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Mystery eggs

I was making some buckwheat crepes to wrap around some mushroom stroganoff the other night. I made it with soured cream from my raw milk share, as suggested a while back – it wasn’t a hit with John, but I liked it a lot. I had just purchased eggs from the food co-op, not the eggs I normally get but those from another farm nearby (they were on sale and I was curious). I cracked three eggs into the buckwheat flour, and here’s what I got:

Five yolks! The next day I cracked open three more when I was making pasta for some delicious delicious lasagna. Double yolks again! I know I have some readers with ducks/chickens/other fowl. Is this uncommon? Why on earth are there so many double yolks in my eggs? I’m not complaining, just curious.

I’ve not been posting much because, sadly, my MSU boss informed me that no information from the farmers’ market vendor study should be made public. Damn. It’s been going wonderfully, I’ve seen 5 farms so far, and it’s all so exciting – I wish I could share it with you, but as Jim told me, it would be a breach of the confidentiality agreement our farmers have signed. It makes sense, but I’m sad. I do, however, feel comfortable talking briefly about my own impressions of the farms in general.

The only farm I’ve ever worked on, and the only farm I’ve had any really close contact with, was the Flying J farm in Johnstown, Ohio. It was only in its fifth year, begun by a retired evangelical christian aviation professor. He wasn’t in it for the money – he was already quite well off. He let me take care of market sales, and never asked how we did. I can’t imagine he brought in much income, if our market sales were any judge. He wasn’t lazy really, but there was just too much farm for one man of advanced years to handle on his own.

The misconceptions that this experience gave me about farming are quickly unraveling. Farming is fucking hard work. These families push themselves and their budgets to the limit, struggling to keep their operations alive. Even the most commercially successful farms I’ve visited have reinvested all their income into the business, because their business is their life. I’m amazed and humbled by how hard they work to provide me with the food that I so often take for granted. I’m also impressed by how much some of them rely on farmers’ markets, and how skilled most of them are at marketing themselves and their produce. This is an incredible learning experience for me.

In other news, John wanted me to write briefly about his bike. We actually met because of bikes: he had an adorable 1959 Schwinn Tiger. I complimented him on it, and offered to help him fix it up (I’d been learning some basic bike repair that summer in a volunteer bike garage). The rest is history, but we’ve continued learning to repair and restore bikes ever since. He found a beautiful (but abused) old blue Raleigh Sportif for sale a block from our house last summer for $10. Last week he decided he was going to transform it into a tougher, more militant, less baby-blue vehicle, and he’s been working on it incessantly since then. It’s done now – he stripped it, repainted it red and black, removed the derailleur (but not the freewheel – we’re not that hardcore), chopped down the handlebars, and pieced it all back together. It looks incredibly tough, rides like a dream, and I’m impossibly proud of him. I’ve always been the one doing the bulk of the real repairs, and he’s handled the artistic details. This time though, he took it upon himself to learn the real mechanics required to build a bike from nothing, and I hardly helped at all.

When he asked me to write about the bike, I told him, “No, this is a food blog.” But I thought about it for a minute, and realized that bikes belong here too. This project is inspiring me to work more on another bike I have, to fit it with a basket so that I can take it to the farmers’ market and the garden without burning fossil fuels. We’ll ride our beautiful, tough bikes to Old Town and eat amazing brunches at Golden Harvest (a fantastic diner that has a list on its menu of all the local farms and businesses from which they buy their ingredients), building an appetite as we go. So much of my interest in food systems is centered around sustainability, and I love bikes for the same reason. Eating local food, like abandoning motorized vehicles, is a way of creating a closed-loop system, taking away no more than what we’re put ting in. Goes to show me that everything, yes, everything, comes back to food.

Guess what I got?

Yesterday was my birthday. And I got this!

It’s a Le Creuset French Oven (like a Dutch oven, but…made in France) from my parents,and I’m so excited I can hardly stand it. I also got a baking stone from my little sister and a copy of Preserving Summer’s Bounty, which I’m also pretty excited about. I got equally exciting non-food related presents from John, but he took me out for some pretty amazing Thai food, so that counts, doesn’t it?

Tomorrow or the day after I’ll be posting pictures from my trips to two more farms just south of Lansing. And that’s all for today.

Three years ago today, John found a scrawny young cat running around behind the now-defunct Temple Club. He took her home and the rest is history. He figures she was about a year old at the time, so we’ll call this her fourth birthday. Happy birthday, Pickles. Enjoy your tuna.

