Duff ’n Stuff, Sept. 25, 2012
I’m excited about our new name, Whidbey Life Magazine. The backstage dragons and I are working on expanding our reach to cover more aspects of art and culture on the island. I’m very much looking forward to the magazine’s gradual development and I’m hoping all of you are, too.
I’m also happy that I finally get to tell you a story about some local women food producers who I had the pleasure of meeting this summer among the pastures.
But first, a short prologue.
The idea for the story came from Jess Dowdell, a local culinary artist who has been the head chef in several kitchens, including Hedgebrook and most recently at Ca Buni, the café in the woods at Mukilteo Coffee Roasters in Langley. (Look for WLM’s story about the Roaming Radish, Dowdell’s new place for takeout, catering and cooking classes in downtown Freeland, in an upcoming edition of WLM.)
Jess was excited by the fact that much of the produce, dairy and meat she was using to create her seasonally-conscious menus were produced by women.
“How about a story about all these women producers on Whidbey Island?” she asked me.
Jess suggested I consider selling the story to a food magazine, such as Edible in Seattle, to get off-islanders interested in the food transition that has been gradually taking place here, as it is elsewhere in this country; that movement that connects producers to shoppers through farmers markets, restaurants, community supported agriculture and chefs like her who are determined to promote the food of the neighbors who grow and make it.
I had high hopes for this story idea in the big city magazine world. I set about creating my pitch, playing up the aspect of this modern generation of women who run farms, milk goats and sheep, make cheese, make wine, raise cattle, plant acres of vegetables and see it all grace the tables of strangers, neighbors, friends and family. These women like all producers, work hard to create an income for their families, while feeding the families around them.
Dear reader, here is where I have a confession to make. Magazines NEVER want to publish my stories. Of course, they never actually read any of my stories because that’s not how the system works. Editors of magazines want to see only a “query” first, a pitch, that summarizes the idea for the story. After weeks or months they may respond; many of them don’t. (One theme of my life is that I’ve always felt somewhat on the outside of any group or thing; the person with her nose up against the glass, fingers cupped around the eyes, trying to look in on the action. Pitching stories feels like more of that theme.)
The editor at Edible did respond, but she didn’t want the “women who sustain their families, while feeding their neighbors” story.
I’m going to tell it anyway.
Going into the pastures that etch the circumference of the Imes’ family Quail’s Run Farm, I stopped to greet a sweet, black-eyed cow who was munching and chewing his grassy dinner. I thanked him for whatever meat I would be dining on that evening and drove on (with a slight pang of guilt) toward the house.
Patty and Loren Imes’ farm is situated atop a hill on French Road in the breathtaking Maxwelton Valley, one of my favorite neighborhoods on Whidbey Island.
Quail’s Run Farm has been growing a wide-range of heirloom and open-pollinated vegetables and raising grass-fed beef cattle for market and restaurants for 10 years. Farmer Patty had graciously welcomed me, along with six women producers for a meal among the farm’s pastures on gorgeous day in high summer.
Patty had told me how she and her husband took a chance and followed their bliss; a big idea that they could leave the city buy this land and house on Whidbey Island and become farmers. They did.
Chef Jess had taken over the large, sunny kitchen and had laid out beautiful platters of cheeses, crackers, some of this year’s crop of exquisitely red and ripe strawberries from Bells Farm, which she had dressed with a magic sauce that contained balsamic vinegar and an herb called lovage, a spicy little number with hints of celery and mustard; a stroke of tasty genius here.
“Anna was the first person to bring lovage to me,” Dowdell said, referring to Anna Petersons.
Petersons had brought heaps of gorgeous greens for our dinner from her farm, Molly’s Island Garden, the four acre CSA in Langley that her mother Molly had started 24 years ago, and which she took over full time two years ago.
When Chef Jess was working at Ca Buni, Petersons said she was the CSA’s best customer.
