Plant a Row for the Hungry
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About a decade ago, one of the members of the Garden Writer’s Association of America (GWA) came up with a good idea. We all know there’s hunger in America—something there shouldn’t be in this fruitful land. What food is given to food banks tends to be canned. So the garden writer suggested that the members of the Association encourage their readers or listeners or viewers, as the case may be, to plant a row for the hungry.
When setting out the vegetable garden, it doesn’t take much to plant an extra row of a vegetable. If you are going to plant six tomato plants for your own use, plant a seventh and deliver its bounty to the local food bank. Fresh tomatoes will be much appreciated.
Not every vegetable is suitable. Loose leaf lettuce, for instance, is so perishable that by the time it got to the needy, it would be limp, if not spoiled. But root crops like carrots, beets, turnips, rutabagas, radishes, and celery root will hold up just fine and be even more appreciated, because they are packed with good nutrition.
Asian greens of all types, chard, kale, broccoli, asparagus, European head cabbages, collards, and mature spinach plants with the roots intact will all last just fine in the trip to the food bank and from there to those in need.
Summer and winter squashes are perfect choices for that extra row. Just plant the bush types rather than the squashes that produce long runners and you’ll conserve a heap of space in your garden.
And what will be more appreciated by those in need than summer-ripe, sweet melons. Imagine bringing a basket full of orange- and green-fleshed melons to the food bank.
The point is that you don’t have to plant all these vegetables yourself. Pick one, and when you put in your garden, plant a row for the hungry. You’ll feel satisfied if you do.
The Skinny on Raw Milk
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There’s no denying that raw milk can be a source of deadly listeria bacteria and other diseases that can affect humans—if the cows that produce the milk and the conditions in the milking barn aren’t properly cared for. So for those of us who would like to drink raw, organic milk, it behooves us to know our dairy. The dairyman or dairywoman will be able to go over their procedures for maintaining the milk’s safety and the certifications they get from their health department.
In a grand case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, the FDA some years ago planned to ban the importation of cheese made from raw milk, usually from Europe. Since cheese connoisseurs know that raw milk cheeses are the best and most flavorful, there was such an outcry against the FDA’s proposed rule that the agency relented and raw milk cheeses are still available in our markets today.
But what about raw, fresh milk? Why is it important that it be raw and organic? First, let me ask you—have you ever tasted fresh raw milk, still warm from the cow? If you have, you know how the flavor is miles ahead of milk that’s been pasteurized. There’s something fundamentally “milky” about it, in a way that pasteurization destroys. The heat of the pasteurizing process—especially milk and cream that is Ultra-Pasteurized–eliminates factors that give raw milk its true character.
If the milk is produced organically—that is, the cows are given fresh pasture or dried hay or silage that’s never been treated with chemicals, the cows themselves are never given routine antibiotics or milk-stimulating hormones or other chemicals, and the dairy is scrupulously clean, then, according to a study from the UK, organic milk, compared with regular commercial milk, shows higher levels of unsaturated fatty acids, including omega-3s and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) that is thought to have heart healthy benefits and anticancer properties. Researchers at Newcastle University in northern England report these results in a recent issue of the Journal of Dairy Science.
By switching to organic milk, consumers could increase their intake of beneficial CLA by 40 percent, depending on their intake of milk and milk products like cheese, the report says.
By refusing to administer milk-producing hormones to their dairy cows, organic farmers have far healthier and contented herds. Yes, contented. Modern commercial dairies often give cows hormones that result in weak animals that struggle to carry bloated and distended udders that produce up to twice as much milk per cow as untreated animals.
And now the USDA has agreed to allow Monsanto’s genetically modified alfalfa seed into American farmland with no restrictions, meaning that alfalfa pollen carrying the genetic modifications could blow onto organic fields, where organic alfalfa could become contaminated. Alfalfa hay is one of the chief foods fed to dairy cows during their confinement to barns in the winter months. How long before the USDA shuts down an organic farm because its alfalfa or corn contains genetic modifications, disqualifying it for organic certification? With this terrible decision by the Obama administration’s agriculture department, Monsanto kills two birds with one stone. It spreads its patented GMO seeds at will, forcing farmers to buy it or be hit with lawsuits for patent violations (this is already happening), and may just drive some organic farmers out of business.
The answer to these depredations is to find raw, organic milk from certified safe dairies.
The Further Adventures of an Organic Hog Butcher
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Sometimes the word organic doesn’t just mean the USDA rules for growing crops and raising animals. It can have a broader sense of being close to nature and the ways human beings have been dealing with meat animals since the dawn of agriculture. When I was 14, I was privileged to see an example of this.
The little village where I grew up was just a few houses and businesses in Pennsylvania farm country. Our neighbor was a dairy farmer with 125 acres and 35 milking cows. Next to his farm, on a hilltop about a mile from my home, was the Neihardt farm, a mixed farm operation.
