History Repeats Itself: Lessons We Ignore from Ireland’s Great Hunger

History Repeats Itself: Lessons We Ignore from Ireland’s Great Hunger



Oh, the 2012 holiday merry-go-round is already churning. We’ve barely finished with the shamrocks & green beer and Easter & Mother’s Day are hot on its heels.  Could I ask you to indulge me for a minute?  Could I tarry just a little longer at St. Patrick’s Day?

Not because I’m so very Irish (I am), but because Ireland offers one of the most memorable and recent cautionary tales about why we should be petrified about the extent of our current American practice of growing just a few varieties of a few crops year after year (monoculture).

It’s hard to imagine famine when you take for granted the endless array of processed foods in the typical American grocery store.  But, do a little Googling and you’ll soon learn that the huge cornucopia of shiny boxes and bags are manufactured from less than 12 crop varieties.

It is so, so dangerous to have your entire food supply invested in one single variety of one single crop, yet it’s unbelievably commonplace and even celebrated as the kind of modern progress needed to feed the world.  We’ve already discussed feeding the world, remember?

I can’t decide if our choice to play agricultural roulette is due to an over-abundance of confidence or ignorance, but it’s frightening. The really crazy thing is how many of us are Americans today because our ancestors were forced to flee starvation and workhouses in Ireland.  The Great Irish Hunger wasn’t all that long ago –  how quickly we forget.

For a while, the potato was a true savior for Ireland. It found its convoluted way from the Andes in South America to the struggling Irish peasants.  The Irish climate suited the tuber perfectly and these poor families were finally able to grow enough food to feed their families well on their tiny plots of land.

In the Andes, as many as 200 species of potato may be planted in the same field.

In the Andes, farmers cultivated diversity in the potato and enjoyed as many as 4.000 varieties. A really good source for learning about agrobiodiversity is the website SustainableTable (dot)org. Here’s a bit of Sustainable Table’s take on the potato situation in the Andes:

“This abundance of diversity is the result of farmers artificially selecting traits over generations for specific purposes, like resistance to disease, tolerance to high altitudes or poor soils, etc. This diversity is important for food security—in the event that a particular crop variety fails due to drought, flooding or a disease, another variety might survive to avoid food shortages.”

Meanwhile the Irish tale goes a little differently:

“In stark contrast to this [Andes] model of agrobiodiversity,  the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s was the result of a fungus that completely destroyed the Irish potato crop because only a few varieties of potatoes had been imported from the Andes to Europe, none of which were resistant to the disease. Because of a lack of crop diversity and over reliance on one crop to feed many of its population, Ireland experienced widespread famine and death.


The Irish you see, had a history of diversified farming but were no longer able to grow the variety of crops they relied on before the British occupied Ireland.  The British made it illegal for Irish Catholics to own or lease land and Irish farmland had been repurposed to raise grain and cattle to satisfy England’s insatiable taste for beef.  Irish farmers were forced onto tiny plots of meager land and struggled with subsistence wages. The potato was the only crop that could be counted on to keep a family fed under such restrictive conditions.

A one acre field of lumpers could be counted on to feed a family for a whole year

Irish potatoes were especially vulnerable because they planted just one kind, Lumpers.  And, because potatoes grow from other potatoes, they are like genetic clones – each exactly the same as all the others.  So, when an airborne mold blew into Ireland, the single crop expected to feed about 3 million people was devastated almost overnight, with few backup alternatives.

Of course, the suffering and starvation part of the tragedy was caused by a perfect storm of greed, prejudice and politics which amplified the already bad enough crop failure. I hope I’m wrong about this, but it feels like we may never get the greed + power = politics part right, but the lack of biodiversity?  That we are able to avoid.

Yet, amazingly enough, we don’t.  Industrial Farms plant huge monocultures of the three main government subsidized crops, year after year. They deplete the soil of beneficial microbes thereby becoming more and more reliant on synthetic (petroleum-based) fertilizers and pesticides.

Think about these statistics also from Sustainable Table:

  • Almost 96% of the commercial vegetable varieties available in 1903 are now extinct.
  • According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), humans now rely upon just 14 species of mammals and birds to supply 90% of all animal-derived foods.
  • Twelve plant crops account for more than three-quarters of the food consumed in the world, and just three—rice, wheat, and maize—are relied on for more than half of the world’s food.
  • Reliance upon modern varieties of rice has caused more than 1,500 local rice varieties in Indonesia to become extinct.

