Inauguration Day

I have been through four inaugurations as a farmers market vendor in the DC metro area; nearly twenty years of trekking south on Sunday mornings. Despite the cursory Civics and American Government classes in high school and college, my weekly dose of the District taught me more about how the nation’s government works firsthand from the people actively involved.  Most of all, I learned there is a huge difference between an administration, the work force, and a political party. These last four years have driven home this distinction solely by my weekly interaction with market customers, many who have worked diligently for the federal government over multiple administrations regardless of what party was in power.

My knowledge about customers is limited to their weekly transactions, mostly for the same items. I try to learn people’s names and greet them accordingly, but every now and then they show up in the New York Times or Washington Post, on Twitter, or CNN. Another tip-off to VIPs are their security detail following close behind. They try to be discreet, but when one walked behind my stand peering into the fruit crate than hides my cash box I got a little nervous. “It’s ok, he’s just doing job,” my customer assured me. Honestly, no concealed weapons—just money, a spare Square reader, and a crow call to catch the attention of customers who walk away leaving their products, coffee, or credit card behind.

I’m shocked at how many people think that the workforce of the federal government turns over completely when a new president takes office. Employing over nine million people, the federal government accounts for nearly 6% of all jobs. We don’t get a new military or postal workers every four years. The same goes for many others in administrative, legal, research, and accounting positions, many concentrated in the mid-Atlantic region. 

Market customers are a veritable vegetable soup of government agencies, many devoting their entire careers to federal service. These last four years have been like none other as I’ve at times felt more like a therapist than a farmer as customers have poured out their concerns and heartbreaks each week.

During the federal government shut down more than one stopped by to say Hi, admitting to rationing their purchases so they could be certain to make their mortgage or rent. I may be one person, but I did my best to make sure no one went hungry. Others shared with me how no one had been appointed to administrate their department, leaving them twiddling their thumbs for weeks, months, even years. Worse, others shared the insanities of their sections being gutted, talent that had been cultivated for decades now lost to private enterprise. There were the ones who sadly said goodbye when their divisions were relocated to remote parts of the country. The worst were those who shared horrors of their newly appointed bosses being more concerned with having an office with a good view than they were of the operations of the agency. “We’ve spent six months moving our offices instead of doing our jobs,” lamented a worker at an agency tasked with keeping our food supply safe.

It wasn’t just the federal workers caught up in the collective angst. Journalists tasked with reporting facts shook their heads in wonder at the sheer insanity of false narratives and conspiracy proliferation. A university professor admitted to their elderly parents falling under the spell of Q, which we hold on par with Big Foot and aliens.

And speaking of being taken seriously, market customers from NIH and Walter Reed are already breathing a collective sigh at the mask mandate on federal property. “About damn time,” one texted to me as I was writing this blog.

I have always loved market day the Sunday prior to the inauguration because so many out-of-town guests show up, obvious by their pins, hats, shirt, and other assorted adornments. They are jubilant and chatty. The atmosphere is downright festive. The pandemic squelched most of that last Sunday leaving mostly the regulars and residents, still apprehensive from the attacks on the Capitol the week prior now turning most of DC into a Green Zone (and by that, I don’t mean an ecodistrict).

To be honest, it was kind of nice watching the festivities from the comfort of my living room instead of squished into a crowd of thousands in the freezing cold, but somehow it just didn’t hold the collective excitement. The best I could do was raise my American flag over the pasture and offer a small noon toast of champagne on a workday. As the speeches, prayers and poems spoke of unity I was again reminded that we all eat at the same table.

But for me, the best part of the inauguration was Vice President Kamala Harris’s coat. I’m all about that purple.

About Those Carrots

Carrots. They are one of the heavy hitters when it comes to everything from classic culinary endeavors to quick snacks. A common denominator across a variety of bases, be it the Louisiana holy trinity of carrots, onions and bell peppers or a French mirepoix of carrots, onions, and celery. Carrots versatility lands them in soups and stews, roasted, juiced, steamed, boiled, baked, and grilled.

A root vegetable in the family Apiaceae, along with parsnips, fennel, cilantro, celery, parsley, dill, cumin, lovage and other aromatic flowering plants with tap roots, the plants are identified by their hollow stems and umbels which are the flat-topped cluster of flowers. Native to Central Asia and Europe but first cultivated in Persia, carrots come in a variety of colors including orange, purple, red, yellow, black, and white. Originally grown for their leaves and seeds, the root of the carrot was not mentioned as a food source until the first century A.D. by the Romans. By the 8th century A.D., cultivated carrots had spread throughout Asia and Europe. European settlers brought carrots to America. Today over 40 million tons of carrots are harvested annually throughout the world.

