St. Lucia

It’s weird to think that this week last year I was in Sweden going to a Luciagasque. Now to those of you who have never lived in Sweden, that might take some explaining. First I have to explain a gasque…it’s like a fancy party, I suppose. They may be unique to student nations, which is another entirely confusing topic. In short, student nations are very old student clubs that have some similarities to the residential colleges at places like Yale or Oxford. They were originally for students to gather with others from their region in Sweden. Kalmar was for people from around Kalmar and Norlands was for people from the far north. There are 13 Nations in Uppsala and they are open to student from both Uppsala University and the Swedish University of Agriculture.

These days you can join whichever one you want, so there is a large degree of self selection. Kalmar has become not the Nation for people from Kalmar, but for hipster indie-music listening vegans. Stockholms Nation is the Nation for preps (who are called “brats” in Sweden) , and bizarrely enough, exchange students from California.

I loved them because I’ve always been a little jealous of places like Yale with their Harry Potter-like residential colleges. Each nation had a pub, restaurant, cafe, choirs, and sports teams. There were several gasques each semester based on Swedish holidays and the traditions of individual Nations. Some of the latter included the cheesecake gasque at Kalmar Nation and the sheep’s head gasque (yes, that means they eat sheep’s heads) at Gotland Nation. But most had Luciagasques because the festival of St. Lucia is a big one in Sweden.

The popular American Girl Doll...

Like many American women of my age, I am familiar with St. Lucia primarily through the popular American Girl Dolls. Kirsten, one of the hugely popular and overpriced dolls, is supposed to be a Swedish immigrant and one of her outfits was a St. Lucia costume, which is a white robe with a red sash and the famous crown of candles.

Swedish songbook and a beer from Slottskällans Bryggeri, the local microbrewery

Candles are extremely popular in Sweden, perhaps because the winter is so dark. I never really thought much about using candles before I moved to Sweden. Swedes were horrified to hear that they are outlawed in college dorms in America. I often found my roommates doing homework and watching TV by candlelight.

Candles are so popular that hordes of blond women dress up as St. Lucia and violate municipal fire codes by wearing them on their heads. St. Lucia may or may not be accompanied by a bunch of Star Men, which basically wear dunce hats and carry around a pole with a star on it.

Of course the Luciagasque had a St. Lucia and her minions, as well as Christmas flavored Snaps, which are vodkas infused with flavors like lingonberry.

What do you do at such an event? There were several courses of julbörd, traditional Swedish Christmas food, and in between lots of singing by both the Lucia choir and the guests, which gets progressively worse through the night. The reason for that is the truly absurd amount of alcohol served with the meal. Between the two dark beers and the snaps, it’s inevitable.

The best dishes are probably:
– Fresh homemade gravlax, which is salmon curd in salt, sugar, and dill
– Smoked reindeer hearts. Seriously. They had a wonderful foie gra-like texture and none of the earthiness of other offal cuts.
– Roe.

Foods I avoid on a julbörd:
– Janssons Frestelse (Jansson’s Delight): Potatoes, cream, onions, and anchovies.
– Lutefisk. Fish cured in lye anyone? It smells and tastes like soap.
– Kalvsylt. I just know that translates to calf jelly. While I like pates, I’ve never warmed to the idea of meat jellys.

Of course, the Julbörd isn’t the only holiday eating tradition. I enjoyed glögg parties. Glögg is a spiced wine of which there seemed to be many varieties based on different spice mixes, levels of sweetness, and type of wine used at the base. We drank it warm accompanied by delicious hot cinnamon rolls, saffron rolls, and pepperkakor (ginger snap-like cookies).

An interesting fact is though spiced cider is available, it’s considered odd to drink it hot.

Young Farmer’s Conference

Stone Barns

I love conferences, but strangely enough I never leave them feeling very happy. I guess that’s because the type of learning that I value so much, which happens at these conferences, is also the kind that brings up tough questions about everything.

