Eat with Pleasure

Stories and Recipes by Jenny Holm

Posts from the ‘sustainable food’ category

I’m pleased to announce that I’m now a regular blogger for FRESH, a 2009 documentary film about the people and ideas transforming America’s food system. I’ll be sharing my take on sustainable food issues on their blog a couple of days each week.

My first post, on “do-it-yourself” cooking projects, came out on Monday.

I’d love to hear your ideas and suggestions for blog topics! Do you have any questions you want answers to, or thoughts bouncing around in your head that I could bounce around on paper? Leave them here as comments or e-mail me at jenny@fresthemovie.com.

I’ll be doing my best to keep on track with this blog as well (better than I’ve been doing lately, I hope!). Please bear with me as I get accustomed to this new, more intense routine.

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My last day on the farm dawned foggy and already humid. The heat wave that the Northeast has been suffering through recently had fried the shelling peas and sugar snaps, which prefer cooler weather (much like myself). Elizabeth and I set to work pulling their desiccated roots from the ground, then chopping up their stems and leaves to return to the bed as mulch. We pulled the underperforming broccoli, too, and prepared space in the cold frames for new growth.

After mixing compost and peat moss to make a fertile growing mix and mulching the newly cleared beds with a layer of hay, we watered them to loosen the soil and shoveled our mix in rows over the top. I spread my index and middle fingers to form a “V” and pressed them into the soil over and over again down the rows, making dimples to receive each seed. We planted carrots, beets, and kohlrabi; arugula and lettuce; onions, pole beans, and radishes. We sprinkled a thin layer of topsoil to cover them, smoothed it with the flats of our palms, and hoped for rain.

It seemed fitting to end my stay on the farm with the planting of new seeds. This experience, albeit only a month long, has convinced me that I can and will become a gardener myself. I can no longer imagine paying $3.99 for only enough basil to make two tablespoons of pesto. Or the same price for an ungainly plastic box of greens, grown in California and trucked across the country, when I could plant myself a whole summer’s worth of lettuce for under $10.

When I am lucky enough to live in a place where soil, not concrete, surrounds my doorstep, I will plant herbs and salad greens there for easy pre-dinner access. In the meantime, there are window boxes, potted herbs, rooftop gardens, and community growing spaces to take advantage of. I will plant shelling peas, which are so hard to find in most American grocery stores. (Goodbye, mushy canned and frozen peas, and good riddance!)

Peas, beans, and zucchini can be trained to grow up poles or trellises, so they take up less space in a small garden. Kale and chard are hardy plants that require almost no work to grow and fit into the “dark, leafy greens” category that help prevent everything from depression to cancer. I’ll plant beets, the candy of the vegetable world, and strawberries, which will be smaller but sweeter than any you can find in the grocery store. But more than anything else, I can’t wait to grow my own tomatoes.

A homegrown tomato is an epiphany. Within its taut skin the taste of summer lies in wait for the firm bite that will release it in a brilliant gush. Its ecstatic burst of pulpy, sun-warmed juice leaves your tongue tingling with acid tang. Try achieving catharsis through a grocery store tomato: it will be a sad failure of an experiment.

My last day on the farm ended with a fresh and simple supper, inspired by the season’s first ripe tomatoes. I’d been awaiting these guys since I first caught whiff of the green, musty aroma emanating from their resin-covered vines. Elizabeth layered tomato slices with lettuce and fresh-grated Parmesan and Romano on olive oil flatbread for one set of sandwiches, then melted sharp cheddar on the other and topped them with tiny Sungolds.

We sat on the porch watching the sun set and feeling the breeze finally blow the day’s humidity away. I took a bite of my sandwich, closed my eyes, and felt my tastebuds stand up taller to catch every drop of tomato eruption. This fruit had developed under the same heat, breezes, and rains that I’d experienced on the farm. I’d watched its vine grow taller as I watered it in the mornings, tied it gently to bamboo stalks to support its growth, and seen its first tomatoes turn from spring green to red-orange. In thanks for my patience, it was mine to devour. What a reward.

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Elizabeth doesn’t drink cow’s milk herself, but when I asked if we could get some so I could attempt to make my own yogurt and cheese, we hopped in the car and drove in the opposite direction of the grocery store. When it comes to milk, the organic dairy farm just down the road is the grocery store.

Mark and Sarah Russell have been raising cattle for two decades, and have been certified organic for 13 years. When Elizabeth, her niece and nephew, and Worrill and I arrive, we are greeted first by their exuberant cat Elvis, who loves nothing more than to be held like a baby and cooed over. Unfortunately for Elvis, we are more interested in the farm’s lovely ladies: the 96 cows whose milk makes the Russells a living. The family keeps one or two bulls (male cows) on the farm for impregnating the heifers (female cows before they have their first calf), but for subsequent pregnancies they use artificial insemination. It’s cheaper, more reliable, and allows them to differentiate the herd’s gene pool and breed for desirable characteristics.

