When to Break the Rules
Chapter Leader Mike Cook and his wife Renee live in a modest and fairly typical suburban neighborhood, but have challenged themselves to produce as much of their own food as possible. What can’t come from their garden or henhouse, they try to buy local and cook from scratch. Each month Mike shares their stories here.
This is the year. I’ve decided it’s time to put all the pieces together. Thanks in part to the encouragement of new friends at Slow Food Shoreline, this year we’re doing a 100% local Thanksgiving dinner.
It’s really been quite a journey to get to this point. At this time last year, I was writing about the challenge of spending the big bucks on a heritage breed turkey. That may be the last piece of the puzzle, but each step along the way has fielded its share of drama. A brief history:
I grew up in the Midwest, in the 1980’s. Both my immediate and extended families had no problem with processed foods. No one did, really. “Gourmet” simply meant buying the Brand Name versions of processed foods instead of generic or store brands.
Stuffing meant Stove-Top, just add a can of broth and it was basically instant. And to be honest, I loved it, it was my favorite dish, and the real version of stuffing still is. I didn’t realize until high school that stuffing could be made in the oven, and not until college did I think of using regular bread instead of a mix. I kept using that can of cheap broth until well into my 20’s.
When I was a kid, there were two kinds of cranberry sauce. There was the kind that came in a 2-inch square in the center of a Swanson’s TV dinner, and the kind that came in a can. Thanksgiving was special, because it was the only time you broke out the full can. I can still picture it on my Grandmother’s table, still in the shape of the can, with the rings etched across the body of the cylinder (which was your handy guide for slicing it, of course). I don’t remember liking it, or really understanding what the point of it was. I do remember my first Thanksgiving with my wife, while we were still dating in college, when she showed me how to simply add sugar and water to a bag of cranberries. I told her that I never knew you could make cranberry sauce from scratch, I thought she was a genius. She thought I was a moron.
Thanksgiving was not complete without green bean casserole, made from canned green beans, canned cream of something soup (usually mushroom, but did it matter?), and a can of Durkee fried onions. One year as I was really learning how to cook, my brother in-law joined me in the kitchen. He was a working chef, and I was excited to take our family meal and “kick-it-up-a-notch” (yes, it was 2001). But my brother-in-law drew the line at the green bean casserole. “That’s one thing you just can’t get all ‘gourmet’ with” he said.
Gravy came from a can, or a bag of powder that you mixed with water. Those were your two options. In culinary school I learned how to make a simple chicken veloute, basically chicken stock and roux, then finish it with cream to make a Supreme sauce. I was amazed. That year at Thanksgiving, I was so excited to show my family what they’d been missing all these years. As I made my sauce, my mother watched from a distance, and eventually came up to me and said “your grandfather is not going to like that, you’d better make him some ‘regular’ gravy”. Regular meant the jar of gunk she pulled from the cupboard, fat-free but filled with sodium and chemical emulsifiers. My 90 year-old Grandfather had some, but the rest of the fake stuff languished in the bowl. My sauce was devoured by the rest of the family.
I guess holidays with family need a little compromise. Food is important to us all, in different ways. My wife and I believe strongly in Slow Food principles, in the value of local foods and the better taste of quality ingredients. But the rest of my family cares about different traditions, and I care about them. This year we’ll have two Thanksgivings, our 100% local version here, about a week beforehand, and our family’s back in Michigan on Thanksgiving Day. I’ll eat dry commercial turkey, Stove Top stuffing, layered Jell-O salad, and maybe even a little Cool Whip on my pumpkin pie. But I’ll still love it.
Bounty and Balance
My day-job places me in a lot of situations that require making small talk with strangers. There are conferences, dinners, and meetings with extended teams of “colleagues” that I’ve never met or barely know and may never see again. I’m sure others have figured this out too, but I’ve found there are a handful of conversation topics that work perfectly in these situations. You want fun and light topics, the opposite of the proverbial “politics and religion”. You also want things that everyone can relate to. Travel is perfect. Sports works in most situations too. And every August and September, I make it through at least one awkward encounter based on the question “so how did your garden do this year”?