I’m back tonight from my very first farm visit. It was really, really, really fun. My boss Jim and I drove an hour south to Ceresco, home of Cinzori Farm. We spent a couple of hours talking with Anthony (son) and Don (father) Cinzori, walking around their enormous enormous farm and talking about the farm history and their current marketing strategy. Don is a first generation farmer, formerly a tool and die maker for Ford in Detroit. When his youngest daughter was a year old, he decided to give up on the auto industry before it gave up on Michigan, and he bought 260 acres just outside of Battle Creek. He started off raising livestock: mainly hogs and cattle (not organic or anything like it). When his five kids grew older and left for college, he decided vegetables would require less labor, and by the mid-’80s he had moved entirely to organic vegetable production. Of his five children, all of whom graduated from Michigan State, only Anthony has stayed to work on the farm. Now, of their 260 acres, less than half is cultivated with certified organic vegetables and organic cover crops (clover and oats), while the other half has been planted with native hardwoods to promote local conservation efforts. They were keeping bees until this past year, when all but two of their twenty-plus hives died out, probably related to this.

I really enjoyed meeting with the Cinzori’s, and I was struck by how hard their job really is. They run a very successful operation, with a large following in some of Michigan’s best farmers’ markets and strong ties with Whole Foods.  But they are also astonishingly busy, all the time. Even this early in the season, they’re already at their largest market, selling plants (they do a large part of their business in organic transplants). In the midst of this cold snap, I figured they’d be taking it easy, but they were hard at work in their hoop houses, getting ready to move cabbages into the fields next week. Sometimes I think I’d like to have a farm. Seeing them, how completely absorbed they are in their land and their business, I feel like I wouldn’t be up to the task. I’m certainly glad they are, though, and I can’t even begin to explain how excited I am about going to their markets later in the season and buying some of their produce.

At the end of the week I’ll be visiting two more farms just south of Lansing, and this time I’ll have pictures.  I realized about 5 minutes before leaving today that my camera battery was dead, and I wasn’t able to find the charger in time. Typical.

I gave up on this thing for a while, obviously. I’ve been busy with (and fairly depressed by) work, and I felt like I was surrendering more free time than I wanted to writing and thinking about food. But I feel like if I quit this blog I’ll have let myself down – I was really enjoying writing and hearing people’s feedback, so I think I’m back again.

This change of heart is due in part to the fact that I’m finally (finally!) going to start visiting farms tomorrow. I’m visiting the largest organic vegetable producer in Michigan – he lives about an hour away, and once I ask permission to write about him, I’ll be talking about him a whole lot more. I’ve also been surprised to see that people are somehow still finding their way to this site – the magic of the internet, I suppose. It makes me think that if I spend less time worrying about how many people are paying attention to me, I’ll make gains in both quality and quantity of posts, without stressing so much.

I’ll put together a “real” post in the next day or two, but for now, here are some updates:

  • I just bought a CSA share from Titus Farms in Leslie, MI. I’ve mentioned them before, and I think they’re pretty wonderful. I’m going out to visit them on Friday as part of my farmers’ market vendor study, and I can’t wait to see the place. Even more so, I can’t wait for it to warm up so they can start giving me food!
  • My wonderful, wonderful boss who has the raw milk share decided that she just can’t keep up with the glut of milk at her house. She lives alone and is getting a gallon a week. So she’s splitting the share with me, and she’s not letting me pay for it. Amazing! I have a half gallon a week of delicious raw milk. This is the third week I’ve been getting it and I’m absolutely thrilled. She seems to like how it’s been going too, and wants us to keep splitting it indefinitely. Sometime this summer she’ll be gone for a couple of weeks, and I’ll get all of her milk too – I think I’ll have to have an experiment in cheesemaking!
  • I got to see John Jeavons give a 2-hour free talk at MSU this past week. I want to say it was amazing, but it was pretty blah. He didn’t say anything beyond what was covered in How to Grow More Vegetables, which was disappointing for me since I’ve already read it several times. He’s also not a particularly gifted speaker, in such a way that the impact and gravity of his message was greatly diminished. The bright spot in all of this is that I brought my mom along, and while she wasn’t very impressed with Jeavons’s rhetorical skills either, she did come to two realizations: she’s only been taking things from her garden, not feeding it at all, and this has had a negative impact on her soil quality and yields; and eating locally produced food really does mean you can’t have eggplant in March.
  • My mom (after hearing Jeavons’s talk) told me she’d buy me compost for my garden as a birthday present. I don’t have anywhere to make my own (damn you, apartment living!).
  • My friend Lauren (with whom I’m splitting my CSA share) and I are contemplating taking a master composting class at Fenner Arboretum in May, so that if I ever have access to enough space to make my own compost, I can do it.
  • Local leeks exist at my food co-op (or at least they did for a few weeks – they seem to have disappeared since). I bought approximately a ton, and I’ve had leeks coming out of my ears ever since.
  • I’ve started my tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and onions. The first three are huge. Absurdly huge. They’re making this cold snap almost bearable. I’ll be starting kale, collards, cabbages, and a few other things this weekend. Pictures forthcoming.

