Let Us Give Thanks for Real Food
How to provision your feast at nature’s table
by Sandra Olivetti Martin
Not so long after people first harvested their meals from supermarket shelves, I grew up in the era of sliced bread. But I escaped suburbia a couple times every summer to visit the country.
My summer visits to the country bridged the divide between store food and real food. So great was the gap that from my place in history, I couldn’t see to the other side. The divide was so vast that our whole heritage of food, our partner in survival, had disappeared in its invisible depths. By the middle of the 20th century, the chasm had split so wide that, without those visits, I might never have known there was another side.
In cousin Cora’s root cellar, I discovered buried treasure. Ranged on cobwebby shelves beneath her little house in the hamlet of Batchtown, Illinois, I found cherries red as rubies, freestone peach halves orange as the rising sun, gold nuggets of corn and gooseberries like semi-precious stones with such names as agate and cats-eye.
From the cellar I traced step by step the back story of these wonders.
My elderly cousin stoked her wood stove with short lengths of cherry wood in preparation for putting up 1951’s crop of lima beans, green as first spring. I’d helped shell those beans. I’d climbed the old cherry tree that fired her stove with windfall branches to pick the sweet-sour fruit she put up as pie cherries. I’d even tasted the hard, resinous cherry gum that, said the retired school marm, kids chewed before William Wrigley turned the world on to packaged chewing gum. I learned what sour meant tasting fresh gooseberries growing on a prickly bush behind the screened back porch where Cora added the steam of boiling three-gallon pots to the wet heat of a summer’s day.
Miss Cora’s schoolchildren baked TV dinners in their electric ovens. Their children popped Lean Cuisine into their microwaves. The next generation might have dined on the fare of science fiction Chicken Little, Soylent Green or the fabricated feasts of Star Trek
Except that the story didn’t end that way.
You and hundreds of thousands of other Americans lived your own version of my story. In each of us, the remembered taste of real food has germinated. In the new century even as farm acreage shrinks the number of food growers is rebounding. In ways small as a tomato plant or large as a flourishing farm, you may count yourselves among them. Even if all you cultivate is a taste for real food, this year it is easier than ever to eat at nature’s table.
When you and your family and friends sit down to such a feast, you’ll have reason to give thanks.
How to Provision Your Feast at Nature’s Table
Over four hundred years, the Thanksgiving menu has evolved into a ritual feast of turkey and mashed potatoes, cranberries and pumpkin pie. You can elaborate the basics, but you abandon them at your peril. In a feast celebrating tradition and continuity, innovation is a short step from iconoclasm.
For every item on the standard Thanksgiving menu, we’ve found Chesapeake Country sources in three counties: Anne Arundel, Calvert and St. Mary’s. We’ve met Amish and Mennonite farmers, especially around Loveville in St. Mary’s County, who have never abandoned the land. We’ve met farmers continuing a family tradition generations old as well as first-generation farmers who’ve heard the land calling. We’ve met vintners and orchardists and farmers who specialize in persimmons or flowers as well as farmers who grow a little bit of everything.
Visiting farms and farm markets and chatting with farmers is research we’ve enjoyed. It’s fed us well all summer and filled our winter larders with good stories as well as long-lasting squash and potatoes. By shopping locally for what we don’t grow at home, we’ve also enjoyed food at its freshest.
Food travels an average of 1,500 miles to reach your grocery store shelves, where it may sit for up to 10 days. On the farm or at the farmers’ market, you buy food picked only hours earlier and it’s not wrapped in cellophane, so you can see for yourself. You can learn its life story and family history while you’re browsing.
More and more local farms are organic, and many use organic practices though they may not be certified. An example is Mennonite farmer Michael Cox of White Oak Point Farm in Prince Frederick, who says “We use crop rotation and compost and manure for fertilizer. No chemicals are used on produce, and our animals receive feed free of medications, hormones or chemical additives.”
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.”
You can follow the Pilgrim tradition and go fowling. But you’ll have to hurry to bag a wild turkey. Maryland’s one-week fall season runs through Saturday, November 5. Licensed hunters can take a single turkey only in Garrett, Allegany or Washington counties, where, according to Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife and Heritage Service director Paul Peddito, “wild turkeys are abundant.”
