Wednesday, December 02, 2009

An EPICurean Ending

I must preface this blog post with a warning to readers that it *may* contain some controversial/sensitive subject matter. Do not proceed if you are staunchly opposed to strange food combinations, Americans teaching Canadians how to play hockey, or the BBQing of poultry on a special occasion.


Sadly, my sojourn south of the border has come to close, at least for the time being. My final two and a half weeks in Vermont left me wanting for nothing, except, perhaps, a second stomach and a higher tolerance level for fine red wine. In any case, data collection continued to fill my days, and was especially interesting coming on the end, as I finally tracked down some farmers to talk to. They were, by and large, the most interesting interviewees and if I were living in Vermont, I'd be begging one of them for an internship position so I can learn how to use a ho.

Outside of official research activities, I continued to take in as much of the local food scene as possible through direct observations (i.e. copious amounts of food consumption). Luckily, by this time I'd managed to meet some people who were willing to cook, eat, and drink with me, which meant I no longer relegated myself to Friday nights sitting in Kate's kitchen alone, drinking Boyden Valley apple wine and eating local Holstein balls. To be fair, this particular scenario only occurred twice, but that was 2 times too many for this social Canadian (not to be mistaken with a socialist Canadia because, as I was informed more than once by left-winged Vermonters, 'socialist' is a dirty word in most parts of the US, which I kind of already knew, but found amusing/concerning anyways). So, in the interests of trying to finish this blog post before another turkey dinner comes my way, here are the top 3 food stories from my final weeks in Vermont. Organized, quite judiciously, in chronological order from most matured to freshest.


On a wet Tuesday evening (Nov 17th), after a full day of interviewing that had left me with no time to eat lunch or dinner, I found myself heading to Sterling College, which is located about half an hour from Hardwick in the small town of Craftsbury. Sterling College is the smallest college in the US, with about 100 students enrolled (that's a total #, over four years!), and on this particular evening, the college's kitchen was to serve as the functional venue for pie and soup making on a rather grand scale.

The task at hand: to make approximately 120 to 150 pumpkin pies for food pantries in the local area, and to make as much soup as possible from the squash puree that had been donated courtesy of High Mowing Seeds. The people who would make it happen: volunteers from Sterling College (mostly students, but also at least one staff member) and UVM (again, a mix of students & staff) and, um, one random Canadian grad student who found herself feeling ancient amongst a group of 20 year-olds that were remarkably mature and knew their way around a kitchen. Our fearless, brillian leader: Elena, who works at the Center for an Agricultural Economy in Hardwick (the non-profit organization that spearheaded the Pies for People project this year) ) and wielded her cooking and organizing skills to great effect. Within the span of 2 and half hours we managed to prepare, from scratch, 110 pie crusts, and defreeze (thaw?) the pie filling and squash soup puree. Oh, and clean! It was a fun night, captured on camera! Not to mention: This was really the 'final piece of the pie' in an inspiring collaboration between local farms, agriculture processors and schools, that committed to bringing Pies to the People, from planting, to harvesting, to pureeing, to preparing the final product.

I think this may be the first time I’ve prepared dessert without so much as a sample tasting! Notably, it was also one of the most enjoyable baking experiences I’ve had. I was salivating (figuratively, not literally b/c that would be gross) over the wonderful expansiveness of a commercial kitchen, all decked out with professional kitchen gadgets, pots galore, sharp knives and a sound system to boot... oh yeah, we were groovin’ to all sorts of tunes. My favorite eavesdropping moment of the evening was when the Dean of Students (probably not actually his official title, but it was something like that) for Sterling College who I’d guess was in his late forties, asked the young male student whose playlist was blaring out of the speakers what the name of the band playing was. When the student replied 'Death Cab for Cutie', the Dean asked him to repeat the name and then responded with 'uh huuuhhh'. I have to admit I felt a hint of jubilation that I recognized the name of the band - maybe I'm not so old after all.


