• 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: Spring

Robinson Family Tree

Written By

Jesse Natha

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

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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