For some reason, when Americans embrace new technology, we have a way of kicking the old to the curb so fast it’s lost forever.  Few farmers preserve their old hybrid seeds just in case their new GM crop fails.  I don’t know about you, but I like the security of  knowing I’ve left a popcorn trail to guide me home if the new and improved turns out to not be so great after all.

Have we learned from the Irish potato famine?  Let’s see:

  • Dominant food source invested in extremely few crops of one variety, check.
  • A national food system serving the desires of the few not the needs of the many, check check.
  • Limited access to land discourages initiative and opportunity for people to feed themselves and rise above the limitations imposed by the system: check check check.

Well, it seems to me that what we’ve learned is how to do it again. The saddest thing is that we can’t even blame foreign occupation for our situation.  At least not unless you believe America is occupied by Monsanto, Cargill, General Mills, Dean Foods & Friends.  But blaming things on corporations implies you have no choice in the matter. Which is not entirely true.

So today, on this unusually summer-like first day of spring you can take a small step or two to do your part to restore biodiversity to our food system.

First, consider planting a small garden and growing a few heirloom varieties of your favorite fruits and vegetables. Have you heard of Kitchen Gardener’s International?  Let Roger Doiron’s entertaining TED talk convince you:


Or, if gardening is not your thing, consider signing up for a Community Shared Agriculture  (CSA) share from a local farm growing heirloom fruits & veggies. Even better if they offer eggs and meat from heritage breed livestock.  And if they have fresh, locally produced dairy products too, well lucky you.  Go for it, please. Don’t know where to find a CSA? Look here.

And, if even a weekly box of goodness is too much obligation, at least do some shopping at your local farmer’s market. Home gardeners and small, diversified farmers are doing most of the work saving plants whose claims to fame are flavor and hardiness instead of uniformity and ability to withstand processing and shipping. But the success of their work is completely dependent on your commitment to buy from them.

Come ON, you can do it! The future is riding on what you have for dinner….

This post is part of Simple Lives Thursday. What’s that you ask? It’s an ambitious and enlightening collection of posts from bloggers all over about issues near and dear to my heart: real food and natural living. Check it out!

In which we propose 10 cures for the common Snark

In which we propose 10 cures for the common Snark

Snark Dogs loving the sound of their own comments.... what does it say about the future for meaningful, productive communication?

I waver between great hope and great despair when I consider our American future.

Older generations lament the lack of skills possessed by young people. Are they right? Is the fact that young people are commonly poor spellers, slipping between texting shorthand and written English language indicative of lower aspirational fiber?

Are young people being coddled and praised to the point of handicap and lacking in face to face character and loyalty? Or are they being liberated from limitations being placed upon them by society and location and empowered by freedom from frequent slaps to their self esteem?

Or, could it be that older Americans are just judgmental and closed-minded?  Honestly, who knows? Probably both.  And neither.  Human nature is what it is and will manipulate the surrounding data to reflect what it wants to believe about itself much of the time. Confirmation bias is a fact of human thinking.

One grace I do fear is suffering is the capacity for open-minded communication. My suspicion is that humans are no more or less endowed with selflessness, manners, character or intelligence than they ever were. Pining for the morals of yesteryear is quite possibly a misguided nostalgia for an American society that never was. We are just now liberated from the limitations created by having just one traditional media system. Today, everyone is free to let ‘er rip all over the internet, courtesy and manners be damned. No one will know who you are anyway, so why bother with niceties and respect?

Once, in order to get your opinion published in your local newspaper, you had to write a letter to the editor, which had to be selected by some critical process before being selected for print. You had to take the time to actually write or type the letter on actual paper, sign your name boldly to it, address it to the proper party, place a stamp on it and get it to the post office. Of course, it is true that the quality control of the editorial selection process could be as simple as refusing to print any pesky though valid differences of opinion.

Today, blogging and online journals accepting comments remove the filters between brain and Publish that allow time for second thoughts to prevail. And it seems the higher brow the publication, the more cleverly crafted, closed-minded and dismissive the comments. The comments section feels more like a stage for performance art than a place of true communication and considered exchange.

Yes, we see how highly educated you are. And how firmly closed your minds are too.

