• Editor's Note Winter 2010

    Editor's Note Winter 2010

    Vermont is facing many challenges when it comes to local meat production: Grazing land is expensive, there aren’t enough facilities in which to process animals, and many residents refrain from buying local meat because they don’t know how to cook the unusual cuts sold by small farms. What exactly do you do with a pork loin or lamb shoulder?

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  • A Breed Apart

    A Breed Apart

    On a 40-acre hillside in Corinth, Ben Machin raises a flock of 60 Tunis sheep. They’re a “heritage breed”—a domesticated breed of animal that has a long genetic history but is now endangered. As industrial agriculture continues to rely on just a few breeds designed for maximum growth in the shortest amount of time, more sustainable farmers are raising heritage breeds as an alternative—and to save them. Ben, a 35-year-old farmer who also works as a forester with Redstart Forestry and Consulting, is managing the flock that his great-grandfather started in the 1920s. Local Banquet editor Caroline Abels recently spoke with Ben about his unique sheep and why heritage breeds matter.

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  • A Boost to the Butchers

    A Boost to the Butchers

    In March 2009, in an attempt to help strengthen Vermont’s meat-processing infrastructure, the Vermont Farm Viability Enhancement Program awarded $40,000 in grants to four facilities. For recipient Tony Brault, it was perfect timing; he had been planning to add on a spiffy retail area to his slaughterhouse. But for grantee Gary Barnes, who runs a meat market, the amount he was awarded would barely begin to cover the cost of adding on a separate processing area for wild game, so as of this writing, he had not collected the grant funds. Nevertheless, the grants helped both of these meat facilities in northern Vermont, with and without funding, and here’s how.

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  • We Have Sausage

    We Have Sausage

    Late in life my father was able to get the spicy breakfast sausage he loved as a kid sent north to him from the general store in the small southern town where he grew up. It was better than caviar, he once noted. Packed in dry ice, it was shipped only in the winter, when the weather was safe for fresh meat to travel. And when my infrequent visits home coincided with those deliveries, he would call out in greeting the welcome words, “We have sausage!”

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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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  • Close to Home

    Close to Home

    We’ve always believed that if you eat meat you should be able to kill it. We had our chance to put our beliefs into action this year.

    On two very different days, one in early July, the second in late October, we gathered with four friends to kill the 30 chickens and 10 turkeys we had co-raised. Although this past July wasn’t the hottest on record, the day we gathered was warm and the rain held off. On a cold and raw late October morning we met up again to process turkeys and a few older laying hens.

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  • Dairy farmers raise veal—with a conscience

    Dairy farmers raise veal—with a conscience

    It’s bad luck to be born a boy—on a dairy farm, that is. A farmer’s face will often fall at the sight of a newborn male calf, who obviously will never grow up to produce milk. “Girl?” someone might ask on hearing of a birth on the farm. “Nope—a bull,” the farmer might say. “I’ll call the truck.”

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  • Older dairy cows could become steady source of local beef

    Older dairy cows could become steady source of local beef

    It all starts with a single surprising statistic: 40,000 mature dairy cows leave the state each year. They are so-called “market cows”—dairy cattle who have stopped producing milk at an economically viable rate. They are culled from their herds and trucked primarily to Pennsylvania, where they and other cows from the Northeast are slaughtered and processed. Their meat then enters the industrial food distribution system.

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  • Windowsill Greens

    Windowsill Greens

    In the dead of winter—when fresh salad greens are scarce, expensive, and probably not local—I grow shoots (the stem and first leaves of a plant grown in soil) and have fresh, colorful, crispy, and delicious greens that are ready to use every day. Pea shoots, sunflower greens, buckwheat lettuce, radish greens, and broccoli greens are my favorites—they offer a fantastic mix of flavors and make a great-looking tossed salad. Shoots are also inexpensive and easy to grow, benefit your compost pile, and provide colorful trays of growing plants that can make the dark days of winter a little brighter. Good-bye cabin fever!