Raw Milk: What I’ve Done

After all the lovely suggestions, I decided making more yogurt was probably my best bet in terms of using up this raw milk. Then, I got a call from Lauren (the friend to whom I was planning on giving the other 1/2 gallon) who was not just down the street from me, but in Baltimore. All week. So I had a full gallon of milk after all. I was about to try my hand at rice pudding, when John made a request: mac and cheese. Fortunately, I’ve got him off that boxed crap, Annie’s or otherwise, so that meant good old fashioned gooey with a crispy layer on top macaroni and white sauce with cheese extravaganza. I forgot to take pictures, but trust me, it was good.

This morning, though, I realized the best possible use of this overabundance of dairy (can there be such a thing?). Chai!

Now, I have to go off on a rant for a moment about chai, namely the prepackaged, concentrated “chai tea,” sold by Tazo and Oregon and various others. Why would people buy this? Because they think it’s exotic. They see a mile long list of spices on the package and think, “I’ll leave it to the experts,” buy a carton of tea extract and just add milk. Actually, I think this is reflective of our attitudes on food as a whole these days, but I’ve talked about that before.

As a disclaimer, I’ve only had genuine Indian chai, and despite the fact that it is a miraculous beverage, India does not have a monopoly on chai. There are many, many countries who call their tea chai, and each region does it differently, but I have a sneaking suspicion that none of them is quite so elaborate as these cartons and boxes would have you believe. And to those who have the gall to put pictures of Ganesh on these packages, I’m through with you.

I love my Indian chai, and right now, I’m going to tell you how to make it. Do it right now – it’s perfectfor a lazy sunday morning, and nothing could be easier. Measure out your water so that it fills whatever cup(s) you’re using to about 3/4 full. Boil that in a saucepan. When it’s boiling, dump in about a tablespoon of tea leaves per 8 oz serving. It seems like a lot, but this stuff is strong. Don’t even try to drink this without milk. Add sugar to taste. Most of the chai I had in India was tooth-achingly sweet. The drink is practically a vehicle for the sugar. Bu let your taste buds decide. Finally, add a pinch (just a pinch!) of one of two things: cardamom or ginger. I seemed to notice a pattern that in the cold months, people use ginger (fresh grated, don’t use powder) for a spicy tea that somehow manages to keep you warm longer,  and in the hot months, they use cardamom. I like cardamom better, so I’m ignoring the snow on the ground outside my window and using that. Using a whole pod is best: crush it up a bit (in your teeth even: it’s easier) and dump the whole thing in, or you can be lazy like me and use ground cardamom. Let it boil for a few minutes until it’s very very dark, then pour in your milk. I’m not sure how much I use, but add a big glug that will turn the drink a beautiful color roughly approximated by khaki pants: it’s better to add too much than too little. Bring it back to a boil and immediately take it off the stove and pour it through a strainer into your cup of choice. While I was over there, I only ever had chai in two kinds of cups: 6 oz stainless steel cups that burn your hands, or teeny tiny glorified shot glasses, which also burn your hands, and can’t hold more than 4 oz. This is a travesty. I need more, so I use my scandalously large coffee mug. Do whatever feels right to you. Drink as soon as it’s not so hot it will scald your tongue, and feel good about the fact that you haven’t paid an exorbitant price for what is really a beautiful and simple thing.

One more use for milk I’m excited about: my mom keeps talking about this not-quite-yogurt thing her grandparents made called fee-lee-uh (it’s Finnish, I’m not going to bother trying to spell it because I know I’ll get it wrong). I remember that she made it once when I was a kid, and I loved it. It was like nothing I’d ever tasted; thinner and more elastic than yogurt, and I think there was cinnamon in it. I’ll be seeing her tonight, and I’ll ask how she did it. Hopefully, sometime in the next week I’ll be making some of my very own. Has anyone else heard of this? I don’t have any Finnish friends around here, so I’m at a loss.

I was temporarily distracted from the writing of this thrilling post, but the house is now empty, the dishes are done, the cats are healthy, and I have time at last to type. As was the case last year, “working” the conference mostly meant sitting at a booth for a couple of hours to make Barb happy, then running off to eat good food and sit in on workshops I wasn’t invited to attend. I can’t say I have a problem with that.

