Hog Heaven

Bob Combs' R.C. Farms

Bob Combs' R.C. Farms

Ham is among the few foods that are eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner, or between two slices of bread any time of day. Just about every country in the world produces ham and none classify this meat as pig’s leg, though that is precisely what it is, the lean hind leg of the hog.

Ham connoisseurs have their favorites. Mine are Serrano and  Iberian, though I also love: Bayonne ham from the Pyrenees region of France; Black Forest ham; a heavily-smoked ham from Germany smoked over pine wood; Westphalian ham; a cured ham also from German; Parma ham; a dry-cured ham; Prosciutto ham; another dry-cured but not smoked Italian ham; Smithfield ham, one the best known U.S. country hams.

But Good Heavens! When I asked about unusual, odd — I really mean, weird –FOOD JOBS,

Las Vegas Strip

Las Vegas Strip

Jennifer Graue (JenInOz) replied on Twitter about  71 year-old Bob Combs the pig farmer. He lives on the outskirts of Las Vegas and mines the thoughtlessly thrown out leftover food scraps from many of the city’s upscale restaurants and casinos like a golden slot machine.

As a result, these leftovers don’t go to the landfill, instead they are recycled into feed for Bob’s 3,500 pigs. Such scraps are actually chock-full of nutrients, which is why Bob has really healthy pigs that grow at twice the normal rate. His pigs calls it food, he calls it conservation through swine. And he is laughing all the way to the bank.

His farm, R.C. Farms, lies 13 miles north of the Las Vegas strip. In the past, he’s been offered as much as $70 million dollars for his place by developers. He calls them “tire kickers” and isn’t interested in selling.

Instead, in addition to food scraps, Bob also recycles old milk and ice cream that don’t sell at the store when both go past their expiration dates. Bob says that both are only slightly old but still sweet. One small fact: Ice cream can ferment. Bob reveals that one time 150 of his hogs got drunk from some fermented ice cream as they were ready to be loaded up for slaughter. It was a bit of a challenge, Bob admits, to get these 250 pound hogs back onto the truck. Imagine: hungover and hung out to dry.

Just about everyone is happy with this conservation effort, that is, except Bob’s neighbors. The pigs eat the leftover food scraps, gain weight, and then are processed for human consumption.

If you do not believe me, you can see it here as Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs speaks to Bob Combs. (NB: Mr. Combs’ slightly slurred speech is due to a past car accident.)

I was wondering, in this age of specialization, do you think it possible that we will soon be able to buy Bellagio ham or Mandalay Bay ham or Mirage resort ham?

Matters of Fact:

  • The pig is a symbol of good luck and prosperity.
  • The expression, “eating high on the hog” comes from the way meat was once portioned in the British army. The tender cuts “high on the hog” were saved for the officers.

Accidental Agrarian

Chef Neal Foley of The Kitchen Garden Company

Chef Neal Foley of The Kitchen Garden Company

When I initially wrote FOOD JOBS, I wanted to show that using one’s innate skills to follow one’s culinary passion would lead to finding life’s riches. I insisted on including personal stories, (much to the despair of some), to demonstrate that even the most fabled culinary success is often meandering yet deeply rewarding.

The culinary community is one woven of many story threads that should be shared, from the Farm City so elegantly described by author Novella Carpenter to self-described accidental agrarian and gastropodist, Chef Neal Foley, and everything in between.

Is there such a food job as an accidental agrarian, you ask? You decide. Neal is a person of many culinary talents. He is a chef, a farmer, a teacher, a podcaster, a philosopher. His story begins with The Kitchen Garden Company.

The Kitchen Garden Company (KGC) began as a catering company but evolved into a private chef services and consulting business more than anything. Since forming the company six years ago, the hobby of growing vegetables and raising animals for ourselves merged into raising crops for use in the business and selling pigs, chicken, duck and rabbit.

Normally, throughout the growing season, we ‘successionally’ plant vegetables not only for home use but in response to demand for private dinners. So, if I know I will be feeding 10 people a month or more down the road, I will plant lettuces, radishes, etc. ready to use. Then I pull in whatever else is growing in the gardens–fresh herbs, edible flowers, perennials like sorrel, rhubarb, berries….whatever is in season and suits the menu.

