North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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Fond Food Memories

I remember a special visit when I was about 12 years old to Old World Wisconsin, a living history museum tucked between Madison and Milwaukee.  It was autumn—time for bringing in the harvest, butchering pigs, and putting the gardens to bed.  One historic home was drying strips to pumpkin into leathery, chewy snacks that could be stored all winter.  The folks at the hog butchering site were making pickled pigs feet jelly and head cheese.  Anther home was baking bread in a wood-fired oven.

At the bread-baking site, the warm, yeasty smells mingled with the scent of the fire from the stove.  The interpreter managing the hot iron beast wore a long, prairie-style dress and creamy muffin cap with knitted shawl.  She shared with us the story of the farming family that once lived in the old wooden house during the settlement days and how certain days of the week were for washing, ironing, mending, baking, etc.  This was baking day.

But then she mentioned something special.  “Memories around food are some of our strongest recollections.  You’ll remember what I said for a day, what you saw for a week, but you’ll remember the smells for the rest of your life.”

Humans, compared with dogs and other mammals, are not particularly known for their keen sense of smell.  But there are certainly many arrays of fragrances that can bring our minds to particular memories, events, or places.  This is especially true of food.

For instance—the smell of homemade stuffing.  Throughout the year, our family roasts poultry, but usually we stuff the birds with apple quarters and lemon slices.  Authentic, bread-based stuffing is a treat for Thanksgiving or Christmas.  First, there is the cubing of the bread and drying it in the oven.  Then the sausage must be browned on the stove (all spiced and sizzly).  Then comes the celery and herbs and all the rest stirred up in a big bowl.  Pull up the sleeves, grab it by the handful, and pack that beautiful turkey full to bursting.  The stuffing helps keep the turkey from drying out on the inside while roasting, and the stuffing likewise becomes infused with the essence of the turkey—turning those disparate ingredients into a bowl of steaming deliciousness.  At our holiday table, it’s common to hear, “Please pass the stuffing.”

Making gravy is an art of special talent for my grandmother.  The pan drippings from the turkey are carefully saved (in good farming tradition, nothing is thrown away!) and transferred to the biggest skillet we own.  The warm browns and golds of the steamy liquid are carefully stirred and thickened while the boiled chunks of snowy-white potatoes are pressed through the ricer and whipped into perfection with a little milk, butter, and salt.  A cloudy puff of homegrown mashed potatoes on the Thanksgiving plate with a well made in the center by your spoon (poured full, of course, with the homemade gravy) is another special treat in our home.  Coined by my sister when she was a little girl, “smashed potatoes” is one of those fabled dishes where you better take what you wanted from the bowl the first time around—or it’s likely to be gone!

And then there are the cranberries, of course.  Forget anything out of a can—making your own cranberry relish or chutney on the stove is easy.  Try cranberry and apple variants or cranberry and blueberry twists.  Add some nuts for a bit of a crunch and try using honey instead of sugar.  Cranberries are one of the few fruits actually native to Wisconsin, and this year we’ve managed to source regionally grown Certified Organic cranberries.  (We’re buying several cases, so if you haven’t procured your cranberries yet, we have extra at the shop!)  Cranberry apple pie is a favorite of the family—sweet and tart with that tangy kick, making it a great partner with ice cream or gelato.

But or course, you can’t outshine the pumpkin pie.  Someone once asked us, “how come your food tastes so good?”  Before we could reply to the question, the friend sitting at the table with the inquirer offered, “Well, you start with your own chickens that lay the eggs, then you go out to the garden to harvest the vegetables, and then you have your own pigs…”

Similarly, a good pumpkin pie must start as sugar pie pumpkins from the squash patch.  Lop ‘em in half, scoop out the seeds, place them cut-side down on a foil-liked cake pan with a bit of water and bake them until they are fork tender and the domed skins begin to wrinkle up and brown.  Pull off the skins, run the cooked flesh through a Foley Food Mill, and here is the base for your pumpkin pie.  To this add the necessary eggs, milk, sugar, flour, etc. to make that delicious custard, pour into a homemade pie shell, and bake to perfection.  I love the steamy puff of spiced pumpkinness as you open the oven to test the firmness of the custard with a butter knife.  Whip up some fresh cream once the pie has chilled, and this is the heavenly end to a perfectly delicious and memorable meal with family and friends.

