food writing

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.

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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.

IFBC: When The Universe screams in your ear, you better listen.

When I headed to Seattle for the International Food Bloggers Conference (IFBC), I expected to be educated. I expected to eat some great food. I expected to try some interesting wines. What took me by surprise was the validation.

I know, I know, that sounds just a teensy bit melodramatic. Validation? Really, Jordan?

Hear me out. Let’s recap what happened in the weeks leading up to this trip. I said, out loud, that I wanted to quit my corporate gig and go work in food for real. I did the first thing, and got a job that fulfills the second thing. I said I wanted more time to focus on school and the blog. The new job gives me that. I’ve also had the chance to work with and talk to some really great local chefs over the past month or so. Once I made the decision to finally follow my bliss, The Universe answered.

And then I went to IFBC. I had the sessions I wanted to attend all mapped out, and then I ended up going to completely different ones that turned out to be exactly where I needed to be, hearing speakers that so loudly echoed all of my most recent decisions that I had no choice but to pay attention. Two sessions really spoke to me on a pretty personal level.

It started right off the bat with the Keynote from Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, authors of The Flavor Bible and the soon to be released Vegetarian Flavor Bible.

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If you  had been watching the IFBC tag on twitter, you’d have seen the same quote tweeted out from nearly everyone in the room at once:

“Being a good writer has to do with living an authentic life.”

Seems like that message hit close to home for a lot of us. Page and Dornenburg encouraged us all to follow our chosen path regardless of how popular/unpopular it might be, and to keep walking it no matter how many times we fall or get pushed down. They showed us samples from rejection letters they received from publishers telling them that their first book idea was too narrow, and wouldn’t reach a large enough audience to be marketable. They kept trying, and eventually they got that book deal. Needless to say, that book (Becoming a Chef) sold well, and won a James Beard Award.

They also encouraged us to taste everything. Every taste, every texture, every smell goes into our taste memory, ready to be called up, “like a song in a jukebox.”

The next big food trend? Vegetables! More and more people are moving to a plant based diet, and chefs are paying attention. They’re treating veggies like meat– braising, smoking, grilling, and curing them, just like they would meat. For vegetarians and vegans that’s good news, especially when they go out to eat. They won’t get stuck with some boring rice and veggie skewer dinner. It’s also pretty great news for us omnivores, because it means that we can order veggie based dinners and get the same kind of satisfaction that we’d get from one with meat as the main event.

They closed out their session by reminding us how powerful we can be as food writers, and leaving us with an important question, one that’s really got me thinking, “What kind of world do you want to create with this power?”

Joe Yonan, Food & Travel editor for The Washington Post, was another speaker whose message resonated with me. His story, one that started with a confluence of not so wonderful events, led him to make some big changes in his life and his approach to writing.

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He took a year off from the paper to write a book and spend time working on his sister and brother-in-law’s homestead in Maine. He spent mornings working on the farm, doing just one task at a time. It was difficult at first, he said, to focus on “uni-tasking,” and to avoid the temptation to constantly check his phone. But over time, he found that he began to enjoy the opportunity to focus, and when he set out each afternoon to work on the book his head was clearer.

I really loved his sense of humor. While telling us about his obsession with keeping the chicken coop clean, he likened it to “being a Lilliputian in the world’s biggest catbox.”

Well, maybe you had to be there. 🙂

When he went back to work, he continued making changes, and decisions, that helped him keep his perspective. He encouraged us all to think about the changes we can make to keep ourselves happy and passionate about what we’re doing, to give ourselves time away from the craziness (whatever that craziness is for us), to pick a day to unplug from all our technology and just be in the moment, and to learn new things by doing, not just by reading about it or watching a video about it.

I feel like there was so much more covered, but I’m still ruminating over all of it and trying to figure out how to apply all of this great advice. I’ve already picked Sunday as my “unplug” day. I’ve never considered myself a social media addict, but as a food blogger every time I’m around food, or someone cooking, or the farmer’s market, or a hundred other places, out comes the phone so I can take a picture and try to turn it into a writing opportunity. I feel like much of what I heard over the weekend said, “Don’t force it. Be yourself and there will be plenty to write about.”