Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Fifth Annual Heirloom Harvest Project's Barn Dinner

Evan's Introduction to the fifth annual Heirloom Harvest Project Barn Dinner and a tribute to Chuck Cox from Tuckaway Farm

The seeds on your menu tonight are Boothby blond cucumber seeds that our heirloom garden behind the barn grew out for this event.  Please feel free to tear off the bottom of this menu attachment and plant those seeds in your garden next year.

As you look at this menu and as you experience this dinner, I hope you will be thinking about the amount of time, energy and dedication that goes into it.  Chefs, farmers, volunteers from all walks of life, from near and far, have made a personal sacrifice of their time to make this event happen.  Again and again.  Although the night is fleeting, the effort is a year-round labor of love.

This year more than ever, I am struck by how this dinner lies at the nexus of our past and our future.  Heirlooms linked to our past tonight find themselves in the hands of some of the most creative chefs you will ever find under one roof.  And, more importantly, when tonight is over, these chefs and a slew of talented farmers will go back to work and continue to propagate this idea that our food heritage is worth preserving, even as the world around us changes.  In fact, as last year’s National Geographic cover story warned: heirlooms are necessary BECAUSE the world around us changes.

Like the words “organic” and “sustainable”, the word “heirloom” gets bandied about a lot and can certainly fall into the wrong hands--the nefarious hands of exploiters, usurpers and opportunists who hope to hop on the bandwagon for a joyride without understanding where the bandwagon has been or where it is going.  At Heirloom Harvest Project, heirlooms are defined not as seeds gotten from a remote farmer in India who may have saved seed from last year’s harvest of a weird looking cucumber that will get oohs and ahhs at an American farmer’s market; heirlooms to us are a culturally vital variety of fruit or vegetable that was seed-saved for many generations of farmers in our region because of traits that made those plants well suited to the challenges and vagaries of our climate and seasons.   Many of these heirlooms haven’t been seen outside of random home gardens since before World War Two.  The participating Heirloom Harvest Project farmers have divvied up our list of heirloom vegetables and grown them for participating chefs to play with, Those chefs have applied both futuristic and ancient technologies to these imperiled ingredients to create your dinner tonight.

Tonight is the capitulation of a year-long project.  Each February, all participating Heirloom Harvest Project chefs and farmers convene in one room.  We discuss the selected heirloom crops, assign and distribute heirloom seeds to the farmers, and determine the theme for the year.  This year, my wonderful wife Denise suggested, “Hey why not do an all vegetable Dinner?”  I looked around the room, expecting boos, rotten tomatoes and general rebellion.   But the response among chefs and farmers was overwhelmingly in favor of this idea. 

This is funny because, if any of you have seen NH Chronicle’s coverage of this event from two years ago, you may recall that I said on camera something to the effect of, “None of these chefs would make a vegetarian dinner in their restaurant if you held a knife to their throat.”  I actually said that, and I said it defensively with some hubris because I was being pigeonholed as  a  quote “organic hippie” by the interviewer.  I now realize the interviewer may not have been too far from the truth.

Since then, my perspective has changed.  I’ve done some research and some soul searching.  If I hear one more scientist publish findings that a plant-based diet can improve health, and all but eliminate childhood obesity, type 2 diabetes and many types of cancer, I might have to start holding a knife to my own neck.  But then I think about bacon, barbecue, an occasional juicy burger, and the most sinfully unforgivable of pleasures, foie gras… Eating your veggies, just like Mom used to tell us, is a tough lifestyle choice for sure, like quitting anything, but if we know it can change the world, why don’t more people practice it?  Most everyone in this room has seen the documentaries about how America’s factory farming meat industry works.  We have heard the refrain, “how we are going to feed an 8 billion person world?” 

To greatly oversimplify this conundrum, I have narrowed it down to two schools of thought. 

First, there The Monsanto way, embraced by massive farming operations like Salinas, California, where you create the perfect Aryan vegetable or Frankenfruit through genetic alterations and chemical inputs that may or may not include putting animal genes in vegetables and much worse.  This way means planting bajillions of acres of a single crop and spraying the bejeesus out of so that chemical manufacturers continue to be the lords of the farmland fiefdom.  We can follow this path and be like the state of Kansas.

From a very recent article I came across,”  Kansas’s “Committee on Energy and Environment” is proposing a law (currently known as House Bill No. 2366) that  would ban all state and municipal funds for anything related to “sustainable development,” which it defines as: “development in which resource use aims to meet human needs while preserving the environment so that these needs can be met not only in the present, but also for generations to come."

If this definition sounds familiar, that’s because it was lifted verbatim from what’s commonly referred to as the Brundtland Report, one of the seminal documents in the modern practice of sustainability. The Brundtland Report was the product of a four-year commission set up by United Nations member countries that were increasingly concerned that the world’s resources were being squandered and its environment spoiled.

