The Best People Love Food: A Survey

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“Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.”

Harriet Van Horne was a wise woman.

I have always been a supporter of American farmers broadly speaking; not just of our farm or of farms like ours, but of farms in general. It takes all types of types, as they say, and that is no more true when it comes to raising the food that keeps our shared humanity alive. Of course, there are also reasons we do things the way we do and food quality is not the least of them. “We believe in good food,” is our motto by design, not accident. I don’t trust people who don’t have developed taste buds and diverse tastes. I don’t trust people who don’t love food of all kinds; who aren’t consistently excited to try something new, to find something delicious. Which isn’t to say I don’t trust anyone who dislikes certain foods, but I am certainly distrustful of people who dislike many foods or who don’t see food as something that begs to be explored.

And I am definitely skeptical of people who do not enjoy the act of cooking. Not the harried kind of cooking so many of us are forced into on weekday evenings, the type tucked between workdays and nights raising a family, but the kind that you can embark on when you’re not in a hurry. The kind of cooking that happens with a glass of wine or a cold bottle of beer in hand and a towel slung over the shoulder. I am skeptical of people who never enjoy that kind of cooking, who never take for themselves the sort of satisfaction that only comes from a dish made of fresh, whole food and fussed over a little at the stovetop.

Recently, I have been giving even more thought than usual to food quality; it’s role in all of this and much more. I have my opinions about food quality, but I wonder how representative they are of the wider world. Do you feel food quality is improving? Declining? Staying about the same? Over what period?

So I put together a short survey and am welcoming feedback. When I did this a few years ago with the “What Makes a Good Farmer?” survey it opened up a lot of interesting avenues of thought that I had not previously considered, and I hope this time accomplishes the same thing. So far, the responses I’ve gotten after just sending out the link on social media yesterday are definitely challenging my expectations and providing insight that, while not surprising, is definitely worth exploring.

I plan to write up an article on the results in the next few weeks, probably here. Until that goes up I’ll leave the survey open to responses and check in regularly. If you have a few moments to spare please click here to give your thoughts, and be sure to share the link with your friends and family as well. The more the merrier — and better representative of the greater population, I hope.

On Generational Farming

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People farm for many reasons. For the pride in producing food. For the lifestyle connected to the land. To make a living. To provide for a family. To build a legacy.

I’ve contemplated every single one of them over the years, perhaps none more than the last, but it wasn’t until my own kid made her first investment in a longterm agriculture venture that I really paused to think about what it means to pass agriculture down through the generations.

I remember talking with a friend about their own experience making sense of generational transfer as an adult farm “kid,” their desire to have something to look forward to, and the work involved in getting their parents on board, and I have to be honest: it was a perplexing conversation for me. I didn’t — still to some extent don’t — understand a lack of desire to pass a farm off to your children. Farming, after all, has always been one of this nation’s most familial of business ventures. If the farm is doing anything other than going under it’s virtually always simply expected that at least one of the farm kids will take over once they become an adult — even when it’s difficult for the older generation to let go.

And to me this has always made sense. Until my oldest daughter invested her own money into a cow-calf pair. Suddenly, premature as it may be, the magnitude of this legacy, this family pastime, this profession-obsession-identity, this whatever-you-want-to-call it, hit me. And I have to be honest: suddenly I wasn’t so sure. I found myself understanding my friends’ parents more than my friend. My mind kept replaying the same question over and over: do I want this for her? And not just to farm, but to be in agriculture as an industry. And I couldn’t be sure. I have since come to the conclusion that of course I do. Of course I want this for her. But I wouldn’t say that conclusion came easily, or even quickly. The cow has been here for just about two months now and I’m just getting around to writing this down, after all.

It’s not about the legacy though, nor about the continuation of a tradition, or a tie to their roots. I want this for them, because the continuation is a representation of from whence they came. Because as much as I might be able to imagine an easier — or maybe even a quote-unquote better — future for them, I cannot imagine a better past. I cannot fathom having raised them anywhere else, with any other values or experiences. Are there other things I wish I’d had an opportunity to add to their upbringing? Absolutely. But I can’t think of anything about it that I would want to take away; there’s nothing I would subtract from the sum total of their lives so far.

And so, if the natural progression of the upbringing I’m absolutely honored to have been able to give them is a future even as a struggling member of this industry, I certainly can’t complain.

