Saturday, March 14, 2009


Thank gods (and Ceres, specifically) for spring, eh? As the icy white fist of winter finally loosens its grip on our blue-lipped world, we turn to Nature’s most welcome promise—that days will now warm and expand, granting our shivering skin a hint of the sun’s hot breath to come, and reintroducing the color green to March’s neutral palette. No matter your regard for New England winter, this spring is sure to bring to your face a mile-wide smile like no year in recent memory. If we can’t count on fiscal recovery right away, we at least have spring to look forward to, right? Right? So go stick your fingers in some cold loam and polish off your rusty trowels. In New England, one earns spring.

For my part, I have been busily dreaming of seeds, soil and sun since the opening days of ’09. I met with local farmers Garen and Josh in late January to discuss seed purchases for this coming summer, particularly as they pertain to our Black Trumpet menu. Every January, in exchange for feeding the farmers, I get their attention in one finite space for a finite moment to exchange ideas about what can be grown, harvested, cooked and eaten. It’s a necessary break for all three of us from shoveling snow and staring out into the frozen void.

So, as we sat down in the wine bar in the midst of Sunday Snowstorm number Seventeen of the winter, we three lads discussed potential crops, possible failures and shortcomings, strengths and weaknesses, and many other not-so-manly concessions and confessions. The two farmers learned about my quirky fondness for kohlrabi, scented geranium, agastache foeniculum, red-fleshed potatoes and purslane, among other oddities. And I learned from them about the difficulties of growing spring brassicas in a pesticide-free environment.

The cast of this tete-a-tete, excluding the narrator: Garen Heller, a local institution in his own right, has been working the land at Back River Farm in Dover since I have been in the business in Portsmouth (eleven years!). Josh Jennings, a clever and well-spoken organic cultivator, along with his adorable and equally articulate partner, Jean, are very hard-working farmers who have made a huge name for themselves and Meadow’s Mirth Farm on both the farmer’s market and direct-to-restaurant wholesale circuits. We agreed on a few things that each of the farmers already excel at, and Garen and Josh agreed to take on some new crops as well, if only to test the waters (using Black Trumpet patrons and farmer’s marketgoers as guinea pigs).

The next day, my own seed catalogs arrived in the mail. As anachronistic as it is to be looking at pictures of midsummer fruits in the bowels of January, I derive a very pleasurable dose of hope from those little mags. I remember getting pretty excited about the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue when I was a teen. Now, perhaps sadly, pictures of heirloom Thelma Sanders squash have replaced those of Paulina Porizkova in a monokini as my harbingers of spring.

After browsing four or five catalogs over the course of a few days, I finally placed my annual order, this year using only High Mowing Seeds in Vermont. I like the grass-roots operation and the seed-saving imperative that separates High Mowing Seeds from the competition, and we all appreciate the importance of spending a few more cents for a packet of seeds that has been saved from the previous year’s crop and cared for without ever coming into contact with fertilizers, pesticides or any other artificial hazard, n’est-ce pas?

My Dad—and countless other observers—will look at my gardens again this year and say things like, “Why don’t you just kill the bugs that are choking your garden?” Or, “If you use this powder, your plants will produce twice as much fruit.” No, I won’t do it, I tell them, and I’ll happily have the most threadbare and sullen little raised beds in the county if that’s the price I have to pay for using organic practices. To look at me, you might not see hippie (thinning hair won’t allow it), but on the inside, I am constantly hugging the earth and all that it gives us, even at the cost of violating my softcore suburban punk-rock past.

I recently met with Jenny Isler, a local organic gardening guru and supervisor of our Strawbery Banke Community Garden. Black Trumpet has always had a bed at Strawbery Banke, and members of my kitchen crew have always volunteered to plant, weed, and maintain that bed. This year, Sous Chef Mike—a really great guy—and Rounds Cook Carrie—a really great gal, are taking control of the garden, in part because I wasn’t obsessive-compulsive enough last year to map the placement of every seed in the raised bed. So far, I’m taking the hostile takeover of the garden pretty well, but I do hope Mike and Carrie will let me weed periodically as a gesture of goodwill. Something Jenny said to me has been resonating since we sat down: economic sustainability is the linchpin of ecologic sustainability. In other words, if the goal is to construct a locally sustainable farm-to-chef connection, the price has got to be right, especially when the purse strings are tight.

As an endnote (I hate to say “appendix,” because a pinkie-sized vestigial organ uselessly occupying valuable human gut space does nothing to promote further inquiry), we recently hosted a really cool event at our restaurant. On Sunday, March 8, Chef’s Collaborative and Slow Food conducted a seed-saving symposium of seacoast chefs and growers (alliteration, meet sibilance). The idea of the event was to get farmers and chefs together to brainstorm a “grow out” of heirloom seeds native to the Northeast, many of which are in danger of being hybridized or eliminated altogether from the agricultural family tree. At the end of the meeting, each farmer received a grocery bag full of seeds for the grow out. What this means to the consumer is that, soon, the farmer’s markets and restaurants will be featuring Thelma Sanders squash, Boothby Blond cucumber and cranberry shelling beans.

My plea for this year (besides the one that cries for everyone to remember that eating out at small, independent restaurants supports communities and keeps restaurants around) is to ask everyone I know to put a New England heirloom seed or two in their garden, even if they don’t have a garden. What you grow is part of who we are. It’s kind of like “You are what you eat,” but it’s more like “You eat what you are.”

Oh, and by the way, Happy 2nd Birthday, Black Trumpet! Thank you to all who have helped us outlive the average American restaurant.