New England Regional | Explorations
Food, Glorious Food
Harvard alumni make their own
Eating New England: A Food Lover’s Guide to Eating Locally, cowritten by Juliette Rogers ’94, is really a book of stories about people who produce everything from barley candies, fruit wines, and fried lobsters to flatbread, French-Canadian meat pies, and canned sardines. The book, Rogers says, was written to help people connect the food on their plates to the people (or animals) behind it. “People want to know where their food is coming from,” she adds. “And once you find the food-makers, the stories follow. People think this rich regional cooking history is gone. But it’s not.” Here is Harvard Magazine’s own list of some alumni who are contributing to that effort.
David Major ’83
Vermont Shepherd cheese, hailed as one of the best artisanal varieties around, is firm and smooth; each piece carries a complex taste of lemons, walnuts, and, what? Sweet clover? Maybe that’s no surprise. The cheese is made from the raw milk of sheep that roam the 250 hilly acres of the Major farm in southeastern Vermont. “The flavor captures what is special about this place and enables others to experience it in some abstract way,” asserts David Major, who grew up there.
Cheese-making season runs from April through November, during which Major rises at 4:45 a.m. daily to milk the 200 sheep (a task he repeats in the early evening). The milk is poured into vats where it is heated and mixed with rennet (enzymes that cause the milk to coagulate) and bacterial cultures (they turn the milk sugars into lactic acid). It sits, then is stirred into separate curds and whey; the former are kneaded and pushed into round molds that lie on shelves in a cool, damp cave from four to 16 feet beneath the ground, where they are tended and turned as they ripen for up to eight months.
Visitors can purchase the cheese—along with wood, wool, meat, and maple syrup produced on site—at the year-round farm stand in the driveway or attend scheduled open-house tours (www.vermontshepherd.com). Major lives on the farm with his wife, Cynthia, their two teenage children, his parents, and his brother, Stephen Major ’84, a large-animal veterinarian, which, David adds with a laugh, “is excellent for me.”
For years the Majors tried selling “lousy cheese,” which changed after an enlightening trip to the Pyrenees in 1993, where they soaked up customs and techniques from farmers and affineurs (French cheese ripeners). Returning home, they won Best Farmhouse Cheese from the American Cheese Society; they now produce about 20,000 pounds a year that is sold to stores and restaurants around the country, and through mail order.
At Harvard, Major planned to focus on international development, and concentrated in engineering, but then turned his post-graduate attention to farming. His twentieth-anniversary class report offers a glimpse into why. He writes of sitting in his overalls at the kitchen table after “a cold day of wooding and moving sheep to winter pastures.” The kids are doing homework and his wife has rushed off to a community meeting. “That about sums it up—my life, that is. Except for my awareness that we are running things now, we who went to Harvard and we who didn’t, and we must tread lightly—ever so much more lightly than we are treading at present—if we are to keep from destroying our beautiful world.”
Robert Russell, M.B.A. ’61
In the early 1980s, Bob Russell sold his high-tech metallurgic engineering company in order to spend more time with his family. An entrepreneurial, confident soul accustomed to working long hours, he soon found a new project: a broken-down old dairy farm on 110 acres near the southern coast of Massachusetts. He and his wife, Carol, thought they’d plant a vineyard and turn his winemaking hobby into a business. But his wine tasted “funky”—sour and sort of burnt. They spent two years researching cold-climate viticulture and in 1986, along with their eldest son, Rob, turned up the Westport soil and planted 44,000 grape vines—Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Johannisberg Riesling. Three years later they picked a worthy grape. “Nothing happens fast in this business,” Russell says, then queries: “Do you know how to make a small fortune? You start with a large one and open a winery.”
|Westport Rivers Vineyard and Winery|
|Courtesy of Westport Rivers Vineyard and Winery|
These days, Westport Rivers Vineyard and Winery (www.westportrivers.com) produces award-winning still and sparkling wines—all whites and all from grapes grown on site (a rarity in New England). The old cow barn is the winery and the revamped farmhouse serves as a retail and tasting center and local art gallery that welcomes 25,000 visitors a year (99 percent of the wine is sold in New England). The wines are characteristically lower in alcohol content, more acidic, and fruitier in flavor than their warm-climate cousins. Russell’s younger son Bill has also joined the business and is mainly in charge of a new venture: the nearby Buzzards Bay Brewing, also located on old farm property.
