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Saturday, I spent an exorbitant amount of money on food, which is totally fine when food is a priority, passion, and pastime.  Among my booty: fresh shiitake mushrooms and parsley.  After scouring through How to Cook Everything, The Art of Simple Food, and Simply in Season, I crafted the perfect menu of skillet fried tofu, topped with sauteed mushrooms and onions seasoned with cayenne and thyme, all garnished with parsley salsa verde (made with lemon zest, salt, pepper, hot Czech black pepper, pepper flakes, garlic, and olive oil).  Yumblr indeed!

Chewing the Fat Fall 2011

Things have been quiet on this Tumblr recently as everyone here at the YSFP winds down summer projects and gears up for the school year ahead. Last Sunday we welcomed 92 incoming freshmen— just about 10% of the class of 2015— to campus before they ventured out on Harvest trips, where they will spend the week volunteering on small-scale local organic farms.

This week we’re pleased to announce our fall 2011 Chewing the Fat speaker series line up, a list that includes Slow Food USA President Josh Viertel, a screening of The Greenhorns’ brand-new documentary, and New Yorker contributor Adam Gopnik talking about his new book The Table Comes First. There will also be the usual assortment of workshops (including John Baricelli’s famous tutorial on apple galettes), festivals, and pizza workdays, so check it out! We’re sorry to be leaving summer behind, but still thrilled as we welcome the coming of fall.

Adventures with Yale Farm Ginger [courtesy of the Ginga Ninjas]

This year, the Yale Farm grew a bountiful ginger crop (variety: Kali-Ma) in soil-filled buckets in Greeley Greenhouse. Growing ginger is pretty simple—you bury a nugget of cured ginger (the kind you can buy in the grocery store) in a bucket or a sack of nice soil and the roots and stalks develop from there. Kind of like planting garlic. When it’s ready to harvest, you dig up a giant mass of rhizomes (the part you eat) with associated thin, stringy roots. Snap off the roots and the stem, and you have uncured ginger. The kind you get in the grocery store has been cured, which is why it has a dry brown layer on the outside. To use this (vibrant, pink and yellow) ginger, we just ran it under warm water and rubbed a little to get any extra skin off.

The ginger was without a home, so we were tasked to find creative ways to use it. This is what we came up with. 

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Ginger, uncured, courtesy of the Yale Farm

All of our recipes are heavily adapted from: the Kitchn; Classic Artisan Baking by Julian Day; The Joy of Pickling by Linda Ziedrich; Nigella Lawson; and “the Ginger People” (perhaps the best name for a company we’ve ever heard, or for the nation of Scotland). 

Crystallized Ginger

1.5 cups water

1.5 cups sugar, plus extra for coating

1 cup peeled and sliced ginger, howeverwhichway you want it

Combine water and sugar in a small saucepan.

Bring to a boil.

Add ginger, reduce heat, simmer for 20 minutes.

With a slotted spoon, transfer ginger to a wire rack and set over a pan or dish so your counter doesn’t get sticky.

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Let stand until dry, then roll slices in additional sugar. We had trouble with this - ultimately, our crystallized ginger was the least successful of the day’s endeavors. Getting the ginger to dry was a test of patience, and the following day, when it was still a little damp, we took to it with a hair dryer. Next time, we’d go for some slow but steady dehydration in the oven. Or at least stick to more orthodox methods.

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Ginger Snaps

90g plus 1 tbsp golden syrup

65g salted butter

90g dark brown sugar

1 large nugget of stem ginger, finely chopped

1.5 tbsp milk

200g all-purpose flour

2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

2.5 tsp ground ginger

2.5 tsp mixed spice

Preheat the oven to 190C (375F).

Melt the syrup, butter and sugar in a saucepan set over low heat, stirring continuously.

Add the chopped ginger to the mixture, followed by the milk, and stir to combine.

Sift the flour, bicarb soda and spices into a mixing bowl and pour the melted ingredients on top. Stir until smooth.

Chill until the mixture is firm enough to handle.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and roll into walnut-sized balls. Arrange 5 cm apart on the prepared baking sheet, then press flat with a fork until about 1 cm thick. Bake the biscuits in the preheated oven for 12-15 minutes.

