It had been a long day working on the farm, and Andy Griffin asked me if I was hungry.
Without a break, I had already worked more hours than I normally do in a day. I was trying to hide the fact that I was exhausted. It was barely noon.
Granted, I hadn’t been doing typical farm work. I was there working on a book that chef Mario Batali and I were writing, “America: Farm to Table,” exploring the relationship between chefs and farmers. In talking to all the chefs, I figured I’d pick up some tips. But the truth is this: Some of my best lessons about cooking came from the farmers.
Bruce Hill, the chef at several San Francisco-area restaurants, told us about Griffin. That’s why I was at Mariquita Farm in Watsonville, Calif.: to tour his fields, meet his crew, run errands with him and hear his stories and philosophies.
There was plenty of hard work being done; I just wasn’t doing any of it. I took notes and asked questions. But I was still starving, so I told Griffin that I could go for some lunch.
He grabbed a couple of summer squash from the packing house and led me to his farmhouse kitchen. A panoramic window looks out over some of the fields where his crops grow and his livestock grazes. Griffin, 55, calls it “Goat TV.”
As I sat down, and there was no lunch in sight, I figured that it would be a while, and that we’d continue talking as he cooked. He turned on three burners and started chopping squash. In one skillet he sauteed it with a little oil and salt. In another he scrambled a few eggs. Over the third burner, he heated up some tortillas.
He brought everything to the table, grabbing some hot sauce and sour cream on the way, and in less than 15 minutes, we had what amounted to a veggie taco bar.
I took a tortilla, started with a little egg and topped it with the squash. A dab of sour cream and a shot of hot sauce. Repeat. Repeat. And that’s lunch.
The squash was firm and sweet, the perfect star of the taco. It made me forget that I thought I didn’t like squash.
Here’s what I learned from Griffin: If you have a couple of fresh ingredients around the house and you stay out of their way, you’re never more than a few minutes away from a great meal.
As I drove up to Nature Delivered, Rebecca Krassnoski’s farm near Tampa, I was a little nervous. There was a good chance I would leave there a vegetarian.
I like meat. I particularly like pork. I’ve tried being a vegetarian in fits and starts, with various motivations, and determined that it isn’t for me.
Krassnoski, 42, raises heritage pigs on a very small scale, and I had heard about her from Greg Baker, chef at the Refinery in Tampa. In addition to making plans to see her farm, I decided I’d buy half a pig from her.
Then I went to meet my pig and watch it go from the field to my freezer.
I wasn’t looking forward to it, but I thought I needed to do it to be a responsible carnivore. Even at the risk of not wanting to be one anymore.
We’ve all seen the videos and read the stories about the terrible treatment of animals at big farms. That was already shaping my buying habits. I needed to know that the process could happen in a way I could be okay with. If it couldn’t, I was going to need to reassess again. It seemed like a small farm with an independent-minded farmer was my best chance.
Krassnoski and I introduced ourselves, and then she introduced me to her pigs.
With details on their lineage and personality.
And their preferred treats.
Every. Single. Pig.
They seemed as happy to see her as she was to see them. When it came time to say goodbye to one of the drove, Krassnoski, who had been jovially explaining things to me in a nonstop and rapid-fire manner for almost two hours, got quiet. Tangibly pensive.
“I hate this part.”
I did, too.
The rest of the pigs seemed oddly unfazed. I was a little shattered inside, and Krassnoski seemed only slightly less so, probably because she had seen it before.
In the coming hours, days and weeks, I was to learn a lot about the anatomy, butchery and cookery of a pig. But the most important takeaways from that day at the farm were that it’s possible to raise and slaughter pigs in a humane way, and that I must respect the sacrifice of those that make my spot on the food chain possible. And never take it for granted.
We arrived at Kinnikinnick Farm in Caledonia, Ill., in the late morning after skipping breakfast. Farmer David Cleverdon and his wife, Susan, longtime friends of Chicago chef-restaurateur Paul Kahan, ushered us immediately into the kitchen, where lunch was waiting.
A salad was full of ingredients picked at the farm. The bread for the sandwiches had been baked just before we got there.
The thing I couldn’t forget, though, was the tomato soup. It was a pale red, and I guessed that was because it was a combination of red and yellow tomatoes. It tasted like simple genius — pure, unadorned fruit. If there was anything accentuating the flavor of tomato, it was in the background. Way in the background. Where it belonged.
