Above, you see us hard at work on the process. Manure has been spread over the first layer of mulch, and we're starting to apply the final mulch layer. We finished the last bed on Saturday afternoon, as a cold, light rain began to fall, and headed indoors. The rain became snow as our first winter storm of the season swept through, and we woke up to this:
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Sunday, November 30, 2008
Above, you see us hard at work on the process. Manure has been spread over the first layer of mulch, and we're starting to apply the final mulch layer. We finished the last bed on Saturday afternoon, as a cold, light rain began to fall, and headed indoors. The rain became snow as our first winter storm of the season swept through, and we woke up to this:
Saturday, November 29, 2008
Saturday: French onion soup (made with leftover red wine marinade from last week's goat medallions), green salad, fresh wheat tortillas with fresh-made hummus.
Sunday: Pasta with sauteed leeks, cheese plate with crackers and apples. Our leeks, local apples & cheeses (including ours).
Monday: Stir-fried cabbage with red onion, ginger, soy sauce, curry paste. Side of sauteed collards with local organic bacon from JJR Farms.
Tuesday: Thawed zucchini soup with rice and cheese, fried green tomatoes.
Wednesday: Adobo chicken with rice (chicken marinated and cooked in a Filipino sauce of vinegar, soy sauce, black pepper, bay leaves, and garlic). Our chicken, butchered that morning. Side of stir-fried cabbage, greens, leeks, celeriac, and more.
Thursday (Thanksgiving): Roast goose basted with red wine, giblet pan gravy, root vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions) roasted in goose fat, homemade applesauce, homemade rolls with homemade raspberry jam, caramalized leek & pear salad, fresh cornbread with sorghum and honey, fruit salad of frozen local fruits, pumpkin pie, bourbon-apple-pecan pie.
Friday: Dinner out with family at Sycamore.
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Writing in 1879 from Europe, Twain laid out a lengthy catalogue of American foods he missed while travelling:
Twain listed cranberry sauce, “Thanksgiving style” roast turkey and the celery essential to poultry stuffing. But he surrounded these traditional holiday dishes with roast wild turkey, frogs and woodcock...Along with hot biscuits, broiled chicken and stewed tomatoes, Twain wanted turtle soup, possum and canvasback ducks fattened by Chesapeake Bay wild celery. In Twain’s day, New York City markets still sold raccoon, a profusion of wild ducks and bear...His menu celebrated the amazingly varied landscapes of an entire nation. Shad from Connecticut, mussels from San Francisco, brook trout from the Sierras and partridges from Missouri all found their place alongside apple dumplings, Southern-style egg bread, “American toast,” and strawberries, which were “not to be doled out as if they were jewelry, but in a more liberal way.”
Reading this piece, I felt even better about our on-farm, Missouri Thanksgiving menu. Although we're focusing locally, deliberately not using nationally available ingredients, I think the underlying concept is the same. It's a celebration of real, regional food that preserves a sense of place. What we eat tomorrow will be unique to our state and our farm; I suspect that Mark Twain, that most excellent Missourian, would likely approve.
Monday, November 24, 2008
Margot McMillen of Terra Bella Farm in Auxvasse, MO, has launched the Missouri Grain Project (MGP), whose first product is locally grown and freshly milled wheat flour. It went on sale recently at the Root Cellar in downtown Columbia, so I armed myself with a few bags and started testing the product to see how it compares with store brands. To give a fair comparison, I purchased a bag of King Arther (KA) %100 Organic Whole Wheat Flour, which is a pretty high-end brand (our staple flour up to this point).
Keep in mind, this is whole-wheat flour. That means that the entire wheat grain has been milled and kept in the flour, unlike white flour, which is far more heavily processed to remove most of the actual wheat. White flour will keep longer, because all the spoilable parts like germ have been removed, but those parts also contain most of the nutrition and flavor. Whole wheat flour won't have as long a shelf life, but will have a richer flavor and better nutritional content. This is what people have eaten for most of human history, until some industrialist figured out how to destroy flour to make it last longer and bleached it white to convince people it was better.
In any case, our very first comparison was shelf date. MGP's flour is clearly labeled with the harvest date (July 08) and the milling date (October 08). This is fresh stuff. Compare that to the KA, which had an expiration date of late November 08 printed in the bag. With no milling or harvest date, who knows how old it was. But that's what you get at a grocery store.
To really focus on the flavor and texture of the flour, Joanna made some very basic wheat flour tortillas and submitted me to a blind taste test. Frankly, the difference was pretty obvious. The MGP tortillas had a noticeably richer, stronger wheat taste, and had a better texture. The KA tortillas, while perfectly serviceable, were definitely drier, staler-tasting, and just plain not as good. You haven't understood the power of fresh wheat until you've tried this side-by-side.
I also used it in a few other applications, such as pie crusts, where it again performed well. It made a wonderfully rich-flavored crust for an apple pie, in which the wheat flavor really balanced the sweeter apples. Joanna notes that it takes liquid different from the KA flour, so be a little cautious if you're used to the behavior of other flours.
