Yesterday, we submitted our paperwork to the funding sources we’ll be depending on to help us buy the farm we want. I am tingling all over with the thought of it. My emotions are running deep, with what is probably 60% excitement that we’re moving forward, and 40% fear of what we’re getting ourselves into.
Going to work is challenging. All I can think of is our future farm, which makes it hard to concentrate on the daily tasks and projects I’m in charge of. My mind periodically tries to shoot up a wave of worry that this might not happen, but I know it will. This place is THE place. I can feel it in my bones. I can feel it in the earth when I’m there. I can hear it in the farmhouse when I walk through it. This farm wants us and we want it.
The property we want is not on the market yet, but the seller needs us to make a move soon or it will have to get listed. Needless to say, we would love to be able to push this rock up the hill faster. For now, we need to communicate with all parties and have faith that the numbers will line up and that by some time later this summer we’ll be sitting on the porch of our new farm house flush with our dreams of the future. This farm will be the next chapter in the story of Chris & Jenn. And it will be awesome. So, wish us luck, my friends. If you pray, put us in your prayers. We’ll take whatever good mojo you’re willing to give us.
I’m still so excited I can barely keep my thoughts straight. I should probably lay off the caffeine.
I arrived Friday morning a few minutes late. I promised to be there at 7 am for the first deliveries, but I hit traffic and the trailers were lined up. The first one had already been emptied and that beef producer was staying around to help unload some of the cattle coming behind.
An annual rite of spring, the spring beef sale was underway. I look forward to it every year and mark the date on my calendar months ahead. OK, maybe it’s not that exciting to people who work with beef cattle every day, but I don’t, and it’s been one of my greatest regular farm-related learning experiences in the past ten years.
The sale is nearly all volunteers, with a few paid Expo staff helping to set up and tear down the cattle chute, State animal health folks evaluating –um, animal health– and a USDA grader deciding which animals would go to which pens. We receive over 100 animals, usually from 20+ different farms. Some are pure beef breeds like Angus or Hereford. Some are dairy crosses like the group of Holstein-Park White cattle from this sale. That group also had some Park White-Hereford crosses, and it was fun to guess which was which by their body types and their brown (vs. black) ears. Others are completely mixed crosses and the game is to figure out what they actually are (breedwise).
I’ve learned a lot about handling cattle and recognizing their movements. I can tell which ones get a wild eye and whether we should move them to an inner pen (harder to escape). I’ve learned to watch their ears and listen to their breathing. This is all similar to other livestock like sheep and horses, of course, but these are animals that I’ve only met five minutes ago. And they are big. The key to keeping things calm is to anticipate their moods, because when an animal that big wants to go somewhere, they usually do.
I’ve learned a lot about how to sort single cattle from pens and how to get groups to move. I’ve gotten the chance to practice testing that balance point on the shoulder to make them change direction, without a cattle cane or a rattle or a prod. They’ll go…no need to stress them…but sometimes that takes learning what will make them go, and each individual can be different. I’ve also learned when to step up on the fence rail and just let them go where they’re going.
As we work, the safety and comfort of each animal (and person) is the top priority wherever possible. For this day, it was crazy hot and we ended up dedicating a person with a hose to each aisle of pens, just filling water tubs. We hosed down the outside of the cows to help them stay cooler. We kept checking with each other to make sure the humans had water, too.
That said, sometimes a cow comes in wild. Maybe she wasn’t wild at home, but the combination of new, open space, new smells, trailer ride, different humans, or some variation, causes her to lose it. Several years ago, we had a heifer whose eyes showed nothing but whites and we couldn’t get her to stay inside a pen. She came off the truck like that (the owner swore she was quiet as a mouse at home) and we directed her into a pen with other cows to settle down. She crawled under the metal pen (more than once), dragging a whole series of connected panels with her and upsetting nearby groups. Sometimes there’s a point where they can’t be reasoned with. Temple Grandin describes this state as panic, and is often caused by separation anxiety. In the case of this heifer, we put her back on a trailer where she calmed down in the relative quiet and dark. We had done nothing to [knowingly] contribute to that–it was just a perfect storm for her.