All told, the family owns about 500 acres in Westport, most of which they have legally protected against future development. “We consider ourselves stewards of the land,” explains Bob Russell, who belongs to The Trustees of Reservations. “It is a godly resource that, properly cared for, can give people meaningful jobs and meaningful income.” During guided tours of the vineyards, he tells visitors, “We’re a manufacturing company, but we don’t have walls or a roof over our heads—isn’t that nice?”
Russell is such a fan of the land that he and his wife sold their house two years ago and moved into a 300-square-foot Winnebago, which he proudly parks in various spots on his property. “We can wake up and see the sun on the river, or look out over the fields, or vineyards,” he says. “To me, it’s all exotic.”
The winery also includes the Long Acre House, a year-round food and wine educational center. Musing on the role of wine, Russell mentions Sunday dinners with his children and grandchildren, who are allowed a few sips of wine with their food. “This is part of what’s pleasurable in life,” he says. “Our world would be better off if people did not rush out to McDonalds and if families sat down to dinner and had some wine. It would slow life down, people would communicate better, and the young people would not see alcohol as the forbidden fruit. And they would know what good wine was.”
Victoria Pesek, M.B.A. ’99
Tori Pesek makes cereal for a living: about 50,000 pounds of it a year. A former business consultant and ski racer, she was lured to Vermont partly by her love for Sugarbush Mountain, where she patched together a work-life teaching skiing. Then two new acquaintances, Peter and Patricia Floyd, began developing an all-natural, whole-grain hot cereal called Vermont Morning (www.vermontmorning.com); by 2002, she had joined them to hawk the cereal at farmers’ markets. Vermont Morning has a generous dose of cinnamon (no sugar) and within eight minutes cooks up into a richly textured, nutritional breakfast. “It has quite a following throughout Vermont, especially among mothers and children,” reports Pesek, now the operations manager for the three-person company. “It’s nice to have a product for which you can recognize all the names in the list of ingredients.”
|Photograph by Jim Harrison|
The grains—different cuts of oats, wheat, and rye with some bran thrown in—come from Iowa and are mixed and bagged in Waitsfield. Vermont’s Equinox Hotel serves it to guests. A local disc jockey at WDEV promotes the stuff on air. About 300 natural-food and cooperative grocery stores around New England, the Midwest, and the Southeast carry it. Mehuron’s, an independent grocery store in the Mad River Valley, has supported the venture, even introducing the trio to the buyer for the natural-food division of Shaw’s Supermarkets, Wild Harvest, where the cereal can often be found. Some Whole Foods sell it, and the branch in Manhattan recently picked it up. “That’s just huge for us,” says Pesek, “That’s a hopping store.” The company also sells cereal directly to the public and has regular customers from Alaska to Colombia and Japan.
The myriad of cheaper, brand-name instant hot cereals are mean competition. To differentiate themselves, the Vermont Morning team frequently rely on in-store demonstrations by the gray-bearded, gregarious Peter Floyd, who tours around with Crockpots, stirring up fresh batches for shoppers. “The texture and the nutritionals—that’s what sets us apart,” Pesek adds. “People try it, and they want more.”
Stephen Wood ’76 and Louisa Spencer ’76
Lebanon, New Hampshire
Apple-picking season at Poverty Lane Orchards is almost over. In the shed, workers fill cardboard boxes marked “Uncommon Apples” and stack them on pallets bound for places like Dallas, Detroit, and New York City. The conveyor belt on the cider press is clanging as freshly picked fruit tips into blades that crush it to pomace; the juice will be transformed into the critically praised Farnum Hill hard ciders slowly gaining favor with Americans as an alternative to wine or beer. (They are found in restaurants, wine stores, and often served on tap in New Hampshire taverns.)
