An Artful Escape From 21st Century Industrial Agriculture

On a wintry day, the entrance to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown (Berkshire County), MA is dry and clear

John Constable’s The Wheat Fields (1816) is a painting of pre-industrial rural England to savor (click on image to enlarge)

Detail of The Wheat Field showing gleaners, a woman and a child bending down to collet stray stems of wheat and a woman standing nearby holding gleaned stems of wheat

John Constable’s Flailing Turnip Heads, East Bergholt (1812-15) shows laborers swinging baseball bat sized clubs on turnip heads to release oil rich seeds (click on image to enlarge)

John Constable’s Ploughing Scene in Suffolk (1824-24) showing two ploughman with literal horsepower tilling a field for a winter crop (click on image to enlarge)

John Constable’s Willy Lott’s House (1812-12) where the tenant farmer was born and died with local lore suggesting he slept outside its wall four times in his life (click on image to enlarge)

More than 50 paintings, drawings and watercolors of the British landscape artists, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) and  John Constable (1776-1837) are on display this winter at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown (Berkshire County), Massachusetts. The exhibition, Turner and Constable: The Inhabited Landscape (Dec. 15, 2018-March 10, 2019), organized by curator Alexis Goodin is drawn largely from the Clark’s Manton Collection of British Art, created by Sir Edwin and Lady Manton and given to the Clark by the Manton Art Foundation in 2007, with additional works on loan from the Yale Center for British Art and the Chapin Library at Williams College.

The exhibition has drawn national attention with glowing reviews appearing in the Washington Post (One Rivalry Changed the Landscape in English Art) and the Boston Globe (Rivalry and Revelations From Turner and Constable). The “Rivalry” referenced by these reviews is echoed in the words of Olivier Meslay, the Hardymon Director of the Clark, who notes that while both hailed from England and were associated with London’s Royal Academy- training in its schools and exhibiting in its annual summer exhibition- the two artists diverged in their choices of subjects, the way they handled paint, and their domestic priorities.

In the publication published by the Clark on the occasion of the exhibition, Turner & Constable At The Clark (Publications Department of the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA, 2018), it is noted that Turner explored the far reaches of England, Scotland, Wales, and the surrounding sea, and made numerous trips to Europe, where he gravitated toward natural wonders such as the rivers of France and Germany and the Swiss Alps. In contrast, Constable focused on the English countryside, often taking his subjects from the landscape around his childhood home of East Bergholt, Suffolk.

And this viewer’s escape from the 21st Century into the pre-industrial agricultural world of Britain 200 years ago was rooted in careful examination of four extraordinary Constable paintings with their stunning details, particularly The Wheat Field (1816) on display in the second gallery (the section of the show entitled The Laborer In The Landscape) of four galleries. In this large oil on canvas painting (21 1/2 x 30 3/4 in.), harvesters cut down the golden wheat with scythes, reapers bundle the stalks, and gleaners collect leftover grains, while a boy and his dog guard lunch.

If a visitor to the show is fortunate to have a child along, the natural question to spark a conversation is “Against whom are the boy and his dog guarding lunch?”  Scavenging dogs, perhaps, or wild animals, or some impoverished souls? And a conversation about the tradition of gleaning would also flow naturally from a close viewing of The Wheat Field. The highly recommended accompanying publication notes that the gleaners, the woman and child who bend down to collect stray stems of wheat (and the woman standing nearby) are the poor, who were, by tradition, entitled to follow the hired harvesters to collect stray wheat for their own sustenance. And this practice endured in Britain into the 19th century despite a judgment in a lawsuit brought in English courts in 1788 ruling that no one had a right to glean grain on private land.

Some good agricultural news in our 21st century world is that gleaning of farm crops to provide food security for people in need has become a new and vital food movement as we reported last year.  The Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School has successfully implemented its praiseworthy National Gleaning Project. Information on the growing national network of fresh food recovery organizations across the country is available on the website of the National Gleaning Project.