I was in Omaha Nebraska a few weeks ago, having dinner with a group of computer programmers, the kind that develop and maintain massive databases. (I’m sure you’re on the edge of your seat waiting to hear what happens next, aren’t you?) About 20 of us were having dinner at an Italian restaurant; it was right next to a Super 8 motel, so you know it must be good. (Are you jealous yet?) Actually it was pretty good, with nice touches like local heirloom tomatoes on their salads. We were enjoying these salads about 20 painful minutes into the event, when the person next to me mentions that she just got done canning 50 jars of tomatoes. Success! The rest of the night was spent in pleasant conversation. We didn’t have to talk about databases even once.
So how did your garden do this year? Each year at about this time, I look back on the season and evaluate. There’s always something that didn’t germinate well (yellow crookneck squash this year), and something that was hit by disease or pests (green beans, and the peas that our chickens devoured). Something grew like crazy and we couldn’t eat or give it away fast enough (cucumbers!), and something new we tried grew quite well and was a fun new addition (kale).
Gardening is many things to us. It’s a way for us eat the highest quality, freshest, healthiest, and tastiest food. It’s an intellectual hobby, a challenge to improve our skills, to grow something better next year that didn’t work this year. It’s an adventure, the fascination of watching dirt and seeds turn into plants and grow into delicious edibles. It’s a puzzle, like an Iron Chef challenge every night, continuous baskets of perishable food that either need to be turned into dinner or preserved for the future. It’s relaxing exercise, a peaceful zen meditation where we commune with nature, and spend pleasant time in the sunshine and fresh air.
If I’m being honest though, many Septembers are about 95% puzzle and 5% zen. Like my new friend in Omaha, I’ve canned my 50 jars of tomatoes. It usually involves an all-nighter or two, where I set alarms to wake me up every 25 minutes while I process batch after batch in my boiling-water canner.
Bounty is a good thing, but it can be overwhelming. Some garden products lend themselves to abundance: tomatoes, zucchini, eggplants, corn. The interesting thing is that they also all come in at about the same time, abundance on top of abundance. But we’re not about to let beautiful produce that we worked so hard for go to waste.
One thing we’ve been trying hard to do is spread out our harvest. Instead of one wild September, how do we enjoy more in the Spring and Fall? How do we use the space we have, not to grow more, but to grow… differently?
A year ago we planted asparagus, to get started on the Spring half. It was amazing to see these squirrely little dried out roots turn into enormous plants, they seemed to love our otherwise mediocre soil. You’re supposed to wait 2 years before harvesting, but the plants took so well, this year we just had to sneak a few. They were delicious, needing only a quick minute of cooking to bring out the flavor and tenderness. Next year the previous empty zone of May and June will be loaded.
This year’s challenge was winter greens – kale, collards, and chard. We’ve started to cut and use them a bit, and there’s an iron chef like challenge here too, learning to cook with unfamiliar vegetables. Beyond stewed greens and the now ubiquitous kale salad, we’ve been trying to work small amounts of sautéed greens into other dishes – soups, pasta, eggs. The results have been surprising, they’ve brought texture and earthy flavor that I hadn’t realized was missing before.
But the best part about these new additions, may really be about what they replaced. We still had plenty of our late summer favorites this year, plenty of beans and peppers and cucumbers (oh so many cucumbers!). But I had no all-night canning sessions. No desperate trips around the neighborhood to find homes for my produce.
As a family we’ve taken on a lot of extra work to produce our food the way we do, and it’s rewarding in so many ways. Taking steps to bring a little balance to what we do, gives us the time to look back and reflect, appreciate what we’ve accomplished.
Last weekend the weather was beautiful, and we had time to just sit and look out at our garden from our deck, a glass of white wine in hand. I remarked at how relaxed we were, how unusual for this time of year.
Looking Your Food in the Eye
The following blog is not suitable for Vegans, Vegetarians, or Pescatarians. It’s also not suitable for anyone still under the delusion that they live in a magical world, where meat doesn’t come from animals that once lived and breathed. Reader discretion is advised.
I wasn’t even paying attention on Thursday when it happened. I had made the decision weeks earlier, with a man I’ve dealt with before. My instructions were passed on from person to person, until my orders were officially carried out, by someone I will never meet. By the time I noticed the clock, I knew that it was complete. I had ordered the death of another living being. Tomorrow I would pick up my pig, and a day later I’ll be grilling bratwursts.
