The attraction of new places is the possibility of encountering the unexpected. On Nov. 11 a year ago, it was 75 degrees in Missoula. I had just moved here the week before from a particularly damp, mild part of the Pacific Northwest. To celebrate settling in, I planted garlic in neat rows that thrived through the surprisingly mild winter, sprouting by mid-March, yielding magnificent heads that rivaled in number and size the bumper crops friends produced year after year in the fertile, damp, and rarely frozen soils of the coast. I was day-dreaming that day of garlic-and-rosemary mashed potatoes, of the roasted golden skin and tender juicy flesh of a free-range, free-spirited turkey sacrificed on the altar of Thanksgiving, a bird raised on organic grain, an animal worthy of Benjamin Franklin’s much-ridiculed nomination for The National Bird. I wanted a turkey that lived a happy and fulfilled life until the moment its blissful little neck hit the chopping block. And then it struck me: Where would I find such a bird in these parts?
Before the unsavory accusations of provincialism and West Coast snobbery begin, let me defray them by saying they’re absolutely true. One of the few consolations of watching your hometown drown in acre after acre of new subdivisions is quick access to a lot of good food, though eating in Seattle or Portland has developed its own brand of pretentiousness. While you can wear jeans to just about any restaurant in town, cooking at home is the true test of the tragically hip, which means where you buy your groceries has become of paramount importance to those with a discerning palate, a distinction that until very recently was limited to chefs or food critics. In most cities now, there is no shortage of gourmet grocery store chains catering to the notion that it might be just as prudent to roast a basketball as a Butterball, a concept evolved as much out of an obscenely prosperous economy as any concern for personal or ecological health.
That day in the garden a year ago, I became unexpectedly homesick in a gastronomic sense. A happy, hippie turkey was at least a day’s drive away. I initiated an internet search and found that for about the price of a flight to Toronto, some well-meaning person will deliver a carefully bred, fed and processed turkey to your door. To make matters worse, the family celebration last year was in Spearfish, S.D., further into the nation’s heartland, where I imagined the request for anything “free range” might be met with uncomprehending stares, or open hostility, which was only another ignorant urban assumption about to be turned on it’s head.
It turns out that South Dakota is the birthplace of free-range for domesticated animals. The way I found out is that someone told me about the Good Food Store, where they sell Hutterite turkeys. At first, I wondered obtusely if Hutterite might be some sort of meat substitute, but then learned they were people like the Amish for whom there were great reasons to admire. Like the latter, the Hutterites were persecuted in Europe for maintaining religious practices that were not heartily endorsed by the big department-store religions, the refusal to bear arms being foremost among those. Kicked off their native soil in Russia in 1870, the German-speaking Hutterites were subsequently chased out of every other country in Europe in which they tried to settle, which prompted them to get on a boat and sail west to America. They stopped first in South Dakota in 1874, where they stayed until World War I, fleeing to Canada to avoid U.S. military conscription. The Hutterites returned to the States via Montana in the late 1930s and have quietly prospered since, with some 40 Hutterite communities calling the north central part of the state home. At the very least, a peaceful coexistence with local farmers and ranchers has developed with the Hutterites, who have fostered a reputation of always being willing to help their neighbors.
Through strict adherence to communal living, hard work, and diligent care of their land, the Hutterites have become masterful farmers, spurning conventional agricultural methods in favor of organic and holistic practices. Since they’ve been at it for more than a century, the recent phenomenonal growth in sales of organic produce, meat and dairy products will no doubt benefit the Hutterites economically. But economic prosperity has never been the primary concern of the Hutterites. The idea that, as Wendell Berry would have it, the life of the soil is analogous to the life of the spirit seems a central tenet of Hutterite life. The food they produce and sell throughout western Montana demonstrates year-round what is referred to blithely as the holiday spirit, according to Good Food Store Education Coordinator Randi Erickson.
“The first thing that surprises you about them is that they’re really funny,” says Erickson, who has visited the New Rockport Colony near Choteau, where her store buys the nearly 1,400 turkeys sold to customers throughout western Montana. “They have this dry sense of humor which maybe you don’t catch onto the first time, but after two or three jokes, it’s clear. They’re also very shy, but incredibly generous and hospitable people. They won’t let us leave without tons of produce, eggs, and fresh baked bread. And the gifts are freely given by everyone you meet, including children. We even got to sample the homemade rhubarb wine they make.”
