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.