Living The Last Meal

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The thing about marriage in that stage of your lives where you’re both busy in the familial sense of having kids who are of a certain age and involved in every extracurricular under the sun, and the professional sense where you’re both able to chase that thing that fulfills you, is that you have to carve out time for one another wherever you can. For The Man and me, many times, that means Sunday afternoons. What once were date nights have long since morphed into date days. Lunch and browsing a favorite store or catching a movie, or some combination thereof — if we’re really feeling ourselves maybe even all of the above.

Such was a date day a few weekends ago when, over complimentary chips and salsa and a couple not-so-complimentary midday drinks, we got to talking about an article I’d seen earlier in the week. The author had compiled a list of last meal requests made by death row inmates. And the food was one thing, but at least one of the inmates had, apparently, also requested an experience: to eat their last meal while watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And so we got to thinking, not only what food we’d want for a last meal but what kind of experience we’d want if nothing at all was off limits.

For the record, The Man would want steak and bacon and mashed potatoes, plus cake and a cold beer and, probably, he said, to go sky diving. Because why not? Later, he added that if he had more than just a couple hours, perhaps we could shoot a little together and go off-roading with the kids.

And I would go for injera with spiced yellow peas and pickled cabbage, samosas and curry, pumpkin pie and an iced tea. And I would want to spend every last second exploring far-flung places by day and evenings here on the farm, watching the livestock and drinking a cold cocktail beside The Man, kids and dogs.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about that conversation; about how, when we set out to dream up our ultimate hedonist heaven-on-earth, what we came up with wasn’t so far off from how we spend our lives now. But even more than that how, if we really set our minds to it, we could live that last meal — both literal and figurative — more often than not. I think we will.

The All-Black Wooly Bear and Other Signs of Winter

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Every year I watch the wooly bears. They say the more black on their bodies the harsher the winter to come. There’s no proof they know what they’re doing. There’s even evidence that they probably do not. I watch anyway. I watch to see how fat and wooly they are, what colors dominate their coats, when we start seeing them in the fall and when they disappear again for another year.

I also watch the squirrels. (Extra chubby and in a big hurry.) Scrutinize the hickory nuts. (Thick shells, plenty of them.) And the acorns. (Ditto.) I note the foliage. (Deeper color than usual, dropping quick.) And read the Farmer’s Almanac (Cold, stormy.) All looking for predictions of the impending season.

Sometimes the old wives’ tales match up with scientific models, sometimes they don’t. This year, for the most part, they do. The caterpillars agree with the squirrels who agree with the Hickory and Oak trees, which agree with the traditional forecasters at the Almanac who just so happen to be on the same page as the meteorologists at the Climate Prediction Center: it’s going to be a long, wet and snowy winter in our little corner of the midwest.

Both Almanacs predict snow by the end of this month. Normally we don’t see it until the end of next. Of course only time will tell what kind of winter we’ll really have, but it seems that for now everyone agrees it might just be the most wintery of winters we’ve had in several years. Between mild years and brutally cold ones with next to nothing in terms of snow, I almost think I might welcome a typical Michigan cold season, with all its blustering and blowing and blizzard-like darkness. If it’s going to be cold at least, perhaps, we can have a clean white blanket over the brown and dead. Yes, I almost think I wouldn’t mind it that way. Almost.

Miscellany: Dispatches from Early Fall

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There’s a feeling of finality in early fall in rural America; a lull between the heat of the summer and the hustle and bustle of the grain harvest season. I am one of those insufferable people who Love, with a capital ‘L’, the holidays and the first whispers of colder weather are always a welcome invitation to begin preparing for them.

This year though, there were no whispers. We went from eighties and nighties and high humidity to sixties at, what seemed like, the flip of a switch. We are surrounded by Black Walnut trees here; they’re always quick to shed their leaves, and they’re wasting no time in the task this season. Walking outside to a hail of gold fluttering through the air is always enough to put me in the autumn mood.

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You might think that after so many years of the same thing, I wouldn’t be caught by surprise when it’s time to winterize the farm, but you would be wrong. It’s not that I don’t see it coming at all, it’s that — especially during years like this one — the time left always feels longer until we’re mere steps from the finish line.

A few weeks ago we had to send the ATV we normally use daily for basic chores into the shop to get some work done, and they’ve yet to make a final diagnosis. Now, as I make lists — both mental and physical — of all the things I need to get done around here before snow flies I am missing it fiercely. We have ways of doing everything without it, but not without added complications; which also means added time and effort.

