Articles in People

Turkeys at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo

On a long trip across America’s heartland, I spotted a pair of button eyes peering out at me from a passing semi truck full of livestock. The pig that I had locked eyes with was probably being taken to slaughter. I lost count of how many large-scale animal-transport trucks I saw while traveling Interstate 80 through farm country, each carrying animals, including turkeys for Thanksgiving, shoulder to shoulder, listless as wet carpet.

Those images made for a stunning contrast when I arrived at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich., owned and operated by Kate Spinillo and her husband, Christian.

It looked so peacefully perfect that it might well be an artist-created movie set, from the goats sitting on a kiddie playhouse in a pen nearest the road, to the sweet yellow house with the wrap-around porch, to the pigs eagerly grunting and munching on leftover jack-o’-lanterns and enjoying scratches behind the ears, to the acres of oak and hickory that stretch out at the furthest reaches of the property.

Theirs is the idyllic farm that concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) want you to picture when they advertise industrially-raised meat, the same type of  animals that were being transported in those interstate semis. But that sort of advertising is an illusion that attempts to mask the reality of how mass-market animals live and die.

The Spinillos say that putting the finest product out to market begins and ends with happy animals. Selling direct-to-customer and as part of a meat CSA, Ham Sweet Farm provides heritage breeds of pork, beef, chicken, turkey and eggs to their community, including restaurants and a food truck. Amazed by the fact that they are able to maintain their operation while they both work full-time jobs outside the farm, I asked Kate how Ham Sweet Farm came to be.

“It started simply enough, with both of us working on farms, more as an outlet and interest than anything else. But once you start, it gets into your blood. You want the work, the challenge, the tangible reward at the end of a day of work and problem-solving.

“It’s as much about the relationship you have with the land you’re working on or with, as it is about the animals you’re raising or the produce you’re growing. It all falls together into one panoramic picture of the way you want to live your life, and also the way you want the food you eat to live its life.”

While we were enjoying a drink on the front porch and taking in the cornfield across the street, the gang of turkeys strolled in front of us, seemingly with a group goal or destination. With an arresting blend of humor and salt in her voice, Spinillo pointed out the difference between pastured and CAFO turkeys.

“Our turkeys are pretty friendly, and like to climb out of their mobile fencing to parade around the house, the driveway, the shop, various barns, our neighbor’s house, the mailbox and occasionally our front porch.

“The toms also like to get out and torment our big Blue Slate tom, ‘Phil Collins,’ but the joke is on them, because he is a permanent resident of the farm. Being heritage breeds, they retain their abilities to fly, so some of them roost in the trees or on top of our garden fence posts at night. Industrially-raised turkeys grow so fast and have such large breasts that they can hardly walk, let alone fly, toward the end of their lives.”

She explained the turkeys consumers find in most stores are broad-breasted white turkeys, which take about 5 months to raise before they go to the butcher. The Spinillos’ birds, by contrast, hatch in the spring and grow for about nine months before slaughter. They’re smaller than typical turkeys you find in the grocery store. Butterball would consider them “average,” Kate said.

 

Turkeys roaming free at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo

Turkeys roaming free at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo

“The flavor of our turkey last year, though, was phenomenal. One family worried about the smaller size of our birds, and so purchased an extra breast to serve on Thanksgiving … no one ate it, because our pasture-raised turkey was just that good.”

In an age where some stores put turkeys on sale for as little as 50 cents a pound, the cost of a pasture-raised bird — $9 a pound for a whole turkey — might seem shockingly high to some, but it takes into account the value of what it takes to bring the animal to market.

“Other than pigs, which we are raising to three times the age of the average CAFO pig, turkeys are our greatest investment. Seventy percent of the cost of a Thanksgiving turkey is to cover hard feed costs; the other 30% should theoretically cover the cost of the bird itself, processing, equipment, and your time.”

The percentage is theoretic, she said, because of the amount of human labor it takes to care for them daily for nine months is quite great.

Deeply committed to being a part of the local economy, the Spinillos understand well that not everyone can afford their meat, and go to great lengths to meet the needs of their customers, even arranging payment plans and deliveries for families who need those options. Still, it causes them to flinch when someone tries to imply their product isn’t worth the price.

“People see your heritage bird pricing and balk, but they forget that a turkey is good for multiple meals,” Kate said. “Thanksgiving dinner, leftovers, and then you make soup and stock from the bones. Turkeys should not be a disposable dinner, and we don’t price them like they are.”

Spinillo suggests that one of the easiest and most budget-friendly ways to support a small farm like theirs is to learn to make use of less-popular cuts.

“What’s frustrating is that people love the idea of the farm, they love coming to visit, and I think they love the romantic idea of purchasing directly from the farm raising the meat (or eggs or produce). But everyone wants the cuts that they know — steaks, belly, eight-piece chicken.

“The parts that we cannot GIVE AWAY are things like poultry feet and necks (duck, chicken, turkey), gizzards of all kinds, pork and beef offal (liver, kidney, heart, tongue). These all represent some of the best and most nutritious eating on the animal, as well as the cheapest cuts, but much of it we end up eating ourselves because we cannot give it away, let alone sell it.”

Slow Cooker Turkey Neck Bone Broth

Prep time: 5 minutes

Total time: 24 hours

Yield: 8 cups

Ingredients

1 turkey neck

Any other bony pieces, including feet or tail

1 onion, halved

1 large parsnip, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks

10 whole peppercorns

2 bay leaves

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

10 cups water, or enough to generously cover the ingredients

Directions

1. Place all of the ingredients in a large slow cooker and heat them on low for 4 to 6 hours.

2. Pull out the turkey neck and any other bones that may have meat attached. Pick off the pieces of meat and save them for another meal. Return the bones to the slow cooker and let the bone broth cook on low for an additional 20 hours.

3. Strain out the bones, vegetables and spices. Let the bone broth cool to room temperature before storing it in the refrigerator. It should be quite gelatinous by the time it is chilled. Bone broth also takes well to being frozen and can be a go-to for holiday meals.

