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Tales of Terroir

Three new local food books strike a common note: sustainability


Published September 22, 2010 at 6:15 a.m.

All over Vermont, farmers are tugging potatoes out of the ground and picking winter squash in all the earthy colors of autumn leaves. Cooks, rediscovering the joy of roasting and braising as cool weather sets in, are snapping up those crops at outdoor markets and stores.

Perfectly timed to coincide with the harvest comes another crop, this one of new food-themed books by local authors.

One tells the story of a farm, just across the lake in Essex, N.Y., where the owners strive to grow and produce every type of sustenance their customers might need. Another book aims to help eaters make veggies, meats, roots and fruits last all winter. The third explains why foods grown and produced in different places taste different, and why those subtle variations matter.

For sampling purposes, we present each work with a characteristic excerpt. Happy reading during the coming cold months...

The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball, Scribner, 276 pages. $25.

Nobody thinks farming is easy. But going from a bachelorette’s life in the Big Apple — one filled with shopping, theater and takeout — to owning a hardscrabble, horse-powered farm in upstate New York is almost unimaginable.

But that’s exactly what Kristin Kimball did after she met a handsome, idealistic farmer while on a writing assignment. In her memoir The Dirty Life, which will be released in October, Kimball tells the story of the couple’s first year running Essex Farm — a familiar food source for plenty of Vermonters, who reach it by ferry.

Kimball covers both sides, from the passion that inspired her to forsake her urban lifestyle to the fatigue that overtakes her and Mark — now her husband — when they work from predawn to dark each day almost without break. Her clear, lyrical descriptions and honesty make Kimball’s book an engaging and poignant read. From one page to another, readers may find their reactions vacillating from envy of the couple’s realization of their dream to misery over descriptions of injured animals that had to be put down.

Beyond the enticing prose, though, is hard, useful information about the Kimballs’ unique business model. Most farm shares yield their holders a mixed, predetermined basket of veggies every week. Essex Farm aims to provide everything members might need for their tables — from grains to dairy products to meats to maple syrup — and lets them take as much as they desire.

As the national economy continues to struggle and talk of peak oil and climate change gets louder, it can be reassuring to read a book like The Dirty Life. It demonstrates that one farm can feed a small village, and well. And that a squeamish urbanite used to prepackaged meat can learn to gut pigs and make blood pudding. Having luxuries may fool us into thinking we are not adaptable, but Kimball shows us we are.

There is no better lesson in commitment than the cow. Her udder knows no exceptions or excuses. She must be milked, or she’ll suffer from her own fullness, and then she’ll get sick or dry up. Morning and evening, on holidays, in good weather and in bad, from the day she gives birth to her calf until the day ten months later when you dry her off, your cow is the frame in which you must fit your days, the twelve-hour tether beyond which you may no longer travel.

The Joy of Keeping a Root Cellar: Canning, Freezing, Drying, Smoking, and Preserving the Harvest by Jennifer Megyesi, Skyhorse Publishing, 271 pages. $14.95.

At first glance, this book’s title may seem to limit its audience to those who have a root cellar — or the time, space and inclination to create one. In fact, however, Megyesi’s guide could be useful to anyone who plans to preserve food for the winter, whether in the freezer or as jars of gem-colored preserves.

Dotted with colorful photographs, many of the author’s Royalton farm, the book offers tips on when to harvest different fruits and vegetables and lists the best storage methods for each. For instance, melons can be frozen, juiced or made into preserves, and mushrooms should be dried, canned, frozen or smoked.

Also valuable are a few recipes and a handful of charts, including one that tells new food producers how many seeds to plant for their desired yield.

The book’s main flaw is its lack of intuitive organization: To figure out what to do with a glut of tomatoes, for example, readers must read instructions in three different chapters, which aren’t cross-referenced. The key to preservation methods is so extensive that I kept forgetting what its abbreviations meant (LF is fermented or pickled; A stands for alcohol).

If you’re a food-preservation newbie with plenty of time to browse, Megyesi’s guide may be a boon. Expert canners and impatient readers may want to look elsewhere.

Modern society carries with it a general perception that luxury and well-being are hand in hand with instant gratification and social hierarchical status. The idea that leisure does not include self-reliance has reduced our ability to care for ourselves … If you don’t have the land or the ability to grow your own vegetables and fruits or raise your own meat, be creative. Barter your tax-accounting skills for chicken and beef for the freezer; lend your carpentry skills to a farm in exchange for a bushel of cukes for pickling…

American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters, and Fields by Rowan Jacobsen, Bloomsbury USA, 272 pages. $25.

Rowan Jacobsen of Calais, a multiple James Beard Award winner, has a way with words. Whatever he writes crackles with wit, whether he’s describing the flavor of a rare honey or an environmental disaster. He embraces juicy, underused adjectives.

In his newest work, Jacobsen makes a case for paying more attention to our palates. After an introduction that lucidly explains the concept of terroir — the taste imparted by the place where a food is grown or produced — he takes the reader on a tour of the microclimates that create what are presumably some of his favorite foods. These include coffee from a mountainous Panamanian plantation, gooey Winnemere cheese from Vermont’s Jasper Hill Farm and briny Totten virginica oysters from Washington state.

Jacobsen’s expressions of gustatory exuberance have a chilling undercurrent, though. If we don’t sell more people on the idea that these foods matter, he suggests, some of them could go the way of the dodo. In a passage on the “coffee crisis,” for instance, Jacobsen writes, “Farmers who can’t get a specialty price for their coffee are switching to vigorous hybrids that look and taste like dirt, but the world coffee market doesn’t care.”

If the book has a flaw (and it’s a small one), it’s that occasionally Jacobsen reaches too far in search of stylistic color. A Harry Potter reference feels flip and shoehorned in. A clumsy metaphor comparing wines to strippers is drawn out for two pages.

That particular depiction of lust may fall flat, but Jacobsen is wildly successful in inspiring desire for his terroir poster-foods. As I read, my mouth watered over hard cider from Lost Meadow Cidery in Calais and meaty mussels from Prince Edward Island. Jacobsen’s description of the dark amber syrup from Dragonfly Sugarworks was all the motivation I needed to pick up a bottle at the Burlington Farmers Market.

I imagine most readers of American Terroir will feel similarly compelled to get out there and taste the fruits of our own regions.

Crinkleroot tastes like peanut and wasabi. Dried red-food boletes smell of cocoa and cherries; sweetgrass of almond paste and fresh cut hay … Cattail hearts are the love child of cucumber and asparagus. Sea spinach, the robust and meaty green that garden spinach has always wanted to be, is undoubtedly the stuff that fortified Popeye. Dried beebalm petals smell … irreducible. I could say they’re like oregano, orange peel, and saffron, but I’d be missing the mark. They smell like the first time you walk into your lover’s apartment.