Film Review: A Place at the Table

Let's be honest:  we don’t get out to the movies much. We are the exact wrong people to give you any recommendation of the latest releases at your local theater.  But recently we've come across and enjoyed a few films on farming, food, and social justice that seemed so relevant, thought-provoking, and compelling, that we wanted to share them with you.  Our first film review covers a Magnolia Pictures documentary on hunger in the US.   

We saw A Place at the Table when it showed as part of the Peace and Justice Film Series at the University of Montana.  The film examines the issue of hunger, specifically child hunger, in the United States, where one in four children experiences food insecurity at some point in their life.  

The storytelling is good, offering a mix of compelling experts in the legal, policy, and health issues surrounding child hunger but anchoring the narrative firmly in the first-hand experience of several families, in both urban and rural settings across the US.  

One of the key issues the film illustrates very well is that childhood hunger and obesity are not problems on opposite ends of a spectrum, but are in fact intricately linked.  It is possible for a child to be both hungry (as in not knowing when or what the next meal might be) and obese. One mother, whose diabetic second-grade daughter illustrates the trend of the development of health problems in younger and younger children, talks about her challenge of trying to stretch dollars by buying the cheapest available foods available in her local stores--which are generally highly processed and less healthy. The girl answers the school health worker's questions about what she will eat when she goes home after school with a single word: chips.  

Another eye-opening point in the film was that agricultural subsidies in the US go overwhelmingly to crops that are the main components of highly processed foods.  Vegetables and fruits represent a tiny sliver of the agricultural subsidies to farmers.   This is reflected in the availability of healthy foods in some geographic areas; both of the urban families discuss how far they have to go to reach a fully stocked grocery store, or find any basic foods like whole fruits and vegetables.  The camera follows one mother on a three-bus, one-hour journey one way to the nearest grocery store.  

This is one of those films--the best sort, really--that leaves one asking "well, what can I do?"  I cringed at the well-meaning enthusiastic student coordinators of the film series who stood up after the showing, thanked everyone for coming, and asked for donations that would go to a Kiva account "to fund projects, like farming and food projects all over the world."  Though I understand the good intention, it seemed almost as though they had missed several key points of the film:  that hunger is not just a problem in other parts of the world, but a fundamental threat to the health and productivity of the United States, as well.  

Like most real issues, there is not a simple answer to "what can we do?" Certainly, giving to or volunteering at a food bank helps, in the short term.  Establishing community gardens in food-desert neighborhoods, or working to help schools incorporate fresh local farm products or simply acquaint kids with healthy whole foods, are all wonderful. The odds are high that an organization near you can provide that opportunity.  

But we can't let ourselves off the hook with a $10 donation to the local food bank; when we dig in it's clear that the root causes are grittier, less charming, and harder to tackle. Measures like private charity programs and government food assistance, which were intended as short-term stopgap measures, have become long-term projects that are not an effective way to accomplish the goal of food security. Poverty and government agriculture and food policies do not make for such satisfying volunteer opportunities.  But I'd encourage you to watch the film, think about the message, and look for ways to keep that in mind in your own actions, votes, and conversations. As the film explains, hunger in the US should be seen as an issue of national security:  when the children who could or should be the future leaders of science, engineering, military, and education, are unable to focus in school and chronically underperform because of their hunger, we are not setting ourselves to live up to full potential as communities or a nation. 


On the Table: Harvest-Day Potluck

This week our featured meal is the one we shared on a neighbor's table on Sunday.  We had joined friends and neighbors at Turner Family Farms for a special annual workday: the fall hog butchering. They raise a few pigs each year on their small farm, including their boys' 4-H hogs and a handful of others that are sold directly to neighboring families who agree, as part of their ownership of the animal, to help with the processing.  

We'll tread gently, in this space, on the topic of raising animals for consumption.  We know how personal the decision to eat meat is, and that for some people it is simply unnacceptable. We, after various periods of not eating meat, have now chosen to incorporate animals into our diet as mindfully as possible, including being a part of the entire process. For us, one of the outcomes of a committment to knowing the full story of our food has been that we eat meat very sparingly.     

We are not quite as insistent as that couple parodied in the Portlandia sketch, who must request every detail of the chicken they order.  But we do take some good-natured ribbing from family sometimes for our "where did it some from?" questions, and we do take the vegetarian or wild-fish option most often when eating out. Of course, we're not complete purists: we've succumbed to the pancetta-topped pizza at our favorite place without obtaining a full pedigree, more than once.  And sometimes as a guest, it's best to simply eat gratefully and not ask too many questions.  

So, at events like potlucks we are usually pretty wary of the options.  But when we broke for lunch at the Turner's, it was an interesting and different experience to be at a potluck where each contribution came from a family willing to engage so directly with their food as to help in the butchering process.  And so we were suddenly faced with a surprising array of choices: slow-cooked barbequed chicken grown right there, home-smoked pork, and wild game chili with a squash and bean base.    

On the table, at a different table this week: the potluck feast on harvest day at Turner Farms. 

