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              It was a blustery weekend in Muskrat Flats. The wind was conducting a symphony as the poplars bordering the vineyard...

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

We gotta get back, to the Chicken Shack

If you have read any of this blog in the past, you know that I am a chef. That is how I make my daily bread...the cash flow juggernaut which allows me to pursue my other artistic interests, which most assuredly, will eventually pay off. I'm working on a payoff to the point that I do not have to spend my days in a commercial kitchen producing sauteed chicken Francaise while I am thinking about what to write next, or what type of marble I would like to make, or what exotic and elusive location the band is playing tonight? At least I can participate in all of these life enriching activities even if it is not paying the bills...for now.

I've been thinking about food lately. On Sunday afternoon I was traveling from the Farm to the Indian Orchard Mills. I took the back roads, on the way to the Mill, for a change of scenery. I had to get a glass piece that I had left there. As I traveled the roads of Ludlow, MA, and surveyed people's properties, I noticed little tiny structures set back from the houses. They were odd shaped and not quite tall enough to be considered a tool shed. In fact we had one at the Farm. Then it clicked, why of course...they were chicken coops. Back in the day, when the Farm began, it started out with with the distribution of farm fresh eggs from that little coop.

Not that long ago, there was an era where we, as a society, were dependent upon agrarian folkways and traditions handed down from our ancestors. I am only two generations removed from a time where my Grandparents not only worked regular jobs but lived on a family farm where they grew their own vegetables, had a few dairy cows for production of milk and butter and of course, they had a chicken coop.

Since Ludlow, where the farm is located has a predominant Portuguese population, it is no wonder that you now see so many relics from a forgotten era. These relics being unused chicken coops as well as car ports with metal trellises which are used to grow grapes for that home made rocket fuel they call wine. Relics leftover from the previous more self sufficient generation. A friend of mine, a fellow glassblower, purchased a house that had one of these car ports and even has a wine room, complete with a floor drain, in his basement. The use of these structures has fallen by the wayside as it is so easy to procure "fresh eggs" and wine by simply going to the local supermarket and buying them.

My Grandfather used to own a plot of land where he had a house and a farm in Fairview, a section of Chicopee, MA. This little oasis which sustained his family through seven years of unemployment during the Great Depression, was gobbled up by the US Government to make way for what would become Westover AFB.

He moved his family to Chicopee Center, for a while during WWII, then made a move to Wilbraham, MA. Wilbraham was a sprawling underdeveloped town dissected by Rt. 20, a route carved out during Revolutionary times as it was utilized by Henry Knox as he trudged through the town with his cargo of artillery which he was transporting from Fort Ticonderoga, to Boston in the winter of 1775 . It is here along the fabled Knox Trail that my grandfather got back to his agrarian roots. It was a hard time. The Great Depression wasn't that far behind him. He embodied the symbiotic relationship we are supposed to have with animals and the land. His livestock were well cared for, as he treated them as they should be. As long as they played by the rules of the game, as nature intended, they could live a long healthy life.

I recall one story which has endured over the course of the years. One of my grandfather's hens had hatched a number of chicks. She was a bad mother who refused to take care of them. Why? I guess we will never know. Why does a mother turn her back on her children? Obviously some kind of genetic defect. He picked up those chicks and put them in the nest of another hen. She took them in as if they were her own, without question or hesitation. She got right down to it monitoring their progress, teaching them how to scratch for their food and how tasty ticks were. She kept them together as they grew...keeping them away from foxes, raccoons and hawks . What became of the bad mother?

Well...my Grandfather used to make a delicious soup with onions, celery, carrots and parsnips which he would serve with mashed potatoes and sprigs of fresh mint. All of these wonderful ingredients would come out of his garden. He would put them into a stainless steel pot which he would polish to a high gloss in a sand pit outside the house. He would then boil the pot clean and start with fresh cold water, the veggies and of course...a chicken. And what better way to decide which chicken out of that hen house would go into the pot than the one who lacked the good sense to perpetuate her species. Bad chicken... good soup.

A glimpse into modern day food production techniques has caused many people in the enlightened society where disposable income is the common thread, to eschew mass produced foods opting for the more expensive organic products from local farms via specialty food stores, or from co-ops and farmer's markets. Some have even taken a moral stand against the consumption of animal products.

Those in a lower income bracket who need food stamps probably don't think twice about the fact that the eggs they consume come from a fly infested sweat box where the hens are de-beaked, shocked and endure forced molting to produce more eggs. The air is polluted with the ammonia from their feces and male chicks, who have no place in the business of mass egg production, are tossed to the curbside with the rest of the trash. No wonder eggs are toxic unless cooked thoroughly. No wonder egg shells are so brittle that they shatter in your hands. And guess what? Those "free range" ones are not really any better.

Terrence McKenna an ethnobotanist and free thinker would talk about a "future which looks more like the past, than the future." I think how and where our food comes from is one of the aspects of the future to which he was referring.

The big news this week is that a California Meat Packer Hallmark/Westland recalled 143 million pounds of suspected beef. 143 million POUNDS! The average weight of a slaughtered dressed carcass is 1,400 pounds. That translates into 102,000 heads of cattle. The recall was started because a videotape surfaced of workers kicking the animals and moving and brutalizing the screaming cattle who could not WALK, with forklifts. Could not WALK? It was okay that these cattle dubbed "downers" couldn't walk as they had passed the preliminary USDA inspection for slaughter. The problem was that these animals who had become non-ambulatory were not being reported to the USDA. This affliction, of course being one of the symptoms of "Mad Cow Disease."

“The recall is obviously the big news,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society. “The longer-term problem is the inadequacies of the inspection system. How can so many downers have been mistreated day after day within a U.S.D.A. oversight system that was present at the plant?" Pacelle concluded “We need more boots on the ground at the plants."(LA Times 2/18/08)

More boots on the ground and less on the cattle I guess. This is a pretty embarrassing situation for the agency who insures our food safety.

As a chef, I am going to continue to try to shorten the gap between the wholesome family farm and the dinner table. I'm not going to do anything rash like become a vegetarian. I tried that, a couple of times. Labuda's kielbasa brought me back every time.

Perhaps a day will come when I will be driving down those back roads to the Mill, where an average price for one of my works of art will be in the three figure range. If this is the case I probably will not be getting off of work at the Farm, but I will be stopping by one of the road side stands offering fresh eggs which came out of that refurbished and gaily painted chicken coop which was on the property when they bought the house. But for now, I guess those chicken shacks will have to continue to contain old boxes, books, and unused forgotten bric a brac, as well the memories of a simpler and more civilized time in culinary history.

For Now, I am still...

Running Hard out of Muskrat Flats.

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