On Liminality in Food and Life

Last week, as I made caramels for the first time, I found myself bent almost double over the stove, eyes glued to the mercury in the candy thermometer, utterly concentrated on watching the blue line rise to exactly the right number. Too hot, and the caramels would turn out tooth-wrenchingly hard; not hot enough and they’d stick to the wrappers and be impossible to eat. Turn away for a minute, I was warned, and you might return to find a pan full of scorched sugar. The stakes are high. The sugar bubbles and browns, my brow furrows. I add the butter and cream, the mixture froths and boils, my stomach clenches. 135 . . .140 . . . 145 . . . I rock back on my heels, grope for the bunched kitchen towels from the counter, grasp the hot handles through uneven layers of cotton, hold firmly while the golden brown cascade spreads to fill the papered and oiled pan. I exhale the breath I didn’t know I was holding. I am grinning, absurdly proud of myself for performing this amazing feat of alchemy, skirting pitfalls galore to turn plain cream and butter and sugar into something perfect. Something you can cut into pieces, wrap into little squares of wax paper, and give away to mail carriers, co-workers, family, bring to holiday parties, tuck in a padded envelope and send to friends scattered around far coasts. 

Two days after I made my first (double) batch, I made my second, this time stirring in ground ginger, cinnamon, and garam masala for a warming gingerbread flavor. I’m addicted. This afternoon I’m going to the grocery store for supplies for a few more batches. It’s not that I can’t stop eating them. It’s that I can’t stop making them. There’s something arresting about making this simple candy that comes into being between raw and burnt. Caramels are the delicious incarnation of a liminal state. Thrilling, dangerous, delicious. Liminality (excuse the $10 word), in fact, seems to be the path to my heart/stomach. All of my favorite food are consumed somewhere on the path to rot and decay: stinky, gooey, moldy cheeses, dry-cured meats, fermented vegetables, wine and beer, etc. I could even make the case that in baking bread, you arrest the water+flour+yeast in the perfect moment on the way to yeast+goo+hooch. In fact, every time cook using the Maillard reaction (the most delicious of all chemical reactions), I am looking for a perfectly liminal state. Post-raw, pre-burnt. The broiler is the ultimate weapon in this dance with destruction, a tool to be used as often but attentively as possible. 

Maybe I lean towards hyperbole in these descriptions of everyday kitchen procedures. I should be glad to get my thrills from courting disaster in the kitchen instead of on a motorcycle or jumping out of airplanes. On the other hand, it is hard to deny that in some ways I have been living in a prolonged liminal state for quite a few years now - always on my way, but never there. Becoming a responsible adult, becoming a farmer, keeping myself from swinging too close to the precarious cliffs of insolvency, uninsured ill health, or simple failure in my crazy endeavors. I’m forever looking forward, planning, dreaming, scheming. Sometimes, this translates to energy, momentum, and the general feeling that my own mundane life is somehow dangerous and exciting. And sometimes I’m just sitting in my kitchen, smiling to myself, wrapping caramels, going nowhere, just being. 

On the Allure of Specialization

Maximize efficiency! Maximize profits! Get big or get out! For decades, those first two exhortations led directly to the third, made famous by bumbling 70s USDA boss Earl Butz. Bigger farms, bigger machinery, bigger subsidy checks, bigger debt. Economy of scale! We’ve got to fed the world, and industrial agriculture was the answer. Industrial agriculture is at its core based on one simple principle: to maximize efficiency (and therefore profits), you have to get very good at once specific step in the assembly line that is out modern food system. One farm to birth the calves, another to feed them, another to finish them. Whole swaths of the country planted in alternating corn and soy. Buildings as big as city blocks stuffed with chickens, animals bred and fed to produce meat as quickly and cheaply as possible. You also get forty thousand acres of organic lettuce, millions of overgrazed acres from grass-fed beef, and more huge buildings full of “all-natural” chicken. You find your part of the chain, buy what you need and sell it for pennies more, relying on scale to maximize those pennies into a living. You build your buildings, buy your tractors, and hope you’ll be able to pay off those loans eventually. Maybe you always wanted to grow up to drive a gleaming green tractor, or maybe it’s just a job you fell into because that’s what you do when you’re rich in land and little else. It’s not hard to see how our food system became what it is today, and it’s hard to point fingers at individuals who made these types of decisions along the way. 

