Editor’s note: Jeff Danziger is a cartoonist and writer who has penned images and stories for Vermonters for more than 30 years.
It was the practice among those of us who moved to Vermont in the ’60s to adopt or be adopted by a family of natives to advise and instruct. The natives welcomed newcomers to the state with a blend of grace and skepticism. And there was no cable television back then. What entertainment there was in black and white and went off at midnight. Compared to that, watching newly arrived New Yorkers and Californians dealing with their first Vermont winter, hopping around in 10 below zero weather, well … it was pretty amusing. Once the usual jokes about kittens born in the oven not being biscuits were exhausted, friendly relations usually prevailed. Most native Vermonters were as interested in the newcomers as the newcomers were in them.
In my case I had three farm families, who I will name the Bartons, the Fields, and the Currys. I have combined them into the Teeds. Mrs. Teed, whose first name is Ida, which was my Irish granny’s name, is lord of the kitchen, and is based sort of on Mrs. Field, who lived closest to us. Mrs. Field was a marvelous cook, and she made her coffee with eggshells in it, a practice that had adherents in those days for a variety of reasons. Some said it made the coffee less bitter; some said it made the grounds settle. I never knew which it was, but the coffee was fine. Fresh cream, as much as you wanted, still warm from their own employees, also helped.
She baked her own bread, and biscuits, and she had done so for so many years that she could have done it blindfolded. In summer she baked on a gas range, but in winter the woodstove did the duty. I didn’t detect any difference in the bread, but we argued long about which bread, wood or gas fired, actually tasted better. I was in favor of the woodstove bread, but she said there was no difference. Bread baking is a special skill, and maybe even an art. I tried to bake bread myself for a number of years on a wood range, which had seen better days, creating loaves with a bulletproof crust and a soggy interior. The bread also had a slight smoky taste, which I pretended was intentional. I forced my family to eat this, and was successful only because of great lashings of butter.
Of the other families I remember little of their cooking. At the Bartons’ house, something was always cooking, some sort of mysterious stew made from their own beef or their own chickens, or both. Being a squeamish city person I declined dinner when offered, but it was probably just fine. The basic difference between the Fields and the Bartons was not in food, but in paint. This has nothing to do with food, but it is amusing as an observation of eccentricities. If you like that sort of thing.
The point was that Vermonters had a tendency to value things that came in cans from the A&P even without any real reason to do so. Mr. Curry also liked evaporated milk, even in preference to his own product.
The Fields operated on the theory that paint was an expense avoided if possible because it never made anything run better. Conversely, the Bartons painted everything, even their cars and trucks, and this was done with a brush. Given an opportunity they would probably have painted each other. They were immune to the critical glances their two- and sometime three-tone arrangements caused when they went to town. The color schemes were due to the availability of whatever colors were left from the previous application, and not anything of a design nature. My heart was with the Bartons. I painted things whenever possible, because of an animist belief I have that things, cars and houses, actually have spirits, and they know when they are being well cared for. This may be nonsense, but I think that it’s wise not to take a chance. I drew the line, however, at painting cars less than 10 years old, and tractors less than 30, with a brush.
My third family, the Currys, was a very old Vermont strain, with bits and pieces of Canadian blood here and there. The name may have had French cognates in the background. Their farm had been in operation for so long that it ran, not as a business or even an enterprise, but as ancient dance troupe of animals and people who all heard the same offstage orchestra. Most of their food came from their own stock, but Mr. Curry, whom I came to know as a very softhearted man, sometimes grew so attached to the personality of a certain animal, particularly pigs for some reason, that he could not bear to butcher them. Some of the older pigs, who in truth would have made awful eating, sat around for years doing nothing, and finally in that most rare of events, died a natural pig death. Mr. Curry would be saddened by this event, even though he had been eating the great-great-great-grandchildren of the deceased that morning for breakfast.
The buildings of the Curry farm were in remarkably good repair given their age, and the miracle of all miracles was that they had never burned. Mr. Curry did his own wiring in a manner described by most publications on wiring as “WRONG.” Extension cords seemed to breed like snakes. He regarded electricity as a miracle and boon to the farmer, but the science of the thing was of no interest. I tried to point out that there was a limit to the number of times you could use one of those three-way plugs, but none of my warnings seemed to make sense. In the winter, heat lamps were everywhere keeping chicks warm. Water pipe heaters prevented ice on the stock tanks. It was a voltage nightmare. Last year I drove by the place, and the barn still stands.
