Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Life is What Happens When You Aren't Paying Attention

   Time has a horrid tendency to slip away from me. As I figured it inevitably would, my "life", or whatever you call it, sent me a postcard from the future, saying, "Hey sucker, thanks for the flesh vehicle transport...oh by the way, it's fall!"
    Yes, blog fans, I've lost my entire summer. In between this catch-up posting and my last (in - shock - May!), I've nearly completed a seasonal cooking position, wrote countess recipes for my adoring friends at Fernbrook Farms CSA, spent a lot of time on my hands and knees weeding veggies and rescuing my own garden from squirrels, collected dozens of our own fresh eggs, and , alas, gotten absolutely NOWHERE on my writing projects. Including this, my neglected, deprived, dust-bunny-collecting little blog site.
  Blog, I sincerely apologize. But, I'm back now!

So much has happened while I was little angel, the muse for my cookbook, has started first grade (!) and is losing her first tooth (double !!). Our wee chicks are now nearly full-grown hens, and are reliably laying fine brown eggs, while their brother found a breeding home in upstate NY. The monsoon season of late spring/early summer led to a long, dry spell of late...whod'a thunk it - to the point where I actually HAD to water my plants; although the moist start gave my lemongrass and Thai roselle a jump on life, and they look fabulous! And the vegetables, oh the vegetables...they are fat, delicious and forthcoming, courtesy of our workshare at the farm. More veggies than I know what to do with. My crisper drawer and freezer are vomiting green things.
   Note to self: Invest in chest freezer.
As I look out now, to my surprise, the leaves have already begun to drift earthbound, and I realize that November is a mere few days favorite season, laden with winter squash, apple picking, and warm fires, hot cocoa in hand, chicken stock bubbling merrily away on the stove, intoxicating the whole house with its bone-sticking perfume. These are the days of the year I look most forward to, and spend the rest of the year dreaming about. Fall is a truly dreamy season. The colors spring forth out of paintings. The temperature is perfect for light sweaters and open windows. The sun dapples through amber branches onto still-green lawns, and sets at a reasonable hour in time for after-dinner viewing from the front porch. The earth smells of green hay, smoldering leaves, and apple pie, cold soil and the promise of next year's spring garden. Which I have already begun  - shallots and garlic are in the earth, mulched and prepped for a snowy slumber.
   Yesterday morning, I plucked the last of the year's plum tomatoes from my singularly surviving plant, and what looks to be the last butternut squash from my "surprise" vine that exploded out of a compost pile and grew into the neighbor's yard....seems I grow better things when I don't try so hard! Looking forth to warm, rib-sticking foods and crusty sweet pies, I want to share this recipe with you, so that you might also enjoy the beginning of the season in one sweet, succulent bite (or several, depending on your mood!). Enjoy!

Acorn Squash Crostata (makes 2)

2 ½ c. white whole wheat flour (I use King Arthur)
1/8 tsp. ground allspice
2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tbsp. plus 2 tsp. granulated sugar
2 sticks plus 2 tbsp. unsalted butter (18 tbsp.), cut into small cubes and kept very cold
1/3 c. ice water
2 small or 1 large acorn squash, washed
¼ c. heavy cream
½ c. brown sugar
Turbinado sugar, for garnish

In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the flour, allspice, sugar and salt to combine. Add in the cold butter cubes. Pulse for 10 seconds to form a coarse meal. With machine running, drizzle in the ice water until the dough just comes together, about 10 seconds more. Turn out onto the counter and knead in any remaining flour, forming a large ball. Flatten into a wide thick circle, wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, slice the sides of the squash off into large pieces (4 per squash) and remove any clinging membrane and seeds. With a sharp, heavy knife, thinly slice the chunks 1/8 to ¼ inch thick, stacking the slices in order to keep them together. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Divide the chilled dough in half; keep one refrigerated while working with the first. On a floured board, roll the dough into a large circle about ¼ inch thick; transfer onto a baking sheet. Brush the middle of the dough with heavy cream thickly, roughly in the shape and size of the pie you want. Spread with half of the brown sugar. Working in order, use the largest acorn squash slices first and begin to shingle the in a pie shape atop the cream and sugar, from the outside in, overlapping slices to cover all of the bottom. Use a small piece to finish the center. Fold the outer edges of dough in and around the squash to form a crust, pinching together with your fingers (crostata are very rustic pies, so don’t worry about perfection!).

Keep the crostata cold in the fridge while you repeat with the second dough ball.

Before baking, brush the edges with remaining cream, and sprinkle the tops and edges with turbinado sugar. Bake at 400 degrees until the crust is deep golden and crispy, and the squash is tender and browning, about 20-30 minutes.