Why are carrots and their cousins so popular? Let’s see, easy to grow, tasty, versatile, stores well, and extremely nutritious. One large carrot supplies the daily recommendation for Vitamin A through the metabolization of beta carotene—the compound that gives vegetables their brilliant colors.

Right now at the market, colorful bags of carrots call my name as I think about all the ways I can use them. On particularly cold days I like to crank the oven to 500 degrees and roast a whole pan of carrots sliced lengthwise and drizzled with olive oil. They’re great warm and cold. Puree a few in a cup or two of hot broth and you’ve got a quick and easy soup. Go ahead, drop a dollop of crème fraiche on top.

Despite having weekly access to carrots, right before the seasonal vegetable vendors leave for the year I begin hoarding the big orange field carrots for winter storage. They’ll last for months in the refrigerator, always at the ready for a big pot of comfort food like red beans and rice or a classic like Espagnole.

Did you know that the tops of carrots can also be eaten? Although not routinely used as a food source, the lacey leaves can be added to salads or cooked, similar to using parsley, fennel, or cilantro as a flavoring.

What about baby carrots? Like baby back ribs and Cornish game hens, those uniformly shaped nubs are a figment of the industrial food complex trying to salvage what was once waste. Prior to the creation of a machine that would turn broken and misshapen carrots into bite sized snacks, farmers could lose as much as 70% of their crop due to the lack of uniformity. Today, baby carrots are the most popular item sold in American grocery store produce isles. But if you ask your farmer at the market for baby carrots, you’re going to be given a banded bunch of true young carrots that will look just like a large carrot only smaller and often come from thinning the rows so the vegetable can grow bigger without crowding.

A big fan of carrots are moms, especially those with babies. Pureed carrots might be your first thought, but over the years I’ve watched many teething babies get handed a cold carrot to gnaw on—no plastic, no chemicals, no expensive remedy, just organic goodness that can be composted after it has fallen on the floor or been licked by the dog one too many times.

And speaking of dogs, carrots make great snacks for them, too!

Of course winter wouldn’t be winter without at least one snowman. While Frosty may have had a button nose, most snowmen sport a carrot to be more environmentally PC. Plus, the little critters get a treat when the temperatures turn winter’s effigy into a puddle.

One of the most ingenuous uses of carrots I’ve ever seen, though, was not in the kitchen, but on a long, empty highway in the Central Valley of California where I was working in a very remote canyon. Finding the turnoff for the dirt road back through the nondescript sage scrub was a big problem for everyone until one morning when the crew was having breakfast at a small diner several miles away. A tractor trailer full of bright orange carrots pulled into the parking lot, the trucker stopping for breakfast. My boss walked over and offered to buy the man’s meal if he’d do a favor. We all left together, the truck following us to the turn-off where he stopped his truck and shoveled out what must have been a hundred pounds of carrots on to the road. He backed his rig up crushing the vegetables on to the pavement creating a huge orange splotch. Those carrots were still there almost a year later.  The power of carrots.

Difficult Times

As I sat down to write, the events scheduled to occur in our nation’s capital and Georgia on Wednesday hovered in my periphery on various devices, apps, and streams. How many parameters could I monitor while concentrating on the task at hand? Kind of like watching all the sheep and goats in a paddock while trying to repair a section of fence that has been broken open by a fallen tree branch. Will one wander curiously through while I’m concentrating with a power saw causing the whole herd to stampede to the greener grass on the other side? Or worse, a territorial male takes a swipe at me for good measure. That always leaves a good bruise, and better inventory of sausages.  Bad behavior is not tolerated on the farm.

Carrots. I was writing about carrots because the Capital Weather Gang had a story about the Polar Vortex splitting into two which could result in “wild winter weather.” As a farmer, that’s not something I want to hear, but need to read in order to make long term project plans, especially ones that require long days outside. “…potential for paralyzing snowstorms and punishing blasts of Arctic air” had me grateful that the breeding ram arrived late last summer pushing out lambing season past the worst of winter. I was going to tell customers how wonderfully carrots kept in the refrigerator for weeks, even months at a time. They were colorful additions to stir-fry and salads, equally delicious raw or cooked. Running low on flour? Shred carrots and use as a filler for sweet or savory recipes. And carrot cake! Everyone loves carrot cake, don’t they?

