Dishing Up the Dirt: Simple Recipes for Cooking Through the Seasons
Dishing Up the Dirt
I’ve learned many lessons in the seven years since my life took a radical turn for the dirt. I’m physically capable of doing tasks that I would never have dreamed I could do in my prefarming life. I now organize an entire calendar year between the first and last predicted frosts of the season. I know community is everything. Food is medicine. And most important, cocktail hour should never be passed up after a long and hard day of work.
I now know a whole different language of love. One chilly March morning, well before sunrise at our Parkdale, Oregon, farm, the sound of the howling wind woke me. Still groggy, I turned to look at our bedside alarm clock—ready to mentally calculate just how many precious minutes of sleep were left for me and my husband, Taylor—when my stomach dropped. The numbers were blinking, and I was pretty positive our electricity had gone out.
Like a mother bear anxious for her cubs, I was beyond concerned about our plants. No electricity meant no heat in our greenhouse. If our plants were exposed to the near-freezing temperatures for long, all 20,000-plus seedlings might be wiped out. Our whole farm could be lost in one cold night.
I gently shook Taylor awake, telling him I was going to trek out to the greenhouse to investigate. He slowly rolled over to face me and told me in a sleepy voice to lie back down. In the pitch-dark, I heard him put on his heavy coat and close the side door behind him.
This is one way we say “I love you” on the farm.
Waking up in the middle of the night to check on our crops is not a rare occurrence for us. Whether we’re on deer patrol, double-checking that the chickens are comfortably tucked in, or monitoring the greenhouse temperature, there’s always something to rouse us out of bed even though our bodies are bruised and battered from long days of physical labor. Sometimes I wonder how this has become the daily rhythm of my life, and how on earth I have fallen in love with this beautiful yet harsh existence.
My husband and I live in a pretty magical place. Our six-acre home and farm is affectionately named Tumbleweed Farm, after the wanderlust Taylor and I shared throughout our youth. The farm is only five miles from downtown Parkdale, population 266. It’s a farming community—there are no stoplights and only the bare essentials: grocery store, hardware store, gas station, BBQ joint, and the best damn brewpub in the world. It’s the kind of town where you wave to every vehicle you pass whether or not you know its occupants.
Believe it or not, our inspiration to start the farm came in the form of a single blueberry. Or rather, a bag of blueberries, sent to us by Taylor’s folks back in Massachusetts. It was a hot September afternoon in 2008, and Taylor and I were living in Bend, Oregon. We had a hike planned for the afternoon, so I packed water and a few snacks, including a big bag full of the juiciest blueberries I’d ever tasted.
We hiked for a while before taking a break and dipping into those organic berries. With the beauty of nature around us and the sun beating down on our bare skin, those little bursts of flavor were pure heaven. We started joking about how awesome it would be just to pack up our lives and move to a farm, learn how to grow our own food, and become self-sufficient. Somehow, by the end of that hike, we’d made a decision to do just that. Five months later, we loaded everything we owned into our pickup truck and headed east to Hutchins Farm.
Yes, it was a little crazy and impulsive, but the truth is we weren’t going into our new farm life completely blind: Taylor grew up on Hutchins Farm, his family’s sixty-acre organic vegetable operation in Massachusetts. He didn’t spend a lot of time working there as a kid, and so he didn’t talk much about it when we first started dating. But during that hike, I kept asking him questions and he kept offering answers, and with each answer, I grew more excited. I loved the idea of growing our own food and living a simpler, more honest life.
At Hutchins, life was simpler, but it definitely wasn’t easier. Before we arrived, I knew nothing about farming and was pretty naive about how food ended up on anyone’s table. I’d never weeded a garden let alone planted or harvested food. But we rolled up our sleeves and got to work.
Baptism by fire would be the best way to describe that first season on Hutchins Farm. My romantic visions of our new, rustic life quickly faded. In fact, I absolutely hated it at first—it was cold, wet, and dreary. The tasks were monotonous and physically demanding. We were a farm crew of twelve folks, and I was embarrassed that I didn’t know how to use any of the tools I was given. I couldn’t even figure out how to open the pocketknife that I was required to keep on my body at all times. The farm manager wasn’t very forgiving of my inexperience, and I’d never been so tired and dirty in my life. If I’d had the option to quit that first month, I would have done so in a heartbeat. Taylor, on the other hand, was quietly falling in love with the work. I didn’t want to disappoint him, so I kept my head down and tried to keep up.
