Farmers and Farms


(Some photos may be unpleasant for some readers. Please just look at the words.)

 

“And there’s a chance that things’ll get weird.
Yeah, that’s a possibility. “

I sat up in bed and took a look at the clock across the room. The time read 8:45 AM, not an early hour by any measure, but after an early morning shift of 4 AM the day before and followed by an afternoon of travel to the farm, it came earlier than expected.

The whiskey drinking the night before didn’t help.

“I’ve already done a couple of chickens. I probably have about four more to do if you want to take part.”

I got out of bed, put some pants on over my longjohns, along with my balaclava, or as I had been calling it, “the executioner’s hood”. Covering my eyes with sunglasses, I had not an inch of skin exposed as I stumbled out to the barn.

My friend on the farm had gotten up a couple hours earlier sharing my same hangover, sent the kids off to school, and let the chickens out into the barnyard. Tucked away on the side of the barn away from the pasture was the stump, shielding a spray of blood across the previous night’s snowfall from the eyes of the ladies laying eggs.

IMG_3569

This is it. I’m really going to do this, am I?

We walked into the henhouse and picked a sizeable Brown Leghorn from the flock, a 20 week old male destined from the beginning as a meatbird without rooster potential. There was a certain far-off look in the farmer’s eyes as he brought it to the stump, put its head between two nails, and took a single swing with his machete. It was done.

Except that it wasn’t. Head off and onto the ground, he maintained firm grip on the bird and held it along the far side of the stump as it flapped and bled out. It must have taken a good 30 seconds to a minute. It wasn’t pleasant.

We had discussed this over the previous weeks leading up to this event, even joked about it. The eventual consensus on ‘the act’ was that one person involved in discussion had no desire to kill a chicken, another had allegedly no problem with it, and I was somewhere in the middle. I stated my case for filling in wherever needed, as I know my way around knives and dead animals. I’ve visited a few slaughterhouses, and when the idea of being an assist on a Chickening was posed, it was something I felt strongly enough about to offer my assistance.

“You want to try your hand at one?”

***

I work in a model that is at its core “promoting a more sustainable and humane way to raise animals for human consumption.” What I so often see are women in fur coats looking to start an argument because we’re out of grass- fed beef tenderloin, or men who only like ‘the flat part’ of the chicken wing but estimate that they could eat about 30 of them. God help us for the Super Bowl. Despite the fact that we are acting as somewhat responsible stewards for our food, where it comes from and how we present it to our customers, there remains a fundamental disconnect between people who have the privilege of shopping at a premium and where their food actually comes from.

Why is it so expensive? Do they really feel good about buying a chicken for 6 dollars? What good does it do for them if we trim the miniscule fat line off of their boneless skinless chicken breast? The services that we offer as butchers do not always bring them closer to enjoying a quality, well-raised product but instead give customers license to, for lack of a more apt term, shake and bake. They ask you to package their meat so they don’t have to touch it, and all they have to do is take hold of one clean corner of your butcher paper package and unfurl with a flourish as their meat goes directly into a pan. You can tell who they are. They ask for the plastic bag around their butcher paper. They handle their packages by the corner like they’re reluctantly picking up their pet’s refuse. That’s not me. The more interesting the cut, I’ll be there. If you have a heritage pig, I want to eat it. If there’s a steak that looks fantastic and you can tell me about its breed and lineage? I want to eat that steak.

***

Back at the barn, I made the decision not to slaughter my own. The easy out is to say that I didn’t want to miss and have to retry, but it’s easier to say that I don’t think I had it in me. At the slaughterhouse, despite their outward casual approach, nobody takes their job lightly. With a healthy dose of understanding and in some instances reserved compassion, those involved realize that there’s a job to be done.

“This isn’t really my favorite part, either,” said my friend.

***

The Birds

The Birds

It wasn’t that I was never going to eat meat again, but my thoughts and feelings on the matter of slaughter fell on my meat case when I walked back into work the following Tuesday. As we slaughtered, scalded, plucked, eviscerated and hung our chickens to age, I came to the realization that even with a combination of a seasoned farmer and a skilled knifeman at a table, it’s hard work to process a chicken. Granted, on that morning it was 16 degrees Fahrenheit, but it wasn’t a small task. For six chickens, we spent close to an hour between the water pot and the table, plucking, dipping, replucking, spot checking, gutting. I came into this thinking that there would be a little fun, as it’s something new to add to my repertoire as a butcher. Fun ended up being the last word I would use to describe it.

Cold. Difficult. Morbid. Contemplative.

The Scalder

The Scalder

That was just the smallest part of it, too. My involvement in the fabrication of these chickens represented a drop in the bucket of what it took to raise them- the three times daily feedings, mending of electric fences, constant corraling and egg collecting. For what? In monetary terms, were these grocery store chickens, the most we could hope to get for them would be 12 dollars.