I sold more tote bags for the C.S. Mott Group (designed by a company called, aptly enough, Eat Local Food), bought one for myself, along with some whole what pastry flour from Westwind Milling (not much of a link, sorry) and some garlic from Owosso Organics. I then ran off to eat a tasty brunch, the highlight of which looked something like this:

It was a salad made with all local ingredients, save for the marinade and dressing: tofu, black beans, baby greens and various sprouts, on a crispy wafer of bread. The tofu was marinaded in something that involved sesame oil and spiciness, and the dressing was gingery, with mustard and horseradish in there somewhere. It was incredible. I basically skipped the rest of the options and ate three salads instead. Apparently, the recipe will be made available sometime next week, and you can bet I’ll be making it at least once a week.

I went to two workshops. The first was called “A Day in the Life of an Organic Farmer.” The speakers were Lee and Laurie Arboreal of Eater’s Guild Farm in Bangor, near Kalamazoo. They are the super-cute couple I sat with for dinner the previous night. They have a 30-acre farm where they grow veg for a year-round CSA, and sell greens to Organic Valley and Whole Foods on the side. As an interesting aside, we talked over dinner about John Mackey (CEO of Whole Foods) and his proposed moves toward supporting local farms. It turns out these efforts are indeed trickling down to the Arboreals, who say it’s getting easier now that in the past to get their produce into Whole Foods stores, and that they’ll soon be applying for funding from Whole Foods to start converting some of their mechanical equipment to biodiesel.

The workshop they hosted didn’t offer much of anything new: they gave an introduction of organic standards and “beyond organic” concepts that I already knew plenty about. But I don’t know many farmers, and it was nice to see faces attached to these practices I hear so much about. I’ll admit (and I know that this is bad of me), but I was a little turned off by the hippie-talk in the presentation. I’ve been known to eat my fair share of granola, but I just can’t swallow the idea of plants absorbing the “good vibes” we put into the earth. Nope. But they absolutely have their hearts in the right place, and I have nothing but respect and admiration for the both of them.

The other session was on community food systems development, and it was wonderful. There was a panel of four representatives from different community food organizations from around Michigan, one of whom was my friend and former roommate Julia, from the Allen Neighborhood Center down the street from me.  There was also another woman, Katie, from the Northwest Initiative Food Systems Project (also in Lansing, not quite so near me). I liked what the other panelists had to say just fine, but Julia and Katie were wonderful. The Northwest Initiative is a very small, poorly funded non-profit serving a very poor segment of the city. Their food systems project is creating elementary school garden projects, taking farmers’ markets to senior centers in town, and forming partnerships with convenience stores int he poorest parts of town to provide access to fresh fruits and vegetables where otherwise there would be none. It’s horrifying to think that there are large parts of my city where the only accessible grocery store is not a grocer at all, but a gas station. But there it is, and grocers seem reluctant to move into these neighborhoods, so the Northwest Initiative is helping to make these convenience stores better, healthier places to buy food. While talking about the school garden project the Northwest Initiative had started at an impoverished elementary school, Katie said there were children in the class she was working with who literally could not identify a raw tomato. It’s heartbreaking stuff, but she’s doing extraordinary work.

Closer to home, Julia talked about the Allen Neighborhood Center’s food systems work. There are three tiers serving this low income neighborhood: the first is the breadbasket program, providing free bread and produce to community members on a weekly basis. Second is the farmers’ market (where I shop in the summers), which has started accepting food stamps. Third is a large hoop house currently under construction in a neighborhood park: it’s designated for use by community members, and part of it is reserved for classes, teaching kids in the neighborhood how to grow and market their own produce. The idea is that almost everyone in the neighborhood needs food, and while the ANC would like to eventually see everyone growing their own, that’s not a reasonable entry point for most people. So they start with the breadbasket, and move people on up through these tiers, teaching them about nutrition on the way. It’s interesting work, and after the workshop I offered my volunteer services to Julia for whenever they need help. What interested me most about Julia’s talk was her take on the farmers’ market. She said the hardest part about keeping it going was providing the  right mix of vendors for the community. A lot of people who come to the market are (as she put it) “white women in cars” who want local organic food. So there are a lot of organic vendors. But most of the neighborhood walks or bikes in, and they don’t have money for organic food. Or rather, they do, but if they have limited funds, they will try to get the most for their money. And that means conventional produce. So many of the vendors at the Allen Market are not organic, and they’re cheaper. I’d never seen that divide before, as a shopper. I knew that some of the vendors weren’t organic, but I didn’t understand the sharp divide between the shoppers who can afford to buy organic produce, and those who can’t. And while I understand the argument that our food is too cheap, and doesn’t take into account the social and environmental externalities incurred by their production methods, I’m starting to see what it means to be really broke, to know that the money in your pocket has to last you all week, and to put your children’s stomachs before your politics.