My friend, Phil, had invited me along to a birthday celebration he was going to and suggested we make a locav-or-ganic dish to take with us. I told him I had a tonne of apples to use up and some local bacon from Bonnieview Farm that I'd been assured was delicious and nitrite free, assuming he'd suggest an apple dish and we would eat the bacon ourselves. Well, it turns out I underestimated the creative cook lurking in Phil, who promptly sent me a recipe for Apple-Bacon Pie. No really, Google it - there are a number of recipes out there for this strange savory-sweet combination of vitamins and fat.

Well, I'm not going to lie, I balked at the suggestion of bringing an Apple-Bacon pie to a birthday party where I knew no one. I could just imagine what they'd think/say. 'And then this Canadian girl showed up with an apple pie that had BACON in it'. It's a well known fact that Americans have a claim on apple pie, hence the phrase 'As American as apple pie', and Canadian Bacon is held in high esteem around the world, heck there's even a movie by the name! Did I really want to be the one to suggest an assimilation of these foods, a merger of deeply rooted culinary heritages? I think not. I am not that brave.

But then I came around to the idea, mostly b/c Phil was so enthusiastic about it and I'm not keen on extinguishing creativity in the kitchen. I gave him the simple task of peeling and slicing the apples and set about making the pie crust. The recipe called for a pre-made crust, but I was intent on making a crust that was from local or organic ingredients so started from scratch with organic flour, local Amish butter, and organic sugar. It seems, however, that I'd become a little too confident in my baking abilities and assumed that I could 'wing it' on the pastry recipe since I'd helped prepare 120 pie crusts earlier in the week (I somehow ignored the fact that Elena had given us very specific ingredient amounts to work with when we made the pie crust mix). Well, in any case, the Amish hadn't packaged their butter in the conventional 'stick', so I had to eyeball the amount. It should be noted that as I patted the dough into the pie pan, I commented to Phil that I *may* have put a bit more butter in than necessary. It turns out I was right on the money in this respect, as I discovered when I checked to see that the pie crust was baking up properly. It was not. Rather, the pastry dough had turned into a soggy, oily, unsalvageable mess.

I attempted to cover my embarrassment at the disastrous results of my pastry-making attempt, by using the oldest trick in the Cook's book - improvisation.

'Sooo...I don't think we're going to be bringing an apple-bacon pie to the party after all. about an apple-bacon crisp?' I suggested, while taking a sizeable gulp of red wine in an effort to forget about my baking debacle. It didn't work. So I took another swig and then admitted to being embarrassed by my baking blunder. Phil didn't bat an eye, although he *may* have chuckled a little bit.

I do believe the apple-bacon crisp was thoroughly enjoyed by those that tried it. We ended up with a crisp to suit the vegetarian/traditional eaters and the more adventuresome/carnivorous eaters at the party by sprinkling the bacon on half of the crisp. In the end, I'm kind of glad I messed up the pie crust, because there's no saying that goes 'As American as apple crisp', so I didn't have to worry about justifying the intermingling of culinary heritages, only about the absurdity of pairing bacon with apples. And for the record, the Bonnieview Farm bacon is the best bacon I've ever had.


While it's true that we have Thanksgiving in Canada, I have come to discover that our celebration of the harvest is markedly different than that of our American counterparts in many ways. First, there's the obvious - Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving in mid-October, Americans in late November. When I was quizzed as to why Canadians had their turkey day so early, I had to postulate, on the spot, that our harvest is likely to end earlier given our northerly climate. This seemed to placate the American inquisitors, but then they (and by they, I mean Joe S.) came back with 'well, what are you celebrating exactly? I mean, did you have pilgrims?' Sigh, no we didn't have pilgrims and I have no idea why we celebrate Thanksgiving in Canada when it's not a British tradition, I suppose it must have been one of the few times we've been inspired by the American way.