On this morning, it didn’t take long; within about half an hour we’d handled the backed-up trailers. Cattle in their farm groups were settling in to dedicated pens. The unloading crew chatted and waited for the next delivery. We discussed the pros and cons of different breeds, feed choices, whether prices would be up or down this year. We stopped to check out the handling chute and see whether they were ready for another bunch to weigh and tag. A steer got himself turned around in the chute and they had to open the side door to let him out, but then the line moved along again.
No wildness this year, and that was just fine by us. Looking forward to next spring already.
This will not come as a surprise to anyone who knows Jenn and I, but we have a lot of cookbooks. Not a crazy “I need a curator for all of my books” amount, but a lot. And, even less of a surprise, I have a lot of cookbooks about grilling and barbecue.
One of the plans for my part of this blog is to do periodic cookbook reviews. To get this started, I thought that instead of reviewing the latest and greatest cookbook, I would offer up a review of the cookbook that opened the door and took me into the amazing world of cooking with fire: The Thrill of the Grill (TTOTG).
My grilling bible was written in 1990 by Chef Chris Schlesinger and writer John Willoughby, five years after Schlesinger opened the East Coast Grill in Cambridge, MA. The East Coast Grill was one of the first restaurants to successfully introduce New England city folk to the joys of barbecue. From his “custom-designed open-pit wood-fired grill” he tested a brand of “culinary adventurousness” that set The Thrill of the Grill apart from other cookbooks.
For a beginner like I was when I first read the book, The Thrill of the Grill was one of the first books to tackle grilling in a way that seemed approachable and exciting. In it’s opening chapter, Schlesinger and Willoughby put the reader at ease with a chapter entitled “grills just want to have fun.” Their tone throughout the book feels like an invitation to sit down with them by a smoker and enjoy a nice cold beer in the shade. The opening chapter included what is commonplace in every barbecue and grilling cookbook I own – an simple overview of equipment, fuel, tools and how to work your fire. Laura Hartman Maestro’s line drawings (used to illustrate much of the book) have a gentle simplicity which again, makes the reader feel at home. Coupled with photographer Vincent Lee’s stunning photography, the book is a sight to see.
In the end, it comes down to the recipes – the meat of the matter–so to speak. TTOTG’s recipes cover the geographical map. Much of the book is a tale of where Chef Schlesinger has been. Raised in the south (Virginia), he presents dishes like North Carolina Pulled pork and Outdoor Pork Baby Back Ribs. He includes classics from his own table like Grandma Wetzler’s Baked Beans. In the 1970’s, Chris spent time in Barbados, immersing himself in the culture and the food. From those experiences he brings flavors and ingredients of the Caribbean to his restaurant, and eventually into the cookbook. Tastes like Grilled Shrimp with Pineapple and Ancho Chile Salsa and Tortillas, Tropical Gazpacho (which is unbelievably good) and one of my personal favorites – West Indies Spiced Chicken- weave the reader through Chris Schlesinger’s culinary history. The blending of traditional grilling and barbecue techniques with Southern and Caribbean flavors is a perfect concoction.
I remember going to the East Coast Grill while I was living with my father in Cambridge, MA during high school. I vaguely remember that I enjoyed the food, but it wasn’t until Dad treated me to his rendition of the aforementioned West Indies Spiced Chicken with Grilled Bananas (Grilled fruit? Who did that?) that my mind was truly opened. Never had I had anything like that. The chicken rubbed with the likes of curry, cumin, allspice and cayenne was powerful and spicy, the banana, basted in butter and molasses playing the perfect sweet, soothing counterpoint.
The popularity of grilling and barbecue has led to a flood of cookbooks seeking to teach you the techniques of cooking with fire. Happily, a number of them are good, some are even great. But, The Thrill of the Grill remains one of the most culinarily sophisticated and creative cookbooks I have ever read, rivaled only by recent releases from Pitmaster Chris Hart and Chef Andy Husbands (Wicked Good Barbecue and Wicked Good Burgers) who, unsurprisingly, worked with Schlesinger back in heyday of the East Coast Grill. If I had to recommend a cookbook that would provide you with adventure and excitement as you navigate your grill, I would suggest you look no further than the Holy Grail of my grilling cookbook collection – The Thrill of the Grill.
