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June After April

This is the first of what I hope will be many essays written at Eckerton Hill Farm in Eastern Pennsylvania.  I have left the Forager position at The Spotted Pig and The Breslin, and am now living and working at Eckerton Hill.  We primarily grow heirloom tomatoes and chili peppers, and sell our produce at the farmers market in Union Square.

As I move, both physically and mentally, out of The Spotted Pig and into Eckerton Hill, my writing will probably encourage (or shamelessly draw) general conclusions about New York restaurants and small farms in the Northeast.  I’d like to acknowledge now that not all restaurants are run by petite British women who once aspired to the police force, serve 380 people every night in a space that seats 100, and pump out over one thousand fancy burgers in a week.  Not all farm owners struggle with the thought of a writing career they haven’t quite left behind, cultivate more than fifteen thousand tomato plants each summer, and sell at a market 113 miles away, two (sometimes three) days a week.  The stories I tell, in short, will be unique to the specific places and people in them.  And the more appropriate (and strikingly easy to make) comparisons may in fact be between Eckerton Hill and the Bloomfield restaurants themselves.

When I was training the replacement Forager, she told me how everything about the Forager job seemed simple on the surface, how she felt capable of each task she had to complete, but that all the details she’d have to remember, all the small notes and facts that I kept filed in my head, would take time for her to absorb: tastes, of course, and personalities, tricycle capacities, bus tub quantities, and dollars per pound per piece per yield per quart per recipe depending on the cook.  Where did we get fava beans last Friday, how many dozen eggs do we order per week, how many portions are we getting per whole fish of a particular size.  Could she cost out immediately – from cost per flat of berries, per box of fruit, per pound of sugar, per bottle of liquor – a two-quart container of macerated mixed fruit.  Can we get a better price on beef tongue, are we getting the faxes from Guy Jones, have we ordered from Upstate in time for their delivery on Monday, and in the meantime could she please find white escarole SOMEWHERE and could she track down red chili peppers in Chinatown.  Also could she at some point put together a seasonal seafood chart, and an excel sheet of the change in food cost if we were to stop working with Dairyland.  That was the Forager job. A miriad of little things, a few larger projects.  Seven different chefs were each tossing me sets of modest but plentiful tasks to juggle, each of them often unaware of the others’ demands.

The pace on the farm is not necessarily drastically different.  All the pretty flats of seedlings teased me with a certain daintiness until I saw what blazing rows of tomato vines they become.  Every step of the way, we have to worry: are they getting enough sun, are they getting enough water, has it rained, is it too dry.  Meanwhile, Spring hits.  How many boxes of lettuce did we pick and what’s bolting and what’s still small, what size did the chefs want?  Who ordered mixed baby heads this week?  Did we milk the goat and does she have enough water and where is that other hen laying her egg, and is the electric fence working?  How much are we charging for the broccoli, what should we charge for those fava leaves, is anyone going to buy romaine this size?  What did we pick.  Haricot vert, heirloom carrots, heirloom beets, scallions, new potatoes, snap peas, English peas, tuscan kale, red russian kale, scottish kale, swiss chard, black raspberries.  Meanwhile, we put the tomatoes in the ground:  Have we watered the plants in this heat, did we close the well, how’s the pressure in the well, did you notice the level of the spring, was the soil wet?  How many rows of tomatoes are left without stakes or string?  Do not drive over that irrigation line.  How many more rows still need straw beneath them?  Be sure to tie the string from the bales on the stakes, or they’ll get caught in the tiller.  Do we have enough boxes for the squash and do we bring them to the field or pack them in the shed and did we get the squash blossoms in the walk-in right away.  Where are the scissors for the basil?  We’ll be back at 9pm to load the truck.  If we keep the berries in the walk-in until the morning will we remember to stick them in the truck at 3:30am when we leave for market.  Do we have everything? Extra baskets for the table, three tables plus two, the white tent, the supply box with the scale, receipts, tablecloths, market aprons, and pens.  Corn will soon be the mortar between the boxes.  Tomatoes will be easier than all of this.  So says Tim.

In step with the switch from restaurant to farm, my vocabulary has expanded from the kitchen to the field, from charolas and basquetas, limones, papas and amburgesas, to piscar and limpiar, manguera, hojas, avas, chicaros, lechuga.  Tomates.  A moderate ability to understand Spanish allows me in on both sides of the conversations between a good boss and non-English speaking workers, the language they have developed over the years, the hand gestures and exaggerated voices, and the understanding of each others’ facial expressions, temperament, and mood.  The prep manager communicates with the head chef at The Pig, outside the restaurant entrance door, up from the stairs in the basement, much like the farmhand manager speaks with Tim, outside the packing shed or in the field.  They are each used to the stress, the details, the tempers that blow, the fact that every day has its last straw: the yellow squash should have been picked smaller, all the tomato rows should have been checked, we only wanted three boxes of kale today, blossom stems should be cut with a scissors, why did you waste time harvesting so few favas?  One can’t help but wonder if the rhythm of misunderstandings is the one that drives us crazy or the one that keeps us sane.

Heat is not so much a characteristic of the climate as it is the medium of our work and production.  Much like the restaurant.  The kitchen rises to the temperature created by the act of cooking, and the farm plays to the temperature required for the act of growing.  And the people had better well adjust.  I put up nails in my room to hang my soiled clothes at night, to dry.  And where I am not scratched by squash leaves or puckered with poison ivy, my skin is getting smoother from the sweat.

Even certain details of my personal lifestyle here remain the same: we need to go to bed early and often fail; we could do something adventurous on the weekends but often just want to rest or write; we manage to spend money on a regular basis, though our only real expenses are beer and transportation.

I have found a certain comfort in the unpredicted parallels between one good food job and another, though gradually the differences have begun to win my attention.

We on the farm crew break, and sit down in the kitchen, to eat our lunch.  The early morning, and twilight, can be periods of calm.  Work and rest revolve around physical strains and satisfactions.  The days can be long stretches, of conversations and silences, in the field.  To work here is to submit, to choose, to live in and on and through the farm.  And in that sense we who work together have chosen to be here living together, and unlike many friends or even most lovers, we work and talk side by side throughout the day, about our random ideas, the books we’ve read, the people we’ve met, and the projects we have in our heads.  We may not have much time to ourselves, but we do have the mental space, the field, in which to think.  And with that…..I will try to be writing all season.

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