Erickson’s descriptions of the New Rockport Colony are excerpted here from her own written account of the visit: “We took in a sweeping view of the property-6,000 acres in all, much of it enveloped in a sea of grain ready for harvest. The farm’s living area in uncomplicated and unadorned, designed with function in mind. The land consists of a few buildings and smaller houses built for the 20 families living [at New Rockport.] The colony’s main buildings are accented only with windows, and the grounds are gravelled and tidy, with cement sidewalks from building to building, perhaps to guard the women’s long skirts from mud in the rainy season. ... The [food] storage area is huge, dark and rich with the smell of earth and stored vegetables. Illuminated by two or three light bulbs, the cellar holds 500 tons of vegetables, or enough storage for about 250,000 orders of french fries.”
Erickson describes colony spokesman John Wipfe as an open person, one who walks the farm with a cell phone on his hip and is willing to answer most questions. “He always gives us an update on the health of the birds willingly,” says Erickson, who noted that the colony’s birds are fed from grain grown on the property, and that no birds are given growth hormones, although if a chick gets sick, antibiotics are used. The Sunday before Thanksgiving, the entire colony—some 125 men women and children—will participate in the butchering of this year’s turkeys. The slaughter takes a long day; then early Monday morning, trucks deliver the birds to The Good Food Store. According to Erickson, the largest turkeys are then donated to local charities—including the Poverello Center, which last year received a monstrous 36-pound turkey to serve at Thanksgiving dinner.
Then at 5:30 on Tuesday morning, the Good Food Store prepares for the deluge of people who show up to purchase their holiday turkey. “We’ve got some employees who haven’t yet experienced turkey day,” says Erickson. “Hopefully they’ll learn that it’s a little hectic and a little fun as well. It’s become a kind of Missoula tradition, we give out rolls and coffee and hot cider, people visit in line, and talk about their plans for the holiday season.”
I had been warned of the festive crowd outside the store last year. I admit some skepticism of a city which, in sharp contrast to others that light Christmas trees or decorate town squares, marks the beginning of the holiday season by getting up in the dark and waiting in line for a dead bird.
But I waited in line for mine, chatting with a woman who had left in the middle of the night and driven from Salmon, to buy a Hutterite bird. I then drove my turkey 11 hours back to its ancient free-range roots in South Dakota, where it was cooked, eaten and unanimously judged the tastiest turkey in anyone’s memory.
This year, it seems the nasty Montana winter everyone warned me about in coming here has started with a snarl. It was nearly 50 degrees cooler this Nov. 11 than last. The garlic that I meant to put in the ground for next year sits in a brown sack on the porch, awaiting the decreasing likelihood of a thaw, a reminder that like nearly everyone else, I’ll be relying on others to grow and process my food this year. Given such a dependence, and the increasing cynicism with which enormously complex political and corporate powers meet this need, I’ll be happy to be back in line in the predawn hours on Kensington Street. After all, if the adage about soil and spirit is true, these birds contain a little American religious tolerance, with trace elements of communal giving and cooperation. It’s just the kind of meal you can sink your teeth into toward the end of a chilly election-year November.
Garlic Potatoes Au Gratin
3 pounds red potatoes, peeled, thinly sliced and divided
1 1/2 cups grated Gruyere cheese, divided
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 Tbs. butter
2 cups whipping cream
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
Layer half the potatoes and half the cheese in an ungreased 9-by-13 baking dish; top with remaining potatoes. Saute garlic in butter in a small skillet until golden brown; pour over casserole. Combine cream, salt and pepper; mix well. Pour over casserole; sprinkle with remaining cheese. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour and 25 minutes. Serves eight.
Vintage Victuals: Reviving traditional recipes from Montana’s past
The Depression was a hell of a time to be a writer, editor, journalist, or researcher in Montana. With the federal government scrambling to find a way to keep the great mass of unemployed men from turning into a communist peasant army, most were kept busy building lodges, trails and roads through the wilderness. The intelligentsia, however, was occupied researching and writing a series of regional guides that detailed the custom and culture that were changing with each new technological and social advance. Last year An Ornery Bunch, a collection of tales and anecdotes compiled by the Montana Writer’s Project was published after researching Montana’s extensive WPA holdings—250,000 items in 52 linear feet of storage space—almost equal to the federal archives. And given the interest in nonfiction about Montana we should expect to see more of these in the future. Whistleberries, Stirabout, & Depression Cake was originally intended to be only a section of a larger compendium of America’s eating and drinking habits provocatively titled America Eats—it was never completed due to the distractions of our entry into World War II, and then later the welfare for writers program was vilified as a hotbed of communist activity.