Now to address the elephant in the room: price. MGP flour is expensive, at around $2.50 for the bag you see above. That's going to be above some folks' budgets, but here's something to consider. Food is just like any other product in a free market: you get what you pay for. Too often we Americans turn strangely socialist when it comes to food, expecting to have the right to some artificially low price that doesn't actually reflect the quality, production methods, or overall impact that the food has. This flour SHOULD cost more; it's better. And because it's locally sourced and has fewer miles and middlemen associated with it, far more of that cost is going toward a fair earning for those who actually produced it. Fair trade applies to American farmers, too, not just Columbian ones.
So pop on down to the Root Cellar, grab a bag, and try it for yourself. Just about anyone can afford $2.50 every now and then, even if it's only for special occasions. And if you want to save money, consider buying MGP's whole wheatberries instead, and grinding them yourself. Like most grains (and corn), the unmilled grain will last for a very long time, only starting to decay once it's milled. That's why we store our corn whole, and only mill it as-needed. Buying the wheatberries will save you money, and they're quite versatile in their own right.
As I see it, the original values of Thanksgiving are not just good food, but a celebration of new-found self-sufficiency through community. As the story goes, the Pilgrims were celebrating their ability to cut their old ties and survive in a new place, but of course that would not have happened without the Native community accepting and teaching them. So, yes, it's a celebration of food, but of food achieved through a skilled but self-sufficient community, food that belonged in the region. That's pretty close to the ideal for local-food advocates like ourselves, especially on-farm.
Thanksgivings past, even on-farm, we've still worked to recreate the modern traditional Thanksgiving meal (turkey, stuffing, cranberries, etc.) using local ingredients where possible. What's interesting, though, is that no one seems to notice that this menu is a New England regional specialty. If the Pilgrims had landed in Louisiana or Minnesota, Thanksgiving would look much different. So this year we're going to celebrate the true values of Thanksgiving and make a meal that truly reflects our own farm's food autonomy and the natural tastes of Missouri in fall.
So here's a first shot at our menu:
Roasted goose (ours, butchered the day before)
Roasted vegetables (sweet potatoes, potatoes, onions, garlic, all ours)
Separately-cooked stuffing (our bread crumbs, local apples, Missouri wine, more)
Applesauce (farm-made & canned)
Fresh-made rolls from Missouri wheat flour
Cornbread from freshly ground farm-grown corn, with local honey & sorghum
Green salad (our greens, local apples, our cheese, etc.)
Fruit salad (fresh summer fruit frozen in-season, including blackberries, raspberries, peaches, strawberries, blueberries, and apples)
Pumpkin pie (crust Missouri flour, filling our squash)
Bourbon-apple-pecan pie (crust Missouri flour, filling local apples & pecans, Kentucky bourbon)
Sunday, November 23, 2008
Saturday, November 22, 2008
Pancit noodles: These are a thick, yellow egg noodle usually sold in squat, nearly cubical packages. I have found them at every Asian grocery I've ever visited. Currently I buy mine from Kea International on VanDiver. There are several brands, some of which have some odd ingredients, others just the basics. Look for one made in the Philippines (there are Chinese versions that aren't quite the same).
Soy & fish sauce: The former should be obvious. The latter is also available at any Asian grocery. It stinks when raw, but when cooked it mellows and adds a very nice and unique flavor to any Asian dishes. Use it.
Calamansi juice: Calamansis are a tasty Filipino fruit, like a small lime but unique in flavor. They're the real thing to use, but lemons are a good substitute.
1-2 onions, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2-1 lb cabbage, shredded
3-4 cups chopped vegetables (esp. carrots, potatoes, & celery)
4 cups meat or vegetable broth
Cubed meat to taste (often chicken or pork, goat in our case)
Shrimp to taste if desired (not local but more authentic)
1/4 cup citrus juice (calamansi if you can get it, lemon if you can't)
Soy & fish sauce to taste
Black pepper to taste
Pancit is often made as a stir fry, in which you cook everything in the pan/wok before adding broth and noodles at the last minute. I think the flavors blend better when made more like a soup, so that's how I describe it here.
Sautee onions and garlic in some oil in a large pot. Add broth, some sauces, and black pepper, and bring to a simmer. Add meats and vegetables in order of needed cooking time (meats need longer, as do potatoes; carrots and celery less; shrimp not much; cabbage not much, etc.). When everything is almost cooked, taste broth and adjust sauces, spices, and citrus to get a very richly flavored broth (the noodles will soak up some flavor). When you like it, add the entire package of noodles and cook, covered, slowly mixing noodles down in. If done right, the noodles should absorb most of the broth and leave you with a thick noodle stew and just a bit of broth to keep it moist and not sticky. Top with some citrus squeezed onto each serving.