The other three Constable paintings which made this exhibition a must-see for this visitor are two, like The Wheat Field, on display in the second gallery (the section of the show entitled The Laborer In The Landscape). One of these paintings, Flailing Turnip Heads, East Bergholt (1812-15) stops most visitors in their tracks. What exactly is depicted in this oil on canvas (14 x 17 1/2 in.) as laborers swing baseball bat sized clubs at turnip heads? The best answer seems to be to release oil rich seeds to be fed to livestock.

The other Constable painting in this second gallery of special note, Ploughing Scene in Suffolk (1824-25), is on loan from the Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. This oil on canvas (16 3/4 x 30 in.) shows in rich detail two farmers in a field, each behind a plow drawn by two horses, tilling the soil in late summer in preparation for a winter crop.

In the final and fourth gallery (a section of the exhibition entitled The Built Landscape) is the painting, Willy Lott’s House (1812-13) which has a descriptive label that is a stunning reminder how fast the world has become in our age of jumbo jets and world-wide tourism and how a farmer’s life in early 19th century Britain was one of rural isolation. Willy Lott was a tenant farmer who worked nearly 40 acres of surrounding property to his house. He was born in the house and died there as well and local lore suggests he only slept outside its walls four times in his life.

A very small (9 11/16 x 7 1/8 in.) gouache (opaque watercolors prepared with gum) by Joseph Mallord William Turner, Great Yarmouth Fishing Boats (1827), also caught this visitor’s special attention in the second gallery devoted to The Laborer In The Landscape. Yarmouth in Norfolk on the East Coast of England was an important port for the British fishing industry during Turner’s time. A careful viewing of this small painting (though this viewer wished a magnifier glass was available!) shows the foremost fishing boat with barrel like baskets attached to the exterior, outfitted to catch lobsters, with shrimp boats behind this more easily seen vessel. Lobster and shrimp to be table fare for what class of folks would be a fair question to ask.

If readers are within traveling distance of the northern Berkshires, a winter visit to the Clark Art Institute is highly recommended.

(Frank W. Barrie, 2/8/19)

Potent Insights On Food Humans Consume

For half a century or so, our informal but most effective agricultural policy has been to eat as much, as effortlessly, as thoughtlessly, and as cheaply as we can, and to hell with whatever else may be involved.

That’s from Wendell Berry’s 2009 essay The Necessity of Agriculture, an eloquent plea for a renascence of farm work as a non-corporate pursuit. He notes that in Goethe’s Faust, Mephistopheles offers Faust two methods for keeping young – swallow a noxious-smelling witch’s brew, or take up farming . . . though now, for Goethe’s witchcraft, we would properly substitute industrial farming.

That’s one of two Berry essays collected in Know That What You Eat You Are, The Best Food Writing From Harper’s Magazine, edited by Ellen Rosebush and Giulia Melucci (Franklin Square Press, a division of Harper’s Magazine, New York, NY 2017), a compendium of food writing from Harper’s Magazine, 27 pieces that appeared between 1859 and 2017, the bulk of them charting our relationship with food throughout the 20th century. Given the amount of fine writing to choose from, these are the best of the best, and reflect a joyful variety of subjects and styles.

Not surprisingly, the longer essays deal with the more controversial subjects: thus are we introduced at the start to The Quinoa Quarrel by Lisa M. Hamilton, whose 2014 piece won a James Beard Foundation Journalism Award. Do you really want to read about the politics of a trendy grain? You do. It’s an alarming piece, emblematic of the conflict between small producers and corporate interests, in this case between farmers in South America’s Altiplano region (Bolivia is smack in the center), where quinoa is grown and guarded, and those who see big money in spreading those crops around. Farmers in Altiplano control the germplasm, to the enrichment of their impoverished nations. They have no interest in further impoverishing an already poor part of the world.