You know what?  We’re not in Kansas anymore!  And while we recognize that and pat ourselves on the back for it, we must also recognize that we are still in the minority in our own country—and even in our own region--because our connection to our food and the security of its future are sacred to us.   

So this is the first way to approach feeding the world.  The other way, instead of mega-monocrop farmland dominating the American landscape, is to put more diverse food in the ground in more places that provide a suitable climate for that food. We are going to need a billion backyard gardens to feed 8 billion people.  Some people say that’s impossible.  I think it’s easy.  But billions of people have to get it, and we’re only a small fraction of the way there.

So this year, politics aside (well almost) we have chosen a vegetarian theme for the Barn Dinner, not to spite meat and fish, but to highlight the incredible diversity of heirloom vegetables and preparations for them. We are getting back to our figurative and literal roots by putting the focus back on the vegetables that started this event in the first place. 

When I was approached in 2007 by Chefs Collaborative, a nationwide organization I now sit on the Board of, they introduced me to RAFT (Renewing America’s Food Traditions, a now-dormant initiative whose mission continues through the work of Slow Food USA.).   Over the years, numerous local food-based orgs and masses of volunteers have contributed to this one night of the year.  Specifically, Slow Food Seacoast, Seacoast Eat Local, Seacoast Local, our regional colleges, universities and secondary educational institutions. 

This dinner has spawned others like it, near and far.  Our growth is humble, organic and effective, and you all make it possible.

Out of this dinner was born Farm-a-Q.

Farm-a-Q was born to bring the idea of this dinner to a wider audience that includes families and friends that might not be able to afford the experience you are about to enjoy.  If you look at your almanac, you can pick the hottest, most humid day in early summer, and that is sure to be the date for next year’s Farm-a-Q.

What amazes me most about Heirloom Harvest Project’s two events is that their success relies primarily on two of the busiest, most stressed out professions, farmer and chef.   Please join me in loudly thanking the farmers and chefs who came together for you all tonight.

This event set out to:

Reintroduce heirlooms to farmers
Introduce chefs to farmers –
Introduce consumers to the farmers and chefs who grow, produce and prepare our local food

Our wish was to protect our food heritage while strengthening community, preserve biodiversity, and encourage growth of this idea to other communities.

In my role as cofounder of Heirloom Harvest Project, I have responded to many emails from as far away as Kenya, where a gentleman named Alex Kiprop has begun his own “heirloom harvest project” to ensure that some of the fruits and grains indigenous to his area are not forgotten in the wake of the introduction of GMO monoculture crops like wheat and corn.  In a country that faces greater adversity than we could comprehend, his efforts have succeeded, and he has introduced legislation to protect farmland from pernicious outside interests.

One of the founding fathers of the idea of biodiversity in our local food system, a mentor and friend to many of us, and a resource whose patience and energy know no bounds, is John Forti. As a Board chair for our local Slow Food Seacoast chapter, John will continue our annual tradition of kicking this dinner off with an inspiring non-ecumenical benediction....

Tribute to Chuck Cox of Tuckaway Farm

Jeff McCormack, founder of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Virginia, put it very well when he said, “Culture and agriculture are inextricably intertwined.  They are two sides of the same coin.” Perhaps no one in our community better represents this wisdom than the farmer we have chosen to receive a very specific donation from the proceeds of last year’s Heirloom Harvest Project events.

Never wavering from the image we all have of the noble farmer, whether he is fox hunting or working the land with his draft horses, milling flint corn in his dining room or lecturing about the fragility of our foodways, Chuck Cox and his bountiful, organic land continue to represent the ideas that have rebuilt our local food system, and he has not stopped with mere action.  He has educated all of us—chefs, farmers, consumers, politicians, and the next generation of his own amazing family—about what it means to create true sustainability in our foodways.  At Heirloom Harvest Project, we want to ensure that his vision will be an heirloom for generations to come.
With a portion of the proceeds from last year, we were able to purchase a device that we think will help close the loop in our food system.  It is advertised on eBay as a “20# Coffee, peanut Chile Cacao Roaster,” but the Coxes are not going to use it for any of those purposes.  They will use it to roast corn and flower seeds to produce oils and flour that can be used by chefs and consumers in our community for years to come.  Because we don’t have large parcels of land dedicated to grains and flowers for oil production, we in our community still rely on imported oils, a large part of our diet and culinary larder, but a tool such as this changes the rules of that game a little.  A very little.  But it is a step in the right direction.  And it couldn’t be in better hands than the Cox family, who have served as mentors for so many of us as we ponder our own roles in the future of our foodshed.

Eleanor Mallett's (13) rallying cry for the next generation

My name is Eleanor Mallett and I am in love with food. My brother Cormac and I were born and raised to respect what we eat.

I love the barn dinner because it brings together the farmers, chefs, and eaters-of-the-food  around the same table, to celebrate our food and all that went into it. It is a spectacular thing to be able to know the people who grow the food that is on my plate at dinner time. After all... it takes a village to raise a Jimmy Nardello Pepper, if you know what I mean.  

