Among the documents I was lucky enough to study on last week's Ag School (This Time It's All About the Eggs) Tour were several issues of The Cooperative Poultryman from the early 1920's. As I mentioned, albeit in a cheap-and-easy-joke context, on another page of note, The Cooperative Poultryman is a magazine dedicated to poultry co-ops. It is not, I repeat, not, Lady Chatterley's Lover with a poultryman replacing the gardener. I found some pretty nifty information in there on everything from marketing plans to improved devices for feeding chicks to discussions on the best breeds for meat and eggs to a fairly scathing editorial in response to another poultry journal editor's suggestion that an organization be formed to encourage people to eat more eggs. (Considering that the American agribusiness landscape is now rich with such organizations and check-off programs, it is particularly interesting to read of a time when this still a hot-button issue among farmers.) I also found something...well, you be the judge.
The "something" in question is a tiny little blurb from the June-July 1924 edition of The Cooperative Poultryman, part of a column of tiny little blurbs collected under the heading "Why Not?" Keeping in mind that we all carry cultural baggage, and that the baggage of today is not the baggage of 80 years ago, and keeping in mind further that the mission of The Cooperative Poultryman is to provide support and assistance for poultry cooperatives, assistance that includes responding vigorously to the critics of cooperatives; keeping all that in mind, I was still surprised by their tweaking of a newspaper belonging to that Captain of Industry and plutocratic nutjob, Henry Ford:
Henry Ford's Dearborn Independent recently made itself ridiculous by printing a series of articles pretending to show that Jews were dominating cooperative marketing and using it to exploit the farmers for their own gain. There are a hundred Jews in the commission business and speculating on produce exchanges for every one that is connected with cooperative marketing.
It was 81 years ago, says my left brain to my right brain. Things were different then. It doesn't work. My right brain is still incredulous at this editorial response, and at the idea that the correct answer to Co-ops are run by greedy exploitative Jews! was not Henry Ford is not just a plutocratic nutjob, he's an anti-Semite!, but rather, Nuh-uh! Your team has WAY more Jews than our team, you big stupidhead! I realize I'll have to develop a thicker skin, historical-perspective-wise, if I want to get any work done without stopping every hour or so to gibber frantically, but for now, color me flummoxed, boggled and any other moldy old verb that would indicate either staggering naivete or just plain stupidity.
If it is not a truth universally acknowledged, it should be: There is something about a trip away from home that makes you crave being at home about 12 to 24 hours before you can actually be there. It does not matter how excellent was the trip, or how wretched is your home. You might have had such a wonderful time in, say, Scotland, that the very thought of having to go home, back to a place of unfulfilled dreams and grouchy neighbors, filled you with angst and sadness; at some point the "home" switch in your head gets flicked on, and you're a good day away from it. You could be chasing the perfect wave around the globe; cooking your way around France and Italy; running with the gazelles in Botswana; sleeping on the floor of your studio-dwelling New York City friends after you've gone out for pizza at 1 in the morning and realized that yes, that was Jim Jarmusch walking by; looking furtively at the lace-clad beauties in the red-light district in Amsterdam; riding your bike and eating your way across Iowa; or sitting in a rowboat in the middle of a lake in Canada, not a soul around for miles, mist rising off the surface of the water, the call of trumpeter swans in the distance. At some point, you must go home, and you will not be denied.
Unfortunately, denied is exactly what you will be. There is no getting around it. There is another should-be-universal truth that the older one gets, the faster time passes except when one wakes up in the middle of the night, at which point time slows down to cold-molasses-like speeds. I would add that the only thing that makes time pass slower than insomnia is sitting an airport, waiting for your plane to be ready to board. If it's not a plane, it's a train. If it's not a train, it's a bus. If you are are thwarting the collectivist tyranny of the timetable (lest you think that I am being over the top here, that's an almost-direct quote from a letter -- not written by me -- to the editorial page of the New York Times) by being the king of your own destiny (another quote from the same letter-writer) and driving, either your own car, or a rental, there will be something to keep you from Just Being At Home. There will be road construction, a sporting event, some other cause of stupefying amounts of traffic, the kind where you take one look and just know that a local news helicopter is about to fly over you, dispensing advice to avoid the road on which you find yourself. Or the road might be as clear as a baby's eyes, but you are 750 miles from home.