Throughout the book, we’re presented with many politically charged points of view, Berry’s pieces among them; we also get to catch our breath with contrasting works. Like the 1948 visit to a manufacturing facility near White Plains, NY, where a new snack food called fritos are being made, or Alexander Theroux’s The Candy Man, a passionate paean to candy (he hates Valentine candy hearts most of all, the winner- on both an aesthetic and a gustatory level of the most abominable tasting, and must be reveling in their current unavailability), or Ticket to the Fair, a 1994 David Foster Wallace tour of fairground fare, including tall Kaopectate-colored shacks that sell Illinois Dairy Council milk shakes for an off-the-scale $2.50. And pork rinds and hot dogs and popcorn galore. This is the Midwest: no nachos, no chili, no Evian, nothing Cajun. But holy mackerel, are there sweets: fried dough, black walnut taffy, fiddlesticks, hot Crackerjack.

How do we decide what to eat? How have those preferences changed? An excerpt from the anonymous 1859 essay A Cosmopolite Bill of Fare suggests, It is a most notable fact the most civilized nations are the most liberal in their gastronomic taste. But this doesn’t turn into predictable partisanship. Next to the Chinese, whose ultra civilization has betrayed them into toleration of half-hatched eggs, shark’s fins, and bird’s-nest soups, comes the Frenchman; and to him follows the American.

Meanwhile, M.F.K. Fisher, the doyenne of culinary essayists, provides The Social Status of a Vegetable (1939), noting the unaccountable food antipathies that a misguided sense of social superiority can engender – a delightful series of brief observations that leads to a well-earned topper involving wieners and sauerkraut.

The arrival of the microwave oven was a watershed, radically changing our cooking and eating habits; Erik Larson’s 1988 Brave New Foods looks at what we now know was a brief period when it was feared that microwavable fare would take over the supermarket shelves.

Such pieces allow us to assimilate the more sober studies. How Now, Drugged Cow? looks at the threat of bovine growth hormone injections to the dairy herds of Vermont. Tony Hiss found that, by 1994, dairy farming in that most dairy-centric state had decreased dramatically as the factory farms elsewhere took over the market, and Monsanto’s Posilac (as its BGH was monikered) was supposed to be the salvation. This was the time when the University of Vermont was known as the University of Monsanto, supporting as it did the corrupt research that was supposed to assure farmers of the drug’s safety. (The university has since distanced itself from the company, due to activist pressure.) The controversy led the state to pass a law requiring milk from BGH-treated cows to be so-labeled; the law soon was overturned, but led to individual dairies and retailers to label milk that’s BGH-free.

Most compelling is Deb Olin Unferth’s Cage Wars (2014), in which she visits a Michigan egg farm – a massive egg farm – that has introduced what is termed the enriched cage system, putting hens in cages that allow slightly more room (they’re 12 feet by four feet and fit 75 hens apiece). In the context of the insightful history Unferth provides, it’s a very small step indeed, yet it is a step toward more humane conditions in what’s a brutal industry indeed – one we passively encourage with each omelet we consume.

There’s a cumulative effect to this book. Each essay asks us to consider the food we eat, and often shows us the source of such food. It’s no accident that Berry’s 1991 essay Know That What You Eat You Are gives the collection its title, and Berry, in his plea for more know where your food comes from awareness, rephrases a phrase that first appeared (as far as anyone can tell) in a meat-market ad in a Bridgeport, Conn., newspaper in 1923, that stated, in part, Ninety per cent of the diseases known to man are caused by cheap foodstuffs. You are what you eat. Echoing Brillat-Savarin’s challenge, from 1826: Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.

But this is also a book with practical advice. I note especially Upton Sinclair’s My Anti-Headache Diet (1963), in which he laments the indigestion and headaches that dogged him for much of his life. He fell under the thrall of such mountebanks as Bernarr Macfadden and John Harvey Kellogg, to no avail, and discovered only in old age a diet of brown rice and fresh fruit that proved salubrious.