This is an incredible evening. But, look around the room. How many kids do you see here? Thats right, not many. Almost 74 million Americans are under 18 years old.

I am here to tell you all, that if my generation does not know about food biodiversity or the importance of understanding where our food comes from, then all of your work is lost.

Tell your friends, tell your family, tell your children and your grandchildren. Spread the knowledge that you have learned --> to us kids.

We want to make an impact on the future.

The children of today are the producers of tomorrow. We need farmers, we need buyers, we need seed savers, we need home cooks, educators, leaders, chefs, and consumers. It takes all of our voices -- and choices! -- to make a difference. Thank you.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Finally, An Answer to How We Do it

(or,  How Blogging  Can Be a Cheaper Alternative to Marriage Therapy)

Recently, Denise and I were talking to a woman we know who, after sixteen years with her partner and after producing two beautiful kids, is getting a divorce.  This came at the end of a fusillade of similar dissolved marriages—some friends, some parents of our children’s friends, some relative strangers—in our tight-knit community.  Listening in disbelief to our friend’s tale, Denise and I looked nervously, intensely, at each other at one point, commenting that we were in the midst of a divorce boom of sorts, that we had arrived at a self-reflecting age where bonds are broken, and that we hoped it wasn’t contagious.

The woman who capitulated this trend for us is a super good lady and, as far as we know, a good mom to her two kids.  She said something to us that we hear a lot but rarely spend any time considering.  Her quote: “How do you two do it—the restaurant, the kids, marriage, and now a second restaurant?”

She was referring to Hopestill Garage, an ambitious endeavor we have been pursing for over a year, one which we hope will be a kind of Black Trumpet Jr. (or perhaps Bride of Black Trumpet), set in the charming community of Newmarket.  When the question was posed, “How do you do it?” Denise and I glanced at each other with crooked smiles and stammered polite platitudes before confessing that we have no idea how we do it.  It helps that our parents are present for our children.  That helps quite a lot actually.  It helps that we put the lives of our children ahead of any other priority in our lives.  It helps that our children, almost 10 and 13 years old, are just about perfect; and it helps that their mother is the kind of human anchor that could stop continental drift in its tracks without perspiring.  And it helps that we, two imperfect souls still in love after being together for almost twenty crazy years (fifteen of them in wedlock), remain committed to talking to each other about everything.  I will add here, in the interest of narrative transparency, that I am not always interested in talking about stuff.  I blame that on my pesky Y Chromosome.  The Y makes me do certain irreversible, incorrigibly shameful things…like avoiding meaningful dialogue.  There are other things too, like embracing projects without any clear strategy for completing them, and the inability to find, say, the mustard jar in the fridge if it is even partially eclipsed by another grocery item, forcing me to grow frustrated enough to holler across the house the pathetic refrain, “Denise, where the [adult language] is the mustard?”  On the flip side, I would have no trouble whatsoever finding a bottle of delicious beer buried in a haystack of broken glass.  Can you picture me holding my beer reward in my bloodied hands with a victorious smile on my face?  I can.  But I suppose I digress.

So, because I am better trained at this point, we as a couple do talk things out.  We respect each other and--despite sometimes feeling like the other is fundamentally wrong, or even outright impeachable—we talk through our thoughts, feelings, plans and dreams, even if it means working through our nightmares together.  The unfortunate side effect of this type of arrangement is that much of our disagreement, no matter how heated, occurs in the company of others because we are often surrounded by our staff and family.  It’s like the opposite of PDA; let’s call it PDB (Public Display of Bickering).  We might have more friends if we didn’t do that, but what good are outside friendships if we don’t have a healthy bond of our own, n’est-ce pas?  So we talk stuff through.  As a result, Denise and I have evolved into a team that has found a way to mesh our gears, each of our weaknesses interlocking with the other’s strengths.  I realize this sounds at once mechanical, clinical and sappy, but it’s true, and I think it’s one of the keys to happy, long-term marital success.  At least, that’s true for us.

So, you have to wonder (many of you already have) WTF are we trying to prove opening another restaurant?  Are we pushing the envelope too far this time?  Do we want to join the legion of new single parents of middle age?  Do we want to know where the threshold of ambition and stupidity lies?  Or perhaps we are out to map the abyss known as the Deep End. 

Truthfully, we are neither adventurous nor stupid.  We don’t want to prove anything to anyone, except that we can grow the ideas that we believe in, because they make good sense.  And I can say with certainty that I have seen the Deep End, and marriage is a kiddie pool in comparison.

Denise and I are well aware of the risks, to both business and family, posed by opening a second business.  We are painfully familiar with the statistics.  We dread the unknown, like anyone else.  We bicker publicly because we care, and a relationship of passivity is a lesser alternative I think.  Professionally, we want to bring good food and drink to as many people as we can while maintaining any semblance of balance we can in our lives. 