Perhaps these reminiscences of flavors and fragrances have brought back a few food memories for you as well.  And if your mouth is watering for a seasonal treat, here is a recipe you might enjoy giving a whirl.

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Bread

2/3 cup shortening or 1 cup vegetable oil

2 2/3 cup sugar

4 large eggs

2 cups pumpkin puree

2/3 cup water

3 1/3 cups flour

½ tsp. baking powder

2 tsp. baking soda

1 ½ tsp. salt

1 tsp. nutmeg

1 tsp. vanilla

1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans

1 ½ cups chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Cream together the shortening or oil and sugar.  Beat in the eggs, pumpkin, and water.  Add the remaining ingredients through vanilla and stir to blend.  Fold in nuts and chocolate chips.  Spoon the batter into two lightly greased 9x5-inch loaf pans.  Bake for one hour or until cake tester comes out clean.  Allow to cool.  You can even drizzle icing or serve with cream cheese, if desired.

***

This week, take a moment to share a food memory or recipe with someone special.  As we all run around shopping for the ingredients for our Thanksgiving meal, please take the time to choose local and organic.  It’s a special way to say “thank you” to your farmer this season.  Enjoy the smells.  Enjoy the flavors.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

 

 
 

Dear Mr. Turkey

I want to take a moment at this time of year to write a special note to you, Mr. Turkey.  I know that November is a very busy month for you, but maybe you can find a few minutes in your cramped and demanding schedule to read some thoughtful words.

I hope this letter finds you well.  I’ve been thinking much of you as the year turns to autumn.  Remember when you were just a little poult, still wet and sticky coming out of the egg?  I was there to watch your transformation into a kicking, wriggly creature.  Remember when I reached inside the warm, humid world of the incubator and brought you into the light of the cardboard brooder box in our house?  That was spring, which seems a long time ago now.

You were always a very curious fellow, Mr. Turkey.  Everything was worth exploring to you, with your buggy black eyes sticking out the sides of your head, blinking at me.  You’d stretch out your long fuzzy neck to snatch a fly, pull at a colorful piece of shredded paper bedding, or grab at a dangling string from my hooded sweatshirt.  That stove box in our house was a mirco-haven for your early days—dry, warm, and safe from harm.

But then you grew too big for the box.  You wanted to run and jump and fly, so we made space for you in the big chicken coop.  There was so much to explore—new corners, new faces, and eventually the outdoors.  At first, you didn’t know what to make of all the sunlight and green grass, but soon you learned to love being outside of the coop.  There were bugs to catch and blue skies and new creatures to discover like chickens, ducks, and our sheep dog Lena (who, though she was big and scary, really only wanted to make sure that you stayed inside the fence). 

That was summertime, which also slips away like a fading dream.  But oh, remember the day (when you had grown much bigger with sleek cinnamon and white feathers) that you moved into your outdoor portable pen?  We called it a “tractor” but you just called it “home.”  With a roof over your head and wire sides to keep you safe, you could be outside ALL THE TIME!  We pulled and pushed that tractor twice a day, so you and your friends could have fresh grass and a clean place to sleep.

When it was time to move the pens, you would be right up at the front, waiting for any unsuspecting grasshopper or cricket and, GULP, it would be all yours!  Share with your friends?  Well, they had to catch their own food.  Once you even caught and ate a frog!  I saw you do it.  Remember those sunny summer days, watching the sheep graze contentedly in the waving grass, or the hens scratching dust holes to clean themselves?

Then there was your favorite part of the day—eating fodder.  Nearly every morning, I’d bring out a bucket of sprouted grain we were growing in the greenhouse.  A bit like loose sod, I’d drop it into your pen by the handfuls each morning.  You’d be right there, gobbling it up as fast as you could stuff your gullet, always hoping to get more than your share or stealing it from others.  When you saw me coming, it was “Gap, gap” until the fodder was offered, then you and your friends would be very quiet for a while, until the fodder with its sprouting seeds and kinky roots was all gone.

But sometimes you were foolish, Mr. Turkey, and I would have to look out for you.  In the house, when you still lived in the box, you thought it would be a great adventure to jump out!  You didn’t know that there were dogs and cats waiting outside of your shelter, or that you wouldn’t find food or water out there, so I kept a window screen on top to keep you from hurting yourself.

