Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Fifth Annual Heirloom Harvest Project's Barn Dinner

Evan's Introduction to the fifth annual Heirloom Harvest Project Barn Dinner and a tribute to Chuck Cox from Tuckaway Farm

The seeds on your menu tonight are Boothby blond cucumber seeds that our heirloom garden behind the barn grew out for this event.  Please feel free to tear off the bottom of this menu attachment and plant those seeds in your garden next year.

As you look at this menu and as you experience this dinner, I hope you will be thinking about the amount of time, energy and dedication that goes into it.  Chefs, farmers, volunteers from all walks of life, from near and far, have made a personal sacrifice of their time to make this event happen.  Again and again.  Although the night is fleeting, the effort is a year-round labor of love.

This year more than ever, I am struck by how this dinner lies at the nexus of our past and our future.  Heirlooms linked to our past tonight find themselves in the hands of some of the most creative chefs you will ever find under one roof.  And, more importantly, when tonight is over, these chefs and a slew of talented farmers will go back to work and continue to propagate this idea that our food heritage is worth preserving, even as the world around us changes.  In fact, as last year’s National Geographic cover story warned: heirlooms are necessary BECAUSE the world around us changes.

Like the words “organic” and “sustainable”, the word “heirloom” gets bandied about a lot and can certainly fall into the wrong hands--the nefarious hands of exploiters, usurpers and opportunists who hope to hop on the bandwagon for a joyride without understanding where the bandwagon has been or where it is going.  At Heirloom Harvest Project, heirlooms are defined not as seeds gotten from a remote farmer in India who may have saved seed from last year’s harvest of a weird looking cucumber that will get oohs and ahhs at an American farmer’s market; heirlooms to us are a culturally vital variety of fruit or vegetable that was seed-saved for many generations of farmers in our region because of traits that made those plants well suited to the challenges and vagaries of our climate and seasons.   Many of these heirlooms haven’t been seen outside of random home gardens since before World War Two.  The participating Heirloom Harvest Project farmers have divvied up our list of heirloom vegetables and grown them for participating chefs to play with, Those chefs have applied both futuristic and ancient technologies to these imperiled ingredients to create your dinner tonight.

Tonight is the capitulation of a year-long project.  Each February, all participating Heirloom Harvest Project chefs and farmers convene in one room.  We discuss the selected heirloom crops, assign and distribute heirloom seeds to the farmers, and determine the theme for the year.  This year, my wonderful wife Denise suggested, “Hey why not do an all vegetable Dinner?”  I looked around the room, expecting boos, rotten tomatoes and general rebellion.   But the response among chefs and farmers was overwhelmingly in favor of this idea. 

This is funny because, if any of you have seen NH Chronicle’s coverage of this event from two years ago, you may recall that I said on camera something to the effect of, “None of these chefs would make a vegetarian dinner in their restaurant if you held a knife to their throat.”  I actually said that, and I said it defensively with some hubris because I was being pigeonholed as  a  quote “organic hippie” by the interviewer.  I now realize the interviewer may not have been too far from the truth.

Since then, my perspective has changed.  I’ve done some research and some soul searching.  If I hear one more scientist publish findings that a plant-based diet can improve health, and all but eliminate childhood obesity, type 2 diabetes and many types of cancer, I might have to start holding a knife to my own neck.  But then I think about bacon, barbecue, an occasional juicy burger, and the most sinfully unforgivable of pleasures, foie gras… Eating your veggies, just like Mom used to tell us, is a tough lifestyle choice for sure, like quitting anything, but if we know it can change the world, why don’t more people practice it?  Most everyone in this room has seen the documentaries about how America’s factory farming meat industry works.  We have heard the refrain, “how we are going to feed an 8 billion person world?” 

To greatly oversimplify this conundrum, I have narrowed it down to two schools of thought. 

