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Ancient Cuisine 

Taking a new look at how Vermonters used to eat

Published May 12, 2004 at 4:00 a.m.

One thing's for sure: Food is getting faster. We no longer cultivate food; we engineer it. We no longer produce it; we process it. We no longer buy raw ingredients and cook them, we just pop open the top and eat. Where is all this leading? Peraps to that place comedian Steven Wright nearly reached when he put instant coffee in a microwave oven. "I almost went back in time," he said.

Time travel in a different sense is what Amy Trubek is after. She and other Vermont culinary experts are trying to create connections that have been lost for decades between a place and its food. "We don't have a relationship to the land anymore in Vermont," says Trubek, who in March took over as executive director of the Vermont Fresh Network. "Fewer and fewer people are really farming. And if we look at what people are doing, people also aren't cooking from the land, either."

Trubek and the network are trying to reacquaint people with the world around them by creating partnerships between chefs, farmers and other food producers. That reintroduction often takes place at select Vermont restaurants that serve food made largely with local meat, vegetables and fruit. These chefs aren't drawn to the local-foods movement by economic or political beliefs; they have their culinary self-interest at heart. They want "high quality, high flavor foods," Trubek says. That points them to local ingredients, and makes them part of a tradition that's still within the memory of some Vermonters.

Trubek's interest in historic Vermont eating began long before she came to Fresh Network. As a doctoral student in cultural anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, Trubek studied the evolution of haute cuisine from the primitive days of roasting a haunch on a spit to the finest French restaurant.

While conducting research at the Library of Congress for her dissertation -- which she would later adapt into a book -- Trubek stumbled upon papers from the Vermont Writers' Project, which documented Vermonters' eating habits. The writers' project was part of a national effort in the 1930s to record the country's food traditions. The project was shelved, however, when America entered World War II.

Though never published, the Vermont papers made for engaging reading. "I found many interesting snippets about what people were like," says Trubek, a Cordon Bleu-trained chef and former instructor at the New England Culinary Institute. "It just gives you this tiny little snapshot, just a soupçon, but it's enough to make you wonder what was going on."

As Trubek talks, she sounds as if she's discussing some mysterious civilization -- not our state a mere 65 years ago. "For most of history, people cooked responsively," she says. "People cooked what was around them." In that sense, Vermonters in the late 1930s were more closely tied to their ancient ancestors than they would be to us.

"We are in this weird modern moment because we decide what we want to cook," Trubek says -- we don't just make do with what is at hand. "Now we ask: Do I want burritos tonight or do I want some Thai dish? It's totally bizarre."

It might seem strange to us to use almost exclusively local ingredients to concoct such now-unfamiliar dishes as pickled butternuts, baked Indian pudding, or squash flower relish, but she says, from an historical perspective "we are the weird ones."

Trubek shared a copy of the papers with her friend, Calais food writer Marialisa Calta. Together, they pitched the idea of printing the writings as a book, but publishers so far have been cool to the idea. That hasn't stopped Trubek and Calta from thinking the papers are significant.

"It is as close to time travel as you can get. You can actually taste what people long ago tasted," says Calta. Like Trubek, she's examining fading food traditions. Her book, Barbarians at the Plate: The Taming and Feeding of the Modern American Family, which offers culinary coping strategies for fast-paced families, will be published next year by the Penguin Group.

The Vermont food writings and the recipes accompanying them give readers more than a chance to experience a long-gone flavor, Calta says. "When you spend time reading about food, you get a real-time understanding of how people spent their days." And not just any people, but those most often ignored in history books: women."

Many of the recipes featured a large piece of meat being cooked for much of the day, which suggests to Calta that the women lived very home-centered lives. They had to be around to stoke the fire and check the food. Then, when it was done, they would serve the meat in a way that reminds Calta, strangely, of Indian cuisine. To accompany the meat, they would offer an array of pickled foods, just as Indian cooks might offer a variety of chutneys.

Some of the recipes sound about as exotic to modern ears as those chutney-like relishes. Take spiced beef, which was eaten cold for breakfast or supper. The recipe says: "A round of beef is salted down for a week, then washed well and black pepper and mace rubbed in; then put into a stone stewpan along with three or four onions, sliced and fried, a few cloves; covered with water and baked for five hours."

The recipes are remarkably short and devoid of detail. As Beatrice Vaughan wrote in her 1963 book Yankee Hill-Country Cooking, recipes were typically "written in almost telegraphic form by experienced cooks who assumed that other housewives could fill in any gaps as to ingredients and methods."

Similarly, Cora Moore, who wrote the recipes for the Vermont Writers' Project, assumed you already knew how to salt down beef or make a piecrust. The assumption, says Calta, was that "if you couldn't, then what were you doing reading a cookbook?" The secrets of the kitchen were passed down from one generation of women to the next.

That link, of course, no longer holds in many American households. "Nowadays everything needs explanation," says Calta, the cookbook author. "You would think by now we would know more, at least about technique." But for various societal reasons, people either are no longer able or choose not to devote so much time to cooking.

Another lost tradition was once common in Barre. In her portion of the Vermont project, writer Mari Tomasi documents how some Italian women in that city helped their families during hard times by turning their homes into mini-restaurants. Tomasi's descriptions make the food sound like the best meal in town: "The array of appetizers leaves the [first-time visitor] agape. Paper-thin slices of prosciutto, a ham processed in pepper and spices. Large, red wafers of tasty salami. Pickled veal. Celery. Ripe olives, the dark, succulent meats falling away easily from their pits..." You get the idea.

The women, often granite workers' widows, first cooked for neighbors, then for the friends of neighbors. Word spread and eventually the general public was knocking at the door. By Tomasi's count, about 50 families were offering home-cooked meals, dubbed "Italian feeds," during the late '30s or early '40s.

Though most of these families had probably arrived in the United States decades earlier and considered themselves quite American, Trubek isn't surprised that they maintained their Italian cuisine. "Food practices are the last to change in assimilating," she explains. "Language is the first to go, dress often goes soon after, but food is the stickiest."

We might cling tenaciously to food traditions, but they can still slip away, and with them goes a piece of our past. "We are so interested in celebrating Vermont's agricultural heritage," Trubek says, "but often we don't understand what it was really like. But this can really help us understand what people were doing with the land." Recipes for apple pan dowdy, spiced currant relish and soused pig's feet might be gone for good, but maybe the link to localness that gave rise to them will return.

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Mark Bushnell


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