IF THOSE WHO COULD, WOULD: the soul-nurturing joys of buying locally

Emma Acres produce

Lord, how I wish my father had lived long enough to experience the whole pasture-raised, grass-fed, know-your-farmer movement.  Ralph Neely was a man who knew good meat, knowledge nurtured in the family-owned butcher shops he sought out and supported in big cities like Cleveland and small towns like Stockbridge, Michigan.

Memories of my dad spring to mind unbidden after an hour spent touring Emma Acres and buying meat  from farmer Mark Skowronksi.  Emma Acres is located at 9221 Waters Rd. a mile west of Parker Rd. in Washtenaw County.  If you’re headed west on Waters and come to the one lane bridge you’ve just passed it on the left.  There’s not much of a website yet – Mark and his wife no doubt too busy farming – but they are on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/#!/emmaacres.farm .

One could not be more gracious than Mark and his young daughter Emerson but Emma the Farm Dog tried.  Emma insisted that Daisy the Terrier  – who accompanied me to the farm along with her brother, Casey the Shih Tzu  – join her on a never-ending series of full-speed gallops around the 80-acre property.

I was amazed when eventually Casey, who most emphatically does NOT socialize with other dogs and descends from ancestors bred to do nothing more than sit by an Emperor’s throne and appear aloof, was won over by Emma’s insistent hospitality and climbed out of the truck to grace the others with his imperial presence.

I bought an assortment of pastured broilers, lamb and pork along with smoked kielbasa and chorizo.  Mark raises two breeds of pigs, although he’s moving toward raising only the heritage breed known as Large Black Hogs; that really is the breed’s name!  I was scared when Daisy the Terrier followed Emma the Farm Dog into the hog pen  – didn’t Anthony Hopkin’s character feed someone to the hogs in “Hannibal”? – but everything turned out alright.  Take a look at the Large Black Hogs from Emma Acres and a scene from a Concentrated Animal Feed Operations (CAFO)somewhere in our nation’s heartland.  Which pork would you rather eat?

Hogs finished off in a CAFO, coming to a grocery store near you soon.

The night after my visit Linda and I had our best meal of the fall: a Emma Acres broiler with tiny Brussels Sprouts purchased at the Farmers’ Market and fingerling potatoes dug up at White Lotus Farms before they closed for the season.  http://www.whitelotusfarms.com/

Not everyone can afford to buy everything locally; Emma Acres meat prices are on par with Whole Foods prices.   For reasons of taste, the environment and the nurturing of my soul  I think my purchase was a bargain but I’ll guarantee you I wasn’t laying out $4.25 a pound for chicken when my kids were young and eating everything in sight.  Similarly there are consumers on fixed incomes or who are not mobile enough to visit farmers’ markets or places like Emma Acres.

But I’m convinced we could make a tremendous change in the safety of our food supply and the health of our nation if those who could, would.

Emma the Farm Dog, the Hostess with the Mostess, watching over her flock by night.

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AND A NEW LIFE IS GONNA’ BE MINE (Thank you, Marshall Tucker Band; haven’t heard that song in ages)

Back in the summer of 1977 my former father-in-law told me there’s nothing really difficult about business.  George knew business and his words stuck with me.

“You’ve got an apple tree in your backyard, see, and you need to sell the apples you grow for more than it cost you to grow them.  That’s all there is to it.”

I recall these words at a time when I need to make changes in my employment.  I manage the wine, beer and liquor departments for a large, upscale retail store.  I am very good at what I do, overseeing consistent sales growth and profits, introducing successful new products and charming the heck out of a whole lot of satisfied, repeat customers.

The problem is I no longer drink.  Wine was once my passion and I held my own discussing – and consuming – beer and liquor.  But I no longer drink.  Let that statement suffice for now.

“So what?” you ask.  “You don’t need to drink booze in order to sell it.”

