Friday, February 19, 2010

Gone From My Sight

I flew to visit my grandmother Monday; I caught the last flight out of JFK before the snows swept in and put the city on hold. I knew that it would be my last chance to see her, and I worried that I might arrive too late. My father and I woke early to hit the road to Alabama; our car cut through the chilly morning air past grass the faded tan of winter.

When we arrived, my Uncle was waiting to usher us along the corridors and into the small room where my grandmother lay. Suspended in a half-life of oxygen tubes and painkillers, she was not able to speak or greet us. She seemed hollowed out, breaking and broken.

So I did what she would have done for me, what she had done for me since I was a child: I told her stories. I told her about my winter in the north, about making haggis, about the farms where I have worked and where I will work next year. I reminded her of the fourth of July when she let me dye the applesauce blue (I was alone in my patriotic zeal, judging from the leftovers). I thanked her for the gingerbread houses that we made together every Christmas. When I had run out of stories, we sat quietly for a while. She didn't need any more stories distracting her from the work at hand. She needed all of us to let go, to relinquish the ties that were binding her to that room. As I struggled to find the words to release her, I was suddenly reminded of the owl we had caught one fall morning at Serenbe more than a year ago.

When we found him, the owl could only blink at us, his yellow eyes fierce and frightened: Samson shorn of his locks and chained to the temple pillars. In the night he had hunted our chickens, swooping low and soundless. He had found our fence instead—a lightly electrified net surrounding the chicken pen, erected against just such intruders. The nighttime struggle could only have been epic, we surmised, for the owl lay mute and utterly still, swaddled tightly in a straighjacket of his own devising. Upon our approach, he flexed his talons, tight across his chest, and opened and closed his beak soundlessly.

Realistically, we should not have helped this creature to get free. He was a predator, as likely as not to come back for a second helping. But we couldn't imagine any other action than to let him go. We carefully untangled the lines which pinned his wings at odd angles. We unwrapped the cords from his neck and legs. The final few knots wouldn't give to our ministrations, so against all better judgement, we cut the fence. By that point, it took two of us to hold the bird still. We could feel him gathering strength, straining for release. He seemed sound and unharmed despite his night in captivity, so we threw him into the air, watched his wings spread wide and catch against the air. He rose silently, purposefully, without hesitation.

My grandmother died Wednesday morning, some time between the last darkness of night and the first light of a clear day. I will miss her dearly, but I am glad to see her go.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

On Serendipity: A Retrospective

I believe in America’s agricultural revival. I’m 23 years old, the product of a small liberal arts college and a bustling, cosmopolitan graduate school, and I’m comparison shopping for work boots and overalls in preparation for my first day as a farmer. I’ll be honest; I don’t entirely know what I’m getting into. I grew up in the city, have never grown so much as a tomato. Call me crazy, but I actually believe that I can do this.
Thus I began this blog, almost two years ago. Not many people actually read those words, however, as I only shared the address with my best friend and only then after oaths of strictest secrecy. For all of my posture of speaking from a soapbox, I was really writing to myself. I wanted to flex my writing muscles, which had finally recovered from the over-exertion of college and grad school. I wanted to remind myself why I had put development work on hold and moved to a farm. Spring was rising in me like sap, and I needed some forum to record my own greening.

At first, I was nervous to let my words loose in the world--what if I offended someone? What if my writing sucked? What if, someday, a stranger showed up on my doorstep professing psychic kinship and asking to stay for dinner? Still, that inevitable writerly urge stirred in me to find an audience. When Paige offered to link to this blog from the farm's website, the temptation proved too much to resist. My first comments thrilled me (they all still do), so when another greenhorn future-farmer from California complimented my blog and asked me for more information about Serenbe, I was happy to oblige.

Ok, so I did think he sounded a little bit over-eager, claiming "we-have-a-lot-in-common". Blogs are like one-way mirrors in that way--but after a few wary emails I became convinced that he was neither a serial killer nor a weirdo. He was planning to WOOFF his way around the US, volunteering on diverse farms in diverse regions in an attempt to discern his own niche within the broad discipline of agriculture. He hoped to come work at Serenbe for a month, before moving on to Florida and then along the Gulf coast. He liked rhubarb and vegetabling off, sure signs that he had at least a modicum of good taste. Paige figured we could use the extra hands in October, and she and Jack were having a very good time calling this person my "online boyfriend," so she hired him.

With that settled, we all moved on with our summers. The teasing settled down (or, to be more accurate, was directed toward other fronts), and I went on several bad blind dates. At the end of September on an early Sunday, I pulled up to the Greyhound bus station in Atlanta to pick up our new farmer. He was a study in reticence, pausing before any reply, thoughtful in the face of my exuberant stream-of-consciousness dialogue. I thought he seemed nice enough, though much quieter than I had expected.