First, there The Monsanto way, embraced by massive farming operations like Salinas, California, where you create the perfect Aryan vegetable or Frankenfruit through genetic alterations and chemical inputs that may or may not include putting animal genes in vegetables and much worse.  This way means planting bajillions of acres of a single crop and spraying the bejeesus out of so that chemical manufacturers continue to be the lords of the farmland fiefdom.  We can follow this path and be like the state of Kansas.

From a very recent article I came across,”  Kansas’s “Committee on Energy and Environment” is proposing a law (currently known as House Bill No. 2366) that  would ban all state and municipal funds for anything related to “sustainable development,” which it defines as: “development in which resource use aims to meet human needs while preserving the environment so that these needs can be met not only in the present, but also for generations to come."

If this definition sounds familiar, that’s because it was lifted verbatim from what’s commonly referred to as the Brundtland Report, one of the seminal documents in the modern practice of sustainability. The Brundtland Report was the product of a four-year commission set up by United Nations member countries that were increasingly concerned that the world’s resources were being squandered and its environment spoiled.

You know what?  We’re not in Kansas anymore!  And while we recognize that and pat ourselves on the back for it, we must also recognize that we are still in the minority in our own country—and even in our own region--because our connection to our food and the security of its future are sacred to us.   

So this is the first way to approach feeding the world.  The other way, instead of mega-monocrop farmland dominating the American landscape, is to put more diverse food in the ground in more places that provide a suitable climate for that food. We are going to need a billion backyard gardens to feed 8 billion people.  Some people say that’s impossible.  I think it’s easy.  But billions of people have to get it, and we’re only a small fraction of the way there.

So this year, politics aside (well almost) we have chosen a vegetarian theme for the Barn Dinner, not to spite meat and fish, but to highlight the incredible diversity of heirloom vegetables and preparations for them. We are getting back to our figurative and literal roots by putting the focus back on the vegetables that started this event in the first place. 

When I was approached in 2007 by Chefs Collaborative, a nationwide organization I now sit on the Board of, they introduced me to RAFT (Renewing America’s Food Traditions, a now-dormant initiative whose mission continues through the work of Slow Food USA.).   Over the years, numerous local food-based orgs and masses of volunteers have contributed to this one night of the year.  Specifically, Slow Food Seacoast, Seacoast Eat Local, Seacoast Local, our regional colleges, universities and secondary educational institutions. 

This dinner has spawned others like it, near and far.  Our growth is humble, organic and effective, and you all make it possible.

Out of this dinner was born Farm-a-Q.

Farm-a-Q was born to bring the idea of this dinner to a wider audience that includes families and friends that might not be able to afford the experience you are about to enjoy.  If you look at your almanac, you can pick the hottest, most humid day in early summer, and that is sure to be the date for next year’s Farm-a-Q.

What amazes me most about Heirloom Harvest Project’s two events is that their success relies primarily on two of the busiest, most stressed out professions, farmer and chef.   Please join me in loudly thanking the farmers and chefs who came together for you all tonight.

This event set out to:

Reintroduce heirlooms to farmers
Introduce chefs to farmers –
Introduce consumers to the farmers and chefs who grow, produce and prepare our local food

Our wish was to protect our food heritage while strengthening community, preserve biodiversity, and encourage growth of this idea to other communities.

In my role as cofounder of Heirloom Harvest Project, I have responded to many emails from as far away as Kenya, where a gentleman named Alex Kiprop has begun his own “heirloom harvest project” to ensure that some of the fruits and grains indigenous to his area are not forgotten in the wake of the introduction of GMO monoculture crops like wheat and corn.  In a country that faces greater adversity than we could comprehend, his efforts have succeeded, and he has introduced legislation to protect farmland from pernicious outside interests.

One of the founding fathers of the idea of biodiversity in our local food system, a mentor and friend to many of us, and a resource whose patience and energy know no bounds, is John Forti. As a Board chair for our local Slow Food Seacoast chapter, John will continue our annual tradition of kicking this dinner off with an inspiring non-ecumenical benediction....

