• Publishers' Note Spring 2009

    Publishers' Note Spring 2009

    Let’s look at what we Vermonters might eat on a typical day in, say, March. Hot steaming oatmeal with dried apples and maple syrup starts the day. For lunch, we make a soup with root vegetables and barley—and of course we’ll add a slice of multigrain bread. Finally, dinner consists of baked beans, sausage, and sauerkraut. And during the cooking process for all these meals, we would inevitably use salt and oil.

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  • Bartered, Smuggled, and Bought

    Bartered, Smuggled, and Bought

    When the Upper Valley Localvores took their first 100–mile diet challenge in August 2005, we came upon a serious stumbling block. No local salt! Tomatoes and corn–on–the–cob were abundant, but oh, we needed salt. Fortunately, one of our members had vacationed in Maine and brought back a precious supply of sea salt. It made us wonder what our Upper Valley ancestors had done for salt.

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  • The 9' x 12' Vegetable Garden

    The 9' x 12' Vegetable Garden

    If you’re able to devote 15 minutes a day to gardening and are willing to give up a piece of your lawn roughly the size of the parking space for your car, you can grow a significant amount of good food—food that is organic, food that is tasty, food that is healthy. During World War II, Americans started “victory gardens,” growing up to 40 percent of their fresh produce. In these tough economic times, it again makes sense for us to grow some of our own food.

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  • Vermont’s Newest Grain?

    Vermont’s Newest Grain?

    People are often surprised to hear that rice can be grown in Vermont. After all, this grass is known as a tropical plant. But cultivated rice, first domesticated 6,000 years ago, is divided into two subspecies: O. sativa ‘indica,’ which is the long–grain type (such as jasmine or basmati) grown in tropical southern regions, and O. sativa ‘japonica,’ which is a shorter, rounder grain that is more cold tolerant. Japonica rice has been grown in Japan, of course, but also in more surprising temperate climates, such as the Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and Romania.

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  • Set the Table with Peasant Food

    Set the Table with Peasant Food

    Many people say they don’t buy into the localvore movement because local food is “elitist.” ?Yet some of the world’s great cuisines—Chinese, Italian, country French, Indian—have their roots among people who had the least to work with: peasants. What can we learn from peasant cultures that can help us eat both economically and locally at the same time?

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  • Who Will This Feed?

    Who Will This Feed?

    Imagine yourself in the future—say the spring of 2016. Farmers and growers in Vermont are planting numerous varieties of grains, as well as oilseed crops. What are they growing? And when it’s time for harvest, who—or what—will these crops feed?

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  • Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Spring

    Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Spring

    The 1860s were a tumultuous time for the Robinsons. Rachel Gilpin Robinson, wife of Rowland Thomas Robinson, passed away in 1862, shortly after dismissing longtime housekeeper Naomi Griswold from service. Because Rachel and Rowland’s daughter, Ann Robinson Minturn, was living far from her family in Waterloo, NY, Rachel’s death meant that a large home and farm were left in the hands of an aging father and his two bachelor sons, along with a new, unfamiliar housekeeper and a revolving cast of hired men who sometimes lived on the farm.

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  • Jack Lazor and the Graining of Vermont

    Jack Lazor and the Graining of Vermont

    Jack Lazor is the first to admit he’s got his fingers in a lot of pies. He says so with a chuckle, his gentle eyes sparkling like the bright mid–afternoon sun reflecting off newly fallen snow. Among his “pies” are grain–growing experiments to find varieties that thrive in Vermont, infrastructure development for the processing and storage of staple foods like beans and cooking oils, and a plethora of workshops in which he shares what he’s learned in his 30 years of farming.

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  • The Return of the Root Cellar

    The Return of the Root Cellar

    The globalized food chain that Americans have increasingly relied on for over 50 years has begun to show its weaknesses—and inevitable failure. There are many weak links in the chain, but the weakest are storage and distribution. These aspects of modern food production contribute significantly to energy consumption: fossil fuel is required to ship food from far away, to keep food fresh during long–distance transport, and to store food over a long period of time. How can we opt out of this destructive system?