Allow to cool slightly, and serve warm with ice cream or at room temperature.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013



Pokeweed from the Backyard
 The hungry gap of spring, that in-between time when a night frost is still possible, but green things are emerging, really pisses me off.
  Sorry, just being honest. Maybe to a farmer, this is LATE for me to be quibbling, since fresh lettuces and the last of the cabbages are being consumed, but for me and my tiny garden, things are progressing very, very slowly. Like watching the grass grow  (or, in my case, watching the peas grow). I diligently go inspect every morning, replant the infant seedlings the squirrels marauded, and crouch low to the earth, beging them to go faster! Damnit, I'm hungry for veggies!
   Last night, we thought it would be fun to eat chicken nachos for dinner. I used a hothouse tomato and jalapeno from God-knows-where. It was so bland and depressing, I quit eating and took a shower to cleanse my soul. No fun.
   Today, yet again, it's in the low 60's. While there are signs of life...pea shoots, bean tops, and perennial herbs...there was nothing of signifigance to cut and eat. I bristle at the idea of picking my pea shoots before the fruit sets; I'd much rather eat the pea. My asparagus are creeping can't in good conscience cut any stems, for fear of killing the entire plant. My first rhubarb stems have been cut and converted to a delightful compote, but I can't eat that as a meal (can I? It's really dessert...) And I let the fiddleheads go, because the ferns needed to be moved to a happier locale and needed leaves to grow and establish.
   It's days like this, waiting out the cool spring mornings and refreshing rainstorms, that I respect the ingenuity of the homesteader/pioneer food consumers. I know that I could eat dandelion, pea shoots, fiddleheads, if I so chose. Instead I complain and eat stuff from the freezer.
   But no, not today.
   Maybe it's because I've been home for over a week, waiting on a new job to get going. In that time, I cleaned the entire yard, and found reasons to be hopeful about food, and decided that today is the day I'm going to eat the opportunities nature has thrown at me.
   I found my first small radish, a French Breakfast, whch survived weeks of rodent assault. I also found juvenile pokeweed, which most Northern gardeners may be familiar with as an invasive, monster weed, but my Southern friends may know as a tasty spring veggie. Make the most of what you've got, right?
   I decided a warm bulgur wheat salad would make a fine food, but not stick-to-the-ribs winter food like I've been eating. Rather, it felt right for the day, for the weather. For my spirit to stretch its arms and embrace that for the first time in years, we're having a true spring here in New Jersey.

   OOOHHH, so that's what spring was! I simply forgot. This is actually, ecologically, meteorologically, correct for early May!
   The pokeweed is going to make a fine addition to buttermilk biscuits, to accompany my experimental manicotti tonight. Can't wait to eat!

Warm Bulghur and Egg Salad with Radish (serves 2)

1/2 c. cracked bulghur wheat
1/2 c. brown chicken, vegetable, or beef stock
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
1/8 tsp. ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
2 fresh pastured eggs
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
2 small to medium French Breakfast radishes, with tops
flaky sea salt, for garnish

In a  small saucepan, bring the stock, coriander, pepper and salt to a simmer. Pour over bulghur, cover with plastic wrap, and let sit for 30 minutes to absorb. Meanwhile, slice the radishes very thinly using a mandoline or knife. Reserve refrigerated, keeping tops separate.
 Heat a small nonstick saute pan on medium high. Melt 1 tbsp. of butter, and add bulghur to pan, stirring to heat through; transfer to two serving bowls. Wipe out pan, and place back on heat. Melt the remaining tbsp. of butter, and when it bubbles, crack the eggs in whole. Cook for 45 seconds, then gently flip and cook another 45 seconds. Slide one egg on top of each bulghur bowl. Top each with sliced radishes, and drizzle with any butter that remains in the saute pan. Garnish with fresh radish tops, sea salt, and a sprinkle of pepper and ground coriander.

Pokeweed Buttermilk Biscuits with Pepper and Cracked Coriander (makes 10- 2" biscuits)

1 c. loosely packed young pokeweed leaves
3/4 c. cold buttermilk
1 1/2 c. AP flour
2 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. ground coriander
1/8 tsp. garlc powder
1/8 tsp. onion powder
1 stick (8 tbsp.) unsalted butter, cut in small cubes and kept frozen
1 egg, beaten
1/2 tsp. cracked whole coriander
1/2 tsp. pretzel or coarse sea salt

 Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Bring a small saucepan of salted water to a boil, and add pokeweed, Reduce to a low boil, and blanch 15 minutes. Drain, and repeat twice more for three blanchings. Chop finely, and add to buttermilk. Keep cold.
 In the bowl of a food processor, combine flour, baking powder, salt, pepper, ground coriander, onon and garlic powders. Pulse to combine. Add cubed butter, and pulse for 10 seconds to form coarse crumbs (most butter will remain whole-ish; this is ok). With machine running, slowly add buttermilk/pokeweed mixture until JUST combined - the mix will look very wet.
  Heavily flour the counter, and turn dough out onto flour. Using floured hands, press the dough to about 1/2 inch thickness. Fold in half twice, press again. Repeat this twice more for a total of 6 folds. Do not allow dough to stick to the board - flour as needed. Press dough into a circle about 1/2 inch thick. Using a 2" floured biscuit cutter, press out biscuits and place on ungreased baking sheet.

Press remaining scraps together gently to use all the dough; you should yield 10 biscuits.
Brush the tops with the beaten egg, and sprinkle evenly with the cracked coriander and coarse salt.
Bake for 20 minutes, until tops are golden brown and beautiful.

