To live Out West entails a certain amount of looking down your nose toward the East, where the natives cram into a matrix of overcrowded cities and suburban connective tissue. Yet, while we wax majestic in our wide-open splendor, there is another side to this story. Western cities, for example, contain more laser-straight streets, grid system planning, square pre-fab homes, places like North Reserve St., and other signs of industrial homogeneity…so much farther away from Europe, the winding streets planned by meandering cows, and the finely crafted homes nestled within the landscape, rather than superimposed upon it by planners.
Perhaps at this point you are thinking Thanks for the philosophical diarrhea, Chef Boy Ari, but what does this have to do with food? Well, I found myself in Vermont last week, that folded landscape of sparsely populated green hills and fern-carpeted forests, frolicking in the deliriously sweet nooks and crannies of local culture. And where there is fine local culture, there is fine local food. When Saturday came, I was sad to be missing another glorious Missoula Farmer’s Market. But lucky for me, I happened upon its Brattleboro, Vt. counterpart.
Irish and Celtic fiddle riffs lilted about the grassy grove in which vendors formed a meandering circle through the maple, beech, locust, white pine and poplar. In the center of the circle, people schmoozed at a leisurely pace around picnic tables, while children played in a big sandbox. A table was set up to advertise Vermont’s “Farm to Family” program, and a woman collected signatures to ban Home Depot from Brattleboro. A similar petition recently sent Wal-Mart packing to New Hampshire.
Food vendors were interspersed in the circle, selling Thai and Mediterranean food and homemade donuts. These vendors had a much more down-home feel than food vendors in Missoula tend to have, and a lot less stainless steel, and you could taste it. This fit in perfectly with the Old World feel of the scene, children running around the magic grove like elves.
At a booth advertising a “Ploughman’s Lunch,” Bob Works of Peaked Mountain Farm offered me samples of lamb Pâté de Champagne, made with jersey cream, pistachios, port wine, chives and parsley. It was garnished with roasted pine nuts and pistachios, and it was so good it made me dizzy. The rabbit pâté wasn’t too tough on the tongue either. When I started scribbling in my notebook, Bob started asking questions. When I told him where I was from, he said, “Hey, alright, The Show Me State.”
“No,” I said, my mouth gummed up with pâté, “not Missouri. Missoula, as in Montana.”
“Hey cool,” he said, “Big Sky Country.”
Since my mouth was full, I let him do the talking. “We grow small quantities,” he said, “and then we add value. Our main commodity is sheep cheese, and we have meat left over. So we slaughter the lambs, sell the meat frozen, and cook it in delicious and unusual ways. My wife and I bake, cook, and farm. We are creating food.” He pointed to a roasted leg of lamb on a cutting board, next to a fresh loaf of focaccia. “Look how small this leg is—barely two pounds. Most Americans don’t even know how good a lamb this young is, but if you’re Greek, Bulgarian, Israeli…when you see a lamb this size, it’s elbows out, claw your way to the front.”
Meanwhile, a guy with a Boston or New York accent walks up to me. “Ya takin’ notes a wat?”
My full mouth said, “I’m Chef Boy Ari.”
He waved me off. “Fahhgetaboutit,” he said.
Perusing the market, I found other value-added food products as well, including designer pickles, like the pickled fiddlehead ferns I almost bought, except they had dill in them—yechh. The Spice Grrlz were selling dips and meat rubs, full of concentrated flavor. There was maple syrup, frozen pasture-raised chicken, goat chevre and feta cheese marinating in olive oil and herbs.
And of course, there was the produce, the variety of which indicated that southern Vermont’s growing season is on par with Missoula’s: garlic, onions, lettuce, cabbage, cukes, new potatoes, tomatoes, greens and strawberries. The early bolters had come and gone. But the prepared food made my day, like the Cameroonian spinach and beef that melted in my mouth like butter. It came with a hot sauce option that might actually be perfect: ultra-sneezy fire, smoky and flavorful. Georgiana, of Cameroon, told me the ingredients (green pepper, green onion, tomato, garlic, and habañero pepper), but wouldn’t divulge mom’s secret process. The way she smiled, I think I could have pried it out of her in time, but I’ve been wrong about smiles before. I bought a jar to bring to the lab for analysis.
And if you think the Farmer’s Market was cool, wait until I tell you about the Brattleboro Food Co-op.
E-mail Chef Boy Ari: firstname.lastname@example.org