All Godfather-esque joking aside, on a scale of 1 to 10, how troubling was that for you? Have you put much thought into the process? Even locally and sustainably and organically raised meat was once “raised”, from a little baby animal into a bigger animal, then killed and cut into smaller pieces for us to eat. There’s absolutely no getting around that. I believe that part of Slow Food is being reflective about food, thinking through my food choices, and how my meat is raised. I like to have fun with it all though, and maybe take it to extremes. So about once a year, I buy a locally raised pig from a nearby farm, and then spend 3 days turning it into bacon and sausage and more. I call it “Pig Weekend”.
We held our first Pig Weekend not long after we moved to Connecticut. Some of my favorite cooking skills that I acquired over the years were for charcuterie: bacon, sausage, pates and terrines. After culinary school, I tried to keep my skills up with a batch of each, here and there. But once we moved to CT and I began meeting farmers, it looked like time to up my game.
My pig was not a heritage breed. No pedigree, no royal bloodline, just a regular pink piggy. He was sure raised differently than your average factory farmed animal though, and believe me that shows in the taste. I first met the farmer, Nunzio Corsino of Four Mile River Farms, at the Wooster Farmer’s Market in New Haven. On my first trip to the farm, he took me around to see some of his fields. I saw his cattle grazing on pasture, with plenty of space, with clean and healthy looking places to sleep indoors. When I left that day with my first pig, I felt great about the knowledge of where my food came from.
That’s not how most animals are raised for food in this country; I probably don’t have to tell you that. If you’re interested in learning more, I’d recommend The River Cottage Meat Book, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. He’ll explain better than I can, what’s in the McRib sandwich that your coworker is eating next to you right now.
Each time I bring home my pig for Pig Weekend, I’m immediately confronted by just how big it is. This year’s topped the scales at 225 lbs, the first year that it weighed more than me. Cut into essentially two pieces, step 1 is to break it down into the “primals”, the sections your typical butcher shop or large restaurant might buy. Once I have it in 7 pieces, I can just barely pack it into my extra fridge, and work on one piece at a time.
And over the next 2 days, that’s exactly what I do. The belly is separated from the ribs, and goes into flavored salt and sugar cures, to be smoked and become bacon a week later. Steaks and chops and ribs are separated and packaged. The shoulder becomes roasts, the leg becomes boneless hams. The cheeks from the head go into a salt cure to make guanciale, and the rest of the head might become head cheese, depending on my mood. All along the way, every extra bit of meat goes into the sausage bowl, to become chorizo, bratwurst, and kielbasa.
The phrase “nose-to-tail” eating might be a bit too familiar these days, to the point where someone reads it without really pondering its meaning. Seeing a whole animal, with both a nose and a tail, on your kitchen counter, is a good remedy for that complacency. At this point I’ve seen where this pig lived, and frankly I’ve paid for it by the pound. So nothing goes to waste. We use “everything but the squeal”. Bones and trotters go into the stock pot. Any extra fat is rendered for lard. Ears are grilled and given to my two dogs, who at this point have been staring at me for 8 straight hours, without blinking, waiting for a treat.
It’s a lot of work, for sure. But like any hobby, it’s fun work. Similar weekends like this are a cultural tradition going back through the ages. Usually in late fall as the season turns, extended families would get together and process their pigs before wintertime. To get into the spirit of it, a fun cookbook to read is Pork and Sons by Stephane Reynaud. His French family owns a butcher shop, and keeps the tradition alive. Just like his family, we tend to drink and eat our way through the weekend, and make a nice party out of it.
If you’ve done a fair amount of cookery with grocery-store level pork, you’ll notice the differences in quality pretty easily. Unlike beef, there’s no such thing as dry-aging for pork. Fresher is better, and it shows in the taste. The visual differences are even stronger, the chops are marbled just like that fine Prime rib-eye steak. It’s a good sign that your pig was raised well, healthy and slowly, the only way to build up that marbling.
And when I reflect on it, that’s why I’m doing this. For the taste of that well-marbled chop? Certainly. But also for the knowledge that my purchase, allowed this particular pig, to live his particular healthy and longer than average life. Buying this pig allows that farmer to buy another, and that’s one more pig that will live a much better life than it could have in a factory farm. We’re going to eat 225 lbs of something over the next year. If I’m going to eat meat, I want my money to support the healthy environment that I believe in.
With that knowledge, I can sleep at night. And dream of bacon for breakfast in the morning.
Me and My Starter
I forgot to bring my thermometer, to the Hampton Inn in Gary, Indiana. This has nothing to do with any aspect of food safety, which really is what that thermometer was built for. I didn’t need it for any other health reasons either, I wasn’t sick when I left home, and I wasn’t worried about fallout from the decaying steel plants nearby. The thermometer wasn’t even for me; it was for my travelling companion, my sourdough bread starter.