The real danger to the farm came from Mr. Curry’s employees. In the ’70s, the Curry farm became a favorite of hippies and hippie associates who adopted the idea that animals were better than humans. There may be some truth to this theory, I don’t know. Nearly all of these new Vermonters had read Orwell’s “Animal Farm” in high school, because it is short, and saw the condition of the stock on the Curry farm as a parallel. Mr. Curry treated his animals well. Nevertheless, his new hippie employees, especially the girls, worked to alleviate, not only suffering, but any perceived discomfort in the barn. Mr. Curry never tried to disabuse them of their cockamamie ideas, such as arranging special beds for expectant cows.
I later found out that part of the appeal of these employees was that they arrived with their own money, and they didn’t demand to be paid. Many of them were the kind of progeny that wealthy, success-oriented, grasping, materialistic families down in Connecticut and New York were just as happy to see the back of. What better place than Vermont to hide them with a couple of hundred bucks a month? The Curry farmhouse had at least eight bedrooms most of which were unused and available. Mrs. Curry was even more understanding of the looniness of human nature, and was only too happy to teach girl and boy hippies the secrets of country cooking. In this barter economy the Curry Farm flourished, or at least continued, floating along on a sea of good food, good drugs and an intergenerational tolerance rarely seen in this country before or since.
Naturally the development of a Vermont sort of marijuana brownie was to be expected, but the homegrown marijuana in Vermont varied in intensity, and was usually pretty weak. Thus to have any potency the recipe had to be adjusted until the percentage of weed was so high that they must have tasted something like the underside of a lawnmower that had run over a Hershey bar.
From time to time we shopped at the local Grand Union, which was as upscale as it got. The less demanding shopped at the A&P. I mention the A&P especially because it surrounded the shopper with a combination of mood lighting and decoration calculated to make you give up on life itself.
In several instances the new staff members did try to make cheese, something the Currys never thought of. Whether these cheese experiments led to our current artisanal products is far from my ability to say. But it’s damn sure maybe. Certainly in bread-baking the flower generation learned much from the old Vermont recipes. I do know that on the Curry farm distillation experiments by hippies in resulted in a hard cider of no compromises. I used to buy a bottle or two every fall just to see if there was any improvement from the previous year. It was a great beverage to have around if you were trying to stop drinking.
What Vermonters valued then in store-bought food was convenience. We may now seek to eat locally to reduce our carbon footprint, and that is a good idea. Vermonters back then valued the readiness of food as much as the taste. When out cutting wood for instance, Mr. Barton relished a can of Vienna sausages, made by the Libby company, and possibly the inspiration for Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” They were the worst meat product ever packaged for human consumption. Vienna sausages contained all parts of the animal — snouts, ears and tails — and what the tie-in was to Vienna was never explained. I tried to feed one to a cat once, but she was no fool. The point was that Vermonters had a tendency to value things that came in cans from the A&P even without any real reason to do so. Mr. Curry also liked evaporated milk, even in preference to his own product. He often quoted the famous poem:
Carnation Milk is the best in the land.
Here I sit with a can in my hand.
No teats to pull, no hay to pitch,
Just punch a hole in the sonofabitch.
I am an exception to that somewhat warmed-over quip, that if you can remember the ’60s, you weren’t there. I went through the entire era without benefit of regulated substances, other than Winstons and Old Duke, and it is at least for me a starting point in documenting the odd change in Vermont food. In few other states has the quality of daily food, not just in restaurants, but in village stores and the supermarkets made a more pronounced jump. The variety, the freshness, the delicacies and the specialties are myriad. Vermont now exports hundreds of food products in place of the three — cheese, crackers and maple syrup — that it used to.
Restaurants in Vermont were simply bad. In the state capital I once was forced by hunger to submit myself to the menu of the Miss Montpelier diner. The Miss Montpelier was part of a local chain of diners including the Miss St. Johnsbury and some others on the same theme. I ordered a hamburger. The hamburger was delivered on a plate between two slices of Wonder Bread, and I was invited to perfect it with some Ann Page ketchup. Other garnishes included salt and pepper. The choice of restaurants was rather narrow because it was a Sunday afternoon, and as I recall everything was closed. Well, the “Open” was open.