One cold November day, I was visiting my school chum Joe Bailey at his house in the village. Joe’s older brother Carl was there, and said he’d be working a hog butchering at the Neihardt farm the next day, and I could come if I wanted. I said sure, and the next morning early, Carl drove by my house to pick me up.
The cold morning sky was dull gray. The air had that scent of coming snow. When we pulled into Neihardt’s lane that ran back to the farm, we could already hear the pigs squealing and screaming as the farmer shot three of them, one by one, with bullets to the brain. Then the Neihardt sons, two young men in their late teens or early twenties, carried the fresh-killed pigs to the flatbed trailer attached to the tractor. They drove the carcasses to a large shed and backed the trailer into it. Carl said he was going to help with the butchering, and I should ask Mrs. Neihardt how I could help. I said okay, but first watched the men stick the pigs’ back legs with meat hooks attached to chains and use the tractor’s winch to haul the pigs upwards until the carcasses hung head down. They scrubbed the carcasses with big brushes and a hose, then placed large metal pans under the heads and cut the pigs’ throats. Blood drained from the pigs into the pans. “The women use the blood to make blood sausage,” Carl said, and sent me off to find Mrs. Neihardt, who’d find something for me to do.
“You can render the lard and make the cracklin’s,” she said, and showed me to a spot between the house and barns where a wood fire had been built on the ground and a large cast iron pot hung from a crossbar above the fire. She set up a metal table and on it set a long wooden stick, a long-handled sieve, and a circular press about 10 inches in diameter with a spout at the bottom.
“One of the men will strip the fat off the hogs,” she said, “and bring it to you. Toss it into the pot.” She pointed to a wooden stick. “Stir the fat with the stick and don’t let the stick touch the ground. Keep it clean. Keep the fire going with wood from that pile over there. After a bit, you’ll see liquid fat—that’s lard—run free in the pot. When you get about eight inches or so of free-run fat in the bottom of the pot, come get me and I’ll show you how to make the cracklin’s. And don’t let the fire die down too much. Keep the fire hot but not hot enough to make the lard bubble or smoke. It’s an important job, so mind it well.”
The warmth of the fire felt good. It was going to snow for sure. After a while, one of the men who were butchering the hogs brought over a wooden box filled with scraps of fat. “Here ya go,” he said, and dumped the fat into the iron pot. I stirred it around with the stick, and soon the pieces were sizzling and liquid lard was running in the bottom of the pot. It smelled clean and meaty.
After three boxes had been emptied into the pot and I had stoked the fire, I went to get Mrs. Neihardt and found her in the farmhouse kitchen along with three other women who were preparing something. “I think there’s enough fat in the pot now,” I said. She wiped her hands on her apron, picked up a fabric potholder and some paper plates, and came with me to the pot.
“Now set the press so the spout is over the pot,” she said and showed me where to place it. She took up the long-handled sieve and scooped the fried fat rinds from the pot and placed them in the press, almost to the top. Then she put in the follower, held the press down with the potholder in her right hand, and with her left, pressed down on the lever attached to the follower. Liquid fat poured from the spout and landed in the pot. “Press it good and hard,” she said. “Get as much fat out as you can.”
After pressing, she put the table back away from the fire, lifted the lever so the follower came free, turned the press over and slammed it on the top paper plate. Out came a cake of cracklin’s, a little shy of 10 inches in diameter and about two and half inches thick. She broke off a piece of the cake and handed it to me. “Try that,” she said, and popped another piece in her mouth. It tasted like the pot smelled, clean and sweet, like very fine bacon, with a hint of woodsmoke about it from the fire. “That’s wonderful,” I said. She looked pleased. “Now render more fat and make the cracklin’s. When you make a pressing, bring me the cracklin’s on one of those paper plates, like I showed ya.” And she bustled off, back to the kitchen.
I could see the men bringing metal buckets and meat wrapped in butcher paper into the kitchen. I was curious about the butchering and walked up to the shed where the men were working. One of the pigs was lying sideways on a big bench, being disassembled by two men working with long, bloody knives. I went back to the pot and continued to render lard. As I made my first press of cracklin’s, snowflakes started to drift down from the sky. As they landed in the pot, they hissed as the hot fat turned them into steam. I knew it was going to snow, I said to myself, pleased that I had called it, and that the snowflakes were hissing in the pot. It was a pretty scene, even if the ground was muddy and there was lots of blood in the butchering shed.
By the time I made my second cake of cracklin’s, Mrs. Neihardt came over with a card table and something wrapped in white paper. She put the paper on my little metal stand and set up the card table. “I brought you some sausage,” she said, and went back to the house. I unwrapped the paper, and there was a lump of fresh-made sausage about the size of a lemon. It smelled wonderful and I could see spices, seeds, and black pepper in it. Two hours or so ago and this sausage was running around in that pig pen over there, I thought, pulling off a piece and putting in my mouth.
To this day, I have never tasted anything quite like it. It was made from scraps and bits of leftover pig, but it was incredibly fresh, juicy, meaty, spicy, and loaded with sweet pork flavor. It was and still is, my benchmark for sausage.