You may have ascertained that I am not my usual kicky, roll-with-the-punches self, and for that, dear friends, I beg your forgiveness. At 4:30 this morning my eyes snapped open and I knew, with dreadful certainty, that they would not be closing any time soon. I have been awake for five hours and I have not had any coffee, or tea, or anything else that would pick me up and carry me into the day. There are deep grooves under my eyes where my smile used to be. I have achieved the unlikely combination of pale (from hours spent paging through egg pricing reports, marketing surveys, feed cost surveys and 80-year-old poultry cooperative magazines) and sunburned (from sitting outside for twenty minutes to make some phone calls). I look haunted, pained and dyspeptic.
Hallelujah. I have found my academic groove.
And I have found my groove, dear friends, although whether this discovery is cheering or depressing, I have not yet decided. We all have a metier, an idiom, to call our own, and apparently mine is to spend hours in an archive, turning brittle yellow pages gently, discovering that once upon a time, East Coast poultry farmers feared being squashed by the Corn Belt farmers, who in turn feared being squashed by the well-organized egg cooperatives of Petaluma, California, who in turn lobbied for trade barriers and tariffs against imported eggs from China. (Plus ca change, etc., etc.) What I am going to do with all this knowledge is anyone's guess. I am not a trained historian; I have nothing but a B.A. in English literature and Russian, and an enthusiastic attitude, along with a fear of screwing things up. I used to laugh when my mom would say that she wished that someone would pay her to read, without the attendant nonsense of writing about what she had read. Now I know better. She's a perceptive one, Mom.
Fortunately, I recognize this tetchiness as the temporary state that it is, and I know what I need to do to get over it. Ultimately, what I need is a little coffee, a little nap (I know it sounds counterintuitive, but like the human being and fish, coffee and a nap can coexist peacefully within me), the feel of my key hitting the lock, the sight of Lloyd's beautiful hazel eyes. Once I have all these, I will be fortified to make us a loaf of one of the best breads I know (the recipe is here), which, when accompanied by a little butter, a little sea salt and plenty of jam from one of the best jam masters I know, will further fortify me all the way to the gym, where after I run my ass around for a few hours, I will be bright-eyed and ambitious, ready to read over all of the notes I have taken for three days and get back to work, at which point it will be time for another trip (perhaps to points west?), another round of information gathering, another long wait for home, another chance to do it again, and again, and again.
Ah, yes, I almost forgot about the bread. Old friends may recognize it. New friends are welcome to try it.
I am headed out of town for a few days, kicking off the Ag Library 2005 (This Time It's For the Eggs) Tour. I will be back on Saturday night, although if I can find some cheap and easy internet access on the road, I'll probably be right here, sharing thrilling tales of fifty years' worth of farm commodity reports.
Before I go, though, I simply must thank the person or persons who found me by googling "your pants will be dancing with figs." You have done me a great service, and you have put a permanent smile -- a genuinely pleased and happy smile, not a contemptuous smile -- on my face. Thank you.
Until Sunday, dear friends.
