• Tapping for Taste

    Tapping for Taste

    There are people in Vermont who prefer fake maple syrup—not just people who are looking for something cheaper but who actually prefer the stuff made of corn syrup. There are other people in Vermont who don’t talk to those fake syrup types. And there are Vermonters who stand by Grade B for all occasions and others who keep a little Fancy on hand.

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  • Last Morsel—Roots on the Rails

    Last Morsel—Roots on the Rails

    On summer evenings in the garden in Weathersfield, I know it’s nearly time to call it a day when the train whistle blows; over the river, Amtrak’s Vermonter is about to cross the highway in Cornish. As I stand up, knees cracking from too-long bending over the rows of carrots that want thinning, I think about the train on its trek north to St. Albans, and how tomorrow it will head south to Washington, DC. Back and forth, more than 600 miles, each day, every day.

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  • The First Localvores

    The First Localvores

    I have always been fascinated by wild foods. When I was a kid growing up in Indiana we had a copy of Euell Gibbons’ book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and I remember how exciting it was to read about eating cattails, making acorn flour, and brewing sassafras tea. As I recall, the cattail stalks tasted a bit like mild turnips, the acorn flour was tannic and needed a lot of processing before being edible, and the tea tasted like something just this side of root beer. Little did I know as a kid that wild edibles such as cattails and acorns were just a couple of the foods historically gathered and consumed by the first people to inhabit the state I would one day call home.

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  • Taking it Slow in Italy

    Taking it Slow in Italy

    Getting together, the listening to and exchanging of ideas— that is the miracle of Terra Madre.”

    With this, Slow Food International founder Carlo Petrini welcomed us to the 2010 Terra Madre conference and set the tone for our four days in Turin, Italy. He addressed an audience of 5,000 representatives from 161 countries—small-scale farmers, producers, educators, and observers—who had traveled to Italy to meet with their peers and discuss global issues of food, culture, and justice. We came to take part in the conversation, too, along with two dozen other Vermonters. The experience renewed our appreciation for the value of gathering around a table to break bread and to exchange ideas.

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  • Cookbooks, Culture,  and Community

    Cookbooks, Culture, and Community

    The case for local nuts. No, I’m not talking about your odd mother-in-law, your bizarre ex-boyfriend, or that whacko who expresses herself, extensively, at town meeting. And I don’t mean aficionados or extremely enthusiastic people. I mean those portable nuggets of nutrition, held aloft by tree limbs. A nut, technically speaking, is a big seed enclosed by a hard shell. And even though you’re now fantasizing about almond and macadamia instead of weirdo and diehard, I’m here to tell you about what nuts we can grow in Vermont, and why.

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  • Post Oil Solutions at Five Years

    Post Oil Solutions at Five Years

    A strong regional food system—one in which the people of a region are participating in their own food production in both sustaining and sustainable ways—is community based. As much as this system grows food, it grows people, encouraging relationships of collaboration and mutual aid, respect and care. No longer at war with nature and each other, unburdened by that ancient power relationship of us over them, and having given up the self-destructive effort to control life, people actively work with life in a community-based food system. In this way, they practice “relational agriculture,” building the social fabric that leads to a truly sustainable food system for all.

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  • Halal in the Hills

    Halal in the Hills

    Art Meade is a 59-year-old livestock and poultry farmer with a thick Maine accent and a farm on Route 100 in Morrisville. He also happens to run the only state-licensed slaughter facility in Vermont that caters to Muslims who practice halal slaughter. This is the Muslim tradition of swiftly slitting the throat of a domesticated meat animal with a sharp knife; the animal is believed to be killed instantly and painlessly (though there is some debate about that). Muslims, who are directed by their religion to eat halal meat, can purchase such meat in Vermont stores, but some prefer to do the slaughter themselves.