Main photo: Turkeys at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo

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Chef Jeremy Sewall and his new cookbook,

As far as I am concerned, we New Englanders own the winter kitchen, from the cranberries and pumpkin pies of Thanksgiving all the way to the corned beef and cabbage of St. Patrick’s Day. Our regional cooking is reliable and time tested, but possibly also a bit dated — in need of a pick-me-up, a refresher that catches us up with the way the rest of the country eats. Chef Jeremy Sewall is offering that refresher course in his new cookbook, “The New England Kitchen: Fresh Takes on Seasonal Recipes” (Rizzoli, 2014).

Sewall is one of the best chefs in Boston. A true New Englander (he descends from a family of seafarers and lobstermen), he is the chef and partner at four top Boston restaurants (Lineage, Eastern Standard, Island Creek Oyster Bar and Row 34). Following in the great tradition of Fannie Farmer, Jasper White and Lydia Shire, Sewall is widely seen as the new face of classic New England cuisine: heavy on the seafood, aware of the seasons, conversant with the flavors of the globe. This is his first cookbook, and it’s a modern classic — and a keeper.

New England fare for all seasons

Here’s my test for a new cookbook: If I’d instantly start prepping the first three entrees I come across, I know I’ve got my nose in a new classic. I hadn’t even finished the introduction before I started rummaging in my fridge, freezer and pantry to see if I could make the Steamed Mussels With Pilsner, Garlic and Fresno Peppers. I moved on to the Mushroom Ragout and the English Pea Soup before I acknowledged that I was getting very excited about ingredients that wouldn’t truly be available until early spring. So I thumbed deeper into the book and made Sewall’s recipe for Seared Sea Scallops With Creamy Turnip Puree and Crisp Shiitake Mushrooms. That held me for a while.

Sewall is a prodigiously talented, hardworking and remarkably humble chef. Not a TV commodity, he picked time in the kitchen over time in front of the camera, so you may not know him. But if you begin to work through his recipes, you’ll appreciate the skills honed over decades on the line.

For this book, he smartly teamed up with food writer Erin Byers Murray, the author of “Shucked.” The two share a connection to Island Creek Oysters, where Murray worked for a year as an oyster farmer, taking a sabbatical from her day job as a food writer and editor, and Sewall is the executive chef at two Island Creek Boston restaurants. The two seamlessly present a voice that is warm, confident and so infused with New England roots that you can hear the broad vowels as you read.

But there’s nothing provincial or backward looking in “The New England Kitchen.” It is stocked with food you want to eat because you love the flavors of New England and you live in this century. Razor clams and pot roast. Fried clams (of course) and a mussel dish that puts the French to shame. Pan-roasted hake and roasted duck confit. A recipe for skate wing I’ve made twice so far, and it’s made me a kitchen hero both times. A gorgeous lemon tart with lavender cream.

Each recipe is illustrated with a gorgeous large-format photo by Michael Harlan Turkell, making you believe that you can deliver on the promise of a perfect meal.

Reading through the book, you will get a good sense of the local bounty of New England season by season, and how a top-tier regional chef makes the most of it.

If you need a new cookbook to get you through the New England winter, this is the one.

Spiced Skate Wing

Recipe courtesy of “The New England Kitchen: Fresh Takes on Seasonal Recipes.”

Sewall’s note: “Skate might seem like an unusual choice for the home cook, but it has a nice firm texture and a really sweet flavor. Here, I toss it with a seasoned flour and quickly sauté it for an easy weeknight dish. Buy skate from a trusted fishmonger and give it a sniff before bringing it home (it takes on an ammonia smell when beginning to go bad). If you can’t find skate, freshwater trout is a great substitute, but it might require a minute or two longer to cook, depending on the thickness.”

Yield: Serves 4

Ingredients

Spiced Skate Wing With Toasted Orzo with Spinach and Chorizo. Credit: Michael Harlan Turkell

Spiced Skate Wing and Toasted Orzo With Spinach and Chorizo. Credit: Michael Harlan Turkell

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 garlic clove, crushed

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon dry mustard

1 tablespoon ground turmeric

1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon curry powder

4 tablespoons canola oil

4 (6-ounce) skate wing fillets, trimmed, skin removed

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

1. In a small sauté pan, heat the olive oil and garlic over medium heat until the garlic starts to brown just a little, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and place in a small bowl. Let cool for 1 hour. Just before serving, whisk the lemon juice into the garlic oil.

2. In a large bowl, combine the flour with the cumin, dry mustard, turmeric, white pepper, coriander and curry powder. Set aside.

3. In a cast-iron skillet or large sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons of the canola oil over medium-high heat. Dredge the skate in the flour mixture and shake off any excess. Season the fish with salt and black pepper. Place two pieces of fish in the pan and cook until they begin to brown lightly, 1 to 2 minutes. Flip over the fish and immediately remove the pan from the heat; let the fish rest in the pan for 30 seconds before removing it. Repeat with the remaining 2 tablespoons oil and the remaining fillets.

4. Place the fillets on individual plates. Drizzle with garlic oil just before serving. Serve with Toasted Orzo With Spinach and Chorizo (see recipe below).

Toasted Orzo With Spinach and Chorizo

Recipe courtesy of “The New England Kitchen: Fresh Takes on Seasonal Recipes.”

Sewall’s note: “I often pair this pasta dish with Spiced Skate Wing, but you can try it with other fish, chicken, or on its own. Chorizo is a spicy sausage that comes fresh or dry; for this recipe I use dry chorizo and cook it lightly. The heat from the sausage mellows when tossed with spinach and pasta.”

Yield: Serves 4

Ingredients

1 cup orzo pasta

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt

1/4 cup canola oil

6 ounces dry chorizo sausage, cut into thin rounds

1 red onion, cut in half lengthwise and then into 1/4-inch-wide strips

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

3 tablespoons vegetable stock

2 cups lightly packed baby spinach

Freshly ground black pepper

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

2. Toss the orzo with the olive oil in a baking pan and toast in the oven for 7 minutes, stirring halfway through. The pasta should be lightly toasted and have a nutty smell to it.

3. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil and add the toasted orzo, lower the heat and simmer until tender, about 12 minutes. Drain and spread on a baking sheet to cool.

