Monday, January 26, 2009

Getting Fette in Brooklyn

My meal at Fette Sau in Brooklyn was, quite simply, incredibly fun. Meara and Laura and I were in good spirits and eating meat with such abandon still feels new and a little forbidden to me, regardless of its provenance. Barbecue is bound to be a major part of my eating journey as I travel through Virginia and the Carolinas, then later in Texas, but the northeast doesn’t offer much produce in winter and we were cold and found ourselves contemplating dinner from across the street at Spuyten Duyvil over mulled wine, so we headed over, shivering. We were in just the right mood for a place with communal tables and cafeteria trays. Rolls of paper towels and unlabeled squeeze bottles of sauce are handily set at each table. It was a Wednesday but we waited for seats; the buzz hasn’t worn off of this place yet. We ordered spicy Berkshire pork sausage, boneless beef ribs, baked beans and brisket, with German potato salad and broccoli salad sides. The guy slinging the meat was a skinny, hip jokester with weird, perfectly round patches of white in his beard. I asked him where the meat came from. He told me that the beef came from Pineland Farms upstate. The pork, he said was Berkshire pork. “Berkshire, like, from Western Mass?” I asked. “It’s all organic. I know that,” he said.

“Berkshire Pork” refers to the Berkshire breed, not to the hills of western Massachusetts. Descended from English herds, these black pigs are known for their tender, juicy flesh. American Berkshire pigs, or kurobuta, can be from anywhere in the states. Of course it’s no big deal that the guy serving us didn’t know this—he’s not a chef. It’s interesting, though, that so few people have asked where the meat was coming from. Organic, it seems, is enough to assuage most recent-vegetarian consciences, and I’m sure that many recent converts break edge at this place. I certainly enjoyed my meal. We all went caveman on the piles of fatty meat and picked at the sides. What you see is really what you get at Fette Sau. All the meats were cooked properly and the pork sausage, while not very spicy, had a nice caraway flavor. The broccoli, though overcooked and doused in vinegar, was a comforting palate-cleanser between bites of different meats, and the potato rolls provided a nice, chewy sponge to soak up the grease. We had a half-gallon jug of their house beer and a tasting flight of American whiskey. By the end of our meal, we were singing Brooklyn’s praises with a couple of Brits at the end of our table. Meara demonstrated some James Brown dance moves. I’m so glad that I got to go to this place with good friends—as a solo traveler, it wouldn’t have been such a standout.

Next up: Baltimore, then Charlottesville.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Getting Hamer-ed in Boston

Here I am in Brooklyn, having spent a mostly lazy week at my parents’ house in Concord, MA, ostensibly preparing for my trip but mostly reading, eating, and drinking coffee in my bathrobe. On my second night in town, I went out in search of local chicken and root vegetables for that night’s dinner. I read about a small farm in Concord, Pete and Jen’s Backyard Birds, and I drove to Verrill Farm on Route 117, hoping to find a bird. Verrill Farm sells produce from their own 200 acres and also from neighboring farms; they were also one of the first farms in the area to deliver to local restaurants. In September of last year, the farm stand was destroyed in an electrical fire, and the stand is temporarily housed in a large trailer. I found frozen meat from Vermont and eggs from Pete and Jen’s but no chickens. I pulled some red onions from a basket labeled “from our farm,” and headed to Deb’s Natural Gourmet in West Concord, where I found “naturally-raised” frozen birds from Pennsylvania and carrots, turnips and parsnips from the Pacific Northwest. With no time to defrost a chicken, I picked up some Bell and Evans breasts at the supermarket and we had a simple winter meal, delicious but not farm-fresh.

