“Feast”

December 2021

What follows is a collection of stories from MOFGA members, staff, volunteers and the community in response to the theme: “feast” These stories first appeared in MOFGA Stories segment in winter 2021-2022 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.

Autumn leaves swirled about our steel toes and the crisp wind kissed the bare skin of our faces as we worked, lifting and splitting and stacking until our backs ached and our arms felt weary from use. I in my fleece and he in his plaid, working together to harvest the bounty of the Earth to ensure a warm home over the coming months. The rhythm of our movements kept time as the light faded on both the day and the season; necessity drove us to finish before the first snowfall. 

Over the raucous sound of the splitter’s motor, I registered a thump from behind me. I turned and saw a flash of white, which quickly flopped from off a tree trunk (laid parallel among the others) to the field of grass below. Among the yellow-tinged blades, thick and neglected for the summer beneath our log pile, danced a smallmouth bass, fighting to reenter the water which lay a quarter mile down the hill. Then a shadow crossed between me and the sun, and I looked up. Circling high above in the most graceful of movements was the largest eagle I’d ever seen. 

We killed the motor and walked away, giving her the chance to reclaim her prize, but watched as she circled a few more times and then flew off over the treetops. We returned to our positions and the 9-inch bass, which continued to flop about ever more slowly as it languished on the land. 

Accepting the gift, I quickly gathered my knives, scaled and gutted, and prepped the cast iron skillet. And what a feast we had, provided by our dear friend, eagle. A surge of optimism rushed through me and again I feasted, but this time on the knowledge that all would be well if we continued to work with nature, for she would continue to work with us. I knew the Earth would provide.

– Britny Anderson, Auburn, Maine

The year 2020 brought many challenges to our family, our community and our world. Occasionally, the silver lining of more time spent closely with each other began to feel like a burden and as such, we were forced to get creative in our social interactions. Our yard became the center of our social life for months. Through all four seasons we gathered, albeit distanced, around our large firepit. The harvest table my husband had built so many years ago became a permanent fixture in the yard, set up alongside the wood pile. Here guests would deposit whatever delicious offering they had brought and settle down around the fire with a drink in one hand and a mask in the other. These visits were the social interactions we all needed.

Our children were able to see friends off screen and chat away the evenings on the porch, away from the adults. Down around the fire, we discussed the state of the world, how our families were faring, the food we were eating, the weather. It made us feel a little closer to normal, and it also resulted in some epic meals. We lugged crockpots of black bean chili, homemade queso and corn chowder outside and plugged them in with extension cords. Burgers were grilled, marshmallows were roasted, and one memorable night, fresh oysters were shucked and passed around.

Depending on the weather, icy wine and chilled beer or mulled cider and hot chocolate filled our glasses. On Halloween, we gathered to eat and drink in costume, happy to have an excuse for a little fun. Near the holidays, dressed in our down coats and wool socks, we exchanged gifts and indulged in the toffee our close friend has made for years. The dog was overjoyed to have guests and spent hours running the perimeter of the fire with various children chasing after him.

There were some days the fire just couldn’t warm us, the single-digit temperatures forcing the visits to end early. Other nights we pushed our chairs to the outer edges of the gravel, hoping to cool off a bit as the heat of the day refused to give way to a cool evening. Regardless of the weather, we ended each visit full, both with food and with the spirit of community and connection we all so badly needed.

Mom’s Black Bean Chili

½ c. olive oil

2 large yellow onions, chopped

1 ½ c. bell peppers, chopped (any color)

½ c. chopped jalapeno chiles (canned is fine)

2 large cloves garlic, minced

6 15-oz. cans black beans (about 9 c. cooked black beans)

1 28-oz. can diced tomatoes (about 3 c.)

2 Tbsp. cumin

2 Tbsp. oregano

1 ½ Tbsp. paprika

1 Tbsp. cayenne pepper (more or less to taste)

1 tsp. salt

Toppings

Chopped cilantro

Chopped scallions

Sour cream

Grated cheddar cheese

Sauté the onions, peppers (including jalapenos if using fresh) and garlic in oil in a large pot over medium heat until they begin to soften, about 10 minutes. Add beans, tomatoes, jalapenos (if using canned) and spices. Turn heat down to medium-low and simmer for 30-45 minutes, stirring every so often. Ladle into bowls and serve with some or all of the toppings. Enjoy!

– Caitlyn Barker, Dixmont, Maine

Back in the mid-70s my wife, Sue, and I saw a notice in the local paper about a meeting on organic gardening at the home of Don and Berenice Knight in Woolwich. We found the meeting very informative, the company good, and the potluck supper great — especially the pies. We came back for the next meeting and have been going steadily for nearly 50 years.

