By Ian Halbert
Mary and I have finally settled into our new home in Watertown, saddled with all the concerns and frets that plague the first-time homeowners: money, money and money. But despite these worries, Mary, in her great generosity of spirit, opened our coffers, even while knee-deep in boxes and packing tape, to pay my entry fee into a premier food event here in Boston: Cochon 555.
The idea is simple: 5 chefs, 5 pigs, 5 wines. The wines get a little lost in the shuffle, as 5 talented chefs are each given a heritage breed pig from a local farm and week to make as much from the pig as he can. The chef who proves the most resourceful and creates the most tasty dishes is crowned the “Prince of Porc.”
In keeping with the theme, a local butcher, Ryan Farr from 4505 Meats in Great Barrington, MA, broke down a pig, in a live butchery demo:
In sum, it was a fantastic evening with food you can’t really imagine and I can’t really describe. (For a better account of the event, with more visuals, descriptions of the food and the chefs who participated, another attendee has posted a vlog at You Tube. The purpose of the event is to raise awareness for heritage breed pork, family farms and a program called Farms for City Kids.
While at the event, I was lucky enough to meet and talk with Jeremy Stephenson, the head cheesemaker at Spring Brook Farm. I was lured to his table by the large wheels of his “Tarentaise” cheese ¬– an aged cow’s milk cheese in the Alpine tradition. It is a refined cheese, subtle and delicious, reminiscent of Comte or Gruyere. The initial bite is unassuming – then the aftertastes come to the forefront, settle on your palate and you find yourself eating more than your fair share of free samples. (For more description of the cheese, Anne Saxelby, owner of the famous NYC Essex Street Market Saxelby Cheesemongers, has a marvelous post about the qualities and excellence of Jeremy’s Tarentaise at her online almanac. )
But Jeremy’s table had more than cheese to offer. Spring Broom Farm is the home of the Farms for City Kids Foundation, an organization which hosts urban youth on the farm, incorporating academic study and farm life. Jeremy and I talked at length about the program and what positive impact it can have for the kids lucky enough to experience a week on the farm. Such experiences can be revelatory: seeing where food comes from or seeing it made is a powerful experience. When I first began to cook, I was floored by the simplicity and elegance of mayonnaise – before I had ever whisked oil and egg yolks together, mayonnaise was something in a jar from Hellmann’s. In my great shame, I freely admit my ignorance that mayonnaise was in fact something one could make with little effort and less knowledge.
There is something mystical about food, how time and salt, heat and moisture, or emulsification and mixing can render what was once humble into something glorious and transcendent. I cannot help but think that kids who may have only ever had Velveeta or Kraft Singles will leave Spring Brook Farm with their world-views forever altered – after all they will have seen a Jersey heifer’s milk taken from teat to “Tarentaise.” (Speaking of which ... why not buy some cheese from Jeremy?)
The program at Spring Brook Farm takes the kids through all the various activities on the farm:
Students rotate team-structured tasks daily between the dairy barn‚ small animal barn‚ greenhouse‚ garden and dormitory. By achieving hands-on project success‚ students build interpersonal‚ leadership and problem-solving skills.
In addition to this hands-on work, the kids also enter into a unique contract the first night of their stay:
During their first night on the Farm‚ each student class creates a Community Contract that states how they will live for the week. Care and respect—for each other‚ for yourself‚ for the environment and for the animals—are the cornerstones of our program.
Again, these kinds of activities can have a profound impact on young students, who likely have never seen themselves as particularly responsible to or for their food or their environment, at least not in such a direct manner.
There is much to be hopeful about in this new food landscape, where the energy all trends back toward the farm and local food resources. Still, I can’t but feel that we need something of a bridge between the constituent communities of the food system – the chefs, farmers, producers, distributors and consumers. For those of us in the cities with enough disposable income, “locally sourced” and “heritage bred” have become inextricably linked to the fruit of some pretty remarkable talents; chefs like Jamie Bissonnette, Tony Maws and Barry Maiden, and the others who competed at the Cochon 555 event make food very few of us are capable of reproducing. They are doing their part in showing us what farm-fresh food is capable of, and leading the way by insisting on using it in their restaurants. Still, in an environment where the farm has been elided with the food of world-class talents, fetishism reigns supreme – at Cochon 555 it is a porcine fetish; as discussed here before, in the DIY community, it is a pickle fetish. I hope that at the other side of this latest return to the farm we will have achieved the goal of making local, fresh and whole foods once again the norm for the American table, rather than the rarefied and exclusive province of those who have the resources and time to make a romance of it. People like Jeremy Stephenson and the program at Spring Book Farm offer hope that the bridge is already being built.