It was a trip to France that really cemented my love of good bread. That may be both the most elitist, and at the same time the least surprising, statement you’ll ever read on this blog. France also cemented my love of cheese, wine, duck-fat potatoes, strawberries, and small local farmers markets too – France is a pretty cool place for a food lover. But their attitude towards bread was possibly the most inspirational. France isn’t immune to the fast food culture that we fight against in the US. But it’s a place where an independently owned boulangerie isn’t just able to thrive; it’s an expected part of each neighborhood. Becoming a master bread baker, working your way up from apprenticeship, isn’t just a quirky modern career, half influenced by reality shows on the food network. It’s an excepted and distinguished trade, passed down through families as often now as it was two centuries ago.
And I bet every place I passed on the streets of Paris had a sourdough bread starter bubbling away in the back. They’d probably call it a levain, and use it in their pain de levain, not in the baguettes which are usually raised with commercial yeast. The baguettes were great too, soft and light inside with a perfectly crackly crust outside. But there’s a reason why the best Paris bakeries make their baguettes twice a day, why “day old” bread is considered second class. Yeast-risen baguettes are fragile. The best sourdough breads, like those from the great Poilane bakery, can be said to actually get better after a day.
Upon returning home, my wife and I were convinced to give it a try ourselves. We bought Nancy Silverton’s bread book and set to work. There are probably a thousand bread books with starter recipes; I can’t say Nancy’s is the best. But it’s the one we used, I like it, and I haven’t been motivated to find another. I won’t reprint the whole thing here, but stop by a Slow Food event sometime and I’ll share it with you.
The basic idea of a bread starter is this: capture the right kind of wild yeasts that make bread rise, feed them, and give them the optimum environment to live. In her book, she uses organic grapes for the initial yeast, because grape skins naturally harbor the right kinds of friendly yeast. You take the grapes, mash them up with flour and water, and let it sit.
I’ll be honest with you, it gets worse before it gets better. The yeast eats the flour, the grapes break down into purplish liquid, the whole thing stews and ferments a bit. It smells sort of like something in the category of other fermented foods, maybe cheese, but really really intense, and not something you want to eat. After a few days you pull the grapes out, and add some more fresh flour and water. As time passes, the good yeast seems to win the battle with the lesser organisms. The smell lightens to something closer to a strong beer, light and yeasty.
Now our starter is ready to use. It has to be fed three times a day, every day, with flour and a certain temperature of water. In the morning, you separate the starter you’ll use for that day’s baking, and the rest of the starter gets the first feeding of the next day.
So it’s a needy little pet, that’s for sure. And just like a pet, if you don’t feed it… not good. Which brings us back to the Hampton Inn. Soon after the starter was ready, I had a business trip planned to Chicago, and Renee was coming with me. Our dogs could go to the kennel, but we had no babysitter for the starter, so the starter was headed to the Windy City with us. Packed in its own suitcase with the flour, a kitchen scale, measuring cups, bowls, and a wisk, it followed us in and out of 4 hotels from Detroit to Chicago and back. In the tiny sinks of tiny bathrooms, we tried to adjust the faucet to our best estimate of 78 degree water, with the bowl of bubbling starter balanced precariously on the edge. Those same sinks washed our bowls and wisk in the morning, after that day’s allotment of starter for baking went down the drain (we’re crazy, but we’re not going to try baking bread in a Hampton Inn).
Our starter, frankly, seemed to love the trip. A living starter will draw additional wild yeasts from the air around it, joining its buddies already in the brew. That’s why a sourdough starter transported from Paris or San Francisco will never make bread that tastes the same as where it came from, it’s simply not the same starter any more. The wild yeasts in the air of Gary Indiana seemed especially appealing, and it bubbled away happily in the backseat while I travelled to my appointments.
We’ve been through a few different versions of sourdough starters since then, as time and moves to new cities have taken their toll. Somewhere along the way, we also learned that a healthy starter can take a break in the refrigerator, whenever we need our own break from thrice daily feedings. For up to a month or two, the starter will go dormant, then we pull it out and feed it and we’re baking bread in a few days. The bread I brought to Sunday’s Slow Food Swap, that starter was still hibernating the Wednesday before.