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The farm kids’ pleading for “a lamb for fair,” this summer means we’ve had Ferdinand the Ram with the ewes for several weeks now already. We have, thus far, only lambed in the spring and I have liked it that way. It’s warm outside, there’s plenty of lush grass for both lactating Mamas and quickly growing babies; it almost makes for a fool proof lambing season. But spring lambs aren’t old enough for summer fairs; only winter lambs have enough time to grow big and strong, and finish out. So we’ll try it. The principles of winter birth and newborns are the same across the species and we’re not entirely green even with sheep, but any farmer will tell you that theory and practice are not listed as synonyms for one another for good reason.

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Miscellany + Pictures That Have Been Languishing in my Camera for Months

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All of the pictures in this post are months old. Taken this spring when everything was fresh and green. Before it was ninety-five degrees and we hadn’t seen anything that could pass for rain in weeks. I had forgotten about them and normally wouldn’t bother with old photos in a new blog post, but then I thought, “why not?” In the story of this farm inconsistent blogging and forgotten photos have been a staple for the past year. They belong here as much as anything I snapped today.

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I don’t remember the last time we mowed grass and I don’t foresee us needing to do so anytime soon. I forgot about the blueberry bushes I planted flanking the gate that leads from the back yard into the paddock that lies between it and the barnyard and only one of them has survived the heat and abuse. There is a fifty-fifty chance of a storm tomorrow, but if it behaves anything like all the other storms that have come our way it’ll break up just as it gets here, maybe spitting a little extra humidity into the air but never producing so much as a drop that reaches the ground.

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Today the first lambs of our 2016 crop are fifty days old. Which means when the sun starts to set and the temperature abates by a couple dozen degrees we’ll be rounding them up and running them across the scale to see how they’ve done thus far, on nothing but pasture and their ewe’s milk. They look good; thick and stout and robust.

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This guy will happily help despite the heat, and dunk himself in a stock tank of water straight from the hose afterward.

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Of all the stock on the farm the heat is hardest on the pigs. Little ones don’t mind it so much, but the big sows and the growing feeders would prefer moderate weather and little humidity; something we can’t often provide in Michigan at the height of the season. Instead we make sure they’re misted down with cool water a few times per day, provided lots of fresh water. And, at least in the case of the growing pigs — for show or sale or breeding alike — hope they continue to eat, because no one likes a big meal when it’s hot.

Crispy Egg Breakfast Tacos + Black Garlic Pineapple Salsa

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A few weeks ago one of our long-time-farm-customers turned friends gifted me a bag of single clove black garlic she’d brought back from a recent trip to Japan. I’d been contemplating how I wanted to use them, reading up on how chefs around the world have been using black garlic and what other foodies have to say about it. This combination was purely accidental. I had a slightly overripe pineapple that needed to be used up and I went to the cabinet for a head of regular garlic to toss together a salsa. The black garlic just happened to be in front of the regular on the shelf. I remembered some of the flavor profiles I’d read on it and decided to substitute it instead; a decision, it turns out, that would disappoint exactly no one in this house.

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The black garlic is everything I’d read about it and more. Smooth, pungent, sweet, earthy, charred… umami. The single clove variety is supposed to have even better flavor than the multi-clove type, but both are reportedly delicious. Essentially, it’s fermented garlic. Held at sixty degrees for months, under just-so humidity. But “fermented garlic” doesn’t do it justice. A lot of chefs are using it in savory and creamy dishes, but I think it really shines against the bright acidity of the pineapple and lime. You can definitely expect more black garlic recipes to come. I can see it becoming a staple ingredient here.

This recipe makes about a quart and a half and we’ve been eating it with everything — carnitas, blackened chicken, plain tortilla chips — I just happened to think about putting the recipe up here at breakfast this morning when I was serving it wrapped up with the best damned eggs you’ll ever eat in a perfectly charred corn tortilla.

Crispy Egg Tacos + Black Garlic Pineapple Salsa

Prep time: 

Total time: 