Before I could get into the history, taxonomy, and nutritional value of the vegetable that sliced thinly and fried with the correct seasonings was being touted as vegan bacon, everything started chirping, vibrating, and buzzing as if the storm of the century were bearing down upon me. Only it wasn’t the weather apps raising the alarm; it was the news sites. The election in Georgia? No, rioting in the Capitol. Just as long as they didn’t interrupt what was going on inside, they could exercise their right to protest which over the last year has become increasingly dangerous in DC as well as other cities throughout the country. As if the pandemic isn’t bad enough. Last summer I felt for fellow farmers who had to cancel out on markets within the District because they feared for their safety.

For several years before the advent of Central Farm Markets I attended markets in Washington DC. Not once did I ever feel unsafe or even threatened. A homeless man would help me set up tables the tent in exchange for breakfast. A still intoxicated kid in his early twenties joked about mugging me one morning. Holding my tent weights in each hand and easily outweighing him, I laughed and told him, I’d like to see him try. He ran. I’ve gone to markets in low-income areas where over 90% of my customers didn’t speak English, in gentrifying areas where drugs and prostitution were in the open and not once did I ever feel unsafe. The citizens and local businesses always looked out for their farmers.

A different set of chimes went off—incoming message from a customer, but the content gave me a queasy pause as I read, “Just to let everyone know I’m safe and sheltering near the Capitol.”

Forget the carrots and bombogenesis, protestors seditionists had stormed the Capitol, breaking windows, overwhelmed the Capitol Police, invaded the House and Senate chambers, vandalized the offices of Democrats and were proudly smiling for the camera as they looted furniture. There were responses from elected officials. A woman was shot and killed. A few more blanket I’m safe messages pinged on my screens. Doom scrolling. I couldn’t take it anymore and suited up to head down to the barn leaving everything electronic and connected at the house.

Filling water tanks, checking the flocks and herds, picking up eggs, picking the matts out of the Pyrenees’ fur—anything to prevent my return to the house, my office, and the blog. As I walked back the lane I thought about the people who settled this land in 1752 among the British and Native Americans also in the region. There were skirmishes along a line of forts that led to the outposts of what was becoming the colonies, one only a few miles from here. And entire school of children and the teacher were massacred.  About a hundred years later, one side of a divided country marched over this land, camping in the fields, purchasing hogs and mules from the farm’s owners, the invoice now framed and hanging in the limestone house. They were on their way to Gettysburg. And here I am watching the insurrection on Twitter and YouTube. Times have changed and yet they haven’t.

I think our government needs to be run more like our farmers market. For the most part, we get along with each other despite our differences. You don’t see vendors tearing down each other’s tents or smashing tables because they disagree. The vegetarian vendors don’t berate the meat sellers for their point of view and in twenty years I haven’t seen a single certified organic producer throw rotten tomatoes at those who aren’t. The occasional kerfuffle gets worked out so as to always benefit our patrons.  As residents of the United States we have the freedom to agree to disagree agreeably—something I have learned the value of thanks to the experiences and insights of many customers who came from places where a different opinion than that of the government could get one killed.

I’m back at the house as there wasn’t much more to do other than putter about in the damp cold. Twitter has locked the President’s account, the Capitol has been cleared of the bad actors, America looks like a fool with images of looters plastered across every major news outlet in the world and those damn carrots are still sitting on my cutting board waiting to be photographed for the blog.

Sleeping In

Ok, maybe not technically sleeping in, but there will be a few extra minutes on Sunday morning to get chores done, for last minute packing, and to have a cup of coffee by the fire before girding up to stand in the cold for four hours. Yes, Winter Market season has arrived.

In the mid-Atlantic, we’re fortunate enough to have moderate winters within a two-hour radius of the market to provide for year-round production. That doesn’t mean you’re going to find fresh peaches or summer squash this time of year, however, several of the farmers have invested in greenhouses and high tunnels that add enough protection to extend seasons on hardier winter vegetables and even tomatoes! Additionally, advances in cold storage help growers extend availability of certain fruits such as apples. And if you really have a hankering for peaches, you can still get ones that orchards have packed in jars and cans while they were in season.

Customers will notice that as the year draws to a close the disappearance of their favorite produce vendors. That’s because their crops are predominantly grown outside. It’s hard to harvest when the fields are blanketed in snow or the ground frozen solid. Some producers with indoor production may limit their attendance to every other week as the reduction of daylight and cooler temperatures mean their crops do not grow as fast.

Winter markets also offer potential new vendors an opportunity to wet their feet without the crush of the regular season as well as a getting to know you trial. I like to think of it as first dates before settling into a steady relationship. One winter there was a new vendor who was so obnoxious that by spring we were all too happy to not see them return.