I saw Mrs. Neihardt coming back, carrying a stack of metal pans, a folded cloth, and a long-handled scoop. “Now we make the lard,” she said, setting up the pans on the card table. She showed me how to scoop up the liquid fat and how high to fill the pans. “When you get all the pans filled, cover them with the cloth,” she said, looking up at the sky. “It’s going to snow harder and I don’t want water on the lard.”
I did as I was showed how, nibbling at the sausage, eating the piece of cracklin’s I’d saved for myself, listening to the pork sizzle and the snowflakes hiss, smelling the wood smoke, and feeling happy, contented, and warm, even if my toes were freezing cold. I had the sense that a farm scene like this had been going on for a really long time. I knew that day I was lucky to be part of it and to eat fresh sausage and cracklin’s.
If that wasn’t organic, I don’t know what is.
Back to Bacon
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A cartoon in a recent New Yorker hit the nail on the head. It showed a guy standing at a crossroads by a directional sign. One direction was labeled, “Fountain of Youth.” The other direction was labeled, “Fountain of Bacon.” Yes, it’s true: we all love bacon, yet we seldom indulge if we are trying to eat a healthy diet. It’s the food we hate to love.
Oh yeah, there’s organic turkey bacon. Those strips—low-fat, high protein, good-for-you goodness—are baconesque at best. They are to real bacon what decaf is to espresso. They may be called turkey bacon, they may be organic, they may be okay for a faux BLT, but they are not bacon.
Bacon is inimitable. For years I tried to make hash brown potatoes as good as my sainted mother’s, but always failed. Until one day, remembering the empty frozen orange juice can my mom always kept in the fridge, and how it always had bacon grease in it, I tried frying two or three strips of bacon in the skillet, removing the meat after the grease was rendered into the pan, and frying the potatoes and onions in that grease to which I added a pat or two of butter. And then crumbling the bacon and adding the bacon bits back at the end. And there—voila!—were mom’s hash browns, the pinnacle of potato pleasure.
Bacon has power. When I lived in Pennsylvania, I had a dog named Ben—a big, brindle mutt with a sweet disposition. One day he didn’t come home, so I set out to look for him, and eventually found him near a neighbor’s farmhouse. I opened my truck door and yelled for him to get in. He hesitated but finally jumped in. The next day he took off and again I found him at the farmer’s house. The farmer came out and we had a talk. He said that he liked to ride his horse over his fields, but the groundhogs dug deep holes that could break a horse’s ankle if it stepped in one. Ben had been going to his fields and having fun by catching groundhogs and shaking them by the neck until dead—and in fact, had cleared two of his fields of groundhogs entirely. So the farmer admitted he wanted Ben to stay around and kill groundhogs. So he fed Ben bacon. And Ben stayed. Now, you know how loyal dogs are. I loved that dog. But I never fed him bacon.
It was humiliating to realize that my dog had dumped me—for bacon!
Is it worth buying organic bacon? I mean, we aren’t going to eat much bacon (if we’re wise), so why not buy the commercial stuff for those rare times when we convince ourselves that although we should do and consume all things in moderation, that includes moderation itself?
The answer is a definite yes—which you probably already figured out I’d say, me being the Organic Food Guy. But there are good reasons for buying organic bacon. First, the hogs that provide the raw material for bacon are raised in environmentally sound ways. If you’ve ever been to a commercial hog raising farm, you will know what I’m talking about. It’s not that pig manure is in and of itself terribly rank, but tons and tons of it decaying in slurry ponds and concrete tanks is indeed rank and foul. Not only that, but the hogs themselves are subject to that stench and cleanliness isn’t always a high priority on big commercial hog operations. Cleanliness is, however, a big deal to the pigs, which are clean animals, despite their reputation. Organic hogs are raised in humane ways, without drugs, antibiotics, hormones, or other “improvements” on Mother Nature.
The best bacon I ever had was purchased from a local Pennsylvania Dutch farm family. I’d walk up to their back door with a fist full of dollars and the lady of the house would walk with me to their smokehouse out back. It was round, about eight feet in diameter and eight feet tall, built of stone by itinerant Irish laborers in the last part of the 19th Century, and had a clapboard roof and a large iron door with cast iron hinges riveted onto it. Inside, a hickory wood fire smoldered—not enough heat to cook the bacon, but plenty of smoke to flavor it. Slabs of bacon hung from meathooks suspended on a cross bar above the smoky fire, which was built under a metal box on the concrete floor. The lady took down a slab and, back on the porch, pulled out a scale and weighed it. She took her money and wrapped the bacon in brown butcher paper.
Modern commercial bacon is weak stuff compared to that lady’s bacon. It was substantial in texture, with a flavor to match. She may not have been certified organic, but I saw where her hogs lived—in clean quarters, with access to a field for rooting when the weather cooperated. She was the spirit of organic farming incarnated, and if I had some of her bacon today, and could share it with you, I bet you’d agree.