The “Open” was a bar on Elm Street. The actual name of the place was the Garden Restaurant, but the Garden sign had been lost, and in truth there was no garden. There was a view of the river, at least from the men’s room. There was a neon sign in the window that said “Open,” and so it was known. As I recall, and I may be wrong, the only food available at the “Open” was a variety of sandwiches, spanning the spectrum from ham through ham and cheese to cheese. These were arranged for by a company called Somebody’s Hot Sandwiches, which provided the errant innkeeper with an electric toaster oven and a list of how long each particular sandwich should be toasted. These were not microwaves, and the result was a thoroughly toasted bun surrounding a heart of cold ham, or ham and cheese. Or cheese.
All this was why most people in Vermont’s towns, faced with the choice of the “Open” or the Miss Montpelier, cooked at home. Of course there were other places. The Tavern Inn had a fancy restaurant and a coffee shop, and the Golden Dome didn’t completely ruin breakfast, though they tried. There were coffee shops and other diners, but if you wanted really good food, you were pretty much at a loss.
From time to time we shopped at the local Grand Union, which was as upscale as it got. The less demanding shopped at the A&P. I mention the A&P especially because it surrounded the shopper with a combination of mood lighting and decoration calculated to make you give up on life itself. The idea that food was something to be celebrated and looked forward to was not part of the scheme. It was an old building on East State Street, with a sign in need of paint. Inside the rows of shelves were bathed in an electricity-saving gloom. Persons of poor eyesight had no prayer of reading the labels. The floors creaked and the shelves physically rose and fell as the stock was bought and replenished. Many years later when visiting the Soviet Union I experienced the same loneliness and forlorn relationship between shopper and merchant.
For the hippies the food co-ops became a backward-looking reverence for food in its simplest form … Great amounts of grains, in their natural, God-intended state were ordered and delivered. But unprocessed and straight from the elevator they were as close to inedible as can be imagined. In short order, we discovered why horses’ teeth get that ground-away look.
Ann Page, whoever she was, lent her name to most of the offerings, such as Ann Page Chocolate Tapioca Pudding, and Ann Page Cider Vinegar, and the aforementioned Ann Page Ketchup. Ann Page was sort of like Betty Crocker, meaning that she didn’t really exist, but as luck would have it, her initials were A and P. Her portrait, sort of a cross between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lydia Pinkam, adorned the label. Also the A&P was the only store that sold bean coffee and had a grinder.
It’s worth mentioning here that we never felt we were being badly served by the food industry. If you’ve never had really good bread and cheese, you don’t think there anything terribly wrong with Wonder Bread and Velveeta. Both products are in fact still being produced, bought and consumed, even in this day of so many better things. But in the ’60s, against the background of the Vietnam War, a general disinclination to buy anything produced by the corporate food companies grew and took hold among the counterculture.
Food co-ops sprouted up (good word for it), and you couldn’t throw a cat without hitting a smiling young man in Viet Cong slicks with granola bits sticking to his beard. A triangle of values was arranged between the soil, the food, and a man’s guitar. Young native Vermonters had grown up with all the unpleasant demands of farm labor. Their first thought was to leave for a better future. But in the ’60s young people from the burning and strife-torn cities showed up in Vermont at places like the Curry farm in search of the nirvana of subsistence agriculture. They reveled in the mindless labors of husbandry.
I say mindless but farming actually provides a good deal of time to think, and most farmers think about other things that they could be doing with their lives. You can only shovel so many gutters until you question the intrinsic value of the act. Unless, that is, you are still in your 20s and you regard it as an act of protest. It was also discovered that persons involved in farming could apply for a deferral from the hated draft, a law left over from the Second World War, back when so many farmers tried to join the Army that the nation’s food supply was threatened. This logic, turned on its head, as so many things were in the Vietnam War, established a darn good reason for shoveling them gutters. Especially if you had just graduated from college and were re-classified as 1A by your draft board
The early food co-ops were a learning experience. Co-ops had existed in New England for a long time, but they had mostly died out. For the hippies the food co-ops became a backward-looking reverence for food in its simplest form, and this led indirectly to the current improvements in the Vermont diet. Friends of ours were heavily invested, at least in time, in the food co-op movement and researched the availability of the most basic comestibles available. They discovered that oats and barley and corn were available in quantity from bulk suppliers. Why then, they asked, should people who wanted to live naturally and basically be forced to buy processed oats from the crooks at Quaker when they could buy raw, unprocessed oats right from the producer? Great amounts of these grains, in their natural, God-intended state were ordered and delivered. But unprocessed and straight from the elevator they were as close to inedible as can be imagined. In short order, we discovered why horses’ teeth get that ground-away look. Yet, as a political statement I presume, many families, seeking to bring the Quaker Oats Corp. to its knees, tried to gag the stuff down.
