Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Homegrown Cuisine

In an old red building in a quiet neighborhood of Lexington, Ky., Bowman Spalding comes to work every day at 3 a.m. to begin dough that takes 18 hours of rising, to make the old-fashioned, salt-rising bread his family has been selling for more than 50 years.

In North Waldoboro, Maine, Ethelyn Morse plants eight acres of cabbage, continuing a 70-year old family tradition of preparing and selling sauerkraut.

About these ads

She sells the Morse sauerkraut by mail, in a bucket with mailing label tied to the handle. She also raises other vegetables and all kinds of dried beans. But a special recipe for beet relish and the one for sauerkraut have been the Morse specialties for many years.

These people, and many others, are making one-of-a-kind foods that you'll never find on supermarket shelves. They are also fulfilling what to many Americans today is the ideal way to work.

The great American dream for some may still be to build a dream house, or write the great American novel, or get to be president. But things are changing.

Today's American dream is often to work at home, concocting or inventing the perfect chocolate cookie or the best smoked bluefish, or the most authentic country sausage or blackberry jam.

Hundreds of people are doing it. Small specialized cottage industries can be found all across America, run by people who are genuinely happy turning out good , useful things, surrounded by families and friends who love and respect their sincerity.

They have no agents, for the most part, no marketing or public-relations firm , no colorful labels or logos.

You will not find their products at the booths of the large, international gourmet shows, nor do they promote their secret recipes in fancy cookbooks.

About these ads

Proof of this change in the ideal dream job comes from two sisters, Allison and Margaret Engel, who have spent the last several years collecting examples of the best products of the country's small food producers.

The range of foods is staggering and includes edible seaweeds from Steuben, Maine, Cinnamon Potato candy from Philadelphia, Baseball Park Mustard from Cleveland, and block ice shipped in sawdust, harvested from a lake in northern Wisconsin.

Here are some examples of small producers that show the depth and breadth of American specialty foods:

* American Spoon Preserves are made of wild blueberry, sour cherry, and other wild flavors in a company operated by wild food foragers Justin Rashid and Kate Marshall in Petosky, Mich.

* Ruth Orrell of Wye Mills, Md., started baking old-fashioned beaten biscuits for pin money. She now has a thriving business.

* Smoked lobster is produced by Ute and Dietrich Kohn, who emigrated from northern Germany to the central coast of Maine, at Thomaston. They started smoking local fish because they missed eating them so much.

* Spicy dilled beans are pickled and mailed from Bowdoinham, Maine.

Some of these people have been in business for years, quietly turning out especially fine foods using old-fashioned methods. Some have built a local reputation around one product that is produced with infinite care at every step.

''Many small food companies are completely unknown outside their own community,'' says Allison Engel.

''Indeed, some have been an integral part of their communities for so long that friends and neighbors have no idea how unusual the products are,'' she told an audience at the Symposium for American Cuisine in Boston last month.

Not all are old family businesses. Some are operated by educated professionals who left established careers to make farmstead cheeses, to smoke trout or turkey, or to grow quail or special poultry.

Others rescued a traditional food or process from culinary extinction by appealing to nostalgic people eager to recapture foods the way they used to taste or the way mother made them.

Still others are typical of today's young, well-educated Americans who are establishing a place for themselves, producing top-quality special foods not available here in the past.

Sadie Kendall, for example, has a college degree in philosophy and was headed for law school until the goats she was raising as a hobby caused her to change her mind. Instead, she took a degree in dairy manufacturing and opened her dairy in Atascadero, Calif., three years ago.

Now she makes a variety of soft goat cheeses, a goat and cow milk Camembert-type cheese, an unripened cows' milk butter, and a thick creme fraiche.

People today want to know the story of the food on their plate. In many cases the food comes from small, country businesses undiscovered and ignored by the big grocery chains.

The Engel sisters, both journalists, have written a book about these people.

They traveled around, talking to people and sampling products. They admit they may have overlooked some food finds around the country. The Lehigh bologna recalled from his past by novelist John Updike as more peppery than Lebanon bologna couldn't be located.

Their book ''Food Finds: America's Best Local Foods and the People Who Produce Them'' (Harper & Row, $12.95) is actually a guidebook and mail-order catalog complete with names, addresses, and phone numbers.

''We found some of our best products, especially jams and preserves, at monasteries, and each one told us about other places to see,'' Allison says.

''The Brigittines in California, for example, make incomparable fudge. They told us about the Benedictine monks in southern Indiana who smoke meats, who told us about the Trappists in Oregon who make date and fruit cake, and so on.''

Many of the small companies have been through years of difficult times. Their products are in a sense endangered foods because they depend on one or two key people with nobody willing to keep the tradition going.

Of the 342 foods profiled in the Engels' forthcoming book, about 85 percent can be ordered by mail. But Allison is quick to point out that often the settings make a personal visit infinitely more rewarding.

With very few exceptions the authors found no official mention of unique food companies in regional promotional brochures.

''Perhaps there should be a way of honoring such companies by naming them ''Historic Culinary Landmarks,'' Allison suggests. ''By allowing these firms to continue using age-old methods in making their one-of-a-kind foods that have no equal on supermarket shelves, the country would be giving due recognition to the unique contributions of some largely unsung artists.

''We should find some way to restore and preserve our American culinary resources.''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.