As an aside to any Canadians visiting the States - you will be expected to know the rationale for everything that Canada and its inhabitants do or purport to be. You may, for example, be required to explain the Parliamentary system (just tell them it's like the British system with an air of assumption that everyone whose anyone understands the British system of government and they'll back off), or give them a list of Canadian foods (poutine is the obvious fallback here, but you could throw in some other French words for fun like 'tourtiere de lappin' or 'fromage souper' or 'le Horton's de Tim), or, if you're really lucky, someone will ask you what you think of single-payer (i.e. 'socialist) health care. At this point I suggest announcing that a Canadian invented basketball (they'll fight this to the tooth & nail, but just send them here to Canadian Heritage Minutes), that Alexander Graham Bell made the first telephone call from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and that the Star Spangled Banner was written by Francis Scott Key upon seeing Fort McHenry heavily bombarded by the Brits during the War of 1812, which was a war the US basically lost. For extra umph, make mention that the tune of their anthem is actually that of a very popular British drinking song of the time. This should be enough to encourage a change of subject, at which point you can stop worrying about not knowing why Canadians do what they do.

So in the lead up to American Thanksgiving (Nov. 26th) I was presented with two equally tempting invitations. Kate, whom I'd been staying with in Hardwick, invited me to the afternoon dinner she was attending- her daughter and her daughter's friend would be preparing the meal and both of them were professionally trained chefs. If I stayed in Hardwick I could also take part in the community lunch, which would feature turkey and all the trimmings. Two turkey dinners in one day - very, very tempting! On the other hand, Joe had invited me to join him and his wife, Maura, at their friends' (Charles & Holly) house for a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (i.e. for those that had nowhere else to go). Charles and Holly own the Penny Cluse Cafe in Burlington, where both Maura and Charles cook up divine dishes. So, again, dinner would be prepared by two chefs. Really, I couldn't go wrong with either invitation, but in the end I opted for the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving with Joe & Maura for various reasons that may or may not have included mention of street hockey and special drink concoctions by Joe.

The day's festivities got off to a roaring start with Joe explaining to those of us standing in his driveway packing the car for the trip to Shelburne, his ingenious idea for transforming a tennis ball into a less bouncy, heavier, puck-like ball for the street hockey games that would take place later on.

'I stuffed some caulk in the balls', he stated rather proudly

And so, unsurprisingly, there was excessive use of the words 'caulk' and 'balls' throughout the day and well into the evening. By the end of the day, Joe was squeezing the caulk out of his balls - a messy job, but somebody's gotta do it.

We made a stop at the Penny Cluse to pick up Maura and a load of food that would be served up at dinner that evening, then headed for the countryside. The festivities began promptly upon arrival at Charles and Holly's with Joe mixing up some sort of cranberry-whisky (?) concoction that he dubbed 'Dirty Turkey' (I think, although I could be corrected on this). He offered me a sample. I tried to decline and failed. OK, here's the thing, I had accidentally consumed far more than my share of two bottles of fine red wine the evening before and was in no shape to be drinking anything besides water. So after one sample I bowed out of the alchol consumption (until I found myself gravitating towards a nice bottle of Riesling later on in the afternoon).

The afternoon was a blur of guests arriving and food being prepared while other food was simultaneously being thoroughly enjoyed. There was a cheese plate, a lamb sausage plate (courtesy of Bonnieview Farms - again, delicious fare!), scallop casserole , cauliflower soup, melon wrapped in prosciutto and that was just the appetizers. I kid you not.

At some point Joe, Charles, and some of the kids made their way outside for some street hockey action (it should be noted it was actually driveway hockey and that Charles had constructed end-boards so not every ball that missed the net had to be chased across the road...). I decided it was time to come into my own as a Canadian and so, for the first time in my life, I picked up stick and played hockey. Yes, yes, I am far too aware of how un-Canadian it is for me to have NEVER played hockey - street or ice - in the 29 years I've claimed citizenship of the great hockey nation. What can I say? I blame my parents. They gave me books to read and a bike to ride, but no hockey stick. Furthermore, I am well aware that Alanis would say 'isn't it ironic?' upon learning that my first hockey game was played south of the 49th parallel.