The restaurant business today has been built by and for the young and the restless; it thrives on drama, attention deficit, immediate gratification.  Yet Black Trumpet is built on something else—I don’t know what to call it, but it feels like a sense of permanence, a commitment to a space that demands a level of authenticity and quality in all of its constituents: the staff, the food, the dried cascade of linseed oil that imbues in the hallowed brick walls a reminder of our maritime roots.  I feel like our relationship has that same quality.

To those who doubt or fear for our future, I can only say that we—as domestic partners and business partners--are not in it to win it, but rather to do our best, enjoy the ride and put as many smiles as we can on as many faces as we can.

To my patient, wise and wonderful wife, I say thank you, I love you, and I look forward to working and living side by side with you—through failure and success--for the rest of our time on this side of the Earth’s crust.  After that, who knows, we might find a cool spot for a restaurant in the ether….

Sunday, November 18, 2012


During the last three years of my career as a chef and restaurant owner, I have undertaken a Melvillian quest to find an answer to an unanswerable question.  This blog tracks the pursuit of that question, which is this:  Should I buy fish from our local boats, or should I buy fish that is most plentiful and sustainable?  The goal of this pursuit is that my children’s children will never have to ask the question posed in this blog’s title.

In May of 2009, three fishing boats from Ogunquit and Wells, Maine landed some beautiful bluefin tuna.  That afternoon, the fishermen—none of whom had a license to sell tuna--brought their catch directly to several restaurants in town, whose chefs each purchased a portion of the fish to serve in their restaurants.  Shortly thereafter, a local fisheries officer from NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) slapped a fine on each fisherman and chef involved in the  bootlegged tuna transaction.  The fines levied on fishers and restaurants totaled over $100,000.   Pretty much every chef I knew at that point, myself included, pooped his pants a little when word got out, not because any of us had done anything worthy of a fine, but just that it could happen at all.

According to an article on Seacoast Online, at least one of the fined Ogunquit chefs said he was unaware of the permit laws.  The article reports that “He said he didn’t understand why federal agents targeted businesses in town, adding he thought he was doing a ‘nice local service’ for patrons by offering local, fresh fish from Perkins Cove.”

Fast forward a few months to a similar, albeit more innocuous, conundrum in my restaurant.  While I was away on a trip, my sous chef purchased locally landed bluefin tuna from a legitimate fishmonger and ran it as a special on a Saturday night.  The special was posted on a then-nascent Facebook, as we have been doing since the marketing meteor of social media first crashed on our doorstep.  Within twenty-four hours, one person’s post on our Facebook page expressing outrage about our choice to offer “endangered” bluefin tuna led to a barrage of defensive responses from our loyal fan-base.  Chef Evan and Black Trumpet are as conscientious as they come! the defenders cried.  But my heart was filled with doubt. 

A week later, I found myself at a Chefs Collaborative sustainable seafood initiative at a highly regarded restaurant in Cambridge.  I pleaded my case to a roomful of chefs about the conundrum we chefs face trying to do the right thing for our local economy but also for our greater ecology.  My confession met with nods and grimaces from some of today’s most respected chefs in the Greater Boston area.  Since then I have attended sustainable seafood symposia from Italy to Seattle, including many right here in our fragile Seacoast foodshed.  In Italy, at Slow Food’s Terra Madre conference, I was particularly moved by a fisherman from a small island nation in Oceania who could not afford to eat the fish he caught, which fetched top dollar in Japan and Europe, so when he fed his family fish, it was usually inexpensive, cellophane-wrapped farmed salmon from Europe.  More stark images of a fractured food supply chain to come.  Stay tuned…

I still don’t know the right thing to do, but I feel like I’ve been inching toward a sound philosophy ever since the bluefin debacle.

There is a statistic that gets bandied about whenever I find myself around sustainable seafood cognoscenti that at once depresses and motivates me.  In New Hampshire, the state with by far the smallest shoreline, over ninety percent of all fish consumed comes from overseas.  Meanwhile, our few New Hampshire fishing vessels, who are struggling to meet ever-changing regulations while facing severely depleted wild stocks,  are shipping over ninety percent of their catch outside of New Hampshire.  And our distribution system, unfortunately, is hardly exceptional in today’s world.  In fact, the more I look into our global seafood distribution system, the more I am shocked by my findings.  Check out Point Judith squid from Rhode Island, for example, and you will find that massive blocks of “dirty” squid are frozen at sea and shipped to China, where it is processed (basically just cleaned), refrozen, and shipped back here to New England.  When you eat fried calamari at 99.9% of restaurants, that is what you are eating.  As a child living on Cape Cod, I remember being appalled to find that the Ocean Spray cranberry juice I was forced to drink resulted from our local cranberry crop going to Wisconsin to be made into juice before it returned to us for our consumption.  Suffice to say, the squid thing really makes the cranberry thing look like small fry.

