Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thank a farmer

“The disconnect between the accelerating pace of life and our natural human roots is making our hunger for tradition and a simpler life ever greater. When we garden rather than buy from the grocery store, when we intentionally buy from people who have chosen a rough-hewn life in order to produce something truly good, we are saying, whether we realize it or not, that we are craving something. There is a natural human instinct to be in touch with our roots, to use our hands, to create things. And regardless of the ever-widening gap between modern life and the natural world, it is nearly impossible to eliminate that instinct.”  Foodie blogger and traveler Georgia Pellegrini in the introduction to Food Heroes: 16 Culinary Artisans Preserving Tradition

As a holiday with food at its center, Thanksgiving is a good candidate for thank-a-farmer day. We could all probably make our own list of favorite farmers, food artisans and culinarians as a fun and thoughtful exercise. (That's Patrick Hamilton from Venetucci Farm, above.)

It just so happens that Thanksgiving caps off National Farm-City Week, which has been celebrated since 1955 with the intention of building “interdependence between rural and urban citizens.” In our modern world, farmers and consumers need each other but also tend to stay in different camps. To be human is, by necessity, to be consumers of a sort and also simultaneously producers of another sort. So were we all better off in prior decades when the farmer and the consumer were one and the same? Or is better now that a few farmers can choose to farm wholeheartedly, while the majority of others apply themselves toward other pursuits, with a monetary exchange to mediate between all of these various specialized efforts?

It’s hard to arrive at a firm answer, except to say there are always trade-offs. And to suggest that our society has likely swung too far from its agrarian roots on this particular pendulum. Unfortunately, many more people would like to farm than can make it financially viable. (Same with writing and other intrinsically rewarding creative pursuits.) Thus we have people who grow their own food and read about food growing and keep their hands in it in small ways… engaged, avid consumers. And if they work hard at it, they can become models of self-reliance, the old tried-and-true formula of the farmer and consumer wrapped up into one.

All of us can be thankful for those areas in our life, those windows of opportunity, that do allow for simplicity, quiet thoughtful engagement and peace of mind and heart. We can deliberately touch our roots, use our hands, create things — and celebrate others who do — while hopefully working to make the world a place where people have the opportunity to do personally meaningful and rewarding work, where quality of life is recognized and valued by society as a whole. 

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Eat, Drink, Cook: Pumpkin Stuffed With Everything Good

From the first moment I stumbled across the recipe for Pumpkin Stuffed With Everything Good, I had to try it. I already had the perfect candidate: a beautiful little pie pumpkin I picked right from the vine at Venetucci Farm that I've been saving for something special.

One of the many things I love about Hethyr Pletsch, the personal chef who put on a holiday cooking class last weekend at Ranch Foods Direct, is her enthusiasm for ingredient substitution and experimentation. This is also true of Michele Mukatis, who taught a series of cooking classes this summer through her business Cultivate Health, and it's probably true of all foodies: part of the art of cooking is constantly improvising.

When I finally had a chance to try this recipe (an easily revisable mixture of meat, cheese, fruit and nuts roasted inside a pumpkin) I was improvising from the first. In the waning days of the farmers market when winter squash were plentiful, Smith Farms had an abundance of acorns in a glorious range of shapes and sizes. I chose one resembling a small pumpkin, thinking it would be great as a table decoration and then later for cooking. Over the weeks since, it even started turning orange. (Maybe the plant actually cross-pollinated with a pumpkin.) Anyway, it looked like it needed to be used up faster than the pumpkin, and it also had this perfect little stem on the top for a handle.

The results were beautiful and delicious. I had my moment of doubt first cutting into the squash (it's not easy to cut out the trap door on top and clean out the insides, but it is doable.) It also didn't take much more than an hour to bake (due to the fairly small size.) The spicy Italian sausage links from Ranch Foods Direct and the red wax-rind creamy melty Gouda cheese I used were excellent in it. (I didn't use bacon like the original recipe suggested, though I could have mixed it in. The sausage did seem to be a good choice.) I was reluctant at first to use bread in mine, so I included quartered fresh mushrooms as a filler. (Okay, I just happened to have day-old bread, so I did go ahead and use some of that too.) You could experiment with rice or a risotto pasta (I'm thinking about trying shredded cabbage) or go more in the direction of sweet (think dessert material) rather than savory (spectacular main dish.) But our savory version, with snipped fresh rosemary sprinkled in, was divine, a fun and flavorful one-dish meal (dish provided by nature).

