkin is better known to the public as a thrower of elegant pots, which is the way I got to know her maybe ten years ago, and her potting shed is next door, still closed for the winter. A June firing is in sight.

One of the topics of conversation we had that day was how Maya liked to roast her own coffee beans. She likes her own coffee but she, unlike me, does not drink it every day. “I try not to make a habit of anything,” she said quietly.

Why, the very idea! It widens out the world.

This is the 100th Twice Bitten column to be published, and that puts me in the center of the most lovely Venn diagram of all, surrounded by fat circles of farmers and local food and food people, of eaters and doers, of co-ops and gardens, of readers and editors.

It’s a very happy place to be. Thank you.

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