The Farm is Where MY Love for Cooking Started
The farm is where (real) food starts, just as a matter of pure fact. Whether small or large, private or corporate, it takes a farm to grow a vegetable, to raise a pig & even to get that gallon of milk. When I was growing up, my paternal grandparents had their own farm in rural south-east Iowa. My ‘Gramma’ Lucy cooked with eggs, vegetables & meat – from the farm. My other grandparents lived only 10 miles away in a quaint, thriving small town. It was real historical Americana stuff … it truly existed ‘back then’! It was the good old-fashioned, heart-of-America, rolling-fields-&-hometown-square-celebrations times in our country. My ‘in-town’ grandma, ‘Grammy’ Lois, may not have been on a farm (she was from sea-side Maine originally) but instead in town but with one-acre of land which allowed her to grow a big garden & she was always canning, baking or cooking. She regularly visited nearby Kalona & the Amana Colonies & bought Amish (& German) cheeses, meats & candies. Looking back, I think Lois cooked more for pleasure & Lucy more out of duty or necessity, but as a child I didn’t know the difference and I simply can’t remember far back enough to an age that I wasn’t cooking or baking trying to do it just like they did. My mom was not a cook, at all, and while my dad liked to cook, he traveled often so it was probably a good thing for me (& my brothers) that I developed my skills early on.
The grandparents that lived on the farm primarily raised black Angus cattle & field corn. Acres & acres of both. The other things they had were some chickens for their own eggs/ meat, & even hogs for awhile. They grew a HUGE garden in the corner of a field across from the farmhouse. I remember that garden even today as a little slice of heaven! Iowa ‘peaches ‘n cream’ sweet corn, vine ripened beefsteak tomatoes & crisp leaf lettuces! It’s where I learned of kohlrabi & radishes should only be eaten raw, peeled & salted. Gramma Lucy even ate sweet onions like apples … and while I am not quite bold, I would rank the onion as one of my favorite foods; you heard right, not just a favorite vegetable, but food. It was the original farm-to table times back then on the farm!
Meat Should be in White Butcher Paper & Veggies Should be Dirty
At least before you cook them, yes? Remember all the acres of Angus cattle I spoke of? Well, all the meat (beef) I ever remember having in our freezer when I was growing up was wrapped in white paper, sealed with tape & written on it with the butchers’ marker. Even after we moved to Kansas City we had it in the freezer because my parents would always come home with a ‘supply’ after visiting the farm. We would also have fresh veggies for at least the week after we were home from the farm & we would have canned pickles, jelly & grape juice from Gramma’s cellar until we gobbled it all up.
My childhood may have had some paper wrapped (really good) meat & delicious farm vegetables, but that was still mostly at Gramma’s. At home, it was also riddled with all the dreary, artificial, typical culinary trappings of the time. We were just like most families that stocked all of the newest convenience & processed foods that were out there. It was part of eating in the 70’s & 80’s. We had TV dinners, Hamburger Helper, Lil’ Debbie’s & casseroles made with Campbell’s canned soup. That era introduced having Coke instead of water, fast food everything, pizza delivery, Spaghetti-O’s & Snack-Pakk pudding – in a can, just to name a few. Not our greatest hour in food history.
As you may have surmised, I count myself very fortunate to have lived so close to my grandparents during most of my childhood. Living that close was the case until I was 13, at which time we moved from Iowa to Kansas City. Up until that point, I was on that farm, or in that small town nearby, with one of my beloved Grammas’ as much as I possibly could be! My favorite memories of childhood are all in one of those two houses. It was in those houses – those kitchens – that I remember being able to stand on the stool next to my Gramma (you know the stools that the seat flipped up to be a step ladder but flipped down it was a counter height stool) and ‘help’ them make cinnamon French toast, bake creamy chocolate pies, can garlic-dill pickles, put Angus roast beef in the oven or make the family-recipe stuffing at Thanksgiving. It was there that I learned to pick vegetables straight from the earth & take them in the house for that day’s next meal. All of that was thanks to Gramma Lucy & Grammy Lois. Okay, sorry Dad!- there were a few from him, but I think if you trace those back, it was still Lucy (wink)!
So, how and when as a country, in this short of a time span, did we lose sight of the farmer & his bounty? For today, I will keep this simple & not political & just say that we, the people, were offered convenience at a time when we needed it. Times they were a-changin’; more homes had two adults in the work force and technology was growing at rapid pace. We were offered an alternative at a price we couldn’t refuse. We were given microwaves & drive thru’s. This movement became a farm-killing machine – the more we pulled one way closer, the farther away the other got. Farmers were bought out by corporations & food was mass-produced, over-mechanized & genetically-altered to fit the times. We were silently screaming …where oh where is farm-to-table?
Farm Fresh just Tastes Better
There really is no argument here – I mean pick a tomato off the vine, slice it, lightly sprinkle with kosher salt & cracked pepper, & then enjoy it! Yummy …. Right? Now, do the same with one from the grocery store. Same taste? NO. It just isn’t! Not. Even. Close. I usually refer to those pale-ish red tomatoes as ‘cardboard-tomatoes’. I always question why I bought one. In the absence of ‘the real thing’ we want a substitute & we hope, hope, hope it will come close. Usually, almost always, it falls short. But we still crave the “real deal” because we know how good it is, right? It’s kind of like carob. It’s good, if you haven’t tasted pure, Swiss milk chocolate.