At Black Trumpet, when squid is on our menu, we buy so-called “dirty squid” from local boats (who catch it, interestingly, to use as bait for other, more lucrative catches) and then clean it ourselves.  The product is difficult to work with, messy, time consuming, and—in some cases—more expensive.  Its shelf-life is shorter than the processed squid, and there is considerable waste from the cleaning process.  So, why would anyone go to such extremes?  What’s the point?  The point is, simply, that fresher food has more flavor, and supporting small local fisheries makes infinitely more sense than buying from anonymous overseas megafleets. In this country, we have moved in the direction of efficiency, convenience and (perceived) value to such an extent that most chefs—even plenty of renowned ones—don’t know what a whole squid or even a whole fish looks like.  Although the tides are turning, whether out of heightened awareness or out of necessity, the current disconnect between food source and end-consumer is nothing shy of appalling.

I have spoken with many chefs who point to ethnic communities around the country who buy their fish from sketchy, unlicensed sources who often pull up in the alley behind the restaurant in unmarked trucks and—yes, of course—white vans.  Fish bootlegging is fairly commonplace but hard to enforce, sort of like the federal eschewal of marijuana laws in states where it is legal.  Once, on a trip to Greece, my wife and I ate in a charming taverna at the base of a dock where fishing boats came and went by the minute, or so it seemed.  When we sat down at a table, a boat was unloading its bounty into the kitchen behind us.  Fish were still wiggling.  The restaurant enforced a strict policy that each patron should meet the fish they were going to enjoy before it was cooked for them.  There was no menu—just the fish itself on parade.  A direct connection from sea to consumer with no red tape?  This doesn’t have to be a faraway fantasy.  It has been a way of life for most of the world for most of human history.


New Hampshire Law states that a fisherman must have a license to sell directly to a restaurant.  The fish must be sold whole and gutted.  It is up to the chef and her crew to fillet the fish.  Most restaurants operate on a scale (no pun intended) that prohibits fish processing on location.  If fishermen don’t want to buy licenses in the first place, then there will be no local fish except for what is distributed by the very few retail fishmongers.

A direct connection between the source of the seafood and the place where it is served is an important step toward ensuring that our community eat its own catch instead of falling into the absurd status quo that punishes fishermen AND chefs for working together, while ensuring that our already-restricted ocean harvest (popularly regarded as the most precious wild food source remaining on earth) be shipped to the ends of the Earth instead of to our own tables.

Our fisheries are being depleted, and along with them our fishermen.  Recently, at the Chefs Collaborative Sustainable Food Summit in Seattle, a scholarly fisheries advocate named Barton Seaver stated evocatively that—of the so-called “red-listed” species of fish in America, the most endangered is the fisherman.

Like the chefs in Ogunquit in 2009, I have broken the law.  I have bought fish, recently, from boats who did not have a license to sell it to me.  I didn’t know that at the time, and when I found out, I stopped buying fish from that source.  But am guilty of breaking the law nonetheless. The difference is, I was buying the ignominious and maligned spiny dogfish, a skinny shark known best for its tendency to tangle gillnets and eat other “choice” fish.  Although it is delicious when properly cooked, dogfish is an abundant food source that no one here in New Hampshire particularly wants to eat; almost 100 percent of it is shipped to England for fish and chips.  There are no agency watchdogs or NOAA dragnets (ha!) lurking under the town pier in wait to slap fines on dogfishermen, because no one cares about the lowly dogfish.

I believe that one of my responsibilities as a chef is to capitalize on the seasonality of  all ingredients, including seafood.  When dogfish season ended, I took dogfish off my menu.  When pollock season ends, I will take pollock off my menu.  I am committed to building trust through direct connections to the sources of food on my menu.  I know that most of my guests at Black Trumpet share that trust and appreciate that it takes extra effort to source the freshest, most responsible ingredients available.  Please, can we please work together to make it possible for restaurants like mine to work closely with our local fishing fleets?  Thank you.

By writing this blog, I realize that I am inviting scrutiny, possibly even a fine.  But my intention is only to invite conversation and awareness of a broken food supply chain that we--through the power of our democracy—have the ability to correct before our seafood stocks—and those that harvest them—become a story we tell our grandchildren. 

If you aren’t going to have grandchildren and don’t care about the future of the planet, go ahead and eat halibut, bluefin tuna, cod and haddock to your heart’s content.  If you want to be a part of saving the world, then diversify your diet.  Instead of haddock, try hake or pollock.  Instead of tuna, eat bluefish and mackerel.  Instead of farmed salmon, eat locally farmed steelhead trout.  Learn how to prepare and cook fish you don’t think you know how to handle.  Your education as a cook may inform generations that will follow you.

