Though my family’s farm is in Amador County, I grew up eating more like my Swedish great grandmother Anna did on her farm in North Dakota. Scrambled eggs and cottage cheese, challah bread baked with candied orange peel, a butter and pea pasta dish my mother calls “hay and straw.” It all falls under the umbrella of cuisine we affectionately refer to as “beige meal,” an austerely Scandinavian dairy-farm cuisine I continue to cook for myself today.
Dad was the more inventive cook at home, an important quality when dinner focused on whatever was ripe for the picking on the farm. The way some men specialize in meatballs or hot dogs on the grill, dad’s specialty was taking an ingredient and transforming it into a dozen different dishes. Squash proved nicely versatile, turnips were hard to disguise, and we ate fava beans for so many months on end that the idea of them still makes me sick, but the most important ingredient in dad’s pantry arsenal was dried porcini mushrooms. Fresh, their smell is mild and unremarkable, but dried the smell is somewhere between brewers malt, maple, and a sock drawer.
Dad had learned to gather mushrooms from an old Italian woman who’d been picking them in the area for decades. When he found her foraging on the property one day he asked her to take him along and teach him how. From then on, the first warm days after a good fall rain meant mushroom hunting. Until dad could confidently identify what he’d picked we would bring our baskets to the woman’s house where she would deftly separate the good from the bad, flinging the bad ones over her shoulder and declaring in a heavy accent, “Good! No good! Good!”
Just as dad was the undisputed cook, mom was the baker in the house. Her dough-smeared copy of James Beard’s Beard on Bread sat on a shelf above the oven, rarely referenced as all the recipes were known by heart. While long braids of challah bread fed us through the spring, summer time meant peach cobblers, pies, and jams. November was the start of a fierce baking marathon with mom mixing up a different batch of cookie dough every day for weeks in preparation for December’s “julbord,” another Swedish hold-over from great grandmother Anna. Beginning December 1st and lasting through Epiphany in early January, the julboard was a special table in the dining room laden with cookies, candies and pies that could be nibbled on all day. The chocolate gingerbread molasses cookies, the unstable lemon bars, the lingonberry hand pies that looked just like the mincemeat ones so that you always got the one you didn’t mean to reach for- all the recipes could be found in a notebook from Anna with my mother’s helpful scrawls in the margin advising things like, “add melted butter, beat like hell.”
When I left for college, I took mom’s worn copy of Edward Espe Brown’s Tassajara Cooking with me, which read more like zen koans inspired by vegetables than actual recipes. After college, I moved to Seattle where I mostly lived on bagels and peanut butter, until the Thanksgiving I spent alone in my damp and dark basement apartment, eating from a pan of instant mashed potatoes and a can of pineapple rings, still hungry when they were gone and feeling like something had gone wrong in my life. It wasn’t much longer until I was back in California.
Rediscovering the farm as an adult, I’ve come to love the lifestyle I eschewed as a teenager. These days if I’m taking the truck into town for animal feed or a run to the hardware store, I do it shamelessly in cowboy boots- no matter that we don’t have horses. Instead of browsing the farmers market in Sacramento where I live, I find myself carving out time to make a farm run where the eggs are better, the bread is fresher, and the greens stay crisp in the fridge for a week or longer.
I submit these details as enticements to friends in the city, often coaxing them up to the foothills for a weekend of home-made wine and pasta with porcinis or those fava beans that I hate. I find myself reveling in the frog-din of evening, waking up to rooster crows and the gentler hoots of doves and songbirds I can’t name.
I have even taken up the habit of keeping a vegetable garden wherever I’m living. At my apartment in Sacramento, a 20 square foot patio has just enough sun and space for some containers screwed into the banister and stacked on top of stools. My winter harvest gave me salad greens, cilantro, parsley, chives, and thyme, and when my parents visit they nod approvingly to see that I am “farming.” By summer though, most of my attention is redirected to the family farm as the fruit comes into season, apricots leading to peaches, leading to plums, leading to pears.
In July, the immensity of ripening peaches means frantic activity while we figure out what to do with them. As many pounds as we can hock are delivered to local restaurants, but the bowing bottom crates can prove too much for even the most willing chefs. On those days, we sit around two buckets with a paring knife, tossing the pits in one and the quartered up fruit in the other, a kitchen towel draped over your knee to clean up the juice that runs down your hands, making the knife handle slick. Some of the fruit will go into gallon freezer bags for winter time pies, some of it goes into the wild wine barrels for brandy making out at the distillery, and another portion is put aside for jams.
Work in the canning kitchen could be summed up as hot and tiring, and though mom is able to can anything, it’s a skill I’ve never practiced on my own for fear of killing those I love with botulism. It’s a fear that strikes pretty close to home. In the early 1900’s the family that lived on our property grew sick from a tainted batch of canned green beans. It killed half the family, and the family on the farm next door. Knowing this, the idea of a home-made treat wiping out half the neighborhood has kept my curiosity in traumatized check. Jam seems harmless enough, but I’ve never shared my family’s mania for it. I still prefer to eat my peaches fresh.
These days, my greatest pride comes from sharing the farm with others. To celebrate the spring equinox this season we reached out to many friends to spend the day with us, grazing on grilled spring onions enlivened by the creamy spice of chipotle romesco, a long table crowded with potluck dishes and the cellar steadily relieved of last year’s primativo. The bright, waxing moon washed the stars out of the sky, and the laughter stayed warm and alive around the bonfire until the last guest had gone to bed, the frogs finally unchallenged as they croaked through the night.
*As printed in Edible Sacramento magazine‘s May/June 2016 issue.
Photo by Drew Walker, 2016.