There’s the rub. 20 week chickens dressed out at 2-2.5 pounds. They were beautiful. They had full coats of majestic brown plumage, young combs, lean legs and breasts, but at best, they were being raised for a pittance. For chicken feed.

Over the next couple of days, conversation came back around to the chickens, to the industrial meat complex, and how things have gone so wrong. How people seek out a chicken without caring about the breed, how chicken is chicken and it’s all created equal.

Chicken is like bananas. You go to the store, and you find something that you like. You point at it, you pick it up, you buy it. You purchase and prepare knowing that every chicken is going to taste like chicken, or at least your idea of what a chicken tastes like. Why do all bananas taste the same? They are one variety- Cavendish. Why do all grocery store chickens taste nearly identical? They’re bred that way, to be the fastest growing, most efficient broadbreasted varieties that the smallest amount of money can buy- the Cornish Rock Cross. 16

As opposed to heritage breeds of chicken, (i.e. Leghorn, Orpington, Rhode Island Red/White), Cornish Rock meat chickens put on weight at a much faster rate than any other commercially available breed, making it an efficient yet generic choice for large scale industrial chicken producers. For the Perdue and Tyson giants, they have further hybridized this breed with their own genetic experiments- in the case of Tyson, with a chicken known as the “Cobb 500”, developed by one of their scientists around 30 years ago. Whereas in 1950, a fully matured broiler chicken would be ready for processing at 16 weeks, a commercial Tyson or Perdue chicken takes 6-8 weeks, with a case-dressed weight of 5-6 pounds.

Furthermore, as these chickens are raised in the industrial system, they are genetically bred with an inherent lack of attention to their physical being. They have plump livers and hearts that begin failing at 10 weeks due to rises in stress and adrenaline, but since they slaughter them at eight, that doesn’t matter, right?

Lastly, it’s monoculture. I’m not a scientist, nor am I an expert on anything, but along with lack of attention to biodiversity comes the revelation that we’re depleting our planet of the amazing natural plant and animal resources it produces, and doing so in a manner that shows utter disregard for the history and integrity of breeds of life that have existed for thousands, many times even millions of years. Seeing firsthand what a banana plantation looks like, with deep culverts and well worn gullies, and cornfields awash with half the topsoil of 50 years ago, it’s apparent that the well worn traditions of crop rotation and fertilization have fallen prey to Roundup ready hybridized varietals and salted earth cesspools of excreta where nothing will ever grow again.

***

We took the headless chickens on their last walk, so to speak, over to the scalding pot steaming by the side of the garage. A few quick dips and the feathers were loosened just enough to be wiped off or easily plucked, but it was the pinfeathers, those little quills the size of a sliver under your fingernails, that proved to be the bane of our collective existence. With the garage door open for easy access to the scalder, we stuck it out for a good ten minutes per bird, plucking, assessing, replucking, and taking our time getting the last of the nagging little bits out from under the skin. The plucked feathers stuck to the table, now covered in a sheen of blood and ice, and the minor moisture accumulated on my fingers, coupled with the temperature and windchill, left me numb, but we had a job to do.

Plucking Chickens

Plucking Chickens

An hour after the kill, we had plucked and dressed our birds, the residual tableslime to be dealt with at a later date. A neat little bowl of gizzards, livers and hearts and a plastic bag of heads and feet headed up the corners of the table, and we brought the birds in for a final bleed out in the sink.

Still not pleasant.

***

What about the killing of a chicken do I take issue with? It’s obviously a life, that of which we should consider every time we sit down to eat. I asked a friend, lifelong farm kid and backyard chicken farmer, how he reconciles the decision to kill a chicken. It seems that unless one is professionally involved, no thought is given to how that product came to be on their table. Although firm in his conviction that if a person is not ready to kill and prepare their own chicken, they probably should reconsider how often they eat meat if at all, he also brought up the more accessible viewpoint, one that I’m accepting of while at the same time coming to terms with my own ability to handle and process a live animal:

This chicken was born to sustain life. If we didn’t eat chickens, they wouldn’t be here in the first place…they’d have long gone extinct. In fact, the very existence of the domesticated chicken would have never happened had we not selectively bred them for centuries. Chickens exist to be eaten. If we suddenly stopped eating them, they would be relegated to zoos, fighting arenas, and a few people who find them to be excellent pets. Millions and millions of birds would die, and there would be none to take their place. A chicken’s sole function on planet earth is to lay eggs and then be eaten, both of which sustain life on this planet to a great extent.