Broilers....Cornish Crosses

I’m not even sure where to start talking about my experience at Stone Barns because there was so much packed in to those two days. I’d been to Stone Barns before to tour the farming operations. I was particularly impressed with the pigs, which they forage in the lush forest. I remember not being very impressed with the broiler (that’s meat) chickens though. They were nearly featherless and pathetic looking, almost like giant walking carcasses with tiny heads and black beady reptilian eyes. They were on pasture in movable coops, but they clustered together looking bored. They were nothing like the egg layers a few pastures over with their beautiful plumage and curious expressions. I had just met the Cornish Cross, the variety of chicken we are all familiar with without even knowing it.

Its neat white carcass with plump oversized breasts is pretty much what all of us are eating when we eat chicken. It’s interesting that Stone Barns would opt for this type of chicken rather than a more hardy heritage breed, but it underscores the fact that local/organic agriculture is diverse and includes plenty of people concerned with business ideals. And in most business calculations, the Cornish Cross wins. It might even be more sustainable because it converts feed into meat better than any other bird which isn’t sullied with pigmented feathers or weird muscling.

Egg layers

But it’s a bird that doesn’t have much personality and I’ve heard pasture farmers complain bitterly that they would rather die on a hot summer day then walk a few meters to get water.

I think it’s too bad that these days Jonathan Safran Foer is the voice saturating the media with questions about eating meat. It’s good that people are thinking about it, but too bad that someone with relatively limited agricultural experience is the dominant voice.

I was reading this interview with him this morning:

MJ: Another thing I wanted to ask you about is hunting. Do you think hunting is a more humane alternative to factory farms?

Jonathan: How is it humane? In a slaughterhouse they all go really quickly — hunting they don’t

MJ: Well, it’s humane in that the animal has led a good life up until the time of death.

JSF: But that doesn’t make hunting good. It makes the fact that the animal had a good life up to that point good. And those aren’t our choices. I’d rather get lethal injection than be hanged, but actually I’d rather have neither. People often set up these false choices, these false dichotomies, and it’s not like we have to do either of them.

I thought about that as I slaughtered my first chicken. It’s pretty hard to say that an animal’s death will be one way on another. Many hunters are able to kill animals instantaneously and many of those working in slaughterhouses make painful mistakes.

And maybe it’s not very scientific, but I think there is something wrong about eating food from an animal that is so far away from actually being an animal. As my chicken struggled weakly to escape, I thought about how it would never ever survive in the wild. It was more machine than animal.

I thought about being a vegetarian over the next few days. In the past I’ve been dismissive of that choice because the egg layers on Stone Barns go through that exact same slaughterhouse when their time is up. But those egg layers sure looked more vital.

There is also the issue of health. I personally struggled on a grain and legume heavy diet as a vegetarian. I dabbled in raw veganism and my stomach problems subsided, but I had very little energy. Finally, I added in meat to that diet and felt great. In fact I was able to go off medication that doctors told me I would have to take for the rest of my life.

It would be nice to stop having to buy expensive grass fed animals and just pick up a package of tofu and a bag of beans, but until I find more foods that are vegetarian and don’t obliterate my stomach, this will remain a reality. The food they served us at the conference was 95% vegetarian….I unfortunately felt quite sick from it, which was the only complaint I would levy about the experience.

And there are other realities too, such as how crops are supposed to be fertilized. The farmers on the conference told me universally that their goal was to have a sustainable system where grass feeds animals and animals feed the grass (and other crops) through compost. Without this compost where is the fertilizer going to come from?

Fossil fuels. Luckily, Wes Jackson of the Land Institute was there at dinner to tell us what fossil fuel fertilizer has wrought: the giant “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

People ask me how we are supposed to feed everyone with the kind of diet I eat. First I tell them that I hope others don’t have my own limitations, but Wes Jackson made the valid point that feeding people and animals with annual grains isn’t going so well either. His plan as a geneticist is to develop perennial wheat, sorghum, and sunflower because perennial grains do not require environmentally devastating fertilizers and tillage.

Perennial grain agriculture already exists though, it just requires grazing animals since humans can’t eat those grasses. And farmers in the room worried aloud about the possibility of Jackson’s crops becoming super weeds. It’s, after all, naturally-bred crops, not GMOs, that have become super weeds in the past.