In addition to cooking, we also raise pigs and sell them on the hoof–essentially raising them for someone else. The rules allow us to sell the animal living. The customer pays for slaughter and butchering and ends up with some exceptional meat–either a whole or half hog–for a very reasonable price. Along the way we raise a pig or two for ourselves, and use them to demonstrate on-farm slaughter and home butchery techniques as well as sausage making and bacon curing.

While we have always raised chickens for eggs, we’ll sell any extra to help pay for the feed. Our own eggs remain free, but we have occasionally raised chickens for meat. When grain prices skyrocketed I got into raising meat rabbits because they grow quicker on less food and are easier to process. I can only legally sell the rabbits I process as dog-food to customers. There seem to be a lot of happy dogs out there. But we eat quite a bit of rabbit ourselves. It is a lean, protein rich meat which is very cost-effective and simple to raise.

Culinary Training

From an early age my mother had taught my brothers and I how to cook, but it wasn’t until I was out on my own that things really took off. I began collecting cookbooks and inviting friends over to test my creations. As an impoverished college student I knew all about stretching the budget to entertain in style. I went to a rural university and lived off-campus away from town so I didn’t dine out much. Cooking was a matter of feeding myself and saving money as much as it can be at times now.

Over the years I’ve had many restaurant jobs from dishwasher, to waiter, to salad and cold-food prep cook at the Faculty Cafeteria in college. An injury to my back ended a career in construction which was just taking off, so I began to look for other things I enjoyed doing. With the settlement money I received, I went to Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland. (I had lived in Ireland for a short while years before, and I welcomed the opportunity to return.) Ballymaloe is a small, but world renowned culinary school versed in the basics. It is also centered on an organic farm. While there I also had the opportunity to work at several restaurants. I gained knowledge and improved my skills and speed.

When I returned home I had the confidence to begin The Kitchen Garden Company and cook in private homes. We had already been farming–raising chickens, pigs, cattle–for years. But my experience in Ireland had changed me. There, everything we cooked was fresh; I knew the producers and shopped at year-round farmers’ markets. I realized I should be doing the same, here with my own business. It has taken sometime to realize this vision and it hasn’t always been a welcomed thing, but times are changing, as they say.

Becoming An Accidental Agrarian & Teacher

Over the past four years my vision has really taken shape. Immediately after returning  from culinary school I began doing some teaching in kitchen stores and the like–simple stuff like how to make a quick, easy home cooked meal for company after work, or cooking for students. I also began offering in-home cooking school parties where I’d show up and teach a host and his or her guests how to make some dishes which they would eat afterward. It was immense fun.

2010 New Year's Duckfest at Kitchen Garden Company

Upcoming 2010 New Year's Duckfest at KGC- See: The Gastrocast for Details

I also began podcasting as another way to share my knowledge and experiences with food. It didn’t take long before my life began slipping into shows: the daily chores; raising animals; haying; the whole rhythm of having a “smallholding” on a small, ‘self-sufficientish’ farm. The more I included in my show, The Gastrocast, the more listeners responded.

Along the way I began to realize the state of the food system, if not in the U.S., then the world. I began sharing food-related news items which interested me and that I felt might be of relevance to listeners. Thus, the Gastrocast became “the cooking show about food, farming and the politics of what we eat.” This has had a continuing resonance with my audience and has spawned three blogs: one related to the show; one which is a gateway to the show,  my food and agriculture-related writings; and a third which is just agricultural in nature.

In all of this there has never been a plan, but rather, a loose jumble of ideas. Through the years,  I have managed to find my niche. That has helped me focus on where I need to take my cooking, my farming and my work in bringing all this to the public.

What The Future Holds

Because I currently live on a small island I have kept my business purposefully small. I rely on word of mouth advertising, plus what The Gastrocast can provide in audio, video and web presence. When I started out, I took almost any job that came my way. I gained experience; learned what worked and what didn’t. For a while I was a private chef in a mansion in the Madison Park neighborhood of Seattle. The money was great but the travel and time away from my family and farm eventually took its toll.

The lessons I learned there, my work in various restaurants and in Ireland continue to carry me forward as I focus on building an on-farm cooking and farming school. There are many shapes this venture might take, but the core philosophy behind the idea is to get people in touch with where food comes from, be they chefs, home cooks or students.