But most of all, I beseech of everyone who reads this to share with everyone they know that demanding local, sustainable products for your tables will lead to the health of our bodies, our economies, and our foodshed.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

VOTE PROSTALGIA IN 2012: ruminations from a hospital bed

Let’s face it, people: not all calendar years are built alike.  We have just entered into one, in fact, that carries with it the weight of great expectations.  To add to the excitement, soothsayers are (once again) suggesting that the end is nigh.  And if it isn’t nigh, it is surely moving nighward, our planet having been battered by a litany of wars, droughts, famines, natural disasters, man-made disasters, economic vortexes, reality TV programming and other cataclysmic crap that is certain to bring us all down.  It’s enough to make you want to surrender to the inevitable…or rise up and meet it head-on, perchance to alter the fate of the world.  I would like to place myself in the latter camp.

Not to wax sanguine about the whole mess we’re in, but I can’t help feeling an unfiltered ray of hope about it all.  In fact, I am going to tilt my head back and let the extra-potent violets and ultraviolets from the man-hewn fissures in the atmosphere warm my face while I stretch my becalmed brain around the idea of a self-cleansing universe.  And I urge you to do the same.  Not only is this stance easier on the sphygmomanometer than anxiety; it promotes long-term happiness.

The truth is, perhaps more than ever before, I am looking forward to looking back at this year.  When the Mayan calendar ends and we weather the fin de siecle tempests that ensue, and after we survey the post-apocalyptic landscape, we will—I think—see 2012 as a pivotal year, the beginning of the post-post-postmodern Renaissance.  We can draw our inspiration from the sybarites, Sodom and Gomorrah, Atlantis, the court of the Sun King, the Roaring Twenties, the Nineteen Eighties, The Lorax, pre-mortgage crisis America and other eras of wanton human excess as examples of coda crescendos in the epic worksong of humankind.  

All good things must come to an end to make way for the birth of new good things.  But, in order for that to happen, we have to let stuff go, and—for those of us lucky enough to face this choice--we have to be OK with minimizing luxury.   If I were a politician—and thank God I’m not--this is where I would lose my audience.  And I get that.  Unlike the Mayans, I have trouble with the idea of sacrifice, too.  I like my modest luxuries: iTunes, massage therapy, smartphone apps, vacation.  I want to keep those things.  But, in the end, they are extras, ornamental contrivances designed to cushion the blow of living in a sometimes real world.  I denounce thee, driver’s seat warmer!  I shun thee, New York Times Travel section!  And you, social media demons!  You know how I feel about you….But I’ll keep my smartphone for now, thank you very much.

I propose that we Earthlings need to draw the line between pleasure-seeking and gluttony.  Likewise, ambition and greed.   Finally, I’ll throw in ingenuity and technology.  In order to make any real progress, we will have to release our baggage and be ready to make short-term sacrifices for a much greater long-term gain.  This will be the revolutionary idea that changes the world in a single generation.  With my head still tilted back in the carcinogenic UV rays, I envision a world that can feed itself, regulate its growth and begin the long, shameless walk back to the sheer naked bliss of Eden.  Which is to say, growing biodiverse organic gardens in every suburban backyard and urban rooftop can actually feed the world.  I swear.  I counted backyards and rooftops, and I can prove it.  Besides, John Forti at Strawbery Banke agrees with me on this point, and he knows everything.

I hope 2012 will be the first year humans work together irrespective of race, creed and nationality, to fix the broken planet of which we have appointed ourselves stewards.  I predict that the retro-progressive agrarian movement will continue to grow like a hardy perennial despite the many industrial, economical and political obstacles that still clog its path.  More and more school gardens will breed more and more home gardens, and from there I expect the idea to spread like a Monsanto GMO shot from a tractor beam.

So, I’m wistful yet hopeful.  It’s like raaaaaain on your wedding day.  What I mean is, I really can’t wait to survive the bleak end and look ahead with a new hope on the horizon.  I dub this idea “Prostalgia,” and I invite you to join me in making our immediate future the kind of past our children will be proud of.

Most of these prostalgic perambulations came to me along with a low fever while I lay in a hospital bed.  Nothing’ll make you feel prostalgic like an overnight hospital stay on the eve of a major holiday with a misdiagnosed hernia that ends up being an advanced, unidentifiable bacterial infection in the soft tissue of your right leg.  I was supposed to be cooking for the masses on Christmas Eve, not brooding over Mother Earth’s (or my own) mortality.  And despite my children’s exhortations to the contrary, how could I not be home on Christmas morning to play Père Noël?