I have a theory that when people really understand and engage with what it took to produce meat, it tends to be used more sparingly: smaller amounts can feel denser, more nutritious. It doesn't have to be in a huge slab or the main event of a meal. And so, of course, the other featured foods were just as exciting and filled out most of the plate:  cabbage slaw, kale and spinach salads, dollops of roasted winter squash, baked brie with huckleberry jam, and the just-unveiled sauerkraut the Turners make each year in a stone crock over 100 years old (the secret, they claim, to their successful and delicious saurkraut each year).  

It was a solid day of work, but felt like part of a long tradition, too.  We cut and packaged up seven animals to be used throughout the year by about ten families.  We ourselves brought home one-half of a hog, and are venturing into our first experience home-curing bacon. It's meat that will be a benefit to our cold-climate winter diet, gifts for family at the holidays, and sourced in a way that we can feel good about. It doesn't mean it's easy, but at least we are part of the whole process, all the way from the field to the table.    

Harvest day is all hands on deck, regardless of age.  Several of us were brand new to this work this year, but Gus, in the lower right, is and old pro and called the shots in the packing room for much of the day.  

Plants we love: Gift Garlic

We moved to Missoula last year just a few days after pulling our garlic from the ground in Oregon.  We packed two burlap coffee sacks with green garlic and stuffed them into the U-Haul as the final cargo.  Opening the door of that moving van when we arrived unleashed a powerful and unique smell mixture: garlic, green coffee beans, and waste vegetable oil (fuel for our car). We hung it to finish curing in the entryway of our small summer sublet apartment.  

When it came time to plant garlic last fall, we realized we wanted a crop a good bit larger than what we could spare from our own stocks without being garlic-poor all winter.  We also though it would be good to get something we knew for sure could handle a solid Montana winter.  We got a gift of a mix of hardneck varieties from some friends in Wisconsin who came to visit and even helped us plant last fall.    

Garlic drying in the barn of friends in Wisconsin.  They brought us bulbs to plant from the stock they have been growing for years.  Photo by Noah.

We also asked around for good varieties and good deals from local farmers and were lucky to get ahold of Josh Slotnick just after his crew had planted their garlic at the PEAS Farm, and he gave us a great deal on ten pounds of seed garlic.  He had to think hard about what variety it might have started out as, and we’re still not sure.  He’s been saving the best cloves to replant each year for so long--more than fifteen years--that we just knew it must be pretty well adapted to our area.  It's a softneck, which makes it good for long storage.  The Wisconsin garlic blend were hardnecks--larger cloves with stronger flavors that have added a powerful kick to our pestos this summer.  

If you got a bulb of garlic in your last coffee mailing, it was one of those Missoula softnecks.  We tucked the gifts into the boxes with the special satisfaction of sharing something straight from the soil here.  It grew in the smaller of our two gardens all summer, the first thing that went into the ground in our time on this farm, and the first thing to emerge as a sign of spring.  It cured and dried in the hayloft of the barn this summer and hadn't left the farm till it went to the post office in your box. It's wonderful to cook with of course, but if you haven't eaten the whole bulb yet, consider planting a clove or two for your next summer. It's garlic planting time in much of the US; we'll be getting ours into the ground again sometime soon. We might branch out to a few different known-and-named varieties, but we’ll also stick with some of our unnamed gift varieties that allowed us to store up our largest garlic harvest yet, this year. 

This year's garlic harvest, waiting in the shade to be spread in our hayloft to dry and cure.  We were a little late to harvest, but hope it will still store well. 

Reading Season Signals

On a recent rainy afternoon in this season of shifting weather, we squatted in one of our friend's growing fields at the County Rail Farm in Dixon, Montana.  Margaret and Tracy farm in this fertile valley that has a unique microclimate just a bit different than our own.  While we have had our first hard frost, they are still harvesting some of their crops - rows of cucumbers and greens still wait in the field while squash cure for storage in their green houses. 

Pumpkins Drying in a Hoop House, County Rail Farm.

The weather was typical for these edge of season days, so we huddled in the back of their pickup truck under the drumming rain picking edamame (green soybeans) from boxes of harvested plants.  Later, when the rain lessened, we dug their last potatoes from the ground.  That was one of the only chances we've had, in this busy growing season, to work alongside and reflect with other farmers. Though our own potatoes were still in the ground back home, it felt good to dig alongside them, sharing conversation and growing thoughts as we worked down the row.

Work Party: Harvesting Soybeans from the Vine.

Here in Montana we have to become experts at pushing plants. Vegetables were not all designed to grow in the conditions we raised them in. We try to shift the odds by purchasing seeds from farms who test their vegetable varieties and grow them with the harsh winters of Vermont, Maine and our own valley. And we push the ends of the seasons in each direction, with early indoor starts in the spring and row covers to ward of the frosts both spring and fall.  

Even the simple act of watering separates our garden plants from the yearly rhythms of the native plants and even the untended pasture grasses outside the fence, which  turned their own shades of late-summer gold and brown when the rains slowed down.  We distracted ourselves a bit from the passing season too, within that lush quarter acre of soft greens, tomatoes, peas, and more. Outside the fence, chokecherries ripened, and the grasshoppers hatched, grew, and disappeared.  It's not that  we did not notice any of the seasonal progressions--we saw the spring Draba come and go to seed, noticed the split dry pods of Lupine when we went hiking.  But we also, like the tomatoes, were taken by surprise by that hard frost and end of the warm growing season. 

