A few years ago, I heard an actor say on a talk show that he had decided if someone invited him to a party, he was going to attend, whether he knew the person or not. When I repeated that to my friend Pagan Kennedy a few days later, she responded, “That’s great! That should be my policy!” Then, half a heartbeat later, she said, “Wait a minute! That is my policy!”

Photo: Copyright Jason Houston

Laura Meister at work on her Berkshires farm.
Photo: © Jason Houston

This exchange came to mind recently when I got an invitation to attend Berkshire Grown’s annual fundraiser, Beautiful Bountiful Berkshires. When I asked Laury Epstein — president of the BG board for the past five years and the person kind enough to invite me to the party — about Berkshire Grown, she explained to me that it is a local food and agriculture advocacy organization that links area farmers with chefs and food producers. The group also runs a project called Share the Bounty that Laury calls a “twofer”: people donate to help buy shares in member-supported farms, and the food from those shares is then donated to a neighboring food kitchen or pantry.

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Between the good work being done by Berkshire Grown and the influence of Pagan’s party policy, I accepted. I spent a week dithering about what to wear — what’s farm-like but formal? Professional yet accessible? Sophisticated yet down-to-earth? Summery and yet autumnal? I found a brown and white party dress and hit the road.

The drive out to the Berkshires was beautiful, and I had to keep reminding myself why I live on the coast. (Answer: the ocean.) I saw many landmarks as I drove through Lenox: Tanglewood, The Mount, Shakespeare and Company, Kripalu, and Canyon Ranch (OK, I got slightly lost). Finally I pulled into the driveway of Eastover, a large estate that once belonged to a well-to-do family but which has been converted into a bucolic family resort.

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Volunteers waved my car down an unpaved driveway that ended at the edge of a lawn. The lawn smelled fantastic! I wondered if it might be crushable thyme — I wanted to roll in it, and the only thing that prevented me from doing so was all the other cars and the fact that I was wearing a party dress. I saw people making their way toward an outbuilding that looked like a giant barn, and I followed them down a small hill.

Once I arrived, I met Laury. We left the anteroom, where many local brewers and vintners were set up, and moved into the larger room where there were tables staffed by restaurateurs and chefs who had used produce grown by local farmers to create the dishes they were offering to the throngs of hungry guests. (Typically about 400 people attend.) About two dozen restaurants participated. Laury whisked me from table to table, and I met several farmers as well as chefs. I also met Denis Guyer, the state representative for the area, who spoke knowledgably about agricultural issues. I was delighted to meet someone in state government who was so well informed.

It was fun to witness a community having a chance to see itself — many of the people who make up the food scene in the area were there. Usually they are all off working in their own domains — farms, markets, or kitchens — and it’s nice for them to have a chance to bask in their own reflection, even if it’s only once a year.

In the far corner, I noticed a striking young woman wearing a vibrant sundress and dangly earrings. She looked like all the fashion-and-beauty editors I’ve seen swanning around the Condé Nast building on the occasions that I have been there, except … except that she clearly had strong arms and the kind of tan that comes from working outdoors. She was Laura Meister, the farm girl of Farm Girl Farm.

When I got a chance to speak with her, Laura — who has been farming for three years and runs a CSA program as well as selling produce to co-ops and restaurants — told me she’d just spent the past several days scrambling to get as much produce off the vine as possible before the frost. The cold snap had arrived the night before, however, and she had spent the day looking over the crops that had been damaged.

Laura spoke about her experience so compellingly that I called her a few weeks later and asked her to describe what it’s like to be on a farm when crops need to be harvested.

Notes from the Wonder Ground

I’ve always been curious about what it takes to be a farmer, particularly to work so hard and invest so much in an endeavor that is often fraught with risk. Laura explained the challenges and triumphs well. Here is what she said:

Mechanization is so overrated.

Photo: © Jason Houston

“On a small, unmechanized farm like this one, harvest time is an intensely tactile and aesthetic experience. When a specific crop is first ready to be harvested, it’s really exciting. After a few weeks, though, the magic wears off a little and the vegetables do start to seem more like a product. As each new crop ripens, I get excited about it. It’s like having a series of affairs with the different vegetables.