If we can all learn where ingredients begin, help produce them ourselves and learn how to treat them with respect, then we can spread this knowledge to others and gain back some of what’s been lost in the past 40 years of industrialized food. I really think that people who cook for themselves and their loved ones, who raise their own food–even if it’s a small head of lettuce, a couple of carrots or a bug-chewed, giant head of cabbage–achieve an incredible sense of accomplishment that follows them the rest of their lives. Working with our hands and with our senses is very important to who we can become as people. This is what I want to convey through my future work.

We are currently in the process of selecting a site which would provide an adequate farm landscape that enables us to continue to be self-sufficient and raise food for ourselves, The Kitchen Garden Company and others. We also want it to be a venue for events, workshops and dinners and classes. Once we find the spot, we can think about training culinary students and staff and building the new venture. The great thing about the podcast, the websites, and now Twitter, is that I can share my message from where ever I am, and attract a new audience as I go along.

Advice to Others

I guess I would stress getting out there and sharing your passion in an honest way. Meet with farmers, producers, cooks of all kinds and find out what’s motivating people and sharing your thoughts and feelings as you build a network around you. Once that network begins to grow and spread, you have something to build on. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice or to contact people who have ideas you believe in or people that inspire you.

Neal’s story continues. You can visit him at http://kitchengardens.net or http://agrari.us and use the contact form, follow him on twitter– @podchef, or email him at podchef@gmail.com.

The New Farmers

Rotation Farming

Rotation Farming

Boutique and larger scale farming is beginning to look like a very fertile field indeed for job seekers. Ask Chef/restaurateur Michel Nischan, who  has long been a crusader for sustainability in fishing and farming. He is an advocate of pasture-fed beef and lamb and foods that are raised humanely and grown responsibly.

“I never intended the pursuit of healthful, organic cooking to be my lifelong endeavor, much less my passion,” he wrote in his first book, Taste Pure and Simple. “But I am passionate about it: passionate about achieving balance in every meal, about eating what is ripe and best in its season, and about enjoying the pure pleasure of eating simply and eating well.”

Of course, to eat well, the food must be grown well. A Newsweek article written by Tara Weingarten and Joan Raymond describes Bob Jones’ Chef’s Garden:

“They are on their way now, by overnight express, nestled in tissue paper and custom-designed boxes, to any place where restaurant menus take more than a dozen words to describe a $14 salad. Peacock kale and baby red Brussels sprouts, butterball turnips, bull’s blood beets and all the greens, micro-and otherwise, plus 17 kinds of potatoes, in five sizes. From the unlikely neighborhood of Huron, Ohio, where the temperature drops to 18 degrees and below, vegetables from Bob Jones’ Chef’s Garden are in the air, bound even for places like Los Angeles that are perfectly capable of growing their own salads, challenging the reigning orthodoxy formulated by the great advocate of fresh, season, local produce, Berkeley, California restaurateur Alice Waters though when Waters said, ‘We should try to eat from within a range of an hour or two from where we live,’ she meant by truck, not jet.”

Bob Jones uses no pesticides and only vegetable compost and cover crops to fertilize his rich sandy loam. Greenhouses and cold frames extend the growing season almost year-round. Bob Jones has become a model farmer and like every great visionary, he is gathering legions of admirers.

Everywhere children are learning how to grow and cook the harvest from vest pocket gardens. The Web site farmtocollege.org lists more than 100 college buying programs. Local farms are supplying such places as Harvard and the University of California.

The Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities reports that in New York, “local buying programs are in place at Vassar College, Hamilton College, Skidmore College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).” (The CIA annual budget for local produce exceeds $370,000 for the purchase of everything from milk and melons to mushrooms.)

Grasshoppers Distribution in Louisville, Kentucky sells the produce of 100 state farmers to 75 restaurants and schools. We can clearly see a trend is forming a rainbow of opportunities for culinary graduates, career changers and food lovers!