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  • New to America,  Old Hands at Agriculture

    New to America, Old Hands at Agriculture

    There’s something exciting happening at the Intervale. “So what else is new?” you might say. “There’s always something interesting happening at the Intervale.” But not every day do you see families from more than four different countries, speaking a mix of different languages, planting lenga-lenga, molukhia, or Asian mustards side by side in a lush valley in Vermont. This summer that will be the scene at the gardens at Ethan Allen Homestead, a field at the Intervale Center in Burlington, and on farmland in Shelburne.

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  • Set the Table with Switchel

    Set the Table with Switchel

    Long a staple in Northeast hayfields as a thirst quencher and restorative, switchel—alternatively called “haymaker’s punch” —was a colonial era proto-Gatorade, a source of both hydration and electrolyte replenishment. Recipes vary, but the most common ingredients were molasses, cider vinegar, and ginger, mixed to taste in a jug of very cold well water. While the concoction could have provided benefit to all manner of laborers and sporting folks, its use was particularly common among the workers of the hayfield and the children who carried the switchel jug to them.

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  • Restoring Vermont’s Heritage

    Restoring Vermont’s Heritage

    “The farming of our fathers was exceedingly simple, content to draw from a virgin soil the supplies of simple wants, instead of aiming itself for their increase. With the impoverishment of the soil, with the forests almost swept off the face of the country and the consequent climate change, with the multiplied wants of society and development of so many new industries, the highest intelligence and energies are required to remodel our system of agriculture so that it may fully meet the demands made upon it.

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  • A Farmhouse Feeds Its Neighbors

    A Farmhouse Feeds Its Neighbors

    When Joseph Kiefer and Martin Kemple founded Food Works in 1987, phrases such as “food security” and “local food system” had yet to come into common parlance. It was ambitious—maybe even radical at the time—to think of using gardens and locally grown food to address the root causes of childhood hunger.

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  • Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Winter

    Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Winter

    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 the last of this four-part series, we take a look at how the Robinsons cooked, ate, and farmed in the late 1800s.

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  • How to Start a Community Garden

    How to Start a Community Garden

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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  • Getting Everyone to the Table

    Getting Everyone to the Table

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Autumn

Picking apples
Photo courtesy of the Rokeby Museum, Ferrisburgh

Written By

Jesse Natha

Written on

September 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 the third of this four-part series, we take a look at how the Robinsons cooked, ate, and farmed in the late 1800s.

When autumn arrives in Vermont, it’s as if the searing heat of summer is absorbed by the maple trees and expressed through their blazing foliage. This signals the fiery death of another growing season, and the rapid retreat to winter’s dormancy. Ann Robinson Minturn remarked on this bittersweet transition in a letter to her husband, Lloyd, in September 1866: “The country never could be lovelier in September, I am sure, than during the present one—but it is always a melancholy month for me.”

With the change of the season came a flurry of preparation on the Robinson farm in Ferrisburgh. The shortening fall days barely held enough time for the apple picking, animal foddering, hunting, crop harvesting and, of course, requisite endless butter churning before the winter set in. And once the produce was harvested and processed, it all needed careful securing in cellar or granary, crock, barrel, or mason jar to survive the long storage season.

A clear day in early October 1862 would have sent Rowland Thomas Robinson—recent widower and father of Ann, George, and Rowland Evans—into the “new orchard” with son George and a handful of hired pickers in tow. After filling as many barrels as they could procure from Vergennes and Burlington, the pickers continued dropping their treasure into “anything that would hold apples.” Some stayed after the work day to collect their pay in windfalls—the apples blown to the ground during the fall winds. The other son, Rowland Evans, might have been at large in the woods, packing either pen or gun, depending on which of his twin passions of drawing and hunting had hold of him that day. A single man might have been working in the field, seeding winter wheat where buckwheat had been harvested weeks before. Daughter Ann Minturn, meanwhile, would have been at her new home in Waterloo, New York, possibly testing the pears, which would ripen any day.