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This batch turned out a little cake-ier than previous iterations, which we think has to do with a slightly shorter baking time and thicker cookie. If you want your ginger snaps to have a real snap, press them thinner and bake them for an extra minute or two. 

Banana Ginger Molasses Cake 

150g butter

200g golden syrup

200g black treacle or molasses

125g dark brown sugar

2 tsp finely grated ginger

1 tsp ground ginger

1 tsp ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

1 tsp bicarb soda, dissolved in 2 tbsp warm water

250ml whole milk

2 eggs, beaten

300g plain flour

2 mashed bananas

Preheat the oven to 170C and line a roasting tin with baking parchment.

In a saucepan, melt the butter over low heat with sugar, syrup, treacle, fresh and ground gingers, cinnamon and cloves.

Take off the heat, add the milk, eggs and bicarb soda in its water.

Measure the flour into a bowl and pour in the liquid ingredients, beating until well-mixed.

Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 45 to 60 minutes until risen and firm on top.

Transfer to a wire rack and let the ginger cake cool in the tin before cutting into squares. 

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This cake is incredible. Eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. This recipe comes from Nigella Lawson, Bella’s spirit animal. She’s the best.

Japanese Pickled Ginger & Ginger Stems

1 quart water

½ pound fresh ginger, sliced paper thin

1 tsp plus a sprinkle of pickling salt

1 cup rice vinegar

3 tbsp sugar

Bring the water to a boil in a saucepan and add the ginger. Bring the water back to a boil and then drain in a colander. Let the ginger cool.

Put the ginger into a bowl and sprinkle the ginger lightly with salt.

In a saucepan, bring to a boil the vinegar, the sugar, the salt and the soy sauce, stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt. Pour the hot liquid over the ginger and mix well.

Store the ginger in a tightly covered container in the fridge. It will be ready to use in a day or two and will keep for several months.

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We used the same recipe as above for the pickled ginger stems, but added a pinch of red pepper flakes. The flavor was much fuller than without the pepper - we’d highly recommend adding a kick to your ginger pickles.

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The ginger stems have served us best atop Asian noodle soups and grain bowls, while the pickled ginger itself goes with pretty much anything you fancy.

Taste of Success (Pomegranate Ginger Pickle)

2 onions, peeled and finely chopped

A nugget of ginger, peeled and finely chopped

3 tbsp vegetable oil

1 tsp black mustard seeds

1 tsp ground cumin

Seeds of 10 cardamom pods

1 tbsp grated root ginger

120g granulated sugar

150ml white wine vinegar

1 tbsp tamarind paste

2 ripe pomegranates, halved and the seeds scooped out

2 tsp salt

400ml water

Gently cook the onion, ginger and spices in the oil for 2-3 minutes until soft. Add the pomegranate, salt and water, cover with a lid and simmer for 10 minutes. Spoon into jars and store in the fridge for several weeks. Makes a bomb salad dressing.

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Ginger Overload Ice Cream

2 cups heavy cream

2 cups whole milk

¾ cup finely chipped fresh ginger

1 tsp ground ginger

6 large eggs

2/3 cup sugar

½ cup crystallized ginger

Ginger cake to crumble in!

Place milk, cream, fresh ginger and ground ginger in a medium-sized saucepan. Cook, making sure to stir frequently until small bubbles begin to form around the edge of the saucepan. Turn off heat just before mixture is at a boil. Remove from heat and cover with lid. Let mixture stand for an hour. Strain through a sieve and discard any solids.

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Place egg yolks and sugar in a bowl and whisk until combined. Add half the cream mixture slowly and whisk frequently, then return mixture to the saucepan, whisking to incorporate the remainder of the cream mixture. Cook over medium heat while stirring until mixture thickens. Don’t stop stirring, as the yolks will scramble if left to their own devices. After about 6 minutes, the mixture should coat the back of a wooden spoon. The mixture is now custard, and it’s time to take it off the heat lest it will curdle! Good tests for custard stage are a temperature (reading no higher than 178F) or just drawing a line on the back of the wooden spoon with your finger and checking that the custard is viscous enough not to immediately fill in the space you drew. See picture below. 