A recent press release from Bon Appetit Management Company in Palo Alto, California reported: “As a new crop of college graduates worries about finding that all-important first job, and students flock to internships in food and farming, Bon Appetit Management Company  has established a program that brightens new graduates’ job opportunities. The sustainable food service leader has created three new career boosting paid fellowships for young campus activists involved in sustainable food and social justice. The new fellows will work directly with farmers around the country to assess overall sustainability, including labor practices in agricultural operations that supply the company’s 400 kitchens in 29 states.”

Chef Dan Barber who grows and raises his own food for his restaurants, Blue Hill New York in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York, says, “As a chef, if you are chasing after flavorful food, which is what chefs should be doing, you are by definition an environmentalist and you are a nutritionist and by definition, you are an activist.”

But if you think of yourself as none of these, you may still find work on a farm as an accountant, public relations person or any number of other specialists that are needed to ensure the success of a thriving farm.

Think of these whisperings as the genesis of a fast growing new movement: young farmers are planting sustainable farms in land surrounding housing developments, spas, restaurants, and wherever people live — and eat. They are even converting abandoned warehouses into vertical farms, heated and cooled by geothermal energy.

There is more to say about farming in America today. I’ll be introducing you to two different people who became unlikely farmers, yet love the FOOD JOBS they developed.

Pumpkin King – A Farmer Of Giants

It’s that time of year. Just before we turn back the clocks, the weather turns colder. The apples taste crispier. And farming the great squash, pumpkin, transforms into a competitive extreme sport of sumo pumpkin against pumpkin. The job of the farmer and pumpkin grower turns into Cinderella’s ‘coach’.

Others simply stand by and watch in amazement as the next mighty pumpkin tips the scales — 900 pounds, 1,000 pounds, 1,500 pounds, more!

Pumpkin King, Howard Dill

Pumpkin King, Howard Dill

Dairyman Howard Dill was the grand master of the pumpkin, regularly beating out competitors at growing the world’s largest pumpkin. He held onto his crown from 1979 – 1982. He’s even patented his giant pumpkin seeds, called Atlantic giant hybrid, and wrote his autobiography, The Pumpkin King. For his contributions to the competitive sport of giant pumpkin growing, Dill, who lived in Windsor, Nova Scotia,  won a spot in the World Pumpkin Confederation’s (WPC) Hall of Fame.

The first champion giant pumpkin grower was William Warnock, of Ontario, Canada, who entered a 400-pound pumpkin at the World’s Fair in 1900. Since then, pumpkins have hit the 800-pound mark, some bruisers putting on 10 to 15 pounds a day. (When Howard Dill sent a 616-pound pumpkin to the United States for a competition, customs officials, skeptical that such a large crate could contain one pumpkin, called the drug squad.)

For Dill, winning world championship competitions brought more substantial rewards as well. He won $11,500 from a California restaurant that wanted to display the squash, and $3,000 from the World Pumpkin Confederation. The confederation, located in Collins, New York, has 3,000 members in 30 countries, including Japan, Australia, and Zimbabwe. Quite simply, editorialized the pumpkin growers’ journal, Esprit de Corps, Howard is part and parcel of our raison d’etre.”

Growing the next giant pumpkin takes steely commitment and a competitive edge; the globes must come off. As Elizabeth Royte reported about  Pumpkin v. Pumpkin in Outside magazine:

“Giant pumpkins are nursed on a rarefied diet of manure, composted vegetable matter, and vast quantities of water. For plants that seem to advertise their own robustness, giant pumpkins can be astonishingly fragile. If exposed to the summer sun, their skin burns and blisters. If they go thirsty, they wilt. Neglect to remove a stone from the soil under the fruit, and you lose five pounds as the pumpkin grows around it. A thumbnail dent can cost several ounces.”

Christy Harp, a 27 year old mathematics teacher from Jackson Township, Ohio has just set a 2009 record of this extreme sport, and possibly a new Guinness World Record,  with her 1,725 pound “Atlantic Giant” pumpkin grown from seeds. Harp took first place at the Ohio Valley Giant Pumpkin Growers annual weigh-off Saturday in Canfield, Ohio as sanctioned by the equally competitive Great Pumpkin Commonwealth (GPC).

The Daily News reported that Harp has been growing pumpkins since she was in the eighth grade, yet seemed to be spurred on by the competition with her husband, to be the best in the pumpkin patch.