The CSA vegetable farmer of today positions herself as a diametric opposite to this industrial model. She knows her customers by name, and they know exactly where their food comes from and how it was grown. She packs her waxed cardboard boxes each week in the summer and fall, and each week her members unpack the box, challenging themselves to use another cabbage, or a whole daikon, or to try and like mustard green this year. She specializes not in one small task, but in a whole experience. She doesn’t grow one thing, she grows 40! But at what cost? At the small scale that most CSAs operate (and too often, fail to operate), this means efficiency goes straight out the window. She’s trying to be an expert in everything - from the actual planting, cultivation, harvest, and processing of dozens of different plants with different needs to marketing and customer service and delivery, and sometimes even accounting and grant writing. She tries to instill a sense of efficiency in herself and her employees, but in the end she’s stuck using a blunt tool for every job. She can’t buy that specialized potato digger when potatoes are just one small piece of her pie, and a relatively low-grossing one at that. She never gets the timing quite right on her greens in the spring, because she’s busy juggling twenty other hot irons. Maybe someday, after fifteen or twenty years of hard work and lessons learned, she’ll have hundreds (or thousands!) of satisfied CSA members, dozens of well-trained employees, a tractor for every job, and a system for every crop. She’ll still be a sparkling alternative to industrial agriculture, working against the odds to create her own well-oiled machine out of whole cloth and cannibalized parts. For some people, this is the goal when they start out with a few dozen shares and a box full of seed packets. In some ways, it certainly is appealing. For others, including myself, this model leaves something to be desired.

As crazy as this might sound, that CSA farmer hasn’t eschewed specialization enough. She grows dozens of different vegetables, but she’s only growing vegetables. Her systems, while edging towards efficiency, are all high-input. Not just in knowledge and labor, but in resources and nutrients. She might be certified organic, but she is in all likelihood relying on composted manure from outside livestock operations, whose practices may or may not align with her ethics. She tries her best to feed the soil, but at the end of the day, she tills her fields at least once per season (more likely three or four times). She delivers waxed-boxed bounty, but her share amounts to less than half a family’s meals for less than half a year. So what’s the alternative to the alternative? An even further step from the common-sense efficiency of industrial agriculture: the diversified farm. 

The most ambitious version of the diversified farm is the year-round whole diet CSA, the very antithesis of the industrial model. In this case, a farm attempts to grow everything a family eats for the entire year: vegetables, fruits, meats, grains, dairy, etc. There are a few examples of whole diet CSAs, the most familiar of which might be Essex Farm in Essex, NY, which was the subject of Kristin Kimball’s memoir The Dirty Life. I was lucky enough last fall to spend a week volunteering at Essex, where I learned the most I’ve ever learned in a week. Most importantly, I learned that growing all the food eaten by 80 families takes a gargantuan effort by a large and dedicated crew week after week. Mark Kimball said himself that by choosing to grow everything, they were never going to be experts in growing any one thing. They have a dedicated crew of young farmers who each head up one aspect of the farm for the season, but with high employee turnover and the obstacles each new season brings, the learning curve is steep. As Kristin writes on the farm’s blog, “the difficult part, as always, is keeping the whole complex machine running without going broke or burning out.” That is bound to be the complication that arises when the inputs that keep a farm running are not chemical, but human. Whether you’re one farmer feeding twenty people on a quarter acre or fifteen feeding five hundred on ninety, the threat of burning out is always nearby, in the foreground or the background. Every CSA farmer works the hardest they’ve ever worked for six months out of the year. On a diversified farm, your livestock have year-round demands, meaning that your winter never tapers off to the comparative hibernation of the vegetable farmer in winter. If you’re trying to supply your members food all year round, you’re always trying to extend your season, perfect your storage, get the scale just right. Nobody wants to spend February eating nothing but cabbage, and there’s no customer that doesn’t require some level of education, whether that’s someone who’s never canned tomatoes or an old-timer who just doesn’t get the appeal of boc choi. 

It sounds so far like I’m advocating for a return to the hard lives that our grandparents worked so hard to supposedly save us from enduring. In a way, that is entirely possible. There’s no escaping the fact that at the end of the day, the sustainable farm endures. I use the word sustainable here not in the buzzy way. I use it to mean the farm (and farmer) that can support itself ecology-wise, nutrient-wise, labor-wise; a farm that can support the farmers, meet the nutritional needs of the customers, all while sustaining a level of animal welfare and soil health that keep everyone on the right side of history. It’s a tall order, and there doesn’t yet seem to be a right way to do it. I think the folks over at Essex have a great thing going, but I’m wondering whether the same thing might be attempted on a much smaller scale. What if you could convince fifteen a dozen or two families to rely on you to supply everything they eat for a year? It’s an intoxicating thought. I think that somewhere in that range is a sweet spot, a scale that would enable one family to live a good (if hardworking) life while feeding a small community the best food one could ask for. Playing with the numbers to find that sweet spot is the grand puzzle, and where you’ll be able to find me all winter, squinting at spreadsheets and multiplying enterprise budgets to come up with a solid business plan. I’ll let you know when I figure out exactly what kind of puzzle I’m trying to solve.