Besides that, the archaeological evidence is that dependence on grains has been deleterious to human health. The bones of excessively grain-dependent humans (including ourselves) are warped with deformities, though some of those are now accepted as normal such as the inability of our jaws to accommodate our wisdom teeth.

There are many alternatives to grains though. According to a A Movable Feast: Ten Millennia of Food Globalization by Kenneth Kiple, some of the healthiest bones archaeologists have found were the Native Americans on the coast of California who ate primarily seafood and acorns. In the permaculture workshops by Connor Stedman and Ethan Roland, we learned about such treecrops and farmers who are trying to revive tree-based agriculture.

Coming home, I feel like a diet that is right for me would include animals that lived with dignity, as well as a diverse variety of local vegetables, fruits, and nuts. Death is only one day and while it’s important to debate it, I strongly disagree with Foer that hunting is not a good choice. Wild game is healthier for humans and the environment, especially given problems with invasive species (wild boar) and overpopulation (deer because humans have pushed out predators).

The argument that vegetarianism is the most sustainable diet falls apart in the face of the realities of agriculture. Whether it’s pigs or potatoes, modern agriculture is unsustainable. The world already has the capacity (though through unsustainable grain agriculture) to feed everyone decently even if us Americans continue to chow down on chicken, but unfortunately hunger is a problem of access rather than capacity.

Stone Barns pigs love compost and live in the forest

The animals I eat do not eat human-food anyway, they eat grass( or trash in the case of pigs). Farmer Steffen Schneider of Hawthorne Valley farms discussed livestocks role in his Biodynamic Livestock Nutrition class. Steffen’s farm is a closed system where his cattle produce all his fertilizer- that for the grass they eat and enough additional to fertilize all his vegetable crops as well. As a biodynamic farmer he is constantly thinking about his animals, body and soul, and how to nourish them so they can nourish his land and the humans that live on it.

The argument about cruelty is truly a more difficult one and why I believe everyone who chooses to eat meat should confront the blood-splattered walls of a slaughterhouse at some point.

The least gruesome picture in the album

Even though I’m not squeamish, it was definitely a difficult experience. The first animals I ever processed were these wild rabbits up on a farm in Wisconsin. It surprised me for exactly the opposite reasons the chicken slaughter did. It was fairly bloodless and it felt like these animals were part of a harvest rather than an act of violence. They lived their own lives on the farm and were full of muscle because of it.

It’s a very different process to shoot an animal compared to putting the chickens upside down in “kill cones” so their heads struck out and slitting their throats. As I eviscerated them I found they had almost no muscle and tiny underdeveloped organs. They didn’t fight or run. How much vitalty can one expect to get from eating such an animal? I don’t regret learning about how to slaughter them, but it makes me think twice about ordering chicken wings again.

In the end my diet is not about individual animals though, it is about what sort of food system I want to support. A vegan diet can definitely support a food system that is damaging and unsustainable as a whole and a carnivorous diet can support one that isn’t. Carnivore and herbivore is a false dichotomy.

Hailing farms such as Dan Barber’s Blue Hill as a paragon of the “goodness of farms,” Foer went as far to say that Barber “..treats his animals better than I treat my dog.” And still, Foer would “not endorse these kinds of farms,” because even the most conscientious farms are part of the “system” of meat-eating, which is generally wrong. As an analogy,

It’s not the system of meat eating I support, it’s the system of sunlight, grass, and good compost that I support, rather than oil, synthetic fertilizer, and soil erosion.

Snippet: Biking in Sweden

Biking in Sweden

Biking in Sweden from melissa mac on Vimeo.

I finally managed to upload videos I took with my camera (not a video camera, hence the crappy quality) while I was in Europe. Here you can see a bike path near the Swedish Agricultural University in Uppsala. This was a great path: isolated from cars, winding through gorgeous fields of grasses and canola. At night it looked positively spooky, as the lights only lit the path and it seemed like you were biking on the edge of some dark abyss.

I think it’s obvious that the US lags in bicycling and even bicycle advocates here seem to miss the point sometimes. Painting some lines on a road and calling it a bike path might attract some of the intrepid risk-taking set of young people that populate NYC, but it’s not going to attract mothers taking small children to preschool or grandpas carrying home groceries. Everyone biked in Sweden and the reason why everyone biked was that the Swedish bike paths made biking fun, rather than scary and death-defying as it is here.

