Travel

My Life as a Farmhand

I had a conversation recently with a good friend about relationships, and about how, be they platonic, familial, or romantic, the best way to go into them is asking, “What can I give?” vs. “What do I want?” You guys, I’m in a relationship with this farm, and that very bit of wisdom is what’s driving my experience here. Life as a farmhand has been a quite the gut check.

My job here is to steward things growing from the earth so they can feed people. If you think for one minute that means I’m in any way in charge– Mother Nature has some news for you. Come to this work looking for her to stroke your ego and make you feel important, and I’ve got a sense that you’ll walk away aching and disappointed. Join her cycle, ready to follow her lead, and, well, life as a farmhand becomes a whole different thing altogether.

Life as a farmhand is straightforward, and satisfying. The goalpost is constantly moving, but somehow, you don’t mind. Pull the weeds. Trim the vines.

The farm manager points, you go and do it. Cover the squash. There’s a beetle that likes to attack young squash plants. In their infancy, the beetles appetites are dangerous and destructive, and so we cover the plants with screening  that allows in sun and water, but somehow, keeps out the beetles. Killing the beetle is counterproductive, because later, after the plants get bigger and start to flower, that same beetle becomes a key pollinator–a vital part of the process. So, we temporarily deny them their favorite meal, only to reward them with full access later, when they have a job to do.

Life as a farmhand is delicious. With access to so much food, just steps outside your front door, there’s no end to what a curious and creative set of hands can create. If this farm isn’t growing it, chances are, the one just up the road will be. Farmer’s markets and roadside stands are full of first of the season this and end of the season that, and bumper crops of so much beautiful produce, it’s hard to know where to start. Admittedly, you may be too tired most days to vary the post-work meal routine very much. (For the first week or so, until my body got used to this new rhythm, the best I could do was some variation of black beans and whatever extra greens we’d brought in from harvest day, cooked together and eaten out of the same heavy, white bowl, with the same spoon, every afternoon.) Soon, though, you realize that the extra effort of really thinking it through rewards you with a sweet combination of satiety, pride, and restoration that becomes the answer to the question, “How will I get up and do it all again tomorrow?”

You think I’m speaking in hyperbole, but I don’t think I am. Those of you who’ve experienced the pleasure of eating what you’ve grown will get it, I believe.

Life as a farmhand is not romantic. If that’s the picture I’ve painted for you thus far, let me use this opportunity to correct that.

Life as a farmhand is dirty. There’s no escaping that. Everything you touch will be, is, or was once rooted to the earth. In order to tend to it, you have to be right there with it, touching the soil as you touch the plant. There are tools you will use, for sure, but as in cooking, also in farming– your best tools are your hands. From pulling out those tiny weeds by hand that want to snuggle right up to your plants, to sorting the rocks and uglies out of beans, to picking and washing fresh greens, to thinning the thick, ropy grape vines that grow what feels like a foot a week up in the vineyards, your hands are what get the work done. When you come back in from a day’s work, there’s dirt under your nails, in the hair not covered by a hat, and most certainly, on your clothes. Some days, your shower feels less like bathing and more like excavation.

Life as a farmhand is hard. I’ll admit, I’m not the smartest about my choice of clothing. I wear short sleeves, which, despite the use of sunscreen, leaves my arms to the mercy of the burn/tan/peel cycle the likes of which would probably cause any dermatologist to shiver in horror. I’m learning (after nearly passing out from dehydration one afternoon) that there’s no such thing as too much water while doing fieldwork. I’m learning that taking the extra ten minutes in the morning to run through a few simple stretches can mean the difference between counting the minutes and wishing I was dead around 9am, into my third hour of weeding… or being able to get into a rhythm that makes the time fly and the sound of Juan, the farm manager, whistling along to his Mexican radio station be the thing that lets my body and soul work together to get the job done. I’ve discovered the importance of a hat– for keeping the sun off my face, to catch the sweat coming from the top of my head, and to pull off and fan myself if the breeze isn’t breezy enough for my liking.

Life as a farmhand is good. I’m enjoying it so much more than I ever thought I would, and now that I’ve had this taste of it, I feel like my soul will constantly be tapping me on the shoulder, reminding me of this work.