A term arose, “macrobiotic,” which meant, or came to mean, eating things in their most original state. Persons with advanced degrees in complicated biology tried to feed their families unroasted, unsalted peanuts. Others ordered 55-gallon drums of raw honey. Raw honey is tasty if you’re a bee, but otherwise it is sharply and heavily flavored, dark and gloopy, and indistinguishable from tugboat lubrication. Great nutritional value was assumed to be found in brown unpolished rice, a thrice blessed political statement. It was rice, and thus in sympathy with the long-suffering Vietnamese; it was unpolished, untouched by machinery; and it was brown, just like Martin Luther King Jr. Yet people I knew lived for half the winter on this pulse, varied only by hasty pudding made with cow corn. Not only that but they fed it to their children. The children, being home-schooled in the works of Herman Hesse and Joan Baez, knew no better.
But the overall effect was that an intellectual and inventive interest in food grew, which lead to the current output of healthy and tasty food from Vermont. In a circuitous way the war and the hippies led to the end of American food as we knew it then. The entire food production process, beginning after the Second World War was basically that a corporation made it and you ate it. But the new plan was small production, and of having an idea of who the people were behind the stuff you ate.
Part of the reason for this alimentary revolution might be a type of Vermont inventiveness, as well as the introduction of people from elsewhere, from out of state, to the rather bland and unvarying offerings of the farm kitchen. Vermonters ate a good deal of beef, pork, chicken and venison. But little of it was raised strictly as food. Like French cooking, it made a value of necessity, figuring out way of preparing meat from animals that had some years of hard work in their history. Pot au feu took 48 hours, at least, to prepare because the beef had to be softened. And Vermont pot roast or chicken fricassee using a laying hen had the same qualities.
Bread is the best example of how this happened. In the ’50s, few people of means baked bread. Baking was what poor people did.The modern post-war woman bought the whitest bread she could find. It was white, soft and as close to flavorless as possible. There was a bon mot going around that a roll of paper towels was more nutritious than a loaf of Wonder Bread, which made sense because a loaf of Wonder Bread was actually more absorbent than a roll of paper towels. But farm wives still baked their own bread, and thus baking bread from scratch became the signature activity of the generation, first with white flour, and then with all manner of healthy additions. At last count I can buy a nine-grain bread which contains, in addition to wheat, corn, rice, flax, sunflower seeds, barley, oats, and sesame seeds a ninth grain which is listed as a proprietary secret. It is delicious,and, yes, I do feel strangely purified.
What happened to the hippie generation, and even to persons of that age simply averse to stupid wars, was that they noticed the great opening for new foods. For the older farmer, the business model was doing whatever the corporate milk or grain buyer wanted. Money was made by cutting costs, not by adding value. But hippies coming back from Canada with bread recipes, or draft dodgers skulking back from Sweden with pastry concoctions, or from Norway with tales of the ubiquitous Jarlsberg cheese, turned out to be smarter business people than their stereotype called for. So we have gone in a few short decades from being a state with the worst food in the nation, second only to Maine, to having the best and most varied diet available. Recently a group of French cheesemakers complained that Vermont producers were using the French names for their products. When asked if their complaints were that the Vermont versions of Camembert and Roquefort were inferior, the French replied au contraire, that the Vermont cheeses were so good they would present an unfair competition. Most of the French names have been discontinued in favor of local names, and the trade has improved.
It wouldn’t be Vermont if there weren’t a touch of the weirdly humorous about it. The macaronic quality of food combinations and the unexpected quality of the new food producers here have given us such near ludicrous, but delicious products as Vermont salsa, and vodka made from maple sap. Vermont as a major brewing state and coffee roasting state is even less explainable. Not one coffee bean has ever sprouted in Vermont. The name of the state itself may even now take on a connotation of delicacy and epicurean creativity. In a store in New York a while back I saw a small package of “Vermont Curry – Made in Japan.” In Japan you may be interested to know the term “Vermont” has a special meaning. I asked a Japanese friend who explained that in Japan “Vermont” means “contains apples.”
Thus, if you enjoy a cup of locally roasted coffee, and a sandwich made of bread that would shame a Lyon boulangerie, you can thank the next ex-hippie you meet. They’re hard to spot. Many of them wear ties these days.