Serve warm, with a pat of butter, or use as a biscuit vehicle for yummy sandwiches!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


I am hungry. Sooo very hungry.
   The sunny arcs of springtime air drew me off my couch, where I was happily napping away with the cat, to go outside. Yawning, stretching like a bear coming out of hibernation, I began scouring the yard, for anything growing. I wasn't necessarily looking for something in particular, but the more I walked, the more I stared at my barren, moist garden bed impregnated with seeds that have yet to sprout, the more I tripped over thick hairy clumps of wild garlic sprouting from the lawn...
...the hungrier I got.
I wanted something, something green and fresh, to rip from the soil and shove into my mouth. I can't explain the visceral urge. Maybe I'm not as far removed from Neanderthal humanity as previously thought. Maybe the small pleasure of warming sunlight hitting the back of my head, even as winds still give me a chill for fleece, tick off the timer in my primitive brain centers.
    Tick tock, time for greens, tick tock, time to eat, clean out the body..
 I find the first flower of the year, a Siberian iris, peeking above leaf mold and smiling. At me. At spring sun. I smile back, then scowl, thinking that I could certainly not eat this flower, and right now it''s of no use to me. Damn.

What I was truly looking for was more like this:
Which I did not find. Not yet. On hands and knees, I uncovered the ostrich ferns from their wintry leaf mulch, and counted budding fiddleheads. At least 15. Maybe I could get a small meal next week...(stomach grumbling)
   My eyes pored over the damp green earth. Nothing, nothing at all. Not even a dandelion to rip up. I became depressed, then angry, then just hungrier (aren't these the stages of loss acceptance??) WHY is nothing growing yet?
   Wandered back to the garden, and scratched the earth around my asparagus corms. No, not even those bastions of spring were ready to awaken from winter slumber. Ugh. I gave up.
   My want of fresh green things not satiated, I ate a handful of ham (don't ask) and ripped open a bag of snap peas from the Asian market. At least I could pretend spring had come, right?
   Of course today, as I woke, the rain was pouring down in torrents. Outside my bedroom window, I counted four more irises, and noted that the perennial flowers grew probably another inch overnight. Maybe tomorrow I can have asparagus. And maybe pea tendrils next week. Just maybe.
   For now, I'm going to murder some wild garlic for dinner, and probably that baby dandelion I found growing along the patio too. For good measure.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Tasting Spring

I felt it in my bones on Sunday, walking the misty side streets of University City on my way into work.
  It's kind of amazing where memories attack us, when we least expect it. The air was heavy with fog, a thick mist that coated my cheeks as I walked along. In the background, a whooshing noise, probably a generator inside some busy college building. But what I heard, what I felt, was a waterfall.
   I closed my eyes, and for a few short minutes, I was in the Pocono Mountains, atop our campsite, the one we visit every summer. It's early morning; the woodpeckers just stretching their vocals, the fire's embers smouldering gently from the night before, curly wisps of smoke rising from the ashes. I breathe deep. Sean and Colette still asleep in the tent, I pad over mossy earth to the outcropping boulder clinging to the mountaintop. I sit, hug my knees, and stare enchanted at the waterfall below me. The water is deafeningly loud, and yet so silent, a white noise that fills my ears and tosses me into deep mediation. Morning on the mountain, this mountain, our place - it is where I love life the most, where beauty surrounds me, my muscles aching with relaxation.
   This is where I went, for a few short minutes, on a Sunday morning in Philadelphia.   It was my first taste of spring to come, of renewal, of cool misty mornings that drag me into the garden, plunge my hands into cool dark soil, and being the creation of plant life that will sustain us for the season.
   As fortune had it, my boss gave me the next two days off, and as fate would have it, Monday was yet another fine misty mountain morning, fog hanging low over the treetops,earthworms exploring out of the humus. It had to be sixty degrees, at least - in January nonetheless! No mind - I was in March already. I let the dogs out to roam, grabbed my crocus bulbs and spade, and planted. I dug my columbine seed out of the crisper drawer, and planted those as well. With my mug of coffee chilling fast on the patio, I reveled in the deep, cleansing breaths of temperate air, and began to plot the vegetable garden. Even though I knew the coming week would bring a cold snap, I could not help to indulge my senses in this tiny snippet of spring weather. Even the frogs were out in the pond! The garlic chives are beginning to throw wispy growth out of the soil. The hydrangea is beginning to bud out. My Christmas tree is finally at the curb, and well, it's time. I'm ready for spring.
   I wondered what would come up first, my early forced lettuce or the rhubarb. Or maybe the asparagus? Sure, it's early, but never too early to plan for tasty things to come.I thought back to last spring, and a deliciously simple meal I prepared and shared with my dear friend Clara, one crafted from the spring produce in our campus garden. I decided this would be my first meal of the food year, a fitting tribute to all things fresh and new, to misty cool mornings in the yard and impatient earthworms and self-composting leaf piles.
SO ready for spring!

