Friday, April 11, 2008

Made from Scratch

Maybe 25 years ago I made a Thanksgiving pumpkin pie that was an edible diary of a homestead year.

We had grown the pumpkin. The eggs were from chickens we had raised from day-old chicks.

The milk, whipping cream and butter all were provided by “Mom,” our occasionally testy Hereford/Holstein family cow.

The shortening in the crust was lard from one of our home-raised hogs, rendered on our cookstove. The stove was fueled by firewood we had cut, split and hauled. (Wild cherry is my personal favorite for firewood. It's scent is intoxicating, the bark is beautiful, it's easy to split and it burns hot.)

I did buy the flour, sugar, spices and vanilla.

As the pie was being passed around after dinner at my in-laws, I recounted the provenance of each ingredient, possibly in more than adequate detail. When I volunteered to bring a potluck dish, I went all out.

My mother-in-law, a tiny, regal woman, widened her huge brown eyes, tapped the ash from her ever-present Carlton, and said in the Alabama accent she had tried valiantly but unsuccessfully to extinguish, “Oh mah Gawd….Why?”

Looking back, that does seem to be a reasonable question. It was a very tasty pie. Thanks to the lard, I even achieved—rare for me—a light flaky crust. But that’s a lot of work for one night’s dessert. When I hear about “the real cost of food” I think about that pie, and many other dishes from the farm.

The planting and weeding, the feeding and milking, including the times that Mom’s Hereford genetics won out and she landed a kick either into the milking pail or onto my shin.

Bucking bales in June for the hay that helped keep her in milk come November.

The fence mending. The time I was bending over to reinforce the base of the chicken pen and hit the electric fence with my forehead. I had a vivid image of a decorated Christmas tree on that hot August afternoon, before coming to on my back in the manure-churned path to the milking parlor.

The distinctive stink of baby chicks, and the determination of every raccoon and hawk in the neighborhood to eat them. Reaching in to a nest box at night and finding a possum already in there, gorged with eggs and hissing. I really don’t like possums. All the moral musings that accompany raising a smart, soulful animal like a pig and then arranging its death.

The endless tides of dirt tracked into the house, and the compost, chicken scraps, woodstove ash to be everlastingly hauled out. Hauling buckets of water to the barn when the pipes froze. Cows drink a lot.

It’s hard to explain to someone not inclined toward that kind of life why Bruce and I chose to live it for as long as we did. On the other hand, thousands of people yearn to have the chance to live off the land. We were lucky, and we knew it.

A couple of farm recipes

Romeo Conca’s Pork Chops and Kale

Romeo was a chemist, founder of Lost Mountain Winery, and a sensational cook. He let me include this recipe in Winter Harvest. Having home-raised frost-sweetened kale and pork from a hog that was properly fed and cared for takes this dish from really good to sublime.

1 pork chop per diner
Dry mustard
Black pepper
Olive oil
Garlic, chopped. 1 medium clove for every two chops
Dust one side of each chop lightly with dry mustard and grind on some pepper.

Coat the bottom of a heavy skillet with olive oil and heat to the smoking point. Salt the spiced side of the chops and cook, seasoned side down, until lightly browned. Salt top sides and turn.

Reduce heat to medium low and cook until chops feel firm to the touch. Sprinkle in garlic and add as much kale as will fit in the pan. You can really cram it in. Drizzle in a little more olive oil and cover with a tight-fitting lid. Lower heat to simmer and cook until kale is limp. Cooking time will vary with the maturity of the kale.

I’ve only made Romeo’s recipe once or twice since leaving the farm and I’m leery of store bought meat for a variety of reasons. When we ate meat from animals we raised ourselves, I felt gratitude and some pride in taking responsibility for our own nourishment. When I don’t know how or where an animal lived and died I am more likely to feel guilt and apprehension.

So here’s a vegetarian favorite, whose main ingredients could easily be grown in a city garden. It’s from my friend and Columbia neighbor, Kristen Barber, who let me use it in Winter Harvest.

3 tablespoons oil
1 medium onion, diced
3 or 4 carrots, grated
4 large beets, peeled and grated
One 15 ounce can tomatoes, roughly chopped, with liquid
4 cups vegetable stock or water
½ cup ketchup
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon fresh dill or 1 teaspoon dried
Sour cream or yogurt for garnish (optional)
Heat oil in a big soup kettle. Add onion and sauté until soft. Add carrots and beets and sauté another five minutes. Add tomatoes, stock or water, ketchup, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then lower to simmer and cook, covered, until vegetables are tender, about 40 minutes. Stir in lemon juice and serve hot, sprinkled with dill and garnished, if you like, with yogurt or sour cream.

The ketchup sounded weird to me when I first saw this recipe, but I checked out some traditional Russian ones and they called for a combination of tomato puree, sugar and vinegar that basically adds up to ketchup anyway.


Heather said...

Dear Lane,
I completely understand where you are coming from with doing it all from scratch. I have within the past few years began cooking homemade goodies and making homemade presents such as blankets and shawls. I was quite surprised when I first noticed the cost for doing such things, not to mention my personal time, but it has given me an appreciation for a $40 hat that I might find in a craft store. In fact, I almost feel like I robbed them. I don't mind the prices or how long it takes because when I bring dessert or someone opens a present I made it stands out as gold in a world of store bought simplicities. I admire how you took it to the greater step and with the homestead.

Lanester said...

Hi Heather,

I love that phrase "store-bought simplicities"! Thanks for writing.