The calves that were born in February and March aren’t quite ready to join the rest of the herd in the fields yet, but they crowd close to the fence to assess their new visitors. “That’s Fabian,” the Russells’ 9- or 10-year-old son David points out a brown and white calf holding his head above the rest; “I’m going show him at the fair.” After a quick sniff test, Fabian deems my outstretched hand harmless, and begins licking my fingers, then the back of my hand, my wrist and up my forearm. Cow tongues, it turns out, are as rough and prickly as a cat’s, and can stretch farther than you’d expect. “David won the Quiz Bowl tournament at his last 4H event,” Mark tells us with a half-smile. “Yeah,” David adds, “I was the only one who knew what calf diarrhea is called.” (In case you’re curious, it’s “scours.”)

Photo by Olivia Frank

In our next stop, the milking parlor, the Russells explain how the cows file in to their stalls each morning and evening during milking season (they “go dry” for a couple of months prior to calving), how they hook up the milking machines to the cows’ udders, and how the milk travels through a series of self-cleaning pipes directly into a huge tank. The milking machines shut off and release automatically when the utters have been drained, so the cows can let themselves out and get back to grazing as quickly as possible. Each of their cows produces approximately five gallons of milk daily, so the whole herd produces about two TONS of milk every day! It is kept cold in the tank until it is shipped to the Organic Valley co-op the Russells belong to, which handles the pasteurization, bottling, marketing, and distribution of milk from thousands of similar farms across New England.

We head down the dirt path towards the fields, and Mark unhooks one section of the electric fence surrounding the pasture so we can go meet the herd. We wade through the tall grass, avoiding the occasional half-baked cowpie. The most forthcoming cow, a golden brown Jersey named Firefly, saunters out ahead of the rest to greet us. Through some imperceptible bovine sign language, she gives the “all clear” to the others, and soon we are surrounded on all sides by curious cattle. If the herd stampeded, we’d be in trouble, but they are content to nod their heads up and down and bat flies out of the way with their tails.

Photo by Josh Frank

“My sister calls them the Motley Crew,” Mark says, and it’s easy to see why: there are plenty of black and white Holsteins (the most common dairy breed in the United States), but also red and white Ayrshires, Dutch Belteds, and other Jerseys like Firefly. They rub their noses against us, let us pet their powerful bodies, and blink their long eyelashes at us. When we start walking back toward the path, they gradually move apart from each other and set back to munching on the grasses that their four stomachs will turn into foods humans can digest–milk and meat.

Photo by Worrill Campbell

We make our final stop next to the milk tank, where we fill the four glass jars we brought with milk the cows gave just this morning. This is “raw” milk: unpasteurized, unhomogenized, and containing no additives or preservatives. Vermont allows farmers to sell a certain quantity of raw milk directly to consumers each year, but it is illegal to sell unpasteurized milk on most store shelves throughout the United States. Pasteurization (heating to a particular temperature for a specified length of time) kills off any bacteria that may be present in the milk, but also zaps some harmless bacteria that may be beneficial to the digestive system. Many people who have become accustomed to drinking raw milk say they detect a “cooked” flavor in pasteurized milk, as well.Any milk labeled “UHT (ultra-high temperature) Pasteurized” has had any trace of life cooked out of it, and will not curdle into yogurt or cheese no matter what you do to it. Most organic milk sold in stores, unfortunately, falls into this category. It doesn’t move off the shelves as quickly as cheaper, conventional milk, and is therefore processed to ensure a longer shelf life.

I notice a pronounced difference in the flavors of milk from pastured cattle as opposed to corn-fed cattle (many conventional (non-organic) dairies feed their cows a mixture of corn, grain, and a variety of waste by-products), which tastes much weaker to me, but haven’t drunk enough raw milk to compare. However, I need all the probiotics (good bacteria) I can get for successful culturing into yogurt and cheese, so I am thrilled to have such a convenient source of raw milk nearby. Thanks to Mark, Sarah, and David, and especially to Firefly and her herdmates for sharing!

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Gusto has a temporary new home on an organic farm in rural Vermont, where I will be spending the next six weeks learning how to coax fruits and vegetables from the ground. As a lover of food and a proponent of sustainable agriculture, I felt I needed some practical experience with dirt and a shovel under my belt in order to earn my right to write, so to speak. I found my host Elizabeth through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), an organization that has connected hippies, foodies, travelers, and gluttons for punishment with the farmers who love them since the 1970s.