Spring Salad for Two
1/2 pound fresh asparagus
2 c. mixed lettuces
5 French Breakfast radishes (or whichever look delightful)
1 handful flowering chives (stems and flowers)
2 tbsp. Extra Virgin olive oil
2 tsp. white balsamic vinegar
4 pastured chicken eggs
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
shaved Parmigiano cheese

Heat a large saute pan over medium heat. Add asparagus spears, sprinkle with kosher salt, and allowto blister on stems, about three minutes. Toss and continue to cook on medium heat until very crisp-tender, five minutes more. Divide between two plates.
Add lettuces, torn into bite-size pieces, into a bowl. Shave the radishes into the same bowl. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and dress with olive oil and vinegar. Toss, and divide between plates atop asparagus.
Bring the pan back up over low heat. Melt the butter, and crack in the eggs whole. Cook gently until whites are set underneath, flip and cook to desired doneness, 1-4 minutes. Place two eggs on each salad. Garnish each plate with chopped and whole chives, sprinkle with cheese, and serve while eggs are still warm.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Reflections on a Batch of Cookies

   Some days in our lives make us not want to wake up and face another round. Some days make us beam with incredible joy and graditude. Some days make us reflect on why we are who we are, and force us to acknowledge our own mortality, while simultaneously acknowledging our incredible good fortune.
   Yesterday was that day, when all three of these scenarios came to light.
I don't need to go into detail; by now we've all become aware of the horrible tragedy of December 14th. But what happened to me yesterday...well, I'm sure many people out there can share my story, today, as we sit back and pray, for loss, for thanks and for hope.
   Ahem. To begin...
Work was shitty. No bones about it, I had a bad day. It plain sucked. From the moment I stepped into the kitchen, my previously buyoant Christmas mood turned tail and headed for the South Pole, and despite my finest efforts (i.e. singing Xmas carols in my head, and making faces behind the backs of my coworkers), there was little to zero chance of recovering it. Yes, folks, my cheer had gone on a winter vacay to somewhere with palm trees and daiquiris, whilst I toiled away in freezing Philadephia for ungrateful customers.
    Now, please don't get me wrong - I do love what I do; making good food is my livelihood, my passion, and my creative outlet. There's just those days, when every mise is in the wrong spot, when your teammate has made double of everything in two different places, when every piece of lettuce is wilted the moment the bag opens. Once a domino falls, no recovery - bottom line.
   So, I plowed through, desperately, on the verge of tears, counting the minutes till I could run screaming out the back door and hurl myself into the nearest pint of beer. It was that day.
   Then, I was jolted home by others' phones buzzing from CNN, and all anyone could talk about was a massacre of children. A monster, let loose upon a school very nearly like the one I grew up in. A kindergarten class, kids the same age as my daughter. I grew morose, cried harder. I wanted to call her, but realized I had left my phone at home. At least my shift was done.

   Boarding the train eastbound, eating my cold noodles that really should have been hot, I stared out the window into a black icy wind beating upon a blighted part of town, and prayed. Hard. I thanked the universe for it not being my child, for it not hitting too close to home. I felt overwhelming guilt and selfishness then, for thinking of myself at such a time, but really, what is one to think? What is right or wrong here? Trying to imagine it being me, being her, was so distant and painful at the same time. I sent up some words for those parents, hoping that if there was a heavenly body, He'd understand I meant no ill will or mean nature; I was simply reacting as a mom.
   Slurped the remaining noodles. Tried to close my eyes, but some horrid woman was blabbing to anyone she could get on the phone about her deadbeat ex-husband who's not 'taking' the kids for Christmas. How now she'd have to change her plans because she 'has' to 'have' them. Thought, wow, that is incredibly more selfish than what I was pondering! Felt like a better parent. Stretched my toes.

   When I got home, dinner was hot, thanks to my other half, and he'd made grand plans to make Christmas cutout cookies with Colette. I however, was in no mood to decorate sugar cookies - didn't he know that something horrible happened??
   Incidentally, he did not. So we turned on the news, and sat in tranced disbelief while Brian Williams narrated. My darling child, too young to know what harm guns really do, brushed it off and demanded to make cookies. Husband obliged. I couldn't believe it - how could he just shut it off like that?? Why aren't we poring over this together, as a family???
   (Voiceover: SANTA in head:) "Because, you see Christine, there is more to do as a family. Like inspire joy, celebrate the life we do have, and move on. We cannot be sad forever. We must mourn, we may hurt for a long time, and feel empathy, but to move forward is to triumph."
   Thank you, Santa. I almost forgot.

   Colette ate a lot of raw dough; she called it "taste testing".

I rolled, and we cut and decorated together at the table. Every reindeer got marshmallow eyes and a Rudolph nose, although Colette claimed they all had different names. She made a 'Christmas ladybug' too, from a small rolled ball of dough that escaped her mouth. It was too cute to eat.

   I may make an ornament of it.

Even though it took only a couple hours' time, that cookie session gave me enough gumption to realize that life was too short to feel sorry for myself. Yes, I had a bad day. But you know, other people had it a hell of a lot worse than me. I may not drive a Benz (yet), or have my name above the front door (yet), or even be able to fly south whenever I need to reboot my spirits. But I do have a roof over my head that a hurricane spared, food in my pantry that I was able to buy with my own money, and a healthy child who will be in my arms before she falls to sleep at night.
  I'm pretty freakin' lucky, huh?
The cookies aren't half bad, either.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

What do Apples and Bananas Have in Common? Family.