And then there’s the most inspiring piece in the book: Wild Mushrooms without Fear, in which James Nathan Miller teaches us to identify three delicious mushrooms, including the easy-to-find Morel, while also sharing the thrilling details of the death you will suffer upon mistakenly consuming the insidious Amanita. He writes with such exuberance that I am inspired, once the upstate New York winter ends and the Mohawk Valley ground favors the mushroom’s mycelium production, to be out there collecting the stuff. I will become the mushroom.

(B.A. Nilsson, 2/1/19)

Annual Fast-Food Scorecards Show Progress By Some Chains On Sourcing Meat From Suppliers Not Using Antibiotics

Consumer Reports has issued its annual fast-food scorecards

The food service line inside the A-rated Chipotle at the busy Stuyvesant Plaza location in Albany, NY (click on photo to enlarge)

Only two fast food burger chains received A grades on CR’s Fast Food Burger Scorecard: Burger-Fi and Shake Shack

Back in 2017, we reported on the launching of a Consumer Voices Survey by Consumer Reports to determine its priorities for uncovering “what consumers need to know to make smarter choices in their daily life.” The praiseworthy non-profit organization, which does not accept paid advertising, does not accept test samples from manufacturers and maintains its integrity by paying for all the products it rates, determined that food safety and quality was a priority based on responses to the 2017 survey.

After analyzing the results of its 2017 survey, Consumer Reports spotlighted the need for the Food and Drug Administration to eliminate a loophole that allows producers to use antibiotics on healthy animals in the name of disease prevention. With the loophole still in place, focus shifted to drive change in the market place.

This strategic change to reduce excessive use of antibiotics in farm animals has led to Consumer Reports’ two annual fast-food scorecards which each grade restaurants on their antibiotic policies, one for burger chains and the other for fast food and fast casual chains. The scorecards are produced by Consumer Reports along with five other non-profit organizations: Center for Food Safety, Friends of the Earth, the Food Animal Concerns Trust, the Natural Resources Defense Council and U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

The Fast Food and Fast Casual Chains scorecard gave three chains the highest A grade for taking antibiotic overuse seriously. Almost all the meat and poultry at A-rated Panera and at A-rated Chipotle are raised without any antibiotics at all. And A-rated Chick-fil-A is on track to source all its chicken from suppliers that do not use antibiotics by the end of 2019. KFC and Subway received a B grade; Taco Bell a B minus. And the other 19 fast food and fast casual chains were graded from C+ to F, as noted on page 37 of the report. Eight received the lowest grade of F.

The Burger Chains scorecard gave only two chains the highest A grade: Shake Shack and Burger Fi. Wendy’s received a D minus. And the other burger chains received a grade of F: McDonald’s, Burger King, Sonic, Jack In The Box, Hardee’s, Five Guys and eight other burger chains (noted at page 3 of the report).

Click Here for information on subscribing to Consumer Reports magazine.

(Frank W. Barrie, 1/25/19)

Exploring Four Dimensions Of Flavor With Samin Nosrat’s Senses-first Approach in Netflix’s Four-Part Series: Salt Fat Acid Heat

Is it really possible to boil cooking down to balancing just four elements that, when understood, can make anyone a great cook?

Well, that’s the premise and purpose behind chef, author and now documentary host Samin Nosrat’s four-part Netflix series, Salt Acid Fat Heat, based on her similarly titled cookbook, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking (Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 2017)After watching the show, I’m pleased to confirm that Samin Nosrat is onto something of consequence for cooks, experienced as well as novices.

This documentary-style Netflix series, directed by Caroline Suh and produced by Alex Gibney, is filmed in a similarly rich and artistic format as recent releases like Chef’s Table and Michael Pollan’s Cooked (another Suh/Gibney productions in which Nosrat also makes an appearance) and takes viewers on a globe-trotting journey to explore the nuances of each of Nosrat’s four elements. Through gorgeous aerial shots, intimate kitchen scenes, al fresco grillings, market meanderings and indulgent tastings, we meet masters of each element making dishes and preparations that epitomize and showcase their expression across northern Italy, Japan, Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula and finally, Berkeley, California where Nosrat’s culinary career originally began as a chef at Alice Waters’ seminal local/seasonal-eatery, Chez Panisse.

