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.  

Friday Photo: Unwrapping Corn

This Friday, we join Amanda Soule in the tradition of {this moment}.  As she describes it: "A Friday ritual. A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment I want to pause, savor and remember. If you're inspired to do the same, leave a link to your 'moment' in the comments for all to find and see." 

Plants we Love: Delicata Squash

In our garden, Delicata Squash have a special nickname.  Though they are one of our favorite varieties of winter squash, we refer to them mostly as "unauthorized cucurbita." Some plants we love for their flavor, their easy growth, heavy yields, or their striking colors.  The Delicata has all that.  But some plants we also love for the story they carry of their origin, or our personal discovery of them. The unauthorized cucurbita is one of those, with a history special to us.  

When we were first courting, I was teaching at a small college in Oregon, and Noah was  working in a wide range of places in Asia and Africa, based out of Malaysia.  It's not easy to woo someone from several continents away, but we managed, exchanging long and involved letters by email for months.  The first tangible letter came in a mysterious package Noah mailed between assignments when back at his home base in Kuala Lumpur. He'd alluded to something coming in the real mail in the electronic letters, but I had no idea what to expect.  The box, when it arrived, released a potent mix of exotic smells into the air of my Oregon porch:  cloves from Madagascar, farm-cured vanilla beans, coffee from Tanzania. All were carefully labelled in plastic bags with the bright yellow tape I now know also marks all Noah's photo gear. Deep inside the box was one very official and cryptic sheet of paper with the US customs stamp and a record of one confiscated item, listed as "Unauthorized Propagative Material: Cucurbita spp."  I am enough of a botanist to know that must mean seeds of something in the genus Cucurbita.  But that includes melons, cucumbers, and a whole host of varieties of squash and gourds. I wondered what special exotic forest-edge seeds he might have tried to send, and what their fate was at the US border.  

It turned out that in fact they were nothing so exotic, and of all the things in that package, the only one that actually originated in the US.  Knowing that spring was coming in the Pacific Northwest, he'd enclosed a packet of seeds he'd received while filming a farmer training class put on by friends in Wisconsin:  Delicata Squash seeds officially grown, packaged, and labeled by High Mowing Seeds, with a USDA stamp. They were certainly the most official and approved item in that box, but the only one held up at the border. 

Luckily, on returning to the US later that spring, Noah brought another packet to replace them, and I planted them in the small garden of my new Forest Grove home.  With such a history, and a tendency toward metaphor, I kept an extra careful eye on those plants as they grew in the raised bed garden that summer: a slow start, one seedling eaten by slugs, a bout of powdery mildew.  But they grew right through all of that, through tough clay soil and no small number of weeds. Through some smokey hot August days and into the drizzling Oregon fall.  By the time Noah moved permanently back to the US and joined me in the above-garage apartment we referred to as The Treehouse, we had an impressive basketful of striped oblong "unauthorized cucurbita" fruits: the first Delicata harvest.  

This year, we planted an entire 100-square foot bed of them, covering them with protective cloth through early and late season frosts, still with a watchful eye.  They produced at least 100 pounds, and we have entered full squash-eating season with delight.  They are one of the best squash for simply cutting in half and baking in the oven, then eating with butter and salt, a dash of pesto, or cheese, or maple syrup, depending on your squash-eating inclinations.  You might not expect romance in a winter squash. I never did.  But it's the surprises in the garden and the growing that are the best gifts. 


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.