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Pans and Perspective

You provide the food and I will provide the perspective." – Anton Ego, 2007

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learning

Learning What it Really Takes to Make Food: Substitutions and Compromise

Hundreds of years ago the colonizers spread across America and put down roots, both literally and figuratively. Agriculture was their life: crucial to their survival but also demanding nothing short of total participation.

I have been contemplating this topic for nearly a week. It manifested during the days following this post. I began to realize the amount of work – labor, effort and sheer strength – required to produce an acre of food; it was astounding. Fertilizing with compost, tilling, weed management and pest control had the potential to impose upon each second of a farmer’s life. In colonial times, I’m certain it did. Even with families of six to eight children the work was perpetually incomplete. Over time, the advent of agricultural technology helped eliminate the need for so many physical bodies by replacing them with mechanical ones instead. My purpose of coming to pepperfield was to learn where food came from, but after this last week it has evolved slightly. My understanding of food is one of a conventional sense where, even organic, products are mass-produced with massive tractors and combines. Each task completed in mere seconds by robotic behemoths rather than the the hands of a person. My real purpose had more depth than that; sure I came to see where food comes from, but the honest truth is that how we grow food at Pepperfield is not really the way. We have simplified processes and sacrificed time to create something that transcends conventional agriculture. But we too make sacrifices and compromises, although very different.

Farming in the time of the settlers involved many more hands. Each tasked with completing a fragment of the puzzle to create a larger, beautiful picture. Horse and plows tore through the Earth to loosen the soil before manure – collected from the farm itself – was placed on the land by hand. It was then turned into the soil with a spading fork by a person. Rows were furrowed and trenches were dug with hand tools, not machinery, before seeds were sown piece by piece with delicate care. The ground was moved over the seeds to give them a new home and a potential for life. Water used for irrigation was pumped from wells by cranks that required a human’s touch. Once everything was in place the same eyes and hands watched and waited vigilantly to combat both weeds and pests. No Round-Up, no electric fencing, just dedication and a desire to survive.

At Pepperfield we form a team, albeit smaller than our pioneering counterparts, to reach the same goals. Our horse – aptly named Troybuilt – is a bright red roto-tiller that turns the task of preparing ground from a day’s work to a few short hours. Our three goats and dozen chickens produce our manure for compost and fertilization but we still haul in more from a neighboring farm. Again our red horse turns this “black gold” back into the Earth where it sits as a vein of nitrogen and other essential nutrients. With shocking authenticity to the settlers, we still furrow our rows with hoes and dig seed trenches by hand. We walk the rows hand sowing seeds with the same delicate care that these heirlooms received so many years ago. The trenches are filled and seeds are covered in the same manner before being watered. This time though, our electric pump draws the water from the well through hundreds of feet of hoses strung across the garden. Electric fences are set, organic pesticides of various powdered plant matter are dusted on crops and we too watch almost as diligently as our colonial counterparts for the first sign of life, weeds or seedlings; each strip is carefully purged of weeds as they surface by hand or hoe.

The modern systems eliminate the need for many children or a team of farmers. Tractors pulling massive disks can loosen acres of soil in mere minutes. Petro-fertilizers are spread far over the required amounts as yield insurance; a faster, simpler and cheaper process that allows the step turning fertilizer into the Earth to be skipped entirely. Seeding apparatuses are dragged behind the same tractors planting hundreds, if not thousands, of seeds in a single pass, no furrowing required. Irrigation is made simpler by rolling sprinklers that create a cascade of water down onto these seeds. As they spring to life, petro-chemicals are sprayed – although not always if the GMO seeds have genes that repel potential pests – and weeding is managed much to the same effect.

Over the last 8 weeks, I have grown, just like the plants, at Pepperfield. My understanding of agricultural systems increases each day and I am beginning to identify the various input substitutions that are made on many different levels. Each day brings new surprises and thoughts to contemplate. The environment promotes this physical and mental expansion and offers living examples of natural processes. At Pepperfield we practice food production as close to its original roots as possible, still considering needs to maintain an efficient but low impact system. I believe that it is one of the reasons I enjoy Pepperfield so much. It isn’t preaching or practicing unrealistic methods to achieve a goal. But rather managing tools and techniques to create a wholesome product. These practices promote a key element for a prosperous future, in farming or life: Learn the complexity of a system and manage and manipulate it with compromises and sacrifice to reach a personally satisfying result.