Tribute to Chuck Cox of Tuckaway Farm

Jeff McCormack, founder of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Virginia, put it very well when he said, “Culture and agriculture are inextricably intertwined.  They are two sides of the same coin.” Perhaps no one in our community better represents this wisdom than the farmer we have chosen to receive a very specific donation from the proceeds of last year’s Heirloom Harvest Project events.

Never wavering from the image we all have of the noble farmer, whether he is fox hunting or working the land with his draft horses, milling flint corn in his dining room or lecturing about the fragility of our foodways, Chuck Cox and his bountiful, organic land continue to represent the ideas that have rebuilt our local food system, and he has not stopped with mere action.  He has educated all of us—chefs, farmers, consumers, politicians, and the next generation of his own amazing family—about what it means to create true sustainability in our foodways.  At Heirloom Harvest Project, we want to ensure that his vision will be an heirloom for generations to come.
With a portion of the proceeds from last year, we were able to purchase a device that we think will help close the loop in our food system.  It is advertised on eBay as a “20# Coffee, peanut Chile Cacao Roaster,” but the Coxes are not going to use it for any of those purposes.  They will use it to roast corn and flower seeds to produce oils and flour that can be used by chefs and consumers in our community for years to come.  Because we don’t have large parcels of land dedicated to grains and flowers for oil production, we in our community still rely on imported oils, a large part of our diet and culinary larder, but a tool such as this changes the rules of that game a little.  A very little.  But it is a step in the right direction.  And it couldn’t be in better hands than the Cox family, who have served as mentors for so many of us as we ponder our own roles in the future of our foodshed.

Eleanor Mallett's (13) rallying cry for the next generation

My name is Eleanor Mallett and I am in love with food. My brother Cormac and I were born and raised to respect what we eat.

I love the barn dinner because it brings together the farmers, chefs, and eaters-of-the-food  around the same table, to celebrate our food and all that went into it. It is a spectacular thing to be able to know the people who grow the food that is on my plate at dinner time. After all... it takes a village to raise a Jimmy Nardello Pepper, if you know what I mean.  

This is an incredible evening. But, look around the room. How many kids do you see here? Thats right, not many. Almost 74 million Americans are under 18 years old.

I am here to tell you all, that if my generation does not know about food biodiversity or the importance of understanding where our food comes from, then all of your work is lost.

Tell your friends, tell your family, tell your children and your grandchildren. Spread the knowledge that you have learned --> to us kids.

We want to make an impact on the future.

The children of today are the producers of tomorrow. We need farmers, we need buyers, we need seed savers, we need home cooks, educators, leaders, chefs, and consumers. It takes all of our voices -- and choices! -- to make a difference. Thank you.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Finally, An Answer to How We Do it

(or,  How Blogging  Can Be a Cheaper Alternative to Marriage Therapy)

Recently, Denise and I were talking to a woman we know who, after sixteen years with her partner and after producing two beautiful kids, is getting a divorce.  This came at the end of a fusillade of similar dissolved marriages—some friends, some parents of our children’s friends, some relative strangers—in our tight-knit community.  Listening in disbelief to our friend’s tale, Denise and I looked nervously, intensely, at each other at one point, commenting that we were in the midst of a divorce boom of sorts, that we had arrived at a self-reflecting age where bonds are broken, and that we hoped it wasn’t contagious.

The woman who capitulated this trend for us is a super good lady and, as far as we know, a good mom to her two kids.  She said something to us that we hear a lot but rarely spend any time considering.  Her quote: “How do you two do it—the restaurant, the kids, marriage, and now a second restaurant?”