“Wild turkey gives you the real flavor of turkey when they were birds that could stand on their own feet,” says Bill Burton.
If you’re not so self-sufficient, you can still eat Maryland turkey. So. Maryland, So Good Farm Guide lists a half-dozen farm sources for local turkeys, two in Calvert County.
Last year, we ordered our turkey from Jim and Patty Bourne’s Sandy Hill Farm in Owings, who’d raised the birds under contract with an Amish farmer. That 20-pound bird was tender, meaty and delicious. This year, many of the farmers in the Guide, including those in Calvert County, are skipping turkeys. You can nonetheless buy a bird with a local pedigree. If you strike out in the Guide, drive to the Loveville region of St. Mary’s County any day but Sunday and look for hand-lettered signs advertising turkeys: they’ll lead down a lane to an Amish farm; there’ll be no electric lines along that lane, for here the old ways are still practiced.
If you don’t trust the fates to lead you to an Amish turkey, you can order a Pennsylvania-raised field-fed turkey from the Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers’ Market at Annapolis Harbour Center.
Whole Foods Market offers certainty plus more choices. Their fresh, free-range turkeys are raised by small farmers in Fulton, Maryland, and Berryville, Virginia. Organic turkeys come from Tamaqua, Pennsylvania.
Whoever you buy from, you’ll need to order in advance.
No stuffing for the Pilgrims. If you served your Thanksgiving turkey now without stuffing, however, you’d start a riot.
Still, all-local stuffing will test your commitment as a local shopper. Onions prefer a warmer climate, but in testing in the 1990s, Bay Weekly Bay Gardener Dr. Frank Gouin found three cultivars adapted to Maryland: Candy, Copra and First Edition. Onions are grown at 16 farms listed in the Guide. But unless you stockpiled a winter supply, by now many will be sold out. Leeks, however, are a cool-weather crop, and you may find some sown in August now on the market.
Not a single celery farm shows up in the Guide.
Bread is not the sticking point, even if you don’t bake your own. Eleven farms raise and sell wheat, including three in Calvert and one in Anne Arundel County. Mennonite farmers Michael and Anna Cox, of White Oak Point Farm in Calvert County, sell from a stall at Calvert Country Market in Prince Frederick. There you can buy whole wheat flour (by request) and baked goods made from “home-ground wheat.”
In other ways, too, you’re in luck. In the early 20th century, chestnut blight imported from Asia killed most of these once abundant trees. Now, two local farms sell chestnuts. One, Crispens’ Farm, is in Anne Arundel County, in Millersville. You can get walnuts and hickory nuts in Anne Arundel County, too, both at Polyansky in Crownsville. For pecans, you’ll have to travel to St. Mary’s.
Herbs? No problem. If you don’t grow your own, you can buy parsley, thyme and sage at many of the herb farms listed on two Guide pages. One of them, Willow Oak Flower and Herb Farm in Severn, throws an open house on Saturday, November 19.
Eggs, too, are abundant locally and laid most of the year though winter is hens’ low season, so you may need to order in advance. Sandy Hill Farm and 22 other farms listed in the Guide sell eggs. Martin Zehner, the father of farmers’ markets in Anne Arundel County, sells eggs at the Annapolis Farmers’ Market in Riva.
Maryland’s favorite bivalve is relatively abundant right now. Even so, get them while you can. Many local fish markets sell wild local oysters in the shell or by the pint or quart. You can also still find the occasional waterman selling oysters in places like Shady Side or Galesville, where a sign on Main Street advertises fresh-caught oysters in the shell for $4 the dozen. For farm-raised oysters, you can buy from Circle C Oyster Ranch in St. Mary’s County.
Serve oysters on the half shell for appetizers raw or fancified. Maryland Department of Seafood Marketing (www.marylandseafood.org) sells cookbooks featuring recipes from the annual National Oyster Championship Cookoff. Maryland crab guru Whitey Schmidt has also branched out into oysters. His Chesapeake Bay Oyster Cookbook is full of inventive recipes. Buy it at local bookstores or from the author: 888-876-3767; bluecrabguru.com.
Buy oysters already shucked for oyster stuffing, which is another Maryland specialty included in Schmidt’s cookbook.
