Saturday, August 22, 2009

A Call to Farms: Chef's Day Off

It seems only right that the “Summer of 2009” arrived a month or so behind schedule. This year has been a heap of crap for the most part, what with the relentless, torrential one-two punch of weather and fiscal woes. For us Malletts, it has been a great year for evaluation, Small Business Management 101, and family-oriented stuff that no one really wants to read about. Despite the six-week-long biblical deluge that spanned most of June and July, we have seen periodic suggestions that things might be improving nanofilamentally (not a word, blog cops); we have seen emerging evidence that there is a flickering candle somewhere at the far end of the half-collapsed mine shaft we call 2009. I argue that, for all of the wounded and downtrodden, for all the huddled masses seeking jobs and hope, no one has felt the crush quite like farmers.

My friends in the restaurant industry--few in number but widespread in geography, experience and business-type—are all in the same lifeboat, a vessel which is taking on a lot of water but miraculously not sinking. We chefs are a resilient bunch, accustomed to cuts, burns, violence, anxiety, palpitations, muscle pain and—worst of all—ego-stomping criticism. So it is no surprise that, in this epoch of econoclimatic stress disorder we continue to endure, my friends have sought out supplementary income and contingency plans, some of them consulting, others taking on prep work or catering or—let’s face it—whatever it takes to pay the bills. Still, their grievances can’t measure up to the farmers who have faced months of nonstop rain, wildly fluctuating temperatures, blight, and—in some cases—total crop loss.

I am not writing this blog to whine on my own or anyone else’s behalf, as reflexive and therapeutic as that is for me, but rather to describe my one day off, a relatively cloudless and hot Tuesday in August. I am no Joyce, alas, or even a Leo Bloom for that matter, but I thought this day-in-a-life was worth capturing for those readers who imagine a chef’s “day off” to be something more glamorous. Here goes…


Although I admit that it was my idea, I can’t say that I remember any moment of epiphany, cognition or decision that led to The Plan. My daughter Eleanor has wanted to expand our humble country home into a full-fledged farm for some time now, and her parents have dissuaded the idea with a number of excuses that have not even begun to take purchase in her slick, obdurate and fast-moving train of thought. I applaud her tenacity, and I confess to running out of defenses against her argument. “Just two goats, Daddy, That’s all I ask” The Plan came about as a last ditch effort to put all the childish arguments to rest, to once and for all quell Eleanor’s desire to convert our placid woodlot to a full-on Waltons-type situation. Once she saw the tremendous work ethic required to maintain farm animals, I predicted, she would come to the shocking realization that farm life was too rugged for a child. She would return to a normal girl’s world of books, dolls and knitting, a safe and uneventful haven free of heavy machinery and poop.

Of course, The Plan—hereafter referred to as “Farm Day”--was doomed to backfire from the get-go. I proceeded anyway, in part because I too harbor visions of a small farm on our property (as long as someone other than I milks, slops, shovels, herds and otherwise cares for the menagerie). Seemingly ignorant to this eventuality, I doggedly forged ahead with Farm Day, the idea of which involved getting up with the sun and piling in the car to the nearest working dairy farm, where our groggy kids would witness the laborious process of milking and then be utterly disgusted by a stableful of pig plop.


I have a cheap alarm clock that possesses its own agenda. If you set it, for example, to awaken at 5:30 AM, it will begin its immutable beeping crescendo at that hour and then, after being squelched with a smack to one of three unlabeled buttons on the top, will revisit the cacophony every ten minutes for a span of time I have yet to ascertain because my solution after three or four reminders is to unplug the mechanical demon and curse myself awake.

So it was on August 4th, a Tuesday, my day of rest. So it also was, incidentally, on Wednesday, August 5th, Thursday, August 6th, and so on ads infinitum and nauseam.
On this special day, however, I managed to rally with a forced smile, as my excited children responded to their “call to farms” efficiently and without complaint, much to my amazement and chagrin.

Even Denise, after working a long double the day before, miraculously rose to the occasion and donned farmwear before the clock struck 6:00. At 6, after hurried efforts at a road breakfast, we scrambled out into the sunrise with no clear agenda and an almost palpable excitement.