After pleading with the doctor to let me go home for Christmas, I finally got released from the hospital—on Christmas Eve night—with one major caveat:  I had to have an IV catheter called a PICC line inserted into a vein in my arm that would snake its way into the upper chamber of my heart.  Twice a day for two weeks, the doctor mandated, I would have to hook up a balloon full of potent antibiotics and let them slowly drip into my heart, where they would battle the bacterial beast that was threatening to take over my body.  The radiologist—later described as an eccentric genius with an unorthodox approach—had no support staff due to the holiday, so he asked me to help with the procedure.  After some fumbling around for the requisite equipment, he (actually, we) embarked on the insertion.  Blood spattered all over the dropcloth as the little tube went into my arm.  I continued to perform the tasks required of me by the doctor as he conducted a play-by-play of the little tube’s travels through my arm and torso.  We watched it on X-ray television.  It was pretty cool and in some ways more suspenseful than watching a holiday bowl game.

Erin & RJ in full 1920's character!
Thankfully, this story—in spite of a few subsequent mishaps—had a happy ending.  I got to watch my kids open their Christmas presents, and I was pretty much back to normal for the hectic onslaught we call New Year’s Eve.  I even got to participate fully in our annual holiday party, which began as a 1920’s murder mystery with each member of our staff and their partners playing a role, and ending with a fabulous meal at 50 Local in Kennebunk.

When I got home, I sequestered myself in my office to wrap some last minute presents.  There, on the wall, on a wrinkled and faded sheet of construction paper, was my son’s footprints from a few years ago.  Under the words “HAPPY FATHER’S DAY,” and above my son’s name scrawled in blue marker, is a poem called Footprints.  I have read it hundreds of times, and I keep it up on the wall by my desk for a reason, but two stanzas of the poem on that occasion leapt out at me and gave me my New Year’s Resolution:
“’Walk a little slower, Daddy,’
Said a child so small.
‘I’m walking in your footsteps
And I don’t want to fall.
Sometimes your steps are very fast.
Sometimes they are hard to see.
So walk a little slower, Daddy,
For you are leading me.’”

Top Ten 2011 Highlights (in no particular order)
1. My daughter’s Columbus Day Lemonade Stand
2. Heirloom Harvest Barn Dinner (televised on Chronicle)
3. A Winter’s Tale: another spoken word paean about my love of wife
4. The James Beard Award nomination
5. Guest cheffing at events, most notably at Gracie’s in Providence
6. Pecha Kucha Haiku about my life in food
7. Chef’s Collaborative Summit, New Orleans
8. My new relationships with Archer Angus and other farmers
9. Our  Kitchen Farm Garden at Meadow’s Mirth Farm
10. Working with Slow Food, Chef’s Collaborative, Seacoast Local, UNH and other food-based local organizations motivated to continue our path toward a sustainable and self-reliant food community.

2011 Lowlights
1. Overbooking my September calendar
2. Overbooking my October calendar after overbooking my September one
3. The beginning of a high voltage line that will, by virtue of eminent domain, cut right through our tranquil, rural woodlot behind our house, effectively bisecting our property and carving a 100-foot-wide scar through wildlife habitat and mushroom foraging nirvana
4. Advanced Bacterial Infection to Soft Tissue landing me in the hospital two days before Christmas, followed by a PICC line I helped guide from my bicep to my heart. 
5. Accidentally snipping the blood line that led to my heart with dirty scissors.  (Medical personnel had a field day with that one.)

Evan’s Top Ten for Twenty Twelve
1. Holiday Party!
2. Doing the RPM Challenge with my kids
3. Going back to Gracie’s in April
4. Tough Mudder in May
5. Refurbished Wine Bar!
6. Cookbook?
7. My son’s passion for TaeKwon Do and geography
8. My daughter’s National History project, soccer exploits and screenplay
9. Black Trumpet’s Fifth Anniversary
10. Slowing down and spending more time with my family

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Table to Farm

So, after three seasons of planning, another Heirloom Harvest Barn Dinner is behind us, and another post-partum melancholy seeps into my cold chef heart. 

The grand table
Photo by Michelle Samdperil
What a joy it is to have watched this event in four years evolve from a seemingly ingerminable seed to a hardy perennial that will likely last for generations.  So many people come together from our community at large to make it happen, it is truly inspiring to be a part of it.  As I said from my bully pulpit in the barn on Sunday evening, I don’t know any other event that has a waiting list, not only for tickets, but also for volunteers.  The solidarity and collaboration make this the most rewarding night of the year for me, and I am eternally grateful to everyone who played a role, however small, in bringing this idea to fruition.

With this blog, I’m putting some needed psychological closure to the Barn Dinner, but I can’t quite do that without pointing out a few omissions from my rambling emcee narrative on Sunday. 

First of all, from the loft, I thanked about a hundred people by name, including farmers, sponsors, the fantastic musicians, decorators, administrators and volunteers, but I left out three of the most important brains behind the operation.  Debra Kam--nominally affiliated with Seacoast Eat Local, but actually a vital part of every local food-based conversation in our area—was a key member of the steering committee for this event and remains one of my personal heroes.  Alison Magill, who heads up our Seacoast chapter of Slow Food, was instrumental in making the right connections and providing the necessary non-profit guidance to us, not to mention she worked the Slow Food Seed Table like the pro she is.  And, finally, my wife Denise, who held the purse strings, managed ticket sales, and coordinated lots of moving parts for the event.  These three women—all accustomed to being unrecognized angels—have put the gears of our local food network in motion, and I want the community to know what an asset they are. 