The early meetings of the Sagadahoc MOFGA Chapter were mostly sharing our knowledge and sometimes a field trip or speaker, and always a potluck supper. We never planned them — people bringing what they do best almost always works the best. In our 46-plus years, the only snag was one May when everyone brought either rhubarb crisp or rhubarb pie. Since then, the host usually does a main dish and maybe a dessert, just in case.

At the first Common Ground Country Fair in Litchfield, the chapter agreed to do a booth and sold cider and apples, and have been at every Fair since. Our offerings changed over the years as we added hot mulled cider, switchel, power-packed snack bars, hearty soup and baked beans. About 20 to 30 members of our chapter volunteer to make the booth a success. The money we take in goes to support projects at local schools or libraries, and to maybe help a new farmer get started.

The next biggest activity for our chapter is an annual cooperative seed order through Fedco. About 30 people come to our little house in early January to compile our orders. We talk varieties, share plans and have a huge, tasty potluck. (We widened the door between our kitchen and dining room so folks could get by with their very full plates.) How many remember the early 14-page order form with a listing of every size of every seed? Our coordinator went through each, and people said how many they wanted of whatever. This took several hours and people had a hard time following along. In early February, the seeds were separated and distributed. Everyone in this chain made mistakes that had to be straightened out. The current system at Fedco is great: It is easy, and everyone gets their own bag of seeds and almost no mistakes are made.

In the 80s we also started preparing garden plots for senior housing in Bath. We prep the beds, and get and plant the seeds they have ordered. (Some residents like to plant their own.)

Sharing ideas and great potlucks have keep us together as a chapter for almost 50 years.

– George Sergeant, Brunswick, Maine

“What is the German word for turkey?” I asked my roommate. “Truthahn,” he said. Now to find a local butcher who sold turkeys raised near Hamburg, Germany. I was on a mission: With the help of my fellow expatriate Americans, I was determined to throw the most memorable Thanksgiving feast for our German and British friends. 

For 10 months between 2013 and 2014, I was privileged enough to live and work in Hamburg as an English teaching assistant at a German high school. I found myself in a country that I loved, speaking a language I loved, but without friends or urban living skills. The combination of homesickness and an apartment I didn’t want to go home to, however, made me get creative. My new friends took me in, and we cooked many meals together and explored the city, northern Germany and even some of the surrounding countries.

With Thanksgiving fast approaching, I could sense that some of the ex-pat Americans were beginning to wonder about what they would do in a country that didn’t know about this holiday, let alone celebrate it. 

My quest to find a local butcher in downtown Hamburg that sold locally produced and sustainably raised turkeys was fairly easy, and I found one within walking distance of my apartment. I stopped by on my way home from work one day and proceeded to chat with the butcher, in German, about what I was looking for. Thinking I was comfortable with the metric system and the conversion from kilograms to pounds, I ordered two birds between 8 and 10 kilos. When I went to pick them up the morning of our feast, not only did they weigh more than I expected, having done the math wrong, but the butcher explained that they were even bigger than what I ordered. I left with two birds that weighed about 40 pounds total.

I carried them on foot to the subway and then took a 20-minute ride to my friend’s flat on the other side of town, changing trains once. I must have been a sight to behold. 

These enormous turkeys would not fit together in a tiny German convection oven. No one could get over the size of them, and there were times when we didn’t think they would cook. Luckily, we started in the morning. We decided to roast them one at a time, serving one while the other cooked. We ate the turkey with Yorkshire puddings and lots of German beer and wine. There were vegetables in there, too. Not a single scrap of meat went to waste, as each guest went home with a container. It was a joyous affair, albeit a little excessive. 

– Lucy Cayard, Portland, Maine

The old smudged and faded index card resided in the enameled flower-covered recipe box bequeathed from mother to daughter for three generations. My grandmother Nellie’s handwriting was clear, angled and perfect as only a third-grade Catholic school teacher can create. Each treasured recipe was well worn with use and the occasional splatter of excess cooking. Other secret family formulas included the meat stuffing for the holiday turkey, the elaborate procedure for creamed chicken and the full seasoning profile for goulash.

My family’s many occasions would often include Nellie’s potato salad. The perfect companion for a glistening glazed Easter ham or a tray of burgers for a summer supper. It was a decadent thrill to filch a spoonful for a forbidden snack while covertly examining the other contents of the refrigerator. 

My memory of marathon potato-salad-making sessions include hours of chopping onions, my eyes streaming tears as I try to get them minced fine enough for the sacred dish. My mom’s paring knife flew as she peeled and pieced the mountain of red potatoes, one after another. Carefully layering with salt, pepper, onion and just the right amount of French dressing. Building it up in the yellow bowl until we were finally done for the afternoon. The salad was reverently covered and refrigerated until the morning. Soon after breakfast the eggs were boiled, peeled and chopped into the salad with the perfect amount of Kraft Miracle Whip with the blue label and jar lid. Back into the fridge it went, ready for the unveiling at the meal to come.