And while Nosrat may focus on the elements of salt, acid, fat and heat in cooking, the tone of the series is decidedly sweet and intimate. If nothing else, the show will leave you with an indelibly playful view of cooking. It’s abundantly clear that, for Nosrat, cooking is a joyous and tactile affair dominated by a sensual interaction with every element. She appears fully in love with the experience of food. All of it: ingredients, shopping, preparations, cooking, tasting and ultimately sharing it. Her laughter permeates nearly every minute of the four-part show and nary a scene passes without her doubling over, naughtily stealing a bite of something being prepared, oohing and aahing over a new dish or her eyes bulging with the delight of discovery as she utters this is so good in language after language. For her, cooking seems not so much about precise technique but a decidedly organic journey guided more by her well-honed senses and intuition than any recipe.

The first episode focuses on fat and introduces viewers to the ways this element carries flavor to food through the lens of Northern Italian cuisine. Here we meet olive farmers, we learn the patience needed for truly flavorful pesto, we meet a butcher of aged heirloom pigs (from whom Nosrat steals an apparently delectable slice of pure fat), we watch Nosrat learn to prepare a traditional Genoese focaccia and a simple egg pasta, and finally see how parmesan is made and aged into its finest, nearly crystalized form. The lessons? Use the right fat for the dish and you’ll be rewarded with rich and sumptuous results. The final scene of the first episode, like the other three, ends with the kind of glorious feast of friends that epitomizes the true spirit of Italian cuisine and the purpose behind it: sharing.

Episode two goes to the other side of the world to explore the ways that salt draws out and lifts the flavors of food in Japan, the nation with a stunning 4,000 types of salt. We meet traditional miso and soy sauce producers as well as the makers of a fine kelp-infused salt called moshio and get to see how these simple salt-driven ingredients are all that’s needed to bring out the flavors inherent in fresh sashimi, fish soup and a soft-boiled egg seasoned with miso. One thing that becomes apparent in this episode is that not all salts are created equal. Matching the right size and shape of the salt crystals to the dish is a critical part of balanced cooking in Japan. At the end of the episode, we witness the transformative power of salt as Nosrat shares her recipe for braising short ribs with a soy, miso and ginger marinade and a dashi braising stock (made from seaweed and bonito flakes).

The star of the series’ third episode is my own personal favorite of the four elements: acidity. The one that brings mouth-watering balance to heavy dishes and offers brightness for cutting through fat, sweet, starchy or salty dishes. It’s also coincidentally the element most conspicuously lacking in many traditional American dishes. And what better place to see it in action than the citrus-dominated dishes of Mexico’s Yucatan?

There, under the tutelage of abuelas and chefs carrying on centuries-old Mayan traditions, Nosrat learns to make pavo escabeche, a traditional turkey and meatball dish where the meat is marinated and cured a lá ceviche in a sour orange juice before being stewed. She also learns how to make a steamed fish in banana leaves dish, tastes a variety of salsas and curtidos made with pickled vegetables, joins a crew of elder tortilla makers, and tastes rare and unusually acidic honeys of different tropical plants from a species of bees without stingers called Meliponia.

The final episode, Heat, brings viewers full circle — from gathering inspiration in world travels back into the home kitchen where Nosrat shows us how to bring all the elements together in the crucible of the stove, oven and fire which have the power to chemically transform food and release all kinds of additional flavors. After a visit to Chez Panisse where one of her early mentors explains her secrets for cooking steaks on the open flame, Nosrat uses the rest of the episode to share practical cooking tips and make some of her favorite dishes for (and with) friends and family, including some that she says are perfect examples of the balance of the show’s four elements, like a buttermilk-brined roast chicken and a bean, Brussel sprout and carrot salad balanced with tangy feta, olive oil, zatar and cilantro and, of course, salt.