Good point, there. At home, I don’t eat a lot of meat, but more and more I find myself with compelling reasons to become critically aware about what I eat. The meat that I do eat, I eat the majority of at work, where some of it is actually better for the environment (wild caught and sustainably harvested seafood) and to a lesser extent the barnyard meats. When I do eat meat from a commercial setting, I vote with with my wallet for what I want to see on my dinner plate. My favorite restaurants are those that have relationships with their farmers (Chicago’s Nightwood, to name one). Still, I find that for the future of food and what I can eat to promote a model for eating that sustains and nourishes me, with the ready access to farmer’s markets and fresh food, cutting out the middleman seems to be the best option.

***

The topic of conversation came around to the education of consumers in terms of what it takes to bring something like this to the table. You can walk into any grocery store and pick up a 6 dollar chicken, but through the process of procuring my own, I decided that I can’t in good conscience buy one. Granted, with volume comes ways to save money, but coupled with genetic engineering/large scale crossbreeding, it’s not a decision that was made with the customer in mind. Solely a business move, the idea behind the Cobb 500 was to maximize profits while moving commodities through the machine at a clip as fast as can be processed by human or machine.

So I come back to work, as I mentioned before, conflicted. Although we offer some higher end varieties of meat products, it’s the price point for most that steers them away from buying a pasture raised chicken. As we as employees are given the autonomy to promote sustainable practices and the highest quality food that the market will dictate, we’re allowed to tell the story and sample anything. Lately, I’ve been into telling the story of our pasture raised chickens, and encouraging people to try them as a whole bird rather than simply as a boneless, skinless option. They’re leaner than a conventional broiler, sometimes weighing in at 2.5-3# as opposed to 3.5-4. They’re still broadbreasted, so they look a little different than the chickens we ate down on the farm, but the taste is on the way back to what a good bird should taste like.

A beauty, ready to go

A beauty, ready to go

***

Two and a half days after butchering our chickens, we all gathered around the table for dinner. There was a giant bowl of mashed potatoes from the co-op, a green salad, and two platters full of half chickens that had been smoked on the grill. As opposed to your regulation size birds with the big boobs and bulbous thighs and drumsticks, these halves filled a plate with a little bit of spillover onto the placemat. Lean, long legs and a clean thin bit of breast meat, and a skin that was crispy with a flavor that was more than fat. The meat was moist and deceptively tender for how little fat was on these birds. The conversation died down, surprisingly after the weekend we’d had, and had I been listening, I would have only heard the odd lipsmacks and chompachompchomps of people enjoying a dinner. Together. The potatoes didn’t come out of a box. We had some leftover gravy from the last night’s turkey dinner. The dressing was, in fact, made in house, and was delicious. The chicken was amazing, not just for its flavor, but because I finally got to see and begin to understand what it means to work hard to put dinner on the table. Everything was how it should be.

***

I’ve wrestled with a lot of the words and thoughts over the week and a half since I went for a visit to the chicken farm. I didn’t want to make it seem like I took anything lightly, so I ran a lot of my thoughts by my friend, who had this to say. I think it sums it up nicely.

 

All I wanted to offer was the opportunity… It’s a hard thing to witness and a hard thing to do. But it does add to one’s understanding, doesn’t it? You already “knew” what is involved, but now you KNOW, and there is a difference.

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This week has been a whirlwind of activity. I’ve had some great meals, and certainly done some things that have I’ve been personally impressed with in the kitchen. Things in the kitchen come about because of a desire and a need to come up with something that will taste good and also feed a crowd.

As I mentioned in my last post, two mothers came to town this last Wednesday. My mom came down for the day from Madison to Chicago, and in preparation, she called up and asked what she could bring.

“I have some wonderful vegetables from my garden, including three beautiful Cherokee Purple tomatoes that you gave me. I could bring those, and some fresh mozzarella, and some sweet corn, and some…”

The list went on. She ended up bringing down all the above, as well as fresh chard from her garden, which I used in a frittata this morning, some herbs that I made into oils, some beautiful edible nasturtiums, and a lovely little basil plant. The hit, of course, were her tomatoes.

A couple of months ago, through the G.E.E.E. project at Hyde Park Art Center, we picked up a few red solo cup tomato plants, and sent one home with my sister for my mom to transplant in her garden. Planting it in her garden, she recently harvested the first bounty of three gigantic tomatoes from the plant. Where ours have languished in the off and on heat from the summer, her transplants have flourished and provided us with a fresh and delicious caprese salad that we enjoyed on her visit.

As she sliced into the tomatoes, I heard a gasp. I ran over to see if she had cut herself, as she’s used to knives much less sharp than those in my kitchen (her words, not mine). No, it wasn’t that. Looking at the first slice of tomato was a glorious sight. I marveled as slice after slice peeled off from the fruit, and I snacked on the top, sweet and juicy like a tomato should be.

We cooked in the kitchen for a couple hours. She paused to read a little bit, and joined me in shucking a dozen ears of corn that she had brought down from a friend’s local farmstand. The day was hot, in the 90s as it had been all week, and as we had a few hours to kill before the rest of our party came over, I figured I’d have some time to make a chilled sweet corn soup.