Last year ‘locavore’ was the New Oxford American dictionary’s word of the year. Living in Vermont, it was easy to see why. You couldn’t throw a frisbee without hitting a “localvore,” Vermont’s idiosyncratic take on the term. (Meara says, “It’s so annoying how people say ‘locAvore. Let’s put the L back in local!”) City Market developed a special logo for local products, the farmer’s market was a social hub, and the best restaurants in the state boasted lists of locally-sourced products on their menus. The confluence of an agricultural past, a smattering of back-to-the-land hippie types from the seventies and batch after batch of earnest college students each year make Vermont the perfect climate for the localvore trend to really erupt in full. I expected to find a similar enthusiasm for local food in Massachusetts. My parents’ friends have maintained an organic vegetable farm in Concord since the seventies, and the Boston area is arguably as liberal and certainly as affluent as anywhere in Vermont. What’s missing, I found, is a certain rugged earthiness. Boston suburbanites seem to lack Burlington foodies’ singular youthful vigor; while folks are happy to spend an extra quarter at Whole Foods for organic bananas, few are willing to spend summer evenings canning tomatoes or to forego avocados all year long. Of course, few people anywhere are willing to trade the comfort of familiar eating habits for the small pleasures of forging food communities or the abstract idea of saving a few “food miles.” I expect to encounter a proliferation of locavores in college towns and a measure of skepticism elsewhere.

I’ve been thinking a lot about class as I embark on my trip. A lucky minority of Americans can afford to consider both the nutritional content of their meals and the ecological impact of what they consume. I started my journey dining in the kind of restaurant I’ve worked at in the past several years, the kind I can rarely afford to eat at. Hamersley’s Bistro is a Boston institution. A longtime supporter of local agriculture, the restaurant threw a benefit for Verrill Farm after the fire. My mother, my aunt Carol and I went to the restaurant on a frigid Friday night. I expected to be impressed by Hamersley’s; our meal exceeded all expectations. Our server was a real pro—knowledgeable and enthusiastic without condescending when we asked questions. I asked where they sourced their seafood, and she told me I was free to ask Gordon, the chef. I made my way from the small front room where we were seated to the main dining room, where an open kitchen overlooks an elegant, understated collection of tables and chairs. Six tickets perched in the window but the chef chatted with me for a few minutes. The seafood, he said, came mostly from Captain Marden’s, a family-owned wholesaler in Wellesley.

We ordered a Chablis to go with our first course. Like most fine-dining restaurants in the northeast, Hamersley’s commitment to localism is motivated by taste and therefore does not extend to the wine list. I haven’t tried a really refined glass of wine from New England, but I’d certainly love to. While we waited for our first course, I was pleased to notice an older couple at the table next to us asking where the meat was sourced. The three of us, my mother, aunt, and I, shared a pear salad and duck confit with roasted shallots and rosemary. The pear, stuffed with Spanish Cabrales blue cheese, did not stand out, but the duck confit was perfect--tender and rich but not oily, salty and sweet with honey. The seafood main dishes did stand out—for main courses, my aunt had a spicy halibut and clam roast and I had a stuffed lobster, while my mother had a grilled pheasant from Vermont. My lobster was stuffed with mussels, hazelnuts and spinach, and glazed with a sherry beurre noisette. The hazelnuts and butter brought out the lobster’s delicate sweetness without smothering it—it was, quite possibly, the best lobster dish I’ve ever had, and I really love lobster. The halibut, flanked by tender black trumpet mushrooms and bacon-braised white beans, hit a similarly excellent balance of spicy and sweet. In all three dishes, the spices were easily discernable while still allowing the intrinsic flavors of the ingredients to shine. What a great dining experience to kick off my trip. As I go south, I look forward to getting my hands a little dirty, but meals like this are really memorable. Thanks, Mom!

Now I’m in Baltimore with Meara at Josh and James’s place. Tomorrow I’ll post about Fette Sau in Brooklyn and then Ixia, where James works. Future posts will, I promise, be briefer and more frequent. I still can’t believe my trip is already underway.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A long-winded and rather dorky introduction

Ten years ago, I saved some money and set out on a trip across the country. Spencer’s parents bought an RV from a neighbor of theirs in rural New Hampshire, and the three of us, Spencer, Easy, and I, packed our things in the station wagon and headed up to Dublin from Boston with no set schedule, no jobs or leases to come back to, elated. On the way, Easy got spooked by something crawling over his foot in the passenger seat and we pulled over. The boys screamed manically at a walnut-sized mouse I caught between pieces of paper and dropped at the side of the road, and we cried laughing the rest of the way up. In the dirt driveway, we were giddy getting in the vehicle. Our dreams were coming true! Our destinies awaited! Spencer got in the driver’s seat while I lounged in an armchair in back. We were taking it for a test run, a trip to the insurance company in Keene to get our affairs in order. Spencer tapped the gas and the RV roared, lurching forward into a tree branch. The passenger-side window shattered and we froze—silent, solemn, uninsured.