Friday, November 21, 2008
Certifying will move us toward a long-term goal for the farm, which is to achieve complete openness regarding our methods. We want to keep and maintain our records online where they can be viewed and searched by anyone. I believe very strongly in Adam Smith's contention that the base of a functioning economy is an educated, rational consumer, and suspect that many of our current economic woes are directly related to a lack of open information and rational consumer behavior. When's the last time you were able to find out exactly what went into growing the produce or meat at a grocery store? Even at farmers markets, not everyone may be entirely open about their methods and inputs, knowing that consumers instinctively want pseudo-organicness, even if they won't pay for it (what market vendor puts up a sign proudly listing all the pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers they use? They know which way the wind blows). I'd be proud to open my books and records to anyone.
Philosophically, I think consumers should have access to all information that is not directly proprietary, in order to make a better choice. I've referenced this before, but I have always loved the observation that conventional food producers should be required to post all of the sprays, fertilizers, and other inputs they use to produce that food; I suspect consumers would be quite surprised. We want our customers to know exactly what went into the production of the food they buy; not just materials, but time and effort as well. We want to sell a tomato with a sign that states when it was planted, how many hours went into maintaining it, how much it cost to irrigate it, and so on. And we want that customer to be able to go home, visit our website, and pull up that information as well.
We want to make it clear just how much actually goes into producing food, so that consumers appreciate what they're purchasing and understand why the price is set where it is, and that this is a business that charges a fair price and expects a fair living. Imagine if grocery store produce sections posted information on the wages and living conditions of the immigrant laborers who made that produce possible, making it clear how that everyday low price was achieved.
The final benefit to this goal relates to food safety. So many of the national food scares have come from operations that are not very open about their procedures and methods; let's change that. People often advocate for small farms and farmers markets as a safer alternative, which is generally a fair argument, but contamination and problems can still occur. Small does not directly equal safe. If we ever do have a customer who feels they had a problem with our produce, I want to be able to openly track the source of that product and show that we're paying attention, and I want to demonstrate to health deparments and other government agencies that we're a responsible food-handling business. Because that's what we are: a business, not a hobby, and I think we need to act like one.
This is a long-term goal, but we think it's a worthy one. We have to keep most of these records anyway for certification, and plan to store them digitally, so why not put them to use beyond our office? It may be a few years away, but we're excited about getting there.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Our background in farming
We both grew up in rural areas, with families that gardened and preserved food. We met while working toward graduate degrees in geology in the same department, and were drawn together partly by our shared love of food, cooking, & local foods/farmers markets. After graduate school, we moved to Virginia to work at Shenandoah National Park, and became involved with a nearby sustainable CSA farm. Joanna worked there regularly opposite her 1/2 time SNP job, and Eric (full time) helped out as often as he could.
We had already decided that when we settled down, we wanted to live a homestead-style life, with a single income and a homemaker growing/raising most of our food (similar to how we grew up). Working at Waterpenny Farm exposed us to more of the realities and possibilities in farming for a living (not just for ourselves) and inspired us to seriously consider that as a life choice. A new job opening for Joanna led us to move to mid-Missouri, where the cost of living was far lower, the niche for direct-market farmers was much wider (compared to the East Coast), and a better job made single-income living while starting a farm possible. We moved onto our current land in mid-2006 and founded Chert Hollow Farm. We have sold produce at market for the last two years (2007, 2008) and are regularly expanding our production areas and farm offerings.
Our choice of organic management practices
There has never really been any choice in that matter. We were both raised in families that strongly valued conservation and respect for natural systems, and carried those values into our initial career pursuits in research and educational geology. Our training and research in geomorphology, and human effects on landscapes, strongly influenced our belief in sustainable land management. Our interest in food and cooking led us to learn about food production practices and their environmental & political ramifications, and the more we learned the faster we transitioned our food choices toward local/sustainable/organic options. Working at Waterpenny Farm solidified those beliefs with experience, as that farm used all sustainable methods and felt very strongly about the long-term sustainability of their soil, land, and environment. This was our initial practical exposure to “organic” methods, supplemented by a heavy diet of research and reading (we are scientists, after all).
With regards to our current farm, we believe very strongly in sustainability, independence, and freedom. We want to limit our reliance on inputs, resources, and factors that we cannot control and do not approve of, such as manufactured fertilizers and pesticides. Organic methods provide a means to that end by emphasizing closed loops, natural methods, and long-term benefits over short-term efficiencies. We value our independence and property rights, and organic certification gives us a stronger tool to defend ourselves from off-farm threats such as government spray programs. Although we have significant philosophical concerns regarding the implementation of the government organic program, we feel it is important that our beliefs and methods are recognized (especially in Missouri), and certification is the only way we will be noticed by those who make policy. We also feel that organic certification will help us become better farmers by forcing us to question, analyze, and describe our plans, methods, and inputs. Much of the record-keeping and planning needed for certification are things that farmers like us could benefit from, and we might as well get the full benefit of the work.