“Fair enough,” I respond, “but I am likely to work another ten years and I need to have at least some passion for what I do.  Sure, I’ve got enough knowledge stored up to fake it for a decade but it would be kinder if you would just shoot me now.  Thank you in advance and please don’t lose a minute’s sleep over this; you’re doing me a huge favor.”

“Are there no opportunities for promotion within the company you currently work for, something that doesn’t involve booze?”

“Maybe, but it seems that when one reaches a certain age he or she is pigeon-holed.  Employers appear to think older employees are heading placidly for the warm milking barn that was once a comfortable retirement rather than still striving for the top.  I hear this from my co-workers and observe it myself.  One day we show up to find one of our younger colleagues promoted and we never knew there was an opening.”

“Now that’s kind of ironic,” you smugly proclaim, “a Baby Boomer whining about a lack of opportunity.  You guys have been calling the shots for a couple of decades.”

“That’s fair, too.  But there’s been a fundamental shift since the crash of 2008.  You’ve now got educated Baby Boomers competing for lower-paying jobs previously held by younger, dare I say uneducated, workers.  It will be the wise employer who acknowledges this change and takes advantage of it.  An employee who once dreamed of fishing in Florida next winter might now give an employer 5 – 10 additional years of inspired, dedicated employment . . . I see you’re getting angry; what’s wrong?”

“All hail the pampered Baby Boomers; is that it?  You’ve had your way forever and now you want to hold back Generations X, Y and Z?”

“I can see how it might look that way but you’ll just have to take my word for the fact that I’m well-intentioned while I muddle through this predicament. Throw ‘em all in together and let the cream rise, that’s what I advocate.  If a 27-year-old kicks my butt all power to him or her, but give me a chance to win, too.”

“OK, OK . . . Jesus, my head’s about to explode.  Weren’t you talking about growing apples or some damn thing?  What was that all about?”

“Thanks for bringing me back on point.  In my perfect world I’d have a small, successful business of my own.”

“What’s holding you back?”

“Nothing.  I mean, I don’t have money for a large capital investment or the technical knowledge to implement a stunning breakthrough in engineering, but it occurs to me I ought to be able to sell an apple for more than it cost me to grow it.”

“You want to sell apples?”

“Stop being so literal, for crying out loud!  That’s one of the problems with your generation.”

“OK, OK . . . what, then?”

“I’ve been in business for myself in the past and have come to accept my strengths and weaknesses.  I’m a good general manager and creative as all-get-out.  I’m not good at keeping track of how much it costs to grow an apple.”

“How are you going to get around that?”

“I’m not sure yet.  I’m still in the early innings with this whole thing.”

“If not apples, then what?”

“Maybe tee-shirts.”

“Tee-shirts, you say?  Why tee-shirts?”

“What could be less technical?  What simpler business model than well-made tee-shirts with catchy slogans selling for 20% more than they cost to produce?  I think I can turn a $16 tee-shirt into $19.99 plus shipping and handling all day long.  Heck, that’s 25%.”

“I hate to admit it but you just might have something there.  People like those damn tee-shirts; don’t they?  You know, I saw one the other day that said . . . “

Check out the Marshall Tucker Band performing ‘A New Life’ from 1974 here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zWqPwVmXOJg

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EAT WHAT I SAY, NOT WHAT I ATE: Recipes and Culinary Survival Strategies of my Youth

Two more links of ring bologna and we've got the Olympic symbol, or turn it upside down for a ring bologna heart!

At any given time I’ve got several ideas for a book floating around my mind.  Recently I’ve been trying to flesh out a book of recipes and observations centered around what those of us growing up as white, middle-class baby boomers ate from roughly 1955 – 1975, the first 20 years of my life.

 A good working title is “Eat What I Say, Not What I Ate: Recipes and Culinary Survival Strategies of My Youth”.  Yes, I know it’s too long; that’s why it’s called a ‘working title’.