Brookford Farm in Rollinsford is a friendly place, the kind of farm where we felt comfortable popping in unannounced as the sun crested over the Salmon Falls River, the cool grey light turning blue and warm in visible gradients before our eyes. Luke was there, corralling the cows into the concrete-and-steel sixpen built for high-octane milking. Certain hefty and headstrong heifers required full-body tackles and smacks to the haunches, which we watched with delight, offering help with the full knowledge that we had no idea how or where to jump in. We were reduced to voyeurism, as Luke turned on the suction pump and hooked up the cows to plastic lactoreceptors, which piped the fresh, raw, warm milk to a vast cistern in the adjacent room.

For those unfamiliar with Luke and Caterina Mahoneys’ arrangement, the youthful and happy farming couple lease the farm from an exceptionally benevolent and hard-working woman named Mrs. Aikens. Mrs. Aikens has owned the land and the structures on it for time immemorial, but Luke and Caterina have been farming there for the last few years. The operation has burgeoned in that time to thirty or so head of cattle, countless chickens, and a phalanx of hogs.

Luke seemed pleasantly surprised, but ultimately unfazed, by our arrival. We parted ways after the second load of bessies filled the pens. He apologized for his tacit nature, yet he volunteered plenty of farm hospitality and wisdom, and demonstrated the kind of efficiency only an expert can.

6:30 AM
We moseyed over to the pig poke for slop time, and we were treated to a glorious feast of grains and groans. The pigsty looked and smelled just like a pigsty, which I was certain the kids would find repugnant beyond words. Naturally, The Plan--like all well-laid plans--had been destined to backfire, so I was not totally shocked to see my children walking right up to the sty and patting putrid (albeit incredibly cute) pig noses without holding their own noses even once. In fact, I moved on from the stench trench well before it even crossed the kids’ minds. Eventually, we all toured the grounds of Brookford Farm, including the free-range mobile poultry unit on the hill across the street, where all kinds of oviparous fowl played around a vehicle that was half wagon, half funhouse. Happy chickens, as we know, lay the most delicious eggs. (Since our fisher friend came and raided our henhouse at home, leaving a horror scene behind, we have only Trumpet left, a coppery black sexlink that only occasionally drops an egg.)

7:00 AM
One of the best examples of how hard work and good soil are all you need to produce giant, delicious vegetables is Peter Allen’s plot in Mrs. Aiken’s field adjacent to Brookford Farm. This adjunct operation, sublet by the Mahoneys, has allowed Peter Allen, from whom I have sourced chickens for the Black Trumpet menu for a couple of years, to raise crops for a CSA that has helped finance some of his poultry costs. There is a lot of mutual backscratching that happens between farmers, just as we chefs share resources, including local pigs, purveyors and even staff. It ‘s the Hillarian village model working as it was intended.

A walk through Peter Allen’s crops, which span the length of two football fields laid out end-to-end, is like a walk through a dwarf rain forest. Rows of dinosaur kale seemed aptly named as my children disappeared among the enormous leaves. Collard greens and kohlrabi towered over plump cabbages and all manner of brassicas. Cows have grazed in these fields, Peter later explained, for decades, leaving their fecund deposits to fertilize the long-fallow meadow, thereby making it the perfect substrate for cultivating vegetables. We snagged a few fava beans for sampling (they were incredible!), and then went to meet Peter’s birds.

7:45 AM
After a jaunt back to the fields behind Brookford Farm, we met up with Peter himself to tour the undulating fields by the banks of the river where his chickens
enjoy one of the best views around. The cages designed by Peter are, like his philosophy, inspired by Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm in Virginia. Mr. Salatin has become an outspoken spokesman for the revolution. (I use the term revolution in its most literal sense here, meaning a return to the beginning, the way things were intended to be). Having authored many passionate treatises and mentored hundreds of poultry farmers around the country, Salatin has created a movement toward pasture-raised birds devoid of chemicals, artificial feed or cruel confinement.

Following the Salatin model, Allen’s birds graze on meadow grasses in wheeled, open-bottomed cages that allow ample room to move. When they have depleted the grass supply beneath the cages, they are moved a few feet along to a fresh patch. When the pesky mink and foxes leave them alone, the birds lead normal chicken lives. Following the aforementioned model, happy chickens make yummier poultry.