The reality is that people eat year-round despite seasonal production. We’ve been lulled into a false sense of security by artificial availability offered by traditional grocery stores. Strawberries in January? No problem, but they’re from Chile. Even meat has seasons as customers who repeatedly ask for fresh pastured chicken are loath to discover.

So why the later opening time I’m often asked.

First, during the regular season many vendors are able to pack their trucks for market the night before. Loading up, especially for produce vendors, is labor intensive and time consuming. But when the temperatures are below freezing for any length of time, they run the risk of having product freeze on the truck. This means loading prior to market. Considering that most vendors also go to market on Saturday, the back-to-back market days loading at three or four in the morning makes for exhausting long days. And we’re not even talking about the additional logistics that COVID19 has heaped upon us with pre-orders, curbside, and delivery.

A few extra degrees can make a world of difference on the roads, too, during bad weather. Sure, the main highways can be clean and clear, but farms tend to be rural having to traverse municipal and state roads before ever hitting the highway. I’ve got a two-mile uphill climb to get to a state road. In icy conditions, forget it.

Speaking of bad weather, if you’re reading this and you haven’t already signed up for the markets’ weekly E-blast or follow our social media sites on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, I would highly encourage you to do so. In the event markets are cancelled due to snow, ice, or dangerously low temperatures, you’ll be in the know.

One of the bright spots precipitated by the pandemic this winter at the market is our expanded curbside service (all participating vendors listed each week in the E-blast) and Farm-to-Fridge delivery service. Looking at my weather app, it’s telling me that this Sunday there’s a 96% chance of rain spanning from 5 am to 5 pm with a high barely reaching 40. Go ahead, order your weekly staples online and stay in your car or your home. We won’t hold it against you. Like I tell patrons when they lament my time outside in inclement weather, I’m a farmer; I’d be out in this mess one way or another.

Arm-Wrestling the Grinch

I’ve been struggling this holiday season and I know I’m not the only one. We’ve turned a collective Grinch green thanks to the pandemic, at times just wanting to chuck it all in the trash and be done with it. Skip forward to 2021 as if ripping off the Band-Aid of a bad year.

Put up a tree early. Play holiday music. Write a bigger check to my favorite nonprofits. I’ve tried my darndest to sweep away the blues by pulling out the big guns of baking and candy-making to spread cheer. Just when I feel like I’m making headway, the Grinch gains ground with delayed packages to and from loved ones, the death of a beloved customer and the inability to share her daughter and husband’s grief with a simple touch. Social distancing scores the green meanie a few more points. And forget the mistletoe attached to my market tent.

We can blame it on COVID, but the truth is we’ve all had those times when we struggled with the holiday season for one reason or another. Don’t believe me? Just listen to Christmas music for any length of time and you’ll hear plenty of heartbreak. Elvis had a Blue Christmas, Bing Crosby didn’t make it home and Prince had another lonely Christmas. Willie Nelson’s Pretty Paper and John Denver’s Please Daddy Don’t Get Drunk this Christmas reveal the harsh realities for many in our less-than-perfect world.

December is synonymous with feasting in cultures throughout history and geography. As Americans, we kick off with Thanksgiving in late November and the rest of the world follows into March through the Lunar New Year and Persian New Year in March. Humans are hardwired to gather and celebrate their shared connections. Isn’t that what they were doing in Whoville when the Grinch changed party affiliations? Why, they even let him carve the roast beast.

This year; forget it. No one will be carving anything. Since my first year at market I’ve had the same customers order a huge roast for their big family get-togethers. This year they ordered a pair of chops for themselves, tearing up as I handed over their purchase. “Look on the bright side, it’s still a good meal,” I said trying to smile with my eyes that ultimately gave in and commiserated.

We are the Whos of Whoville this year and it feels as if someone has stolen all of the presents out from under our trees of tradition. Each of us is struggling in some way grasp at resiliency. If someone has to stand up and say it, by golly, I will: it’s ok this year to scrap your usual plans, sleep in, stay in your pajamas, cook something boring or not at all. If you really want to wallow in misery, eat the stale French pastry that’s been setting like cement since Sunday.

Or…

You can invite the Grinch to your table and embrace, if only for this year, the grace of accepting things as not as we wish them to be. Take heart in the fact that people have been having crappy holidays long before the pandemic arrived. We’ve been warned not to travel, locked down from gathering, and discouraged from gift shopping in person, but the one thing we still can choose is which Grinch we want to win this Christmas.

Snow Day

The grumbling began on Monday.

Snow go away! Ugh, no snow. Yuck.