In summary, we believe strongly in Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of the educated, self-sufficient, politically active farmer. Organic methods lead us toward environmental and economic sustainability, and organic certification grants us a political voice. Together, those goals represent our vision for the future.
Monday, November 17, 2008
November is pretty much the transition into eating stored rather than fresh food. Other than a few items like leeks and kale that will last fresh outdoors all winter, we're about to start relying mostly on our own stocks and the items we purchase in bulk that we can't grow (like some beans, wheat flour, rice, etc.)
Freezer contents arranged outside during a cold morning while defrosting the freezer
I recently defrosted the chest freezer, organizing and cataloguing its contents in the meantime. Here's what we've put up for the winter, all of it either ours (most meats, all produce & meals) or locally-sourced (most of the fruit). All meals noted are frozen leftovers from earlier in the year that we put up for later use on busy or tired nights. All amounts in quarts unless otherwise noted.
Zucchini soup: 13
Tomato sauce: 6
Enchilada sauce: 2
Red wine marinade: 2 (1/2 pints)
Ricotta: 3 (pints)
Chicken vegetable soup: 2
Greek gazpacho: 3
Adobo sauce: 3 (1/2 pints)
Green bean pesto: 2 (1/2 pints)
Spiced black-eyed peas: 1
Kale potato soup: 1
Tomato chutney: 4 (1/2 pints)
Wheatberries: 1 (1/2 pint)
Green beans: 15
Beet greens: 3
Goat broth: 8
Chicken broth: 8
Greens broth: 3
Tomato juice: 2
Shredded zuke: 2
Roasted tomatoes: 5
Okra: 3 (gallon bags)
Basil cubes: 2
Basil: 1 (1/2 pint)
Spinach: 9 (1/2 pints)
Tat soi: 9 (1/2 pints)
Black raspberries: 5
Strawberry ice: 4
Cherry pie filling: 3
Red raspberries: 1
Blueberry sauce: 9 (1/2 pints)
Chickens (whole): 7 , with 2 more to go
Goat meat: 40 lbs with another kid to go
Venison: to be determined
Saturday, November 15, 2008
11/08/08-11/14/08: We butchered a kid on Sunday, leading to several tasty meals using the fresh meat, and the use of fresh goat broth through the rest of the week (boiling down the bones salvages whatever meat couldn't be trimmed, and generates a thick and flavorful liquid). Hence I've noted two meals for Sunday, a day we spent butchering, trimming, and freezing meat. Otherwise it was a very fall/winter week, heavy on greens, beans, potatoes, apples, and other items that are either still fresh in the garden or store well. We have yet to start dipping into our frozen/canned food supplies, except for a few items like frozen fruit, but even that is not being used much as long as our apples are still available (we have a large batch of local apples stored in one of our produce coolers at optimum tempurature, where they'll keep for a long time). Green tomatoes are still available to us because we have many, many pounds of pre-frost salvage from our Italian winter tomato plants that store very well and are happily sitting on a shelf ripening ever so slowly (more on those soon).Saturday: Leftover squash & leek lasagna from Friday, green salad (tat soi, mizuna, apples, raisins, nuts, cheese).
Sunday: (lunch) Fresh tenderloins baked with onions, garlic, and sweet potatoes. Everything ours.
Sunday: (dinner) Mashed potatoes topped with fresh liver stew/gravy, mixed greens sauteed with tomato vinegar. All meat and produce ours.
Monday: Spiced black beans & cilantro with cheese, lentil dal with kale, fresh cabbage slaw. Everything but lentils ours.
Tuesday: Roasted green tomatoes, potatoes, and onions served over pasta with sides of cabbage slaw and maple-oat bread. Veggies ours, pasta & bread ingredients purchased in bulk.
Wednesday: Creamy potato-leek soup, sauteed mixed greens. Everything ours but the soup's whole milk (from Green Hills Harvest).
Thursday: Eric away at meeting, Joanna made bean & greens wraps with homemade wheat wraps and cheese. Everything ours but wrap ingredients (bulk).
Friday: Cuban bean soup (onions, garlic, mixed beans, honey, ground mustard, cilantro, goat broth), cornbread, bourbon-apple-pecan pie. Honey from Walkabout Acres, mustard bulk spice, apples & pecans sourced locally, as was the wheat flour in the pie crust (more on that soon).
Thursday, November 13, 2008
We're done selling, but have retained enough fall greens to keep us happily supplied with fresh produce through most of the winter. These plants are hardy enough to stand cold weather and can be harvested as needed. The photo contains kale, mizuna, tat soi, collards, and mustard greens, as well as leeks.
Unphotographed, but also important, will be the establishment of good fencing around the vegetable field and more goat pastures, allowing for better use of that land. Many of the cedars being cut from the orchard will be reused as fence posts in this effort, especially now that the cost of steel is skyrocketing and T-posts are expensive.
So that's where we're at right now. Look for some more details on many of these projects as I get to writing about them, but this at least gives a sense of my days in the past and coming weeks.