4. In a large sauté pan, heat the canola oil over medium-high heat and add the chorizo and onion. Sauté until some of the sausage fat starts to render out and the sausage begins to lightly crisp around the edges, about 6 minutes. Remove from the heat and drain off any excess fat. Add the orzo, lemon zest and stock to the pan and warm through over medium heat. Add the spinach and immediately remove the pan from the heat; the spinach should be slightly wilted. Toss together and season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Main photo: Chef Jeremy Sewall and his new cookbook, “The New England Kitchen.” Credit: Michael Harlan Turkell

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Chestnut soup. Credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Jasinski

Jennifer Jasinski is a James Beard Award-winning chef with four acclaimed Denver restaurants, a cookbook and an impressive stint on “Top Chef Masters” to her name. Now she’s about to tackle a whole new challenge: cooking Thanksgiving dinner for American expats in Paris.

Jasinski knows a thing or two about the cravings that come with homesickness. The Santa Barbara, Calif., native admits to missing Mexican food mightily while training in France as a young Wolfgang Puck protégée. So the opportunity to treat the guests at Auberge Flora to a good, old-fashioned turkey feast isn’t one she’s taking lightly.

Granted, “old-fashioned” doesn’t, in this case, mean the same thing as “down home.” Take this wonderfully rich and elegant chestnut soup, which I first sampled a few years ago at one of Jasinski’s Denver restaurants, Rioja, where it came in a tiny pumpkin “lidded” with a foie gras-topped slice of brioche. Though you can serve it in plain old bowls, squash vessels do make for an impressive flourish. In fact, having just reprised the appetizer at a charity event in New York City, Jasinski acknowledges, “I’d forgotten what a really cool dish it is, but people were freaking out about it!”

Though you’ll find the recipe in her cookbook, “The Perfect Bite,” she graciously allowed us to reprint it here as well. And she adds that gourds serve as equally lovely containers for soufflés, wild-rice salads and the like.

Savory Chestnut Soup

Prep Time: 10 to 25 minutes

Cooking Time: 1 1/2 to 2 hours

Total Time: 1 3/4 to 2 1/2 hours, including time for the optional step of making the bowls.

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

For the soup:

1/4 cup duck fat (preferred) or pure olive oil

1 1/4 cups sliced onion

1/4 cup garlic cloves, peeled

1 1/2 cups domestic mushrooms, sliced

10 sage leaves, destemmed

1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

1 bay leaf

12 to 14 ounces whole, fresh, peeled chestnuts

1 1/4 cups white wine

6 cups chicken stock

1-inch cinnamon stick

1/2 teaspoon finely ground cardamom

1 1/4 cups heavy cream

1 to 2 teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon black pepper, or to taste

1 tablespoon sugar

For the assembly (optional):

8 mini pumpkins, 8 small butternut squash or 1 large pumpkin

Duck fat (preferred) or extra virgin olive oil, as needed

Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste

Directions

For the soup:

1. In a large stockpot over medium heat, melt the duck fat, then add the onions and garlic and sauté until translucent — do not let them color. Add the mushrooms, sage, peppercorns and bay leaf. Sauté a few minutes, until the mushrooms have softened.

2. Add the chestnuts to the pot and deglaze with the wine. Let cook until the wine has reduced completely, then add the chicken stock. Raising the heat as needed, bring the soup to a boil and then reduce heat and simmer on very low for about 45 minutes.

3. Add the cinnamon stick, cardamom and cream and continue to simmer for 10 minutes. The chestnuts should be very soft by now. Removing the cinnamon stick, take the soup off of the heat, transfer it to a blender and blend until smooth. Season with the salt, pepper and sugar, then strain the soup through a china cap. If you will not be serving it immediately, store it in the refrigerator.

For the assembly:

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. If you are using mini pumpkins as serving bowls, cut off the tops, clean out the insides and then brush the hollows with the duck fat and season them with salt and pepper. Place the pumpkins on a sheet pan and roast in the oven about 20 minutes — until the flesh can be removed easily with a fork or spoon, but not so long that the skin becomes weak and fragile, as this will make it difficult to use as a serving bowl.

If you are using butternut squash as serving bowls, remove the tops so you are left only with the bulbous bases, then follow the instructions for the mini pumpkins.

If you are using a large pumpkin as a soup terrine, cut the top off and clean out the insides. Boil some water and ladle it into the pumpkin to warm the flesh, then pour it out.

3. Ladle the soup into the squash(es), or regular bowls if you prefer, and serve.

Main photo: Chestnut soup. Credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Jasinski

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In the kitchen at The Peninsula Beverly Hills are some of the ingredients used by chef David Codney and his team to prepare truffle macaroni and cheese, including hen-of-the-woods or maitake mushrooms, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, sweet butter, whole wheat ridged macaroni and thyme sprigs. Credit: David Latt

Thanksgiving dinner is a feast of comfort food’s greatest hits. But even as much as I enjoy traditional favorites such as mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn bread stuffing, cranberry sauce, Brussels sprouts and turkey with gravy, it’s important to bring something new to the party. When chef David Codney showed me how easy it is to make his signature truffle macaroni and cheese, I knew I was going to make this elegant dish for Thanksgiving.

Codney is executive chef at the The Peninsula Beverly Hills, a five-star hotel. When I met the chef, he led me upstairs to the hotel’s rooftop where pool guests were swimming and hanging out. On a warm, blue-sky Southern California afternoon, the view was fantastic.

Just below the rooftop’s railing were two gardens. Originally planted with flowers, the areas are now used to grow edible plants. While the guests relaxed on their chaise lounges, Codney walked past thick bunches of carrots, cucumbers, ginger, tomatoes, fennel, chard, strawberries, heirloom onions, radishes, edible flowers and herbs.  Although Codney has local suppliers who bring him high-quality produce, he loves having a garden of his own.

He fertilizes the garden with compost made from coffee grounds and the pulp left over from making fresh juices in the kitchen.  When he spotted a cluster of photo-shoot-ready tomatoes and an heirloom onion, he cradled them in his hands and held them up for me to admire.

Codney’s first job as a teenager was washing dishes in a restaurant kitchen. Curious by nature, he learned every recipe the chefs would teach him. Even though he studied at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), he learned his craft in the kitchens of accomplished chefs.

For the video, Codney introduced three sous chefs who would join him in the cooking demonstration. Not that he needed so many cooks to prepare his easy-to-make dish, but their assistance made an important point. For Codney a successful kitchen is the result of collaboration, and he was happy to have them help demonstrate one of the hotel’s signature dishes: truffle macaroni and cheese. And with Thanksgiving and the holiday season approaching, the dish is a good way to celebrate.

