Playing with your food
One Rodale Institute research intern focuses on the process of cooking and eating in a way that honors the work that went into growing and harvesting her food.

By Natalie Sevin

editor's NOTE:

The Rodale Institute interns take turns tracking their observations and sharing what they are learning as they help out the various departments here at The Rodale Institute.

This next generation of farmers offers insights into what motivates them to go against the tide when so many farm families struggle to keep up-and-coming generations interested in farming.

--NF Editors

Posted November 16, 2007: White. It frosted hardily last night, making for a beautiful four-minute drive to work. With steam pouring off the Rodale Institute pond, the ducks appear to be part of a fairy tale (they probably wouldn’t agree). In any case, it’s a sign that things are winding down. Only one more week left for the shareholders at Quiet Creek Farm’s CSA. I am proud to be a member, filling in for research manager Paul Hepperly while he’s in Uruguay spreading the message of organic agriculture as a Fulbright Scholar. Before this move to Kutztown, I was living nearby in Topton, and was addicted to the Burkholder’s roadside farmstand, located conveniently on the way home from work. It was then that I started to experiment with food—not basing meals on recipes, but on what crops were available. This opened up a whole new door.

Zucchini-and-squash pancakes, anyone!? Yep, zucchini pancakes! Delicious! They’re very popular in Korea. When sustainable agriculture students from Gyeongsang National University in South Korea visited earlier this summer they prepared an enormous meal, complete with all kinds of great food. This included sushi with kimchi, sweetly marinated beef, rice balls, pancakes and a lot more. Did I mention pancakes? Now I’m a cereal-for-breakfast kind of gal, but these pancakes you can eat anytime. They’re made of zucchini and squash. By late summer the squash and zucchini were coming in nonstop, so I gave them a try. Flour, eggs, salt and grated zucchini/squash—with or without cheese—and then, thinking it was a little dry, I attempted a sauce. I looked in the fridge and saw some yogurt and remembered the Greek dressing that tastes so good: yogurt, garlic, lemon juice and …no cucumber, I already had my cucurbit. It was delicious, if I do say so myself. I had made something I don’t normally eat. And I liked it!

Stand-in shareholder

Moving to Kutztown, Areum Song—my roommate and one of the South Korean students who returned as an intern—and I became de facto shareholders at Quiet Creek CSA as a perk for house sitting for Paul. I’ve never experienced so many vegetables. Areum and I have a responsibility to eat our weekly vegetables and it’s a challenge we haven’t been meeting recently. Luckily we have this week to catch up as there is no pickup until next week. Areum knows her vegetables. After securing some apples at that roadside stand, we came home with our share and she headed straight for the blender. I looked over and there was a green liquid swishing about in there. Well obviously, it could only be the kale-apple drink that her mom makes. I hesitated to try it, not knowing a thing about kale other than it’s decorative, which conflicts with the T-shirts and bumper stickers suggesting that we should all “Eat more kale.” It tasted all right, and it certainly felt healthy.

Another time we had stockpiled some serious vegetables that needed to be taken care of, so Areum takes out a pan and cuts up practically every vegetable around—red beets, potatoes, broccoli, onion, celeriac-—and grates butter, broccoli and cheese on top. Having created an interestingly squiggly piece of art, she’s about to call it a day when she adds the forlorn garlic that had been overlooked, regarnishes and pops it into the oven. Delicious! But she considered it a failure, not expecting the celeriac to taste quite the way it did.

Now celeriac is definitely a new one for me. For the uninitiated (like myself), here’s the scoop: it is a fist-sized knobby root that tastes like celery and parsley. Half a cup equals 30 calories, and it’s a good source of dietary fiber. Heidi—the face of Quiet Creek Farm—is perfect for her role at the distribution center. She knows everyone’s names and is very friendly and helpful when you have any questions regarding the produce. I asked her how to prepare celeriac and she said one of the shareholders reported steaming it until it’s soft and adding a lot of cheese on top; others put it in stews. And she listed quite a few other methods of preparing this vegetable. It wasn’t until I was walking away that I realized it was all vaguely familiar; I’d asked her before! That’s it, no more questions, just do it. I went home and steamed it until it was soft and loaded it up with cheese and was pleased to taste something like a pre-seasoned potato. Not bad for such an odd looking vegetable.

Needless to say, I’ve learned a lot about growing, preparing, eating and even some about storing food in my time here. I’ve learned what’s seasonal and how to fix it. For myself, eating raw vegetables is phenomenal, but that’s not something you can readily give to company, or easily do when you come into contact with red beets. I’m sad to see the season ending, but at lunch when I see how happy the Quiet Creek crew is I know that it’s time to move on.

We—the research interns—are going to be busy for a while yet, processing and collecting field corn and keeping the hairy vetch weeded; we have another garlic planting ahead of us and some soil samples to be collected out of the Farming Systems Trial.

Remembering Mali

Earlier this week, while threshing and cleaning soybeans for the soybean rust experiment (three different varieties and four different treatments), it took me back to Mali where it’s getting closer to harvest time in the rice fields.

Once the men have harvested all of the rice and hauled it in, the women take over. Whirling long sticks around their heads and bringing them down hard on the rice stalks—"mosada, mosada"—they separate the rice from the stalks. Cleaning what they’ve gathered, they loosely brush off the larger organic material, leaving the heavy rice at the bottom. Then they lift up their baskets with the rice and let the wind take all of the lighter material, and the rice falls to the mat below. This might be considered old-fashioned, but it is still quite a viable method and the only option for a lot of traditional farmers.

After seeing all of the work that goes on from the seed to the pot, it would be a real crime to mess it up in the final preparation for consumption. We get hung up on the products not the processes, but in order to fully appreciate the outcome, we should at least understand the process.

By preparing the celeriac, the pancakes and the kale, I’m concentrating on the process, and am able to feel some control in this product-oriented world. My trips to the grocery store are getting fewer and fewer, and it feels good to be conscious of what I eat. So as winter approaches, and my trips to the store will most likely pick back up, I am thankful for what I’ve learned from our gardening neighbors. On the research farm, this concept of good solid practices resulting in a good product is reiterated on an agronomic scale: invaluable though not as personal. We here in the industrialized West have the technology to remove the majority of us from dealing as intimately with our grain as the rice farmer in Mali.

In whatever field you work, you are no doubt familiar with your product and what it takes to get it to market. Imagine yourself in a train cart looking at the train on the next track; all you see is a blur and maybe fleeting vertical lines that lead you to believe it’s made up of multiple carts. You in your cart are related to the cart in front of you in that it’s pulling you along, but until you cross the walkway between carts, you don’t know about it. The intern experience—being where I am, being in contact with these people—has allowed me to get on and visit several carts to get an insider’s perspective on that part of the process. This is a better way to decide on which train and in which cart I’d like to settle for awhile.

To concentrate on the processes rather than the products, this is the way to not get too overwhelmed in our world of so many things. Growing, preparing and eating food has allowed all of that to take place for me. The forecast is calling for flurries, and nuts continue to drop off the trees—winter’s coming. Next spring when the hairy vetch and garlic get the grow memo, there will be a new set of interns to get the results of what we’ve worked on this year.