Picassos, Pottery and Profoundly Productive People

If you had been with me a week ago as we pulled into the circular driveway to the home of the Schwartz’s, you might have been as incredulous as me. A gorgeous brick building loomed over, casting a shadow across the entire driveway. As we exited the vehicle and proceeded up the stone path, a cool midday breeze poured over the hill and brushed against our faces. The birds were alive and the warm sun felt fantastic. We let ourselves into a small foyer at the front of the building where we were greeted by Gerry, a kind elderly woman. She welcomed us into the kitchen to a full spread of salad fixings. The kitchen was alive with aromas; roasted meat wafted into my nostrils, the oven sizzled away and a dark stock simmered gently on the stove.

Three other guests sat at a corner table and introduced themselves as Maggie and Sophie, both sisters and Dalton. Maggie, was a short girl with dreadlocks, braids and beads woven into her hair. Dalton, her significant other had similar hair to match. Sophie was more reserved with a happy demeanor and hair that ran down over her shoulders. We made casual conversation introducing ourselves, and in David’s case, caught up for lost time. I began browsing some of the art on the walls: each piece unique, culminating into an eclectic collection that was only a facadesp for the rest of the house. Shortly after the Sophie’s and Maggie’s father, Lain appeared and gave us a quick introduction to some of the astounding pieces hung about the walls. Gerry gave the announcement that lunch was ready and we were instructed to get Dean from his studio. David, Birte and I clambored down the stairs into the basement lead by Sophie to collect her grandfather. Still matching the theme of the house, the entire stairway was full of various hanging paintings, sketches and other mediums. We pulled open the studio door and there sat a tiny old man with large rimmed spectacles. He was meticulously lining up a picture in a frame – to undoubtedly hang on the wall too. Dean interrupted his work to show us some of the other pieces he had been working on as well. With some convincing we managed to get him moving upstairs for the impending feast. As we walked out of the basement, the house loomed with fantastic aromas. Rounding the corner into the kitchen they came together into a marvelous symphony of smells. Roast turkey, mashed potatoes, half roasted squashes, peas and now along with the salad, various cheese, crackers and three different selections of bread. Lunch – they call it – happens this way each sunday at the Schultz house. This “go big or go home” mentality should have prepared me for what was to some.

We sat down to a perfect relaxed lunch, plates overflowing, with all sorts of accoutrements. We enjoyed pleasant conversation as the young folk went around the table telling each other a little about ourselves and what we are currently up to. Interestingly enough, each of us was on some sort of sabbatical or break to help realign our thinking. In classic grandmotherly style Gerry insisted we go for seconds, which Birte and I more than willingly did. We ended the meal with a spread of fresh baked desserts of brownies and an assortment of cookies.

Our plan following this repast was to attend the Decorah Symphony Orchestra. We had plenty of time before our show and David requested that we get a proper house tour, remember, “go big or go home.” We started in the dining room since we were all present. Dean commenced by saying, “if you have any questions about anything, I’ll lie about them.” I knew this was going to be wild. In the dining room we were surrounded by a myriad of items. Original porcelain made from molds of master potter, Marguerite Wildenhain; a slab of hieroglyphics 4000 years old, which only three people can read and translate; original Picasso painted pottery and a smattering of arrowheads littered the shelves; pottery thrown, of all shapes and sizes, by famous artists and family members were intricately laid out intermingled with paintings from same miscellany of artists, some friends and some millionaires.

We dove into a tour of the first floor. Each room we entered, totalling five, had various mediums of framed art matching the characteristics of the dining room. We then took a hike upstairs and were shown an even more extensive collection. Each room laid out intricately, walls laden with sketches and paintings paired with sculptures and pottery on beautifully constructed pedestals. Dean led the tour from room to room where the themes of each become more specific.

