The other day, I made a pie. This is not, nor should it be, an earth-shattering revelation, or a proclamation worthy of fanfare. Anyone who knows me knows that I love sweets, and I love the predictable, orderly recipes that result in baked goods. What was different about this pie was the crust. In our pre-farm life, had I wanted to bake a pie, I would not have thought twice about running to the store to pick up some pre-made crusts from the refrigerator case. I would let them come to room temperature and then bake them in my own oven – that counts as homemade, right? Now that we are 20 minutes from a proper grocery store (and an hour from a Costco!), “convenience foods” like pre-prepared pie crusts are rather inconveniently far away. No matter. I took this opportunity to leaf through Kate McDermott’s Art of the Pie in search of a beginner-level crust recipe. A very dear friend gave me McDermott’s book on the eve of our move to the Homemade Pie Capital of Minnesota, partly as a compliment to an inside joke, but mostly as a heartfelt token of friendship.
Kate McDermott assured me, as I positively already knew, that, “Pie doesn’t care about perfection or precision…pie couldn’t care less if it merits a blue ribbon at the fair…Made with hands and heart, pie is love, and love is best when shared.” I realized that the very worst outcome for an inaugural crust attempt would be scraping a few cups of flour and butter into the trash and starting over. I gave it a try. After some mixing, chilling, and rolling, I had a very rustic, but very edible looking crust. As I said earlier, this from-scratch-feat is no more worthy of a high five than mashing potatoes or scrambling eggs. Making a pie crust, along with so many other kitchen skills, is a skill that everyone is capable of mastering – or at least, attempting. If we think back to when our grandparents were growing up, their kitchens were full of the raw materials of life – flour, butter, meat from their own yard or the neighborhood butcher, vegetables from their garden. How many hands had touched the ingredients in the meals they ate? No more than resided in their houses, most likely. The crusts that held pies 75 years ago were not concocted in factories far away, held in cold storage for six months, or trucked in from across the country. They were made from scratch, made at home, and made with a few simple, pronounceable ingredients.
The longer we are here at the farm, the more and more I have attempted to make food from scratch. A few short weeks ago, Chris and I added an old favorite – jambalaya – to our weekly meal plan. “We’ll have to remember to pick up a box from the store,” I said. “Why? We can just make it ourselves,” Chris reminded me. I was surprised at my own knee-jerk dependency on store-bought and pre-boxed things. Even though we are consciously trying to clean up our food habits – we moved 2,000 miles and started this grass-fed meat business in order to feed ourselves and our fellow Minnesotans clean, local protein – it is astonishing how ingrained our dependency on store-bought prepared food can be. Needless to say, I pinterest-ed (is that a verb yet?) a jambalaya recipe, Chris dug the cajun seasoning from his camping box, and I got to work. Did I follow it letter-for-letter? No. Jambalaya is a fairly forgiving one-pot meal, and because it needs 25-30 minutes to simmer on the stove, I was able to make some from-scratch biscuits to go along with it. I am not exaggerating when I say that I was rather proud of that one-pot, seven biscuits meal that I made for my little family. I hadn’t needed any special ingredients from the store; as much as could be made from scratch was.
I have not always been as food-conscious as I am now, nor have I always been comfortable in the kitchen. In fact, not too long ago, a friend texted to ask how my roasted chicken dinner had turned out. “I didn’t cut OR burn myself, and no one seems to be sick. We’re going to put that one in the win column,” I texted back, in all seriousness. Back in my college days, Chris and I would bat no eyelashes at buying the Banquet “Homestyle Bakes,” where all the ingredients (even the meat!) were included. (“Just add water!”) Heaven help us, we thought we were cooking. Thankfully, our tastes and food-awareness has evolved from the “shelf-stable-meat” portion of life. I still cringe when I walk by such things as meat-in-a-box, vacuum packed cookie dough, or aerosol cheese.
Let’s pause for a moment with aerosol cheese.
At no point in life would I have ever purchased such a thing, nor consumed it, due to necessity or challenge. Now that I know more about how supermarket meat is produced and processed, I realize that those two products share more than just a supermarket aisle. In either case, can we recognize and pronounce all the ingredients listed on the package? Could we discover and then visit the exact farm from whence it came? It is safe to say that the pictures on the front of the cheese can are not indicative of its origins; the same is true for meat. There are no rolling hills or blue sky around factory farmed chicken, pork, or beef. We wouldn’t be able to visit where production-line protein is produced without first donning a hazmat suit and getting through several levels of corporate clearance. Do not let “organic” and “free-range” labels fool you. The corporate conglomerates have legislated the parameters under which these words can be used, and they have influenced the regulations in such a way that Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and chicken houses can still be certified organic. Hog houses – the cramped, concrete confinement houses in which supermarket pork is “grown”- produce ammonia fumes noxious enough to kill not only hogs, but the people that work with them, were it not for the giant ventilation fans that run constantly. Bacon from these hog houses can be labeled organic, free-range (as long as there is a door somewhere), and GMO-free. Don’t rely on the food labels to tell you what you need to know. Just as we would never take aerosol cheese at its word – “a healthy snack” – we should not listen to corporations when it comes to our meat.
Just as I would never in a bazillion years think that chemical-filled aerosol cheese is a healthy option for my family, I will never feel like mass-produced meat (or any food) is the healthiest choice for our house. We are in the beginning stages of breaking our life-long dependency on convenient, supermarket foods, and just as I have learned that I don’t need a pre-boxed jambalaya mix to make dinner, soon I won’t need a grocery store meat aisle either. Chris and I both hope very much that we can find a tribe of like-minded Minnesotans that also want to break free from the supermarket walls. We want to be the farmer that people think of when their social media feeds implore them to #knowyourfarmer. We are real people too, and we understand that we can’t be perfect. We lead busy, full lives, and our attention and energy, like yours, is pulled in a million different directions. But we can set ourselves up to be successful by filling our larders, freezers, and families with clean, local, healthy food. It’s hard to eat squirtable cheese or confinement house pork if it doesn’t have a place on our home shelves.
The animals will get to the farm in the spring; we are spending the winter ahead planning and prepping for their arrival. Our chickens will get to peck and scratch the pasture for bugs, the hogs will root around the woods for treats, and the cows will eat what cows are designed to eat – grass. You are welcome to visit the farm any time – no hazmat suit or ammonia fans necessary.
While we spend this season in preparation for the next, I’ll keep working on my jambalaya and homemade pies. This first crust was a little tough, but that’s nothing that a little homegrown practice can’t fix. Come on out in the spring, and we’ll share a slice. ~Lauren