Green salads were a wedge of iceburg lettuce covered with Thousand Island or French dressing, Blue (not Bleu) Cheese being too expensive in my home.  Romaine lettuce existed only in fancy restaurants as part of a Caesar Salad and mixed greens were still somewhere over the culinary horizon.  Chicory was occasionally found in fancy coffee and maybe our Italian neighbors knew about arugula but we surely did not.

Jello – and I know I’m supposed to write Jell-O® or gelatin but the hell with it – made up a whole salad classification which no longer exists.  Plain Jello, Jello surrounding cut up fruit from a can (pears being my favorite), and  Jello somehow blended with Cool Whip for holidays.

A holiday dish containing three major food groups: Jello, canned peaches and Cool Whip.

Jello, I’m convinced, was a key component of the white middle class’s culinary and financial survival strategy.  In my household we weren’t rich and during significant stretches were closer to lower- than to upper-middle class status.  Jello was cheap, it looked nice, kids would eat it.  What more could any parent ask for?

Cholesterol concerns?  Nah; at least not until the end of that era.  Ring Bologna and Calves Liver were served regularly and just as filling as more expensive meat dishes.  I hated calves liver but always had to try at least a few bites – drowning it in catsup increased its tolerability – and now I’ll occasionally order it when out to dinner.  Go figure.  Parents cared a lot less about whether or not their kids liked a particular dish in those days, the operative philosophy being something like, “Here’s some food; don’t eat it if you don’t want to but that’s all there is.”  We usually ate enough to get through the night – there was always Jello – and our parents weren’t heartless: dads were known to look the other way while moms slipped us a small bowl of cereal or a piece of peanut butter toast before bedtime on Calves Liver Night.

Finally there was the casserole, another largely-disappeared food group now found almost solely at church potlucks.  Provided by the blue-haired widows of the congregation, there is the very real danger that the casserole recipes of my youth will be lost forever once my parents’ generation is gone.

Let us sing the praises of the casserole.  Casseroles are the perfect vehicle for using left-overs; indeed, casseroles can stretch left-overs into even more left-overs.  Casseroles are inexpensive, an important middle-class culinary survival strategy.

Most importantly, casseroles provided the balanced nutrition so vital to our intellectual and physical development.  I still marvel that one dish could provide so many servings from the basic food groups: 1 can Campbell’s Mushroom Soup (Sodium), 2 cups cubed Velveeta (Saturated Fats), French’s Shoe String Potato Sticks (Hydrogenated Oils), etc.

There was often no telling what lay beneath a casserole's cheesy exterior.

I could go on about the cuisine of my youth, but now I’d like to hear from my readers . . . both of them.  What dishes do you remember with fondness, and which with disdain?  And remember, kids: eat what I say, not what I ate.

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ANGELIC CHRISTMAS

An excerpt from my mother, Catherine Verschoor Neely McNabb’s, writings.  She is alive and well and living in Seattle.

 I do not know how old I was that year I saw and heard the Christmas angels – – seven, eight, or even nine.  It was early on Christmas morning, before anyone was stirring.  I became conscious of the presence of angels moving up and down a staircase above the foot of my bed.  There was singing, a bubbly crystal-clear sound, and a swaying rhythm.  It gave me a sense of profound well-being and comfort, and a feeling that all was perfect in my world just then.

Later when we were having breakfast around the tree and opening our presents I sort of explored the subject to see if anyone else in the house saw or heard the angels.  Nobody picked up on my hints or gave me a lead-in on the subject of angels so I kept it always to myself.  I really did not want to expose my wonder-vision to anybody by actually talking about it, especially if no on else had the experience.  To this day I can recall the feeling I had.  Every Christmas morning still I hug it to my heart and savor it privately.  I do not think it was the dream of an over-excited child.  I think there really were angels in my bedroom that Christmas morning.