Sometimes you need a little fanfare, a little flourish, and sometimes you need to dispense with the baroque and resort to plain-spokenness. This is a time for plain speaking: Thank you, Karen. Karen, for new friends of PTMYB, is my Boss Lady at LuthorCorp, a fellow fighter of the good fight on behalf of box factory customers everywhere. Karen is freshly returned to LuthorCorp from a summer-long maternity leave, which she spent with her new baby son, the most blissed-out child I've ever had the pleasure to hear on the phone, and her three-year-old daughter, who is not only the smartiest and prettiest and funniest three-year-old in New York City, but who was also considerate enough to be born on Lloyd's birthday, thus saving me the confusion of adding another date to the mental Rolodex. Karen could have spent the week in a foul mood, having to eschew the company of these cuties for the box factory, but instead she returned bearing gifts, including a gift card for yours truly from one of my favorite places in the world, as a thank-you for keeping things running while she was out. Yesterday I found myself in Bridge, on the heels of a disastrous clothes-shopping trip in which I tried in vain to find a scoop-necked blouse that would not make me look like a sausage. I knew that poking around a room full of Silpats and double-boilers and cake pans and bean pots and carbon-steel melon ballers would be an instant mood elevator. I glanced up at the copper cookware hanging on the wall, the pieces I never bother to look at because I can't afford them. Out of curiosity, I asked the nice woman behind the counter what the prices were on the preserving pans. You could have knocked me over with a feather when she gave me the price. Not only was there enough money on the card for me to pick up the larger of the two pans, but there was enough left over for me to buy a 2-quart Sitram saucepan. (If you are not a kitchen-tools nerd, trust me when I say that this is exciting stuff.) I never ever thought I would have one of these kettles to call my own, but after 10 years of making jam and jelly in a T-Fal dutch oven and various stainless steel spaghetti pots that were just a little too small, a little too tall, a little too narrow, I now have something tailor-made for the task: Copper makes it conductive, able to heat evenly and fast; the wide, shallow structure allows for fast cooking and evaporation; the generous volume (15.5 liters! 15.5 liters!) means that I can let sugar syrups boil and rise without racing to turn down the flame before the whole thing boils over. Did I say thank you, Karen? Thank you, Karen.
Of course, one of the dangers of this sort of purchase is that my depth perception and sense of spatial relationships really, really suck, and thus I didn't realize just how big this thing was until I got it home:
This would be Exhibit A: the relative size of the new preserving pan to my trusty hob. (If you're wondering: yes, those are stains and burn marks on the walls, requiring bleach to remove them, and yes, those are baked-on stains on the stovetop, requiring a healthy dose of oven cleaner to remove them. I'm getting right on it. Thank you in advance for not pointing, laughing, fainting or screaming like a cheerleader.) To quote Marge Gunderson, he's a big fella. It will be a challenge, if not an outright impossibility, to have the preserving kettle and the boiling-water canner on the stove at the same time. But I have never been one to back down from a challenge. I was going to just keep this on the hob for a week or so, ooh and ahh over it, and then make a nice big batch of paradise jelly as soon as the quinces came in. Then I went to meet Bunni at the farmer's market yesterday, and discovered that crabapples had just come into season, which meant that I had to buy five pounds right away.
Look, look at all the room left in the pan! No more full Dutch ovens! No more nervous glances at a boiling pot! What do you mean that I could have got around this by not buying so damn many apples? What a silly notion.
Now if only I could find a Very Large Jelly Bag to go with the Very Large Preserving Kettle, I'd be laughing.
Eventually those five pounds of dry, sour, hard little apples, so unpromising if you bite into them, will turn into several jars of the one of the nicest and simplest jellies I know how to make. It clarifies to a truly beautiful pale rose shade, soothing to just look at. But don't just look at it. If you ever find yourself with a jar of crabapple jelly in your possession, go ahead and eat it, especially if you like your jellies on the tart side. Lloyd once came up with a great snack idea, which I have since appropriated for breakfast: a slice of this focaccia, a layer (thin or thick, as you like it; I like the former) of creme fraiche, a layer of crabapple jelly. I am cursing my bad planning right about now, as I have neither creme fraiche nor focaccia at hand. Feh.
(Did I say thank you, Karen?)
Plum Tucker Recipes, Part One: Damson jam. It only took me a few zillion weeks, but here is the methodology for damson jam. (Many thanks to everyone who found the original damson jam post via various and sundry search engines, and who offered such excellent advice, encouragement, thoughtful questions and captivating memories. I have been sorely delinquent in acknowledging your kind correspondence, and I apologize for that.) You can scale this up or down according to the amount of fruit you have on hand, but I've never had much luck with small batches of jam. Two pounds is about as small as I've ever made, but if all you have is a pound of fruit, by all means try it. Or you can make damson crumble instead, which I've been telling myself for years that I need to make.