Farmin’ Ain’t Easy

If you haven’t been following along on my Instagram (and really, why haven’t you?), then you may not know that last week, my little 2002 Honda Civic (which I’ve started to lovingly refer to as “The Tardis” because I’ve managed to cram an impossible amount of stuff in there and still be able to lay my seat back to sleep) and I made our way back to Oregon for an almost month-long stay at Dunbar Farms, a small, family owned, organic farm in Medford. I found the opportunity through WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), and, after a few phone calls, submitting my resume and waiting for references to be checked, I was invited to come out and get my hands in the dirt. And boy, have I.

I might not be a farmer, yet. In fact, I know I’m not. I get days off. I sometimes get to sleep in. If I don’t feel well, I can text my boss (the actual farmer) and let him know I’ll join the crew at 9am instead of 630am. An actual farmer gets to do none of those things. This farm is a living thing, and it doesn’t take, or give, a day off. Not really.

That’s one of the things I’ve learned. People don’t farm like this (organic, sustainable, in the rhythm that nature sets) because they want to become rich, or famous, or powerful. They do it because it’s in their DNA. I’ll tell you more about the folks who run Dunbar Farms in a future post, but suffice it to say, this beautiful spot in Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley is a labor of love.

Mondays and Fridays here are harvest days, so they’re our busiest, longest days. We get to work harvesting at 630 in the morning. On Monday, we’re fulfilling wholesale orders for local restaurants and other commercial customers. On Friday, we handle CSA orders. On either, or both of those days, we’re also stocking the farm’s “honor barn.” They have a farm stand on the property, which carries everything from greens, to flours made from the farm’s wheat and corn, to dried beans and popcorn. It’s open 24/7, so locals can stop by at their convenience, grab what they need, and leave cash or a check in the cash box up front. On their honor. It’s amazing and kinda beautiful that it works out that way.

After we harvest, we bring everything back to the clean room to be washed, dried, bagged, weighed, and labeled. Commercial orders are delivered on Tuesdays. CSA orders are picked up Friday afternoon, and customers are encouraged to stay for a minute and enjoy a glass of wine, also made here at Dunbar under the Rocky Knoll label.

On the other days, we do things like thinning the carrot patch, which involves laying down at ground level so we can get up close and personal with the soil to thin out carrot starts and pull the tiniest of weeds before they have a chance to lay down a root system that could choke off the main crop; or pulling last year’s left over potato sprouts (and more weeds) out of this year’s onion fields.

It’s hard work, but not too hard, and quite honestly, pretty satisfying.

As I mentioned, Dunbar Farms grows beans, among other things, and one of the first things I got my hands on to cook was some of their black beans. I know black bean soup isn’t revolutionary, but I wanted to share the recipe I used to make the version that’s been serving as the main part of my dinner almost every night since I got here. It’s super easy, requires only a handful of budget friendly ingredients, and, paired with a pile of lightly dressed greens, serves as a pretty great post-harvest day supper. This recipe makes about four servings.

Equipment:
4 qt sauce pot
Knife and cutting board
Measuring cups
Stick blender, stand blender, or hand masher, whichever is available
Spoon for stirring

Ingredients:
1 1/2 cups dried black beans, soaked in water overnight, drained
1/2 a large white or yellow onion, chopped
2 medium carrots, chopped
2-3 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
4-6 sprigs fresh thyme
1/4 cup of your favorite salsa
Salt, pepper, and any other seasoning you’d like, to taste

Cook the beans, onions, carrots, garlic, and thyme with enough water to cover by about 2 inches at a low boil for about an hour, or until the beans are cooked through. You may need to add a bit more water over the course of the cooking time to ensure the pot does not boil dry.

Pull out the thyme stems and discard. Reserve one cup of the cooked beans and veggies if you like to keep a little texture in your soup, like I do. If you’re using a stick blender, you can puree remaining beans and veg with the liquid right there in the pot. If you’re using a mixer, blend the remaining beans/veg/liquid in two batches until it reaches your desired consistency. If you’re using a masher, just mash away until, again, it reaches the consistency you like. You can add a little more water or some veggie stock as needed at any point to thin out the soup to your liking.

Add the reserved beans/veggies back into the pureed soup at this point, as well as the 1/4 cup of salsa, then season as you wish. We didn’t have much in the kitchen when I got here, but the tomatillo salsa I used provided a lot of great flavor so other than salt, mine didn’t need much. Cumin, chile powder, and/or fresh jalapeno would be nice additions, as well.