First of all, they were separate from the roads for automobiles, which have the unfortunate tendency to weight 100 times more than bikes. Second, they were often far away from those roads and in nice places, so not only were you not crushed by cars, you were biking through a peaceful forest and didn’t have to hear them.

It was nice to get that sort of exercise without toiling in some dreary gym. Needless to say, Swedish people are not as umm…round as their American counterparts and while some of that can be credited to better food, I think biking plays a big role .

It would require a major infrastructural overhaul to have this kind of system in the US, which I dare to hope for, but in order to get to this point I think we have to stop taking it for granted that cars are king and start taking bikes seriously.

As a post script, it’s also easier to get a cheap practical bike in Sweden. It seems like all the bikes around here are racing or mountain bikes, but when a bike is a vehicle not for sports, but for shopping and getting around, those bikes are unnecessary and impractical. A simple one speed one gear road bike with ample basket space is what you need…and those can be hard to find in the US:

Biking to the Håga Valley from melissa mac on Vimeo.

Biking in Sweden II from melissa mac on Vimeo.

It Takes a Village To Make a Sausage

I admit that I actually don’t know much about New York state. I could identify the shape, but I am just starting to comprehend its vastness and distinct regions. I had no idea where I was going when I took the train on Saturday morning, just that I wanted to learn more about meat. I was pleasantly surprised as the train made its way along the Hudson river, its banks gleaming with fall foliage. As I got closer to wherever it was I bought the ticket for(…was it Rhinbock, Rhineshore?), mountains appeared blue in the distance. I was suddenly filled with the urge to take the train through what I imaged were several impressive mountain ranges and on to Montreal. I’m still getting over the fact that I’m not traveling much anymore. Those Icelandair ads on the subway with a couple along Iceland’s eerie rocky shore never fail to bring a tear to my eye. Let’s not even talk about the Delta ads that beckon me to Asia and other exotic locales, even if they are tainted with the implication that I would go there to make business deals.

Despite my wanderlust, I got off at scenic Rhinecliff at the edge of the water. Soon enough I was meeting wonderful people, including Amanda and Coco of the Greenhorns posse who picked us up and drove us to Mead Orchards in Tivoli, wherever that is. Oh, and while I’m at it, maybe I should explain why I was there.

I was there because Smithereen Farm, which is run by a group of enterprising young farmers, slaughtered their Tamworth pigs and they invited a butcher to come break them down into a feast and teach everyone about pork in the process. I’d participated in the butchery of rabbits and poultry before, but not pigs and in fact I almost never cook pork. If you know me well, you probably know that I’m pretty much the opposite of squeamish and have no problem with blood and guts. When I told people in NYC where I was going some of them reacted in horror. I figure if you are going to eat meat you might as well be intimate with the process of dismantling the animal that died to give you food and to acknowledge it as an animal and not a chicken breast. I think people who can’t do that should be vegans, vegans because vegetarians eat milk and eggs and if you think old brown cow Bessy goes to a retirement home when her milk production lags you are delusional.

I guess I’m up on my soap box now. Having experience with dairy and egg production, vegetarianism never made much sense to me. In fact I feel much more comfortably eating meat, since the animals I ate spent their entire lives outside doing what they want and raising their young as they pleased. Dairy animals work every day and their young are taken away and either slaughtered or bottle fed. Some people say I’ve missed the point, which is that vegetarianism is largely symbolic, about not consuming the flesh and blood, not whether or not your diet causes death or not.

I’m curious to read Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book Eating Animals. I’ve read Peter Singer’s pro vegan books and recently read The Face on Your Plate: The Truth About Food” by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. I respect vegans highly and often order vegan food when I’m eating out, but I’ve decided from my experience with agriculture and my own body that I do best with some meat and fish in my diet and I’m comfortable with eating animals.