Stephen Wood grew up on this farm near the Vermont border and recalls as a child mulching the spindly trees that now grow brilliant-tasting McIntoshes and Cortlands. A “pick-your-own” business still flourishes, but by the late 1980s it became unprofitable to sell those familiar varieties wholesale, he says.
Luckily Wood, who confesses to having a fascination with apples, had been experimenting on the property with “a couple of hundred weird varieties we thought were stunningly cool, such as Ribston Pippins, Golden Russets, Wickson, Pomme Grise, Ashmead’s Kernel, and Esopus Spitzenberg, which was reportedly one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorites.” (See ample historical notes at www.povertylaneorchards.com.) He and his wife, Louisa Spencer, began cultivating a market for these rare eating apples (which are not waxed or altered to increase appeal as most well-known apples are) and soon saw further hope in “disgusting-tasting little apples that ain’t going in any kid’s lunch box”—namely, old English and French cider varieties: Kingston Black, Somerset Redstreak, Foxwhelp, and Dabinett, which make extraordinary hard cider in the European, and traditional American, style. In the early days of rural New England, apples were the primary source of alcohol, Wood reports, but “the production was completely interrupted by temperance and Prohibition.” Gambling on the success of these “weird” varieties was far more appealing than subdividing the property and turning it into a retail center “with flannel-clad farmers selling all kinds of things they don’t grow or make,” he explains. “With that sort of place you might as well buy the apples; it’s cheaper than growing them.”
Visitors are welcome to pick from more than 20 acres of orchards—common and antique varieties—and try the ciders at the seasonal farm stand. Grabbing one straggler off the tree, Wood urges a visitor to bite into it. “Eat all the apples you want here,” he says, then commands: “You do not stop eating apples.”
Kristin Kimball ’93
Essex, New York
One day toward the end of her second growing season, Kristin Kimball was standing in the driveway of Essex Farm, crying, when an old farmer from down the road saw her and turned his truck in. “He passed me a beer out the window and said, ‘That’s farming.’ And just drove off,” she says. “Farming is the most challenging job, physically, emotionally, and mentally, I have ever had. I fell in love with it.”
Kimball and her husband, Mark, provide milk, eggs, meat, and vegetables throughout the year to 28 families in the Lake Champlain valley (518-963-4613). It is a membership-driven, diverse farm whose small-scale production ensures high quality, freshness, and sustainability. They milk Jersey cows, not Holsteins, because the creamy, yellowy higher-fat milk tastes bet-ter, she says (and churns into exquisite butter). But the cows produce only 10 gallons a day—an amount that most dairy farmers would laugh at.
The couple learn as they go along; this is still a new enterprise. Just three years ago Kimball, an English concentrator, was a freelance writer in New York City. She was working on a book proposal—about young, college-educated people who become farmers—when she met Mark, a Swarthmore College graduate with a decade of farming experience. They leased the Essex Farm property in late 2003 and the next year got married in the hayloft. (She put the book aside and now contributes to The New Farm Journal.) “Every day in farming is different: one day we slaughter hogs, the next we have to figure out how to plant garlic in a flooded field, then we are weaning calves from their mothers,” she reports. “Farming is sometimes seen as romantic and aesthetically beautiful and sometimes as bleak and hardscrabble. In truth, it is both.”
The life also provides better food than she usually ate in any Manhattan restaurant. Witness one recent dinner menu: T-bone steaks marinated in garlic, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar; caramelized leeks; boiled potatoes; and a side of kale cooked in home-cured bacon. “I love good food and that’s another reason I farm,” she says. “We have a saying that at a meal there are always three people present: the chef, the diner, and the farmer. People often forget the last one.”