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What's Up Magazine

From Farm to Mouth

Oct 15, 2013 01:28PM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Gail Greco // Photos by Krista A. Jones

The old saying “from hand to mouth” took on a new meaning the night I was invited to dinner at Cottingham Farm in Easton. Far from the bare essentials the idiom suggests, I was among those about to enjoy some of the richest organic culinary bounties available in Maryland.

“Blow,” the chef beckoned, passing a wooden spoon toward my mouth. My gentle whistle formed ripples in a ruby red liquid, but she pulled the spoon from me on its way to my lips, grabbing my hand and turning it over to receive the sauce in my palm.

“Sip,” she offered, raising her now-empty spoon in Eucharistic gesture. “This is how we taste our cooking. Here,” she motioned, “hold out your hand again,” as she dropped a wilting leaf dotted with garlic. More culinary communion followed from the stovetop in a ladle of orange puree poured reverently onto my skin. “Slurp,” she mouthed. And finally an emerald-green mixture dribbled into my palm. “Lick.” And I did—my whole hand. “Oh for heaven’s sake,” I implored, my mouth begging for more like a nested hatchling. “What is this?”

Wearing a red gauzy bandana over hair the color of toasty java, Chef Carolyn Vynckier, who runs a local Caribbean-style catering company inspired by her native land, was cooking a Sunday supper for a passionate 30, ages three to 80. Just-picked fruits and vegetables were in bins and buckets everywhere, giving the country kitchen its colors against antiqued-white cabinetry and pantry spices in labeled jars—all so farmhouse charming. The kitchen was on tour a few years ago for a local benefit when the organic farm was only a gleam in the eye of owner, visionary, and former D.C. attorney Cleo Braver and husband Alfred (Allie) Tyler. They sold their first tomato in 2008.

You may have heard of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), whereby consumers buy into the promise of weekly shares of the farm’s harvest—from greens to tubers to brassicas, tomatoes, and potatoes, and by next spring, pork and eggs. But what you may not have heard of is a gratitude dinner for sharing the risk and the reward. Cleo and Allie give thanks in this way every year to CSA members who are in it to keep the farm going, not just for their own health, but in so doing, for that of the Eastern Shore, as well.

The evening began outdoors around a color wheel of Cottingham vegetables and sunset libations. My hand was kept busy greeting CSAers and discovering the enthusiasm behind their tithings.

“We just moved here from Salem, Oregon,” says Paul Carini, with his wife, Kiri, and three-year-old daughter, Lucia. A job transfer to Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge, where Paul is a microbial oceanographer, brought the Carinis to the Eastern Shore. “Being within striking distance of an organic CSA and other local food was very important to us, or we may not have moved here,” Paul says.  

Being CSA members has made a difference for Queenstown empty nesters April and Michael Walter in many ways, as “the discipline a CSA enforces (makes) it easier and possible for us to eat healthy.”

I sat down with the CSAers in the farmhouse where Cleo and Allie live. (The farm dates to the 17th century.) A stone-floored, long and narrow enclosed porch, waterside along Goldsborough Creek, served as the dining room. Vaulted ceilings and clerestory windows in this wing allowed the amber setting sun to bless the room with the reflective aura found, say, in the nave of a country French cathedral.

It was October 6th and round festive tables were decorated ebullient-autumn, each with a celebratory porcine figurine as part of the centerpiece. The only live pig was Big Red. We had just watched her slumbering in a new lair in a field up the hill, tired beyond even being able to blink at us after laboring to deliver five piglets only hours before the dinner. Cleo was concerned Big Red was not responding well. So she mentioned it to Dr. Molly Burgoyne and another physician in attendance at the dinner, and they both scurried off to look in on the swine. It turns out the new mamma just needed more protein.

The pigs, along with a brood of heritage chicks, are taking Cottingham Farm in a new direction next season: organic pork and free-range chicken eggs for CSA members, as well as the public through Cottingham’s space at Easton Market Square. Big Red, resting on her side, had no idea of the important role she had just played in broadening the bounty of sustainable products offered by Cottingham Farm.

Farm manager Jena Paice reported on more developments at Cottingham. “Our dehydrator just arrived so that we can package items like kale, beet, and sweet potato chips, sundried tomatoes, and dried soups that will be part of the CSA’s weekly bounty, expanding the variety.” Before dinner, Jena took me on a tour (the public can do the same on the first Thursday of every month) that included a fledgling half-acre sweet potato patch, just beginning to pop with heirlooms in colors as deep as purple. Jena works 24/7, nurturing crops from seedlings to harvest and raising her own family on the premises: daughters Willow, Hope, and Sage.

The farm dinner began with that orange puree, a tangy sweet potato soup, and a salad of mixed tender greens under a whisking of balsamic vinegar and Meyer lemon oil, both from Olivins, a new tasting room in St. Michaels. Free-range pork from Black Bottom Farm in Galena and pastured lamb from Mt. Airy were the main courses. Garlic spinach—one of the chef’s earlier handouts to me—and sautéed eggplant with onions and spices were served as sides. The red liquid in my hand was actually a Caribbean-spiced chutney with Cottingham Italian sautéing peppers. A fruit puree for the pork was from Cottingham’s fig grove. That incredible dark green sauce I licked until my hand was clean was for slathering on crusty bread and it made for a most creative use of Cottingham’s carrot tops by turning the greens into a pesto with roasted garlic and oil.

Just before the CSAers were invited to dig into an iced layer cake made with the farm’s autumn pull-up of white and orange carrots in the batter, Cleo rose—not to honor her accomplishments, but to espouse the benefits of organic food. “We make statements with our forks, and your efforts help enlighten the area as to how beneficial organic and local food is to the environment and public health.” Of course, Cleo was speaking to the choir, congregants who already devour her food at home, as well as her words, which they like to spread.

“The dinner is fantastic,” said Jessica Fragola, a Harvard-trained veterinarian from Cambridge. “And we get to meet like-minded people.”

Obviously, the only handouts any of the CSAers would ever take from Cottingham are more on the order of the ones I took in hand—learning a way to taste gracefully without ever double dipping. And it clicked as I was writing this, that Chef Vynckier was doing just what my grandmother did when she asked me to taste her food from my little hand. Cooks want to share their pride with anyone hanging around the kitchen waiting in anticipation. And at Cottingham Farm, this goes one step further, as the exchange is not just from hand to mouth, but more significantly, from earth to body with nothing but nature on the swallow.

Gail Greco is a food writer, editor, and former TV cooking show host who shops only at Eastern Shore and Maryland local farms to source ingredients for her work and family. Look for her article on this topic in a 2014 What’s Up? Magazine article.