Tuesday, January 29, 2008
EATING LOCALLY : Using Scallops as Currency
January 23, 2008
On Martha’s Vineyard, Using Scallops as Currency
By JOAN NATHAN
FOR year-round residents of this Martha’s Vineyard village, winter is time to relax. In summer, when the island’s population soars from 15,000 to 75,000, locals like Jan Buhrman have to make a year’s living in just a few short months. Ms. Buhrman, who is 50, caters weddings and dinner parties for the seasonal crowd. When winter comes, she tends a local school library, among other jobs, and she cooks.
Even in January, her hours in the kitchen have a purpose. Sitting in the bright oak post-and-beam room built by her husband, Richard Osnoss, a carpenter, Ms. Buhrman explained that she tries to eat only food raised on Martha’s Vineyard and to go down island to the grocery store in Vineyard Haven as little as possible.
Some of her groceries she grows herself. For much of the rest, she trades with her neighbors.
Following Ms. Buhrman for a day or two as she gathers ingredients is a lesson in how to eat locally, even in the coldest days of winter. Because she seems to know everybody on the island who raises, catches or forages for food, it is also a glimpse of an alternative economy of eating, one in which modern capitalism takes a back seat to a looser, island-grown style of bartering.
In summer, for instance, Ms. Buhrman hands out ice from her freezers to help the local fishermen keep their catch cold. In winter, they repay her with fish, oysters and bay scallops.
“It’s just the way we do it here,” she said.
“Swapping and borrowing isn’t institutionalized on the Vineyard,” said Carl Flanders, a fisherman in summer and a carpenter in winter. “If I catch some fish in summer, I’ll sell it to Larsen’s Fish Market but I’ll just give the rest away to friends. I don’t expect anything in return.”
Ms. Buhrman will take those bay scallops and sauté them with lemons she preserved last summer. (She sold the lemons at the West Tisbury Farmer’s Market, along with popovers, spice rubs and salsas.) Since Ms. Buhrman likes to cook and knows a lot of people who like to farm, she has no trouble getting food. She trades soups and stews for vegetables and lamb from her friends Mitch Posin and Clarissa Allen, who run Allen Farm in Chilmark.
“I live out of Mitch’s root cellar,” Ms. Buhrman said. “Mitch will give me a big batch of cabbage or beets. He has a big abundance of food. I don’t know why he doesn’t run a farm stand in summer.” His beets will find their way into her curried beet soup, simmered with chicken or vegetable stock from her freezer and seasoned with a few spoonfuls of the curry paste she learned to make after a trip in the ’80s to Southeast Asia and India.
Ms. Allen’s 100-acre property has been in her family since 1762. It is one of more than 30 rural farms on Martha’s Vineyard with a combined 8,000 acres of cultivated land.
“Some of the farms are the size of a postage stamp,” said Carlos Montoya Jr., a landscaper. “But there are people in agriculture who have really led the way.”
The concentration of small farms has made the island a model for eating locally in the region. “There is a movement for food on the island and it is just embryonic on Cape Cod,” said Gus Schumacher, former Massachusetts Commissioner of Food and Agriculture, who spends summers on the Cape.
“Unlike Cape Cod, which bought farms and maintained them as costly open space as conservation land, the Vineyard fathers protected their farmers by purchasing the development rights and keeping the farmers on the land, thereby providing food throughout the summer and fall season.”
Across the island, there is a determination to protect the Vineyard’s rural character. Last year, when a 43-acre farm that leased land to the island’s Community Sponsored Agriculture program, hundreds of summer and winter residents banded together to try to prevent it. Moved by the protest, a new buyer came forward who promised to keep the property as working farm.
Ms. Buhrman is a staunch supporter of several groups that back agriculture on the Vineyard, like Slow Food and Island Grown Initiative, a nonprofit group. Last year she taught baking and stock-making at a fundraiser for the Farm Institute, a foundation in Edgartown that teaches young people about where food comes from. In return the institute supplied her with chicken feet for stock and livers for chopped liver.
In addition to the working farms, Martha’s Vineyard has untold numbers of kitchen gardens. In Ms. Buhrman’s, animals grow as well as vegetables.
For the last four years her backyard has been home to a colorful array of chickens that her son Oliver, 17, ordered over the Internet. “By mistake we got one rooster,” she said, watching the birds peck feed from the ground near a portable chicken house. Her younger son, Oren, 10, collects eggs each morning before going to school.
Outside her house live two heritage breed pigs, which she buys every year from S.B.S. Grain Store in Vineyard Haven for $65 each. Most years she sends the pigs off island to a slaughterhouse, but this year, with some workers’ help, she slaughtered them in her backyard and sent some of the pork to a smokehouse in New Hampshire to be made into bacon and hams. She also makes pork sausages, and this year she is making a venison-pork sausage with ground venison given to her by Bobby Brown, a hunter in winter and caretaker in summer.
“I have fatback and the expertise in making sausage, and Bob has meat that needs the fat to make the sausage,” she said. “So we split the final product.”
Ms. Buhrman’s recipe is now also being used for the sausage at Morning Glory Farm, a popular farm stand on the island.
Not far from Ms. Buhrman’s home, her friends Rebecca Miller and Matthew Dix run a year-round vegetable stand at their North Tabor Farm, selling only eggs and honey in winter. The two purchased a six-acre lot from the town of Chilmark at an affordable price.
“We had to submit a business plan giving an idea of how we would use the land as an agricultural base,” said Mrs. Miller, 43. “There were 10 other people who wanted it.” In summer she sells greens, flowers and shiitake mushrooms at her stand as well as to restaurants, supermarkets, and the twice weekly farmers market in nearby West Tisbury. In the off season, she practices hypnotism and, she said, gives “a lot of talks about buying local and supporting local agriculture.”
For Caitlin Jones, who operates the seven-acre Mermaid Farm with her husband, Allen Healy, fall and winter go to saving seeds. At harvest time, she takes the best specimens of her crops and dries them. Later she will sort them into envelopes inside a house she built with a friend, a refurbished barn with a black locust tree serving as a post to hold up the beams in the center.
“I am a collector,” she said one day last fall, showing off the stacks of seeds in one room. “I cannot help it. Your plants will adapt to your bio-region and if you save the best stuff in your microclimate, then they will keep adapting for the Vineyard,” she said. “I am very into the taste of heirloom varieties.”
Experimentally, Ms. Buhrman has made wheels of Camembert-style cheese with raw milk from Mermaid Farm’s small herd of six cows. The leftover whey went into biscuits and ricotta cheese. She liked the results and wants to make more, so she is planning to buy her own cow. Mr. Healy and Ms. Jones offered to keep it at the farm and milk it for her if she pays for feed.
“I get my nourishment from people like Caitlin,” said Ms. Buhrman. “She and other local farmers teach me how to preserve this way of life with its hardships and joys. In the summer I can pay them whatever price they are asking because the taste of their food is so remarkable,” she said.
“You can buy heirloom tomatoes in the winter from God knows where and they don’t taste anything like the ones from Caitlin’s farm on Middle Road in Chilmark.”
The contrast between summer produce at its peak and what is available off season drives Ms. Buhrman to find new ways of putting up summer fruits and vegetables. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Once, she froze a surplus of broccoli.
“It was awful. Then I tasted Birds Eye and it tasted the same,” she said. “I guess I just don’t like frozen broccoli.”