Through all these adventures, we see that while Nosrat is clearly an expert ready to teach and share her skills, she’s also still a student and an eager taster, adjusting her own cooking styles and techniques and tweaking her mental cooking math as she encounters new foods and approaches. It’s essentially an adaptive mode that, at its core, is highly artistic and in its rejection of dogma and tradition, somewhat radical. Her easygoing nature, joyful wonder and frequent laughter belie the fact that she is actually pointing viewers towards a rather experimental backdoor to great cooking.

And why not? When you really love something, you should share it. And the truth is, once you do know the basics of these four elements and get to know the world of flavors out there, cooking isn’t some kind of mysterious alchemy. It’s a simple science of balance that can be easily adapted to any taste or ingredient and lead to an endless variety of culinary adventures, tasty discoveries and flavorful possibilities. Just learn the basics and follow your taste buds.

(Matt Bierce, 1/18/19)

A Most Perfect Union: Vermont’s Sterling College Offering Future Farmers Tuition-Free College Education in Wendell Berry’s Henry County, Kentucky

The Wendell Berry Farming Program  of Vermont’s Sterling College (ranked #1 for food and dining three years in a row in Sierra’s Cool Schools rankings) based at The Berry Center in New Castle (Henry County), Kentucky, has received a $2.5 million grant from The NoVo Foundation, which shares the farming program’s vision of educating a next generation of farmers to farm sustainably and build prosperous rural communities and healthy regional economies in the words of Mary Berry, the executive director of The Berry Center founded in 2011. Mary Berry is the daughter of Wendell Berry, the distinguished farmer and writer, whose words are spotlighted in our mission statement: Every time you make a decision about food, you are farming by proxy, The Art of the Commonplace, edited by Norman Wirzba (Berkeley, CA, Counterpoint, 2002).

This financial recognition by The NoVo Foundation is wonderful news to start off the new year. And the foundation is also behind a $500,000 fundraising challenge for the Wendell Berry Farming Program, which we encourage our readers to support. No student in the program will pay tuition for the farming program.

Inspired by the lifework of Wendell Berry, the Wendell Berry Farming Program was designed in partnership with The Berry Center, to train graduates in the skills and resources necessary to practice ecologically mindful and economically viable agriculture on a human scale. With classes taught by Sterling College faculty, the program serves students who have a strong desire for an education that prepares them to come home to farm and build strong rural communities. Through their work, graduates of the program are expected to embody an ethic of environmental stewardship, and contribute to the revitalization and renewal of rural agrarian communities in Kentucky and beyond.

A two-year program, students earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sustainable Agriculture from Sterling College. According to information on the college’s website, admission is highly competitive. Only twelve students will be accepted for enrollment. Applicants must have a strong work ethic and demonstrate a desire to farm and a commitment to working to strengthen rural communities. In addition, applicants must have completed 60 college credits by August 25th, 2019, when the program begins.

Typically, admitted students will have a strong liberal arts and sciences academic background and demonstrated experience of work and community service.  While applicants must demonstrate a commitment to sustainable agriculture, there is no requirement the applicants have studied agriculture in their first two years of college. And applications from students who are residents of Kentucky are encouraged.

Review of applications will begin on April 1st, 2019, and first offers of admission will be shared with applicants on April 15th, 2019. Enrollment commitments will be expected by May 1st, 2019. Information on applying for admission is available on Sterling College’s website.

Included in the profile of Leah Bayens, Dean of the Wendell Berry Farming Program, are three books recommended by Dean Bayens, including Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, reviewed on this website a few years ago, which in good part centers on the sad demise of a 500 acre Kentucky farm. It is inspiring news for the new year that the Wendell Berry Farming Program will provide the opportunity tuition-free for a dozen college students to become next generation farmers, who will see and appreciate a farm’s patterns and cycles of work, which permit all of its lives to flourish (in Wendell Berry’s words) and not ask of the land . . . all that it has in order to produce as many easy dollars as possible, in the way in which the family farm in Jayber Crow was exploited.

(Frank W. Barrie, 1/11/19)

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