The key word is healthy though, this works for established starters only. About a year ago we decided to build our latest starter, and began the process with some nice farmers market grapes. A few days into the process we realized the bad timing – we had an overnight trip to Boston coming up, to visit family and pickup our Goddaughter. Our nieces and nephew couldn’t have been more fascinated when we pulled the bubbling container of flour and water from our suitcase in the Courtyard Marriot. They helped us with the feedings that day, and it was a good lesson related to both food and responsibility. Apparently I had learned a bit about responsibility myself in the years since my first bread starter. This time I remembered the thermometer.
Hope is in the Mail(box)
I’ve noticed that I get a lot less junk mail these days. Apparently the US Postal Service has noticed this too, as they look to cut back on their delivery days. What mail I do still receive, now seems a little better targeted to me. For example, for many years in my 20’s, the folks at Disney seemed pretty certain that I was candidate for a trip to Orlando. I wasn’t, but nonetheless I liked receiving that mail in late December and January, looking at the sunny photos and dreaming of the warm weather in another world. Now my Wintertime mailbox has been replaced with something else, something that spurs my imagination every bit as much as Walt Disney could, something that makes me hopeful for Spring and sunshine, and something that will inspire me to actually break out my wallet and place an order – Seed Catalogues.
The first one that comes every year is not my favorite. It’s from one of the big companies that stock their kiosks at Home Depot and Lowes, but I still get excited when I pull it out of the mailbox, because I know that the season is now here. The next few that arrive are the ones I really look forward to – Seed Savers Exchange and Baker Creek, great companies committed to the preservation of Heirloom varieties. You’ll hear a lot from Slow Food Shoreline this year about things like the Ark of Taste, Slow Food’s program to preserve historic foods from extinction. When it comes to heirloom seeds and heirloom vegetables in my garden, I’ve been voting with my wallet for many years. Ordering by mail or online from companies like these, makes it really easy.
This year I’ve added a new favorite to my list: Comstock Ferre. The catalogue is on my table but they’re right here in Weathersfield CT. Comstock Ferre has been around now for 202 years – that’s not a misprint, since 1811. A trip to their store reminds you of how important local seed companies were 200 years ago, heck even 50 or 100 years ago. Their store is wonderfully restored, and also serves as somewhat of a museum, with signs and equipment from a variety of former Connecticut seed companies. This year will be a little bit different, instead of buying from the catalogue we’ll head up to Weathersfield this Sunday.
Even though we’re making our buying trip in person this year, we’ll still make all our garden decisions at home with the catalogue. We’ll make a night of it, and there may be some wine involved. Much of what I find fun in the planning process is reading those descriptions, analyzing the write-ups for each variety. This one is disease resistant, and this one is pest resistant, which was our biggest problem last year? This one boasts of “high yields”, and this other one says “very productive”, which one really means “the most tomatoes”? All the descriptions are positive of course, none of them says “you’ll probably over-water this one” or “this needs much more than your rocky Connecticut soil”. But that’s OK. In the cold dark of Winter, my eventual garden failures are not reality. At this moment I’m a master gardener, and I can see the baskets and baskets of extra produce that I’ll need to freeze and can and give away to neighbors. The extra work of preserving that amazing imaginary harvest might feel like a burden in September, but it feels like a joy now.
Every year we pick a particular vegetable or two that we want to try to grow for the first time, or try to learn more about and hopefully grow better. Potatoes, peas, and carrots were choices in the past few years, and this year I think it’ll be winter greens like collards and kale. Within each category we also pick new varieties each year. We’ve had some amazing finds that became perennial favorites, like crisp purple-veined Dragon Beans, and especially the tiny Mexican Gherkins, each one looking like a watermelon that’s been shrunk to jelly bean size. Not all have been winners, but just like in life, good things come to those who take chances. Looking out at my snow encrusted yard, I remind myself that each Spring gives us all a new opportunity to take that chance.
Our household currently has a problem with a group of freeloaders. We have 6 individuals living in what is essentially our guest house. They eat our food, make messes we have to clean up, and cause assorted inconveniences that impact our schedule. In return for all this, they are currently contributing nothing to tangibly benefit our family. This has been going on for over a month now, and I’m getting a bit impatient with it to be honest. I’m referring, of course, to our lazy backyard chickens.