Truffle Macaroni and Cheese

Codney’s riff on an American classic can be served as an appetizer, side dish or entrée.

Building flavors as the sauce reduces, he blends fats (butter, cream and cheese) with aromatics (rosemary, parsley and thyme) and uses sautéed mushrooms to anchor the dish. White wine provides acidity, cutting through the lovely richness of the dish.

latt-maccheese21

latt-maccheese21
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In the kitchen at The Peninsula Beverly Hills, truffle macaroni and cheese being prepared in a sauté pan by chef David Codney and his team. Credit: David Latt

Fresh truffles are not always in season and can be hard to come by for the home cook. Truffle oil is a good substitute and is available all year long. But where fresh truffles are a subtle addition to the aromatic quality of the dish, truffle oil can be perfumey, overpowering the other flavors, so Codney advises using it judiciously.

Yield: 8 appetizers or 4 entrees

Cooking time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 pound elbow macaroni, preferably whole wheat and ridged

3 tablespoons sweet butter, divided

1 cup mushrooms (oyster, hen-of-the-woods, shiitake, brown or portabella), washed, stems trimmed, thinly sliced

Sea salt (preferably fleur de sel)

Freshly ground cracked white pepper, to taste

2 shallots, washed, peeled, ends trimmed, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, skins and root end trimmed, finely chopped

1 tablespoon Italian parsley, washed, leaves only, finely chopped

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves, washed, finely chopped

½ cup Chardonnay

2 cups stock — vegetarian, meat, poultry or seafood — preferably homemade

1 whole thyme sprig, freshly picked

1 cup salty pasta water, reserved from cooking the pasta

2 cups cream, to taste

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 tablespoon white truffle oil, to taste

1/2 cup freshly grated pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions

1. While the sauce is being prepared, heat a large pot of water salted with kosher salt. When the water boils, add the pasta. Stir every 2 to 3 minutes. Cook 7 to 8 minutes or almost al dente. Reserve 1 cup pasta water when the pasta is drained. Toss the pasta well with a drizzle of olive oil to prevent sticking. Set aside.

2. Heat a large sauté pan over low heat.

3. Add 1 tablespoon butter and mushrooms. Season with sea salt and freshly ground white pepper. After mushrooms begin to color, add shallots and garlic. Sweat until translucent. Season with parsley and rosemary.

4. Stir well to build the flavors. Add more sea salt. To balance the rich flavors, add the white wine and stir in 1 tablespoon of sweet butter. Add the pre-cooked macaroni. Stir well to coat the pasta with the sauce. Add stock and simmer. Add the sprig of thyme.

5. Reduce the stock and toss the pasta. Add a few tablespoons of salted pasta water for flavor and to thicken the sauce. Raise the heat to continue reducing the sauce.

6. Stirring the pasta, add cream in small increments. Taste and stop adding cream when you have achieved the desired richness. Add freshly ground cracked white pepper.

7. Drizzle olive oil into the sauce. Continue stirring and reducing. Add grated cheese, reserving 2 tablespoons and stir well.

8. If the sauce is too thin, raise the heat and reduce. If sauce is getting too thick, add more stock. In either case, add a drizzle of olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter to round out the flavors.

9. Taste and adjust with salt and pepper or more cream. Remove thyme sprig and discard. Finish with a drizzle of white truffle oil. Use the oil sparingly. Too much can overpower the other flavors.

10. Plate the pasta, decorate with edible flowers or an aromatic such as finely chopped Italian parsley and shaved fresh truffles when in season. Dust with grated cheese. Finish with a drizzle of quality olive oil.

11. Serve hot as an appetizer, side dish or entrée.

Main photo: In the kitchen at The Peninsula Beverly Hills are some of the ingredients used by chef David Codney and his team to prepare truffle macaroni and cheese, including hen-of-the-woods or maitake mushrooms, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, sweet butter, whole wheat ridged macaroni and thyme sprigs. Credit: David Latt

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After spending the summer learning some of the ins and outs of foraging, I was delighted to find a new cookbook dedicated to my all-time favorite foraged food: earthy, meaty mushrooms. Written by Becky Selengut, a Seattle chef, author, teacher, humorist and forager, “Shroom: Mind-bendingly Good Recipes for Cultivated and Wild Mushrooms” provides a detailed yet fun-filled look at 15 wild and cultivated mushrooms and how to select, store, clean, prepare and pair each.

On a recent trip to Seattle, I caught up with Selengut at Bedlam Coffee, where we chatted about food, cooking, writing and, of course, mushrooms.

A native of New Jersey, Selengut’s infatuation with fungi began in childhood, when she tinkered with cooking white button mushrooms at home and indulged in stuffed mushrooms with her family at the Basque restaurant Jai Alai in Dover, N.J.

A post-college move to Seattle and her first morel and porcini hunt, led by friend and author Langdon Cook, turned her crush into a full-blown love affair.

“It wasn’t great porcini hunting that day, but he told me how to spot them, just coming up through the duff, and, well, I had beginner’s luck and kicked at the dirt and I found the only ones we saw that day,” Selengut said.

Thrill to unearthing treasure

As Selengut can attest, there is a unique thrill to unearthing one of nature’s edible treasures. An even greater rush occurs when you slip into the kitchen to cook your wild, hand-plucked bounty. But what if you’re a newcomer to mushrooms and unsure how to properly prepare this delicacy?

Realizing that bad recipes and poor cooking techniques have thwarted many prospective mycology fans, Selengut leads “Shroom” readers through basic recipes, storage advice and cleaning tips for mushrooms. She also provides links to handy how-to videos she has filmed. Thanks to her thoroughness and approachability, even the greenest cook can step into the kitchen with confidence and create a scrumptious mushroom dish.

Selengut arranges each chapter of “Shroom” from the simplest to the most difficult recipes. Her first two offerings speak to novice or time-pressed cooks. Perfect for those craving easy dinners ready in 45 minutes or less, they include such flavorful specialties as oyster mushroom ragout and Sweet Potato Soup With Lime Leaves, Beach Mushrooms, Basil and Peanuts (see recipe below).