This soup holds well as leftovers, although it will thicken up in the fridge. At that point, you can pretend it’s bean hummus and eat it with pita or chips, or add more liquid to soup it up again.

Enjoy!

Kitchen Tech Saturday: My Kitchen

Hi folks!

Today’s Kitchen Tech Saturday is a little different. Today, I’m talking to you about a web page that doesn’t specifically have anything to do with food, or cooking, or food policy. It’s my Patreon page, and it’s a tool I’ve added to my toolbox to help hold me accountable for my consistency (or lack thereof, thus far).

I’ll tell you more about Patreon in a minute. But first, a little update on what’s going on with me.

I’ve been in Chicago since the end of February. I’ve been working part time to pay the bills, cooking as often as I can, and trying to get out into the world to experience the food culture of this Windy City, but not everything has gone exactly according to plan. Chicago is expensive, and I actually live pretty far outside of Chicago proper (25 miles from the nearest park and ride train station), so getting into and out of the city as much as I’d like has been prohibited by the cost of just… doing it. In other words, I can pay my bills, but not much else.

My time here in Chicago is coming to an end. I head back to Colorado for a week on April 30th, then onto the next adventure, hopefully somewhere in the Pacific Northwest or Northern California. I’ll be doing it all on a shoestring, and quite honestly, I’m not sure the money is going to stretch as far as I want the journey to go.  I’ve come to realize that if I want this blog to become the multi-media, multi-platform COMMUNITY that I’ve envisioned, I’m going to have to put more into it than just the extra $20 bucks I scrounge up here and there.

Enter, Patreon. It’s a website where creators of all types can invite micro-investors to be patrons of the work they’re doing. And when I say micro-investors, I’m talking… as low as $1 a month. How can $1 a month possibly help? Well, if 20 people invest $1 per month, I can create two recipe based blog posts that month. If another 10 people invest $10 per month, I can create two blog posts each week, PLUS be able to produce additional food policy, food activism, or food system related content for the blog and social media. I am very good at making dollars stretch, and those dollars… trust me, they add up.

Why Patreon? Because I want those who support me to be a reflection of the values of this blog. I have been approached with opportunities to do sponsored posts for products and to start running banner ads on my site. But… the products involved were not ones I believe in. They were made with ingredients that are harmful, and/or with processes that create damage to our bodies and/or our environment. I would not be able to control the advertisers promoted in the banner ads, and there are definitely companies whose values don’t align with what this blog is about.

Utilizing the Patreon platform requires a huge amount of trust… from both sides. I have to trust that my patrons will continue to support my work, as long as I continue to produce it. My patrons have to trust that I will consistently provide them with content that is relevant, informative, educational, and entertaining.

This is way bigger than fund-raising. This is me, setting a powerful intention to continue to create, come hell or high water, every week. This is me saying, “You can count on me.” This is you, saying, “You do the work, and I’ll continue to invest in content I enjoy and appreciate.”

It’s not easy to ask for… anything. I have friends who have built successful networks that support and promote their work, and I’ve always wondered what sort of magic it takes to put yourself out there like that. And then, of course, I realized there’s no magic. You just have to put yourself out there. Yes, like that.

I’ve built some more immediate rewards into the investment tiers… things such as the opportunity to more directly influence the development of content, exclusive access to patrons-only content, and personalized video walk-throughs. Notice something? All of those rewards require me to make content. I literally cannot stop creating without breaking our trust, and I’m not about to do that.

I have a big vision for what I’m Gonna Cook That! can be, and you’re a part of that.

Please click here to join me in building that future.

Inspiration Kitchens

It’s a busy morning in the Inspiration Kitchens classroom kitchen. As chef instructor Jay Bliznick walks the class through its first assignment, a basic French bread, his students begin reading through and writing down the recipe. This morning they’ll not only make bread, but also learn the process for making pate choux dough, bake several dozen chocolate chip cookies, roast chickens for chicken salad, learn how to break down a whole fish, then turn THAT into a lesson on en papillote cooking.

He encourages them all to read every recipe at least three times before they even start gathering their mise en place, to make sure they’re clear on each step. That’s a good kitchen tip for every cook, but for these chefs-in-training, it’s just one of the building blocks in a foundation of professional kitchen habits—sanitation, communication, kitchen safety—the Inspiration Kitchens program aims to instill in its students.