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  • The Winooski Bean Thresher Co–op

    The Winooski Bean Thresher Co–op

    I moved to Vermont in 1989 with a desire to garden and build a self–sufficient life—values I inherited from my mother. As I began growing food for myself and friends, I naturally started out with the basics, also known as “the three sisters” native to the Americas: corn, beans, and squash. I grew winter squashes, Maine black turtle beans, and sweet corn—or at least tried to. The crows plucked up nearly every corn seed that sprouted from the earth, and the cucumber beetles attacked my squash plants.

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  • Farmers' Kitchen—Spilling the Beans

    Farmers' Kitchen—Spilling the Beans

    A rustic wooden bin filled with black beans sits on our table at the Middlebury Farmers’ Market. Some delighted customers march right up and serve themselves heaping bags full. Others slowly approach our stand to see what’s in the bin. These folks are either disappointed that we’re not selling what appeared to be roasted coffee beans or, more often, they just stand and contemplate the implications of a purchase. Cooking beans is a new and time–consuming activity for most. But people are often excited to learn that dry beans are being grown in Vermont, and many are surprised to know that it’s even possible in our climate.

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  • Last Morsel—Robert King

    Last Morsel—Robert King

    Robert King is renowned in southeast Vermont for his vast knowledge of gardening and the many workshops he leads to teach people how to grow their own food. His longtime friend Ron Krupp recently interviewed him about his life. This is a portion of that interview.

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Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Spring

Robinson Family Tree

Written By

Jesse Natha North

Written on

March 01 , 2009

In the not–so–distant past, eating locally was a way of life and a matter of necessity. For four generations, the Robinson family farmed in Ferrisburgh, at the place known today as the Rokeby Museum. The museum’s collection includes correspondence and household records detailing the family’s ways of farming, preserving, and eating. In this four–part series, we’ll take a look at how the Robinsons cooked, ate, and farmed in the late 1800s.

The 1860s were a tumultuous time for the Robinsons. Rachel Gilpin Robinson, wife of Rowland Thomas Robinson, passed away in 1862, shortly after dismissing longtime housekeeper Naomi Griswold from service. Because Rachel and Rowland’s daughter, Ann Robinson Minturn, was living far from her family in Waterloo, NY, Rachel’s death meant that a large home and farm were left in the hands of an aging father and his two bachelor sons, along with a new, unfamiliar housekeeper and a revolving cast of hired men who sometimes lived on the farm. Not until 1870, when Rowland Evans Robinson, one of Rachel and Rowland’s sons, married Anne Stevens of East Montpelier, did the Rokeby House benefit from the attentions of a new matriarch.

If we could peek in on the Robinsons on a morning in, say, early May 1873, we might find Anne Stevens in the cellar kitchen, churning three days’ cream into butter, then rinsing it clean of milk and packing it into molds, embossing the surface with the Rokeby name. Naomi works upstairs, hanging the laundry from iron hooks in the ceiling and watching over a sheet of gingerbread as it cooks on the hearth. George Gilpin Robinson, the other son of Rachel and Rowland, is harrowing the back field, and he’s having a hell of a time because the oxen are “too fat to work” after their winter respite. Two men hired for the day to tag new lambs are out back, while a third man chops wood in exchange for a pound of butter and four pounds of wheat flour. Rowland Evans is bent over his desk, approaching deadline on a drawing for Field and Stream, but what’s really on his mind is the gingerbread, the smell of which is starting to waft into the library.

Rowland Thomas and Rachel Gilpin were devout Quakers and radical abolitionists, and during their lives the dining table was surrounded by their large family as well as fugitive slaves, hired laborers, household help, and a host of travelers and friends. They raised and bred Merino sheep commercially, and grew a variety of food crops such as wheat, buckwheat, oats, and vegetables for family consumption and as payment to their hired help. Later, under sons Rowland Evans and George Gilpin, both the human and Merino sheep populations shrank while the farm focused on dairying and commercial orchard and nursery work. Both brothers pursued professional careers as well; Rowland was a successful artist and writer, while George was active in civic life, serving as Ferrisburgh’s town clerk.

Spring was usually the leanest season; the family relied on dried and preserved fruits, pickled vegetables, dried corn, wheat and buckwheat flour, stored winter butter, cellared root crops, and preserved meats. When the maple sap began to run in March or April, it meant the first green vegetables would soon emerge. Calving—with its long–awaited supply of fresh milk and cream for fresh butter—would begin in early April.