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Strain the custard through a sieve and discard solids. Set the bowl in an ice bath to quickly reduce the temperature, and once it reaches room temperature, refrigerate and cover for at least 4 hours.

Place custard mixture in the bowl of an ice cream maker and churn. Add crystallized ginger pieces and crumble in ginger cake after around 15 minutes of churning. Transfer to an airtight container and freeze for a couple of hours. 

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Poet, novelist, philosopher, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer Wendell Berry presents as the Chubb Fellowship Lecturer as a guest of Timothy Dwight College and the Yale Sustainable Food Project (YSFP).

(Fast forward to minute 28 to see the beginning of Mr. Berry’s talk.)

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Classes started yesterday, which means that tomorrow the YSFP will welcome the new school year with our first pizza workday of the season. Come by between 1:00 and 5:00 pm to get your hands dirty helping us out with the harvest, and stick around for pizza at 5:00— we make the dough ourselves, top it with the fruits of your labor in the garden and cook it to crusty perfection in our wood-fired oven. It’s definitely in contention for the best slice in the city (in fact, some would say there’s no competing with ours), so if you consider yourself a pizza completeist— or even if you’re just curious— stop by and check it out!

Sustainable Pasture Management in Kyrgyzstan

Events intern Caroline Tracey ‘14 spent her summer on an environmental fellowship studying pasture management in Kyrgyzstan.  Here, she muses on her Russian lit background and the sociopolitical controversies that shape the country’s agricultural landscape.

I spent a month of this summer in Kyrgyzstan, the former Soviet republic nestled between China and Kazakhstan. It was clear to me before I arrived that environmental issues were at the forefront of the minds of the people in the country. For one thing, less than a month before my visit to Kyrgyzstan, a large riot broke out at the Kumtor mine, a gold mine on the south side of Lake Issyk-Kul. The mine accounts for 12% of the country’s GDP, but is owned and managed by a Canadian company. About 1,000 people, some arriving on horseback, camped out for days and blockaded the road from the mine to Bishkek, calling for Kyrgyzstan to receive a bigger share of the mine’s profits.

My studies as a Russian literature major have focused on Russian writers’ treatment of landscape: how authors understand vast, unending landscapes; what kind of culture and specific experiences develop in places marked by vastness. I have also versed myself in the contemporary environmental challenges that come with these kinds of landscapes. During my trip this summer, I planned to find out how the country’s pastoral heritage was faring in the modern economy.

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Horse supplies at Osh Bazaar in Bishkek

Flying into Bishkek delighted me: it felt like flying into Denver, where I grew up. Tall, snow-capped (even in July) mountains are visible in the distance, and the flat, brown land that holds the airport and the city slides up to meet them. From the plane window I could see both dry and irrigated fields; windbreaks; and small reservoirs. There were fewer roads than I was used to; the land wasn’t gridded, as the whole middle of America is, and so the fields took stranger shapes, strips and trapezoids. On the drive into the city, I drove by a young boy herding goats with a stick, and I realized there wasn’t going to be any shortage of interesting things to learn about pasture agriculture.

 Here’s what I found out:

With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the land and livestock holdings of collective farms were parceled out to their employees based on seniority. This immediately led to crisis: most employees had held positions unrelated to animal husbandry - they had been drivers or bookkeepers - and were unprepared to manage their own farm animals. Most - seventy percent, a pasture manager later estimated to me - floundered. Their animals died, and they lost their chance at financial solvency in the new economy. To make matters worse, those that did succeed in raising their animals met the harsh reality of the new system: they worked all year only to sell their animals at market for a price so low it often wasn’t even a profit. Now, the prices are better, thanks to consumers from Kazakhstan, where the economy is much stronger, crossing the border to buy animals in cheaper Kyrgyzstan. The increased demand means that Kyrgyz people have a financial incentive to go into agriculture - farmers in the villages often make more money than middle-class people in Bishkek.