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  • Farmers' Kitchen—Green Mountain Ducks

    Farmers' Kitchen—Green Mountain Ducks

    North Branch Farm, in the mountains of Ripton, is an unlikely place for ducks, but we’ve been raising them on a very small scale each summer for the last four years. Pekins are our favorite meat ducks to raise—they’re fast growing and white and beautiful. And they have lots of fat.

    “Lots of fat?” you might ask. “Why would we want that?” Or maybe you already know. Local duck fat is a localvore’s dream. Any food lover’s dream, actually. It is delicious to cook with as a replacement for oil or butter, and it keeps beautifully in a glass jar in the fridge.

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  • Last Morsel—Carnivore with a Caveat

    Last Morsel—Carnivore with a Caveat

    I stopped eating meat at the impassioned age of 14, when a biology teacher showed a film called Diet for a New America, which graphically described the many and various evils of the modern meat industry. I dumped that day’s turkey sandwich in the garbage and didn’t touch meat again for nine years. My reasoning was three-fold: I believed that vegetarianism was better for my body, better for the planet, and decreased the total suffering of the world. I knew that certain responsible farming practices could, in theory, mitigate or overcome most of my objections to meat, but I’d never seen them in practice and didn’t know how to judge them or trust their claims.

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  • How to cut a chicken

    How to cut a chicken

    The kitchen skills of our grandparents have largely gone unused since the appearance of ready-made foods in American grocery stores. Yet if we want to eat local food, we must often cook from scratch. Here is a guide to cutting a whole, uncooked chicken—a necessary skill if we want to eat the fresh local birds that Vermonters are beginning to raise again in large numbers. Once you’ve broken down a chicken, you’re good to go with all sorts of recipes!

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Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Winter

Rokeby Smokehouse
Rokeby Smokehouse

Written By

Jesse Natha

Written on

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

“Oh how I dread the first snow of winter! And the older I grow, the deeper the dread—so that if I live to be sixty, I shall I suppose go nearly crazy every November,” wrote Ann Robinson Minturn, then living in Waterloo, NY, to her family in Ferrisburgh. While the freezing weather and volumes of snow brought a great deal of inconvenience, the winter was not at all a bad time to be present at the Robinsons’ dining table, provided one was within fair proximity of a roaring stove. The previous months’ industriousness would have provided a variety of winter foods that included dried fruits, canned produce, various pickled foods from black walnuts to seckel pears, butter, fresh cellared apples and cider, and an array of grains including corn, buckwheat, wheat, and rye. These stored goods were supplemented by winter’s greatest contribution to the Robinson board—fresh and cured meats, both wild and farm raised.

A crisp morning early in December 1862 would find George Gilpin Robinson away in Montpelier, serving in the Legislature, while his newly widowed father, Rowland Thomas, writes to ask his son for advice on farm decisions during “this critical time for apples and stock.” Rowland Evans, the other son, might be inspecting the ice house, preparing it for another year of duty at the urgent request of his sister, Ann Robinson Minturn. Meanwhile, Ann’s thoughts may be resting fondly on the Ferrisburgh homestead as she and her children shiver away the days at their own farm in Waterloo; try as she might she can’t get the kitchen coal stove to burn and it remains “as black and forbidding all day as though light and warmth had never emanated from it.”

Winter was the season of plentiful fresh meat, both wild and “home manufactures.” Beginning in November the Robinsons took to the woods and swamps on the trail of deer, bear, pheasant, and quail to grace the table, allowing them to postpone the slaughter of their own hogs and cattle until later in the season. Hunting was both practical and enjoyable—nothing so pleased Rowland Evans as a good hunt on a frosty winter day. During his stays in Brooklyn, NY, he describes the lot of a Vermonter stuck in the metropolis, who must do his hunting through shop windows: “Did Walk and John Adams kill any deer when they went on their hunt?” he asked brother George in November 1867. “I saw a deer hanging up in market the other day that looked as though they had killed it.”