Fast forward to Friday of last week. In the middle of a snowy meadow with a ring he had carved from a Hershey's kiss, Andrew proposed. Best Valentines Day ever? You betcha.

I found out, much after the fact, that he had chosen Serenbe as much for my words as for the farm. As he claims, "I just wanted to meet the girl with the blog." I am grateful that I was not made aware of this fact any earlier, however, as I would have doubtless done everything in power to sabotage his application, had I known his true motivations. In retrospect, I cannot think of a better way to meet your best friend and the person you most love in the world than this: first through the medium of your thoughts best-said, then through toil, working side-by side, and finally in the kitchen: chopping onions, debating politics, washing the dinner dishes before dessert.

Thank you everyone for reading. And most especially Andrew, thank you.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Breakfast of Champions

Who doesn't love a snow day? Well, the snowplow operator might not be so thrilled when he looks out his window onto a downy dusting of snow, but this morning brought great rejoicing among the students and faculty of the charter school where I have been subbing. Substitute teacher that I am, I did not get the memo that school was off until I had driven 25 minutes and pulled into a ghost-town parking lot. But after my 15 seconds of compulsory griping, I happily sped home to a celebratory breakfast of buttermilk banana pancakes, mutton sausage, and a fried egg. The "blizzard" which had canceled school never really materialized, but I enjoyed a semi-productive morning of scatterbrained farm research: bouncing from strawberry plant research to tractor implement classifieds to sprout recipes.

I mention my breakfast not to inspire envy in the stomachs of the less snow-bound, but to share my excitement over my creation of real buttermilk. Buttermilk from the store is something of a misnomer--it is actually a cultured milk product, a thinner version of yogurt. Traditional buttermilk, on the other hand, was the byproduct of buttermaking. Once the fat globules in cream had been churned into a golden hunk of butter, the remaining liquid could be set aside as buttermilk for use in cooking. Without refrigeration, cream soured and thickened under the action of benign lactic-acid bacteria. When that soured cream was churned, the resultant butter and buttermilk took on a deeper, fermented flavor which many cooks came to love (along with the leavening action caused by the interaction of acidic buttermilk and basic baking soda).

Somehow, despite the fact that I milked a cow last season and had ample opportunity to make my own butter, I never actually did. Whether this has anything to do with my overfondness for ice cream, I cannot say. Six months later, having acquired fresh cream and a proper spirit of inquiry, I finally got the job done. Along the way, I used a photo series I found here to guage the transformation of my cream into butter--I had been warned that if you churn it too long, the butter will separate back into cream, never to become butter again. Ten minutes in the Cuisinart was all I needed to produce a ball of buttery bliss the size of a clementine (it took me a bit longer than it should have, as I in my paranoia kept stopping the machine to peer inside and check for doneness). I squeezed out any residual buttermilk, rinsed the butter under ice water until my fingers went numb, and packed my little treasure away in the fridge. The whole thing was uncommonly simple, though butter-making limitations in my kiddie-sized food processor have me now jonesing for one of the huge 10-cup models.

I chose to make sweet cream butter from unsoured cream, so my buttermilk was correspondingly thin and fresh. Had I known that I would get the next day off, I might have left it out overnight in hopes of it thickening and souring for breakfast.

Milk and milk products are especially on my mind as of late thanks to the addition to our library of Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages by Anne Mendelson. Exalting in the compendious collection of milk lore, science, and recipes (!!!), I briefly considered making it my mission to try all 120 recipes in the coming season. Sanity, thankfully, intervened, reminding me that 1) I will almost certainly not have time for such gastronomic revels 2) my readership might grow just a wee bit bored with 120 dairy recipes, varied as they may be, and 3) that blogging your way through a cookbook is so 2002. Thus while exotic dairy products will undoubtedly creep back into the pages of this blog, I will continue to offer a wide variety of recipes for the vegetarian, vegan, lactose-intolerant, and full-blooded carnivores among you.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Iron Chef: Haggis Challenge

Rumor has it that the most popular question on the President’s CitizenTube talking point list enquires as to the future of that most cherished of stoner dreams: the legalization of marijuana. Personally, I’m impatient with such trivial matters. A far graver US ban haunts my days and nights: the longstanding haggis blockade.

In case you missed it, Burns Night (anniversary of the birth of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns) was celebrated last week on the evening of January 25th. Beyond an excuse for bagpipes, excessive whiskey toasts, and a dusting off of the old tartan, Burns Night has the unique honor of being the only holiday in which organ meats feature prominently on the menu. Burn’s mock epic, “Ode to a Haggis,” has attached itself so securely to the day, that one cannot mention Burns Night without uttering “haggis” in the same breath. To celebrate Burns Night without that “Great Cheiftan o’ the Puddin’ Race” would be tantamount to Valentines Day without conversation hearts—sure, most people don’t really like to eat the chalky candies, but they’re such handy conversation starters, right?