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Abandoned Collective Farm

Kyrgyz “farmers” are more like what we would refer to as ranchers (if you want to talk about vegetable or fruit farmers, you have to specify). They raise animals, and sell them at large, open-air markets. During the winter months, their animals are in their villages’ town pastures, either within the town or just outside of it, and during the summer months, they bring their animals (along with the animals of other villagers who have paid them to look after their animals for the summer) to the rural pasture. The rural pastures are mountain camps where the farmers live in yurts with their families while the animals graze the high range.

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Talas Livestock Market

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Unloading bulls from the mountain pastures for sale at the market

The requirement to bring their animals up to rural pastures, I learned, is one of a group of radical changes to pasture law that were enacted beginning in 2009. Kyrgyzstan was one of the only meat-producing countries in the Soviet Union, and as a result of always-increasing demands from distant Moscow, the country left the USSR highly overgrazed. Until 2009, when the country really began to gain some traction on the challenges of privatization, pastures were private. Now, with the new pasture law, the land is government owned again, and pastures are managed by a village committee. Each town has been assigned a piece of rural pasture that corresponds with the size of the village. The “closed,” or “winter,” pastures within or nearby the towns are not to be used during the summer, so that they can recover from the last year of use.

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Highway overlooking government pastures

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Sheep running in on the rural pasture

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Before I had learned about the distinction between rural and closed pastures, I experienced the distinction firsthand, by being in transit between the two. Having approached a tunnel through a mountain pass, my minibus back from Talas found itself stopped at the entrance, along with a parking lot’s worth of cars. Finally, fifteen confused minutes later, a man on horseback emerged from the dark opening. He was followed by a whole large herd of horses, who tried their best to follow his lead and navigate their way through the herd of cars.

So you can imagine it made sense to me when the pasture manager of the town of Barskoon explained that the reason that people hadn’t made sufficient use of the rural pastures until they were required to by law was that there was not sufficient infrastructure to reach the rural pastures. 2 million som, he said, or about $40,000 - a very large sum of money in Kyrgyzstan, where the middle class makes about $160 per month - has been marked for new bridges to the rural pastures. It remains to be seen, however, whether that money will make it through the government’s extreme corruption.

As I talked to more and more people in Kyrgyzstan about pasture management, I came to the most surprising conclusion I could have: pasturing seems to be moving in a good direction. Certainly it would be hard to create a system that does more damage than the Soviet Union’s system. But I am disposed to expect that the arc towards capitalism is an unstoppable and destructive force, and the Kyrgyz people proved me wrong. They tried out privatizing their pasture land, and fifteen years later returned to a system of the commons. The pasture committee system is still young, and the law still needs changes, but the new system stipulates an attitude toward rangeland that shares both resources and responsibility.

When I describe this, I am reminded of a presentation I saw at the forestry school as part of its grasslands lunch series three years ago. It was on the “buffalo commons,” an idea published in Planning magazine in the 1980’s, suggesting that the emptying American prairie should be returned to buffalo rangeland. The idea was virulently rejected. But yesterday I read in the High Country News that Montana is slowly introducing free-ranging bison. Perhaps with enough committed minds, the commons - east and west - will get their chance to succeed.

“There’s a myth that people in poor communities don’t know anything, or they need help. They don’t need help, they need liberation.”

—Tanya Fields

The Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy will be hosting their third annual policy workshop webinar series, Frontiers in Food and Agriculture, this Tuesday, September 17th at 12:00 pm. The series will start with
Tanya Fields, executive director of the BLK ProjeK, and a presentation that explores how addressing food justice and economic development can create small business and career opportunities for underserved women and youth of color.

Register for the webinar here!

Check out a YSFP podcast with Fields and intern Kendra Dawsey ‘14 from last February.

Seed to Salad

Katie Holsinger is YSFP’s Seed to Salad Program Coordinator.