The time has come where Chris and I are moving forward on finding our new farm. We aren’t sure how that’s going to end up, but it means that we are now actively looking. The first one, naturally, was the farm that initiated this major change in our lives starting two years ago. It’s finally for sale (well, actually it’s not again, but that’s a different story) which meant that we had a chance to visit with the current owner, look through the house and walk the perimeter.
It got me thinking about the many hill farms in Central Vermont and what they’ve seen over seasons and years. Coincidentally, April is Poetry Month nationally, and statewide, and our little town does a whole month of poetry-related activities. Last week was a Farmer Poetry Reading hosted by the Black Krim Tavern, a local restaurant run by farmers. If you make it to Randolph, you must eat there. I’m serious. Last night, we ended with a public poetry reading at the Chandler Center for the Arts. I love my town. At this time when we have the ability to resettle anywhere…I just want to stay here.
That said, here is one of my offerings, inspired by the wisdom and patience of farm(s) on the hill(s).
The Farm on the Hill
Patiently it waits Apple trees dying one by one Dropping limbs to weather and neglect. Stone monuments to the old timers Persist through the bare Spring forest, their Verdant green stones running in crooked vessels Over the top to the Old Stage Road. Just wakening, the hay fields are tired of brief visits to cut and bale and Take away, leaving lichen and wild strawberry and smooth bedstraw. Stripped to bare beam bones, its heart stands proud Nestled down behind Mom-and-Pop maples Letting the wind howl and sweep and Sing to its lonely ache. Enduringly it waits.
Vibrantly the farm dances Celebrating the cycles of life and season Watching the tottering steps of new lambs Feeling the warm gush of biology as each pass of cattle over the pasture brings Clover and trefoil and dandelion and spiders and earthworms and Dung beetles and rabbits and foxes and coyotes and boblinks. Laughter rings along the jeep trail Carrying vitality on four-footed backs, in the glint of a grey-blue eye, A tiny hand, and size two Bogs. Sparks start meals of meat and cheese and home-grown harvests. Four generations stretch and grow a Labyrinth garden in the old cellar hole, Pear trees, Raised beds, A hammock hung between Mom and Pop, Thanksgiving at the trestle table, Cows and calves, Goats and chickens, Organic matter holding water for the Fifth generation. Purposefully it dances. Vigilantly the farm watches Fall seep over the familiar comfort of its curves. With cold comes expiration like the Quietus after sheep came and trees left, then Sheep left and cows came. Anxiously it watches.
Sagely, the farmer watches Cold retreat like an exhausted soldier Revealing green life and heat from bunched crowns. Emerging re-costumed to take up this dance, a slow waltz Not a fast jig to be danced and done. A partnered pair unfolding together Devoted to the promenade. Gratified, the farm puffs out a dewy breath
And capers on.
A few days ago, I wrote an article for the New England Barbecue Society’s newsletter in the National Barbecue News that talks about the time we barbecue competitors put into practicing the craft. It was inspired in part by a comment made by Andy Husbands, the Chef/Owner of Boston’s Tremont 647 (and member of the Wicked Good Barbecue team). Andy said:
“it’s funny, people ask for ‘easy recipes’ especially easy BBQ recipes from Chris [Hart] and I, we have to tell them it’s not easy, things of quality are not easy they take practice and skill, but the practice is fun and rewarding.”
Practice takes time, but when the food comes out tasting fantastic, and you executed your technique perfectly, it’s worth it.
I often find myself thinking about time and food. Like everyone our life is busy, with the demands of work and home leaving little time to relax or to stop and take stock of where we are. It is hard for many of us to find the time to slow down and savor the moments we’re given. I am grateful that by jumping into competition barbecue a decade ago, I embraced a style of cooking that by its very nature takes time. A big brisket or pork butt could take 10 hours to cook. To cook it right, attention must be paid throughout the process. It’s not just about me throwing it in the oven or in the crock-pot and walking away (and don’t get me wrong, sometimes taking that approach is just right). Instead, it’s about giving the craft of barbecue my undivided attention and my valuable time.
