Archive for November, 2012

Turkey Day

November 21, 2012

A year ago, I spent the Sunday before Thanksgiving “harvesting” my Thanksgiving turkey. I’d planned to do it again this year, until I learned that the farm didn’t have turkeys available this year.

I was secretly relieved that there would be no turkey harvest this year. I’d been feeling anxious about it. I still felt unsure about my ability to decisively and quickly kill the bird, although I knew the people at the farm would be there to make sure the bird wasn’t suffering unnecessarily.  And the memories from that day are still vivid and sobering. A local farm recently brought (live) heritage turkeys to the Saturday farmers market and when I looked at the birds, I thought back to that rainy day on the farm. I remembered the weight of the turkey as I squatted over it and how the thick skin on its neck had resisted the blade of my knife. I thought about how the bird tried to flap its wings and stretch its neck before it died. It’s no small thing to kill a turkey.

I wasn’t looking forward to the gutting process either. Just thinking about separating the bird’s esophagus from the rest of the neck – and how it looked like a plastic straw — still makes me feel a little nauseous.

Initially, I wondered if my apprehension meant that I wasn’t really hard-core about knowing where my food comes from, but I soon realized that it was appropriate to feel uncomfortable and anxious about killing an animal.

Although I was relieved, I was also a little disappointed that I wouldn’t get to participate in this American ritual this year. Farmers all across the country are harvesting their turkeys this time of year so that the rest of us can swing by the market and ponder the importance or fresh versus frozen, or whether 10-pound bird will be enough to feed a crowd and still have turkey sandwiches for the day after.

That day on the farm last November offered me a connection to the meal that most people don’t get to experience. Most of us pull up a chair and eat turkey on Thanksgiving. Some of us are involved in preparing the bird for the oven — washing it, maybe brining it or rubbing its skin with butter—and others are involved in cooking process. (My mom always pours a little brandy over the bird while it roasts and then makes a delicious gravy from the drippings.) Someone usually takes charge of carving the burnished bird and passing around a platter of white meat and dark meat. But relatively few of us get to know anything about the bird beyond these preparations.

I learned a lot about the turkey I killed last year. I saw where it lived. I was there when it died. I gently removed its feathers (I still have one at home) and helped remove its internal organs. It will be different this year to cook and eat a bird that someone else killed and gutted so that I could avoid those uncomfortable but necessary tasks.

Many people call Thanksgiving ‘Turkey Day’, but that day on the farm last year, that was a real turkey day. This year, I’ll just have Thanksgiving.

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Apple Country

November 20, 2012

On the California coast, there aren’t the usual signs of changing seasons, but there are many places nearby where we can get a fall fix. I love going to the wine country in the fall to watch the vineyards in Napa and Sonoma change colors. It’s a very California-version of New England’s fall foliage (and with better wine to boot). But another sure sign of fall is apples — and for apples, you’ll need to head to Sebastopol.

Sebastopol is the Bay Area’s apple country, and as Mr. WholeHog and I discovered this October, you don’t have to go very far off the beaten path before you find yourself on charming country roads lined with apple orchards. We passed rows of old, gnarled trees hung with bright red apples. In October, some of the trees were so laden with apples that the branches had broken. Some of the apples had fallen from the tree and were nestled in the grass like fall Easter eggs.

We are lucky enough to have friends in Sebastopol with apple orchards, and yet for some reason, we still don’t get up there very often. I grew up visiting family friends in Sebastopol (all of the pictures in this post were taken on their property), although as a kid, I was more interested in their excellent tree house than their excellent apples.

On Saturdays, I work for another apple-growing Sebastopol family at the  farmers market who has introduced me to so many new apple varieties. And this year, Mr. WholeHog and some friends made a trip up to yet another apple grower in Sebastopol (another farmers market vendor), where they picked Rome and Golden Delicious apples and then used an apple press to make fresh juice.

On recent nights, we’ve been heating up the juice they made out of those Sebastopol apples and spiking it with bourbon. It gives me a little taste of fall in the City.

Crisp

November 19, 2012

Which of these apples are crisp?”

This is without a doubt the most common question we get at the Saturday farmers market. When we say that all of the apples we sell are crisp, many customers don’t believe us. They try to politely tell us that we are full of shit: “No, I don’t think you understand, I like my apples to be really firm.” For my part, I try very hard not to say, “No shit. No one likes a mealy apple.”

People have been so scarred by mealy apples that they practically have to be convinced that crisp apples still exist. They look doubtfully at the many apple varieties we have for sale each week, as if the apples are all just merely sacks of applesauce that we are trying to pass off to unsuspecting shoppers as crisp, juicy fruit.

But one thing I’ve learned from working at the farmers market is that a crisp apple is one that has been freshly picked. Apples that have been in cold storage tend to get mushy. The apples we sell are picked the day before the farmers market – and that’s why we can say confidently and honestly that they’re crisp. Those who are looking for crisp apples — and let’s be honest here, that includes everyone — would be better off asking “When were these apples picked?” rather than “Which apples are crisp?”

I don’t mean to suggest that it’s wrong to ask for, or to prefer, crisp apples. But recognize that the desire for a crisp apple isn’t unique. Most people – at least those who of us have full sets of teeth and can chew comfortably — want a crisp, firm apple. (SF chef Chris Cosentino has pointed out that many cultures have a preferred texture of food and American’s favorite texture is crispy.)

As well as cold-storage apples, there are also some softer-textured (“creamy” in apple parlance) apple varieties that most apple eaters will want to avoid (literally) sinking their teeth into. But just one of the nearly 40 varieties we sell has a “creamy texture” — Jonathan apples — and we are careful to let customers know that these apples aren’t crisp. (We have one customer who buys only Jonathans; she is quite elderly and, I suspect, has dentures that make it harder for her to chew.) The other 37 varieties we sell are crisp — some are crisp and tart; some are crisp and sweet; some have more juice; some have a denser flesh or thicker skin.

You’ll find freshly picked apples when apples are in season, so it’s worth figuring out when apples are in season in your area and also when your favorite apple varieties are in season. In the SF Bay Area, fresh picked apple season is nearly over. It started in August with the early season varieties like Gravenstein and Pink Pearl, and it’s winding down now with Fuji, Pink Lady, and Bellflower.

Most apple varieties are only in season for a few weeks, so in order to get the most out of crisp apple season, I suggest having many favorite kinds of apples. I love the early Gravensteins, but when they go out of season, I move on to Burgundy, Honeycrisp, Empire, Mutsu, Sierra Beauty, and so on through the season.