Hello…it’s the middle of December in the mid-Atlantic. We get snow. No matter how much you complain, whine, kvetch, snivel, and moan, we’re still going to get snow. Shout fake weather all you want, but there’s no getting around the Nor’easter that has already begun its moisture dump upon us.

The next four months offer the opportunity for white stuff to fall from the sky in varying amounts. With all the shelter-in-place practice we’ve had this year a few days hunkered down inside with a steaming cup of tea or a mug of cocoa should be a piece of cake. And it’s not like we didn’t have fair warning to prepare for it. By now we should have plenty of toilet paper, be well practiced in making bread and experienced in assorted dairy product preservation practices. You all know you can freeze milk, right?

For farmers, we have an added layer of preparation making certain all our ducks are in a row and deeply bedded in fresh straw to ride out the storm. I have spent the last few days setting out extra hay, fortifying shelters, topping off water tanks, and fixing equipment that will allow me to keep the driveways clear. All the extra fuel jugs and propane tanks are full. Snow shovels are out of the basement and strategically located. Even the flashlights have fresh batteries.

Being nestled in for a few days, even if unexpected though, does not mean one is destined for canned or frozen rations, even in the dead of winter. Much of the fresh produce available at the market right now lends itself to longer storage—weeks, even months if stored properly.

While the first major snow of the season has occurred in the middle of the week, there’s always the chance of similar circumstances happening on Saturday or Sunday which might result in closed markets. Even when markets are open the guaranteed presence of vendors may not happen as weather conditions differ greatly within the radius from which we all travel. For instance, I’m slated for as much as 14 inches of snow out of this system while most of my customers and fellow vendors south of the Mason Dixon line will barely see an inch or two, instead getting rain.

Despite white out conditions, today I’m enjoying the quintessential winter delight of French Onion Soup. Not the watery concoction out of a can with a few onion segments that look more like a dead tapeworm. The homemade stuff is easy to make and includes caramelized strips of translucent bulbs that fill each spoonful along with an occasional chunk of beef, bread, or browned cheese. The real beauty of French Onion Soup is that all the ingredients can be stored for winter, ready to go at the drop of a snowflake.

I’m not a purist when it comes to the classic French Onion Soup recipe, preferring to include a winter staple—fennel bulb—to add depth to the flavors of the four different onions that have been sauteed into a thick mess using the tallow skimmed from the beef broth.  Most recipes call for the use of sherry or wine to unlock the beef flavor, but I’ve also found that a cup of good beer will suffice. Apple cider is phenomenal for a non-alcohol version adding a sweeter lilt. Where I most deviate from directions is the baked cheese on top. I don’t have the lionhead bowls in which French Onion Soup is traditionally served nor do I bake it in the oven to melt and brown the cheese.  My hack is to toast the bread with cheese on top in the ancient toaster oven that once belonged to my grandmother. While a gob of melted cheese is always a delight, this way the flavor of a hunk of dried cheese that has been wrapped in a ball of foil carries through on each spoonful instead of awkwardly trying to balance a bite-sized blob.

The best part about French Onion Soup on a day like today is it works both ways. Eating a bowl prior to venturing outside for the first pass on the driveway and to check on the livestock will provide enough added fuel to help keep warm. You have to put fuel in the furnace before you turn it on, right? At 27 degrees (feels like 16), leaving the pot on low is a welcoming relief after stripping off several layers, a few of them soaking wet. Forget the spoon. I want to wrap my numb fingers around the bowl and shamelessly slurp.  

And if any of my fellow vendors had a big leek under their truck last Sunday, don’t worry—it’s in my soup.

Sandra’s French Onion Soup

Made with ingredients found at Central Farm Markets

Ingredients:
1   large leek, halved and sliced
1   large sweet onion, cut in thin strips
1   shallot, minced
1   garlic clove, minced
½  fennel bulb, thinly sliced
1  quart beef broth
3  tablespoons olive oil or butter if there is no fat from beef broth
1  pound beef short ribs
Seasonings—black pepper, star anise, bay leaf, dried herbs like tarragon, rosemary
Thickly sliced bread, stale works fine
¼ cup grated cheese, Pecorino, Parmesan

Directions:
If the beef broth has a fat cap, remove it and place in a sauté pan.  Otherwise, add butter/oil and heat on medium. Brown short ribs. Remove from pan and set aside. Add onions and fennel to sauté pan. Cook on low until caramelized—approximately 30 minutes. In another pot, combine beef broth, seasonings, and short ribs. Simmer while onions are caramelizing. Remove short ribs, debone, and tear into bite sized chunks of meat. Strain seasonings from broth. Combine meat, broth, and caramelized onions into one pot and bring to a simmer. Slice bread in 1-inch slices. Top with cheese and toast until cheese is browned. Cut into slices, add to bowls and ladle in soup. Enjoy!