“Even after the markets have closed and our CSA season is over, she’s still ordering winter greens, salad mix from our greenhouses, stored potatoes, shallots, winter squash, and winter-hardy herbs like chervil and parsley,” Petersons said. “When the first nettles come up in the spring, we put on gloves and harvest the tender tops for Jess, along with all the different raabs – the spring flower shoots from whichever kales, cabbages, and turnips have overwintered,” she said.
“It’s great working with a chef who likes experimenting and understands the value of local and seasonal food,” Petersons added.
The lovage-stoked strawberries were a perfect complement to Lynn Swanson’s fresh sheep’s milk cheese made at her Glendale Shepherd in Clinton.
Swanson grew up on a dairy farm and was surrounded by an extended family of milkers. She became a black sheep of sorts among a family of old time cow milk producers, some of whom she said she watched slowly lose their once lucrative incomes in an industry that had changed drastically over the years.
Swanson and her family turned toward organic farming, and raises lamb meat and makes their Island Brebis, a whole raw sheep’s milk tomme that is aged 3–6 months. It was extraordinarily delicious.
We also enjoyed “chief milkmaid” Vicky Brown’s goat cheeses of Little Brown Farm in Freeland.
Brown writes the Chief Milkmaid blog and recently talked about her family’s struggle, like other small farmers and producers, to make enough money to keep things going; a constant dilemma even though producers such as Brown are applauded by the restaurants, markets and locals that love her product.
These fresh cheeses were so good, and I can’t really do justice to the happy dance that was taking place in my mouth at that point in time.
While Jess fed us homegrown delicacies, Rio Rayne offered us her “Rio’s Rose” from her family’s Useless Bay Winery in Clinton. (It went perfectly with the cheeses.)
I had met Rayne and her dad, Jack, at the Slow Food Whidbey Island Event at Greenbank Farm in June and found out all about what this family has been up to for the past couple of years. Besides wine, they also produce greens and vegetables at Live Edge Farm and recently opened the Useless Bay Wines Tasting Room in downtown Langley. Later, Rayne poured some of her winery’s softer than velvet “Sill Hill Red,” which I just love.
Meanwhile, the vivacious farmer Georgie Smith of the 12 acre Willowood Farm near Ebey’s Landing in Coupeville was telling stories about her fourth generation Ebey’s Prairie family.
Smith’s farm is located in heart of the Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve and was started by Smith in 2002. “Willowood Farm” was the historic name first used by the descendants of pioneer Isaac Ebey in reference to the once abundant willow trees that grew on the waterlogged prairie soil (which was later drained by an extensive system of ceramic tiles installed by Chinese laborers).
The Smith family began farming the property in the 1890s and has lived on the property ever since.
Smith, too, grows all manner of produce with particular emphasis on lettuce, garlic, potatoes and winter squash and pumpkins. She maintains a sweet blog called the Little Farm on Ebey Prairie, and a recent entry said Willowood had the kind of year, so far, that she’s been fantasizing about.
We all made our way outside to sit above the pastures and dine under the setting sun.
Jess had grilled up the rest of the feast, which included the Imses’ beef on kabobs fresh broccoli, roasted turnips, red quinoa “tabouleh-style” salad, a green salad with lovage, wilted savory greens with feta and a balsamic reduction and grilled garlic scapes. It was all brought to the table from all of these island acres and into the capable hands of Dowdell, whose main mission was to bring all these purveyors together for a feast, a chat and a story.
For dessert, Jess worked her sweet magic with a simple gingerbread topped off with some of Brown’s scrumptious (now famous) Cajeta, a Mexican sauce, made with goat’s milk and offered in three flavors, caramel, chocolate and traditional.
I know that every story I write is not going to make its mark on the world, but after spending an interesting evening with these women, who usually have their hands in the dirt, or who are feeding or milking or pressing or harvesting, or dreaming up recipes, I realized the enormous value of what they do. These are the sustenance makers; they create food that sustains, long after the sun has set and the dishes are done and the animals have laid down to rest.
I’ll always remember that meal and those women, their laughter and the hard, joyous work they do for a better world.
May you always eat in good health.
From the heart,