   All of a sudden, it happened last week - I woke up in my bedroom, windows open, and felt the chill. Cardinals chirping in the spruce outside, wind rustling newly crisped leaves that seem to caramelize on the trees, and the sun barely stretching it's rays, yawning with me as we drank coffee together. Yes, I realized it - fall had finally arrived.
   Autumn is my favorite of seasons for a number of reasons, including a myriad of birthdays and anniversaries, pumpkins, and leaf piles begging to be leapt into. And typically, I commemorate the first days around my daughter's birthday, two weeks before Halloween (joy!). Now I have a new start date, and it's made me feel a bit like that Christmas-in-July store display, the preemptive decor stealthily invading the back shelves of Target when we're JUST getting Back to School shopping understand what I mean...
   I bumped it back.
I began fall earlier, and probably will from now on, thanks to the fine folks of Hickman County, Tennessee, and a wee get-together they host on the first Saturday of October for the last three years called the National Banana Pudding Festival. It's an entire day of puddin' eatin', bouncy houses, and country/folk music, and I love every minute of it. This year, as a past grand prize winner, I was invited back to judge the, what a difficult task! I mean, isn't it simply AWFUL that I HAD to eat ten banana puddings before lunchtime?!? Simply torturous...
  ...regardless, I plowed forth, and the emerging winner presented a delicious rendition called Foster's Banana Pudding, laced with Appleton rum and banana, yum.
   I had never considered banana pudding a "holiday" dessert, but then, the people of Tennessee probaby never considered that a damn Yankee might win their competiton either (but I did! See Archives of 2010 blogs). Then the stories unfurled whilst cooking was going on....someone's grandfather ritually presented a pudding at the Thanksgiving table. Another fed it to her grandchildren around the fireplace on Christmas. One perched on the refrigerator as a child, watching awestruck as their family's cook browned a perfect meringue.The stories were as varied and remarkable as the recipes, and it dawned on me that this seemingly ordinary, down-home dessert casserole was the stuff of holiday memories, of years of tradition passed hand to spoon, mouth to ear, grandparent to grandchild. It wasn't about the food, but about the connections developed over a humble  pudding studded with Nilla wafers and sweet fruit, and all it represented - family, warmth, home, and love.

   Having grown up in the Northeast, bananas were decidedly not on our holiday radar, but our family has it's own banana puddings. In my home, with my husband and daughter, it's apple pie that shuffles in the season for me. We agreed early on that we needed to instill traditions of our own creation in Colette, beyond what we already have with extended family. And so every year, we trek out to Princeton and visit Terhune Orchards, a family-run apple farm that also has a small collection of farm animals, aging Golden retrievers lazing about the porch, apple cider donuts, and a fine selection of pumpkins. Every year, we grab way too many apples, mostly the ones I use for pie - Golden Delicious and Granny Smiths, but I usually sneak in Winesaps for apple butter as well. Every year, we stand Colette against the side of the sheep barn and measure her against the 'How Tall am I Now?" painted cornstalk, and marvel to one another how quickly our apple-driven infant has sprouted into a mouthy applesauce-obsessed preschooler. Every year, we hunt out the biggest, most personable pumpkins in the patch that we can carry, to carve into jack o'lanterns for Halloweeen. We gorge on unfiltered cider in the car on our way into town, noses red and runny from the brisk autumn air, and ooh and aaah at the old Victorian homes downtown. We prowl the university's campus population, half-pretending that we're students looking for a frat party (although it's diffiult toting a kid around - we look more like professors now). We cap our day by visiting Triumph Brewery, downing some microbrew pints, and feasting on fish and chips golden from the fryer.

 And after all of THAT, we go home and craft the best apple pie known to man or beast.
What, you think I'm giving away my secret recipe?? You're nuts! I will NOT.
   What I will divulge is that when the scent of apples and cinnamon waft into the living room, we are all floating on holiday air. The windows and doors are flung open, tea is made with cinnamon stick straws, and the sun dances merrily on the tines of the rake, as Sean tidies the lawn for the trick-or-treaters, while Colette and Abby impede his progress by smashing through leafpiles. Fall is in the air, Thanksgiving is around the corner, and the pot of applesauce on the stove begs for Mason jars and warm oatmeal. I heat my mug of cider, hit it with a shot of Meyer's, and sit on the patio, curled into my fleecy jacket, observing the blessings I have around me. And I marvel how a humble fruit, tenderly crafted into a humble dessert, can tie bonds beyond years, beyond words.
   I will pass this recipe to my daughter one day, and she to her offspring, and so on, and so forth, until apples exist only in natural history museums. What will live on, though, is the memories of our trips to the farm, snacking on pie dough, and pictures of smaller, more modest times, when children were measured by cornstalks and we ate apples off the tree, thick as thieves.
This is tradition. This is home.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

My lunch with Joel Salatin

Since I am being so disgracefully bullied by higher forces, I am responding by honoring Mr. Salatin and publishing our interview in FULL TEXT here. I hope you all find as much inspiration and promise in his words as I have. Enjoy.