Good sweet corn is one of the best things you can have during the summertime. From the first time this season that I had a sweet corn broth this summer on Martha’s Vineyard, I wanted to continue celebrating the simple flavor of the season with little complication.

Rather than boil the corn and serve it on the cob, I sliced the kernels off the cobs, and then simmered the cobs themselves for 45 minutes in water. In a separate pan, I put some onions in to sweat with a bit of salt and pepper, and added a splash or two of white wine to bring out the aromas.

When the cob broth was producing a fragrance of its own, I removed the cobs and threw twelve ears worth of kernels into the pot. After a minute or two, really all the cooking that corn needed, I pureed it, and then strained out the matter directly over the onions.

I checked the clock. About two hours until everyone arrived. Reserving the corn matter for a later dish of fritters, I turned the heat of the large stockpot to high, and did the quick reduction method between two pots. After the giant ball of steam died down from the first transfer, I pureed then strained the now floral broth back into the sizzling saucepan and let it reduce for about twenty minutes until it was ready for a mounting of butter and addition of salt and pepper.

Tasting it when it was warm, I got a sweet, candylike flavor, but I also got the simple flavor of buttered popcorn. I poured it into a vessel to chill and let it sit in the fridge until the remainder of our dining party arrived.

Wandering the produce aisles at my Whole Foods, they always have the list of fruits that are organic, and the number of things that are local. It’s a big number, but most of the time when I look, they’re grown in California, Mexico, or a far off land.

The other day, I was searching for Asparagus. I know it’s the season, but I haven’t seen any local stuff in the store. I know it’s a huge undertaking for the region, with 30 odd stores, to supply fresh locally sourced asparagus to meet the demand, but it’s not impossible.

I saw peaches. I’m pretty sure that they aren’t in season right now, but it’s also difficult to remember, as when I was in Seattle, everything was always in season. Around this time of year, you could get that fresh asparagus, the tulips that grew in the Skagit Valley just north of us, and the beginnings of some berries.

This past week, we went to a Memorial Day pig roast, and I had pickled garlic spears (scapes) for the first time since we moved back to the Midwest. Where did they come from? How does one get them? If we’re otherwise occupied with work during either the 9 to 5, or for me, on weekends during prime market time, where does one go to get those things?

Here’s a list of things I’m looking forward to:

Radishes

Tomatoes

Fresh Herbs

Berries

Asparagus

Greens of any kind

Beets

Maybe a good dozen eggs from somewhere closeby.

I guess in the end, it’s not so difficult. There are farms around here. You just have to find the time to explore your neighborhood markets, or make the effort to venture out just a little further than your everyday grocery store. For the majority of things, my store gets it done. When I want to be inspired by stacks of produce alone, I’m going to the Farmer’s Market.

This week, the Pilsen Local Community Farmers’ Market starts up. As I don’t get a chance to get to my old standby of the Madison market, or even the Green City, I’m excited to at least go and look at what they’ve got available this Sunday. It might not be the widest selection of produce, but at least I can get a good grasp of what I should be eating. I want it to be fresh, and I want it to taste as good as it looks.

I lied. This part isn’t going to be pretty. It’s guts, and it’s blood, and it’s necessary. It’s just what I need to do to process the whole thing. If you don’t have the stomach, please don’t keep reading.

(if you haven’t read part 1, it’s right here)

The fact of the matter is that this is a slaughterhouse. A SLAUGHTER HOUSE. For however much we want to be treated with kid gloves, it’s a place where animals come to die. With that said, let’s get to the task at hand.

***

We stood in the receiving area, a cold floor with tracks lining the ceiling above us. Through a set of double doors was the kill floor, a maze of stations where it was the job of one person to do one specific task- tying the legs, removing the hooves, and yes, one guy for doing the deed. I’d visited a veal slaughterhouse a few years back when I was in school, but they weren’t slaughtering that day. Today, as I mentioned in the last post, they were doing the Halal live slaughter.

We were called in, ten at a time, and walked along the wall as we passed by a giant pressure wash conveyor belt filled with removed viscera. At the end of the line, they were dumped into a giant stainless wheelbarrow where they were then transported to yet another conveyor. There, they were separated into edible and inedible portions, wherein they were boxed and trucked out for use in different industries. The edible portions, parts such as tongues and livers, were shipped out to various markets and restaurants around the area where they would be no doubt made into patés and terrines, resold to people for exorbitant prices, which these days is justified by the amount of effort it takes to poach, puree, bake, set, and slice into a palatable dish. Yesterday’s offal has been transformed into tomorrow’s haute cuisine. In any other culture, the stomach would be rinsed and stuffed for haggis, and where many people believe that the hide and wool would be used for blankets, sweaters and jackets, the most profitable use of the hides is to utilize them as paint rollers. It might not be the most glamorous of ways to use the animal, but every part serves a purpose. The intestines are flushed, rinsed, salted and tubed, and used for casing when I make sausage.