Ingredients
  • 1 Ripe Pineapple
  • 2 Med. Roma Tomatoes
  • 1 Sweet Onion
  • 1 Head Single Clove Black Garlic
  • 1 Sm. - Med. Bunch Cilantro
  • Coarse Sea Salt
  • Red Pepper Flakes
  • 1 Lime
  • Butter, Lard or Oil
  • Corn Tortillas
  • Large Eggs
  • Coarse Sea Salt
Instructions
  1. Finely dice pineapple, tomatoes and onion.
  2. Peel and finely chop black garlic, being careful not to smash it.
  3. Remove Cilantro stems, chop leaves.
  4. Combine all of the above in a bowl or large jar, squeeze juice of the lime overtop. Add salt and red pepper flakes to taste. Mix well. Chill. (Best after flavors have had a few hours to a day to intermingle.)
  5. In a large fry or cast iron pan, heat your cooking fat -- a couple pats of butter or lard, or a couple "glugs" of your favorite oil -- until a few drops of water flicked into the pan makes the oil crackle and pop.
  6. Add your tortillas, frying on each side for a minute or so, until they begin to brown and crisp. Transfer them to a plate.
  7. Immediately, using the same hot oil, crack your eggs into the pan. The oil and pan should be so hot that the whites immediately solidify when they hit the pan. Sprinkle the top of the egg with coarse salt while it cooks. It is ready to turn when it naturally pulls way from the pan without prying. This only takes a minute or two, the whites will be browned and crispy around the edges. Flip, repeating the process of browning and crisping the whites on the other side, cooking just a thin layer over the yolk, but leaving it runny.
  8. Transfer the eggs to the plate, placing one on top of each tortilla. Top with pineapple salsa and enjoy!

Miscellany: “No Time to Say Hello, Goodbye”

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Every so often I take a picture that is technically atrocious, but I love. And then I am appalled with myself. That’s the story behind this one from a short road trip I had to take yesterday. As soon as I saw it there were a list of things wrong with it in my head, but I also immediately knew I’d use it. Usually, the thing with those unsound pictures is that while they may not capture the imagery very well, they capture the mood full stop.

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Still no lambs. Last night I even did a midnight check because Louisa had been nesting and restless, her flanks have been sunken for a week and her udder looks like an over-inflated water balloon. But no luck. I didn’t originally have her on the calendar as due until the end of this week, but then the shearer convinced me they might be ready a bit earlier. Now I’m getting impatient.

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Remember last week when I said all the tomato seeds had been planted and most were up? I lied. I had the bright idea to go through my stash of seeds and unload… eh hem, GIFT… a bunch to my Mother-in-Law, who loves to garden and is better at it than I am anyway. I did manage to get rid of a whole bag full of seed packets, but I also found a few other varieties of tomatoes I just had to plant. Every time I think I have escaped the grip of the tomato-addicted gardener’s disease it reels me back in.

On the bright side, I ran across a pack of regular San Marzano seeds and decided it would be a grand idea to plant a bunch to compare side-by-side with my beloved San Marzano Redortas. So we all have those notes to look forward to mid to late-summer.

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The season is both literally and figuratively heating up now. Seventy degrees by the end of this week. My to-do list seems to grow with every passing minute. This is the time of year I love, but also find it curious that when I am most on top of things I feel most scattered. Like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, “No time to say ‘Hello,’ Goodbye! I’m late, I’m late, I’m late!”

Going too many directions at once, I suppose. Which is also not unlike the white rabbit. No matter, I’ll be back later this week with a couple more posts. One on speaking the language of pigs by request, plus a some more garden thoughts on what’s worth planting and how much.

A Few Favorite Things: April 8

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Read: The books I’ve been reading this week don’t really fit with what I usually post here so this week’s book recommendation is an oldie, but goodie I pulled off my shelves. Tracie McMillan put more personally on the line to write The American Way of Eating than any of the big name food and agriculture writers, but didn’t get nearly as much attention. She went undercover for a year working at all stages of the food system — alongside migrant vegetable workers in California, while working at a Wal-Mart produce section, and from the kitchen of an Applebee’s restaurant — and living off the wages she earned doing those jobs. The result is this book. It’s well-written and reported, and probably didn’t garner as much attention as it deserved for that latter reason alone.

Watch: I can’t believe I didn’t watch Salma Hayek in Frida sooner. It doesn’t even need a blurb here. It’s Frida and Salma as Frida and it was a huge success back when it was released in 2002. If you haven’t seen it yet, do. (I linked to iTunes for those who want to rent it online, but it’s also on Netflix.)

Eat: We usually eat Manhattan Clam Chowder several times throughout the winter. It’s one of our favorites. Somehow it kept getting pushed down the menu plan this year though so I’m making it this week before it’s too hot for bowls of soul-warming, hearty soup.

Listen: I listen to country music often, but I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of many artists. Eric Church is one exception to that rule. I respect him for doing the opposite of what most singers do. Usually, they start off with their own style and artistic vision and then, when the industry gets a hold of them, they lose it to the demands of mass-production radio hits. Eric, on the other hand, seems to only get more creative and personal with his music as time goes on… and still manages to pull off chart toppers. There is something to be said for artists who can produce entire albums full of good songs, rather than albums with a couple of decent tracks and the rest full of songs no one will ever listen to more than once or twice on purpose. Eric is one of those artists for me. This one is from his newest album.