Saturday, January 8, 2011

Life on the farm: The Dirty Life

My friend, Megan, gave me a book this Christmas, The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love, which I became so engrossed in reading, it’s a wonder my Christmas presents ever got wrapped.  The book is written by a former NYC/East Village-living writer, Kristin Kimball, who went to Pennsylvania to interview a farmer, fell in love with him, and together, moved to Essex, New York to start a farm.  Megan’s parents have a house in Essex, down the road from Essex Farm, where Kimball and her now-husband Mark have lived and farmed for the past seven years. 

Essex Farm is a “whole diet” farm, meaning they grow everything for their 100 CSA members to have a healthy and diverse diet, year round.  This includes beef, chicken, pork, eggs, milk, maple syrup, grains, flours, dried beans, herbs, fruits, and forty different vegetables.  With few exceptions, they farm without tractors, relying instead on manual labor and draft horses to tend to their fields.  No chemicals or artificial fertilizers are used on any of their crops. 

The Dirty Life will appeal to anyone with an interest in good food and how it is grown.  The author’s vivid descriptions of the meals her husband prepares with the bounty of their land are as good as any I’ve read.  Kristin, a Harvard graduate, is new to farming unlike her husband, who studied agricultural science at Swarthmore and worked on farms across the United States.  I have great admiration for her gutsy willingness to throw herself into one unknown adventure after another with curiosity, intelligence, and humor. 

Kimball does a wonderful job of describing the realities of farming in a way that is both inspiring and hopeful.  She doesn’t mince words when it comes to the hardships of life on a farm but in the end what I took away from this incredibly well-written, engaging tale is the upside of farming: the immense satisfaction that comes from getting your hands dirty, growing your own delicious food and sharing it with others.  It’s a beautiful love story between two people, their land, their neighbors, and a way of life.

While reading this book I kept thinking of something I heard Dan Barber say:  “Not all farmers are good farmers.  We should support good farmers.  Good farmers are not old-fashioned – they are innovative thinkers, modern.” I imagine the Kimball’s are the type of farmers he is talking about.  Given a choice between the myriad of farming options available today, they chose to return to agriculture’s roots and forgo methods that have broken many small American farms in recent decades: gas engines, chemical fertilizers, antibiotic-laced feed, monocrops.  By decreasing their reliance on fossil fuels for energy, choosing to consume less, growing diverse crops, and offering their neighbors an alternative to the grocery store, the Kimball's are charting a course towards a sustainable future for themselves, their community, and the world. 

Megan’s Butter-Roasted Pecans

Megan and I worked together before she left New York to live in North Carolina, where she has a successful interior design business. Megan learned this so-simple-yet-so-delicious recipe from one of her Southern friends and shared it with me while we caught up over gin and tonics in NYC before Christmas. 

I’m fairly certain Kristin Kimball would get an ironic chuckle (or give a big ol’ eye roll) if she saw I included a recipe for cocktail treats with commentary on her book.  Cocktail hour and farming are like oil and water – they don’t mix.  But maybe if she knew I made the recipe with only Ronnybrook butter, organic pecans, and salt it wouldn’t be so bad?  After all, this recipe is simplicity itself, not unlike the food she and her husband prepare on Essex Farm.

I halved the amounts below when I made the recipe and you can scale up or down according to your own taste.  The point is to buy the freshest, tastiest pecans you can find (preferably organic) and showcase their flavor by roasting them with nothing more than the best butter and salt.

1 pound pecans
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
Kosher or sea salt, to taste

Heat oven to 225 degrees.

Scatter butter on a baking sheet with sides and place in heated oven.

As soon as the butter has completely melted and begins to shimmer, add pecans to baking sheet and toss until thoroughly coated with butter.

Bake until fragrant and toasted, tossing frequently, anywhere from 1 - 1 1/2 hours.

Remove from oven and scoop pecans onto a double thickness of brown paper bag to absorb excess butter.  Sprinkle with salt while still warm.  Serve.

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