We hugged the back wall as the fabrication line passed us by. A corpulent and silent man was hoofing the carcass as it rolled by, looking purposed in his work but cautiously detached from the nature of his business. With each hoof, he tossed it with a no look pass into the trashbin behind him.

The man before him hooked the tied forequarters to a t-bar, which he then raised to the ceiling tracks. The man before him was the one in charge of attaching the ties to the legs. Before that, the workers were removing the hides.

Five at a time, we were called back to the area where they were performing the ritual slaughter. As someone in the industry, this is something that I needed to see. I didn’t have to see it, but in order to understand what it takes to put dinner on the table, it was necessary.

The area itself was a narrow alley. In the back, next to the stunning machine, there was a small pen of sheep. One by one, they were attached by the back leg and hoisted up to about ten feet, so their necks were in line with the chest of the man doing the killing. We were in line with his actions, and as he prepared, in accordance of the Halal ritual of slaughter, he whispered a short prayer and cradled the head of the animal in his arms. With a quick and deep incision, the job was done, and the animal was dead.

Here’s the thing: It’s up for debate as to which method of slaughter is more humane for the animal. All meat that is certified by the USDA must be killed with a bolt, a quick stun to the base of the skull that severs the nervous response between the brain and the body. Virtually the same result is achieved with Halal, as the slaughter method is designed to both honor the animal in the name of the Lord and minimize suffering by a swift severing of the carotid artery. In both of these methods, exsanguination is the cause of death. The knife must not be sharpened in the presence of the animal to cause undue agitation, and the name of Allah must be spoken by a member of the Muslim faith as the animal is killed, for in that religion, the Creator is the granter and taker of life.

As we watched, it was done with before the animal had a chance to suffer. Despite the mettle it took for the man with the knife to perform this action day in and day out, he reserved a quiet connection with each animal he slaughtered as he was able to remain calm emotionally invested yet at peace.

***
I’m going to take a time out here for a minute, as this is a lot to read through for those who aren’t used to finding out about where their meat comes from. I don’t mean to be vulgar, and I don’t mean to be crass, callous or uncaring in my description of this process. This is how it is. For most, the idea of a slaughterhouse is unappetizing, as we prefer our meat sterile and without a face, but for those who work on a farm, this is nothing new. I’ve met so many people who have grown up on farms or around animals where this is their routine. If you make a conscious decision to eat meat, an animal is going to have to get killed. On a farm, there’s a good chance that eventually, you’ll have to be the one faced with the impending mortality of an animal. It’s matter of fact. With the live slaughter of animals, you need to treat them as if their lives meant something, if not to you, than to those who worked hard to raise them. For many, if they don’t kill the animal, they don’t eat. Or their family doesn’t get paid. It’s not a choice for them. It’s not even a livelihood. If you own chickens, they fertilize the soil while pecking at bugs and other farmland creatures. This, in turn, gets the grass to grow. The grazers come along, eat the grass, fertilize the soil, which, when tilled, becomes the base for an eventual bountiful crop. These days, pasture is replaced with monocultured commodity corn, and livestock that was allowed to roam is now in a feedlot, miles from wherever the edibles may be. We’re getting better with our awareness of heirloom varieties of vegetables that taste like vegetables should taste, grass fed beef and cage free hens, to name a few. Still, not everyone has access to these. Some live in food deserts, and some merely don’t have the resources, either time or monetary, to eat this way all the time. If you choose to eat meat, eat good meat. Eat something that has been raised on a farm, or buy it from somebody who has knowledge of the slaughter or where the animal or vegetable was raised. Smaller is better. Know where your food comes from.

Despite the fact that this plant slaughters, on an average day, 1300 lamb, it is something that a handful of people can do in a shift. It is not a lowlying, faceless kill floor in the middle of nowhere. The largest slaughterhouse in the nation is Smithfield Pork Producers, in Tarheel, North Carolina. With over 5,000 workers,  they employ 100 times the labor that I saw working the lamb line. This mass production of poorly raised, ill-groomed meat is why when I do buy meat, I stay away from what I don’t know. The smaller the operation, the more control they have over the quality of meat and caliber of the workforce who they employ. On family farms, it’s even simpler. Fewer people in the mix equal better quality control, and a better understanding of how meat is supposed to be handled and raised.
***

I think that’s what I got out of this. If you’re going to eat meat, know where it comes from. Know that with smaller purveyors and a decent amount of care, the quality of the meat you choose to purchase and prepare will ultimately be higher. With those who put a face on the actions necessary to bring your food to the table, whether it be animal or vegetable, comes the knowledge that what you’ve chosen to eat and purchase was at one point an organism of the earth. Seeing this process from start to finish has given me a further appreciation of where my food comes from and the effort it takes to make it presentable.