Meals requiring multiple techniques and exotic ingredients are classified as intermediate recipes. With these, readers learn how to whip up Roasted Portobello Tacos With Cacao-Chili Sauce and Cabbage and Lime Slaw; cheese and fig-stuffed morels; and pickled chanterelles. In every chapter, Selengut provides two intermediate dishes.

The remaining fare in “Shroom” speaks to adventurous and skilled home cooks as well as professional chefs. Sauces, meats and sides factor into these preparations. Savory entrees such as Hanger Steak With Porcini, Blue Cheese Butter and Truffled Sweet Potato Frites and Black Trumpet Mushroom Tarts with Camembert, Leeks and Port-Soaked Cherries are part of this advanced category. Although more challenging and time consuming than earlier recipes, these courses remain accessible and delicious.

“My favorite way to prepare mushrooms flavor-wise would be over a live fire — cast-iron skillet on the grill, lid down to capture the wood smoke — or in a wood-burning oven. My favorite way to prepare mushrooms efficiency-wise is to spread them out on a sheet pan and roast them in a hot oven, at least 400 degrees, with a little oil, salt and pepper,” Selengut said.

Countless dishes around the world

In “Shroom” Selengut points out that whether they star or play a supporting role, mushrooms appear in countless dishes around the world. This global presence flavors much of her vibrant book. Vietnamese báhn xèo, Indian tandoori, Italian acquacotta and Japanese chawanmushi all find their way into the cookbook.

So, too, do a variety of wild and farmed mushrooms. Along with the tried and true Portobello, cremini and button, the petite beech, spiky lion’s mane and reddish-orange lobster receive their due.

Among all the uncultivated mushrooms found in the Pacific Northwest and in her book, Selengut singles out the black trumpet mushroom as her favorite. “It’s naturally smoky, earthy and just a little fruity — buckets of flavor and umami. It smells like the sexiest forest imaginable. Favorite cultivated is a tie between maitake and shiitake, both extremely flavorful despite being farmed and lots of promising research about health properties, specifically in preventing and treating cancer,” she said.

Don’t despair if your local market doesn’t stock black trumpet, maitake or even shiitake. For every mushroom featured in “Shroom,” Selengut offers substitutions.

Whether you’re a neophyte or longtime mushroom consumer, you’ll want to check out “Shroom” for its informative and lively look at selecting, cooking and enjoying this fabulous food.

Sweet Potato Soup With Lime Leaves, Beech Mushrooms, Basil and Peanuts

Sweet Potato Soup With Lime Leaves, Beech Mushrooms, Basil, and Peanuts. Credit: Clare Barboza

Sweet Potato Soup With Lime Leaves, Beech Mushrooms, Basil and Peanuts. Credit: Clare Barboza

Recipe from “Shroom” provided by Becky Selengut. The beech mushrooms are less the star here and more of a textural element used as a garnish. Because of this, it’s extra important to use homemade mushroom stock to highlight the mushroom flavor. This soup started in my mind’s eye somewhere in Thailand (lime leaves, basil) and then — somewhat inexplicably — migrated to West Africa (sweet potatoes, peanuts). This is the perfect kind of soup to serve when it’s raining, you’re snuggled up on the couch with a blanket, a fire is lit, Thai music is playing and a zebra is running through your living room.

Prep Time: about 10 minutes (if not making mushroom stock from scratch)

Cook Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour

Yield: 4 servings

Wine pairing: French Riesling

Ingredients

3 tablespoons coconut oil, divided

1 small yellow onion, small diced (about 1 cup)

¾ teaspoon fine sea salt, divided

2 pounds orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, peeled and large diced

5 lime leaves (substitute 1 teaspoon finely grated lime zest)

¼ cup white wine

5 cups mushroom stock (see recipe below)

1 tablespoon seasoned rice wine vinegar, plus more as needed

1 tablespoon fish sauce

7 ounces beech mushrooms, base trimmed and broken apart into bite-size clumps

½ cup lightly packed fresh Thai basil

⅓ cup roasted, salted peanuts, chopped

Chili oil (see recipe below) or store-bought Asian chili oil, for garnish

Directions

1. In a soup pot over medium-high heat, melt 1½ tablespoons of the coconut oil. After a moment, add the onion and ¼ teaspoon of the salt and sauté for 10 minutes, until starting to brown. Add the sweet potatoes and lime leaves. Sauté for 2 to 3 minutes, then turn the heat to high, add the wine, and deglaze the pan, scraping up any brown bits. Add the stock, bring to a boil and then lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Cook until the sweet potato cubes are tender, 20 to 25 minutes.

2. Add the rice wine vinegar. Remove the lime leaves. Puree the soup in a blender until very smooth, or puree in the pan using an immersion blender. Season with the fish sauce, another ¼ teaspoon salt and more rice wine vinegar. If you feel it needs more salt, add more fish sauce (a little at a time). Keep tasting until it’s right for you.

3. Meanwhile, prepare the beech mushroom mixture. In a large sauté pan over high heat, melt the remaining 1½ tablespoons of coconut oil. After a moment, add the mushrooms and the remaining ¼ teaspoon salt. Toss the mushrooms around in the oil, and then spread them out. The idea is to get them to release their liquid and brown quickly. When they brown, stir in the basil and peanuts and transfer to a small bowl.

4. Serve the soup in wide bowls, garnished with the mushroom mixture and drizzled with chili oil.

Mushroom Stock

From “Shroom: Mind-bendingly Good Recipes for Cultivated and Wild Mushrooms” by Becky Selengut.

You won’t be sorry you took the time to make your own. As you cook and are busy prepping vegetables and such — carrots, celery, onions, mushrooms, parsley, thyme — save the trimmings instead of tossing or composting them.  (Skip vegetables such as kale, cabbage, broccoli or anything with a dominating flavor or color that you wouldn’t want in a mushroom stock — no beets!)

