“Restaurant mouth”

We don’t eat out much. After years of eating meals made at home, scratch-made from fresh, quality ingredients (there are few canned or processed ingredients in our kitchen), our taste buds have become exceedingly sensitive to the taste and presence of preservatives, salt, and other chemicals in most prepared food. Every now and then we’ll try a new place that claims to use “only the freshest ingredients”, with a chef on hand cooking real meals, only to come home with “restaurant mouth”.

This is the term we’ve coined for the dry, brackish, basically nasty aftertaste invariably left in our mouths after a restaurant meal. I’m not talking about fast food or chain establishments here, I’m talking about supposedly real restaurants with kitchens and “chefs”. We’ve reached the point where we can taste the canned ingredients, low-quality spices, or processed sauces in the dish with the first bite; the preservatives and over-salting are obvious. This pattern is proven by the consistent high quality and lack of restaurant mouth in the few regional establishments that we know for a fact use nothing but real, clean ingredients and have real, skilled chefs and cooks. These consistent winners always prove to us that (a) it’s possible to cook real food from real ingredients in a restaurant, and (b) that we’re not imagining our negative reactions to other establishments.

Speaking of negative reactions, “restaurant mouth” is often accompanied by “restaurant stomach”. We’ve found that our digestive systems as well as our mouths have become really sensitive to over-salting, preservatives, chemical flavors, and other signs of poor ingredients, because a visit to an unknown establishment tends to produce several days of upset stomachs or worse. We recently had an especially bad reaction to a supposedly high-end place that turned out to be one of the worst meals we’ve had in years, revealing abundant signs of kitchen laziness, incompetence, and poor ingredient quality. It doesn’t matter that your menu offers fancy entrees if they’re made with generic ingredients and little skill.

In our experience, restaurant quality is only tangentially related to the “fanciness” of the place or the menu; our safe bets range from higher-end establishments to simple cafes. A better yardstick for restaurant quality is the presence or lack of good vegetarian entrees on the menu (by good, I mean something more creative or skilled than a veggie burger). While we’re not vegetarian (at least at home), we’ve found that the presence of real vegetarian entrees tends to mean that (a) the chef is skilled, creative, and able to use raw ingredients well, and (b) the restaurant is aware enough of food and dietary trends to make that option available to its diners. All it takes is one good vegetarian entree in a menu of 10-15 meat entrees to please the vegetarian in a group, yet so many restaurants don’t even bother to learn how to make the myriad interesting, quality vegetarian dishes that are easily within their grasp. And to reiterate the point, I don’t mean the standard sops like veggie/mushroom burgers, canned tomato sauce on pasta, or tofu. A chef or cook with the confidence and insight to offer real vegetarian meals is far more likely to know what (s)he’s doing with everything else, too. The common thread is real, clean, fresh ingredients, cooks/chefs who know how to use them without the crutches of salt, chemical flavorings, and processed sauces, and an understanding of dietary culture that accomodates broad interests and needs. It’s a rule that’s rarely failed us in predicting or avoiding restaurant mouth.

A real pain in the neck

Not long ago, I apparently re-aggravated an old neck injury from several years ago. I’m still not quite sure what happened this time, but coming home from the MOSES conference, my neck and upper back started to get stiff and painful, and it slowly grew through the week. I rested a lot and cut back on my normal work to try and let it heal, but it kept getting worse until I woke up one night in excruciating pain, so stiff that Joanna had to help me roll over in bed.

I went to the doctor the next morning and was given some muscle relaxants and therapeutic exercises. These worked very well, such that within a few days I was back to just a dull roar of stiffness and soreness. In another week I should be able to ease back into my normal routine, though I’m under strict orders not to even look at a chainsaw or shovel for a while. I wasn’t able to help at all with the lumber operations last weekend; we’re grateful for a neighbor who spent the day helping Joanna haul logs and lumber around.

Meanwhile, I’m spending a lot of time resting and going stir-crazy, watching days go by in which I could be making progress on the myriad tasks, chores, and projects that are looming with spring almost here. At this point, I’m at least allowed/able to cook, clean, and walk around again.

There are some things you just don’t think about much until they happen, especially when you’re young. Health and injuries are one of them; there are almost 14 million young adults in the US who don’t have health insurance. I’ve never been one of them, having paid for my own coverage since college. I was very grateful for this when my initial injury happened in Virgnia, which cost thousands of dollars in medical bills and left me bedridden for three months. We’re now on Joanna’s insurance through work, which makes a big difference in cost and quality compared to covering yourself while self-employed.

Experiences like this really help crystallize what’s wrong with health care in the US. I’m sympathetic to concerns that universal health care would be an expensive bureacratic nightmare, and my experiences with large government agencies don’t give me much hope that such a system would work very well. But right now, with insurance tied so strongly to employment, our system effectively punishes independance and entrepreneurship, particularly in the agricultural world where injuries and health risks are very real. How are young people supposed to start or join farms when doing so means that they’ll either have to go without insurance they can’t afford, or have a partner with an off-farm job?

Someday, we’d like this farm to be a full-time job for both of us, but the single biggest barrier we see is health care/insurance. Farming is strenuous enough that not having insurance is not an option for us; something like this latest “injury” could wipe us out with the double whammy of cost and lost labor. And I haven’t even brought up the issue of hiring employees and providing benefits to them, which is completely unrealistic for most small farms right now. So we, and many like us, are stuck under a hard glass ceiling of outside jobs and no employees, keeping our businesses forever small and limited. If we want a stronger economy, society, and food supply, we have GOT to find a way to spread the costs and availability of insurance/health care over a wider area, to support the small businesses and entrepreneurs (farm or otherwise) who are the backbone of our economy.