There were times, in the coop, when you thought it would be nice to camp outside for the night, instead of come inside where it was safe.  You didn’t know that there were owls and fishers and raccoons and foxes and many other creatures that would be happy to have you for dinner.  All those nights you chided me for chasing you inside—those were to protect you.  And even out in the tractor, sometimes you wouldn’t get out of the rain, so I’d run out and tie tarps down with the wind and wet pelting my face, just to make sure you wouldn’t drown or catch cold and stand there shivering all through the night.

We went through quite a bit together, didn’t we Mr. Turkey.  From the hot and dry days of August to the pelting sleet more recently, to snow or rain or wind—we’ve almost seen it all.  And now the year is coming to a close, which means that there are many changes on the homestead.  Just yesterday, we moved all the hens into the chicken coop you once knew for the winter, where they will be safe and dry and out of the weather.

Some of your friends were chosen to join the flock of momma and poppa turkeys.  We’ll keep their eggs in the spring to hatch a new group of big-eyed, wobbly-legged poults for yet another summer out in the grass and the sunshine.  The cycle will start again, with new adventures and challenges.

But you, my dear friend, have a special role to play in this cycle, which is just as important as the breeding flock.  Many have come before you and many will come after you that have participated in a special commemoration of life and renewal.  This seasonal festivity is called Thanksgiving, which means that folks gather together with friends and family to mark the bounty of the harvest, the ties of community, and the value of giving thanks for what we have.

You are a special guest at this ceremony, Mr. Turkey, where everyone will admire you for your beauty and quality.  As the people sit together and enjoy your presence, I hope they take some time to sense the sunshine, the fresh air, the green grass, and the happiness that are all a part of you, along with the compassionate and concerned care that was a meaningful piece of your rearing. 

Not everyone gets to be the focus of attention, but you Mr. Turkey are a special bird.  We deserve to celebrate your uniqueness and joy in life.  May we all learn from you to find pleasure in small and simple things and to enjoy each moment as it is.  And if you do get a second chance at life, maybe you’ll be happy enough to tell me that life really was pretty good down on the farm.

Yours sincerely,

Farmer Laura

 
 

Giving Thanks

Over the river and through the woods

To Grandmother’s house we go

The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh

Through the bright and drifting snow-oh

Over the river and through the woods

Oh how the wind does blow

It stings the nose and bites the toes

As over the ground we go.

This traditional Thanksgiving-time song would be present in my mind as we made the five hour drive north to Grandma and Grandpa’s farm in the Big Woods when I was a little kid.  I’d watch the tree-lined miles slip by with my nose pressed up against the glass car window, steaming up the pane.  The farm was a magical place to come for Thanksgiving dinner, which it still is even now that I live here full time.

Coming down to the farm has, historically, been a memorable part of Thanksgiving traditions for many families.  Why else would there be all the fuss over the turkey, the stuffing, the gravy, the golden winter squash with caramelized drizzle, the mashed potatoes with melting butter, the custardy pumpkin pie with Grandma’s famous crust, or the ruby-red cranberry sauce?  These are all bountiful parts of late autumn’s harvest on the farm—lovingly raised and lovingly prepared by family for family.

We’ve all heard the stories of the “original” Thanksgiving dinner.  But however true or fabled this national story is, the Thanksgiving holiday we celebrate today was established by Abraham Lincoln at the end of the Civil War to give thanks for the preservation of the Union.  The reuniting of family (some of whom travel great distances) around the farm table is, in its own way, a celebration of the coming together of the disparate factions of our country.  If nothing else, at least we can be grateful for the harvest together.

And there is much to be grateful for this year.  In the Northland, the drought was not as severe as further downstate.  Our farm was spared any fires, tornadoes, or large hale.  We hope to have enough hay to get by.  The turkeys grew up healthy and vigorous, as did the lambs and piglets.  The garden is harvested and nearly all put to bed, and life is winding down towards its winter routines.  It’s a time for reflection on the growing season’s learning points, with plans beginning for the coming season’s preparations.

A good old fashioned agrarian Thanksgiving is not about football, or a parade, or a shopping frenzy—it is about giving the gift of time to each other.  Time to talk, share stories, and laugh; time to peel potatoes and pass the apple cider; and time to relax by the stone fireplace and read a book aloud or play a rousing game of Sorry or Backgammon.