Five weeks ago, second graders from Worthington Hooker Elementary School visited the Yale Farm. It was a warm day that felt more like the middle of summer than the beginning of fall–a great day for farming. As soon as the students arrived, they became farmers, pulling on imaginary farmer boots, gloves, and a hat, and going by “Farmer Emma,” “Farmer Colby,” and “Farmer Lisa.” I introduced myself as “Farmer Katie” and helped the students plant lettuce and radish seeds. When the students visited the farm again just two weeks later, their seeds were already sprouting. Today, the sprouts have grown into something resembling the food they are to be and in two weeks from now, the students will harvest their crop.

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Radishes planted by New Haven second graders through YSFP’s Seed to Salad program.

In the Seed to Salad Program, students experience the life of a plant from a seed to a sprout to a mature vegetable to food on their plates. Weekly visits to the farm culminate in a harvest which is used to make a salad grown by the students themselves. For seven weeks leading up to the harvest, they learn about plant anatomy, seeds cycles, composting, nutrition, and life on the farm. Visiting the chicken coop is a favorite, where all the chickens usually get named and renamed and renamed again. Every student keeps a journal to record how their plants change each week and to draw and write about things they do on the farm: finding horse chestnut seeds and squash, working on the compost pile, hanging out in the greenhouse, climbing the string beans. The second grader “farmers” are full of curiosity and laughter and bring energy to the farm that stays with it all day.

Though this fall’s Seed to Salad program is soon coming to a close, in the spring we will welcome five other New Haven schools to the farm to plant, harvest, and learn about where food comes from. We can’t wait!

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Just your typical string trio at your typical yearly Pig Roast at the Yale Farm #ysfp (at Yale Farm)

Ron DeSantis: Creating “The Fellowship of a Table”

The letters “CMC” are stitched into Ron DeSantis’s white coat. The terse abbreviation does not do justice to his full title: Certified Master Chef. He’s one of only 67 people alive in the country who can honestly print that on their business card. The lofty epithet of “master” was bestowed upon him after he passed a rigorous ten-day exam that tests one’s skills at freestyle menu planning and food preparation, as well as one’s knowledge of gastronomy and nutrition. Only 12 percent of people pass all the stages; a Navy SEAL candidate can expect a higher success rate.

He is Yale Dining’s current (and first) Director of Culinary Excellence; the position was created for him. Don’t let the “master chef” designation lead you to think Ron wears a cape everywhere or acts holier-than-thou. Once he began speaking at a Master’s Tea in Trumbull College, he struck me as humble and down-to-earth. If he took off the coat and told me he was a barber, I would believe him.

Ron began his three-decade-long professional culinary career in the U.S. Marine Corps, where he went through cooking school and placed 28th in a class of 30. He got better with practice, and after leaving the service enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America, “the original CIA.” His Jedi-like education continued when he moved to Germany, which he felt attracted to because all the great chefs he had met at the CIA seemed to have foreign accents. He originally planned to stay for a year; that turned into five years, because it took a while to convince this one pretty German girl to marry him.

As a chef, Ron has cooked at restaurants like the Ritz Carlton, taught at the CIA, served as the presidential chef at Camp David, and consulted for Sonic, McDonald’s, and Borders (he apologizes for the sandwiches they once served in their café).

Food has the potential to evoke strong emotions in people, and Ron says his mission as a chef is to craft memorable experiences with the dishes he serves up, whether it’s to George Bush or some bearded Yale junior scribbling incessantly in a pocket notebook. To him, the Pixar film Ratatouille—particularly the scene where the restaurant critic eats the peasant food and is taken back to a meal his mother made him when he was a young boy—really nails the joy of the culinary arts. Every meal is an opportunity to make someone’s day great.

Eager to show us just how great our days can get, Ron announces that he has talked enough about himself, and leads us into the Trumbull master’s kitchen for a cooking demo. The dish he has in mind is pasta with sautéed vegetables and a white bean velouté sauce. It’s both vegan and gluten-free. Ron sees the trend in American eating towards a more plant-based diet as a good thing, and tries to practice it himself.

He floats to the front of the cutting board, swifty picking up the chef’s knife and beginning to chop up shiitake and cremini mushrooms. The up-and-down movement of the blade reminds me of a sewing machine. Then it ceases.

“Of course,” Ron says, “I’m just showing off.”