Recently, I read this article by Nicolette Hahn Niman in The Atlantic about farms needing people to work on them. When I first read the article, I really didn’t give it much deep thought – from my perspective, it’s pretty obvious and right on.

But, apparently not so to many other people. Let me just say, The Atlantic readers are a tough crowd, especially towards a small, sustainable farmer like me.  Someone with a very different basis for evaluating information. If you doubt it, go on to read some of the comments to Hahn Niman’s other articles there. I hope she sticks to her guns and soldiers on; clearly she’s taking a serious ego-flogging.

What floored me was the staggering slew of responses from intellectual Snarks that to me, illustrate a big part of the future challenge to sustainable agriculture.

And oh my, the descriptive drama created to support the learned objections to the article. People being ripped against their will to be thrust back to the 18th century. Khmer Rouge comparisons, a forced return to serfdom, the complete elimination of industrial agriculture, the responsibility to feed the world and obvious snobbery against dirt and physical labor. None of which has any real contact with ideas presented in the actual article.

Speak for yourselves highly-educated-and-want-everyone-to-know-it-people, I find it satisfying to work outside, to care for the land and animals and to cook food I’ve grown myself.  As do many young people who will be discouraged by friends and family for aspiring to such socially disdain-worthy careers. You don’t know it, and few actual farmers will take the time to address it, but your lack of deep knowledge is showing.

I don’t claim to be an expert on anything, but I propose a small social experiment:

1. Drop the snarky, dismissive attitude

2. Google-ing is not authoritative research

3. There’s data somewhere to support just about anything

4. State the simple facts without the cynical drama for effect

5. Critically consider the article and your response to it before going off

6. Spending time on the internet firing off criticism of other people’s work is not the same as making a contribution

7. Make room for doubt in your perspective. America’s most divisive issues are not ones with a simple black or white solution

8. Don’t minimize the efforts of other people. If they aren’t harming anyone, don’t discourage them with all the ways their idea could be better or will fail.  They’re creating something; don’t kill their joy

9. Knowledge comes from everywhere. Don’t dismiss it because the lesson comes from a source you don’t admire

10. Everything is a spectrum; what seems ludicrous today may save your life tomorrow

OK, I’m stepping down now. From my soapbox that is. It’s a beautiful fall day, I’m happy to choose to go outside and get dirty performing all my unsophisticated serf-like manual labor.  Scorn us if you will my learned friends, the Ladies and I can take it.

In which we ponder: how should we feel about the gentrification of meat?

In which we ponder: how should we feel about the gentrification of meat?

Chefs and Foodies elevate lowly cuts like belly, tongue and oxtail to pricy new heights

Gentrification as I understand it means a bunch of people “discover” a declining neighborhood with great architecture.  Coffee shops and upscale cupcakeries are opened, arty folk start hanging out and buying up buildings, prices go up and before you know it, the people who’ve lived there forever are now the ones who don’t really belong.

How does gentrification apply to meat?  It used to be that wealthy people ate the expensive steaks and roasts and slaves, tenant farmers and poor folk made the most they could of what was left. Depending on how enthusiastic and creative your immigrant ancestors were in the kitchen, you either have fond memories of sublime stews and rich saucy dishes or scary ones of being forced to eat shoe leather and like it.

I could not be more thrilled about the newfound enthusiasm for well raised meats and charcuterie.  As a farmer, I am torn between relief that my meat will bring premium prices meaning I can pay my bills (I like paying my bills) and my higher mission that everyone can eat an adequate amount of highly nutritious humanely raised meat and dairy. Prices on cheap well raised cuts like tongue, oxtail and belly now rival those of more expensive cuts of industrial meat.

I have no highly formed theory on this topic; rather just some deeply worrisome gray questions. There will be more to come about this; I can feel it.

In which we tell a charcutepaloozian tale: on two pork butts in three parts

In which we tell a charcutepaloozian tale: on two pork butts in three parts

part two: brining, smoking and the almighty pellicle

On the right, pastured heritage breed pork from Lamppost Farm. On the left, conventional pork.

Yesterday we posted part one about our purchase of two Boston Butt pork roasts.

The first was from the pastured Hereford/Berkshire pigs at Lamppost Farm; the second was unknown pork of confined upbringing,  most likely Duroc or Duroc/Berkshire breeds purchased from my local butcher.