 

Farm Week: October 13, 2014

This was a great rebound week on the farm. The weather held, and we peeled away a few more layers. We sent out the second to last boxes of the season, and we harvested lots of late fall goodies for a local festival this weekend. From the Land is a folk arts, crafts, and agricultural festival held on a nearby farm that draws a loyal crowd from central Wisconsin and beyond. Just as at Harvest Fest, the big hit this weekend were the Brussels sprouts. At least a few dozen people commented that they had no idea sprouts grew on a stalk like that, and even more people were tickled that we were charging by the foot instead of by the pound or by the stalk. On Saturday, we sold so many stalks of Brussels sprouts that our customers were walking billboards walking around the festival. It just goes to show that novelty sometimes does pay off. Even if that novelty is just a desire not to have to take all those sprouts off all those stalks. Sometimes marketing isn’t just about online buzz - a good old-fashioned word of mouth ground-swell does the trick just as well.

Thinking about: branding, clean slates, the “better next year” list

Eating: more arugula salads, more homemade pasta dishes, that thing they do at the fair where they shave a potato into one big pile of ribbons and fry it into a giant pile of chips

Reading: John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van, MOSES’s Guidebook for Organic Certification

Farm Week: October 6, 2014

The light is different. I’m no longer turning away from the sun. It’s lower in the sky, and I’m turning my face up to meet it. This week was further along the countdown to the end of the season. We have two boxes left, and Friday was the last outdoor market in the park in Green Lake. We are slowly peeling off layers just as we’re starting to put them back on. We did the first round of our chicken harvest, and seeing even thirty fewer chickens in the field is a good feeling. Our last pregnant sow of the year (Dot), has been big as a house for weeks. Every day I would go out and do chores and she was bigger and lower and fuller than ever. Every day, it was with disbelief that I reported that no, there was no little pile of pigs out there. Along with the creeping frost and the falling leaves, the ever-ballooning sow contributed to a strange week where time simultaneously sped by and stood still. This week more than most, we had to stop to think about what day it was. Thursday brought the annual organic certification inspection, a five hour process that also contributed to the smearing of the time-space continuum on the farm. The peppers and the tomatoes in the field are wilted and dead. The greenhouse is half empty, planted with some lettuce and awaiting the winter spinach. The sow finally farrowed on Sunday (pictures to come), large enough to feed all eight pigs for years. Time passes. Frost falls, and the sun comes to save us. One of these days, the sun will be too low and the frost will stay. Until then, we’ve got some more harvesting to do. 

Thinking about: paperwork, processes, socks

Eating: homemade Indian eggplant and potatoes and cauliflower with rice; arugula with grated carrot, daikon radish, and apples tossed in a creamy lime sriracha dressing; lentil soup with homemade wheat oregano breadsticks

Reading: Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl, John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van, MOSES’s Guidebook for Organic Certification

Farm Week: September 29, 2014

It was Homecoming week here in Green Lake, and it was a cold and blustery one. All week, we made preparations for the impending killing frost. There were some last harvests from the warm-weather summer staples like peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes. We started to rip out rows of greenhouse tomatoes in preparation for seeding some winter greens. More and more of the growing space is already in cover crops or almost ready to plow under in favor of some cover crops. The pigs are pigging out on the overripe melons and the underripe winter squash. All of our crates are filled with winter vegetables and we’re going to have to get more crates for the second time in a week before we finish the potato harvest. The slate is slowly being wiped clean, and it feels good. As excited as we were for the first tomatoes of the season, the demise of the tomatoes feels just as momentous. My mason jars are filled for winter, and now I just want to be done harvesting them, cleaning them, sorting them, selling them. Our field tomatoes especially are a very visual reminder of our failings earlier in the season, and when we no longer have to pass that mess on the way out to the field, the “better next year” mantra will ring slightly more true. We only have three more boxes to pack, one more Friday market, one more big festival, before things settle down. Well, we keep telling ourselves that things will settle down, but the list of things we’ll finally get down when things settle down is growing rapidly enough to postpone the actually settling down by quite awhile. Whatever that reality may be, the plants themselves are slowing, and the layers are coming back on. It’s a breath of fresh air. 