Depending on the breed, healthy chickens will lay up to an egg a day for several years. But in northern climates like ours, they generally take the winter off. Certainly the cold temperature is a factor, but I’m told that the lack of sunlight is a bigger culprit. Some factory farms keep the lights on 24/7 to fool the birds’ natural instincts, but plenty of homeowners and small farmers will add some extra light too. Even birds get depressed in the winter darkness.
Last year was our first Winter with the flock, but we didn’t see a drop in production due to the season. Each chicken laid about 5 eggs a week through the winter, and continued into the Spring and Summer at the same rate. Since our chickens were young, and had just begun laying their first eggs in November, I suspect that the age-based biology simply overpowered the sunlight-based biology. All Winter long we had more eggs than we knew what to do with, giving them away to neighbors and trading at Food Swaps.
A fresh egg from a free-range backyard chicken is just a glorious thing. The yolk isn’t yellow, it’s a deep orange, and it’s so rich and creamy it will stain a wooden spoon. The proteins in the egg whites are so strong that they don’t spread out much in the pan, so a pan-fried egg looks as if you cooked it within a metal ring, or baked it in a round dish. The flavor is deep and real, so satisfying that I’ll typically eat 1 or 2 instead of 2-3 grocery store eggs.
Beyond the superior taste, raising my own flock means I know exactly where my food comes from. If you’re reading this blog, you probably believe in how important that can be, and you’ve probably read accounts of factory farming conditions from writers far more skilled than myself. I know what my chickens ate because I fed it to them, and I know their water supply is clean and the air they breathe is fresh because I created those conditions too. Now that they’re smart enough to take cover from hawks, and I’m smart enough to not let my new puppy dog out in the yard when they’re loose, I know they live a stress free life. It’s beyond stress-free really, they’re downright spoiled. At least I was getting 5 eggs per bird per week as payment. Until now anyway.
We decided to try our hand at raising birds after a trip to Long Island wine country, where both our B&B’s featured flocks of their own. I know that the wine country experience is a rather unrealistic portrayal of a pastoral wonderland, but it’s just so much fun, and after 3 afternoons of sipping chardonnay and watching the birds wander and peck – we were hooked. I came home and started building the coop.
At home with our new flock, we were able to approximate the wine country experience fairly well from the back deck, enjoying “The Chicken Show” over an al fresco dinner. Chickens are just incredibly funny to watch. The way they walk is silly, the way they run is hilarious, and watching them react to the world around them is as entertaining as any household pet.
We’ve also been amazed at how many everyday sayings are so clearly based on chicken behavior, probably coined by farmers several centuries ago. Here’s a few:
“Come home to roost”: A roost is a raised platform of sorts that they like to stand on while they sleep. If they free range during the day, no matter what, they’ll return to their coop and get on their roost to sleep.
“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”: I only tripped once carrying eggs, but they were in my pockets… yuck!
“Ruffle your feathers”: I never knew what this meant until I saw it live, and just like humans, they do it when they are annoyed.
“Hen pecked”: Call it sibling rivalry, but they can get pretty rough with each other.
“Pecking order”: They have a clear system of who-picks-on-who, and every once in a while I have to
separate whoever is at the end of line.
“Cooped-up”: If they’re stuck inside too long for bad weather or other reasons, they get cranky.
“Flew the coop”: Once in a while I’ll crack open the door and they will come flying right out (probably when they’re feeling cooped-up or hen-pecked!).
Even though it’s turning cold again now, last weekend was sunny and fairly warm, and the girls spent a lot of time outside. When I locked up the coop on Saturday night I almost missed it – 2 fresh eggs, one from each of our two breeds. Winter can be rough on all of us, but as the sunlight stretches later into each day, I can picture more clearly our summertime in the backyard, enjoying a drink while our chickens roam free. I don’t have to imagine the eggs though, because my chickens gave me a small sample of what’s to come. They were delicious.
100 lbs of whole grain goodness
100 lbs is a lot. A lot of anything. Depending on your interests and experiences, you’ve probably struggled at one time or another to lift and move about 100 lbs. Ever try to carry two heavy bags of cement or garden soil as you work around your house? If you’re a parent, that’s like lifting two 7-year olds or one 13-year old. 100lbs of $1 bills would be about $45,000 (I wish I had to move that around more often). I remember hearing about an episode of Oprah, where she wheeled in a wagon with 100 lbs of animal fat to show how much weight she had lost, and it was quite the visual metaphor.