We would not laugh about the RV episode until a year later, when Spencer and Easy moved to New York on a whim and I planned another trip across the country, this time with S., who’d bought a perfectly maintained raisin-colored 1988 Monte Carlo to make her brother jealous. Our first stop was Buffalo, where we stayed with her mother, who she hated, for five days. The weather was cold and we didn’t do much. I smoked in the driveway while S. and her mother fought. The only color I remember in Buffalo was the Indian food we ordered each night. S’s mother reached out to her by respecting her veganism and ordering accordingly, without comment or apparent judgment.

S. and me were both vegan: she had an abiding preference for animals over people; I had an adolescent desire to fit in while setting myself apart. S’s ethical convictions inspired me and I longed to be a part of a community—better still, the victim of a perceived injustice! Having recently recovered from the trauma of High School, I wasn’t fond of people, myself. (The myriad of excellent ecological and ethical reasons for eating low on the food chain was not apparent to me at the time.) I hoped to open a vegan restaurant one day.

Pulling into Bloomington, Indiana, the beautiful car sputtered to a halt and we were stranded for ten days in a house with six straight-edge boys in their late teens and Abby, a friend from Boston who’d landed there and reluctantly put us up. We sped across the rest of the country in a few days. Kansas never ended. By the time we arrived in Eugene, Oregon, S. was as tired of my wishy-washiness as I was of her brusqueness. I half-heartedly looked for work and ate a lot of vegan nachos and rice dream. By the time I broke my ankle in a bicycle accident six months later, we were barely on speaking terms. I flew back to Boston and never looked back. Six months later, I was going to college in Burlington, Vermont.

I started eating cheese within a year of my arrival in Vermont. I didn’t really know any vegans and I was happy and saw no reason to deny myself all the pleasure food could bring. But all those years of meticulously checking labels for rennet and lactic acid had left me unable to blindly consume and I mostly avoided pre-packaged foods with long lists of unrecognizable ingredients. I fell in with a lovely crowd of ethical foodies. Meghan and Gahlord had monthly potlucks for friends and acquaintances. J.B. grilled moose meat. Others brought ripe heirloom tomatoes from their gardens and fiddleheads from the farmer’s market. Everyone seemed to be thinking about where their food came from. After living briefly in New York, I returned to Burlington and began working at Smokejacks, where the food came from mushroom foragers with muddy pants and heavy accents, from rosy-cheeked farmers with bright red and gold bushels of beets. Waitstaff took written tests on local cheeses. We were proud to be a part of a food-based community. The food looked beautiful and tasted delicious.

Around the time Smokejacks closed, I took a job as AM dining room manager at The Inn at Shelburne Farms. The cows I saw from my bedroom window produced the farmhouse cheddar in the omelets. The eggs came from hens in the farmyard a mile down the road. Every day I ate salad from our market garden. Prepared with loving care, the food at Shelburne Farms was some of the best I’d ever tasted. I spent my free time walking the grounds, drinking wine, generally enjoying my spectacular surroundings and daydreaming about my next move. Living at work, I saved money in a way I hadn’t managed since living at home in Massachusetts. I had a car. I decided to take a road trip, alone.

I plan to travel down the East Coast, across the South, and up the West Coast, with detours for anywhere that sounds exciting. I’ll take my time and visit friends and eat and drink and have adventures. Now seems like the perfect time to start the food blog I’ve considered doing for years, though I’m sure there will be digressions aplenty. I’ll go to farmer’s markets and restaurants and vineyards and farms. I’ll post a lot of pictures. I’m going to leave the day after the inauguration. This year is going to be delicious.