Respect what you eat. Respect the jobs of those who raise your food, and those who do the things that you won’t. When you eat your chicken tonight, or your hamburger helper, or even your vegetable burger, know that all of these things came from somewhere, and if you’re buying it from a market, that it took the labor of many hands and the fortitude of many workers to provide you with dinner. Your dinner took a lot longer to make than the thirty minutes it took to cook it on your stove. No matter what you choose to nourish yourself with, know that it came from the earth, and in the name of whomever raised it for you, it’s there to fill you up. Don’t take your food for granted. It took a lot of work to get it to your table.

That’s the whole story.

Taking a little breather here between courses. A friend recently started a blog and website for his farm in Southern Indiana, Ghostwood Farm. 

In addition to being awesomely named, it’s a working chemical free farm that began running test crops in 2011, and will be up and running with laying and meat chickens for 2012, as well as set crops of asparagus, melons, corn, and a bunch of other excellent produce.

How do I know it will be excellent? In addition to being a no-nonsense place where barnyard animals can coexist in the acreage with crops and wildlife, it’s run by a couple of hard working environmental scientists who actually care about what they raise, how they raise it, and their relationship with nature and how it affects what they choose to share with the public and their own family in terms of food.

Over at the website, read Adam’s first blog post.  It’s contemplative, articulate, and thought provoking. A lot of questions have been asked of me to show where the food comes from, and how it gets the way it does. I can do it a little bit, but Adam is your guy for this. Study up. With blogging, he’s just starting out, but I see good things coming from both the blog and the farm.

Also, check out their page on Facebook. Become a fan, and keep abreast of everything happening down on the farm.

A Continuation of  Straight from the Vine(yard) pt. 1

***

Where were we? Ah, yes. About to make a dinner. This was the bounty that we had to work with:

It was quite bounteous, the bounty

If I get stuff at the Farmer’s Market, as a general rule, I don’t mess with it too much. The salad that we made really didn’t need a whole lot of fancy bells, so we spun the greens, chopped up some snap peas, and incorporated some fresh herbs in there. We had picked up a Maple Balsamic Vinaigrette at the market, with which we lightly dressed the salad. We sliced a loaf of french bread, boiled the potatoes and tossed them with a chive compound butter, and grilled the scapes with a simple olive oil, salt and pepper coating.

With the fish, I really didn’t want to mess with it at all. I patted it dry and took it out of the fridge, salting and peppering the skin and the flesh. In one of the cupboards, we found some cedar planks, so those were soaked, and within an hour, we had loaded our simple fish, topped with fresh dill, and put them on the grill.

Over a lower flame, for about fifteen minutes, the fish cooked on the covered grill. By the time the smoke wafted in to the kitchen, everyone was ready to eat. Granted, we had been snacking on smoked bluefish spread the entire time, but we were ready to sit down and enjoy a great meal together.

The Madre had made a sangria with bits of rhubarb, which was chilly and refreshing, and with a toast to a wonderful day on the town and a surely lovely evening to come, we ate. As people who have had a delicious dinner are prone to do, we then played the hit game, Apples to Apples.

The next morning, we took a drive across the island to the scenic (aren’t they all scenic towns on MV? Here, I’ll answer for you. Yes. Yes, they are) Edgartown, one of the oldest whaling ports on the Eastern Seaboard. All of the houses lining the marina were glorious Captain’s residences appointed with picket fences, rose gardens and Widow’s Walks. We bought ice cream and cupcakes along the way, and as the sun slumped lower in the sky, we walked out to the lighthouse, one of a handful on the island, with a history that went back to the days of Mickey Rooney as Lampy in the wondrous tale of Pete’s Dragon. (That was a documentary, right?)

One of many shingled houses in Edgartown

Thankfully, no Whaling wives were walking on our self-guided tour.

Uncle Greg and the Lighthouse Attendant, looking at something important.

We came back to the house that evening, with boutique cupcakes in tow, and had some Grandma’s Pizza trucked in from Long Island. I’ve never had a pizza called that other than out on the East Coast, and it turns out to be a Long Island staple that over the last years, has made its way into and been co-opted by Brooklyn pizzerias. It’s a rustic, Sicilian style pizza, topped with olive oil, crushed tomatoes, chopped garlic, and a smattering of mozzarella cheese. So, yeah. Old style. Great for reheating, and gives the family from Long Island a little nostalgic flavor of home. Pretty good stuff.