One other time in my life I have had this feeling of the nearness of a heavenly presence.  That time I felt it was God who was near me when our second son, Joey, was baptized at Central Reformed Church inGrand Rapids.  Ralph and I were standing in the pew, Joey in my arms wrapped in an embroidered yellowed wool blanket that had been around my own father when he was baptized in the same church.  Tommy, age three-and-a-half, was standing on the pew before us.  All at once I felt a lift to my heart, a suffusion of joy, and I knew God was there with us.

That was more than 50 years ago.  The feeling or vision has never reoccurred.  But it is vivid and still real.  Perhaps an opening into another world.

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COUNTRY HAM AND BLACK FRIDAY: a bit of this and a bit of that.

I had a crazy idea for next Thanksgiving: I want to raise everything at the table, including the turkey.  Looking into that now . . . where there’s a will, there’s a way.

We need a comprehensive national post office system even if it requires government subsidies and can’t be operated at a profit.  Not everything can be operated profitably.  We need to upgrade our national rail system and develop an extensive network of high-speed ‘bullet train’ passenger routes even if this can’t be accomplished solely by the private sector.

Went to the Farmers’ Market early Saturday morning looking for an outdoor project on a beautiful day, came home with a morel mushroom kit.  By 11:00 a.m. had the spot picked out, built a 4’ x 4’ cedar bed, filled the bed with homemade compost and distributed the morel spore.

Morel Mushrooms: growing in our backyard next year?

Christmas present for my father-in-law: a homemade country ham.  He’s been bemoaning the paucity of good ham for years so I decided we should make our own.  He’s coming over for pizza and ham curing tomorrow night.  Procedure described here: http://extension.missouri.edu/p/G2526 .

Country Hams: coming to my garage soon.

One of the criterion I will employ when deciding where to move next is whether a new location has an old-fashioned local newspaper, printed on real paper.  Our local high school football team made a good run into the state playoffs this year but I didn’t know about it because there’s no local newspaper.  I can no longer name my City Councilperson because there’s no local newspaper. Some things are essential to civilization.

This whole ‘Black Friday’ thing needs to be abolished.  How ridiculous has this become?  Somehow stores were profitable when I was a kid without resorting to Black Friday.  No one could create a system to better showcase corporate and consumer greed and crassness.  What must the rest of the world think of us?  It’s downright embarrassing.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BPub7bb0mzs&feature=player_embedded

Watch out, Granny! She's old enough to know better.

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HOW FAR CAN WE SPREAD THE SEEDS OF ONE TOMATO? WHAT STORIES MIGHT WE GENERATE?

I was surprised to find a beautiful heirloom Brandywine tomato for 75¢ at Bill’s Farm Market outside of Petoskey, Michigan.  October 8th is usually too late for these gems, with only bushels of canning tomatoes still available to send us into winter.  The top and far right tomatoes pictured above are Brandywines, grown in our garden two years ago.

I figured this late-season tomato must have good genes and saved the seeds, fermenting them to remove the gelatinous coating and then drying the seeds on a paper towel.
A week later I used tweezers to pick up each seed and wrap it in a small piece of newspaper, the perfect activity to get me through the first few evenings of my new, non-smoking lifestyle.  I don’t know how many individual seeds my work resulted in, but it has
to be at least 100.  What am I going to do with 100+ seeds when I plan to plant no more than 3 Brandywines next year?

Gradually the idea dawned on me: give the seeds away to see how far they spread and what stories are generated.  I don’t expect dramatic stories, we’re not going to end world hunger with these seeds, but someone might grow closer to a grandchild or befriend a neighbor in the process of growing a tomato.  Someone else may taste a true heirloom tomato for the first time and decide that he or she likes tomatoes after all.

So here’s the deal: send a SASE no. 10 (business size) or similar envelope to Joe Neely, 2942 Salem Drive, Ann Arbor, MI, 48103 and I’ll send you back 2 or 3 seeds with germinating suggestions.   For those of you under a certain age, who may not be aware of the existence of the US Postal Service, SASE means ‘self-addressed, stamped envelope’.  I’ll keep sending seeds until they’re gone.