Pyrex ceramic mixing bowls of red, yellow and green that nested inside each other were used for everything from bread dough, cake batter, potato salad or turkey dressing. I vaguely remember, or more likely inherited the tale of, the red bowl slipping through mom’s wet fingers as she washed it. Her eyes flooded with tears of loss as an old companion was laid to rest in multiple pieces. The sole remaining yellow bowl of the set remains in my kitchen, still used and treasured for Nellie’s potato salad.

My mom maintained her mother’s recipes intact without any changes or additions. Nellie’s recipes were not to be trifled with, only followed with blind obedience. My mom found comfort in an orderly universe with a well-planned route without detours, accidents or construction.

My refinements to Nellie’s potato salad started slowly as I explored and crafted my own identity as a cook in my own kitchen. As my taste and palette evolved, I dropped Miracle Whip for the more satisfying taste of real mayonnaise. I added more mustard to the egg yolks, mashing them to more fully incorporate into the tangy dressing. Occasional additions have included parsley, scallions, coriander, smoked paprika or garlic. But even I hesitate to stray too far from the comfort of Nellie’s potato salad. Nellie’s highway of recipes doesn’t encourage speeding or deviations, but there is a joy to popping wheelies, turning donuts in a snow-covered parking lot or racing down a two-lane road after dark. And we will always gather and look for Nellie’s potato salad on the table.

Nellie’s Potato Salad

10 lbs. red potatoes, scrubbed and boiled until tender but not mushy

2 onions, finely chopped

Bottle of French dressing

Salt and pepper to taste

Dozen eggs, hard-boiled, peeled and chopped

1 c. mayonnaise or more to proper mixture

– Mary Thoreson, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Usually arriving on the fairgrounds on Wednesday or Thursday, our crew surveyed the food stocks accumulating from the farmers and other donors. We reorganized and set up the Common Kitchen, preparing for the massive feed that would take place over the next several days.

Onions, beans, oats and tofu arrived in lots of 50 pounds or 5-gallon buckets. We ran a gluten-free, vegan and no-sugar kitchen for some of us and a regular soup kitchen for the rest, on an industrial scale. Years of running out of some basics have had us scrambling for reasonable substitutes. One year a crew of volunteers took a ride to the nearest orchard and returned a few hours later with a dozen buckets of apples. Saved again!

The kitchen attracted wonderful volunteers, some with no experience and others who were accomplished cooks. A retiree told me she loved to make pies so she was set up with a few helpers to turn out 25 pies for the evening meal that night. Her pies were beautiful, and she was very proud to have used honey for the first time, instead of sugar. Cooking with Maine sea vegetables in soups and stews was also a first for many people. Quality control was usually a spoonful taste before heading out the door.

We considered the meal a success if everyone, the 600 to 900 people served per meal, was full and happy with the diverse variety of dishes.

The after-dinner kitchen was a warm refuge as the evening chill set in. During this quieter time of clean-up and meal prep for the next day, friendships were kindled and nurtured. Several of us have remained lifelong friends and we occasionally reminisce about the spontaneous environment cooking for thousands of volunteers during those three Fair days.

– Barbara MacLennan, Newcastle, Maine

My life in Maine began as a new teacher in Clinton in 1976. After one year, I missed my family and thought I would move back home to upstate New York before I became anymore settled. My mom encouraged me to stay at least another school year, as it would look better on a resume. And, she asked, “Aren’t there any nice young men at church?”

Well, it just so happened that my second year teaching, I met a nice young man named Dwight who arrived on the scene at church and joined the choir. It wasn’t long before we began dating. 

At Thanksgiving break that year, I planned to fly home. Foggy snowy wintery weather cancelled my flight from Waterville. I was quite disappointed that I would not spend Thanksgiving with my family in Syracuse, NewYork, as I had for everyyear of my life up to that point. 

Dwight asked his mom if he could invite me to join his family at the Stevens’ home for their big traditional family Thanksgiving, with aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents, that had happened for years. The answer was yes. Tables were set end to end through two rooms to accommodate his extended family. This was the first time I had been to such a gathering. Most of my relatives were in Minnesota; too far to travel for the holiday. 

Everyone brought their specialties to share. There was food galore and more pies than I had ever seen in one place. I enjoyed my share and remember helping with the mountain of dishes. 

Circumstances, events and the wisdom of our mothers and fathers had hands in that day. Little did I know this memorable feast at the Stevens’ home was the introduction to my eventual extended family, and we still fondly remember it to this day. 