Forget Tradition

If I couldn’t sit down to a turkey dinner with all the trimmings on Thanksgiving with my family and friends, I was at least going to cook one for myself and neighbors.  Just a little ol’ 17-pounder for four of us. After cutting out the backbone, it whittled down of some of the weight, but even smaller, whole birds take longer to cook than a pair of halves.

That is the fun of roasting a turkey for me—the all-day cooking affair while the big bird roasted away. But this year I barely had two hours to make mashed potatoes, dressing, brussels sprouts, and gravy. The cooked pumpkin for the pie languished in a Pyrex measuring cup due to my reduced kitchen time. I didn’t even bake dessert until the following day. Look on the bright side, I told myself, this just stretches out the feast.

It’s a week later and I’m eating more than my words. The leftover trimmings and pie are long gone save for a gelatinous lump of gravy in a plastic tub I had planned to have over waffles as my mom would always make when I was a kid. Lacking a waffle iron I figured I’d stoop to grabbing a box out of the frozen case at the co-op on my way home from market. They had blueberry waffles, keto waffles, gluten-free waffles, and cauli-waffles. That’s why the leftover giblet gravy is still in the fridge.

Over the last week there have been turkey melts, turkey tacos, turkey quesadillas, turkey in salad, turkey salad, turkey omelet, and turkey straight out of the plastic bag because I was too lazy too do anything else. As of this moment, there are 22 ounces—over a pound of turkey breast still in my refrigerator. I’m sure if it managed to slip out of my hands while I was standing on the front porch my dog would eagerly make it disappear, but as a former turkey raiser I know the amount of work it took to get that bird on my table and it’s not going to the dogs.

The truth is I can not choke down one more morsel of my leftover Thanksgiving turkey. Putting aside my aversion, I’m going to slice down what is left into single portions and freeze it along with all the other shreds of pulled pork, pot roast, lamb, and goat I’ve cooked far too much of to eat myself. Until the pandemic I never realized how much of my meals I shared with others in my travels throughout the week. It’s difficult not to share when I’ve been blessed with an abundance of food and my love of cooking and baking. But with the year of social distancing and isolation the opportunities to share have dissipated.

Every now and then I step aside from tradition and am not saddled with the dilemma of what to do with all of the leftovers. Last year I slipped out of town over Thanksgiving opting for a duck breast and a tin of caviar as my holiday feast. This year my sister and her husband chose a rack of lamb. I should know this lesson by now as throughout my years of growing turkeys for market I’ve listened to couples debate turkey versus something else for the holidays. My favorite was when a husband reminded his wife that their children would not be home that year and she could cook whatever she wanted. Needless to say, I did not sell them a bird.

So I flubbed on the pandemic Thanksgiving. I’ve still got two weeks of holiday cheer to wind through in December. What unconventional meal could I cook that would meet the need to feel special about? A full tray of urchin roe, a lobster, more duck, foie gras? Or I could pull out my Thanksgiving turkey scraps and use the time I’d spend cooking doing something else I enjoy. Whatever I decide to do, you can bet this time it’s not going to leave any leftovers. 

Unstuffed

Did you drown your sorrows in giblet gravy over waffles after Thanksgiving? Or make potato cakes with the leftover mashed potatoes topped with cranberry sauce? Turkey sandwiches? Turkey Tetrazzini? And all that pie! In my family, we always called it turkey dope, but the lethargic, bloated aftermath was really just an overload of carbohydrates and sugar. The crash left us beached on the couch for days.

With the unique circumstances of 2020’s socially distanced holiday, for many of us the reality of a massive family feast or Freindsgiving was out of reach. A video chat with my sister revealed she had opted for a rack of lamb instead of a bird. Other friends toned it down by doing duck. With only one or two diners, others splurged on luxurious treats such as lobsters, king crab legs, caviar, and foie gras. One friend admitted to forgoing any sort of cooking and ordered a huge platter of their favorite sushi and a cheesecake from Zabar’s. “I went all out for our comfort food. We couldn’t have our kids and grandchildren here.” 

But now that Thanksgiving has passed and the leftovers are on the verge of going bad, it’s time to take a break from heavy holiday food for a few weeks until the next round of social disappointment….er, I mean distancing at the holidays arrives.