1-2 cup dried beans (2-6 cooked/canned)
Bean liquid, broth, or water
2 onions, chopped
2-4 cloves garlic, chopped
Hot peppers to taste, minced
2 tsp cumin seed
2 tsp coriander seed
2 tsp paprika
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp turmeric
1/4-1/2 cup chopped cilantro, if available
Cook the beans by your desired method (there are several) or open the can if needed. Grind the spices (or mix if using pre-ground spices). Saute the onions, garlic, and peppers in some oil until starting to soften, then add the spices and saute a few more minutes. When pan is very aromatic and onions/garlic are soft, add beans and liquid of your choice until mixture is lightly moist. Simmer for at least 15 minutes to allow flavors to blend; the longer the time the better. Check and add liquid as needed to keep the beans just moist and not sticking to the bottom.
Dish is done when you taste it and decide it's done. As a main course, serve over rice garnished with chopped cilantro and/or shredded/crumbled strong cheese (like cheddar). Chopped or ground meat is easily added to this dish with the onions and adds another layer of flavor and texture.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
There are eight parts to our certification application, as laid out by MOSA. I will summarize them here, and plan to post the text/details of each one as it is completed. The goal through this series is to help customers and non-organic farmers to better understand the requirements and standards of organic, and what better way than to read along as we develop and refine our documentation? MOSA makes many forms available online, and I will link to those where I can for those who are truly interested. As you read through this very long post, perhaps you will start to understand why "organic" is more expensive, especially when it comes to small farms. If I put a dollar value on the time I spend on certification paperwork, it would be frightening. We can apply for cost reimbursement from Missouri for the actual certification charges, but not for our time.
Section 1: General Information
This includes basic contact information, location of/directions to farm, and definition of farm/product types (crops, dairy, meat, etc.). It also asks us to lay out our background in farming and reasons for choosing organic production methods. While most of that information is laid out already on our web site, it's an enjoyable challenge to boil it all down into a concise and thorough summary.
Section 2: Farm and Crop Description
This is a meaty one. Under this heading, we need to submit Three Year Field Histories for all production areas, including every variety of seed we planted and grew, all inputs used, and so on. Like a lot of the organic program, forms like this are really aimed at large-scale producers with only a few varieties, not diversified small farms. So what may not be too bad for an organic corn grower or large-scale tomato operation becomes massive for an heirloom vegetable farm growing around 100 varieties interplanted throughout the season. Organic is one-size-fits-all, which is one of the complaints small farmers have about it, especially since we can't delegate staff to take care of this like the big folks. Also, since we have been on this land since mid-2006, we are working to contact the previous owner in order to get a Prior Land Use Declaration (PLUD) from him certifying that no prohibited substances were used on the land during the first half of 2006.
Section 3: Seeds, Seedlings, and Planting Stock
In this section we declare ahead of time every seed or transplant we intend to use during the upcoming (certified) growing season. No GMO or treated seed is allowed, and non-organic seed is only allowed if we can prove that we conducted a reasonable search for an organic version by completing the Organic Seed Search Form. Given our dedication to growing sometimes rare heirlooms, I think we'll be using that form a lot.
Section 4: Soil Fertility and Conservation Management Plan
In this section we document and describe our strategies for handling these issues and document all inputs used on-farm (fertilizers, pest controls, mulch, etc.). Specific categories to be described include compost production, manure use, natural resource management, and biological diversity. This includes getting verification letters from suppliers of off-farm products such as manure, straw, and hay certifying that their products are acceptable for organic production.
Section 5: Crop Management Plan
In this section we document and describe our plans and methods for crop rotation, weed management, and pest & disease management.
Section 6: Plan for Maintenance of Organic Integrity
In this section we document and describe our approach to preserving our organic status, i.e. preventing contamination of our fields, harvests, equipment, and facilities. This includes describing buffer zones or other methods that protect our fields from off-farm sprays and inputs (like other farms or government/utility spray programs), equipment management & cleaning, harvest methods, crop storage & handling, product transportation, and marketing methods. This section is not too difficult, as we are certifying all of our products, thus eliminating concerns about mixing organic and non-organic products. If, for example, we were not certifying the orchard and planned to sell those fruits outside our certification, we would have to spend a lot more time carefully keeping those products separate and documenting how. Keeping cleaning logs will be a new challenge, though.
Section 7: Record Keeping Requirements
In this section we document and describe the methods by which we document and describe our methods. Do we keep good records of field activities, inputs, compost & manure management, seed purchasing, harvest & sales, land management, cleanliness, etc.? How do we manage our records (paper copies, online, etc.) It's really just establishing what records we need to keep to fulfill Sections 2-6; I would have made this Section 2 in order to make the point up front.
Section 8: Affirmation
In which we promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help us USDA.