That said, I don’t eat loads of meat because the meat I eat is expensive, and rightly so. Raising a quality animal humanely and feeding it right is hard work. There has been lots of talk about how meat is “bad” is a global context, but these pigs we broke down and ate were a perfect example of grey areas. They didn’t eat food that would have gone to humans in a third world country, pigs eat trash. There food didn’t pollute our waters, it went to fertilizer. Pigs can also live in the woodland perfectly well, so there is no need for deforesting land. In the case of this, parading around UN papers to which are largely irrelevant to small scale farm like Smithereen to bash meat consumption is disingenuous of animal rights activists at best.

Enough soapboxing. The weekend was far more than just a meditation on the eating of animals. It was a celebration of delicious food that attracted an incredibly awesome and diverse crowd of people from cooks to poets (and everything in between). The apple harvest was over, but a few apples hung on the trees beckoning us to eat them. We also gleaned these raspberries, miraculously juicy despite the late autumn chill.


The butcher, Bryan Mayer of Brooklyn’s Green Grape, showed us the process of breaking down the pigs into cuts. It was extremely useful to see that. I’ve seen diagrams, but there is nothing like seeing the dismantling happen to help you remember what comes from where. What was truly amazing was how much meat came from just two pigs. It easily fed all 20 of us during the weekend with meat to spare. Being such valuable and lovingly raised animals, every single edible part was put to use.


After the pigs were cut up, we all went to work harvesting turnips, chopping up vegetables, and cooking up the pork into a giant delicious feast. We had ragu (it’s a delicious pasta sauce made from pork!), pork belly, pie, mashed turnips, roast tenderloin…everyone was stuffed as we ate by the campfire.


But the work wasn’t done! The next day we rendered lard to fry apples and doughnuts in. I like stirring things and the process of melting down lard fascinates me in the same way churning ice cream does. It’s a defiant alchemy that things like ice cream and lard can be created. Whenever I make ice cream I can’t help staring at the machine as it somehow makes an essence of the liquid, magnifying its wonderful creaminess as it whirls rope upon rope to beckon it to become something the milk must have never dreamed possible. As I cut down the pieces of fat and we pulled them through the grinder, it seemed impossible that they could melt into clarify. But after stirring the pot over the fire and filtering out the delicious smokey crackings, a pot of clear hot fat bubbled up demands for battered apples and dough to ply its alchemy on. Anything put in the pot became a zillion times tastier. There are not many other substances that can do that.

Finally, any part not used by now went into sausage, which was expertly spiced by the team of cooks and chefs.

Awesome links to people I met
Pdo Foto
Link My Balsamic
Hudson Grown
Cricket Bread
Shafer Hall
Hudson Valley Food Network
The Greenhorns
Open Bicycle
Pound Sweet

But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.

Robert Frost

A picture I discovered of the lamb takedown

Me and Julie eat an overwhelming amount of lamb


Slow Cooking and Fermenting This Week


The two themes of this week seemed to be slow cooking and fermenting. I attended several food events on both and hope to put what I learned into practice soon.

Jessica Prentice, author of the excellent cookbook Full Moon Feast, was in town to teach about her Local Foods Wheel through the lens of slow cooking and fermenting.

At the first workshop we learned about using a slow cooker to make soups, stews, and stocks. Jessica explained how a slow cooker is an excellent tool for those of us who only eat grassfed meat. Why? Well, if you haven’t been to your local farmer’s market lately, I’ll fill you in by just saying that a grassfed steak is a rare rare treat that costs a pretty penny. Most of the cuts that are affordable to people like me, like short ribs and shanks, are much tougher to cook and need a long slow cooking time. With a slow cooker you don’t need to be home for that whole time. Besides that, grassfed meat is very valuable and you want to extract as much as you can from it, so you need to learn the art of stocks.

I don’t have a slow cooker yet, but I hope to purchase one soon so I don’t have to sit around at hope worried about leaving and a fire starting to get those lamb shanks braised.

Oh, speaking of lamb, I also went to a lamb cooking contest where many of those great cheap cuts were prepared deliciously. It was a lamb Takedown and it was delicious and filling.