Thinking about: cold fronts, cold fingers, cold storage

Eating: creamy nettle soup, homemade swiss chard mac and cheese, potato leek soup, taco night with refried homegrown black beans 

Reading: Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl, David James Duncan's The Brothers K

Farm Week: September 22, 2014

We’ve had quite the week of Indian summer this week, enough to finally start ripening outdoor tomatoes and peppers at a reasonable rate. Looking down at the bins of tomatoes we harvested from our outdoor plants, I couldn’t help but feel that we’ve benefitted from some borrowed time. There was a real chance a few weeks ago of a pretty solid frost, so I’m feeling especially grateful for these last two batched of canned sauce. We spent the week mostly harvesting, not only for the CSA boxes but for this weekend’s Harvest Festival. Green Lake loves tourists, and nothing attracts a bunch of tourists like two days full of farm fresh produce, arts and crafts/craps, a parade, a classic car show, and fried cheese curds. Fortunately/unfortunately, our stand full of fresh organic vegetables was situated immediately next to the very popular fried cheese curd stand. We were downwind on Saturday, but fortunately the wind favored us on Sunday, and we didn’t go home smelling like used cooking oil for a second time. We had a few big hits this weekend. Fortuitously, our shiitake logs chose this weekend to send forth the first flush of fruits this fall. We harvested the first of our Brussels sprouts, which we sell right on the stalk. We also brought some really giant kohlrabi, which was eye-catching and conversation-starting at the very least. We sold out of Brussels sprouts three times (I ran back to the farm to harvest more on Sunday morning), and we still had requests all afternoon that we couldn’t fill. All three of these conversation-starters resulted in lots of educational conversations, which resulted in notably fewer sales. Smiling and explaining is part of any market, but the sheer volume of people passing by raised the educational component exponentially. It turns out that people who only stop in the farmers market section to buy cheese curds usually don’t know what a kohlrabi is, that Brussels sprouts grow on stalks, or that you can grow mushrooms. I don’t mind explaining things, but I do wish that more people would feel a little pull to buy something after taking up my time to learn something. The two-day-long market was also a good opportunity to see what really moved product that doesn’t necessarily sell itself. A few observations: little signs labeling bags prevents people from having to feel stupid asking what a beet is, people are less likely to pick out mushrooms from a giant basket than to pick up a quart or a pint of them, and that the old trope location location location really rings true on a market table. 

Finally, some very exciting news on the Future Farm front, in which my uncle Paul has used a sweet new tractor implement to open up the first few small fields. They’re far away from the farmhouse, down at the end of an old horse pasture, so they’ll be for growing crops that are not favored but he omnipresent grazing deer, like onions, garlic, winter squash, dried beans, and eventually even potatoes. They’re a hundred feet long and 5-6 beds wide. We laid out the terraces last weekend, and he send me this picture taken from the road after he finished tilling the three parcels for the first time:

Photo courtesy Paul C.

Thinking about: variety, salesmanship, farm dogs

Eating: bacon kale quiche, homemade spaghetti bolognese, tiny testing tastes of canned sauces

Reading: David James Duncan's The Brothers K, Ron Macher’s Making Your Small Farm Profitable, Eliot Coleman’s Four-Season Harvest

Farm Week: September 15, 2014

It’s been an exciting week here in the life! The weather once again swung from bundling up to stripping down, and our crops mostly seem to be taking it in stride. The deer seem to have gotten hungrier all of the sudden, and we’ve faced a bit of a full frontal attack. They’ve chomped down a few dozen brussels sprouts, carrot tops, beet tops, and kale. So far we can absorb that loss, but we’re definitely turning back on the electric fencing between the growing space and the woods. We also harvested our honey on Friday afternoon, which was fun, if a little messy. In preparing to harvest, I went out by myself earlier in the week to check on them and realized that while I could take a full (50lb) box of honey and bees off the shoulder-height stack, lifting it back on was a different story! Definitely something to think about when deciding which method to use to keep bees on my farm.

Speaking of my farm, I had a very productive (though short) visit down to the “Future Farm” this weekend. In preparation for opening up some ground, my uncle Paul and I flagged and mowed some contoured strips in the old horse pasture. I think they look great, and I’m excited to see what they’ll look like when the ground is turned over. It will be a great start for next year, and I left on Sunday evening feeling energized and excited about what’s happening. For as much as I think about what I want to do, I still have lots of planning left ahead of me!

Thinking about: water flow, deer pressure, specifics

Eating: homemade black bean and sweet potato chili with chicken and brown rice, the most delicious sourdough crust wood fired pizzas in Wisconsin

Reading: David James Duncan's The Brothers K, Ron Macher’s Making Your Small Farm Profitable, Eliot Coleman’s Four-Season Harvest