The Plymouth Rock colonists had to do without potatoes, but they didn’t miss what they’d never tasted. Both sweet and white potatoes have American origins, but far more southerly both tubers originated in the Andes Mountains. White potatoes went to Europe before coming to North America with Irish immigrants in the mid-19th century. Their late appearance makes no difference to the contemporary Thanksgiving table, where each potato demands a place.
Since late summer, we’ve been buying both at farmers’ markets in quantities as large as we can store. Dirt still clung to them they were so freshly dug. Brush off the dirt, but don’t wash until you’re ready to use them.
White potatoes last forever. Store them at refrigerator temperatures and keep them out of the sun lest they turn green and toxic.
Sweet potatoes are thin-skinned and touchy despite their gnarly, take-care-of-themselves look. Farmers must cure them for about 10 days in high temperature and humidity. Store them at home in a cool, dry place, 55 to 60 degrees, such as your cellar or garage; never in the fridge. They’ll last up to a month.
You’ll likely still find both species of potato in farm markets. Otherwise, seek them in your Southern Maryland Harvest Guide. There you’ll find a full page of potato growers, with specialty growers of fingerling, white and yellow potatoes.
Of sweet potato growers, the Guide lists a dozen, including one in Anne Arundel County and two in Calvert County. If they’re sold out, try Les Knapp of Loch Less Farms in Calvert County just south of the Anne Arundel line in Owings. Last month he was digging, curing (on picnic tables) and selling fat, beautiful red-fleshed sweet potatoes for $12 the bushel.
To make your gravy, use the juices from the pan in which you’ve roasted your bird. If you want nearly fat-free and still delicious gravy, chill the pan drippings until the fat rises to the top. To separate, spoon off fat and save for your pie. Whisk flour and seasonings in very small amounts into the remaining juices. When very thickened, slowly add more stock for consistency and quantity; season to taste. It’s quicker, which will be important, if you use refrigerated stock from a previous bird. The fat on the top keeps the stock from spoiling.
For wheat for thickening, see Stuffing.
If asparagus is your ideal Thanksgiving vegetable, you’ll have to delay your feast until late April. That’s when the spears rise in Chesapeake Country, making asparagus an Easter vegetable.
Corn, too, is past its season. Perhaps in August you cut the delicious kernels from the cob to freeze for this feast. Otherwise, follow the Pilgrim and Indian way and buy dried corn. You can decorate with it or grind it for polenta-like puddings, as they did.
Otherwise, the autumn garden is full of vegetables. Choose from root vegetables, like turnips, parsnips, rutabagas and beets, and thick-skinned winter squash in autumn colors and artful bulges and curvatures. Long beans are likely choices, too, often in Technicolor varieties. August plantings of cool-weather vegetables are yielding healthful and delicious cruciferous crops: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi and collard green.
Tender salad greens planted in August also produce bountifully in cool weather, for a second season of salad days.
Cranberries are one of only three native American fruits. Finding them in the cool bogs of New England, the Pilgrims called them craneberry, seeing the head and bill of a Sandhill crane in their small, pink blossoms. If the Pilgrims ate craneberries, they certainly needed honey; sugar wasn’t yet a dietary option.
Today New Jersey, Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin produce most of the anticipated crop of 6.49 million barrels. Forget your scruples and buy them; you can’t have Thanksgiving dinner without them.
Pumpkin & Apple Pie
For wheat for the crust, see Stuffing. Substitute sugar with honey from local apiaries. The Guide lists eight, with three in Calvert and one in Anne Arundel, but many more small beekeepers sell honey. The Anne Arundel Beekeepers Association has over 100 members who meet at the Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center in Millersville. Find them at www.sillypages.com/aaba/about/index.shtml. Most farmers’ markets and many small stores sell local honey.
Shortening takes more hunting. If you’re a lard-loving purist, you may have to render your own from the fat of locally raised pork. Splendid for pastry is duck or goose grease; I’ve tried it, and it does not give you poultry-flavored pie. Turkey or chicken grease also works and is easier to come by (see Gravy).
lf you prefer butter, you’ll have to bend your dedication to all-local ingredients. “Because of pasteurization and regulations,” says Tony Evans, who set up most of Maryland’s farmers’ markets in his years at Maryland Department of Agriculture, “we have not had a tradition of dairies selling directly.”