The proceeding rooms were stocked with various artifacts from around the world. An entire room dedicated to German artists and the Bauhaus and another loaded with artifacts from a four year archeological dig by Dean in Panama. The Africa room had ebony statues, intricate stone carvings, and yards of stone carved bead necklaces. An Asian theme dominated another with a collection of paintings and pottery, some pieces worth over a quarter of a million dollars. Hallways and some of the rooms themselves were decorated with extensive libraries of reference material relating to each respective room. As we toured each, Dean handed us pieces and artifacts, some over thousands of years old, to hold and inspect – it almost felt wrong.

We concluded our tour prematurely because we were running behind to the show. Dean has stories about about each individual item – and he shared many of them – but if I included them all in this post, its length would surpass even the miles of beads in their collection. As we descended the flight of stairs into the dining room we were greeted by one last surprise. Laid out on the same table we ate, were over 50 thrown miniature pots crafted by Lain and his daughters. We were instructed by the family to inspect them and select our favorite to take home. I was just as incredulous departing as I was on arrival.

Many are familiar with “Mid-Western hospitality”, the kind where strangers open their home and offer the guests nearly anything they want. For the Schwartz’s this was a understatement. The care I was given, along with David and Birte was some of the finest I have ever experienced. I felt honored to participate in a fantastic meal, magnificent tour of a living, tangible museum and receiving a gift made truly from the heart. It is quite characteristic of the people of Decorah to display this genuine hospitality but nevertheless it was still greatly appreciated and quite remarkable.

The pot I chose!

Pride

Disciplining yourself to do what you know is right and important, although difficult, is the highroad to pride, self-esteem, and personal satisfaction.
-Margaret Thatcher

I have been learning so much here at the CIA.  As I have said before, I do not go a day without learning something new and intriguing.  Each day we are reminded of our expectations and I strive to produce the best product I can each day.

That being said, I was alarmed in Meat ID class when Chef called me on something I didn’t even think about.  We had just frenched our Lamb Racks, which can be seen here, and after making my own personal inspection, I brought it up to chef’s table to be graded.  He took one look at it, flipped it over and said, excellent job.  I could tell he wanted to add something else though.  He then said something that I haven’t forgotten yet: next time you do something make sure to clean it up a little bit.  I had frenched my rack of lamb on the butchers block.  This was the same block where I had fabricated some other lamb products.  As a result small bits of fat and skin were left on the table and they ended up depositing themselves on my lamb rack.

I was really upset with myself that I had let something like that slide.  Especially after what I learned when I was at the Perfect Caper.  Somewhere around my 3rd or 4th week, I was assigned to make Chicken Flautas.  These are tightly rolled chicken burritos that are deep fried so that they have a crispy shell.  Liz, the Sous Chef and my teacher at the time, told me how to do it.  She then asked me to repeat what she had done and finish using up all of the Flauta mix.  Judging by the amount of chicken she used in one and the amount remaining I knew I had a big task ahead of me.  I rolled three flautas and she came by to check on me.  I will always remember what she said.  Those aren’t that good, I’m going to need you to roll them again.  Liz wanted me to unroll the flautas I had rolled which would mean, throwing away the shell, wasting egg wash and time and having to start over.  When she first said this I thought nothing of it.  I just tried to make more of an effort to get my flautas to look more like what she had shown me.  After rolling about 2 more she came by again.  She said, this one is good but this one needs to be done over.  This second time it really clicked, one, I wasn’t going to be allowed to move onto my next task until I completed this one and two if the flautas weren’t nearly perfect I would have to start over.  I tell this story a lot but it really helped me learn how to take pride in what I do.  The first batch took me somewhere around 2 hours.  If I had to go back and do it today it would only take me 25-30 minutes.  The fact that I had to perfect these flautas, which at the time I thought was the most tedious and stupid thing in the world, forced me to care about what I did.  To this day I still roll the best Flautas at the Caper!

Taking pride in what I do is something that I learned as a kid.  I feel like it really didn’t start to become applicable until I began to work on things I enjoyed myself.  I know that I frequently didn’t care about how my school work turned out during high school.  Now, I refuse to hand in work that isn’t my absolute best.  I make sure that this includes my dishes or papers.

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