After the two of us had dinner, we still had enough flesh left on the insides of the squash to scrape out and use later for a variation of curried pumpkin chicken chowder (a recipe from Hethyr Pletsch.)

At this time of year, a time for stuffing turkeys, I have to say it's almost as dramatic and satisfying to stuff a pumpkin to put in the middle of the table. And certainly, a possibility is to do both! Pumpkin Stuffed With Everything Good is as wonderful as it sounds.


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Agriculture and culture

There's linguistic beauty in the way the word agriculture wraps around "culture" at its core.

Ethnic foods are particularly good at illustrating the connection. Attending a Mennonite Relief Sale recently, I was surrounded by crowds enjoying the chance to eat rare traditional foods and interact within a unique sub-culture. Words of greeting at such an event run along the lines of “Are you Marvin Neufeld’s son? I’m Paul Penner’s sister…” followed by standard farmer talk such as “Are you dry out your way?” rapidly devolving into a subtle contest over who is drier. (“We did get two inches back in September, but it’s all gone now…” “Well, we’re still waiting on our two inches.”) As the daughter of a Mennonite-raised farmer, I already know it is always too dry or too wet, too hot or too cold, on every farm.

Traditional German Mennonite food is stout, starchy and somewhat bland. The pre-eminent challenge traditionally wasn’t the aesthetics of looking sleek but surviving with enough energy left over to do hard physical work. Meat and potatoes, sausage and bratwurst, verenikas blanketed in white cream gravy (pan-fried pockets of dough stuffed with dried cottage cheese) New Year’s cookies (fried donut-like dumplings) and tart cherry mousse (a pudding made with flour, cream and sugar) are common iterations. One of the healthier dishes is the homemade sauerkraut; cabbage was often the closest my ancestors came to getting their greens. The dietary world has changed, obviously, but these are foods flavored by memories, passed on as a cherished inheritance.

(A note about the German sausage: it makes a great partner with the big gorgeous head of cabbage from Marcy Nameth and the boys at Greenhorn Acres. Add in a little diced Applewood smoked bacon, chopped red onion, cherry tomatoes — is there anything on earth better than a cherry tomato? — chunked up baked winter squash, grated cheddar and rosemary... maybe my new favorite herb, in part because it thrives in winter. I’ve also turned some of the cabbage into a simple slaw for making fish tacos with flaky chunks of halibut from Ranch Foods Direct topped with chile-flecked peach chutney, an ode to our wonderfully long Indian summer.)

Memories make food taste special: I went on a quest this fall to find a Hubbard squash for my mom, who fondly remembers my grandmother growing and baking them on their farm in North Dakota. In recent weeks, I lugged around the big oblong blue-tinged gourd the size of a turkey before finally delivering it to mom's kitchen. (Susan Gordon at Venetucci Farm warned me not to leave it outside or in my car where it might freeze.) A home gardener, cook and canner (also the product of a Mennonite upbringing), mom recently invited me to a saved seed exchange in her rural community featuring a woman who has managed to preserve ancient strains of native purple corn and calico-colored beans. The theme of food as connected to a culture, as a window on the past that might help us make a better future, seems to spring up everywhere.

I have to wonder if the amount of interest in Ranch Foods Direct's recent small-scale slaughtering demonstration, hosted by Venetucci Farm, is another example of the hunger people have to connect food with a context, with people they can meet and talk to, with work that they can understand and participate in and even learn to do themselves. As the great animal welfare pioneer Temple Grandin says of her recent book and movie promotion tours, people are genuinely curious and interested in how food gets from the farm to the table. One basic lesson of seeing a 1,000 lb. animal slaughtered is to understand the enormity of the undertaking, that the lives that keep us fed can't be taken for granted.

Then there's Emma Piper-Burket, a filmmaker I heard about recently who is making the connection between food and culture by asking important questions about what is happening in Iraq, birthplace of the world’s wheat. Why is the original breadbasket now forced to import grain? Her Iraqi Seed Project explores threats common to every agrarian-based economy, explains why so many food and agricultural traditions are becoming a rare treat, rather than a vital part of the fabric, in modern culture.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Words to Relish: Food for thought from the Land Institute

“… The soul’s bliss and suffering are bound together like the grasses…” From “Twilight: After Haying,” a poem by Jane Kenyon

The Land Institute has taken as its symbol an unassuming tuft of prairie grass. The part of this plant we normally see is only the tip of the iceberg, however. When founder Wes Jackson appeared at Colorado College a few years ago, the small grass plant he displayed was eclipsed hundreds of times over by a vast web of filigree roots that rambled on beneath it for several feet. This deceptively unobtrusive plant is the perfect metaphor for the Land Institute’s own mission: re-establishing the notion that the people of the rural plains come with a similar root structure that is just as invisible, vast, and profound, a resource worthy of respect and preservation, a foundation for building on, rather than for simply plowing under and forgetting.