Joel Salatin is the owner/ manager of Polyface Farms, a ‘beyond organic’ sustainable livestock operation  in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia that produces a variety of meat animals and eggs on 100 working acres. Prominently featured in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma in 2006, Mr. Salatin and his family, as well as Polyface,  have become living, working examples of how modern farming can work on a synergistic, symbiotic relationship with the earth while still being profitable and productive.  I had the distinct honor of interviewing Mr. Salatin on his ventures, including his eighth book due out this October.
CW: Could you describe Polyface Farms to those of us who are not familiar with it, what you’re about and what the mission is of Polyface?
JS: Well, our mission is to develop emotionally, environmentally, and economically enhancing agricultural prototypes, and facilitate their duplication throughout the world. That is our mission statement. In very practical terms, what the farm is is a grass-based, multi-speciated livestock enterprise that choreographs a massaged relationship that is symbiotic and synergistic among  many different species of animals.
CW: What is a typical day like in the Salatin household?
JS: What’s a typical day? Well, it’s very seasonal; so in the summer when we have everything out on pasture, we get up and do chores of course, and move a lot of critters, have breakfast; then we do whatever we need to do, other projects; then of course there’s chores in the evening where we gather eggs, take care of animals, move fences, all sorts of things; then there’s everything from building machinery and fences, to portable structures to build and maintain. A lot of time is just spent moving animals because that’s the critical thing that makes us functional - bring the animals on a fresh ‘salad bar’ every day.
CW: You emphatically call yourself a “grass farmer , because you know the entire cycle comes back to the soil and that’s the primary purpose of all of this. Your land self-fertilizes because of your intensive animal management, so my question is, is the ‘salad bar’ completely native?  Is this something that resulted directly from treating the soil the way you do?
JS: Yes, we have not planted a seed in fifty years, and when we came to the farm, you could walk the whole farm without setting foot on a piece of vegetation, it was that bare. You’da thought we were growing thistles and briers for a crop! And now those are all gone, replaced by clovers, legumes, grasses,  forbs and large areas the size of this room that were just scallops, giant saucer-shaped scallops of bare rock where all the sol had been washed off from  twenty years of tillage, washed into the Chesapeake Bay; when we came just bare rock, today all have soil over them and growing grass, so in 50 years that degree of soil development has occurred.
CW: And what was the farm before your family purchased it? Do you know?
JS:  It was just a piece of gullied eroded land.
CW: Was it because of poor agriculture, or was it just there?
JS: Oh yeah, it had been farmed, our house was built in 1750, so the land had been farmed for a long long time. And of course, you know, mules, horse and oxen didn’t fall over on hillsides; if you could walk on it you could plow it, but you know whereas today with tractors you wouldn’t want to take on ground that steep.
CW: My favorite term you have is “pigaerator” pork, and I was hoping you could define that for us. What do you mean by “pigaerator” pork?
JS: Sure! Pigaerator pork is two facets actually; years ago when we began putting the cows in a hayshed during the wintertime to protect their manure during the dormant season, to protect it from going into the groundwater, we began to build these woodrow compost piles, which you no doubt have seen. And the thought  occurred to me, if we put corn in there and let it ferment in that bedding pack, what I call a ‘carbonaceous diaper’, that perhaps the pigs could do all that work for us, instead of us having to dig it out, double handle it,  make a woodrow compost pile, and then spread it. And so we started doing that, and today now we make hundreds and hundreds of tons of compost  by simply putting in corn in the bedding underneath the cows; the cows tramp out the oxygen so it’s anaerobic , it ferments, and then the pigs go in and seek the fermented corn. They aerate it - “pigaerate” it - add in oxygen , like aerobic dance;  they are adding the oxygen to turn that ‘carbonaceous diaper’ from an anaerobic bedding pack to an aerobic compost pile with animals doing the work - no machinery, no petroleum, and actually almost no human labor either, ‘cause we don’t even have to steer the pigs, you know the pigs…
CW: They do what pigs do! (laugh)
JS: They do what pigs do! You know they all have a big sign on their foreheads that says “Will work for corn”! (laugh)
CW: Work smarter, not harder, right?
JS: Exactly!
CW: So, we’ve heard you have a new book coming out , which will be your eighth book, is that correct?
JS: Yes, that is correct.
CW: Can you tell us a little bit about that book?

