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ChefCamp @ Spence Farm

Note: I cannot overstate how great this event was. Marty & Kris & Co. put on an awesome weekend and it it was really inspiring to see the chefs on their day off busting their asses and brains to learn more about the food they work with. I didn’t write all the names down, please let me know if I missed anybody. I want to support this type of activity in anyway that I can. 

Chef Camp T-Shirt from Stephanie Izard

Chef Camp T-Shirt from Stephanie Izard

Taking a sip of my iced-tea/lemonade I start to wonder, what the hell am I doing? All of the equipment jammed into the back of my car makes it smell like kitchen on wheels. I have left my insanely pregnant wife at home and she had contractions a couple days ago. My second son is having his 6th birthday today, yet I am in a car driving to the middle of nowhere to learn about running a sustainable farm. I blame Chef Tom and his damned enthusiasm.

I am mildly late as I pull into the driveway of Spence Farm in central Illinois around 11am. Since this is a business trip to talk about my prep table and spice rub, I can call the speeding ticket a business expense, right? ‘DOH!

The gear is unloaded quickly and Tom starts pulling things together for a quick lunch. Braised pork belly sandwiches and home made potato chips. The sandwiches are a great vehicle for the spicy coconut vinegar he had me try a couple of weeks ago, and I promise myself stop after two sandwiches. Farmer Marty has everybody tell a “worst meal cooked” story to break the ice and everybody sets down to eat. We all dine on bamboo plates with our names on them so that they can be reused. There are plastic forks which I thought was odd at first. Turns out that they are made from potatoes and fully compostable. I almost popped my monocle out into my carbonated pear ginseng soda I was drinking when I heard that one.

Marty and his wife Khris then introduce themselves and bring on the first speaker, Bob. Bob plows through a 45min rolling conversation about soil and nutritionally dense foods. We all learn about BRIX measurements that quantify how nutritionally dense produce is, and that Bob seems to look down on the automatons that do soil measurements via the grid method.

A surprisingly heavy honey filled rack is passed around as Jared Van Camp contemplates the meaning of it all.

A surprisingly heavy honey filled rack is passed around as Jared Van Camp contemplates the meaning of it all.

Spence Farm has their own hives and we head over to the school house to learn about bees. Things I learned: the racks full of honey are HEAVY, the male bees get kicked out of the hive when winter comes because they are of no use any more and that Queens are made, not born. Turns out that to create a queen bee you just need to make her larva comb 3 times the normal size, and keep feeding her royal jelly (some sort of bee breast milk thing from what I can understand) and BAM! Queen Bee.

BOINK! Damn, another monocle.

We then head over to a nearby clearing where they have the “yard pigs” These are 7 or 8 Guinea Hogs that feed on the vegetation on the ground. Each 10×10 pen holds 3 or four and is moved periodically throughout the day. The pigs eat all the vegetation down to the dirt, and then the pen is moved to a new location with fresh weeds and clover and they just start chomping down. The pigs were about as cute as pigs can get and made cartoonishly accurate snorty pig sounds. One of the chores was to divide up the lucky and unlucky pigs, and when they were grabbed by their hind legs they exchanged that cute oink to a Deliverance-esqe squeal. Once set into their correct pens they continued to snort and chomp as if nothing happened. Seems that they missed the dire implications of their change of venue.

The chicken egg talk induced dreamy looks into the distance from Chris Pandel

The chicken egg talk induced dreamy looks into the distance from Chris Pandel

Next item was chicken eggs. Things learned: A single rooster/hen tussle will produce 10 days of fertilized eggs at 1 egg per day, White shell vs. brown = no nutritional difference at all and some chickens eat eggs. Those chickens are called Spike.

Through all of the presentations the chefs and others asked a lot of questions and there was great back and forth between the presenters and crowd. All of the speakers were really passionate about their subject, and the Chefs were doing their best to soak it up like a sponge. Stephanie kept pre-empting her questions with “This is a stupid question…” but we all could have done that. We were complete rubes compared to the veterans of the land, but that never became a barrier. The farmers wanted to pass as much knowledge to the Chefs so that it could then be spread to a more urban community.  The Chefs in-turn were super jazzed to learn more about the food they love and use for their art.

Cristina Ritter captured all of these great photos and was nice enough to hustle through processing some them so I could use them in this writeup. She is on the twitter  facebook & LinkedIn please check out her work.

It was starting to get late in the afternoon, and if we wanted any meat for dinner it would need to be processed. Marty had asked if anybody had killed and butchered a goat before. The most competent sounding response he received was a “Kinda” from Chef Spectacles. “Alright, I will go get the 22 then and we will put it down first, then bleed it out and butcher it.” It seemed like this was the rookie procedure, but everybody was appreciative of the butchery training wheels. The goat had gotten out of its pen, so the first task was to catch the bleeting SOB. I didn’t go into the barn, between the film crew and the chefs all running around I didn’t want to get in the way. It was kind of humorous to hear the racket inside moving from one end of the barn to the other.

Kris from Spence Farm directs the insanity that were the squealing yard hogs.

Kris from Spence Farm directs the insanity that were the squealing yard hogs.

I had never witnessed an animal be put down like this before, and was a little apprehensive about the whole scene. I was proud over the years to get past my aversion to touching raw meat, but this was a whole new ball game. In the end the 22 didn’t make too much noise and I now can say I have seen how meat is made. In an odd way I felt guilty for never having seen this before. It took 37 years to see where my food comes from? I have watched tons of videos about handmade knives and watched with rapt attention as layer after layer is worked into these jewels. I have walked though the factory at Polyscience to see the circulators being all tested before packaging, yet the most basic part of cooking is something I have shied away from.

I never really thought about it until then, but after this experience I won’t feel as bad for my guests when I overcook a piece of meat, I will feel more embarrassed for not respecting the animal that gave it life for the meal.

Next were some chickens and rabbits along with some other chores. Stephanie had a 1/6th barrel of Honey Porter that was tapped and food started to pile up on the giant wood fire grill. Everybody sat under the large tent that did a decent job of blocking the wind. Conversation was good at my end of the table and there was food chatter popping off all over. After dinner we all learned how to harvest seeds from a tomato (or chili) and then kind of milled around and chatted.

I had to head out to get back home, 12 hours away from uterus ground zero was enough of a risk for me. Leaving, I heard them planning the AM squash blossom harvest and the beef taste test (DAMN!). Driving home in the dark by myself I had a chance to try and reconcile the slaughter I was leaving behind with the new life I was driving towards. In the haze of tiredness and a light misty rain they seemed to merge together. I have now participated in the integral tail end of earthy existence, which seems to give me a more solid foundation as I work to build another new life.

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