He then demonstrates how to chop properly, first on the remaining mushrooms, then an onion and some sun-dried tomatoes. The tips he shares—hone a knife with a steel every time you use it to keep it sharp, place a wet paper towel under the cutting board to keep it from slipping, fold your non-dominant fingers and rest the middle phalanges against the blade—all sound familiar to me; I’ve heard them from cookbooks and other chefs I’ve encountered. It pleases me to recognize a canon of cooking.

Now it’s time to make some sauce. “All blenders are not created equal,” Ron tells us. Well, his blender, “a Vitamix knock-off,” appears to be at the top of the heap. If kitchen appliances were evaluated for overall quality by their potential to cause damage when dropped on someone’s head, this one would be a winner. Ron pours in some cooked white beans and vegetable broth that had been simmering on the gas stove, and then kicks the blender into high gear. The roar of the blades spinning at 30,000 RPM, pulverizing the ingredients into a white paste, compels Ron to yell in order for all of us to hear.

“You really just want to let it run for a while! When the food’s as smooth as possible, you unlock the most nutrients out of it!” That part sounded like something I had heard on a late-night NutriBullet infomercial, so I asked him if it was really true. “Oh yeah!” I guess you can believe some things you hear on TV.

The sauce is composed of just the two ingredients, beans and broth. The simplicity lends potential for a wide variety of meal types. “I would serve this dish to anybody,” Ron tells us as the blender whirlpool dies down. “The beans and stock make a great mother sauce that can be used in all sorts of cuisine. Mediterranean, Asian, whatever.”

Let’s go back to the veggies. Ron tosses the chopped mushrooms into a pan over high heat, with no oil. It’s not long before they begin to sizzle.

“Hear that?” Ron asks us. “Cooking is all of your senses.” He keeps his distance from the whispering mushrooms. “Everybody wants to move stuff around when it’s in a hot pan like this. Well, don’t worry, it’s cooking!” If you don’t disturb the food while it’s cooking, you get more caramelization, therefore more flavor. Ron merely monitors them with a watchful eye. “The equipment never burns food. You do.”

As if he’s received some signal that’s invisible to the rest of us, he snatches up a bottle and drizzles some extra-virgin olive oil into the pan. The hearty Italian aroma of browning mushrooms and hot oil fills the kitchen. Ron notices the pleasant change in the group’s expressions. “See, it’s the smallest things! You can make a room full of people salivate just by sautéing some onions!”

He picks up the pan and carries it around to give us all a peek at the delicious alchemy that’s taking place inside. Heating the mushrooms reduces their moisture content; this causes them to shrink and concentrates their umami flavor.

Into the pan go the diced onion and julienned tomatoes. He leaves it alone for a bit (caramelization!), then dumps the white bean velouté sauce onto the veggies. It smothers the sizzling. Next comes the steaming rotini pasta. Stirring the end result together, Ron mentions how rotini is an ideal noodle to use for a dish like this; the sauce invades every nook and cranny of the pasta surface.

After about 25 minutes total prep and cooking time, the meal is ready. Ron spoons some of the pasta into a bowl and brings it to his face. He takes a slow whiff of it, then holds his spoon in the air like a confident professor holds a piece of chalk. “As a cook,” he says, “What should you do before serving your guests the main meal?”

We know this one. “Taste it,” we answer.

He shakes his head. “Torture them!” He plunges the spoon into the dish and takes the first bite.

Jackson Blum ‘15 is a farm managing intern.

Sweet Pea

Product Development Specialist intern Shizue RocheAdachi ‘15 makes a mean salsa. Here, she shares a radio piece reflecting on her time as a ranch hand.

There is a grace to death––a beauty to be found in the heavy moments that linger as present becomes past. The slaughter of an animal is rarely afforded such moments of grace, however, as carcasses are hung and processed in rapid motion, each worker on the slaughterhouse floor making a repeated slicing motion. Yet when I had the opportunity, as a ranch hand, to participate in a field slaughter after one of our steers had broken his leg in the cattle guard, I discovered that there was another way to carry an animal into death.