It was an early fall day, probably the waning days of tomato season in that part of the world, and certainly not cool enough out yet that I would normally be drawn to the second bowl that immediately seemed like a foreﬁgone conclusion.
Or the third that became inevitable.
We thanked Susan for the wonderful meal, then went about the work we were there for. Several weeks later, right in the middle of the polar vortex in Washington, I wanted soup. I wanted tomato soup. I wanted the tomato soup from Kinnikinnick.
There wasn’t a fresh tomato worth buying within 500 miles, so I knew I wasn’t going to be making it anytime soon. I had no intention of making it until I could buy a proper tomato at my farmers market, but I wanted to have the recipe in hand for when that happened. So I e-mailed David.
The reply came pretty quickly.
It wasn’t because it was a secret family recipe or anything. Cleverdon, 73, said that he couldn’t give it to me because it was the middle of winter. He knew I couldn’t get tomatoes worthy of that soup. He said I could have the recipe when it was tomato season.
I knew that it was best to eat in season before I met Cleverdon. But now I know that it has to be applied absolutely. It means everything.
My first encounter with Karen Overton was at the farmers market in West Nashville on a hot summer Saturday morning. A customer was telling her she needed something to make stock.
It was never stated, but I assumed the customer wanted some chicken backs and necks. Maybe some leg quarters.
Overton, who was introduced to us by chef Erik Anderson, had just sold the last four leg quarters in her cooler. And she hadn’t brought any backs or necks from her Wedge Oak Farm, a half-hour east of Nashville.
Those weren’t what she would recommend anyway. She reached into her cooler and pulled out a vacuum-sealed package that looked not unlike a Halloween prop: two pounds of chicken feet.
Overton, 42, explained to the customer that this is what you want for stock. They have a ton of flavor and collagen, which gives stock a lot of body. And they’re cheap.
I’d known Karen for about 15 minutes at this point, and she had my undivided attention.
She convinced the customer, too. The woman handed over some cash and put the feet in her canvas market tote. “My mom’s gonna think I’m crazy,” she said as she walked away.
So they went into my canvas market tote.
I went home, made my normal stock. But I used a combination of feet and backs instead of just backs. I froze the stock and forgot about it until it got cold outside.
Weeks later, I made a simple, brothy soup, grabbing stock from the freezer. When I tasted the soup, I was trying to figure out why it was different. It had a deeper flavor than I remembered. This broth didn’t just have body, it had soul. I racked my brain trying to figure out what I had done, so I could replicate it. Then it hit me.
“It’s feet!” I said, an exclamation that got the uneasy attention of my dinner guests, even after I expounded.
The lesson in Nashville was an important corollary to what I’d learned in Tampa: In more ways than one, it’s best to use every part of the animal.
Jim Crawford knows a lot about a lot of vegetables.
Crawford owns New Morning Farm in central Pennsylvania and has been selling to restaurants and farmers markets in the Washington area for decades. When Batali and I asked chef José Andrés for the names of two or three farmers in the area we should talk to, he told us about Crawford, 70. He was our guy.
While I was working on the book, Crawford’s Saturday morning farm stand at the Sheridan School in the Van Ness neighborhood became my go-to market, and watching the evolution of his inventory over the course of a year was enlightening. But my best lesson from him involved one of my favorite vegetables.
I was considering buying beets from Crawford’s stand, but I wasn’t sure how soon I would use them. Beets have always flummoxed me: They’re almost always available, because they store well. But when I buy them and put them in the fridge, they start to soften within a day or so and wrinkle soon after.
“You’re not keeping them in a bag in the crisper, are you?” he asked in a way that indicated he knew I didn’t.
Well, I keep them in the crisper.
“They need to be in a bag. They’ll last for weeks.”
Now my beets last longer, for which I’m grateful. But that isn’t the lesson I learned from Crawford.
I’ve cooked a lot of beets over the years, but I was left thinking of all the beets I’d thrown out. I did it without much thought.
I had never had to think about it much, because they were cheap. Taking a chance that I might throw a few out was part of the price of having them on hand.
But I never had to look the person who grew them in the eye. If I threw out one of these beets, I was throwing out one of Jim Crawford’s beets.
The lesson is that you have to respect everything. Respect the sacrifice of the pig and the chicken. Respect the short window of availability for a worthwhile tomato. Respect a few perfect ingredients by staying out of their way.
And respect the time and effort it took someone to grow each and every beet.
Webster is the co-author, with chef Mario Batali, of the new “America: Farm to Table” (Grand Central Life & Style).