Those thoughts were on my mind last Sunday, as my wife and I struggled through the foggy parking lot, carrying the box filled with 100 lbs of whole, unmilled local grain. A lot healthier than Oprah’s wagon of fat, no doubt, but it still felt pretty dramatic to us. This was the 2nd year picking up our grain CSA from Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts.
We discovered the CSA online, during a search for local flour. The big guys in the castle up in Vermont make a fine flour, and it’s conveniently placed in every supermarket in the state. But it’s not actually from Vermont, it’s trucked in from the midwest and Canada, and we’d much rather support farmers here in New England and save the food miles. I had yet to find local flour or grain at a farmer’s market, so we turned to the web for help.
The CSA was founded by the owners of Wheatberry bakery in Amherst Massachusetts. At first they were simply looking for local farmers to grow grain for the bakery, but once the sourcing was established they expanded into a CSA. Many of the varieties they grow, the wheat and the corn, are historic heirlooms. We were sold.
I really knew we were all-in when the mill arrived. The box was heavy. Not quite 100 lbs heavy, but two stone grinding wheels better have a certain heft if they’re going to be any good. Our CSA contained beans, corn, wheat, and other whole grains like spelt and farro. But these were whole grains, not whole grain flour. If we wanted some bread instead of just wheat berry salads, we’d need a mill.
Brand new mills don’t come cheap, but thankfully eBay had a strong selection. We picked out one made in Idaho in the 1970s, but despite nearly 40 years it hadn’t lost any power, quickly grinding my store-bought test grain into a beautiful flour – soft, fragrant, and with just a touch of warmth from the friction of the stones.
Our first pickup was an experience in itself, waiting in line with like-minded food lovers and dreaming of what we would cook. Just like when I talk with folks at our Slow Food events, everyone brings unique history and experiences to the conversation, and we left with some great new baking ideas. I also bought my wife a whole grains cookbook for Christmas, and that year we sat around the tree making our cooking plans.
One cold winter night, shortly after the pickup, I came home and Renee had made polenta for dinner with fresh ground corn. I love polenta, or grits, especially as a vehicle for cups and cups of cream and melted cheese. This polenta was the best I had ever had, at home or a restaurant, rich and creamy and satisfying. I couldn’t tell what type of cheese she had used though, so I asked, and the answer absolutely floored me. None. No cheese. No cream, no milk, no dairy of any kind. With simply water and very freshly ground cornmeal, she had created a deliciously creamy polenta, but with a depth of flavor I had never had before.
It was theme that echoed itself as we began baking whole wheat bread, turning out moister, and lighter, and yet somehow more flavorful loaves than we’d ever baked before. We also noticed an interesting effect, related to our food choices. Simply having such a large volume of high quality components on hand, we thought more about cooking with them. We focused on cooking healthier foods.
Becoming a home miller is an investment and a commitment, no doubt. But if you have an inkling to give it a try, I’d highly encourage it. At the pickup this year I spoke to founder Ben Lester about their experience, and he’s excited for its success for many of the same reasons we’re excited about Slow Food. The CSA creates a market, and gives local farmers confidence to invest in equipment and plant crops. At 160 shares, they’re growing steady, with customers driving from Boston, Martha’s Vineyard, and (obviously) the Connecticut shoreline.
Before we left for the pickup, we pulled our remaining grain from storage, to see how much of last year’s pickup we had left. 35 lbs remained, so we used 65 lbs last year. That was OK, we had decided to split this year’s pickup with family anyway. 100 lbs is a lot of whole grain, but I have a feeling 50 will be just right.
How local is your turkey?
The website looked amazing. Not amazing in a classic visual sense, this was a small farm’s website with only a few photos. But I wasn’t here for award-winning graphic design. It was the words that looked amazing, the list of what I would receive throughout the year. Local pork and sausage. Free-range chicken and eggs. A duck, and duck eggs! Each new item had me more excited than the previous one. Quail! Pheasants! And best of all, a heritage-breed turkey, just in time for Thanksgiving.
This was my first foray into a CSA. As gardeners with an annual abundance that went far beyond our own consumption, my wife and I weren’t candidates for a classic fruit and vegetable CSA. But as I searched the internet, hunting for local meat sources in Connecticut, it was clear that this was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. A MEAT CSA! What could be more perfect? This was about 4 years ago, and while some of the better farmer’s markets might have a local beef producer in attendance, pork and poultry were a little harder to come by. In one decision, I could solve my local food variety problem.