No where is there a better place to lighten the plate than by shopping at the farmers market. With the first hard freezes arriving—heck, it even snowed here yesterday—many of the tender field crops such as peppers and tomatoes will be gone leaving only the cold-hardy roster of winter vegetables.

Leafy greens are all over the place with lettuces and spinach snug under floating row covers and in green houses. Think of all those tasty salads. When a cold meal won’t do, the heavier greens such as collards, kales and chards step up to the plate. These can be sauteed, boiled, baked, and steamed. Ribbons sliced thin and added to a hot broth make for a quick and healthy meal that is both filling and lite. If you find greens a little on the boring side, check out the mustard greens. They’ll spice up your life.

My favorite set of greens showing up at market right now are the cabbages. The kingpins of fermented foods, homemade sauerkraut and kimchee deliver a powerhouse of probiotics to get your guts back in good working order after being overloaded with too much holiday cheer.

Fermenting vegetables is one of my favorite ways to preserve seasonal fresh vegetables for weeks, even months at a time. According to food writer fermentation guru, Sandor Katz, cabbage can be used alone in or combination with radishes, turnips, carrots, beets, kohlrabi, Jerusalem artichokes, onions, shallots, leeks, garlic, greens, peppers, and other vegetables.  With nothing more than vegetables, salt, and a glass jar, Katz walks readers through the basic steps of natural fermentation that have been used for thousands of years by cultures around the world. His book, Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods was an eye-opener for me.  A sample taste of fermented carrots and brussels sprouts hooked me for good.

So here’s the routine for this year. For the next few weeks we’re going to stuff ourselves with vegetables to counteract any damage we may have inflicted on ourselves as we tried to cope through Corona Thanksgiving. At the same time while the early winter vegetables are coming into the prime of their season we’ll stock up and stuff our jars and crocks to get fizzing. While the Lactobacilli work their magic over a few weeks, we can finish out the year with cookies, candies, confections, booze, breads, and whatever Saturnalian delights we may encounter, before unstuffing ourselves once again. My Pennsylvania Dutch descent requires that I eat sauerkraut on New Year’s Day for health and good luck and after this last year I can’t shred cabbage fast enough.

A Season of Thanks

We’re a week away from Thanksgiving and counting down, but this year’s holiday is going to be much, much different than years gone by. To ignore the rising COVID19 numbers would be inviting risk. Is Grandma really worth that doughy stuffing that overdoses everyone on carbohydrates to the point of bursting? I know we are all creatures of habit to the point of starting WWIII if someone dares to add a little flair into family recipes. One year I used the purple Peruvian potatoes I had grown in my own garden instead of the standard russets from the grocery store. There was gnashing of teeth and attacks of the vapors along with my banishment of ever again being tasked with making the sacred white mashed potatoes.

As many folks with whom I’ve discussed the upcoming holiday have focused on what will be different this year, a recent conversation with two of my mentors—both octogenarians—have pointed me in a humbling direction of the unexpected positive aspects to arise from the pandemic. Despite never having met each other and residing on opposite sides of the country, both posed the same question to me—What good things have come out of the pandemic for me this year? As I have spent the better part of the week pondering this, I’ve come up with a larger list than expected.

I’m thankful that my family, friends, and customers who have either tested positive or contracted the Corona virus and have recovered. Over a quarter million Americans will be missing from the Thanksgiving table this year and three million will spend their holiday in isolation due to current infections.

I am thankful that I have more than enough food for myself and plenty to share with others. When the helicopter panned out with the video of thousands of cars waiting in line for a food bank, I was flabbergasted that that many people in America are currently food insecure.  As a farmer, even in my most austere moments I never went without. How do you all think I got so good at cooking offal? One of my butchers once remarked that with all the bones and trim he tossed out he could feed a small village and at times, he has. The pandemic has stressed our food pantries unlike anything this country has ever experienced since the food lines of the 1930’s and wartime rationing. If ever there was a year to make a generous donation to your local food bank such as Manna Food Center and Food for Others, this is it.  There’s always a donation bucket on the information table at Central Farm Markets. Generosity and kindness are wise investments in your community.

I am thankful that I live in a country where I have the ability to vote for leadership in free elections. The election process has been tested and stretched to its limits like never before, but thus far appears to be holding on. Living in rural America where most people don’t travel much further than their county except for an occasional vacation to the shore or to go hunting in the remote parts of a neighboring state, rarely do these multi-generational citizens ever get to interact with immigrants and refugees. When I began raising meat goats twenty years ago, immigrants and refugees were the bulk of my customers. Over the years I’ve met people who have shared unfathomable stories of atrocities from their lives before coming to America. For those who scream Tyranny & Oppression! at being asked to wear a mask, social distance and give up large events, you have absolutely no idea about what those words truly mean and for that you should be thankful.