JS:  The title is Folks, This Ain’t Normal, and that book (which is due out Oct. 5th) is about what I consider  an unprecedented historical abnormality, which is what we call “today”.  The fact that our average food mile goes 1500 miles between field and fork, that’s never happened in the history of humankind. The fact that we are eating unpronounceable foods, that’s never happened before in the history of humankind. Cheap energy,  cheap fuel… it’s always taken a huge amount of land and labor; you know, think about oxen and water buffalo. It takes a huge amount of the farmer’s, of the food system’s production and time just to maintain the energy, the ‘draft power’ to move a plow, to move a cart. With petroleum now, with cheap energy, we don’t have to do that, and chemical fertilization … the fact that the average American now does not know how to cut up a chicken, a culinary ignorance; many of them don’t even know a chicken has bones!  If it’s not a skinless boneless breast, what is it?! I don’t know what to do with it! And the fact that 25% of all meals are eaten in cars…  many people know more how to eat a meal in their car than they know at home. We don’t sit down to family dinners anymore, we graze throughout the day, these are all symptomatic of literally a civilizational abnormal trial thing. The book, there’s a lot of humor in it obviously, but the idea with the book  that I want people to get in the end is, that we can laugh at ourselves, that we’ve “come all this way”, when actually in retrospect it’s  going be an historical anomaly, especially if we don’ maintain cheap energy.
CW: We know you’re a newly approved extern site for [culinary school].  What do you plan on offering to the externs? How do you feel it will increase their culinary education?
JS: Well, we were pushed into this by a student, who wanted to do an externship at our farm and so we went through the paperwork and stuff. The way it ended up was that he spent half the time at our farm and half the time at one of our flagship restaurants that our farm services. It wasn’t appropriate for him to just come and farm, that just wouldn’t have been appropriate, and so he spent half the time at the restaurant and half the time at the farm, and that’s the way it worked. It’s been three years maybe since he was there.
CW: As an entrepreneur you are constantly trying to add value to your output. Do you feel having culinary externs on your farm  adds value to Polyface Farms?
JS: Adds value? I think it would if we could get them into a kitchen! Where we would really be able to leverage; in fact the one that was there we offered him, we said hey you come and put in a kitchen, help hook up a kitchen with us either onsite or offsite,  and you could take our cracked and pullet eggs and turn them into quiche and noodles, and you could take our chicken backs and necks, we could even take fat and we could make lard, we could do stock, we could make soups, there are lots and lots of things we could offer that we don’t right now, if we had that kind of culinary expertise.
CW: Let me rephrase that, because have you ever considered having students “value-add” to your products;  instead of just selling a pork belly, having a culinary student who has familiar technique cure it to, say, pancetta, and sell it that way as a higher value product, or make cheese from your cows?