This is a five minute piece I put together of some audio taken on that cool morning, as wet clouds hung low providing a welcome respite from the summer heat. It is not a somber or gruesome piece, rather I like to think I captured the sweetness of the event and the sense of ceremony. There is a respect afforded as the eighty-year-old butcher, Tom, pulls the skin from the steer he lovingly refers to as “sweet pea” but there is also an understanding that this is not something to treat as precious. A steer breaks his leg, he is shot, he is skinned, he is cut open, he is gutted, he is sliced in half, and he is loaded into the back of a pick-up truck to hang in a cooler before being broken down into cuts. This is the way it goes.

A Tale of Two Berkshires: finding common ground

What I first saw looked like a scene from a Norman Rockwell: 70-year-old farmers and their families gathered around picnic tables, making small talk, as the hosts put the final touches on the buffet just a few yards away in the sugar house. As in a classic painting of New England farmers, these men wore overalls and leather boots. Many had hearing aids, and some walked with canes. These were not the new farmers of my generation, setting up shop in this region in a quest to return to the land as their parents or more likely their grandparents did. These were not the farmers you would read about in glossy New York Times Magazine articles, or hear their stories on your local NPR station. No, these were the farmer-members of the Berkshires chapter of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, the state chapter of the national Farm Bureau. And I, as a representative of Berkshire Grown, the local food umbrella organization I was working for this past summer, had stumbled into their annual summer legislative picnic, to listen to their concerns, and share what Berkshire Grown was doing to better our local food system.

I quickly realized that these were not farmers I had previously met. I had spent the last few weeks criss-crossing the Berkshires, meeting with Berkshire Grown members from every corner of the county. Small-scale blueberry producers, five-acre veggie farms and grass-fed beef operations – I had become acquainted with the local agriculture scene in the Berkshires, one that is mostly boutique, small-scale, and often-times removed from much of the population that lives in the region. But these farmers were different. They were the Larkins who had been dairy farming in Sheffield since the 1800s, and ran one of the largest (industrial) dairy operations in the region. They were the Leabs (who hosted the picnic at their Ioka Valley Farm) who raise cattle on GMO feed. I so hate to use the word “real,” but I can’t lie: Throughout the event, I kept telling myself, “these are real farmers.”  

The food that they brought to the potluck picnic made this point clear: These farmers weren’t interested in a boutique local food system – they didn’t choose to farm in the Berkshires because it was a hip thing to do. They had been farming in the hills of Western Massachusetts for generations, and are completely different from the back-to-the-land farms down the road from them that Berkshire Grown mostly represents. It’s like comparing Chicago deep-dish pizza and New York thin crust pizza. I can’t argue that one is better than the other; both types of farms are feeding people, they just have totally different missions.

I found myself caught in the crossfire of farmers and politicians – never a pleasant place to be – that sunny July afternoon at Ioka Valley Farm in Hancock. After we (the farmers, organization representatives like myself, and politicians) had helped ourselves to the heaping stacks of food – GMO corn that was the sweetest I ever had, green bean casserole, homemade and likely-not-organic pickles, etc – we listened to speeches from the various politicians in attendance. Soon after members of the Berkshire delegation to the Massachusetts State House and Senate started speaking about their efforts pertaining to food/agriculture, farmers immediately started voicing their concerns about the recent GMO labeling propositions. One farmer blurted out, in the middle of a politician’s speech, “Just because those New York City second home folks are willing to pay more for their food doesn’t make it fair to the rest of us locals! We all use GMO feed and they better get used to it. No one knows what real farming is all about!”

This summed up the day for me. There I was, wearing my Berkshire Grown hat, driving my hybrid car, and thinking I knew it all about the local food system, but it was pretty clear I didn’t. It’s a complicated issue, and too often, we think by farming on a small-scale, we’re saving the world. We have to remember: There are folks out there who have been farming a lot longer than us, who are deeply set in their ways, and are feeding a lot of people. I’m not defending industrial agriculture by any means. All I’m saying is that it’s time we start looking at the bigger picture.

Rafi Bildner ‘16 is a farm managing intern at the Yale Sustainable Food Project.