Anne Arundel County lost its last dairy when Horizon Organic Dairy left the old Naval Academy Dairy Farm, which is now scheduled to become a horse park. You may need to bend your local commitment and pretend Horizon is still local, but you won’t have to quite break it: Horizon owns a 465-acre dairy farm on the Eastern Shore. But it also buys from some 350 producer-farms across the country.
To be strictly local, you’ll have to buy a cow and get milking.
To make a pumpkin pie you’ll need milk as well, plus eggs (see Stuffing).
Local pumpkins, fall’s favorite crop, are abundant at every local market and roadside stand. Now that Halloween’s passed, expect prices to have dropped. For how to prepare your pumpkin for pie, see our September 1 story 50 Ways to Leave Your Summer (Vol. xiii, No. 35; http://www.bayweekly.com/old-site/year05/issuexiii35/leadxiii35.html).
Crisp and full-flavored local apples will make you swear off store-bought apples forever. Each autumn week brings new varieties in season. Taste and select at farm markets or call one of the page-full or orchards listed in the Guide.
Sweeten your pie with honey (see Cranberries). Spices are by definition exotic, so your allspice, cinnamon, cloves, mace and nutmeg cannot be local.
Too complicated? Buy Anna Cox’s fully homemade pumpkin and sweet potato pies at Calvert Country Market.
Wine & Cider
Viniculture is catching on in Maryland, which now boasts 16 wineries and many more ambitions. (See With Vintage 2004, Southern Maryland Turns Wine Country: Vol. xiii, No 7, Feb. 17.)
Raise a Thanksgiving glass from the Island Winery in Lusby, whose first-year sauvignon blanc won Best of Class in the 2004 Maryland Wine Festival’s dry white category. Their white merlot took a silver medal. Find the winery, and stores that sell its wines, in the Guide.
For teetotalers, cider is Thanksgiving’s drink. Many apple growers also sell cider. At the Anne Arundel Farmers’ Market, you’ll find very good cider from an orchard that skipped the Guide, Harris Orchard on Jug Bay in Anne Arundel County.
As well as provisioning your feast, you can decorate your home and set a festive table from the bounty of our farms and open spaces. Gather cattails, red sumac and the otherwise unwanted invasive reed, phragmites. (Find out how to make them house friendly in Dr. Gouin’s Bay Gardener column of September 29: Vol. xiii, No. 39; www.bayweekly.com/year05/issuexiii39/gardenerxiii39.html). For trailing vines, add English ivy, another invader blessed with good looks. Squash and pumpkins are good and their inedible cousins, gourds, both plentiful and fanciful. Some locally grown field mums will still be blooming.
Light your table with candles molded by local beekeepers (see Honey in cranberries.) At the Anne Arundel Farmers’ Market, beekeeper Joe Brotherton sells a clever variety of hand-molded beeswax candles, including corn-on-the-cob candles.
Want to try the Pilgrims’ menu? Order The Thanksgiving Primer, ($10.90 by check) from Plimoth Plantation; Attn: Mail Order Department; P.O. Box 1620; Plymouth MA. 02362: 800-262-9356 x 8332.
They Wrote the Book:
So. Maryland, So Good Farm Guide 2006-07
We think we know a lot, but the authoritative source on Maryland farm culture is the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission. The commission has written the book on The Food, Fun and Other Fabulous Stuff You Can Get From Your Local Farm.
For short, call it the So. Maryland, So Good Farm Guide 2006-’07 and shop in its 172 pages not only for products ranging from bees to mulch to wine but also for activities and services. Farms are cross-referenced by name, product and county. Each farm listing includes hours and directions, so you can find sources to keep you eating fresh and local all year long. Among the surprising finds: farms that grow and sell tender greens even in deep winter.
The Guide also lists groceries and stores that sell local products and restaurants that serve them.
Just out to guide you in seasonal shopping is the Farms for the Holidays brochure, which better reflects actual availability than the earlier published Guide.
Both Guide and brochure are free at 301-274-1922 or [email protected]. You can also search by country, category and more online at www.somarylandsogood.com.