Poet W. H. Auden perhaps summed it up best when he wrote that the Writers’ Project, which employed Richard Wright, Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow and Zora Neale Hurston, was “one of the noblest and most absurd undertakings ever attempted by any state.”
Whistleberries, Stirabout, & Depression Cake is chock full of anecdotal details about what, why and how the Western men and women of yore ate and drank. What emerges is not 101 recipes for beans, but an immense variety of foods stemming from the immigrant nature of the settlement of the West.
Take breakfast in Butte, where you would see the Irish miner set his bowl under the chute and pull the lever on a huge copper pot to obtain his stirabout, “a sweet semiliquid gruel made from oatmeal mush and thinned with milk”; for lunch the “Son of Erin would wash his food down not with coffee, but with black tea fortified with stirabout.”
The Cousin Jack Pasty, meanwhile, was introduced by the miners from Cornwall, who called the tasty meat pie of beef, potatoes, onions, and rutabagas, “a letter from ‘ome … and on many occasion when a miner tarries too long in one of the bars of Butte or elsewhere it is a welcome letter indeed.”
Boxty, another dish popular among the Irish, Welsh and Cornish miners, is a special-occasion, sweet-sour, steamed-milk pudding thought to bring “strength to the males and fecundity to the females.” It is the conglomeration of ethnic foods—like potato cakes on Christmas Eve, Scottish haggis, the Serbian or Croatian povitica, Scandinavian lutefisk, Italian ravioli, spaghetti, Mexican frijoles and chiles—that lead the authors of this piece to conjure up a subterranean lunch bucket swapfest that would shame any international food fair gourmand.
The style is wonderfully discursive, like a reporter freed from word limits finally able to use the superfluous anecdote, the curious aside, and the detailed explanation to complete the picture. And so while the book is not altogether free association, it is editorially loose in the style of the day and divided into sections such as “Miner’s Concoctions,” “Lumber Camp Feed,” “Dining in Open Spaces.” At the end is an appendix of recipes from the Western states.
In all, the book succeeds in capturing the details of a society where the manufactured, canned and chemically preserved were quickly replacing age-old practices, and communities joined together by orgies of food were being isolated from each other by more novel forms of entertainment. No longer do we see: “The old-time prospector [who] obtained his vitamins through his sense of ‘feelin.’ ‘I feel like I should have me a mess of berries (beans),’ or ‘it’s nearin’ time to git me a mess of dand’line grens.’”
Some specifically mentioned among Montana’s culinary contributions are solid citizens like the pasty, corned beef and cabbage, lamb ragout and venison mincemeat. However, many of the miners who struck it rich quickly spurned the diet of bacon, sourdough and beans that had fueled their diggings. Instead, dining at a place like the Montana Club in the 1880s, a lucky miner might need an advanced degree in Romance languages to read the menu, even though he’d probably sign his name with an X:
“One Butte miner’s wife remarked after her husband had spent an evening at the Silver Bow Club [in Butte] as a guest of a former pal: ‘Sure, the old man isn’t feelin’ well this mornin’. He was up at the Silver Bow Club half the night with the millionaires, fillin’ his belly up with biled oysters and drinkin’ champagne wine out of the painted ladies’ slippers.’”
Whether it is the creativity of the eggless, butterless and milkless Depression Cake, the skinny on a Sean O’Farrell or the story of the Last Chance Gulch miner, who having made his stake, rode up to the most deluxe restaurant in Helena and declared: “Bring me a hundred dollars worth of ham and eggs and a bale of hay for my horse,” it is all “laurpin’ good truck”—real good victuals.
Fill 9-by-13 pan one-third full of canned corn.
Mix: 2 tsp. sugar, 2 tsp. salt, 1 cup melted butter and 1 pint Half & Half.
Pour: mixture over corn and bake at 350 degrees until bubbly all over.
Serves approximately 10.
2 cups vanilla ice cream
1 cup crushed pineapple
1 package lemon Jell-O
1 pre-made graham cracker crust
Put pineapple in pan and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and stir in Jell-O until dissolved. Add ice cream and stir until melted. Pour in crust and place in refrigerator until set, about two hours.