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Inspiration Kitchens was founded as Inspiration Corporation by a former Chicago police officer, Lisa Nigro. It started in 1989 as your basic food distribution project—handing out sandwiches and coffee to Chicago’s homeless men and women. From there, it blossomed into a program that not only gives students who have experienced homelessness, addiction, and poverty a set of professional skills intended to help them improve their circumstances, but also the social services required to set them up for success in the program, and beyond.

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The 13-week course, which includes both classroom and on-the-job training through Inspiration Kitchens’ restaurant and catering service, is free to students, but this is not a hand out. There’s a big commitment required from both sides for the process to work. Inspiration Kitchens provides the training, tools and equipment, help with transportation costs, and job placement assistance; students have to show up to class on time every time, which means they need to make sure obstacles at home, such as childcare or other family comittments, are buttoned up before they start the program. As a result, some students have had to leave the program and come back a time or two before achieving completion. The payoff for all their focus and determination can be big, though. Many students leave the program with jobs in some of Chicago’s best kitchens waiting for them.

Student Erica Payne, who grew up on Chicago’s West Side, started the program in December and is close to graduation. She eventually wants to own her own bakery, making sales through a website vs. a traditional brick and mortar operation. But, she knows for that dream to become a reality she has to stick to the plan she, Chef Jay, and her counselor have worked out. So what’s next for her? More training.

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“Inspiration Kitchens is a great jumping off point. We learn the basics… They’ve suggested I go to the French Pastry Institute. They think I would do well there. Then, I want to buy some property…maybe travel before I settle down and start my business.”

Chef Jay acknowledges that for students like Erica, who came into the program with their passion already well developed, Inspiration Kitchens isn’t so much lighting a fire as it is helping to keep the flame burning through all the hard work, “They have a passion for food… they’ve led themselves to the opportunity.”

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However, it’s the students who have come into the program without a clear idea of an end result that Chef Jay sees as the most exciting challenge, “Those are the ones who I want to thrive. I want them to be able to taste something they’ve never tasted for the first time…My challenge is to try to bring out the passion that maybe has lie dormant, or maybe they didn’t even know they had.”

Inspiration Kitchens is located at 3504 West Lake Street in Chicago, near the Garfield Park Green Line stop. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday; Brunch and Dinner on Saturday; and for Sunday Brunch. Reservations can be made through the website. Full service catering is available for corporate events, private parties, and weddings, with event space available on site.

Giving back in the Lone Star State

Hi all!

I’m in Arkansas now. Visiting friends and looking for my next volunteer opportunity. I spent a week and a half with family in Northeast Texas, and while I was there, I got the chance to help MasterKey Ministries distribute fresh fruits and veggies to over 100 families in Grayson County, Texas.

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Every Friday, MasterKey receives a truck full of produce from the North Texas Food Bank. Volunteers rush to get boxes off the truck as quickly as possible so they can start sorting and dividing it for the two hour pick up window.

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Last Saturday, folks showed up hours before our scheduled 10am start time. By the time I arrived, cars were lined up down the street for several blocks.

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I got the chance to chat with organizer Crystal Brooks, who told me that while MasterKey has only been doing these Friday morning events since the beginning of the year, they opened their food assistance program in 2014 and their “everyone is family” approach has been a part of their mission since day one. On Saturdays, Brooks helps run a “clients choice” food pantry, where Sherman residents who meet the income qualifications can walk right into the pantry and take what they need for the week. They’re greeted by name, escorted back, and given the freedom to shop just as they would at the grocery store. That’s a unique experience for most clients, and one MasterKey is committed to continuing to provide, no matter how big their client list grows.

Along with food assistance, MasterKey also offers an after school program; adult education programs like ESL, GED prep, and Citizenship courses; as well as summer learning programs to help kids maintain their “educational edge” while they’re out of school over break.

I’m so glad I got to help out last Friday. The group of volunteers, some new and some who had a few Fridays under their belts, were so warm and welcoming. What also really made me happy was that so many of the volunteers brought their kids along, and those kids hopped right in, helping us sort oranges and break down bags of carrots and potatoes, without hesitation.

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I personally believe this kind of volunteerism is such a privilege, and knowing that these kids are starting to recognize that early is, well, not to be too cheesy, pretty damn heartwarming.