To make the stock, add these vegetable scraps to a quart-size resealable plastic bag that lives in the freezer. When the bag is full, you are ready to make your stock. At the market, pick up a small onion, a handful of fresh shiitake mushrooms and some dried porcini. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Drizzle a little high-heat oil on a rimmed baking pan. Throw the shiitakes, along with the chopped-up onion, onto the pan, and toss with the oil. Roast until caramelized, about 20 minutes. Deglaze the pan with a little wine or water, scraping up any brown bits stuck to the pan. Dump the mushrooms and onions, along with the liquid, into a stockpot along with the contents of that freezer bag (no need to thaw) and a few rehydrated pieces of dried porcini (along with the strained soaking liquid). Cover with 3 quarts water, chuck in about 5 peppercorns, bring to a boil, lower to a simmer, and cook, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Pour the contents of the pot through a fine-mesh strainer set over a large bowl, pressing on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible. You should end up with about 2 quarts mushroom stock.

Want to make vegetable stock? Do the same thing, but just use fewer mushrooms and more vegetables (and a big flavor bonus if you roast some of the vegetables as you would the shiitake and onion). If you want to make mushroom stock but don’t have a full bag of trimmings in the freezer, just use an assortment of vegetables and mushrooms (equaling roughly 1 quart) and follow the same general procedure. See the video on making mushroom stock at www.shroomthecookbook.com.

Chili-Peanut Oil

From “Shroom: Mind-bendingly Good Recipes for Cultivated and Wild Mushrooms” by Becky Selengut.

You can find many varieties of bottled chili oil in Asian markets or online, but it’s ridiculously easy to make a batch from scratch and store it in your fridge. Plus, your homemade oil contains none of the additives and preservatives that are commonly added to the bottled versions. To make your own, in a small saucepan set over medium heat, combine 1 cup peanut or coconut oil, along with 3 to 5 tablespoons red pepper flakes (see note). (The quantity will depend on how hot you want the oil to be.) Heat the oil to 300 F on an instant-read thermometer. Remove the pan from the heat and try not to breathe in the fumes!

Let the oil cool to 250 F, and then add 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil and 2 tablespoons minced, roasted, unsalted peanuts. Transfer to a clean glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. Add 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon sugar. Seal the jar, shake it a few times to distribute the ingredients and leave at room temperature for 2 days. Refrigerate. It will keep for at least 1 month, if not longer, in the fridge.

Note: You can purchase whole dried chiles, toast them in a dry pan until flexible and fragrant, and then pulse them in the food processor, or just use regular bottled red pepper flakes.

Main photo: “Shroom” is written by chef Becky Selengut. Credit: Book cover photo by Clare Barboza; Selengut photo by Greg Mennegar

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The hilly terrain of Cain Vineyards in the Napa Valley. Credit: Janis Miglavs

 It is quiet at Cain Vineyards. The hillside estate at the top of Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain is far removed from the hustle of the valley floor. The air is crisp, days are short, winter has arrived and there has been rain. Just enough, says Cain winemaker Chris Howell, to ignite new life in the desiccated vineyards.

Napa Valley winemakers, or at least enough of them to signify the start of a trend, are rethinking the region’s excessive tendencies. Lost for decades in a soulless race to please a handful of critics with dubious taste, these evolving winemakers are trying to reconnect with the soil and climate of America’s most celebrated wine region. While their wines still reflect the strength of the valley’s sunny climate, they are striving for lower alcohol levels and more restrained fruit flavors.

Howell doesn’t have to change. He has been making terroir-driven wines for decades. And paid a price for that unfashionable decision. Overlooked by critics, his wines have been relative bargains, and most bottles are priced $75 or below. Still, you could say that the newly chastened winemakers are playing catch up with him. And none too soon.

California’s drought has Napa Valley on a razor’s edge. Howell says rain is now a “miracle,” a spiritual event. On Spring Mountain where the only water for the vineyards falls from the sky, those two inches will carry the vineyard through to spring.

“It reminds me that wine is about gardening, nature and the earth,” says Howell. “Those of us on Napa’s hillsides and completely disconnected from the water grid think about these things now.”

There was almost no rain in 2013. By the spring of 2014, there had been 14 months with nothing beyond a few sprinkles. “It was a shock, a big wake-up. I didn’t think we would have any grapes. None.” Rain, not much, but enough, came at the perfect time in February and March of 2014 to save the vintage.

The recent rain falls far short of guaranteeing next year’s vintage. “But the vines loved it. The soil came to life.”

Cain’s 90 acres of vineyards are scattered across the estate’s 550 acres of some of the most rugged hillsides in Napa. The winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines have a complex herbal quality that sets them apart from other Napa Cabs. His intense, dark wines have a lightness that allows them a seat at the dinner table. They have always been softer, less tannic and more nuanced, even lilting, than the heavier fruit-forward wines most often associated with Napa.

Cain Vineyard's 90 acres are scattered across some of the most rugged hillsides in the Napa Valley. Credit:  Janis Miglavs

Cain Vineyard’s 90 acres are scattered across some of the most rugged hillsides in the Napa Valley. Credit: Janis Miglavs

His old-school wines are the result of Howell’s belief that the best wines reflect what is happening in the vineyard. Over the decades Howell has managed Cain’s vineyards, he’s dialed back the irrigation, dry farming the plots where the soils are deep enough. He has farmed organically for 15 years and now is bringing biodynamic — an extreme organic, somewhat metaphysical farming discipline advanced by Rudolf Steiner early in the 20th century — to Cain’s vineyards.

“The more people pay attention to the whole ecosystem of the vineyard, the healthier the vineyard. And, in general, biodynamic vineyards are healthier everywhere I’ve visited them around the world,” says Howell.

That’s given Cain a bit of protection against the ravages of the drought. “We live year to year now,” he says. “I always took the winter rains for granted. They always came. I didn’t think about it. Now I know we can take nothing for granted. I feel closer to the reality of nature, to the vineyards.”

Howell delights in making wines that vary year to year. The drought will be but another marker. So soon in the winemaking process for the 2014 vintage, it’s too early to know how it will change the wines.

How the drought affects his wines doesn’t concern Howell. Using only the wild yeast from the vineyard to ferment his grapes, Howell has given control of his wines back to nature. These days, that is an act of supreme faith. “We think about the spiritual part of things more often these days,” he says.

Other Napa winemakers may never catch up with such radical thinking.

Main photo: Cain Vineyards in the Napa Valley. Credit: Janis Miglavs

* * *

 Cain Vineyards makes just three wines:

Cain Five ($125)

Cain Five comes is 100% from the Cain Vineyard, and is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot.