She was referring to Hopestill Garage, an ambitious endeavor we have been pursing for over a year, one which we hope will be a kind of Black Trumpet Jr. (or perhaps Bride of Black Trumpet), set in the charming community of Newmarket.  When the question was posed, “How do you do it?” Denise and I glanced at each other with crooked smiles and stammered polite platitudes before confessing that we have no idea how we do it.  It helps that our parents are present for our children.  That helps quite a lot actually.  It helps that we put the lives of our children ahead of any other priority in our lives.  It helps that our children, almost 10 and 13 years old, are just about perfect; and it helps that their mother is the kind of human anchor that could stop continental drift in its tracks without perspiring.  And it helps that we, two imperfect souls still in love after being together for almost twenty crazy years (fifteen of them in wedlock), remain committed to talking to each other about everything.  I will add here, in the interest of narrative transparency, that I am not always interested in talking about stuff.  I blame that on my pesky Y Chromosome.  The Y makes me do certain irreversible, incorrigibly shameful things…like avoiding meaningful dialogue.  There are other things too, like embracing projects without any clear strategy for completing them, and the inability to find, say, the mustard jar in the fridge if it is even partially eclipsed by another grocery item, forcing me to grow frustrated enough to holler across the house the pathetic refrain, “Denise, where the [adult language] is the mustard?”  On the flip side, I would have no trouble whatsoever finding a bottle of delicious beer buried in a haystack of broken glass.  Can you picture me holding my beer reward in my bloodied hands with a victorious smile on my face?  I can.  But I suppose I digress.

So, because I am better trained at this point, we as a couple do talk things out.  We respect each other and--despite sometimes feeling like the other is fundamentally wrong, or even outright impeachable—we talk through our thoughts, feelings, plans and dreams, even if it means working through our nightmares together.  The unfortunate side effect of this type of arrangement is that much of our disagreement, no matter how heated, occurs in the company of others because we are often surrounded by our staff and family.  It’s like the opposite of PDA; let’s call it PDB (Public Display of Bickering).  We might have more friends if we didn’t do that, but what good are outside friendships if we don’t have a healthy bond of our own, n’est-ce pas?  So we talk stuff through.  As a result, Denise and I have evolved into a team that has found a way to mesh our gears, each of our weaknesses interlocking with the other’s strengths.  I realize this sounds at once mechanical, clinical and sappy, but it’s true, and I think it’s one of the keys to happy, long-term marital success.  At least, that’s true for us.

So, you have to wonder (many of you already have) WTF are we trying to prove opening another restaurant?  Are we pushing the envelope too far this time?  Do we want to join the legion of new single parents of middle age?  Do we want to know where the threshold of ambition and stupidity lies?  Or perhaps we are out to map the abyss known as the Deep End. 

Truthfully, we are neither adventurous nor stupid.  We don’t want to prove anything to anyone, except that we can grow the ideas that we believe in, because they make good sense.  And I can say with certainty that I have seen the Deep End, and marriage is a kiddie pool in comparison.

Denise and I are well aware of the risks, to both business and family, posed by opening a second business.  We are painfully familiar with the statistics.  We dread the unknown, like anyone else.  We bicker publicly because we care, and a relationship of passivity is a lesser alternative I think.  Professionally, we want to bring good food and drink to as many people as we can while maintaining any semblance of balance we can in our lives. 

The restaurant business today has been built by and for the young and the restless; it thrives on drama, attention deficit, immediate gratification.  Yet Black Trumpet is built on something else—I don’t know what to call it, but it feels like a sense of permanence, a commitment to a space that demands a level of authenticity and quality in all of its constituents: the staff, the food, the dried cascade of linseed oil that imbues in the hallowed brick walls a reminder of our maritime roots.  I feel like our relationship has that same quality.

To those who doubt or fear for our future, I can only say that we—as domestic partners and business partners--are not in it to win it, but rather to do our best, enjoy the ride and put as many smiles as we can on as many faces as we can.

To my patient, wise and wonderful wife, I say thank you, I love you, and I look forward to working and living side by side with you—through failure and success--for the rest of our time on this side of the Earth’s crust.  After that, who knows, we might find a cool spot for a restaurant in the ether….