I arrived by train in the nearby town of Castleton yesterday evening, where Elizabeth and her German shepherd Taiga were waiting to pick me up. There was not a single stoplight on the 20-minute drive from the tiny lodge-like train station to the farm (though Elizabeth claims the one blinking light in the center of town counts), but there were plenty of hayfields, birch trees, and cows. The other summer intern, Worrill, was just finishing mixing up a bowl of gingersnap cookie dough when we lurched through the screen door hauling my 60-pound suitcase, guitar, and sundry other possessions. After a bowl of steaming lentil soup with a couple of slices of sourdough bread and a generous glass of red wine, I was ready for bed.

I began my slow ascent up a steep learning curve this morning, when Elizabeth gave me my first task: weeding the cold frames where lettuce, chard, beets, peas, and various herbs were lounging in varying stages of growth and decay. Cold frames are basically large bottomless boxes set on the ground with windows on top that gardeners use to trap sunlight and set plants to growing before they would be able to survive in the bare ground. After the chills of spring have passed, the windows are removed and the plants allowed to soak up the summer sun on their own. As it turns out, telling real plants from weeds is not always easy: Elizabeth spotted me about to yank a spindly English pea seedling from the ground just in time to save the young legume’s life.

Weeding was followed by watering a bed of asparagus, onion, and beet seeds while trying to keep thirsty Taiga from trampling the garden in her pursuit of hose water. Then came pulling up spent lettuce plants, chard plants gone to seed, with roots so thick they resembled a small tree, and old cilantro plants now covered in coriander seed that we will dry and save for future recipes.

After lunch on the porch, I chopped up all those old plants into pieces to throw onto other beds as “food” for new growth. We transplanted tiny butternut squash seedlings from seed trays into a freshly prepared bed, then covered the ground around them with water-logged cardboard and decomposing straw bales to keep weeds from growing. These materials will further decompose as the sun, rain, and worms work their magic over time, producing new soil for future plantings. If you have ever wondered what to feed a worm, try cardboard: every time we lifted a piece that had been lying on the ground for weeks, at least 10 earthworms squirmed beneath it.

Then we made “germinating mix” by combining horse manure compost with food waste compost, peat, and aged sawdust in a wheelbarrow. We mounded rows of this soil inside prepared cold frame beds, and finished the day by planting each row with seeds that will eventually grow into beets, green beans, carrots, arugula, escarole, mesclun, and chard (these last four are all different types of leafy greens). There is a 99% chance of rain tomorrow, so we didn’t bother to water them: the clouds will take care of that for us.

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This post is a little outside of my typical vein, but I think that readers might have some interesting comments on these questions that I’m curious to hear. I’ll be leading a discussion of the book Closing the Food Gap: Resetting America’s Table by Mark Winne tomorrow at the first Slow Food DC Book Club meeting. Below are several questions that I’ve drawn from the book to spur our discussion. You don’t have to have read the book to have an opinion on them, so post a comment and let us know what you think!

 

1. Winne points out many reasons why people in low-income communities tend to have unhealthy diets, namely lack of access to high-quality supermarkets in urban areas (“food deserts”), proliferation of fast food outlets and convenience stores serving unhealthy food in these areas, little money to purchase more expensive, nutrient-dense food, the common tendency among people who live in a state of food insecurity to binge eat when food is available, etc. However, he also acknowledges that individual dietary choices play a role, as well. “Is the responsibility for what one consumes…the person’s responsibility or that of society, culture, advertising, the calculating hand of capitalism, or a host of environmental factors over which we have little control?”

2. “In lower-income communities, lower education levels and the lack of healthy food choices make households easy targets for fast food’s messages, images, and hidden persuaders.” Do you see this as a problem? What can or should be done about it? Should junk food/fast food advertising in schools and/or on TV be regulated or banned?

3. “Fast food consumption has increased an alarming fivefold since 1970….In the classic struggle between supply and demand, one could argue that the industry is only expanding to keep pace with demand. The Children’s Hospital study’s findings, however, suggest that the increase in demand is more likely due to the increase in the number of fast-food restaurants and the amount of fast-food marketing.” What do you think? (Which came first, the chicken or the egg?)

4. In the Hartford, CT public school system, Winne says, the average student received 4 hours of health-related instruction per year, covering nutrition, drugs, alcohol, sex. etc. “How and where were young people supposed to develop the skills they needed to make critical judgments about their food choices when they were assaulted by a well-armed, well-financed junk food industry?” Would more health education in school make a difference? What other measures could help young people make positive food choices?

5. One charge that Winne heard leveled at farmers’ markets that had been created in hopes of helping to close the food gap was that they quickly become “just another entertainment venue for the privileged class.” How do you think DC’s farmers’ markets would hold up against this complaint? Is it valid? How can this tendency be combated?

6. What steps have been taken in Washington, DC to combat the “food gap”? How well do community gardens, farmers’ markets, grocery stores, and CSAs serve our city’s low income community? Can Slow Food DC help improve community food security in our region? If so, how?

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