Left: Pastured Roast, Right: Conventional

These two roasts come from opposite ends of the pork roast spectrum – the commercial roast being much leaner.  My commercial roast had some gnarly fat marbled through the center; the fat on the pastured roast was like a rooftop after a heavy, heavy snow – perfectly drifted on top.  The pastured roast was also nicely marbled throughout.  Each roast was bone-in and weighed about 3 pounds.

An indulgent bit of wandering:  it’s fascinating how quickly America switched gears from being a country where lard was the primary cooking fat to an animal fat-phobic country using industrially processed vegetable oils.  Did you know it all began in WWII?  During the war,  lard was urgently needed for military applications and citizens were urged to switch to “more healthful” vegetable oils for cooking.  By the time the military no longer needed the lard, the consumer market for lard collapsed and the old-fashioned fattier breeds of pigs were no longer profitable.  Breeders began breeding and selecting animals that would build muscle rapidly for meat and pork production switched from pastured animals on small farms to centralized, industrial confinement operations.  Learn more about the powerful impact the blending of modern advertising methods, government and corporate interests had on American society in this exhibit of wartime posters from an online exhibit from the Special Collections of the National Agricultural Library.  Love these posters!

OK, OK,  back to the pork. As my goal is to really let the flavor of the roasts shine, I kept the spices, brining and rubbing really, really minimal.  I brined both roasts in a simple solution of brown sugar, kosher salt & water for about 8 hours. I figured if I got the smoking part right, that would add plenty of flavor (although some of those Chinese 5 season powder rubbed roasts look phenomenal).

Our smoker of choice, budget and availability was a Weber charcoal grill, a

Ye Olde Low Tech High Quality Weber Grill

good digital thermometer, hardwood lump charcoal, apple wood and two aluminum foil pans.  Not very sophisticated some would say, but you true McGyvers probably think we’re over-equipped.

We arranged the charcoal around the outside rim of the round grill, leaving space for a round drip pan in the center.   We lit the charcoal, burning it uncovered about 25 minutes until the coals looked

Hardwood Charcoal burning around the edge - drip pan goes in the center

ashy white.  Once the coals were white, we put in the drip pan and added chunks of soaked & drained apple wood on top of the charcoal.

On the grill, we placed the two roasts in the center above the drip pan and

placed a tin filled with water beside the roasts.  To monitor the internal temperature of the meat, we inserted the probe of a digital meat thermometer in the

Soaked apple wood chunks tossed on top of the ash white charcoal, roasts centered on rack over drip pan and pan of water placed on rack. Note the thermometer probe into thickest part of meat, away from the bone.

thickest part of the meat, away from the bone.

So now, the guessery begins.  We put the roasts on about noon and smoked them until just after 3:00.  The smoking went remarkably well, except we did struggle a little with keeping the charcoal burning on one side and the temperature up.  I slipped a dial thermometer inside the grill vents to

check the temperature of the airspace inside the grill, but it only reads to 222°.  There were times the temperature dipped to 180° – apparently fire building is a skill we need to work on a bit more. I fussed over my non-burning charcoal, opened the lid too many times and clucked like the smoking newbie that I am, but it all came to a supremely satisfying end.

I wasn’t confident about my thermometer readings, so I finished the roast in a 350 oven for 15 minutes until my thermometer showed an internal temperature of 160°.  Since it only took 15 minutes to reach 160°, I probably didn’t need the oven finish, but we weren’t taking any chances.

A really important part is to let the meat rest for a minimum of 15 minutes before carving – it’s hard to resist ripping into something that looks that gorgeous and has tormented you for over three hours with smells so tantalizing, but RESIST THE URGE!

Now, let me thank Mrs. Wheelbarrow, Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn for making an emphatic point about developing the pellicle before smoking the meat.  This is THE secret, I believe, to a successful smoked roast.  I heeded their advice and after removing from the brine allowed my roasts to rest uncovered in the refrigerator overnight so the meat surface would develop that dry tackiness that helps the smoky flavor adhere to the meat.  Both roasts ended up with a beautiful red exterior that made the ends the most fought over pieces on the platter.