We are also preparing full maps of the farm and each individual growing area, documenting and labelling all production zones. In theory, we ought to be able to track any given product from seed to sale, knowing that this tomato came from a plant started Z, transplated Y into bed X, fertilized or otherwise handled W, harvested V, sold U, and so on. Again, something that is sensible in concept and very valuable to the customer and to food safety concerns, but much more practical for large, low-variety farms and very onerous for small, high-diversity farms.
So that's it. All you have to do to sell a certified organic product is compile all that information for three years, submit it in proper form, sit back & watch the money roll in. Those darned organic farmers sure are gouging the gullible yuppies, aren't they?
Monday, November 10, 2008
The author of The Cornbread Gospels makes an enjoyable case that corn, and cornbread in particular, can be used to trace and define some of the regional culinary traditions in America that are just barely hanging on through the blustery winds of commercial homogenization. The book’s foundation is a survey of cornbread recipes throughout the country and the historical/cultural/regional factors that underlie a wonderfully diverse yet simple food. Boasting over 200 recipes, the book widens its focus to cover the uses of corn around the world, throughout which it spread following the European arrival in the Americas.
It is beyond the scope of this review to cover all the diverse and interesting recipes in this book, so I will focus on the subject of most direct interest to us: cornbread, and in particular Southern cornbread. Back in early October, I wrote about growing our own heirloom dent corn, from which we made and sold cornbread at market. We quickly learned that many folks have strong opinions about their cornbread and its ingredients, a fascinating dynamic covered at length in The Cornbread Gospels. The book opens with a survey of cornbread recipes collected around the country, with particular emphasis on the differences between Northern and Southern cornbread (the latter generally being far more “pure” with no flour, sweetener, or other unnecessary ingredients).
I decided to undertake a study of “Southern cornbread” as the author defines it, and put together a table of ingredients for all the Southern recipes in the book. As you can see, they are all fairly simple, mostly cornmeal, buttermilk, and some leavener. The table is arranged from “most pure” at the top to “most Northern” at the bottom, and several patterns jump out right away. For example, the recipes on pages 21 and 27 are virtually identical (the main difference is that 27 uses self-rising cornmeal, for which I estimated the individual leavening amounts for the purpose of comparison; 23 is the same way). Pages 14, 24, and 25 are very subtle variations of each other, and if doubled are nearly identical to 21. The main differences are baking temperature and egg quantities, and at times the type of cornmeal used.
Of course, cornbread is more than raw data. Though each of these recipes are subtle variations on a theme, what does not come out in the table are the personal stories, histories, and cultures that influenced the different recipes. One might be from the Arkansas delta region, another from the Tennessee hills, each cooked subtly differently and infused with the traditions that shaped this humble food into a unique product for its makers. For this alone, the book is worth it, though I took the analysis further and tested several recipes.
I chose pages 12 and 21 as opposite ends of the spectrum. Though included in the Southern section, page 12 is about as Northern as it gets by the author’s own definitions, using half flour, a lot of sweetener, and a significantly lower temperature than most of the purer, higher-temperature recipes. The results can be observed above, with the pure page 21 on the left and the Northern page 12 on the right. Both were tasty to us, but the differences were clear. The unadulterated corn flavor was far stronger in 21, and the higher temperature resulted in a nicely browned crust across the bread. 12 was sweeter, softer and more cake-like, which is indeed how the author defines Northern cornbread. Try them both and see if your roots match your taste buds (in my case, my Mississippi heritage wins over my Minnesota heritage).
We also dipped into the more eclectic recipes toward the back of the book, which offer a wide survey of possible ways to use cornmeal. The recipe for Rosemary Corn Crackers on page 156 caught our eye, and did not disappoint. These were very simple, though taking a bit of concentration to roll out correctly, and had a lovely crispness and unique flavor. Not a pairing I would have come up with on my own, and a lovely discovery. You can see the results above.
Overall this is an enjoyable book that offers a worthwhile look into the culinary history of corn along with some very interesting recipes. At times the writing was too flowery or cute for my taste, as the author tends to enthusiastically wax poetic about the more ethereal virtues of corn, but that does not detract from the value of the basic contents and the basic quality of the recipes we tried. Our own verdict on cornbread? When made with commercial cornmeal, we prefer the sweeter Northern varieties, which compensate for the lack of real flavor in the meal. When made with our own home-grown heirloom dent corn, freshly ground into course meal, a truly simple Southern cornbread allows the real flavor to shine, and comes the closest to what cornbread ought to be and was in the glory days of America’s regional food system.
Saturday, November 8, 2008
On another note, our personal values include the feeling that it's best to tighten belts elsewhere and spend the time and money it takes to enjoy good food. For example, even the most elaborate meal you read about here takes less time than the statistically average American's TV-watching. Heck, if we were TV watchers, we could put one in the kitchen and accomplish both. In general, we're spending less than an hour on almost any meal, and almost always making enough to provide leftovers for lunch the next day. To me, cooking real food is as much a matter of priorities as abilities, though I certainly respect those working very long hours who really don't have much time at all. All I can say is that we find kitchen time together one of the most worthwhile things we do as a couple and we make the time to cook because it's so important to us.