The next day, we spent some time on the beach, far away from the prying eyes of high society, wherein we collected rocks and bits of shells, sunned ourselves (the setting of “roast” on the sun is a degree of doneness that my Midwestern Scandinavian skin will gladly accommodate), and schlepped back to the house for some salad, cheeses, iced tea, pasta, grilled leftover vegetables, and smoked fish. As Aunt Carol put it, “nobody on the island is eating like us right now”, and to be honest, I had to agree with her.

The next morning, we woke up and took ourselves for a day in Oak Bluffs. We walked among the shops, picking up a couple knickknacks and gewgaws along the way. as we were waiting for our dinner reservations at a local brewpub, Uncle Greg and I took a quick walking tour of the Methodist campgrounds, an early settlement of picturesque “gingerbread houses”. Originally, small lots were leased for Methodist retreats during the summertime, and over time, the empty lots were replaced by these tiny but intricately detailed summer homes of which over 300 exist today.

Also, while we were waiting, we made our way past the oldest operating carousel in the United States, complete with a Brass Ring. Granted, the horses looked like this:

and if that wasn’t enough, there was this other reminder of childhood ambition gone wrong:

but just as Something Wicked that way Came, something Big was around the corner.

It was a delicious dinner at the local brewpub. We had two woodfired pizzas, delicious fresh calamari with a spicy remoulade, and the best fish and chips either of us had ever eaten. I’ve eaten a lot of fish and chips in my day, and this was the freshest, simplest, lightest fried cod I’ve tasted. When you eat a steak, a lot of times, overall success of the steak eating experience is gauged on toughness, flavor, and degree of doneness, but rarely freshness. A sear on the outside and cooking anywhere over a medium will mask whatever freshness the steak is lacking fairly well. With fish, though, it’s easily identified, as for lack of a better term, the aroma will tell you straight away what’s fresh and what’s not. Most people, as smell is a huge part of sensing and enjoying a meal, never get past the initial whiff of a dish as it comes to the table, as fish is consistently served in landlocked areas at less than ideal freshness. For this reason, fish in the Midwest is ordered more seldom, mostly because of the smell. I wonder, then, knowing that fish can indeed arrive to the Midwest at almost optimal freshness, just how many pieces of prime seafood sit in someone’s walk-in cooler because people have been turned off by the smell.

The fish here smelled like nothing other than the waves lapping at the beach. Breaking into it to let out the steam, still, nothing was too overbearing. After that, the flavor of the fish, needing nothing so much as even a squeeze of lemon, left me feeling fully satisfied.

Our last day was spent at an Alpaca farm, where we walked through barns filled with animals that looked and smelled like both hipsters and how we’d imagine Falkor from the Neverending Story to present himself.

Hipster

Falkor

We petted them, picked up some hats and woolen items for friends and family, despite our judgment for winterwear being clouded by the 90 degree heat, and moved back to the house for a day at the beach.

That night, we went back to Vineyard Haven, home of the Ferry Terminal and Carly Simon’s Midnight Farm shoppe, for dinner. We walked around the town, saw the famous Black Dog tavern, and wound down the evening with burgers and a march along the side streets, pondering an idyllic life among the tourists and locals.

The next morning, I packed up my gear and went back to the airport for a flight back to Chicago in time for work the next morning at six A.M. The lady, staying with the family in Connecticut for another five days, dropped me off at the terminal on her way back to the ferry, and away I flew through the clouds.

Martha’s Vineyard is a delight. If you’re not in the thick of tourists wading around looking for Ice Creams and Island hot spots, you realize that time slows down, and you can actually relax under a sky of blue and a sea of green and also blue. If you ever go, take it slow. Enjoy your time away from the city, and go as far off the map as your vacation can take you. Sometimes staying at the far tip of an island can feel like you’re at the end of the world, ready to fall off into the ocean. Just remember that if you fall in, there’s still room to enjoy yourself. 

Maybe not straight from the vineyard. I have found that it’s best to write about an event immediately following said event, for things, they do get muddled in the ether after days or weeks of swimming.

There was a trip to be had this summer, and it was to the East Coast. Typically, me and the lady, we spend a week or so out in New England with family. With this year being a milestone birthday for her mother, we were invited to spend a week with them on scenic Martha’s Vineyard. While we’ve spent some time in Connecticut, and while I’ve done my time in New York City, I’ve never made it to Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, or the upper coast of New England. Most of my time was spent on the sunny, sandy, unspoiled beaches of Rehobeth and Fenwick Island, Delaware. Unfortunately, according to sources from back East where we used to go, they no longer resemble the quiet beachfront communities of my youth.

You’re lucky to get a towel down anywhere within sight of the water.

Now, Martha’s Vineyard, always a tourist destination, had a couple of things going for it. First, we went in late June. It’s not quite high season yet, but we were starting to feel it. Second, instead of staying down-island in the bustling towns of Vineyard Haven or Oak Bluffs, we were far removed, situated in the up-island community of Aquinnah.