Cain Concept ($75)

Cain Concept comes from alluvial soils in the Benchland areas of the Napa Valley. It is a blend of Cab Sauv, Merlot, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot.

Cain Cuvee ($34)
NV10, is a blend of two vintages (51% 2010 and 49% 2009) and is a blend of Merlot, Cab, Cab Franc and Petite Verdot. Sourced from Rutherford, Yountville, Spring Mountain and Atlas Pea.

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Food TV could look like this. Photo illustration credit: Adair Seldon

I haven’t watched the Food Network since kitchen turned coliseum. The old shows served up a relaxing, aspirational escape, but once they got all “Cutthroat,” I cut the cord. Instead of relaxing and aspiring, I was stressing and perspiring. Sheesh. If I wanted that kind of anxiety, I’d cook dinner myself.

With guys full of tats and swagger and show themes such as “Superstar Sabotage,” the Food Network has perfected its junk-food formula to a tee. Must-see-testosterone-TV.

According to The Atlantic, the five most-watched prime-time shows on Food Network this year are competitions: “Food Network Star,” “Worst Cooks in America,” “Chopped Tournament,” “Cutthroat Kitchen” and “Guy’s Grocery Games.” According to Nielsen, the 20 most-viewed prime-time shows on the Food Network pulled in a median of roughly 1.1 million viewers per episode in 2014, compared to 255,000 viewers per episode in 2000.

Sure, the Food Network has its salt-sugar-fat formula down, but what if it could provide content that both entertained and nourished — edgy and educational — while keeping the ratings intact? Who says suspense, conflict, humiliation and ring-molded entrées with Jackson Pollock-inspired plating can’t have a higher calling? So before the Food Network goes from offal to worse, I propose it start feeding viewers something more nutritious.

Here are three ideas for more filling, yet thrilling Food Network shows:

No. 1: Food Activist Star

Format

Former congressman Dennis Kucinich mentors six “food fighters.” They each have a cause they fight for, whether it’s stopping a retail grocery chain from carrying meat with antibiotics; getting a processed-food company to stop using GMO ingredients; getting a fast-food company to stop sourcing pork from pigs raised in gestation crates; or getting a school district to stop selling soda in vending machines.

Episodes

Each week the food fighters have an assignment, from crafting a strategy and creating a campaign to getting media attention and planning a rally. At the end of each show, one food fighter is eliminated. The three judges are Woody Harrelson, Michael Pollan and activist blogger Vani Hari, aka Food Babe. There will be additional commentary by experts in the field.

Finale

The final two fighters meet with corporate execs from two companies that represent the opposition. The winner is judged on both the effectiveness of the meeting and the campaign as a whole. The prize is the winner’s choice of seed money to start a nonprofit or a year’s salary to work for an existing nonprofit.

Thrilling

The feisty Kucinich gives planetary do-gooders a tough-love education in food politics. Think Donald Trump with a bigger brain and smaller comb. And live-wire Harrelson as a judge? Enough said.

Filling

Viewers will be inspired to work toward a food system that is healthier for people and the planet, while learning how politics influences our food supply.

No. 2: Dumpster Divers

Format

Jeremy Seifert, filmmaker and star of the film “Dive!,” hosts two teams of “divers” who hunt for food in dumpsters behind grocery stores. We witness vast amounts of wasted food as they forage through garbage and collect their unspoiled spoils.

Episodes

Each week, two teams (two divers per team) collect edible food from grocery store dumpsters in shopping carts (a la “Guy’s Grocery Games”). The second half of the show takes place in a studio kitchen equipped with showers, where the teams emerge squeaky clean and reveal their bounty. They are allowed certain swaps so that it’s even among both teams, and we watch them prepare a meal in a set time. Upon dramatic, heart-thumping music, the “taster” emerges to test each dish to ensure the food is not spoiled before three celebrity chef judges try the dishes. Each week one team is eliminated. There will also be commentary by food waste experts and a lawyer.

Finale

The winners from previous shows return and are assigned to two final teams. They must dive at two locations — a grocery store and a bakery — and the meal must include dessert.

Thrilling

Stealthily dressed characters in protective gear and flashlights enter gross-out zones so vivid, we can smell it. And celebrity chefs eating trash? Bon appétit!

Filling

The audience will learn eye-opening statistics about food waste in this country that will awaken and empower them to reduce waste.

Kale salad. Credit: Adair Seldon

Kale salad: The revolution starts here? Credit: Adair Seldon

No. 3 Kale Wars

Format

Four chefs park their kale carts next to anonymous fast-food chains in urban food deserts. Each chef hands out samples of a kale dish he/she has made to introduce the fast-food eaters to a healthy alternative with the goal of starting a movement that demands more grocery stores and fresh produce be brought to the area.

Episodes

Each week takes place in a different food-desert city, from New Orleans to Memphis to Detroit to Chicago. The chefs must get passersby to taste their dishes and to join the “kale revolution.” The recruits sign a petition and agree to write letters, make phone calls to local government officials, go to city council meetings, etc. With chefs strategically staked out in different regions throughout the series, the revolution will spread as cities compete against each other. Each week, the four kale revolution chefs are judged by two chefs and one politician on their kale dishes, as well as the number and quality of recruits they sign up. The winner of each show donates money to a local food bank.

Finale

The winning chefs from previous shows and cities all compete for the grand-prize money that the winner will donate to a nonprofit related to food deserts.

Thrilling

Kale pushers getting in-your-face with burger-hungry folks? Hot dog!

Filling

The audience will learn about the millions of people in America who live without access to healthy food options, resulting in high levels of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

And there you have it.

Food Network execs: Have your people call my people. I’m giving you first dibs before I shop these gems around.

Main photo: Take your hands off the remote — food television of the future could look like this. Credit: Adair Seldon

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Sandra Simone. Credit: Sarah Khan

A change is underway. Farmers of color — historically rendered invisible, though permanently woven into the fabric of America’s agricultural heritage — are increasing. The first farmers in this country, that is Native Americans and African-Americans, are the backbone of the nation’s agriculture history. Some farmers of color have endured — cultivating the land with skill that comes from generations of ecological knowledge and animal husbandry practices.