While the family kept plenty busy outdoors on their respective farms, a great number of administrative tasks awaited them when days turned soggy and sent them indoors. Through a complex web of marketing and bartering, shipping and trading, regional specialties were exchanged throughout the state and the greater Northeast. The Robinson family sent barrels of apples and tubs of butter on canal boats down Lake Champlain or by rail to the West, while orders of Nantucket cod or a few jars of catsup came to Rokeby by way of the Post. But not so with Ann’s fragile produce: “If there was any hope that an unprotected barrel of peaches would ever reach you in safety, I should send one,” she wrote from Waterloo to her brother Rowland Evans in 1862.

As a commercial farming family in a post-wool economy, the Robinsons devoted the most attention to finding markets for their apples and butter, and negotiating the best prices by waiting as long as possible to sell. “Will try hard to send off the Montpelier [apple] order tomorrow and next day I go to Rutland to find a market,” Rowland Thomas wrote in 1862. “Am anxious to get them all off before the weather will require them to go into winter quarters.” He didn’t succeed; that year, when a hard frost came in early November, he and a neighbor’s hired hand scrambled to secure the hundreds of barrels of tender apples. Some were put in the cellar, some were packed with hay or wheat-straw, and the balance they had no alternative but to “commit to providence.” This time, providence revealed herself to be kind, and the apples fared well.

Not that any damaged fruits were wasted; in 1862 the Robinsons pressed at least 80 bushels of windfalls and other unsalable apples into cider, which was held in secondhand rum barrels and left to ferment in the cellar to become next summer’s favorite refresher. Still more apples were cored, sliced, strung, and hung to dry from iron hooks in the kitchen ceiling, providing a winter staple.

While well-secured apples could wait until November to be pressed or dried, the ripe, tender crops had to be preserved regularly in anticipation of the first freeze, the date of which was always a surprise. Ann wrote to her husband from Ferrisburgh on September 16, “We had last night a killing frost, the melons, tomatoes and cucumbers look drooping enough—and it is feared that the corn is hurt—not nearly all of it was out of danger from frost—it is a sad calamity to the county.” Melancholy September, indeed; in a single night, summer vanishes and the industriousness of just yesterday determines dinner tonight.

We have a good idea of just what the Robinson family’s autumn dinner was, thanks to the 1873 diary of Anne Stevens Robinson, wife of Rowland Evans. For a week in early October, Anne recorded the family’s daily menu. Breakfasts routinely consisted of johnnycakes and meat or potatoes, but the monotony ended there. In this single week, the Robinsons ate fresh and smoked pork, fresh beef, fish, various root crops and potatoes, and fruits including canned peaches, plums, and pears, and fresh apples, cranberries, and grapes. Cakes, pies, and gingerbreads rounded out the sweet side of things, while continued churning suggests that butter was a presence at each meal.

While Anne lists only domestic meats, autumn was the season, as it is today, of wild game, and the Robinsons certainly enjoyed their share of it. “The transition is easy and natural to game,” wrote Ann Minturn from Waterloo in late September 1861. “We do not see any partridges in our domain this fall—but every day and all day we hear the guns of the sportsmen, popping in the swamp and fields—the beasts shoot meadow larks among other things.” The Robinsons may have been above the lark, but they entertained other small creatures: “Rachel [Anne and Rowland Evans’ daughter] has taken to shooting squirrels and we are cooking six of her game today,” Anne wrote in September 1892, with what may have been equal parts pride and amusement.

“Who can realize that summer is gone,” Ann Minturn asked her brother George in a September 1868 letter. But even as she watched the winter’s approach in garden and field, she only needed to open a cupboard or head to the cellar to see that summer was never more than a barrel’s lid and a mason jar away.

Photo courtesy of the Rokeby Museum, Ferrisburgh

About the Author

Jesse Natha

Jesse Natha

Jesse Natha lives in Vergennes. She has written for Local Banquet and The Boston Globe. Her collection of essays Farming and Feasting with the Robinsons was recently re-released by Ferrisburgh’s Rokeby Museum. Her other interests include Italian, gardening, and helping creative people craft profitable businesses.

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