And a haggis, allow me to add, is much, much more than a conversation starter. The recipe varies depending on whom you ask, but usually involves some combination of sheep heart, liver, tongue, kidneys, and lungs, all of which are combined with steel-cut oats, spices, and a generous portion of fat, then boiled like a pudding within a sheep’s stomach. Small wonder that the colloquial description claims that haggis contains “everything but the baaaa”. Traditional haggis was peasant food, and so not an exacting science; it utilized whatever was left once the “good parts” had been consumed. All manner of variation exists in present-day Scotland, from “beef haggis” to “vegetarian haggis” to “haggis burgers” (I don’t know that I want to know). Still, the ideal was and always shall be the spectacle of a haggis on a platter, sliced open like a sausage and steaming before the guests.

As you probably guessed, I really wanted to eat a haggis this year. Despite rumors to the contrary, the USDA had no plans of lifting their decades long ban on haggis imports (begun during the days of foot-and-mouth fears), so I took it upon myself to make one from scratch.

Farmer friends informed me that they would be sending a sheep to slaughter in January, and I quickly requested that they reserve all offal for me. Unfortunately, the watchful eyes of the USDA decreed that the stomach was unfit for stuffing and that lungs are not for eating, and I was only able to acquire the conventionally edible parts (heart, liver, kidneys, tongue). The lovely thing about organ meats is their relative economy, even when sourced from an otherwise expensive retailer. Purchasing enough lamb or mutton to host a dinner party would have placed quite a strain on my careful winter budget, but haggis supplies from a local farm whose grass-fed sheep had been slaughtered at a USDA facility (this adds quite a bit of cost for the farmer) set me back only $10.

Home, and having sufficiently exhausted the comedic photo potential of the tongue, I began my haggis. First, I boiled the offal for about three hours, ostensibly to render it more tender (though in truth it could only ever be described as chewy). Once cooked and cooled, I minced all of the organs and mixed them with toasted oats, spices, onion, broth, and some tallow. The mixture looked a bit like chunky sausage filling, and smelled surprisingly appealing, I thought. Lacking a (sheep) stomach, I had to take some culinary liberties, and I cooked the haggis double-boiler style, with tin-foil tightly covering the top of the haggis-bowl.

Our guests arrived. The whiskey poured. We heaped the table high with other vaguely Scottish delights in hopes that a failure of the haggis would not spoil the entire evening. And with great fanfare, we all dug in.

I’m not kidding, it was good. As in, people took seconds good. Andrew ate thirds, though that wasn’t terribly surprising, really. The surprise was universal, as almost everyone, it turned out, had partaken under the assumption that this would be a meal for bragging rights, rather than gastronomical enjoyment. I won’t tell you that the haggis was pretty, as it was not. And it did have liver-y overtones (you can never hide a liver, no matter how hard you try). But I can easily see why Scotland has adopted haggis as their national dish: a culinary emblem of resourcefulness, an ode to cereal and sheep.

Besides, haggis is way, WAY better than the South London standby of jellied eels.

DIY Haggis

1 sheep heart
2 sheep kidneys
1 sheep liver
1 sheep tongue
1/2 lb suet (lacking proper suet, I used a combination of tallow and lard)
1 cup toasted steel cut oats
2 onions, chopped
~1 cup beef broth, or cooking liquid from the offal
1/4 t ground allspice
1/4 t ground nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste
1 sheep stomach (optional)

First and foremost, be sure to source your offal from a farmer or butcher you know and trust. Consider that the liver is the of the body--do you really want the liver of an animal that was suckled on preventative antibiotics?

Cook the organs (NOT the stomach) in a pot of boiling water for 3 hours, approximately. They should be cooked through. Drain and reserve the cooking liquid, if you want. Once cool enough to handle, peel the tongue (yes, it will be disturbingly tongue-like), cut out the gristly center of the kidneys, and mince everything as finely as you can. This is the most labor intensive part of the process, by far.

Grate or chop the suet finely. (N.B: real suet is the fat that surrounds the kidneys of a cow. It melts, I am told, at a higher temperature than other beef fats, making it desirable in puddings for texture. Suet is not a hugely popular item in this country, so if you, like me, have trouble locating it, just use the closest thing in your larder.) Mix the suet, onions, spices, and oatmeal with the minced organ meat and moisten it all with the stock. Stuff the stomach. Stitch the stomach tightly shut, and prick it a few times to allow pressure to escape during cooking. Boil the stomach gently for about 3 hours. If you are thwarted in your quest for a stomach, I recommend the double boiler method, and I have heard rumors that it is even possible to cook a haggis in a crockpot (maybe next year). Place the haggis in your double boiler, cover the top tightly with a lid or tinfoil and a rubber band, and boil the haggis in your double boiler for 3 hours. Then serve and enjoy! Haggis is traditionally accompanied by mashed "neeps and tatties" (potatoes and turnips) and a generous dram of whiskey.