Three Square—Winter 2008
Written onDecember 01 , 2007
Growing up in Vermont, I ate chokecherries, dandelions, venison, and tempura day lilies. When I returned recently, to live here full-time, I began to notice how often the conversation in Vermont turns to food. What’s for dinner? For the next few issues of Local Banquet, I’ll visit a variety of people at home, peer into their iceboxes, and find out what they’re eating and why. And because these can often be personal subjects, I’ve omitted last names.
Mike likes to eat everything. “Meats, potatoes, vegetables. I like all vegetables. Me, I’m not a fussy eater.”
“Any favorites?” I ask. I’ve come into Mike and Sloan’s farmhouse in Glover through the barn, greeted by Lily the goat and two enthusiastic small dogs. The kitchen is full of good smells. We sit in chairs by the wood stove.
“I like apple strudel. I like sushi. And I had some tofu manicotti last week that was better than steak. I never thought that could happen.”
I ask Sloan what she likes. “For me, tofu was a number one food,” she tells me, “because of growing up in a commune. But I liked TV dinners for a while too.”
“My mother thought they were too expensive,” says Mike. “We never ate them but later I did a few times, while I was living on my own and learning to cook.”
Mike grew up in Hardwick, the youngest of five children. When he was in grade school, he’d look at the lunch list on Mondays, and if he didn’t like what the lunch ladies had planned, he’d ask his mother to pack his lunch on those days. “She was a little Swedish lady, a great cook. She could make saltines taste like the best piece of beef you ever had. Some nights we’d have American chop suey or a batch of liver, and every Saturday morning she’d bake donuts and brown bread and on Saturday night baked beans. Sometimes we’d go hunting for small game¾raccoons, rabbits, squirrels. My mother would skin a raccoon, put aside six ribs and the hind legs, soak it overnight, parboil it, stuff it, and bake it. The bones were flat. It was delicious.”
When he was 13, he moved away from his family to work on a nearby farm. He dreamed of being a dairy farmer. “There were two of us and we’d get up about 3:30 in the morning to milk 60 cows and feed 60 heifers. We had to catch the school bus at seven. The farmer’s wife would make us breakfast, two slices of home made bread, two eggs fried in mayonnaise, and a big bowl of oatmeal with cornflakes on top. We’d get back from school on the late bus and finish the chores by seven, in time for dinner.”
Mike, 56, and Sloan, 47, are full-time farriers, and their horse-shoeing business takes them to farms all over New England. Sometimes they eat lunch on the road, sandwiches or take-out, depending on the weather. Breakfast is toast and coffee. Mostly they don’t eat till they get home in the evening, and then it’s a big meal. They grow and raise almost all their own food.
Their garden has been a garden for a long time, they tell me. I look out the kitchen window to see the remains of this season’s harvest. A dozen Fjord horses graze in the meadow – retired from Mike and Sloan’s therapeutic riding program – and there’s a swimming pool that looks inviting even though it’s late November. Their farm is 30 acres, nearly all of it pasture land.
“We use our own pig manure, not horse,” says Mike. “Of course we raise our own pigs, and we’ve got 25 chickens in the freezer, and we trade horse-shoeing for half a whole grass-fed beef every year.”
He leans forward and speaks quietly. “There are these new FDA rules. If a calf has ever been grass-fed, well, they can mark it grass-fed when they sell it. Look at little Henry James out there in the pasture. He’s only four months old, he’s a big boy, he’s a beauty. He could go to the feed lot right now and when he’s two years old and gets slaughtered he could still be labeled grass-fed beef, even if he’s been eating recycled newspapers and concrete dust for most of his life.”
Mike sits back and sips a cup of tea, measuring his words. “People are buying this crap,” he says. “A guy we know, he told me they’re shredding plastic milk containers for cow feed¾it bulks the animals up, to get a premium price.” Mike shakes his head. We fall silent. We watch Henry James and his mother, Joyce, grazing, as we contemplate the future of the food chain.
“We put up 230 pounds of cucumbers this year,” Mike says. “That’s a lot of pickles. We have every kind you can think of.”
“Bread and butter,” says Sloan, “chips, whole dills, dill strips.”
Mike continues: “Sweet, gherkins, garlic, and these, look, they’re sort of smashed in, see? They’re made from cukes a lot of people would throw away.”
“Mike does most of the cooking,” says Sloan. She is sorting an enormous box of tomatoes; some are black and splitting, others are gnome-like. “We’re making salsa today, this is the end of the tomatoes.
They’re a little funky but they taste so good.”
And what’s for dinner tonight?
“We’re having sausage gravy,” says Sloan. “Our pigs. And squash, and some of these tomatoes made into sauce.”
“And pickles,” Mike adds, “probably at least two kinds.”