Even though they didn’t get it quite nutritionally, the (old) Food Pyramid wasn’t built by the USDA with the premise that artificial additives, preservatives, g.m.o.’s, were supposed to be real components of our diets. The concept was built around THE FARM. Think about it… meat, dairy, fruits, vegetables, grain … yep, the farm. In fact, in recent times, when the USDA threw out that old 80’s based pyramid it was because it was filled with a lot of the fallacies that were based in outdated health issues & standards of what a good diet should be. But still, no matter how you slice it, food pyramid or food plate (the newest USDA model), the ingredients come from a farm.
Today, more than ever, we have so many choices of what, when & where to eat. There are still an awful lot of ‘easy options’ lurking in the frozen cases or disguised as ‘healthy’ because it’s in alluringly-labeled container NEAR the produce (you know, the produce from 3,000 miles away). It’s all an option and sometimes we make choices that work best for that moment. No judgement. Life is after all just a balancing act & we are all humans here. I make those choices too sometimes! But I will go out on a limb and say It’s just not as tasty, or as colorful, or as healthy as fresh, farm food. Thankfully, along with the upswing in Chef-driven farm-to-table cuisine we are also experiencing a culture where once again it is getting easier to get real, local farm products again – some are even in the grocery stores! Hmmm… maybe we should try getting back to farm-to-table?
The Farmers – Oh, the Farmers, & their Farms!
It’s all so American! I mean as country crooner Tim McGraw sings “… I’m gonna live where the green grass grows/watch my corn pop up in rows/every night be tucked in close to you.” Or there’s dreamy Craig Morgan, who sings about the same type of big red tractor my grandpa had “I’m the son of a 3rd generation farmer/married 10 years to the farmer’s daughter/…chug a lug a luggin’ 5 miles an hour. On my International Harvester” And there’s always artist Norman Rockwell, who painted 100’s of ideal depictions of small town, rural American life FROM real life as he saw it all around him.
If you go back (way further than Norman) “…a few of the most prominent signers of the Declaration of Independence who inscribed their name on that immortal document were avid cultivators (farmers) just like America’s first President” * Do the research & you find a huge amount of agrarian enthusiasm existed among the founding fathers. You can read the whole article* (“Founded by Farmers” by Tom Wolf for Modern Farmer)
To be fair we kind of knew that from all the “Indian/Pilgrim stuff” in elementary school ‘back in the day (dating myself) that farming mattered. While a LOT of what we were taught now makes me shudder, we did learn about the harvest & how important the food was to the colonies – hence, we kind of grew up knowing farming dates way back & helped build our country. Right? But, perhaps we kind of forgot? Farming goes back many generations in some families. It did in mine. It’s taken until this age that I wish I had been able to ‘inherit the family farm’, but I didn’t because my dad, just like his three siblings, left the farm for urban-life and so the farm, in our family, ended with my grandparents. Luckily, there are some family farms still going & thriving & the interest among new generations is only gaining momentum. Evidence that family farming is on the upswing is indeed the burgeoning farm-to-table restaurant scene, the flourishing farmers markets but even win seemingly subtle things like Modern Farmer magazine (started in 2013 & is going strong). Farm-to table cuisine seems to many to be the ‘trend du jour’ but what it really is, from a Chef’s perspective is simply the reemergence of ‘the good ‘ol days’ because, after all, it still just IS Farm-to-table.
Alas, Because I am a Picky, Fussy Chef-Person
I saved this part for last so as not to scare you off in the beginning. It is a stereotype, even among Chefs. It often evokes an image of white coat clad, tall toque-wearing (man) Chef with a Frenchy-French accent who doesn’t have a drop of food on himself, stirring the sauce & barking (very French) orders to his staff. I think, that we (Chefs) can be, or have somewhere in us, a somewhat French-like-finickiness about the ‘freshiest’ fish & most ‘exotic-y’ salts & cold-‘ press-ish’ oils imported straight from the countryside of Versailles or plucked from the Mediterranean Sea AND …there is some truth to Chefs wanting THE BEST ingredients. It’s a hazard of the craft, of our art & passion . . . Just like a painter wants good brushes & the perfect seaside landscape. Just like a musician wants a good instrument & a room with the best acoustics. Right?
Rare & exotic ingredients can be fun but aren’t always practical (or affordable) nor are they often in-line with being a good steward of the communities we live in. And while they may be fun, they are just different, not necessarily the best. Because the best doesn’t mean the most expensive or rare or exotic. Especially today, as Chefs everywhere are realizing what I learned as a child. Food IS the BEST from the farm down the road, the one in your own community; the food that’s wrapped in paper or still covered in dirt. I say give me a roadside vegetable stand in low country South Carolina, a bakery in Dutch Amish Pennsylvania, a small dairy in the Iowa heartland or a dock in Bar Harbor, Maine as the lobster boats come in for the day – and THIS ‘GirlChef’ for one is over-the-moon happy! So, hats off & a bow to the American Farmers, Fisherman & Cultivators, all helping us bring IT to-the-table… Oh, what would we be without them!