I am thankful that I have gotten to know my customers better this year despite our social distancing and limited interactions. Sounds strange, right? With the farm’s weekly newsletter, curbside and delivery services, and pre-orders providing email addresses, I’ve been given a tiny glimpse into who some of my customers are thanks to their email address domains. There are lots of .edu, .gov, .org people and I can’t help but look up what the entity or who the person is at times. Some customers have followed along on social media, their own accounts reflecting interesting pictures into their own lives. And some of have even shown up in the news! More than once this year I’ve logged on to read the Washington Post to be met by an image of a customer. I don’t think I would have learned so much about my customers had it not been for the pandemic. It’s one thing to count your blessings for having such regular and dedicated customers; interesting customers are the whipped cream on the pumpkin pie!

I am thankful for the opportunity to write this blog for the last two years. Each week I look forward to a new topic as I sit down at my computer. Some weeks are more inspired than others. At times I’ve hit the send button apprehensive with my subject of choice only to find it struck a common cord with those who have read it. I am thankful that the Sunday after Thanksgiving I get to turn off my alarm (as do all my fellow vendors!) and take a day off. It’s not the amazing week-long vacation originally planned, but that’s ok. I’m still thankful. See you in two weeks. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.

Thank You for Your Service

Today is Veterans Day. Not Veterans’ Day or Veteran’s Day. No, this is not when we honor those who have died in battle or from wounds sustained during service—that’s Memorial Day. Wishing a living soldier a Happy Memorial Day is definitely a faux pas.

My grandparents always referred to this day as Armistice Day as it was their parents and grandparents who fought in World War I. But the war to end all wars didn’t live up to its name. It seems each generation has had their own war since then—WWII, the Korean War, Vietnam, Bay of Pigs, Grenada, Desert Storm, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Libya. As the conflicts pile up, many soldiers now have the distinction of participating in multiple theaters.

So to honor all who have served and are still on active duty, in 1954 Congress changed the holiday’s name from Armistice Day to Veterans Day. In 1968 it was added to the list of three-day weekend holidays designed to stimulate the economy and changed to the last Monday in October. But Americans didn’t take kindly to this change. It was our last Vice President turned President (albeit through a corrupt President’s impeachment and resignation) who set Veterans Day back to its proper place on the calendar—November 11th—starting in 1978 and that’s where it’s been ever since.

Veterans Day is not an American only observance as it originally signified the Allied Powers signing a cease fire agreement with Germany. Belgium, France, United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria all have their own versions of Armistice, Veterans, and Remembrance holidays.

My life had been filled with veterans. From my childhood neighbor, the WWII veteran who survived Normandy to the amputee who lost his leg to an IED in Afghanistan undergoing experimental surgery at Walter Reed last year. Some gladly share their experiences while others tuck difficult memories away in boxes only to be discovered after they pass.

Being a market vendor in the DC area has offered opportunities to serve veterans in ways only a farmer can. Several years ago a fellow vendor’s relative contacted me about roasting a goat. Not wanting to get back into catering as that part of my life had long passed, I politely declined. Turned out he was a West Point graduate. He and his buddies wanted me to roast a goat for their tailgate fundraiser at the big Army-Navy football game. For that, the catering equipment came out of storage. A tall gentleman in a long dress Navy coat with lots of shiny brass was ushered by his buddies over my way to have their picture taken with the roasting effigy of their mascot on the spit. His face lit up as he said, “You’re my farmer! My wife and I shop at the Bethesda market.” And he still does as I’ve seen his name on Farm-to-Fridge orders.

Throughout the years veterans have made my day many times over at the market. When I helped to start a market in downtown Carlisle near the U.S. Army War College, it was the students at the International Peacekeeping School who showed up weekly in search of ingredients for a taste of home, many unfamiliar with the concept of American groceries stores and much happier to meet the folks who were growing the food.

The solemnity of Veterans Day always leaves me asking myself what I can do other than say Thank you for your service and writing a check to nonprofits like the one that builds adaptive homes for injured veterans and others who retrain soldiers to be farmers. There are 364 days in which our veterans still need our support, be it through patronizing veteran-owned businesses or becoming actively involved in supportive organizations.

Today we recognize all the men and women who wear the uniforms of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and the National Guard—our customers, our fellow vendors—to you, thanks for the hard work and sacrifices you’ve made for this country and our world.