Thanksgiving Mysteries: The secret stories behind your favorite holiday fare
Lo, the mystery of Thanksgiving. No American institution is so poorly understood—except perhaps the Electoral College. No nationwide expression is taken at such face value—save maybe what the networks predict on election night. Truth be known, Thanksgiving is quite possibly our country’s most misunderstood holiday, just stuffed up the rear with oddball facts that most of us never learned. Few people know, for example, that Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a holiday as a guileful kind of publicity stunt in 1863. (The Union had finally begun to win the Civil War, it seems, and Abe was looking for a unifying ritual). Even fewer people know that in 1939, Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving up a week, because Lincoln’s date was too close to Christmas. (The nation was just shaking itself out of the Depression, you may recall, and FDR didn’t want some 80-year old publicity stunt to cut the shopping season short.) And let’s not even get into the fact that the only day the Pilgrims actually designated as Thanksgiving Day was July 30, 1623. (That celebration was held to give thanks for a summer downpour that had ended months of drought. No turkey, corn or Indians were involved. True story.)
So let’s face it. The whole holiday is a mystery to most of us. And nothing about it is more mysterious than the food. Sure, it’s tasty, pleasing to the eye, and as familiar and comforting to us as a maternal bosom. But still, we know surprisingly little about much of what ends up on our Thanksgiving table. So let us take just a brief moment to delve into the stories behind some of your favorite holiday fare. Will the truth embitter next week’s special meal? We hope not. But look at it this way: When it comes to food, it’s always a good idea to take the mystery out of things.
The Mystery of Canned Cranberry Sauce
Along with such oddities as junk bonds and Charlie Rose, canned cranberry sauce is one of those things that everybody knows about but no one really understands. Where on earth did it come from? Who decided we needed it? And since there’s really no merit to it on its own, what quality does it have that has made it so famous, so much a part of our lives? In the case of canned cranberry sauce, the real mystique stems from the fact that it is a food that everyone has eaten but absolutely no one can duplicate (marshmallow crème and artificial grape flavor are another two such anomalies).
Mysterious as it may be, however, cranberry sauce is not without its historical value. Its connection to Thanksgiving can be traced to the fact that, for centuries, cranberries have grown copiously on the coast of Massachusetts. And it was there, back in 1620 or so, that our buckle-hatted predecessors learned from one of the resident Indian tribes (the Wampanogs, probably) that the little red berries were vital for surviving the cold months, and that the plants themselves could survive even the harshest New England winters. The colonizers named them “craneberries,” because they believed the tiny pink blossoms that emerged in the spring resembled the heads of cranes.
Fast forward 280 years. The berries appear to have lost their novelty. Something new and strange must be done with them. Enter Boston entrepreneur William Underwood, who earned his small-type footnote in culinary history in 1898 by being the first to can cranberries for commercial purposes. No one knows what he did or how he did it. But canned cranberry sauce had suddenly found its place on our nation’s table.
The Bridgeton, N.J., cranberry concern known as Minot Food Packers, Inc., indicates that it was not until 1922 that “the modern cranberry canning industry began,” whatever that may mean. But, as the oldest existing producer of cranberry products, Minot can nonetheless be looked upon as the authority on canned cranberry sauce. It offers these guidelines for identifying a quality product:
• Cut a very thin slice from the can-shaped loaf of gelatin. It should be bright red and clear, without any trace of browning (browning, Minot warns, is a sign of overcooking, although even the best sauce can start to brown if it’s in the can for more than five months).
• The product itself (which Minot refers to as “the gel”) should be slightly firm and should be accompanied by no more than two teaspoons of liquid in the can. They do not say why.
• The flavor should be sweet, tart and, basically, cranberry-like. Traces of “carmelizing” on the palate serve as a further sign that the product may have been overcooked during processing.
• No instructions are available on how to remove the ridged imprint that the can leaves on cranberry sauce. Try to decorate around it.
The Trouble With Stuffing
The problematic qualities of stuffing are manifold and obvious. They are so obvious, in fact, that we need only to list them:
1) Any food that is meant to be rammed into another food should be looked upon with suspicion.
2) Its purpose is unclear and historically undocumented. Basically, it’s seasoned bread. Now, it is safe to assume that bread will be a part of any Thanksgiving meal, and even if there is no bread, the sweet potatoes are there to meet the obligations of that starchy bottom tier of the government-endorsed food pyramid. So what is the stuffing for? We have been unable to obtain a credible answer.