Over time, each task became a little easier. I came to appreciate the hard labor and how it allowed us to eat and sleep better than we ever had before. Each night we’d crawl from the dinner table and climb the stairs to our bedroom. Our eyes were sealed shut before our heads hit the pillow. When saddled with a daunting task like weeding between 10,000 beet plants, I no longer let my mind focus on the drudgery of it all. Instead I started to fantasize about all the amazing ways I would prepare those beets when they were ready for harvest.
I hadn’t been much of a cook before then, but spending whole days focused on growing food gave me license to explore in the kitchen. We were cultivating a ton of vegetables I’d never cooked with, so there were some disasters at first (and I’d be lying if I said those still don’t happen on occasion). But just as with farming, over time I learned new skills and got more comfortable. Taylor started to look forward to the nights I made meals, and I found myself feeling energized in the kitchen, even when I was beat after a long day of work.
I wanted to share my stories—and meals—with my family back in Oregon, so I started a blog, Dishing Up the Dirt , to document our new life as farmers.
Our family and friends were a huge support to us, and the blog became a great way to share this new life. I was happy to read a comment on a recipe from my mom or sister or see a note from my dad about how dirty and strong I looked in my farm coveralls holding a large crate of potatoes. They were proud of us and loved living vicariously through the blog.
But after a few seasons on Hutchins Farm, we grew hungry for the West Coast. Taylor loves to ski, and I was yearning to be closer to my family. We both wanted to have our very own farming operation but on a much smaller scale than Hutchins. With three years of farming under our belts, we packed up our truck with a few essential possessions, all of my kitchen gadgets, and our rescue dog, Henry. And we were off.
If we thought Hutchins was hard work, we were greatly mistaken. Creating Tumbleweed Farm from the ground up (literally) was the most challenging undertaking of our lives. Gone was the luxury of expensive farm equipment like tractors; every single chore had to be done by hand. We quickly learned the true meaning of “working the land.” Through all of this, I continued to find respite in the kitchen, cooking daily and sharing the recipes on my blog—which, suddenly, had begun to attract a readership that extended beyond my parents. It was just the motivation I needed to keep going.
Like my blog, this book is intended to offer an honest glimpse into life on our six-acre farm in rural Oregon. It’s a story about love, community, farming, and, most important, the food that we grow, eat, and share around the table with family and friends.
The recipes are organized by season. My cooking is deeply rooted in fresh and local ingredients, and I hope that if you take anything away from this book, it’s an appreciation of the ingredients you bring into your kitchen. You don’t have to be a farmer to know that foods at the peak of freshness simply taste better.
You’ll also notice I tend not to categorize foods by meal or time of day. If my body is craving oatmeal and berries for dinner or a veggie pizza for breakfast, so be it. When we’re too rigid about food, cooking and eating aren’t quite as much fun.
I also welcome detours. Even when following a recipe, I tend to cook with a splash of “this” and a touch of “that,” and I encourage you to do the same. Also keep in mind that every kitchen is different, and ingredients and cooking times will likewise vary. The vast majority of these recipes grew from my early explorations in the kitchen, though, so they’re simple enough for even beginner cooks to follow (but delicious enough to serve your most discerning dinner guests). Sure, there will be trial and error along the way, and when you play a round of dominos or backgammon to see who’s doing the dishes—like Taylor and I do each night—there is only one winner. But despite all of the hard work that goes into making a meal, cooking and eating are really about one thing: love.
I invite you to embrace the whole experience, finding your own ways to make it enjoyable from start to finish. Blast some music while you chop onions. Try out a new recipe or cooking technique once a week. Heck, you may even be inspired to grow your own herbs on your windowsill or, better yet, plant a few vegetables in your backyard. Whatever works for you. But whether you’re growing your own food or simply preparing a meal for good friends, adding a little love and laughter will make it all taste better.
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