Maybe with more years here, we will learn the subtle triggers within the garden that the season was winding down. It takes time to learn the small cues, to put them all together.  Mary's fieldwork in native grasslands was a daily immersion in prairie patterns, but it was a few years in before she could recognize, without analysis, that because the Camas pods were dry and rattling, it was time to check for young seeds forming on the Lemonweed plants.  There are probably subtle signals that we have missed, here.  We've missed other triggers, other clues, maybe even mis-judged how long we'd be able to stay here growing on this patch of land. 

Still, when we take time out to harvest the last of this season or sit in our farmers friend's kitchens after a long day of work, we gather what we can. We  go over our mental notes of this past season - what we noticed, the wild successes (green peas for months on end), the wild failures (ask us sometime about that okra crop), and near misses (see our Sheep Chase story), and all that has got away from us.  We talk about the hard things - the lonesomeness that can come with long days out or other work left off the plate;  gifts from neighbors who lent a hand when we needed it most. Farmers do things differently from a lot of people, and now that we've farmed for a year, raising  food for ourselves and our neighbors, we think differently too. We make our own tools, furniture, fixes and even games.

Whiffle Ball with over-ripened cucumbers. 

When we left the campfire the other night, there was singing.  It's hard to leave in the middle of any story, but as we say, we were farmer-tired, already worried about putting in the chickens, and tending to evening chores.  Even though we have cancelled our own harvest party because we aren't sure where we will farm in the years to come, our calendar is full of harvest parties - a place where secrets are shared, plans are hatched, we eat, and know we can begin next day. 

Harvest Party Songs, County Rail Farm.

Neighboring: Dinner Shares

This week, what we share from our table will also be on a table next door as part of a dinner-exchange we started with some friends who live, as we like to say "one pasture over."  These properties used to be connected by family ties, and the path through the pasture is much shorter than the official way around by road and driveways.  It hasn't taken much to refresh that well-worn path with some neighboring including, lately, passing back and forth with food to share, a couple of nights a week.  

The genesis of this weekly routine came from a point that came up on many visits and meals together: we live with small kitchens with no dishwashers, and we all make a lot of dishes.  It came to a peak one night when we gathered in our small kitchen to put up some food together--a madness of chopping, shredding, and mixing to start kimchee and sauerkraut, feeding literally and figuratively off of the combined energy of two households to get us through a massive pile of produce.

We stopped for a moment in that wild pickling evening to eat dinner together before gearing up for the next step.  As we looked around we had to laugh at the state of the place: cutting boards, knives, and bowls had been shuffled to the coffee table to make room to eat at the kitchen table; buckets and boxes of cabbage, onion, and carrots were piled in the corner of the room.  The kitchen sink was topped over, and each work-station at the counter was carved out of a mountain range of dishes and cooking materials.

Cooperative pickling night with neighbors: a kitchen mess not as far out of the daily realm as you might imagine.  Photo by Noah.

And yet, we all had to admit that while this was completely crazy, it was also just an expansion of the ebb and flow of our daily kitchen work.  We cook from scratch, we cook from the garden, and we get caught up in the excitement of good food.  It does make a lot of good work and good food, of course, but also a lot of dishes.  We realized, as we talked, that cooking for four people makes no more cleanup than cooking for two, and we should really all take advantage of that.  

We decided on an exchange where each household would, on one night of the week, cook for both and deliver extra to the other. It gives us each one evening a week of having only the dishes that we eat off of to wash.   We used some guidelines we'd seen from others doing similar exchanges:  no pressure to make anything fancy, no need to stay and visit if evenings were busy.  If someone has other plans or is out of town on drop-off night, they use it the next day.  It's simple, and yet the knowledge that a meal will be delivered and shared has inspired an occasional extra touch and elevates our own eating just a bit.  It might just be taking a moment to arrange sliced tomatoes or a basil garnish across the top of the pasta or to array the red peppers on a  pizza into a star instead of a random toss. At the surface it's just decoration, but underneath it's also a demonstration of caring, and that makes it special. A care that, we remind ourselves in the midst of busyness, uncertainty and stresses, needs to be both taken and received.  

The exchange started because of dishes, but in a small way it is much more, too.  When we deliver the pan of stuffed summer squash across the pasture, there's a pleasure in the feeling of giving and nurturing, of feeding our friends.  When a dish of steaming rice, greens, and chickpeas arrives at our door at the end of a long day, we sit down to it with gratitude that goes so far beyond not needing to clean the kitchen.  It's gratitude for neighbors, for friends, for caring and being cared for in some small way.  


When food preservation gets serious, even the shop tools may find their way into the home kitchen:  Noah pounds cabbage for sauerkraut with the large mallet.  This will find its way into a shared neighbor meal soon, after weeks of fermenting in the corner by the bookshelf.