There’s something about the smell of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, made by hand with farm-fresh ingredients.  It is amazing how much more flavorful a turkey can be when it spent its life on grass and was never injected with oil and salt.  The aromas of the baking stuffing with bread, celery, and herbed pork sausage can drive an imaginative and hungry child nearly crazy with anticipation—but of course, the wait always makes the difference.

The commercial food system has taught us not to wait for food anymore, that having to wait for our meal is somehow bad.  Why peel those potatoes you dug out of your garden when you can mix them up right out of this box?  Why boil and mash those cranberries from your neighbor down the road when you can just plop it out of this can?  Why even bake the turkey when you can have this plastic-encased rotisserie chicken instead?  Well, folks, have any of those pre-processed items actually made you feel better than the home-grown variety?

There is a reason they don’t.  They may be easier, but they are not fulfilling.  In many folk cultures, it is considered unwise to allow someone in a bad mood to fix a meal.  This is because that unhappy energy is believe to be transmitted to the food, which will not be physically, socially, or mentally nourishing for the people who eat it.  Why were Mother’s cookies hot and gooey out of the oven always the best?  Because, besides being full of chocolate chips, they were packed full of motherly love.  While this idea is not easily proved by science, experience can speak for itself.  I would take a homegrown turkey prepared by my grandmother over a rotisserie chicken any day! 

That poor rotisserie chicken was raised on a factory farm, butchered by a series of machines, and shipped a long distance before being roasted in a commercial oven somewhere in corporate America.  This is the processed food reality that we live in.  The chicken might never have seen a person, let alone felt love or care.  Something is missing on the ingredient list that we all need—nurturing attention. 

Getting back to foods infused with nurturing attention means reaching back and embracing traditional agrarian meals prepared the old fashioned way.  Michael Pollan, the author of “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food,” says, “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”  This is certainly a great place to start when choosing what to eat.  I never did know my great grandmothers, but I suspect that they would have preferred their own garden, the local butcher shop, and the farmer’s market over the commercial food industry.

Small-scale, sustainably minded farmers have learned to focus their lifestyle on what really matters—doing the right thing for the land, their family, and their community.  And that is something to give thanks for this holiday.  Maybe you and your family can even take a moment this week to share your thanks with your farmer—they probably don’t hear it very often.

I don’t know what your Thanksgiving will be like this year, but I hope it is filled with the warmth, love, and care that surrounds the old farm dinner table.  I hope it is encircled by smiling friends and family, accompanied by the friendly waging tails of beloved pets.  Maybe you will even take a moment to go outside and enjoy this beautiful corner of earth we live upon.  And most of all, I hope that we shall all take this moment to give thanks, together.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café.  northstarhomestead.com

 
 

A Time for Turkeys

The time is nearing for a quintessential American tradition—eating turkey in November.  There is the fuss over the stuffing, the sauces, the mashed potatoes and the pumpkin pie, but the turkey always remains the centerpiece.  Why turkey?  Why not the medieval peacock, skinned, baked, and redressed in its jeweled plumage?  Why not a roast boar with an apple in its mouth?  Why not leg of lamb, studded with garlic and rosemary?

Traditions can be fickle things, but traditions rooted in agrarian rhythms usually stem from something practical.  Lamb has been customary fare for Easter time, harking from an age when lambs were born in mid-winter and weaning was a time to decide which lambs would be kept to enhance breeding stock and which would serve as table fare.  Such is the same reasoning behind “suckling pig,” for once a piglet is transitioned to solid foods, there has to be enough to go around.  If a family would have provisions for only five pigs from a litter of seven, then two would be eaten at weaning—allowing the litter’s siblings to thrive on what was available instead of compromising them all through a shortage of resources.

While chickens were present in medieval Europe, turkeys are native only to North America.  It is not surprising that they became associated with distinctly American holidays.  Turkey poults (chicks) are typically born in springtime, and by late autumn they have matured through their gangly teenage stage into a comfortable body size without being as tough or chewy as older adults—a perfect stage for roasting.

That is why, this week, our family is out in the cold, plucking turkeys with our freezing little fingers.  It’s all part of the process of having farm-fresh, heritage turkeys ready for Thanksgiving dinner.