We have not been fans of smoked foods.  Oh sure, we love an occasional smoky BBQ, but smoked cheese and other snacks are usually a pass.  I would never think of smoking when deciding how to cook a roast.  Yet, after smoking these roasts, I’m looking at everything in our kitchen thinking it should be smoked immediately.  It’s probably the special combination of hardwood charcoal, apple wood and DIY seasoning, right?  Then I realize my entire experience with smoked foods is from holiday gift baskets of stale, unheard of brands of gourmet foods.

Now that I’ve seen the light, I can’t wait to take on almonds, my beef bacon from February and some home-made cheese for starters.

Come back on the 15th for part three: what we ate, how we ate it and an undisputed winner.

In Which Failures Turn to Valentines

In Which Failures Turn to Valentines

Oh, Valentine, Get in my Mouth!

I’ve failed a lot this month.  I think of this today, because yesterday I was really, really, REALLY frustrated. Like almost ready to quit frustrated.  This ice is starting to get me down; everything is twice as hard as usual in this weather and it bums me out even more to know that before it gets better, it’s going to get worse. But, I have mouths to feed so I pick myself up, scrape off the mud and trudge out there for another go.

I’m a believer in the character building value of a Big Fat Failure.  I see no shame in it, rather I applaud the attempt.  Something you never knew you needed:  a little guidance from Seth Godin about failure here. If you’re going to do it, you may as well do it right, don’t you think?

One of my big screw ups last year involved strawberry jam.  Lots of it.  Ironically, one of the highlights of my year was also strawberry jam.  Again, lots of it.

My favorite berries are from a nearby Amish pick your own farm. So, I’d get up early and head over there after chores and pick my own berries.  Then the three-day process of making the jam began immediately to preserve the freshness of the berries.

You’ll have to take my word for it, but these preserves were worth every back-breaking minute.  They were my Mona Lisa.

In my excitement over my preserves and my new Auburn Meadow Farm jars & labels, I decided to re-pot my best jam in the new jars.  Fast forward to the story of the Overcooked Rubber Strawberry Jam.

Now, being a farm focused on making the most from the least, I couldn’t bring myself to throw this rubber stuff away. In classic lemon to lemonade fashion, I now bring you homemade strawberry chocolate Pop-Tarts!

These tasty treats are a triple threat:

  1. Who doesn’t like chocolate with fruit?
  2. The novelty of homemade Pop-Tarts is fun & memorable
  3. This pastry is tender perfection -a truly special treat

I’ve used this dough recipe in regular tarts also and it is really tender, tasty and easy to handle. And, it works equally well for both sweet and savory.  My mind is revving with savory Pop-Tart options, but I still haven’t cracked the savory glaze code.  Suggestions anyone?

I’m sending you over to Smitten Kitchen for the perfect step-by-step photo tutorial of hardcore Pop-Tart making, but don’t forget to come right back.

The filling I used was actually pretty unscientific – I took my rubbery strawberry jam, warmed it in the microwave and mixed in Nutella until I really liked it. You’re probably using properly set jam; I would follow Smitten Kitchen’s instructions to add some corn starch & water, then add the Nutella.

The only improvement I can contribute to the Smitten Kitchen version is a perfect glaze recipe. You may not agree, but for me, an unglazed Pop-Tart isn’t worth eating.  And, the glaze needs to be a hardened shell, not soft icing.

Glaze Makes it Great!

This recipe for basic sugar glaze is from Tish Boyle’s The Good Cookie. It isn’t as rock hard as a commercial Pop–Tart’s and probably won’t stand up to toasting but the gently crisp shell is just perfect and doesn’t make the Pop-Tart pastry soften.  Trust me, you won’t miss the toasting one bit.

  • 1 cup confectioner’s sugar, sifted
  • 1 TBS unsalted butter, softened
  • 3 TBS heavy cream ( ½ & ½ works fine)
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • Pinch of salt

In the bowl of an electric mixer, using the paddle attachment (don’t worry if you don’t have one), beat the confectioner’s sugar, butter, heavy cream, vanilla extract, and salt at medium speed just until combined, about 30 seconds.  Cover the surface of the glaze with plastic wrap and set aside at room temperature until ready to use.

Store glaze in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days; bring to room temperature before using. Makes 1/2 cup. (It’s really good on oatmeal raisin cookies too.)

While the Pop-Tarts are still warm, brush with the glaze several times, allowing each coat to set before adding the next.

Failure turned sweet success!

Strawberry: The Official Fruit of Valentine's Day