Breakfast with Michael Ableman

by Chef Boy Ari

For 15 years, Michael Ableman watched as advancing suburban development completely surrounded Fairview Gardens, the 12-acre farm he managed near Santa Barbara, Calif. There are now 20 fast-food restaurants within a two-minute drive of his roadside farmstand. Despite the pressure of rising land values and taxes, and despite neighbor complaints about tractors kicking dust into their pools, the sound of chickens and the smell of compost, Fairview Gardens has persevered and prospered. Today, Ableman continues to farm, despite the odds, while writing and speaking about the possibilities of local food economies.

When Ableman passed through town recently, I had him over for breakfast. We spoke of many things, including his third book, hot off the press, titled Fields of Plenty.

Fields of Plenty tells the story of Ableman’s summertime journey across the continent with his son Aaron. They visited small farms that Ableman believes are models for the future of agriculture. His words and photographs describe rooftop gardens, mold-infested sheep-cheese curing caves, a potato grower known to sleep in his fields, four-season farming legend Eliot Coleman and a family of Mexican immigrants who grow the only peanuts in Washington State. Each in their own way, these passionate farmers are making a difference in what we eat and how we experience food.

“They’ve all consented to host me at their busiest time of year,” Ableman writes, “and while none have asked, they must assume I am not really a farmer, but some kind of photographer/journalist pretender.”

As a journalistic pretender myself, I can appreciate his struggle. Where is the balance between doing the work and telling about it?

Perhaps it’s in the recipes, gleaned from the stops along his journey, that end each chapter of his book.

“At first I resisted including recipes,” admitted Ableman. “But now I’m glad. They really bring home the experiences. The best meal was cooked by a 77-year-old black woman named Vestine near an organic farm outside of Chicago. We ate Vestine’s corn bread, rib tips and Southern-style collard greens on Styrofoam plates with Diet Pepsi. The kitchen was the size of a closet. We’d been fed by some of the best cooks in the country on this trip, but Vestine’s meal was my favorite.”

As I raced around my own kitchen preparing our breakfast, I asked: “Your role as a cheerleader for the local food movement requires you to put on a positive face. But how do you really feel about the way things are going?”

“I swing back and forth from hope to despair,” he said. “That’s the truth. But I also have kids, and when you have kids you have got to remain hopeful. I’m not terribly optimistic, but I’m hopeful — there’s a difference. “While the book focuses on positive and hopeful agricultural models, the context in which these people are working is disheartening. The whole country is a big damn corn and soy field. And prisons. What does that tell you? While these incredible individuals are quietly working away, the industrial agriculture all around them is barreling forward. But here’s the thing. These people are quietly working to figure out a new way — or recreate an old way. All kinds of food and fiber are being produced in every part of the country, in every climate zone, and farmers at every level are taking note. As the oil runs out, people are going to look to these models.”

My housemates helped me finish cooking breakfast while I took notes on our conversation. We finally sat down to a spread of curried, scrambled, local eggs, local bacon, hash browns made according to a recipe in Ableman’s book, whole-wheat croissants baked with local wheat, jars of pickled peppers and home-canned peaches. That’s when Michael Ableman asked me to marry him.

Although I had to explain to him that I didn’t think it would work, it was nice for this journalistic pretender to get Ableman’s nod of approval. I may not be a farmer, but I’m living the food life. Without consumers like me, visionary farmers are useless.

Here’s the recipe for those hash browns we ate: In a steamer basket, steam 1 pound whole potatoes until almost done, with the taters offering just a slight resistance when pierced with a knife. Remove steamer basket. When cool enough to handle, peel the skin off the potatoes with your fingers and coarsely grate the potatoes into a large bowl. Season with salt, pepper and garlic powder.

Heat a pan on medium heat and add 1½ tablespoons olive oil and 1 tablespoon unsalted butter. When the butter is melted, spread the grated potatoes in a pan and cook until they are golden and crispy, about five minutes per side. Serve immediately. •



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