Saturday: We attended the Columbia Farmers Market Fall Roundup, an afternoon-evening year-end conference featuring speakers and socializing to recap the end of the market year. A fun event, with dinner catered by Cafe Berlin, a local restaurant with a heavy local-foods focus.
Sunday: Soft tacos - homemade wheat tortillas filled with spiced goat & beans (onion, garlic, meat, shelled beans, cilantro, with bulk spices), chopped tomatoes, peppers, & our cheddar. All produce, meat, and cheese ours. Tortillas homemade from bulk flour, spices purchased in bulk.
Monday: Filipino-style fried rice - onion, garlic, meat, cinnamon, soy sauce sauteed with green beans, tomatoes, purple potatoes, sweet potatoes, eggs, and rice. All produce, meat, and eggs ours, rice & spices purchased in bulk. This recipe is a great example of adaption to seasonal/local food supplies, with sweet potatoes standing in for plantains, our frozen green beans standing in for peas, and goat standing in for pork.
Tuesday: Vegetarian chili (onions, garlic, beans, tomatoes, spices, rice, cheese) with side of cabbage-pecan-apple salad. All produce ours except beans (bulk organic in this case), spices, and rice. Apples from Fertile Crescent Farms.
Wednesday: Joanna's homemade biscuits with sorghum syrup, sauteed mixed greens (mustard, collards, kale), sweet potato fries. Greens & sweet potatoes ours, biscuits made from bulk materials, sorghum from Sandhill Farm.
Thursday: Eric away for a meeting (ate at Uprise), Joanna made quinoa salad.
Friday: One of Joanna's favorite winter meals to make: squash & leek lasagna. Winter squash, leeks, cheese, milk, noodles, herbs, spices, & more combine into a sweet and tasty dish that is unique and memorable. Recipe from Eating Well Magazine, I will post our take on it soon. Squash from Phil's Garden (ours failed this year), cheese from Goatsbeard Farm, milk from Weiler Dairy, leeks ours, other items purchased.
Friday, November 7, 2008
With winter well on its way, it was time to establish warmer and more secure housing for the goats. They don't mind cold temperatures too much, but everyone says they don't like drafts or moisture, and who doesn't like to be warm and dry? At some point I'm planning to build a small, permanent goat barn, but we don't have time right now. So we winterized their summer hoophouse with a few easy steps.
Way back in May, I wrote about our method of setting up quick, inexpensive cattle-panel hoophouses. An 8'x16' one of these has been the standard goat house for the summer, offering both shelter and ventilation. For winter, all we really needed to do was close the ends in. On the south side, we piled straw bales up to the top, spiking them in place with t-posts and tying them to the hoop with baling twine. This gives a solid wall that keeps most drafts out. At the north end, we reused an old wall/door setup that had originally been used on a chicken version of these hoops. It works great for closing in this end and making it possible to shut the door on really cold days and keep the goats inside.
The tarps on the hoop really accept solar heat well, and it gets nice and warm in there during sunny days. On cloudy days, it will be cooler, but as we're told they don't really mind that. There are few drafts, and the floor is thick straw. Overall, lots of room for loafing and moving around. Their hayrack is built out of wood and cut-down cattle panel, such that they can reach their heads through the holes to get at hay, but don't waste as much as an open trough. The flat rack at the base catches smaller alfalfa leaves and keeps them off the ground, preserving more food and discouraging worms. It works quite well.
Thursday, November 6, 2008
"Patagonia presents the Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Festival, November 9 , 2008, in Columbia. Buy your tickets online now. MPF, the Columbia Farmers' Market and the Alpine Shop will host this event at the historic Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts. "
"This three hour event will feature award-winning short films about natural resources conservation, sustainable agriculture and more. The program will be capped by the beautiful documentary, "America's Lost Landscape: The Tallgrass Prairie."
As noted, the Columbia Farmers Market is helping promote this event, and there are several films including specifically about agriculture. In addition, Dan Kuebler of CFM & SF&C will be giving a short talk, and CFM will have a booth set up offering information about the market and selling the Farm Hands 2009 calendar.
Doors open at 1pm and the films start at 2pm. Learn more at http://www.motheatre.org/calendar/index.asp?show_ID=999
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
Monday, November 3, 2008
Missouri has traditionally granted one free deer and turkey permit to residents owning five or more acres, to be used on that acreage. This seemed to be an acknowledgement of the role landowners play in conservation and a balance between managing hunting and respecting basic personal freedoms. If new rules proposed for 2009 take place, that's about to change. The Department of Conservation (MDC) is proposing upping the acreage limit from 5 to 80 acres, with the following justification (scroll near the bottom of the link):
"The new minimum of 80 contiguous acres better conforms with the original intent of acknowledging landowners who derive significant income from agricultural activities on their property, while also recognizing recreational landowners who contribute to wildlife habitat."