Women of color farmers, in particular, are overlooked, nationally and globally. Yet these farmers struggle with the same challenges any other farmer faces, plus a legacy of institutional exclusion and gender bias. So what are some of the demographic statistics of farmers of color and women farmers in the United States? Who are they, where are they and what do they have to say?

Credit: Sarah Khan

Credit: Sarah Khan

The mothers of Mother Earth

Sandra Simone of Talladega County, Ala., is an award-winning organic farmer who used to be a jazz singer in the San Francisco Bay Area. “It took many years for my husband’s words — ‘We need to own our ancestors’ land’ — to click,” Simone said. “All I wanted was to get out of rural Alabama as a teenager. I never thought I’d return, let alone own land and farm it, organically and sustainably.”

There have always been two faces of farmers in the United States — those of color and those who are white; that is, the ones in the fields and the ones on packages, in the magazines and on commercials. But if farm advocate Cynthia Hayes and farmers Janie Dickson, Beverly Hall and Simone have their way, those faces are about to change.

FARMERS OF COLOR


 A three-part series to make visible the lives of the invisible

Part 1: Data, maps and a history of exclusion from land ownership

Part 2: Female farmers of color

Part 3: In moving pictures, farmers of color talk about their work, challenges and dreams in three short videos

Going organic, in color

Farmers who decide to create organic and sustainable farms might find that the load gets heavier or lighter, depending on their story. Trust is the core issue for Cynthia Hayes, the founder of the Southeastern African American Farmers’ Organic Network, or SAAFON in Savannah, Ga.

“Our farmers who wanted to go organic felt isolated and had no hope that local USDA government agencies would help them figure out the loan processes,” Hayes said. She has been privy to too many stories of farmers’ lack of equal access to USDA services. “We had to fill the gap, help our farmers manage the officials, the forms and the bureaucracy.”

Over time, Hayes saw that the majority of SAAFON’s clients were women — African-American and Native Americans farmers who wanted not only to reconnect to the land but also reclaim the rich agricultural and culinary traditions that indigenous and enslaved people offered.

Female farm operators statistics

Females make up 14 percent of all principal operators and 30 percent of all operators, according to the USDA. But what are the percentages of women of color farmers by race, and where do they farm in the country? Within each racial category (which includes both men and women), the gender breakdown reveals a relatively higher percentage of female operators compared with their white female counterparts. For example, 30 percent of Native Americans are female operators.  They are followed by 21 percent of multiracial female operators, 20 percent Asian, 19 percent Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders, 14 percent African-American and white and 12 percent Latinas. Despite obstacles and challenges, many farmers of color, including women, farm and survive despite historical exclusion. Below are a few of their stories.

Sandra Simone: Of voice and vetch

Simone, a jazz singer, returned to the soil of her roots. Her life moved forward once she bought back a fraction of her ancestor’s land in rural Alabama. Watch and listen to Simone tell her story.

 Janie Dickson: She’s got the share and the crop

“My parents sharecropped. But often we’d miss a week of school just ’cause the owners did not feel like settling up the bill. That’s the kind of power they had over us,” said Janie Dickson of Dickson’s Organics in Effingham, S.C. Dickson runs her organic farm with her husband, Rocky. Like Simone, Dickson vowed she would never farm. Dickson’s mother reminded her of her sharecropping days, “We got the share and they got the crop,” Dickson said, laughing. Despite her vow, Dickson always had a backyard garden where she’d grow collards, beans, turnips, okra and much more.

Before retirement, she yearned to have folks taste the difference between a jet-lagged, store-bought vegetable and a just-picked one. “This time around I farmed, on my own terms, on my own land, growing what I wanted, harvesting when I wanted, and plowing it under when I felt like it,” she said.

The Dicksons used to farm conventionally. “It got to the point where I’d jokingly tell my friends I was going out to poison the collards.” In 2006, she was rummaging through her attic when she stumbled on an organic farming magazine from 1986. “I got the message,” she said. Today, their six-acre property has a road dividing the land into two parcels. Her husband had no desire to let go of what he called his “miraculous fertilizers and pesticides,” but they decided Janie would go organic. Her plot blossomed. They ditched the chemicals. Then Dickson met Hayes, of SAAFON, got certified as an organic farmer and leased 10 acres of organic land while their property transitioned to organic.

Like other female farmers across the country, Dickson faces daily challenges: negotiating gender bias, finding good and reliable farm help, getting produce to the markets, reworking the business plan and affording farm equipment. However, she faces an extra challenge — the need to persist with local USDA officials to get equal access to information on all aspects of organic farming for small business farmers. “Sometimes persisting just feels like a full-time job,” Dickson said.

Beverly Hall: High heels sinking into the dirt

Beverly Hall, a Native American farmer in Shannon, N.C., started the nonprofit group American Indian Mothers to take care of the elders. “It’s not right when your people are choosing to buy medicine over food. I grew up farming and canning, and I had strayed from the circle and my values,” Hall said. “I returned to self-reliance and to the land in 1995. And I marched myself right into the fields, with my high heels sinking into the dirt, to get advice about how to start farming.”

“My mother could not talk about our native traditions, it was forbidden; but we still had to farm, so we held onto some of our farming ways of corn, beans and squashes,” Hall said proudly.

An ingrained self-sufficiency — a do-it-yourself, take-care-of-yourself-because-no-one- is-going-to-do-it-for-you attitude — are what permeate Simone, Dickson, Hall and Hayes’ thoughts and actions. “My ancestors’ blood and sweat courses through this Southern landscape,” Simone said. Resolute, she looked out the window from her self-designed and self-built log cabin and declared, “That’s why I returned, for good.”

Hayes and SAAFON are not going away anytime soon, nor are the spirited Simone, Dickson and Hall. Each woman educates children in their communities by creating farm programs, inviting experts to lecture or organizing local farm co-ops that bring together like-minded farmers to share ideas about what niche crops to grow, how to get rid of a particular pest or just help one another.

Dickson wishes that when she was growing up she had asked her sharecropping mother more about the secret garden she tended deep in the middle of the woods, far from the sharecropper’s eyes. “We’d visit it, quietly, and tend to it,” Dickson said. Now, though, Dickson’s garden is out in the open for all to see and learn from, on her own terms.

Main photo: Sandra Simone. Credit: Sarah Khan

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