Well, in any event, I had a blast playing street hockey despite not being properly attired and completely perplexed as to why Charles was repeatedly calling me by my full name. And then, of course, there was Joe, who started calling out 'skrit' and 'ditch pig' as if I should know what the heck he was saying. Evidently I don't speak Canadian slang. I was feeling less and less like a true Canadian as the game wore on, but then, through some miracle of miracles, I scored on the net with a fantastic assist from a teammate! Woooh - there might be hope for me after all.

Meanwhile, while us humans were eating appetizers and playing in the driveway, Tom was spending his afternoon in the BBQ. At six o'clock we (approximately 12 of us) gathered around the dinner table where platters and dishes of food awaited us. I cannot even begin to recall the entire dinner - clearly Tom was the star of the show, a divine tasting turkey that had been grilled and thus had a hint of smokiness that was delightful. In addition there was stuffing which had been baked in a hollowed out pumpkin, mashed potatoes, endive casserole, some delicious roast vegetables with brussel sprouts and bacon making the dish particularly unique, scrumptious dinner rolls that Charles literally tossed to the guests (a little taste of football at the table!), cranberry relish, and other delights I am sure I am missing.

So we proceeded to stuff ourselves with deliciousness courtesy of Maura and Charles. It was, quite simply, a wonderful meal and I was so grateful to be a part of this special gathering of a closely knit group of friends, each one equally interesting, engaging, warm and welcoming. I've always maintained that friends are the family you choose, and I could see this sentiment rang very true in Charles and Holly's house that evening.

After dinner, many of us found our way back to the driveway for more street hockey. Joe had eased up on the 'skrit' name-calling, but dubbed me a 'cherry-picker'. It was neither here nor there to me, since I had no idea what the term meant. So I scored another goal and tried to avoid getting injured on my last day in a country that doesn't have universal health care. At one point, Harold, a friend of Joe's, took a time-out from playing hockey to tune up his fiddle. He sat on the sidelines playing jigs, reels and the such while we chased after Joe's caulky balls in the darkness of a late November evening.

And then we came inside for dessert and more mingling - after dinner arrivals had come in full force from their own festivities to say hello and catch up with friends and neighbors. At some point Joe and I discussed pop psychology and he pegged my Myers-Briggs personality type, which impressed me. That's when I advised him that the Star Spangled Banner was a defeatist war song, which did not impress him.

Eventually we said our goodbyes to our gracious hosts, Charles and Holly. I think I may have made a promise to come back to Burlington solely to enjoy the next Penny Cluse dinner series meal. If it means eating delicious food and enjoying the company of some of the delightful people I met at my first American Thanksgiving, then I may very well find myself back in Vermont sooner then I'd planned. And that would be perfectly fine by me.

Stuffing in Pumpkin - YUM!

Tom is grilled. Joe makes a friend.


Rob said...

Shannon - Holstein Balls???? Please say more about this novel Vermont dish

Shannon Courtney said...

Rob - Holstein Balls are discussed at length in an earlier post - I believe it was late October,possibly early November when I first made mention of this novel dish, which is maybe less Vermont, more Shanadian!

Elena G. said...

Ahh Shannon. How we miss you at the 49th Parallel! Just read your blog post and although I should be offended by your liberal use of caulk and balls in the same sentence or the tongue-in-cheek digs of our treasured anthem, instead I find I am cracking a smile.

OK, I'm actually snorting with laughter, but not without feeling completely un-American.

Come back soon!

Shannon Courtney said...

Elena - I miss the 49th parallel dearly and will be planning a very short stopover ...on Jan. 2nd & 3rd, which is the weekend, but Claire's will be open and I'm planning to grab dinner there on Saturday night! (this is an unofficial invitation to join, which I'm not sure you'll ever will follow up with an email closer to the date of arrival!)