When winter settled in and the mercury promised to stay below 32 degrees, the Robinsons, like their neighbors throughout the Northeast, set aside an entire week for the slaughter and processing of their livestock. The family used the services of a traveling slaughterer and butcher, as the Robinsons’ housekeeper Naomi Griswold wrote to Rowland Evans in 1868: “Thompson has bucherd the hogs and the cow the beefe is verry good I wish you was here to eat some of it.” Despite Thompson’s help the family was left with plenty to do, so much so that most other tasks came to a standstill during butchering week. As Ann explained in a letter to her brother George on December 13, 1863, “we are to commence the annual sacrifice tomorrow—the rites will probably continue throughout the week—at the end of which time if the lard is not tried, the souse not cleaned, the sausages and head cheese not made—“then will my gall-bladder be ready to burst with vexation” as it says in the Arabian Nights. I dread the mess and grease—but once in for it, I hope to keep at it till it is all out of the way—we kill 7 hogs.”

Some of these products could be kept safely into warm weather—cured pork, smoked hams packed in ashes, pickled beef, and sausage patties packed in crocks and sealed with fat all could be expected to last until the following winter—but without modern refrigeration fresh meats lasted only as long as the freezing weather could keep them cool, and were quite a treat during the winter months. “I suppose you are feasting like a parcel of Esquimaux on spare-ribs… ” wrote a homesick Ann in December 1862. “We have not killed the first-ling of our flock yet, as there is yet a ham in the ashes and one piece of junk in the barrel.”

The year’s crop of preserved meats was of enough importance to warrant a careful log in the back of the Robinsons’ handwritten family cookbook. George began in 1884 to record the winter’s yield of sausage, while two years after his death in 1894 his nephew Rowland took up the record, adding a running tab for pickled beef and cured hams that he kept until 1931. The Rokeby recipe for curing hams evolved little over the years; Rowland reduced the saltpeter by half but otherwise made no notations to his Uncle George’s recipe.

Whenever the weather threatened to become unseasonably warm, much of the meat could be threatened with spoilage, just as it was on New Year’s Eve in 1864. “For two weeks the weather has been like April for mildness—and our beef, chickens & sausages ‘exercise my mind’ very much,” Ann wrote to her family in Ferrisburgh.

While thaws posed a risk to the fresh meat supply, the greater burden during the winter months was protecting fresh and canned foods from freezing, even those stored indoors. Certain crops, like potatoes and apples, would be ruined by a solid freeze, while others became only temporarily inedible. What couldn’t be packed in insulated materials or stored in a cellar was kept in the house within reach of a stove’s heat—or it froze. “The store room was Arctic in its temperature,” wrote Ann during her coal stove’s strike of 1862. “We dined on frozen bread, frozen pickles and such like dainties. For I had not thought of taking precautions against their freezing.”

During these stretches of frigid weather, the Robinsons relied on a few treats to buck them up—not the least of which was rum, bought by the barrel through a relative in Newport and garnering them a reputation as “rum drinking folk,” as they were called by a Ferrisburgh neighbor. For the more temperate Robinsons, sweet cider and winter apples were the preferred delicacies, and the family kept a range of varieties from Greenings andNorthern Spies to Vermont’s own Tinmouth, which could be harvested late in the season and kept fresh in the cellar well into the snowy months.

Sick for her Ferrisburgh home, Ann wrote to George on January 4, 1863, “Nothing is so good as that which comes from Vermont—no soldiers are so brave—no buckwheat cakes so good.” Even during the toughest months, the hardships of the climate could be overcome by the comforts of a simple meal cooked at a blazing stove, the product of four seasons’ labor, leisure, planning, and providence.

Cartoon by Rowland Evans Robinson, 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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Vermont's Local Banquet Magazine illuminates the connections between local food and Vermont communities. Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape is changing as the localvore movement shapes what is grown and raised here.


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Home Stories Issues 2010 Winter 2010 | Issue 11 Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Winter