Saturday, April 12, 2008

Farm and Away

Long, long ago, in those halcyon days of my childhood, I had little connection to farms. I grew up in a suburban area, with only a vegetable garden to pull me closer to the earth. My paternal grandparents had a place at the edge of town that was closer to farmland, though they didn't have anything beyond a vegetable garden themselves, and my maternal grandmother had a big vegetable patch behind her house (in a small farming community).

I knew farms were all around me, but aside from going to pick berries in the summer or apples or corn in the fall, I never really got close to a farm. That's probably why I've always had something of an idyllic view of farm life. Yes, I know it's hard work, but even a visit to the Original Organic Farmer's acres made me long for a place in the country where I could go crazy growing fruits, vegetables, herbs, grains, and maybe even raise chickens or goats.

One of the many joys of getting to know the Renaissance Man has been the opportunity to head out of town with him to visit his parents on their rural farmstead. Granted, it's never been a working farm under their ownership, though a neighboring farmer has grown corn or pastured cattle on some of their fields. But whenever I'm out there, I feel like I'm getting back to what's important in life: plenty of land with room to grow food, forage for wild edibles, walk in the woods, and generally have what we city folk might call a simpler way of life. (Yeah, I know, it's not so much simpler as different... but indulge me.)

Since visiting the farm means most of a day or a weekend gets wrapped up in travel and company, it means I have to simplify my own expectations for what I can get done on my days off work. And since this weekend we planned to be away for most of both days, I knew I wouldn't get any cooking done at home.

Still, you can't really keep me out of the kitchen, and his dear Farm Mother is perfectly happy to let me take over her domain in order to whip up meals for everyone.

I managed to whip up a batch of bread dough before leaving home, using the Chef Mother's white bread recipe and replacing some of the unbleached flour with whole wheat flour, spelt flour, and rolled oats (all local). The resulting loaves proved to be as comforting as an old quilt: wholesome with a soft, tender crumb (and oh! so warm right from the oven!).

I had grabbed several things from my pantry and freezer with the intention of making a pot of soup to go with the bread for dinner, so I sautéed onions with herbs and dried vegetables before adding the remaining vegetables, two pints of tomato sauce, and some vegetable stock, setting the pot on to simmer while I joined the Renaissance Man and his brother for a look around the farm.

As the day was damp and gray, we found ourselves thoroughly relieved to return to the house and to be greeted with the aroma of a vegetable-packed soup. I added pasta along with a cube of homemade pesto and let it continue to simmer until dinner time, then garnished each bowl with a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.

A simple meal of soup and bread -- followed by warm and gooey homemade brownies -- seemed not only the ideal supper for a cool spring day but also a fitting tribute to farm life. Since I associate farms with a certain degree of self-sufficiency, self-reliance, and making do, this soup reflected my own appreciation for those qualities in myself, in the Renaissance Man, and in the people who choose farm life.

I know I idealize farming a good deal, not having experienced it myself, but I think it's worth holding onto the virtues of farming as stewardship at a time when rising food prices might cause many people to gripe about the cost of food and the cost of farming. I think there's much that all of us could learn from farming about how to work in concert with the rest of nature, how to provide a little more for ourselves, and how to treat others and the earth with respect.

That's a lot of intellectual baggage to load onto a simple meal, I know, and I don't generally go around philosophizing about my cooking. This kind of supper is not fancy fare by any stretch of the imagination, but it's loaded with local ingredients (all the vegetables and herbs, the milk and most of the grains in the bread), patience, hard work, and love.

That's far and away the best kind of meal I can offer.


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