Meadow's Mirth Farm
Photo by Michelle Sampderil
In my welcoming words in the barn, I left out an anecdote that really illustrates my beliefs about agricultural biodiversity.  I think I omitted it because I was literally wired for sound for the Chronicle television episode coming up in October, as if the normal dose of  stage fright wasn’t enough.

This year, with the help of Josh and Jean (the farmers who work the land at Meadow’s Mirth, site of the Barn Dinner), my kitchen staff and I borrowed a plot of land to produce vegetables for Black Trumpet.  It was a labor of love, but also a great educational tool for our crew, many of whom have never grown vegetables or worked directly with farmers.

In keeping with my own philosophy, but also the Meadows Mirth mandate, I and our team planted only organic seeds—everything from tomatoes to potatoes, lettuces to legumes,  cabbages to carrots,  a pretty wide array of stuff, much of which has found its way onto the Black Trumpet menu.    One fifty-foot row of our farm garden was hilled up and planted with four different varieties of potatoes.  Three of the varieties were fancy hybrids that have been bred for cool color traits or unusual shapes.  One variety was a plain, white heirloom potato known as a Katahdin potato.  The katahdin variety, although no aesthetic prizewinner, tends to yield well, and its importance to our regional heritage makes it a good basic potato to have in the mix.

At first, our potato row showed great promise, the hearty goth-spiky sprouts coming up quickly.  But two weeks or so into the potato program, Beetlemania happened.  Flea beetles, potato beetles, dung beetles, Volkswagens, even a zombified George Harrison appeared, instantly stripping the fleshy foliage of its essence and leaving behind only the ghastly skeletal remains.  When I inquired with consulting farmer friends Josh and Jean about the tragic invasion, they laughed, exchanged knowing glances, and thanked me for planting potatoes so their miles of potatoes across the street would be spared. 

Savory Goat Cheesecake with Brookford Farm
Wheat Crust and Blueberry Glaze
Photo by Michelle Samdperil
When I returned to the field, feeling beetle-beaten (and a farmer-duped to boot),  I sat down among the skeletal remains.  It was then that I noticed the far end of the battlefield formerly known as Potato Row.  Six plants, rugged and defiant, stood tall among the carcasses of their relatives.  Six plants with nary a bug on them stood slightly bent but silently proud, like Aroostook farmers themselves.  Indeed, upon inspection of the crude garden map I had drawn, it became clear that these six rogues were indeed Katahdin potato plants, thriving in the midst of carnage. 

The lesson of my little potato disaster is best elucidated by Charles Siebert in his gripping article in the July issue of National Geographic, “The movement to preserve heirloom varieties goes way beyond America’s renewed romance with tasty locally grown food and countless varieties of tomatoes.  It’s also a campaign to protect the world’s future food supply.”  He follows up this powerful assertion by saying that 90 percent of America’s historic produce varieties have vanished completely.  Our country’s wheat crops, having been reduced to a scant few varieties, cannot protect themselves from global scourges like stem rust.  Instead of genetically developing strains that resist specific diseases and pests, spraying the bejeesus out of them and planting them to the exclusion of all else for endless miles, we can be using agricultural biodiversity to ensure that no staple food is vulnerable to eradication.  This is the way it was meant to be, for Ceres’ sake, and to hell with any monoculture advocate that thinks otherwise,

And, if the bottom line of worldwide food security isn’t enough of a reason to convince you to grow, buy and eat heirlooms, imagine a world where your only option for a salad is a shrink-wrapped marble-hard GMO tomato named 223-QX.

I got so worked up about this whole thing that I called Tom Stearns from High Mowing Seed Company.  Tom himself is a rare breed: an organic hybrid of businessman and creative type, half entrepreneur, half farmer.   I told him my katahdin potato story and asked him what it meant to him.

Chuck Cox delivering heirloom melons
Photo by Michelle Samdperil
Favorite Memory from this year’s Barn Dinner:
Chuck Cox, timeless icon of New England farming, standing amid a sea of volunteers at the after-party, slicing his three varieties of heirloom watermelon that he brought to the dinner.  The man has a passion for what he does that should inspire would-be farmers everywhere.

Second favorite memory:
The perennial lump-in-the-throat moment when the chefs come out to an ovation, followed by the impossibly long queue of volunteers emerging one by one from the “kitchen” area and wrapping in a line around the grand table.

Least favorite memory:
Feeling compelled to break into a frenzied elbowy tribal jig at the conclusion of the dinner by the stomping ovation from the crowd.  If that shows up on the Chronicle episode, I’m moving to northern Saskatchewan.