Butchering isn’t fun.  I don’t think I have met a farmer who particularly enjoys butchering.  Often, it is a sad and sobering affair.  But most folks who don’t give up after the second or third year of processing their own domestic meats hold a respectful appreciation for this part of the agrarian cycle.  If every chicken, turkey, duck, lamb, calf or piglet ever born had survived to old age, there wouldn’t be one speck of vegetation or bit of untamed land left!  If people are going to be omnivores, then butchering is part of the process—but it can be a respectful part.

It starts with the animals.  In CAFOs (Confinement Animal Feeding Operations), breeds are selected for very specific traits—fast growth, heavy muscling, and tolerance of overcrowding.  Genetic engineering is now producing piglets that are perpetually depressed and show little resistance to being trapped in small metal pens all their lives.  Turkeys or chickens who resort to cannibalistic behaviors due to overcrowding have most of their upper beak removed (a cruel process known as “debeaking”).

On many small farms, however, heritage breeds of animals that carry a wide array of bio-diversity and foraging traits still thrive.  They have room to move freely, explore their environment, have plenty of fresh air, and express their innate animal-ness.  Ewes may be selected for excellent mothering instinct and easy births, chickens for winter heartiness and beautiful coloring, hogs for gentle manners and excellent body type, and turkeys for lustrous plumage and pasturing abilities.

The Giant Whites of the turkey industry have one motive—eating.  Their full-time occupation is stuffing their faces as much as possible in order to grow the enormous breast meat that the turkey industry covets.  The poor things hobble about, top heavy with a wide gate, and though they are impressively fast-growing, they are equally lacking in common sense—even for turkeys.  They are poor foragers, have fragile health (especially as poults), and are prone to drowning in thunderstorms.  It is not a wonder that most commercial turkeys are raised indoors in controlled environments.

In contrast, while my heritage breed Jersey Buff turkeys grow slower and dress out with a slender shape, they are refreshingly easier to tend because they are hearty, curious, and tenacious.  These cinnamon-colored birds with long, knobby necks scratch and peck, strut and dance, or fly up onto high roosts—a considerable contrast to the blobby obliqueness of their commercial white counterparts.  Heritage turkeys are able to fully express their turkey-ness, with their luminous dinosaur eyes and eager “Gap-Gap” speech.

Heritage turkeys are also gentler on the land—consuming less grain and more grass in their diet.  Their meat also has unparalleled flavor and texture.  Many of our turkey clients have commented on the deliciousness of our Jersey Buffs in comparison with the meat from commercial breeds.

Choosing breeds responsibly impacts the life experience of the domestic animal.  Their living conditions and care are equally important.  Because I choose to be an omnivore, I also choose to create a nurturing, positive environment for my livestock.  Genetically engineered depression doesn’t sound like a fulfilling meal.  I want my supper to have had a wonderful life with only one bad day (one bad moment, really).  I wouldn’t mind going through life with only one bad day!

And then there is the end-of-life ceremony as well.  I won’t get into the more-or-less gory details, but today’s homestead poultry butchering can be very clean, swift, and respectful.  An example is shown on Joel Salatin’s farm in the documentary “Food Inc.”  We regularly invite our poultry clients to view the butchering process, which surprises them by being more intriguing than revolting.  Often, the cameras come out, clicking away to document the process.  There is no screaming, no headless running, no trauma.  On our farm, we believe that transparency is important for building meaningful relationships with the people who choose our food, which is why we invite such interactions, even during such a physically demanding operation. 

Butchering isn’t something to hide in the corner and forget.  Respecting the process and life of the animals are part of being an honorable omnivore.  Shunning this facet of agrarianism only leaves us vulnerable to disrespectful and un-transparent situations.  In essence, know the animals, know the farmer, know the process—at least enough to make an informed decision as to whether this is the right choice, ethically, for you and your family.

So, returning to the original question, why turkeys?  Eating turkey in November is a way to reduce livestock populations to select breeding groups for overwintering (the hardest time of year, traditionally, to feed large numbers of animals).  Turkeys are also well equipped to supply a larger gathering of family with nourishment on short notice.  They are easier to process than red meats but larger than chickens.  Turkey Toms also show a stunning display—not unlike peacocks—which adds its own sense of regality to the dining affair.  Roast turkey, surely, is a handsome feast.

This November, as you gather with family and kin, take some time to remember the life behind your meal and offer thanks to those who tended it.  I’m off to feed the turkeys.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café.  northstarhomestead.com

 

 
 
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