Nevertheless, I swallowed a bit hard as I hit Send on the email, committing to $600 for 6 pickups. While I appreciated the quality of locally produced foods, and I had no doubt in my mind that I wanted to support independent producers, I was still adjusting to the cost. This was also quite a commitment to someone I had not yet met, who’s products I had not yet sampled. But that list of goodies was just too inviting to pass up.
And at the top of that list was our heritage-breed turkey. The previous Thanksgiving we had been shut-out in our search for a better bird, not realizing that there were waiting lists for such things, well behind the better prepared cooks who had signed up 6 months earlier. It was not to be that year, but I was determined to avoid repeating that mistake.
A lot has changed in 4 years. While industrially raised, broad-breasted white turkeys still make up 99.9% of turkeys eaten in the U.S., heritage breed turkeys have made a comeback. Thanks in part to conservancy groups, and to increasing consumer demand, more farms have taken on the challenge of raising local birds. As I write this, about 2 weeks before Thanksgiving, a 10 minute Google search gives me several Connecticut sources for either heritage breeds or locally raised broad-breasted whites. Three of them can be delivered.
Anyone who has found this probably doesn’t need a lesson in either the horrors of factory farming, or the joys of tasting properly raised meat. And even if you haven’t tasted heritage breed turkeys, you’ve probably heard the stories. They’re generally smaller than industrial turkeys, with a higher ratio of dark meat to breast meat. The taste is supposed to be amazing – richer and more flavorful, moister and juicier. Broad-breasted whites were chosen because they grow fast. Heritage breed turkeys mature slowly, building flavor.
A little over four years ago, I made the hour long drive for my first CSA pickup, and to see the flavor building in action. The farm was small, down a picturesque driveway through the woods and over a creek. Pigs and chickens lived happy lives, and the turkeys had a world of their own in the woods near the front of the property. We took home some of the best sausage I’ve ever had, amazing ground beef from a neighboring farmer, and my first duck eggs – impossibly rich and delicious.
It was on the third pickup, that I learned the bad news. The quail and pheasants had died young, and the turkeys had been eaten by foxes. These days I keep a flock of laying hens, and the experience has taught me much about the fragility of livestock and the ferociousness of predators. But back then this was a shock, potentially a crushing blow to my dreams of a local Thanksgiving.
Not all was lost however, as a neighboring farm had supplied them with a new set of poults. Fence repairs had been made, security was fortified, we would have our turkey after all! They were behind on their development though, so we had a decision to make. Did we want an 8 lb turkey at Thanksgiving, or a 12 lb turkey at our final pickup in December? I knew the heirloom breeds would be smaller, but 8 lbs seemed kinda puny. We’d been eating 4 lb chickens from our CSA, and a turkey 3 times that large sounded about right. We opted for December.
That meant that we were back at square one for Thanksgiving. After our initial investment, I certainly wasn’t about to splurge on a second heritage breed turkey. I also wasn’t about to skip the turkey either. While I don’t consider myself a slave to tradition, turkey for Thanksgiving just feels right. In spite of the memories of my Grandmother’s over-cooked version, or my Aunt’s over-cooked version, I have a turkey ideal that’s imprinted deep in my psyche. Maybe most Americans do. So even though it would be a factory bird purchased at a chain grocery store, it was Thanksgiving and we were eating turkey.
And it was delicious. Would the heritage breed version have been better? Perhaps. Probably. But there’s more to a holiday meal than the quality of the principal ingredient. I had a relaxing day to reflect on life, and enjoy a long slow meal with my family. In that sense, on Thanksgiving almost everyone is Slow Food for a day. And not to brag, but it was expertly cooked, as were the side dishes and dessert. Even though the turkey wasn’t local, most everything else was, some of it grown maybe 20 feet from the table we were eating at.
A month later we returned for the long awaited bird, only to be thwarted again. It was raccoons this time, I believe. The fortified fences were insufficient. Instead we left with an extra chicken, an unsatisfied feeling inside, and a sense that it just wasn’t meant to be.
So where is our turkey coming from this year? I’m actually not sure yet. In four years we’ve never corrected our experience from the past, never even tried a heritage breed turkey. We’ve certainly had many other food related adventures, and we’ve grown in our commitment to Slow Food principals, grown as both cooks and informed consumers. Maybe this is the year we try it again. 10 minutes on Google, 3 places that deliver.