I haven’t quite figured out how to keep everyone informed as to how far the seeds spread and the stories generated, so please provide your email address so I can keep you informed.  Hell, I’ll probably start a Facebook page for the project; isn’t everything on Facebook these days?

Finally, please help spread the word and get your friends involved.  If I have to rely on
readers of my blog to participate – both of them – this thing will never fly.

BILL'S FARM MARKET, PETOSKEY, MI

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ORGANIC EGGPLANT AND GOVERNMENT-SURPLUS CHEESE

I’ve no one but myself to blame.  I went to the farmers’ market early this
morning and found some great deals but forgot the eggplant for the pasta sauce
we intended to make and freeze.  No problem, thought I.  “I’ll just run down
the store and be right back with an eggplant, Honey,” said I.

I’m all about organically-grown produce, but something’s wrong when a 1.6 pound eggplant rings up at $6.38.  I understand that the grower, the transporter, the wholesaler and the retailer all need to step on the price to cover their costs and make a profit, but the consumer’s still getting hosed at that price.  I returned the damn thing and we omitted eggplant from this batch of sauce.

This incident really brought home the organic vs. local dilemma.  Organic and local is perhaps the best option but choices can be limited.  When choosing between a certified organic eggplant trucked in from thousands of miles away for $6.38 or a conventionally-grown eggplant from a local farmer for a dollar or two, wouldn’t virtually any sane consumer choose the latter?

I believe that, somehow, the solution to obesity and poverty-related hunger in our nation will come from local food sources and empowering people to grow their own food.  There
will always be those who can’t grow their own food, for a variety of reasons, thus assuring a market for local food producers.

What if the produce from community gardens was processed in community canning centers where paid, trained local residents re-taught the self-sufficiency skills lost in recent generations?  What if young inner-city residents where taught – perhaps even paid – to build, fill and tend raised-bed containers full of vegetables to feed their families and neighbors?  What if broken down garages were transformed into chicken coops for fresh eggs and meat?

There would be significant cost to the taxpayers in the establishment of such programs, but there is significant cost to the taxpayers now for programs that don’t work, programs that find people with no skills and no hope lining up for government-surplus cheese on the second Wednesday of each month.  Which type of program is likely
to be less expensive in the long-term?

I guess that’s a fairly long and circuitous introduction to our pasta sauce recipe; sorry.

  • 1 peck tomatoes, cored/seeded/peeled.  Slice tomatoes into ½-inch thick slices.
    The tomatoes we used were “seconds” purchased for $4 at the farmers’ market.
  • Lots of ripped up basil and lots of any chopped vegetables you like in your
    sauce (garlic, peppers, mushrooms, onions, grated carrots, etc.).  If using eggplant (a.) don’t pay $6.38 for it, and, (b.) chop to desired size then place in a strainer, sprinkle
    with salt then drain in sink for 30 minutes before rinsing and patting dry.
  • Put some olive oil in the bottom of your largest roasting pan – the pan you
    use for your Thanksgiving turkey.
  • From the bottom of the pan up your layers will look like this: olive oil,
    tomatoes, veggies, tomatoes, olive oil, veggies, tomatoes, olive oil.  Season as you go with salt, pepper and other herbs to taste.  Sprinkle a little brown sugar over the top.
  • Cover and bake at 350 for 4 and ½ hours.  Remove from oven, stir thoroughly to combine ingredients and break sliced tomatoes into chunks.  Add 4 x 12-oz cans tomato paste, mix thoroughly again.  Re-cover and return to oven for 30 minutes.  Remove from oven and allow to cool.
  • Use plastic bags or small containers to freeze in pint (2 cup) servings.  We’ve made two batches with each batch resulting in 8 pint-sized servings, enough to take us well into the
    winter.
  • If desired you can brown and add meat – sausage or hamburger – after
    defrosting and before re-heating a serving of sauce.
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