I grew up on a mid-sized farm a stone’s throw from Jackson’s Land Institute, which is located on a winding gravel road just outside Salina, Kan. Once a year, when the Land Institute holds a festival in a barn and brings together an eccentric audience to hear from a chorus of countercultural prophets, I try to stop by and savor the early autumn sun glinting on the blooming sunflowers and migrating monarchs, the ripe apples and pears spilling from scattered trees, the views of the Smoky River in this beautiful but quiet spot.

Kentucky writer and philosopher Wendell Berry was on the program again this year. (He and Jackson have been close friends and collaborators since he first appeared at this same event 30 years ago.) Despite having traveled 700 miles west, Berry talked unapologetically and at length about the attributes of his own native land, a fertile topic he has plowed repeatedly in his career. By the time I left I was looking around at the sorghum fields fringed by hedgerows and silo-studded farms with the passion and gratitude of the perennially homesick. Berry’s contention — in books like his recent Imagination in Place — is that our souls require us to re-inhabit our roots, our families of origin, our native communities and landscapes, in spite of a culture that has taught us to denigrate those things in the name of progress. For example, he makes this observation of his college years (which resonates with me): “The question before us, seemed to be, not how we might fit ourselves and our book knowledge into our home landscapes, but how we would fit into our careers, which is to say our exile.” Of course, Berry is famous for ending his own exile by returning to a small farm in Kentucky (as he describes it, “about a mile from the house where my mother was born and raised and about five miles from my father’s home place”) after graduating from Stanford and living briefly in New York City (the pre-eminent literary capital, then and now). A phenomenal talent, he managed in spite of remoteness to publish prolifically and to make the choice of going home a fertile theme of his work.

It was in reading Imagination in Place that I came across the lyric fragment above from a poem by Jane Kenyon. (Former poet laureate Donald Hall and his wife Jane also left New York City to live at Hall’s family farm in rural New Hampshire in the later years of their lives.) It’s a line that echoes again the solemnity of the native grass and the humanity of the dwindling population that continues to live in concert with it.

Kent Wheatley, the founder of Seed Savers Exchange, also spoke at the Prairie Festival. Coupled with hearing Bill McDorman, who spoke earlier this year at Colorado College, I was prompted to return again to a book I’ve long intended to read about one of the world’s original seed savers: Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nicolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine by ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan.

What fascinating armchair travel! The obvious theme here is the importance of biodiversity. But on dramatically vivid display is the remarkable ingenuity and adaptive wisdom of farmers, whether growing crops in the remote highlands of central Asia, the mythical Nile River Valley, the richly blessed Mediterranean or the impoverished Hopi and Navajo Indian Reservations of the American Southwest. Despite growing up in the farm fields that comprise the American breadbasket, I needed this refresher course on the breadth and wealth of Ethiopian agrarianism and other ancient hotbeds of agricultural innovation. When agriculture dies out, so do diverse crops. Perhaps most importantly, so do the farmers. Maybe today’s monoculture farming is drifting toward something resembling the unsatisfying wasteland of middle management that inhabits modern jungles of corporate cubicles. Work should be independent, engaging, worthy of humanity’s intellectual capacities, completely unlike most of the current jobs open to jobseekers. Reading Nabhan’s book revives the question of what global culture values, how it measures progress, wealth and achievement, and what these views mean for the lifestyle of the average person.

The Land Institute is unique for being a private institution shaped around the whims of its brilliant if at times curmudgeonly founder (recipient of a prestigious MacArthur grant and a “Right Livelihood” award). Jackson’s own Becoming Native to this Place is a beautifully written classic on the unsettling of rural America (to use a term taken from the title of a Wendell Berry essay collection that plows a similar furrow.) It should probably be required reading in all college agriculture programs, if only for the sake of discussion, but it’s not.

As the days get shorter and the evenings longer, any of these books are a potential source of satisfying immersion. And for a nice introduction to Wes Jackson, read the opening pages of an extensive interview with him published in October issue of The Sun magazine.