JS: Well, sure, I think of that all the time, but you can’t do everything that’s worth doing immediately. And so I guess from my perspective, with the right alignment of things, when the student’s ready the teacher will appear.  So I am in favor of all… man, listen, if I had a million dollars in my pocket today, I would start a commercial kitchen-slash-diner-slash-year round local market in Staunton tomorrow!  You know, my family’s tired of hearing me talk about it! But we don’t have the person! It’s all about the person. You get the people right, and you can move the world, and there’s no reason in moving forward until you have the people.
CW:  Mr. Salatin, your enterprise was featured in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which was published in 2006. So what new ‘faces’ have shown up at Polyface since Michael Pollan visited you? Or has anything not turned out the way you planned on it?
JS: Well, I would say that the biggest thing has been that it’s certainly ramped our public image,  it certainly gave us a sense of credibility and notoriety, not only in the foodie movement but in general, and so that has been  interesting and good. Beyond that though, it has definitely put pressure on our hospitality. I love people, but you can get too much of a good thing; you know we do live there, and so we’ve frankly had to wrestle some with the courtesy, hospitality, family life issues that  the crush of people has created.  But we still maintain our 24/7 open door policy; anyone can come anytime from anywhere to see everything unannounced, and I don’t know of another farm in the world that is that transparent.
CW: Me neither! Even my CSA doesn’t let me show up any time of day!  So, now I’m gonna ask the hard questions. If I may quote you, you have said “the best ecology is also the best economy”;  you demonstrate this on your farm in a small scale. Are you actively involved in trying to change economic policy in this country, and do you believe your model is feasible on a large scale in a country like ours where everyone “has it your way”? Do you believe Americans are ready to work again for their food?
JS: Well … that’s a series of questions! The first question is, is it feasible? If the question is, can our system feed the world, let’s just deal with that one first. The answer is, absolutely, our system can feed the world. Our system is more productive per acre, per square yard than any other livestock farm anywhere. The thing you have to remember is, when you see those ‘efficient’ confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), those Tyson chicken outfits, those confinement areas,  what the camera doesn’t show you is the square miles of grain somewhere that is being trucked in and all the manure that is being trucked, they don’t show  you all the acreage those supposedly efficient industrial models are dependent on so that they can rise as a monolith out of the ground somewhere to awe people...”Wow, that’s an amazing production!” , so it doesn’t take one more bit of land to produce things the way we do than the way industry does. It’s just in our system, it’s decentralized as opposed to centralized. The advantage that our system offers is that it’s inherently less pathogenic, and so while it may take more people on the land to produce it our way, it doesn’t take as many people doing the cleanup of the toxicity and pathogenicity that that system creates. So that the actual, labor thing becomes a wash, because you either have abuse and cleaner-uppers who come behind the people, you can understand this … you either have a clean kitchen with very little cleanup or you run a dirty kitchen with a lot of cleanup. The fact is  that the labor for both of those is about the same; the difference is the risk of running a dirty kitchen is much higher, the risk in a lot of things:  people slipping on spilled food, to a food borne illness, so you might as well keep it clean. That’s my position, you  might as well keep it clean to start with. Now the question is then, are Americans ready for this? I would say no, to the extent that McDonald’s is still posting profits. When McDonald’s starts to file bankruptcy, then we’ll know Americans ready for this. But, just because the average person isn’t ready to eat with integrity, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done, and doesn’t mean that those of us who get it shouldn‘t press that envelope. And there’s no question that we’re undergoing a tsunami of local food interest, I call it a tsunami of local food interest:  it’s everywhere. And so continuing that tsunami is something that I’m committed to, that I hope a lot of other people are committed to, continuing it so that it finally does in fact overwhelm the beachheads of Monsanto, Ciba Geige, Taco Bell, whatever, but those are still pretty intense beachheads, I’m using the metaphor .
CW: I grew up close to Ciba Geige, so I take that very personally, because that’s a Superfund site now  and there’s cancers arising in our area that don’t exist anywhere else in the world. It’s horrifying.
JS: Yeah, absolutely.
CW: You’re an unabashedly Christian conservative man. How do you reconcile the fact that the vast majority of Christians like yourself support conservative right-wing politics that encourage big business and big monocultures of farming?
JS: All I can say about that  is, that it is a complete misapplication of biblical principle which puts humans in charge of this Creation. But we’re in charge of it to nurture it, to massage it, to caretake it, not to manipulate, to dominion, to disrespect, and that’s where I part company. So how do I rectify that? Well I rectify it simply by saying, they’re wrong!  And they have gone, the vast majority of the religious right has adopted the St. Augustinian idea of duality (now I’m getting a little beyond you here!) where physical is evil and spirit is good. So we divorce those two in our minds and say, let’s talk about doctrine over here , lets t talk about catechizing our systematic theology, but that doesn’t really have any impact on  how we actually live day to day. And I’m saying NO, its all system, it’s all sacred, it’s all one, it’s all wrapped up . You can’t divorce the physical from the spiritual from the mental form the emotional just like you can’t divorce the economy from the ecology. You know a nation that destroys its ecology will tank economically, and in fact that’s part of what we’re seeing. In fact a nation that eats junk food can never have a healthcare plan that keeps the population, it will always have a burdensome unfinanceable health care plan when it eats junk food. It’s all related, it’s all one, and so, that’s where I part company with those folks, and in fact I think you’d enjoy knowing that I am doing a lot, believe it or not, of speaking just in the last three years on Christian environmental ethics. I just spoke in Berkeley, CA at a big Presbyterian church three weeks ago (on) Christian environmental ethics, and I’m very excited that there are people in the religious right who are starting to connect those dots and realizing that Creation stewardship does not mean that you’re now worshipping Creation, that it’s a mandate from the Creator, to nurture and massage the Creation.
CW: Where do you see God on your farm?
JS: Everywhere. Our farm, everyday, I pray, let me run this as if I’m Your ambassador, I wanna run this as if You were here in person doing it.  Let my hands be your hands, let my feet be your feet, and let it honor and glorify the majesty and awesomeness of God’s design. So I’m not about going in and…look, when the USDA, forty years ago, started promoting feeding dead cows to cows, our family,  they were taking us to free dinners and state suppers, to teach us this “new science”. Our family did not endorse that, not because we didn’t like the USDA, not because it was being promoted by the government, not because we were anti-science, not because we were Luddites, but because we looked around in nature and said, where is the pattern? Where is the template in which herbivores eat carrion? Can we find it? NO! It doesn’t exist. And so on that basis alone, you know we didn’t know it was going to give us bovine spongiform encephalitis forty years ago, but on that basis alone, we said, this does not honor the order of Creation. We don’t do it, and now 40 years later…
CW: We’re seeing all the backlash.
JS: Absolutely. There’s this big collective “OOPS. Maybe we shouldn’t oughta done that!” (laugh) And that’s a huge wakeup call,  'cause normally things that assault God’s order, the result of those things… it’s a Slinky effect, it doesn’t  manifest itself immediately, there’s a time. I think that it’s fascinating that there were 14 years between the introduction of DDT and the first truly official double-blind scientific study showing the relation between DDT and the decline of bald eagles. The infertile frogs, the amphibian population - that was huge!-  the three-legged salamanders… that was fourteen years. (The year) 2010 was fourteen years from the introduction of the first transgenic modified organisms. This year alone we have 67 studies coming in from around the world showing the devastating results of transgenic modification. There’s a lag! And so, that’s why when I speak at liberal arts universities, I say, it is the values system, it is the world view, the paradigm, the philosophy that creates an ethical moral hedge around the cleverness of amoral science. Because we’re clever. We can invent things that we can’t spiritually, emotionally, physically, or ecologically metabolize. And so we better have a protective hedge around our own cleverness lest we, as my Dad used to say, overrun our own headlights. And see, we need that. And of course all the liberal arts professors go ”YEAH! This is great! That’s why we read classics, that’s why we read thinkers, who were asking the question “Why? Why? Why?”  In our culture, our Greco-Roman-Western-reductionist –disconnected-compartmentalized-systematized-fragmentized-parts-oriented culture, we only ask the question “How?”.  And if we can do it, that’s cool. And I think there’s more to life than just “How?”.  It’s more than, “Can we?” It’s, “Should we?”
CW: My final question: if you could sum up your purpose in the ‘Big Picture’, what would that be?
JS: Well, my purpose is to be the minister of agriculture during the millennium ! (laugh)
CW: Okay! (laugh)
JS: My real goal is to receive “Well done, thou good and faithful servant”.  And so we want to live every day in a sense of awe and sacredness that there are right ways, there are wrong ways, there are healing ways, and there are sickening ways to do everything, from setting a table, to running a kitchen, to investing our money. There are ways that bring healing and ways that bring sickness, and we need to appreciate that our whole life should be a non-compartmentalized whole in bringing healing to our relationships, our physical universe, the people we serve, and the people that we love.

For more on Joel Salatin and Polyface Farms, visit their website at