Significant income from agriculture activities? Seems to me that plenty of vegetable, fruit, dairy, meat, and other farmers live and grow on less than 80 acres, especially those that grow for markets rather than wholesale. Most direct-market produce farms gross way more per acre than a large corn/soybean operation; it's possible to grow a meaningful income's worth of vegetables in just a few acres. Recreational landowner who contributes to wildlife habitat? My farm isn't recreational, it's my full-time job. Should I reclassify myself as a hobbyist to make it onto MDC's radar?
The new acreage limit also benefits primarily the wealthy; lots of folks can afford five acres of land in the country on which they can hunt to feed their families, but far fewer can afford 80 acre "recreational" spreads. Why are we cutting off smaller landowners to benefit larger ones?
This rule change demonstrates the continuing battle that non-commodity farmers have to be recognized as "real" farmers. Does MDC really think that only corn & bean growers offer meaningful habitat management for wildlife, as compared to a small diversified vegetable/fruit/meat/dairy/other market farm? Does MDC really think that small farms do not derive "significant income from agricultural activities"? I guess we're just all hobbyists who are not relevant to the agricultural or conservation dynamics of the state. And if the goal is to focus on "real farmers", you'd better raise the acreage limit a lot higher than 80, as not many folks can make a living growing corn on less than a thousand acres these days (as opposed to, say, five for vegetables).
Look, I hunt for two reasons: to supply food for my household, and to help control the deer population. I am not a sport or trophy hunter; it is a practical part of our sustainable lifestyle and a logical form of pest control for the farm. I don't really care about the cost of the permit; I'd happily pay a higher permit price to support the overall good work that MDC does. But I'm deeply bothered by the implication that small farms and landowners play no meaningful role in conservation and agriculture, and are treated as such. No wonder small, diversified market farms are ignored by governments intent on showering more favors on big agribusiness. When even MDC ignores the value, contribution, and existence of small farms, what hope to we have to be seen as a serious part of the agricultural fabric of Missouri and the nation? Shame on MDC.
Sunday, November 2, 2008
This three-day event, always held in Columbia, MO, covers a wide range of topics related to small farms, food, and agriculture. The organizers note that last year's show drew more than 150 exhibitors and 4,400 people; I can attest that these come from as far away as Alaska.
It's not just focused on farms, but anyone interested in food, growing/gardening, agricultural policy, animals, and more. People with gardens will find useful talks, books, tools, and more (the on-site bookstore alone is worth attendance for anyone with an interest in food, ag, sustainability, do-it-yourself, and more). Readers with an interest in sustainable ag policy will find talks by such national names as Joel Salatin, whose testimony before Congress this April should be required reading for all farmers and consumers. Families with kids will enjoy the livestock and poultry displays, generally focusing on rare and/or heritage breeds, as well as the stock dog demonstrations. And it's just plain fun.
I would definitely encourage community members to visit the show even for a few hours. If you're a farmers market shopper and/or CSA member, this is a really good way to learn a little more about the life behind your food; the show is very accessible and interesting for non-farmers as well. You'll be a more informed and inspired consumer afterwards, with perhaps a better understanding of what it can mean to be a small, direct-market farmer. In addition, the event blends farm needs with homestead needs, so plenty of the talks and booths are directly relevent to gardening, cooking (there's always cookware demonstrations), sustainable living, and other things that anyone can appreciate.
I'm posting this partly because the local media usually do a terrible job of covering the show, rarely mentioning it ahead of time and generally ignoring it, so I want to do my part to get the word out and involve the community at large, not just the farmers. For a lot of folks, it will feel like a sustainable, progressive version of the county fair. So check out the schedule, find a few hours Thursday through Saturday, and come out to the county fairgrounds and enjoy the event. We'd love to see you there, helping support and grow the small farmers, gardeners, and homesteads that are so necessary for our future.
Saturday, November 1, 2008
Saturday: I forgot to write this meal down, and for the life of me, cannot remember what it was a week later. Oh well.
Sunday: Leftover pancit, with homemade naan (Indian flatbread) and green tomato/apricot chutney.
Monday: Roasted tomato soup with garlic & beans over orzo. Tomatoes, garlic, and freshly shelled beans ours. Side of green salad, all ours.
Tuesday: Roasted turnip/potato & apple soup with cheddar. Produce ours, apples from Fertile Crescent Farms, cheddar ours (aged from this summer).
Wednesday: Frittata: eggs, kale, tomatoes, cheese, onions, garlic, etc. All produce & eggs ours, cheese ours (aged cheddar) and from Goatsbeard Farm.
Thursday: Went into Columbia to attend a 40,000-strong Obama rally. Ate dinner at Uprise Bakery.
Friday: Spiced black-eyed peas with ground goat, served over rice with melted cheddar. Sides of fried green tomatoes, sauteed mixed greens (kale, collards, mustard) w/ tomato vinegar, fresh cabbage/pepper slaw. All produce ours except peas (organic bulk) & rice (organic bulk), cheese ours, meat ours.