• 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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Set the Table with Peasant Food

Midieval woodblock print of peasants farming

Written By

Robin McDermott

Written on

March 01 , 2009

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?

Peasant foods are typically simple and seasonal, and often consist of hearty one–dish meals in which chunks of “lesser cuts” of meat and vegetables are eaten in a savory broth, usually with bread. It is humble, but delicious food; far from elitist. I have found that local food is only elitist when you try to eat like royalty. A slab of tender steak or a boneless, skinless chicken breast with vegetables and a starch are not what peasants would eat. Eating this way surely will increase your weekly food bill if you “go local.”

Following some simple peasant principles, you can eat for less, enjoy your food more, and eat a mostly local diet year round, even in Vermont. My husband and I can attest to the fact that we are spending about a third less on food today as localvores than we were in 2005 as globalvores. In looking at how we have become “peasant eaters,” we’ve hit upon six simple principles.

Let the “royalty” eat high on the hog

I was fascinated to learn from cookbook author Molly Stevens the origin of the phrase “eating high on the hog.” The tenderest cuts of meat on a pig, or any animal for that matter, come from the least used muscles. That is why meat from the active leg portions of animals (chicken thighs and legs, pork shoulder and ham, beef brisket and chuck roasts) is tougher and usually cannot just be thrown on the grill and served medium rare. Interestingly though, the exercise these muscles get actually makes them much more flavorful than tender cuts such as the tenderloin.

Bought from local farmers, these “lesser cuts of meat” can be less than half the cost of the more “desirable” cuts. I cook them low and slow in braises, soups, stews, and slow roasts. These meals are rich, satisfying, and deliciously filling, and we end up eating less meat than if the meat were the “star” of our dinner plate.

Never Throw Food Away

One thing that happens when you source food locally or grow it yourself is that you gain a much deeper respect for farmers and food producers. Wasting their food is just not right. In fact, wasting any food feels criminal. In our home, leftover ends of bread go into the “leftover bread bag” in the freezer and someday become stuffing, bread pudding, a breakfast strata (see Local Banquet website for recipe), or bread crumbs. All of those little bits and pieces of cheese can become a gooey fromage fort (see recipe on page 28) that you can spread on toasts made from the leftover bread. A leftover piece of ham from Sunday’s dinner, barely enough for one sandwich, can become a meal of hash by sautéing the diced ham with potatoes, onions, and other root veggies and serving it topped with fried eggs. I call meals such as these “free food.” Other great “free food” dishes to make with leftovers are frittatas or quiche, shepherd’s pie, meat pies, omelets, fried rice, sandwiches/wraps, casseroles, and pasta dishes. Of course, there are times when food turns into an inedible science project. That is when I feed the compost pile. So while I don’t produce zero waste from the kitchen, no food goes to waste.

Adapt Recipes to What You Have

Until a few years ago, if I didn’t have all the ingredients that a recipe called for, I would either drop everything and run to the store or I would hold off making the recipe until I could get the ingredients. As a localvore, I’ve had to learn how to make all kinds of substitutions, not because I forget to pick up an ingredient, but usually because specific ingredients called for in a recipe are not local. Some common substitutions include using local whole wheat flour in place of white all–purpose flour and local vinegar in place of lemon juice. 
Sometimes the substitutions work and other times they don’t. But the real benefit of this way of cooking is that I have become much more adventurous. I am very comfortable substituting yogurt and a little milk for buttermilk, kale for spinach, or maple sugar for brown sugar. When I am ready to cook something and realize I’m missing an ingredient, I ask myself, “What would a peasant do?” The answer is NEVER “run out to the store!” So I make do with what I have.

Make Inexpensive Proteins the 
Cornerstone of Your Diet

Vegetarians know that some of the best protein for their meat–free diet can be found in beans, and at $2 or less a pound for locally grown dry beans, they are a bargain. Peasant cultures around the world make beans and rice the foundation of their diet, and it is one of my favorite dishes. The rice can easily be localized by using wheat berries instead. If you are used to using canned beans, dry beans may seem inconvenient because they take two hours or so to cook, plus soaking time. But I have gotten around that inconvenience by cooking up large batches of beans and freezing them in two–cup portions. I freeze them in zip–top bags with some of their cooking liquid and they are ready to go when I need them.

Eggs are another protein bargain. Even farm–fresh eggs from free–range chickens at upwards of $5 a dozen are a bargain when compared to meat. And the bright orange yolk of a local, free–range egg will remain in your mind forever. The pale yellow yolks from factory–farmed eggs simply are not appealing.

Grow Some of Your Own Food

Peasants grow much of their own food or trade with neighbors for what they don’t grow themselves. In our modern–day world with specialization and division of labor, chances are you go to work each day, earn a salary, and use that money to buy food for your family. And that’s great because that is what enables our farmers to stay in business. However, I think that everyone should try to grow at least some of their own food. If nothing else, you gain a much greater appreciation for what farmers are doing for us. Tomatoes are a great place to start. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love a good tomato in season, and tomatoes are one of the more expensive items at the farmers’ market. I always recommend that people at least try to grow their own tomatoes.

Take advantage of “modern–day peasant” conveniences

Many peasants throughout the world even today do not have refrigeration. Lucky for localvores, we have access to this modern–day convenience and I think we should take advantage of it. Personally, I could not eat locally throughout the winter without a freezer. I do a bit of canning, drying, and pickling, and we have a makeshift root cellar, but the freezer holds 75 percent of the food that we eat in the winter. Freezers are surprisingly inexpensive and easily earn their keep in the first season. By the end of November, our freezer is stuffed full of fruits, veggies, broths, and meats that will feed us until early spring. Usually around the middle of April, just when the spinach that we planted the previous fall is starting to come alive under the cold frame, our freezer is about empty.


While most of us are blessed not to suffer the economic hardships faced by peasants around the world, there is a lot that localvores can learn about the frugal and sustainable ways of peasants. In a time when we are all feeling the economic pinch of a difficult economy and are living in an environment in crisis, we can be inspired by the lives of people who live close to the land, and close to their food sources.

Illustration from the Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Washington, D.C.

About Peasants & Peasant Food

  • Peasants are people who farm, ranch, hunt, herd, or fish on a small scale. As such, they live close to the places and animals that provide their food.
  • Until the Industrial Revolution—when rural people sought jobs in urban factories—practically everyone was a peasant. Even today, peasants still account for most of the world’s population.
  • While peasants appear to be poor by many of our standards, they are by no means impoverished. Peasants lead rich lives steeped in traditions passed down through the ages.
  • Most peasants are quick and gracious in offering their hospitality, despite how little they appear to own.Peasant recipes often consist of hearty one-dish meals, in which chunks of “lesser cuts” of meat and vegetables are eaten in a savory broth, usually with bread.
  • Peasants tend to see the land as an extension of life itself and not as a source of monetary income.
  • Buying exotic ingredients from halfway around the world to make a “classic” peasant dish (although I am sometimes guilty of doing it) is the antithesis of true peasant cuisine.

- Robin McDermott

Adapted in part from:http://hillmanwonders.com/peasant_dishes/about_p01.htm

About the Author

Robin McDermott

Robin McDermott

Robin McDermott is cofounder of the Mad River Valley Localvore Project and, with her husband, Ray, works out of their home-based office in Waitsfield developing web-based training to support manufacturing quality and productivity.

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Home Stories Issues 2009 Spring 2009 | Issue 8 Set the Table with Peasant Food