– Kay J. Gagnon, Benton Falls, Maine

Bounty

The summer feast is nearly here

The thing I wait for every year

The gardens full of good fresh food

And everyone in a harvesting mood

Every branch has many cherries

Every bush is full of berries

Every pea pod grows ripe on the vine

And won’t that radish taste divine

Then the apples adorn the trees

As red and shiny as you please

Soon the flint corn becomes bright yellow

And the squashes ripe and mellow

The summer feast has come and gone

When we would wake up with  the dawn

To harvest harvest the whole day

And with me that memory will stay 

– Terra Morrison (age 9), Charleston, Maine

Toddlers have a high capacity for berry consumption. My husband and I recognized this during our first summer with a toddler helping us in the garden. There was a predictable pattern to his harvest technique: pick one, eat one, pick one, eat one and so on until every berry had been assessed and devoured. Not a single fruit made it back into the house that summer to be put up in the freezer and enjoyed later.

The garden has gone through many different configurations in the decade we’ve lived at our home. After adding children to our family, anything we plant now must be relatively low maintenance, something the kids will also eat (luckily beets and chard still count — phew!) and high yielding. That first summer together showed us how grossly inadequate our three blueberry bushes were for our family’s needs.

We invested significantly in the berry patch with the hope that we would catch up with the growing demand from our household. Raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, currants and elderberries were brought in. We planted them, tended them and knew we would have to wait a year or two before we could get enough fruit to save.

Every visit to the berry patch turned into a treasure hunt to see which berries would be ready to eat that day. Together with the toddler we hypothesized on how long to leave a growing strawberry to ripen before we could pick it. The berry patch became a daily pastime for all of us: visiting, discussing, predicting, harvesting and eating.

As the summer pressed on I was prepared for our berry patch activity to wane, but we still enjoyed handfuls of fruit from our ever-bearing raspberries as the autumn foliage changed around us. Probably the best surprise of all was that we actually brought pints of berries back into the house to freeze for the winter. Instead of just eating them fresh, I’m looking forward to the raspberry pancake feast we will also share on a cold February morning this winter.

– Cara Gauthier, Northfield, Vermont

To save September, it is best to save tomatoes — overripe on the vine. With simple steps they can transform us into something deep — even bold. The abundance can be turned into sauce that stores well in the freezer and is suitable only for the coldest of times, something to thaw later. Serving as a memory of what being warm, lush and unencumbered feels like.

The magic of a tomato is that it’s whole. A tomato, from the moment it’s picked, contains everything it needs to be delicious. I think the perfect tomato is one that sits softly in your palm, one that weighs enough to make the wrist aware of its need to support. One that is eaten ravenously like an apple.

When the sun still hangs high and warm in the sky but later afternoon imbues a deep sense of foreboding, it is time to gather tomatoes. I am drawn to capture them all, tucking the especially delectable ones neatly wrapped in my warm layers in my backpack or wedged gently between the dashboard and windshield of the truck to give to friends. Later, I watch their faces glow in the reflection of a Pineapple Premiere or smile as they cup a Brandywine close to their heart in gratitude.

A whole tomato does not need much to transform it into a delicious meal. Slicing a tomato with slabs of mozzarella, a basil leaf, a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt is as satisfying a meal as a bowl of hearty pasta with tomato sauce.

In a year when gathering together for meals became off-limits, I trusted only in the wholeness of a tomato to convey a meal to a friend. What it means to eat together.

The tomato reminds me that bursting open with excitement, spilling my passion over everything — when it is ripe — is not required, but necessary. When the moment comes, I suggest you let it consume you; it’s well worth the release. Save restraint for cooking.

To freeze these tomatoes, I roughly chop them and roast them in a deep baking dish with basil (if available), crushed whole cloves of garlic, salt and pepper, and a bay leaf at 450 degrees. I try to do this on a night when it’s cooler, and roast as many as possible. I roast them for hours, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes have reduced in size by about half. If you care about seeds and skins you can remove those before roasting, which will also reduce the water content that needs to be cooked off. Once cooled, I fill old yogurt pints and place them in my freezer door, but plastic bags work well, too.

I like to chop things as roughly as possible so when thawed they still resemble the plant they came from. In winter when I begin simmering the frozen tomatoes back to life, usually to make the sauce (although just cooking the roasted tomatoes a bit longer and pureeing them is more than acceptable as a sauce), my kitchen is transformed. My house is filled with the essence of each ingredient. The tomatoes, of course, but also the dusty days of pulling garlic. The way it sticks to your skin. The sweetness of basil, reminding you of when the mornings were light. It’s like that one bite you save on your plate for last. But with tomato sauce you save it for six months.

By not doing much to the tomatoes now, you are allowing them to transform once more in your kitchen and tie up some loose ends from the summer.

Growing the vegetables is not easy. Nothing about getting to this point in this year has been easy, but now reliving the good parts in simple meals can be, at a time when something easy feels more palatable, manageable, digestible.

– Dani Walczak, Portland, Maine*

*This story was excerpted from Walczak’s essay, “September — Preserving,” which you can read here.

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