I don’t have much money these days: more than when I was a student, certainly, but not by much.  John is making enough for us to live pretty comfortably (quite comfortably, in my opinion), but because of the alarmingly low numbers on my bank statement, I make a point of eating as frugally as I can. And sometimes, that does mean eschewing organics, for better or for worse. How do people feel about this? It’s something that’s been ringing around in my head all week, and I need other opinions.

It’s finally all over. I just got back from the Choices Conference I mentioned the other day, and it really was fantastic. Here’s a quick rundown of the two-day event:

The Dinner:

Last night was the Slow Food dinner, a fundraiser for the conference and the inaugural meal for the Slow Food Red Cedar convivium. I spoke at length concerning my reservations about Slow Food, so I’ll be brief this time. Were there some awfully wealthy snobs in attendance? Yes. Were there numerous mentions of Slow Food being “for all people of all income levels,” with no effort made to make Slow Food available to them? Yes. Did I manage to have fun anyway? Absolutely.

I manned (womanned) a booth selling pretty tote bags for the C.S. Mott Group for a couple of hours, and made friends with the son of the owners of AlMar Orchards, a market manager and fruit grower in his own right, who also managed to sneak over plenty of his delicious hard cider. Fortunately, I had a four course meal, the brainchild of Chef Nick Seccia, to soak it up.

Course one was pretty fantastic: local sweet corn polenta with cornmeal from Westwind Milling (fairly local), local greens, local creme fraiche from Calder’s dairy, a cracker made with Detroit Asiago cheese, and a canellini bean ragout (I can’t remember if anything in that was local, but I’m pretty sure at least part of it was). The polenta was light and fluffy (there must have been eggs involved somewhere in there) and cheesy and delicious – the greens were bitter, but not too bitter to handle, and the ragout was wonderful.

Course two was a local (superlocal – grown just a mile or two away at the student organic farm) butternut squash bisque with local creme fraiche (again from Calder’s). It was amazing – hands down the best thing on the menu. It wasn’t really sweet at all, unlike most winter squash soups I’ve had/made. I loved it, and would have been plenty happy if the dinner had stopped there.

Course three, the main one, was a bit of letdown. Most everyone had a glazed chicken breast. I, of course, got the veg option. I assumed it would be comparably tasty, but they kind of dropped the ball on this one. It was literally a plain brick of silken tofu with the chicken glaze (a cherry sauce – cherries from Traverse City, no surprise there) drizzled over it, shoved under a broiler for a minute. It was barely warmed all the way through. I was pretty disappointed, particularly because there’s a farm in Ann Arbor that makes amazingly wonderful tofu, and this stuff obviously came from one of those aseptic packages at the grocery store. There was “wild rice” on the side, from Minnesota. That was also not so great – flavorless, mushy, and clearly cultivated rather than wild. The tastiest thing on the plate was the asparagus, which, for a meal parading its terroir as this one did, is a pretty bad sign.

The final course, dessert, was an improvement: Michigan apple pithivier (apples from AlMar again), which is apparently a pastry filled with an almond paste, topped with apples simmered in a local wine. I normally hate anything almond-flavored (although I like almonds themselves), but this was quite good. Texturally, it was a bit difficult to work with, as the pastry itself was quite brittle, and the apples were still rather firm. The flavors were wonderful though, not too sweet at all, rounded out by the pear espuma (also from AlMar, if I’m not mistaken), caramel, and coffee zabaglione (yeah, i had to read off the menu for that one).

So the meal was, overall, a success. I had a ton of fun, which had a lot to do with the fact that I was sitting at a table with, not snobs, but organic farmers, as unpretentious and charming as they come. It was the fanciest meal I’ve ever eaten, and no, I won’t be paying $45 for another, but it was an experience worth having. Now if only they could make it an experience others could afford as well…

Later today or tomorrow I’ll be posting on day 2: the Main Event.

Until then, guess what? I got my application for a community garden plot in the mail. You can’t imagine how happy this makes me. And in somewhat related news, I head a rumor that John Jeavons will be hosting a free workshop in East Lansing at the end of the month, which is just about enough to make me start dancing.

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