There were lots of cheaper cuts like shanks and shoulder. It was sponsored by the American Lamb Board and I wish they had more info about specific cuts, because really I think Americans don’t know very much about lamb (including me). I started eating it incidentally because central Illinois, where I went to college, had a couple of awesome sustainable lamb farms + a population of Muslims. Somehow they got connected, which equaled some pretty delicious Middle Eastern style lamb sausage. Lamb was also popular in Sweden, but I could never find any shanks…maybe because I didn’t know the word for “shank,” but I honestly never saw them. That was sad because way back when I had some amazing beer and a lamb shank at Elysian brewery in Seattle, which I can still remember in delicious meat-falling off-the-bone detail. Thankfully, shank and I have been reunited and I have been giving it regular, though time-consuming, baths in beer.


The lighting was very bad, so I didn’t get many pictures, but I certainly ate enough, including this lamb served with a juicy fig and mint mascarpone (why does my spell check want to turn this into mascara pone?). The winning dish as judged by famous dudes Josh Ozersky (The Feedbag), Daniel Maurer (NY Magazine), and George Motz (NY Food Film Festival) was Barbacoa Style Lamb Tacos w 3 Chile Salsa, but I was a bigger fan of other dishes. I loved the Ssam, which was lamb with spicy kimchee wrapped in lettuce, but the second place winner, Pulled Lamb Shank with Pears I loved since it was silky and displayed the best of true lamb flavor.

Anyway, back to the Prentice workshops, the second was on fermenting. I’ve never been a fan of sauerkraut. I’ll eat, but lets just say I’m pretty picky about it. I may like my beer funky, but I prefer that my sauerkraut doesn’t send me reeling when I open it….which otherwise lovingly made wonderful homemade cabbage ferments do. But I actually thought Jessica’s ferments were absolutely delicious. Maybe I’m just getting desensitized to funky things. I used to be the little girl that had to tear off and throw away the corner of my grilled cheese if it had even touched an evil pickle. But I also think it was because hers had fermented a very long time. Some of the jars she brought were over a year old.

It was very useful to learn about the proper equipment, which for sauerkraut is a special crock that prevents mold growth. I would have liked to learn more about the whey and ginger bug sodas though, since I have brewed sodas before and would like to stop using commercial yeast.

Anyway, I learned so much and I loved meeting the people from the NYC Weston A. Price Foundation. I have been a big proponent of full fat diets for several years now and it was great to connect with a similar community. I started reading her book and not only does it have interesting recipes, but her exploration of reconnecting the human body to the seasons is absolutely fascinating and a reason to buy the book to read and not just to cook with.


I also attended a workshop by Brooklyn Brew Shop on brewing beer, where I had too much good beer and was maybe a little bit convinced to take the plunge and have a bunch of crap in a jar fermenting in a hopefully discreet corner of my kitchen. But I’m not really sure, because while I like a good beer every once in awhile, it’s something I drink maybe once a week. I’m also mostly interested in weird crazy wild yeast beers and it seems I’ll need future education to be able to harness the power of crazy yeast.

Veritas Farm

Today I visited Veritas Farm for work. It was an unusually cold day and rain sputtered intermittently. I wondered how NY had skipped from 80 degree to 50 degree days.

Veritas specializes in pastured raised meat, but they have expanded their vegetable operations in the past two years too. Various fat birds like these ducks waddled around to welcome me, temporarily distracted from a pile of windfall apples salvaged from this summer’s hailstorms.


The farm is very old and was a former homestead that was overgrown when former Brooklyners Paul Alward and Stephanie Turco took over. They cleared the land with hard work and a herd of goats, but it still is very lush with forest greenery.


Large herds of highland cattle roamed looking hardy and even a little happy in the rain.


This frighteningly fat, but good-hearted Gloucestershire Old Spots pig wanted a back scratch.

Farmer Stephanie told me that they personally accompany all their animals to slaughter and ensure they get the best treatment possible.

This was a great farm and I would go here often to buy their meat. They were really serious about grass-fed, which is important to me because grass-fed meats are much better nutritionally. Grass-fed meats are much closer to the wild game humans would have hunted down for most of our existence as a species. As such,, they are higher in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E. I don’t really bother buying anything else and the added bonus is that farms like this are truly a wonderful place for animals to live and not fake free-range…the thick coated highland cattle live outside 365 days a year!