I’m fortunate to be in very good health; both the last time and this time, doctors were impressed with how fast I healed, likely due to the fact that I take very good care of myself. But precautions only go so far, and we badly need a system that gives us a fighting chance to live our lives free from fear that a freak incident could put us out of business. Let’s hope that 2009 is the year in which that starts to happen.

Logging & Lumber

Throughout the winter, we’ve been working to clear ground for our orchard and berry/bramble plantings; see area (9) on our Future Plans map. We’re focuing on a 1/2 acre area of gently sloping ex-pasture which is currently overgrown in thick cedar trees, a common occurence in Missouri when fields are abandoned. Although it would be faster to just hire someone to clear-cut it, that would also result in tremendous soil disturbance and the wasting of much of the tree material. Doing it ourselves, we sort the logs into small – medium (for fenceposts and raised bed supports) and large (for lumber), and chip most of the branches for mulch, burning some of the larger dead material that is difficult for our chipper to handle. There’s very little waste this way, and we save a lot of money compared to buying trucks of mulch and large fenceposts.

Pushing back the cedars

Homegrown cedar mulch

We’ve been stockpiling the larger, straighter trees for milling into lumber, and on March 1 we did our first batch by hiring a local couple with a portable sawmill to come down and do the work. We had close to 30 logs stockpiled, but seriously underestimated just how efficient he would be in getting lots of lumber from each log. After eight hours of work, we had only gone through about half the logs, and had generated a stack of beautiful heartwood cedar lumber about 4’x6’x10′ (the accompanying photo shows the stack only halfway through the day).

Portable sawmill

Halfway lumber stack

The lumber, mostly 1″x4″-10″ planks and 4″x4″ posts, is just beautiful, with the swirled red/orange/yellow of heartwood cedar. We’ll use some of it for home projects like cabinetry and tables, use the rougher material for sheds and other outbuildings, and are considering selling some of the best stuff to offset the cost of the milling. But it’s also worth a lot to us as wood that came from our land, that we cut and processed, and so we’d rather use most of it for our own purposes than sell it so we can buy generic wood from who knows where, harvested who knows how. We’ll just have really nice-looking and smelling outbuildings!

This is just a start, as we still have at least 15 logs waiting and at leats another 1/4 acre of trees on the way. Meanwhile, this first batch is stacked in the barn where it will cure for 5-6 months before we can use it.

MOSES organic conference – recap

I spent part of last week at a large organic agriculture conference in La Crosse, WI, organized and hosted by the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service. Over 2,000 people attended the three days of workshops, talks, research presentations, and more. The event captured so much of the energy, initiative, philosophy, and value of the local and organic agriculture movement that I think it’s a proper place to kick off this blog.

It’s hard to know where to begin when raving about this conference. First, unique among conferences I’ve been to, they put their money where their mouth is. MOSES provided three meals a day and constant drinks and snacks, all sourced from organic and local ingredients, mostly served on real glass and dishware. It’s rare to find an organization that actually practices what it preaches, especially in the details. It’s the first travel in a long time where I haven’t wished I’d brought my own food. From a culinary perspective, not all the food was that special, but there are limits to culinary achievement when feeding that many people, and the value of the food’s sourcing more than made up for any drawbacks.

Second, the conference draws and serves a very large constituency that made it fascinating and inspiring for everyone involved. I was able to interact with everyone from small homestead types to mid-size dairy operators to thousand-acre-plus grain farmers. The latter were particularly worth talking to, as over and over they told the same story: they’d grown up and starting farming in the chemical/GMO era, were seeing that it just wasn’t working any more, and wanted to find a new way that let them preserve their land, lessen their dependancy on corporate interests, and return their farms to the values they remembered or found worthwhile.

Although much of the energy and public face of the local/organic movement is focused on small farmers, it’s these big grain farmers that will really drive changes. They’re the ones that governments and corporations listen to; they have the clout to really change things on the market side. When they start to revolt in large numbers, it will make waves that no amount of small market growers can achieve on their own. There are those in the small farm/organic/slow food community who seem to see grain farmers as inherently evil or corrupt, forgetting that a lot of these folks are trapped in a system they didn’t create, and are only now seeing a way out.

It was truly inspiring to hear their stories, and thank them for taking on risks in switching to organic that we small farmers may not truly appreciate. Organic and conventional market growers can often market their products in the same places and use the same infrastructure; the differences are as much philosophical as they are economic or cultural. But talking to these larger grain farmers really helped me understand what an undertaking it is to go organic in a field dominated by corporate, industrial agriculture. You have to find your own market for your crops; the local elevator won’t touch you. You have little support, since the local dealers and suppliers don’t know or value organic methods and supplies, and most of your neighbors think you’re crazy. You have to survive through the 2-3 years of transitional status, when you can’t get the higher organic price but you’re doing the extra, risky work to maintain organic status. It’s just a different world from small market farming, and I appreciated the value of a conference that helped such different folks come together and understand one another better.

Finally, (though I could go on for much longer), the conference really captured the overall energy, growth, and value of local food production. Although it’s billed as an “organic” conference, it generally took a broader view toward the value of local food systems and supporting small family farmers than on hammering home organic methods. There was plenty of opportunity to learn more about organic farming, but not in a pushy or exclusive way. When I spoke up in a forum on local foods to argue that such initiatives should NOT be exclusively organic, and should include all types of small farmers so that the consumer can decide, it was met with much agreement and no argument. It was nice to be involved with so many folks whose philosophy was broad and inclusive, not narrow and partisan. Most small, conventional growers would have felt comfortable, and that’s important.

The conference was really focused on the Upper Midwest (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa), where small farm and local food support networks and culture are far stronger, but there were some of us from others areas that have farther to go. Next year I’d really like to arrange a larger Missouri contingent to attend together, so that we can all be inspired and educated by the example of these pioneering states and communities.