It’s pretty far away from everything

As I said, I’d never been there before, and there was only so much time to take in all the sights and flavors of the island, so after our flight landed and we had a lovely drink on the porch, we headed out for dinner at Lola’s, a beachfront restaurant with live music, dancing, and large portions of Southern food and drink. Late into the evening, we ate, drank, and were merry, alongside a birthday portion of key-lime pie and a dance from the elderly owner that involved a sparkler and a party hat in the shape of a cake.

The next morning, I wondered what we could do to top the previous evening’s activity of mirth and mayhem. For most things, life on the island takes a more subdued tone, and after some coffee and granola, we were off to visit the Chilmark Farmer’s Market.

Tucked back behind the Chilmark town hall, in a grass and gravel parking lot, are two rows of EZ up tent stalls arched over the backs of pickup trucks laden with local greens, potatoes, coolers of grass-fed milk, meats, and handmade brooms fashioned out of sorghum switches.

The second picture is where I picked up most of the things that we were going to make for dinner. All Island grown, all tucked away in buckets and as deep green as the clear sky was blue. We picked up the following:

Yellow Mustard Greens

Wild Ramps (upon further inspection, they were winter garlics, but still great looking)

Sugar Snap Peas

Red Potatoes (red on the inside and out, organic)

Pea Shoots

Edible Flowers (Nasturtium)

Scapes/Garlic Spears

Mint

Chives

Here’s a helpful tip from me to you if you’re scouting out which farmers to buy stuff from for the most authentic meal: Look for the people manning the stands who have the dirtiest fingernails, or the ones that look the weariest. They’ll smile, because it’s their job and their business to sell you on the product, but they will also be the most knowledgeable of their wares, and chances are, they’re the ones who are digging in the fields for your dinner. Appreciate, acknowledge, and respect their hard work. 

I’ve met so many farmers/bakers/small artisans over the years who work tirelessly during growing season to bring things to the market, anywhere from potatoes to groundcherries, apple fritters, scones, and even homegrown peanuts in the shell. Many of them have been up the night before harvesting, checking and double checking their product, or baking, all so you can enjoy a meal that makes you feel like you’re doing something to support hardworking farmers and local businesses. Give them the respect they have so rightfully earned, and buy as much of their stuff as you can so they can go home and take a nap.

With those in basket, we went on to Menemsha, the tiny fishing village on the remote Northwest shore. My mother, calling during the week, passed along a story to me of her youth.

Suddenly I was struck by the place, only because I have been there before–but I was an INFANT sleeping between my young parents and keeping them warm. They always said I was like a little warm stove. Even though I have no idea where we were, I loved seeing the photos of that place.

In the years since she’s been there, I doubt much has changed. Generally left untouched by the ravages of time and tourism, Menemsha remains a two-lane town, with a small wharf of fishing boats, two fish markets, and a general store. Here are a few pictures.

Main Street

Bait shop/Gas Station

Menemsha Wharf

The best thing about these pictures is that they’re all taken within 50 feet of one another. This town is tiny, and it doesn’t care who knows. What it does need is someone to go into one of their two fish markets and sniff around for some grub for dinner. How fortuitious, then, that we happened upon Menemsha Fish Market. We walked in, saw the lobster tanks (home of Lobsterzilla), and got a few local oysters on the half-shell. I’ll walk the line of defending the West Coast Quilcene oysters straight out of the bay that morning until my last breaths, but these were perfect- Small oysters that tasted of cool seawater and didn’t need a thing to make them taste good.

One great thing that they do is their lobster relief program. They have a handful of females, which for ten dollars, you can purchase and release with a notched tail, allowing them to spawn and lay untouched by the local fishermen. So, you know…we did that.

The swimmer fins are all light and feathery, much like females of any species.

a “V” cut is notched into the tail, alerting lobstermen that this lady is spoken for.

After taking her out to the pier, we have carefully removed the rubber bands of bondage from her claws.

This is what a successful release looks like. Lobster for everyone for YEARS TO COME!

So we left our lady lobster friend under the pier, scuttling off for darker, safer waters. Back inside, We were plied with Lobster rolls and bisque, which we enjoyed on the pots behind the fish market. We wandered back in for a third time, and purchased a hunk of smoked bluefish, and a jawdroppingly gorgeous piece of Striped Bass.

It’s a perfect piece of fish.

Armed to the gunwales with fresh produce and fish, we returned to the house, where we embarked on a magical dinner expedition. The kitchen was aflurry with the chip-chip-chopping of knives. I took some of the fresh chives and a bit of soft cheese (easily procured Laughing Cow Garlic and Herb), and mixed it with the flaked bluefish. The Madre had made some infused oil using fresh dill from her garden, so we drizzled some of that on top, and served it with some water crackers and whole grain kavli toasts for an appetizer.

Part Two…Electric Boogaloo…coming soon.

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