A Bee Oddity

My wife, a classical scholar, is working on a commentary on the Georgics, an agrarian work from ancient Rome written by Vergil, one of the greatest of Roman writers. Our dog walks these days frequently find me getting the latest interesting bits she’s unearthed from the text (along with what she learns from her lunchtime reading of Cato the Elder, an earlier Roman writer also writing on agricultural themes, among other things). Most recently, I learned that one theory Vergil puts forward — though Aristotle and Pliny the Elder mention it too, and it’s unclear if Vergil actually believes it — is that a beehive gets repopulated when existing bees go out and use their mouths to capture baby bees from leaves and “sweet plants [suavibus herbis]” (presumably those they’d go to in search of nectar), which they then carry (still in their mouths) back to the hive. Where do the baby bees come from? Unclear. This may sound a little less wacky if you know that everybody thought that the queen of the hive was in fact a king — because, you know, the biggest bee in the hive couldn’t possibly be female.

What to Do with What We’ve Got?

For the most part, when we talk about local food in the U.S. we refer to food that’s locally grown, not food that’s indigenous to an area or has a long history in it. There are exceptions, of course, perhaps increasingly, and climate obviously dictates some variation in what’s available and when in different places. But a farm-to-table menu or market display in Kalamazoo doesn’t look all that much different from one in Maine or Colorado, Georgia or California. There is, in other words, a kind of homogenized diversity to the local food movement (as there is in music, sports, politics, pretty much every manifestation of culture, which is now often broadcast globally but still of necessity always practiced locally). There are lots of reasons for this, some good (a non-provincial openness to foods from other places; good seed producers that serve people all over the country; etc.), some not-so-good (a loss of regional cuisines due to the great blandification of the American diet in the 20th century), some hard to judge as all good or all bad (the constant movement of people to schools and jobs in places different from where they grew up).

But this means that part of what Michael Pollan called the “omnivore’s dilemma” – if you can eat anything, what should you eat? – is what to do with the ingredients one obtains locally. Continue reading “What to Do with What We’ve Got?”

The Smell of Canned Worms

My mother’s way of judging “eat-by” dates of most food was to ask two questions: how much mold is on it? (A sub-question: can you scrape it off?) And, how does it smell? She’d majored in biology at UNC and worked professionally in a number of bio-chemical labs, so she didn’t lack scientific knowledge of what was going on in the food decomposition process. What she had, and what I’m eternally grateful for, is a reasonable approach to risk when it comes to food, and an understanding that our senses are a pretty reliable guide to what’s safe, provided they are trained and that you understand the situations in which they are not reliable.

Training is crucial, and by training I don’t mean just eating everything and seeing what makes you sick. You could do this – we basically have done this collectively as a species – but I don’t recommend it. I mean, rather, that you look at and smell something, make your best guess as to whether it’s ok, then before you eat it you ask someone who knows better than you – because they have the relevant experience – whether you’ve guessed right. That way you get confirmation or not of your initial judgment. Continue reading “The Smell of Canned Worms”

ProZooto

27.5 lbs. That’s a big ham. I was thinking I’d get an 18-20 pounder. But no, 27.5. This was from Dave Warkentien at Young Earth Farm, and I think he was a little surprised too by what his processor gave him when he asked for a whole fresh ham for one of his customers. But, as they say, in for a penny, in for twenty-seven and a half pounds. If it worked, I’d have a lot of prosciutto.

It worked. I have a lot of prosciutto. Or, as I call it, since we’re not in Italy but a small city in West Michigan, ProZooto.

Backing up a bit: time is scarce, so in deciding whether try to make something ourselves that we can easily buy (pasta, jam, pickles, bread, etc.), my wife and I ask three questions: can we make it better? can we make it for significantly less money? is it enjoyable to make? A yes answer to one of these usually means we’ll at least try it. (There’s a wonderful and hilarious book by Jennifer Reese, recently given to us by our friend Joan, called Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, which goes through a whole bunch of projects looking at them through the lens of basically these questions. It’s a fun read and generally pretty reliable. Although for some inexplicable reason she hates chutney.)

Now, I love cured meats. For a long time I’d wanted to try my hand at making salami, but the equipment, process, and sanitary requirements were all a bit daunting — the last especially. (I’ve since overcome the fear, as I’ll write about in the future.) Continue reading “ProZooto”

Welcome to the Buttery Hatch!

Thanks for visiting. I figured I’d start by saying a little about who I am, what I hope to do here and why I started this. (Why the name “The Buttery Hatch?” See the “about” link above.)

I moved to Kalamazoo in June of 2004 when my soon-to-be wife took a job at Kalamazoo College, having spent my grad school years in Pittsburgh and Chicago, then finally Salt Lake City. One of the first things we discovered was the Bank St. Farmers’ Market, which was, like lots of farmers’ markets around the country, just at the beginning of a period of really rapid growth. In our second summer here one of her colleagues offered to split a Bear Foot Farm CSA share with us – CSAs just then really beginning to become available – and the following year we added a share with Blue Dog Greens (now Blue Dog Family Farm). Those shares, along with winter shares from Blue Dog and Eaters’ Guild that became available a couple of years later (this was pre-winter farmers’ markets) gave us a crash course in eating seasonally.

My wife and I had grown up in relatively rural areas, she in the flats of northeastern Ohio, I in the nearby hills of western Pennsylvania. We both had parents who had gardens and did some preserving from them. So eating locally and seasonally wasn’t totally foreign to us, and we found ourselves happily drawn back to, and newly appreciative of, what we’d grown up with but had largely moved away from. In 2007 I started a job as a professor in the Philosophy Department at IU-South Bend (where I still work), and in 2008 we had a child. This was about the time Lori Evesque started the eatlocalswmich yahoo group, which I joined relatively early on. Continue reading “Welcome to the Buttery Hatch!”