Maple sugaring provided a celebrated, if brief, return to farm production, one especially loved by school–age boys whose talents at sugaring—or at least sugar–eating—were unsurpassed. Will Stevens, Anne’s brother, wrote to his mother on April 18, 1857: “I went out to Uncle Eliases last fifth day [Thursday] to help them sugar off not because they needed help by any means but because I wanted some sugar. I had a fine time as they sugared off over one hundred pounds and I had all I wanted to eat besides the visit.”

While today we prefer our maple syrupy, the Robinsons made little reference to the liquid form. Perhaps the widespread use of molasses made the liquid redundant. At any rate, the many references to “sugar” are, of course, to that of maple, rather than cane. And as with any small–batch product, sugar quality was highly variable. “New sugar is getting quite plenty here,” Will wrote on March 28, 1858, “but those who have eaten it think it is about half flour and the other half something else.”

By April, milk was in full flow, and the Robinsons took up the butter churn twice a week—a task that was a mixed blessing. Churning was arduous work, but butter was money in the bank for the Robinsons, who used it to pay a portion of their help’s salary. On March 30, 1884, Rowland Evans wrote to Anne, “Our supply of winter butter is getting very low. Neither do I want any winter butter–making for me—we quit making butter in December.”

Before canning gained popularity, fruits were a dried staple of the Vermont diet. While too tough to be eaten raw, reconstituted fruit formed the base of pies, cakes, and sauces. Rowland Thomas advised his sons in April 1862, “A[nne] says there are some dried plums in … the entry cupboard & also some dried peaches which should be used, the latter for pies & the plums for tea put a large quantity of water to both as they take up a great deal before they are worked.”

May marked a turning point for the Robinsons. Asparagus emerged and gardens finally became workable. Hired workers helped with the sowing of oats and buckwheat, and they chopped wood to restore the depleted stock. On May 17, 1885, Rowland Evans wrote his sister Ann, who operated a Merino sheep and dairy farm in Shoreham, “Our [gardener] has got his early peas in, and most of the beds made, but no cucumbers planted. He has cut the sparrowgrass [asparagus] three times, and wishes you were here to eat some today.” Seven years earlier, Rowland’s brother George found the first crop of fresh peas notable enough to deserve an entry in his sparsely kept farm journal (“Good ones,” he wrote simply). His subdued enthusiasm was warranted—he waited for those peas until June 27.

Still, the Robinsons employed some now–familiar techniques to hasten the arrival of certain tender vegetables. They started seedlings indoors in small pots and transferred them into a “hotbox,” a device much like a cold–frame but with added heat from composting manure below the soil. On April 20, 1862, an anxious Rowland Thomas, away on an extended visit to his daughter Ann in Waterloo, NY, following the death of his wife, wrote to his bachelor sons left alone on the home front during this crucial season: “How about the hot box and does thou make some oil cloth pots for melons and squashes etc.?” Just nine days later he presses them: “Will it not be well to place the box of tomatoes in the hot box? Especially if they give any sign of not doing well. I think plants of all kinds thrive better in the hot box when they get plenty of sun and air than in the house & bear the change to the open garden better.”

A springtime absence from the farm often caused Rowland Thomas a great deal of anxiety; he kept in constant contact with his sons to ensure their attention to the long list of duties. “Ann says the peas which Lloyd bought are in the box in the entry cupboard… do not forget the peas and potatoes. Rowl[and Evans] will not forget to uncover and cultivate the grape vines in the new vineyard,” Rowland Thomas wrote from Waterloo.

“I feel quite satisfied that none of our joint interests will be neglected in my absence,” he adds. The father’s directions were reminders to sons who undoubtedly knew their responsibilities and the importance of the proverbial “stitch in time.” Rowland Thomas’s anxieties reveal the deep connection between a Vermont farmer and his seasonal duties, the discharge of which bore real consequences for his family.

Photos courtesy of the Rokeby Museum, Ferrisburgh, VT

Illustration Meg Lucas

About the Author

Jesse Natha North

Jesse Natha North

Jesse North lives in Goshen, where she wishes she had a more humid basement.

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Home Stories Issues 2009 Spring 2009 | Issue 8 Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Spring