3) There is no single recipe for it. Our investigations into the quintessential formula for stuffing turned up empty. Instead, we found countless variations that included everything from apples and sausages to oysters and portobello mushrooms. The absence of a reliable stuffing archetype casts the food, we think, in some doubt.
4) It is served sticking out of a turkey’s ass.
5) Despite its homespun flavor, stuffing mixes commonly include such ingredients as emulsifiers (including sodium stearoyl-2-lactylate [NaC18H35O2]) and preservatives (like calcium propionate [Ca(C3H502)2•H2O]). Just like Grandma used to make.
6) In all seriousness, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently issued an official warning to Americans not to cook stuffing inside the turkey. Research has found that stuffing prepared in the traditional way often does not reach temperatures high enough to kill bacteria, which may explain why so many family Thanksgiving get-togethers result in food poisoning, crying young brides, and, ultimately, drunken screaming matches. But maybe that’s just our families. You can read more about the USDA warning at http://www.fsis.usda.gov/OA/pubs/tbstuff.htm.
The Shocking Truth About Pumpkin Pie
As squash goes, the pumpkin is truly a thing of wonder. Not so much because of the qualities of the fruit itself—like its flavor or its shelf-life or its usefulness—because it doesn’t really have any of these. Instead, what makes pumpkins so fascinating is the fact that they are the only food in all of American history that we have never treated like food. The fact is, we’ve used them for everything but eating, and we continue this neglect today.
When white settlers were first introduced to the pumpkin in the 17th century, they were quick to find a variety of novel uses for the giant winter fruit, except eating it. At first, they dashed it to pieces and fed it to their livestock. Then they got in the habit of hollowing out the center and upending it on each other’s heads to form a sort of template for family haircuts (This, according to Southern Nevada Vo-Tech Center’s chairman Ed Kane, brought about the term “pumpkin head” to describe northern colonists). Then, of course, they projected Old World superstitions on the pumpkin by filling the empty squashes with glowing coals on All Hallows’ Eve, in the hopes of warding away unkind spirits. In sum, over the nearly 400 years that Americans have spent using pumpkins, the closest we ever got to actually eating them was using them as stock to stretch out winter stews or, more commonly, making tea from their seeds, which was believed to kill tapeworms and improve urinary health.
Today, we continue to treat the pumpkin as America’s leading non-food. Pumpkins are still a rather large crop in American agriculture, with Ohio, Indiana and Illinois taking the title as the nation’s biggest pumpkin-producing states (Eureka, Ill., is the official Pumpkin Capital of the World). But still, the vast majority of those fruits are never consumed. According to Nash’s Produce, an organic farm in Sequim, Wash., 99 percent of the pumpkins grown in America today are used as jack-o’-lanterns, and then thrown away. The other one percent is turned into pumpkin pie filling—but even then it’s not the kind of pumpkin you’re thinking of.
Now follow me here. There are actually two species of pumpkin: the commonly recognized orange jack pumpkin, and the yellower, butterier cheese pumpkin. It is the cheese pumpkin—poor cousin to the famed Halloween decoration—that ends up in the spiced admixture we call pumpkin pie filling. But considering that a paltry 1 percent of the nation’s cheese pumpkins could not account for all of the thousands of cans of pie filling sold every year, there must be something else in those cans that’s posing as pumpkin. What could it be? Brace yourself: According to botanists at Virginia Tech, pumpkin pie filling is often actually made from butternut squash. This was confirmed by Illinois gardener Tom Clothier, who writes that, more often than not, “the canned pumpkin in the supermarket contain[s] no pumpkin.” To this he adds the additional, and emotionally devastating, charge that, in his opinion, “Butternut Squash is better at being a pumpkin in all things.”
Indeed, it is a sad state of affairs when a food is outdone by another food at its own worthiness. But that, unfortunately, is the shocking truth.
Cranberry Bread Pudding
6 cups toasted diced sourdough or whole-wheat bread, packed
1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries
2 cups raspberry-cranberry juice
1 cup honey
1/2 cup butter
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1 cup dried currants
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place the bread cubes in a greased 8-cup baking dish. Set aside. Combine all of the remaining ingredients in a large saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Boil gently just until the cranberries begin to pop. Pour the cranberry mixture over the bread cubes, mixing gently, and let sit for 15 minutes. Bake the pudding in the preheated oven for 45 minutes, or until bubbly.