9:00 AM
I have had the distinct luxury of working with Gabe Balkus, an ambitious young man so like the 21-year-old me that he has been referred to as my Mini-me, for the entire lifespan of Black Trumpet. He has joined me on a few foraging outings, exhibiting the same geekish curiosity and eagerness that got him the job as garde manger and dishwasher, a post he has since served with total dedication and a mighty sunny countenance to boot. His role has evolved, but not as fast as either of us might wish. As assistant baker and pastry chef, he has shown great promise. When I invited him to join me for a speed-forage in the woods near my house, he accepted with the full knowledge that neither he nor I are what you would call “morning people.”

So, there he was, groggy but bighearted, at my house at 9:00 in the morning, trash bag in hand. We sprayed ourselves heavily with deet and ventured out with Moxie, our hyperactive Bernese mountain dog, into the bug-infested woods, where we found a few handfuls of chanterelles and various boletes over the span of an hour and a half. We were too early for black trumpets, but we split our winnings and parted ways.

10:30 AM, still Tuesday
So now the clock said mid-morning, but it felt like evening. If all days started at six, I could surely conquer the world while still having time for my job, family, house and gardens. A quick reality check reminds me that days can only start at six if they don’t end at one-thirty in the morning. Ambition is so dependent on insomnia.

12:30 PM
After Denise built a delicious lunch comprised of mostly locally farmed produce, the kids and I hopped in the car and raced to Center Strafford, where we had a date to tour Nelson Farm with Anne Obelnicki of Chef’s Collaborative. I cannot say enough in this blog about Chef’s Collaborative, whose Boston office has built inestimable credibility and assembled an enormous cadre of supporters over the years. This year, Anne has come on board to give our area (the New Hampshire Seacoast and vicinity) support as we take our successful but underfinanced model of local, sustainable, quality farming to a higher, more visible level.

Like Anne, I was sad to find that she and the Malletts were the extent of the preorganized tour group. Sean and Sarah, the couple who work the Nelson Farm fields and produce a remarkable array of organic and sustainable produce in a smallish space, have also managed to raise an infant (often seen napping at Portsmouth Farmers’ Market), not an easy feat in the best of times, but in this economy, I salute them. When they are not raising a family and farming the land, they also manage to cater large functions out of a truck that Sean picked up a year ago, Thoughts of them take me back to cheffing with newborns, an exercise that should be reserved for the young or foolish or both.

The tour began with Cormac clambering on an antique tractor, which proved to be a great photo op, followed by a walking tour of the greenhouse and fields. Although the variety of crops succeeding in the suddenly torrid August heat would have impressed me enough, the fact that Sean powers the sizable greenhouse with used fry oil is truly heroic.

As we were leaving Nelson Farm, Sean pulled some fresh veggies from various plants and handed them to the kids. Eleanor and Cormac ate the greenhouse tomatoes like apples, right there on the spot, juices dribbling down their chins. I thanked Sean and Anne and headed home with the kids for a locally farmed dinner followed by a farmer’s early bedtime for all. When I asked Eleanor if she still wanted to have farm animals, she replied, “Ooooh, yeah, baby! More than ever.” Backfire accomplished.


Shortly after Farm Day, Eleanor plucked a few leaves of wood-sorrel from the periphery of our backyard and popped them in her mouth as a treat. “Eleanor,” I exclaimed, “we humans can’t eat clover like cows!” To wit, she replied, “Daddy, it’s not clover; it’s wood sorrel.” I stand corrected, my heart bursting with pride. Of course, sorrel and clover--both in abundance in our yard (not your plastic emerald Scott’s Lawngard kind of yard, obviously)—do make excellent fodder for domesticated ungulates, too. Maybe Eleanor will get her wish one day, maybe even in the not-too-distant future. If we ever do upgrade to dairy farming and animal husbandry, I now believe we (or at least the kids) have what it takes to maintain the herd.

Stay tuned for upcoming blogs:

Dining Criticism 101: A Former Critic’s Review of His Own Restaurant

The Autumn Harvest Barn Dinner