Put something compelling on your stereo. (I like The Carl Stalling Project, Vol. 1, not only because I am a toonhead but also because it takes me about the length of this album to stone five pounds of damsons.) Wash and dry 5 pounds damson plums and cut the fruit from the pits. (I have been advised by Grace in the UK that stoning the fruit is not necessary; she recommends highly a jam made by a farm that doesn't remove the pits, and she makes an elegant case for playing Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with the stones one finds in one's damson crumble. I will admit that I like cherry tarts and olive bread better when the cherries and olives are unstoned; spitting the pits out is a small tradeoff. However, not everyone shares my enthusiasm for pit-spitting, so I will reluctantly err on the side of convenience here. But Grace, you and I are of like minds on this. Put the cut fruit into a preserving pan or a large Dutch oven, add about 1/2 cup (4 fluid ounces) water -- just enough to keep the fruit from sticking to the pan -- and put over a medium-high flame. The plums will begin to let out their juice; once the juice comes to a boil, add 2 1/2 - 3 1/2 pounds granulated sugar and the juice of one lime. (The lesser amount of sugar will make a looser, more tart jam; the greater amount will make a sweeter jam, and will also make a jam with a firmer set.) Skim any scum that rises to the surface. Let the jam boil, skimming as necessary and stirring occasionally so that the jam doesn't burn on the bottom of the pan. Cook until it is of the consistency you like. The easiest way to do this is to throw a saucer into the freezer; after 10 minutes of cooking, place a drop of jam on the cold plate. If it wrinkles when you push it with your finger, it's done, but again, if you like a firmer set, you can cook it a bit longer. Sterilize your jars (I find that 5 pounds of fruit yields 10 half-pint jars, with a bit extra for instant consumption), boil your lids, fill and seal the jars, process in the boiling water canner for 10 minutes, take them out and listen for that satisfying ping that tells you that the seal has taken.
Plum Tucker Recipes, Part Two: Plum Cake. This is another one of those dishes that I can only make in the summertime (although once the plums are gone and the the apples arrive, this turns into apple cake, which is very different texturally, but no less lovely), and thus make about once every three days until the last of the prune plums are gone. This recipe comes from Cooking on the Edge, the best food zine that ever was; the cake was a creation of the editor/publisher Jill Cornfield's grandmother, and was a fixture at her family gatherings. It is buttery, sugary,custardy and luscious, and you don't have to butter and flour the pan. That does mean that you have to serve the cake out of the pan, but if you're not serving this for a special occasion,there's no harm in that. (If you do want to serve this for a special occasion, then by all means, butter and flour the pan, and turn the cake out after letting it rest for 10 minutes out of the oven.)
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F (Gas Mark 4). Beat together 1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, 1 cup (7 ounces) granulated sugar and 1/2 tsp. salt until the butter is white and fluffy. Beat in 2 large eggs, one at a time, scraping the bowl after each addition. Beat in 1 tsp. vanilla extract. (I often omit the vanilla and use Fiori di Sicilia, a mix of citrus oil and vanillin -- the only way I will ever countenance the use of vanillin chez PTMYB -- that I order from the King Arthur Flour Baker's Catalogue.) Add 1 dip-and-sweep cup (5 oz.) all-purpose flour with 1 tsp. baking powder mixed into it. Mix gently until all flour is absorbed. Scrape the batter into an ungreased 8"x 2" round pan. Cut up 1/2 pound (about 5 to 7) Italian prune plums into fourths and embed them, cut side down, into the surface of the cake. Bake for 45- 50 minutes, until the top of the cake is a deep golden brown and the plums have almost vanished beneath the surface. (This is a very moist cake, so the standard insert-a-toothpick test doesn't always work. Basically, once the surface is golden-brown and dry to the touch, it's done.) This is fabulous fresh out of the oven for dessert, but I like it even better for breakfast the next morning.