I do this in part because I believe the animal that gave its life for me to eat deserves my respect, but also because I believe that it is worth it for me to take the time to do it right. Fast and easy is not nearly as rewarding as slow and challenging is. By rushing our cooking I think we lose a lot of the goodness in what we share with our families at dinner time (literally and metaphorically speaking). For example, when you par boil a rack of ribs so you can cook it fast, all of the stuff that rises to the surface is goodness – you have literally boiled the flavor out of the meat. And when we feel that cooking for our families is a chore that needs to be “gotten out of the way,” I think we lose sight of why we cook – to feed the ones we love. I believe that there is great good in the act of cooking food. Food is love.
One of the best examples I can think of (beyond barbecue) that demonstrates the benefit of slowing down and cooking it right, is found in making stock. Stock (slowly cooked bones, vegetables and other goodness) is useful to the cook in so many ways. The key to making it right, is to cook it very slowly. When Jenn and I make stock, it sits in a pot on our stove at as low a heat as possible (keeping it above 140 degrees for food safety, of course) for days. That’s right, kids – DAYS. I generally cook my stock for a minimum of four days. The key is the low temperature and the occasional replenishment of water. In the end, after a lot of time, I’m left with an amber liquid that holds the very essence of goodness, a perfect reminder of how good it is to slow down and cook for my family. To take the time to do it right. Because it’s worth it for the ones you love.
Thanks for reading.
PS: I wanted to include a stock recipe with this post, but the cookbook I used as my reference for stock was lost when we moved out of our old house. I promise I’ll get a recipe for ya’ll sometime soon! C.
There is a mantra in the food service industry – “work clean.” Put simply, it means that the chef should always work in a clean space – both physically and mentally. But really, it means more than that. In his cookbook “Ruhlman’s Twenty,” Chef and writer Michael Ruhlman starts his book (which I will talk about in a later post, because it’s awesome) talking about “thinking” in the kitchen. He talks about the value of “mise en place” – everything in its place. These are, I have come to discover, words to live by when you’re in the kitchen.
I have to come clean by acknowledging that Jenn and I are not exceptionally clean people. Yes, we shower regularly, but we have always lived in a house that had some level of clutter, and we are not obsessive cleaners. Before we sold our first house, we would always say that one of the things we loved about hosting a family event or shindig with a bunch of friends was that it forced us to clean. This attitude followed me into the kitchen. In the past it was not unusual for me to have a counter piled full of stuff, trying to juggle pans and cutting boards among the clutter while I worked. In hindsight, cooking like this is very stressful. For our first years of competitive barbecue, at the end of the competition there would be grease and meat and scud all over everything – a perfect representation of how disorganized and sloppy we were.
Ruhlman’s main point about having your mise en place is that having a cluttered work station leads to cluttered thinking. “Clear your path,” he says “and you are less likely to stumble.” Over the past several years, I’ve realized that this is the truth of it. So, I’m really trying to break my old habits of messy work stations, in favor of working clean. For the past few years of barbecue, I’ve introduced methods of working that really cut down on what needs to be washed (disposable cutting boards, creative use of aluminum foil, etc.), and it has helped greatly with our ability to focus on our work. At home, in part because our current residence is very easy to clean, we’re trying to live that life as well. A few days ago, I came home from work to start dinner and the counter was a mess. About two minutes into my preparation and I was frustrated and feeling harried. So I stopped and completely cleaned my workstation. I was amazed at how much better I felt, how much more focused I was, after taking that simple step.
So part of this year of cooking involves redefining how I work in the kitchen. Sure, I’m a bit of a slob, so it won’t always be easy to get myself to keep the kitchen neat and clean. But when I settle into the kitchen for more than just cooking some toast and grabbing some coffee, I’ll always take that moment to get my shit together, clean up and get organized. And as I work, I’m going to try to clear my way. That way, I’ll have more time for thinking in the kitchen.