Peanuts' Linus Waiting for the Great Pumpkin

Peanuts' Linus Waiting for the Great Pumpkin

Soon all eyes will currently be peeled for the sighting of the Great Pumpkin.

In the meantime, KEEP THE SEEDS – to eat! The recipe for success follows.

Separate the fresh pumpkin seeds from the pumpkin fibers, and spread them on a baking sheet to dry overnight.  Drizzle them with a little olive oil and bake at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes or until the seeds have lightly browned. Pat with paper towels, sprinkle with coarse salt, or with curry or chili powder or grated Parmesan cheese and a touch of paprika.

Po’ Boys Are Getting Poorer

Courtesy of Martin Family

Courtesy of Martin Family

Heard on WAMC/Northeast Public Radio: When the New Orleans streetcar drivers went on strike in 1929, the unemployed workers showed up at a restaurant’s back door. Greeted with the cry,“Here comes another po’ boy!

they were given a hunk of crusty bread stuffed with “debris,” consisting of trimmings of roast beef and gravy, scraps of Creole sausage, fried oysters or shrimp from the Gulf.

The times are not changing — much.  As we plunge into another real or feared depression, we are fast becoming a mighty global heap of po’ folks.

Pendulums swing, but never go back entirely to the way we were. There’ll always be luxury in the midst of plenty.

When the legendary restaurateur Joe Baum opened The Four Seasons in 1959, it was one of the most expensive, culinary palaces in Manhattan. On the menu were:

Meadow Veal Cutlet with Morels, $5.75
Two Thrush en Brochette, $7.50
Beefsteak Tomato, Carved at the Table, $1.25 (and served with a steak knife)
Baby Pheasant in Golden Sauce, $6.25
Twin Tournedos with Woodland Mushrooms, $7.00
The Youngest Carrots in Butter, $1.25
Nasturtium Leaves .95 cents

The average price of a car was $2,200, gasoline was 30 cents a gallon, and the average annual income was $5,565, with minimum wage set at $1 an hour. Today, the fingerling potatoes cost as much as the roasted chicken.

You’d think we’d be drowning our sorrows in spirited drink. Not so. The restaurant consulting company Technomatic, reports that sales of grown up beverages have plummeted. Yikes! Could it be that we are skidding towards temperance?

Some have an even worse time than the rest of us. $2.52 a day is the total allowance to cover three meals a day in the Federal penitentiary. Today 2,258,983 prisoners are held in Federal or State prisons or in local jails.

So I have a way to deal with this problem. To save gas, let’s “free” the offenders (fitted with GPS-monitored anklets) so they can grow vegetables and plant fruit trees along our highways. All our food will be produced locally.

Estimates vary but some suggest there are close to 90,000 students currently enrolled in culinary schools nationally. I could find jobs for ALL of them. They can cook all the food farmed by felons in community kitchens.

More bad news: we’re going to have to give up those monster steaks and downscale from red meat to white. Instead let’s produce protein from stem cells.  Of course there’ll be resistance. So we’ll have to introduce the idea in animated cartoon form on Super Bowl Sunday. I suggest we name the new stuff Hypp—O (Have Your Pure Protein — Organically). The logo will be a frolicking hippo fashioned like the Metropolitan Museum of Art cutie.

Corn is a big issue in these hard times. We’ve made the eminently foolish decision to convert it into inefficient bio-fuel, thus creating a shortage. It looks as if we’re going to have to rethink this basic foodstuff. Scarcity will enhance its appeal, but if we used the methodology that gave us red, orange, yellow, purple and black peppers, we can surely color all the golden corn green. Green is what we’re into now. Big time.

Speaking of big, it is an indisputable fact that most of us can no longer afford to shop or go to fancy restaurants. We’ll have to stay at home and stare at all those flat screen TV’s we bought in the good old days.

But, this is good news!

We know when blackouts and other catastrophic world events kept the public off the streets, this resulted in a heap of begetting. This behavioral shift could point the way out of our current economic woes. Little babies are incredibly demanding. They need stuff: diapers, sun hats, crayons, piano lessons, little league uniforms, schools, toys, cell phones and tons of other things. There’s nothing like a new baby to get consumers dashing into the stores and spending without ceasing.

As you see, we just need to look at the future with a telescope instead of a microscope.