“In the spring, the first things we harvest are radishes, turnips, and arugula. By midsummer we have eggplant. At the peak of the season, it’s hard to keep up with the cucumbers, summer squash, and tomatoes. Harvesting, sorting, boxing, and delivering the crops takes a lot of work and a lot of time.

“As a relatively new farmer, I find it really hard to do anything but harvest crops when they are ripe. I should be doing fieldwork, maintaining fall crops and getting seeds for late-season crops into the ground. Sometimes I get stuff into the ground late because I’m harvesting other crops. It’s hard not to focus on harvesting things when there’s a demand for certain produce and I know we have it and it’s ready to be picked. It’s hard to do anything but fill those orders!

“I think that with more experience and perspective I’ll be able to do this in a better way, and in a way that’s less stressful. It’s just that this is the only time we have to make it financially, and ripe crops are the culmination of all of the planning, seeding, fertilizing, and cultivation we’ve done. I get a pit in my stomach and think, ‘It’s now or never!’

“I set financial goals for each week: CSA members are the foundation for our financial plan, and then we have cash flow every week from the other kinds of sales that we do. I’m always counting in my head as we’re doing this. There’s such a feeling of frenzy. We frequently work 12-hour days, making the most of the sun. I have been known to sort and box tomatoes wearing a headlamp!

“On a more personal level, the colors, shapes, tastes, and textures are so exciting, and there’s a feeling that there’s so much bounty. The supply of produce feels endless, and I love being able to drop some off for friends. There’s a real sensation of security and comfort.

“The night that we spoke at the Beautiful Bountiful Berkshires party, there had just been an early frost. I was really crestfallen. The wind had been taken out of my sails. I kept thinking, ‘Food that was growing is now dead.’

“As far as a sense of risk, this is a crazy thing to do. If I really stopped to think about it in a logical way it would be paralyzing, and I don’t think that I would pursue it. However, I get courage and inspiration from other farmers. I’ve learned a lot from them.

“Also, our climate is not usually subject to intense extremes, in terms of weather. Plant diseases are an issue, but if you plant enough different crops, chances are that something will have a good season. For example, for the last two years, greens did well but tomatoes were mediocre. This year, however, it was so dry and so hot that the tomatoes were great and the green peppers turned red and orange, but some of the greens and root vegetables didn’t do as well. They had to be coaxed along.

“Having a diversity of outlets for our crops helps minimize risk as well. I call the restaurants and let them know what’s ready from week to week and they tell me what they want to have delivered. Almost all the successful farms I know have about three or four different things that they do.

“Farm Girl Farm covers about 2.5 acres of land. I’m not certified organic, but I follow organic practices. The certification process is expensive and unwieldy for an operation as small as mine. I spent three seasons working for other farmers before I started Farm Girl Farm. In the winter I catch up on bookkeeping, plan for next year — which includes talking to CSA members and chefs — and do some non-farm-related work, like freelance editing, for extra income. However, the winter break isn’t really as long as a lot of people assume it is. We harvest crops right up until Thanksgiving and then start things growing in the greenhouse in March. Plus it’s a time for assessment. I look over our records and try to make objective decisions based on actual data from previous seasons rather than just working from my impressions. It’s also a time to rest my body, do yoga, and think about next season. I love what I do, and I am so grateful for all of the serendipitous events that brought me to the Berkshires to begin with, and to this little piece of land.”

When I ran into my friend Pagan a few days ago, I reminded her about our long-ago exchange about the actor’s party policy and told her how it had inspired me to attend the Berkshire Grown party. “Well, if attending strangers’ parties is his policy,” she asked, “why hasn’t he been to any of ours?” “Have we asked him?” I said. “Oh, maybe not. Maybe that explains things.” The next time we throw a real wingding, he’s first on our list.

Night of 1,000 (OK, four) Nightshades Stew

Serves six to eight adults

Here is a vegan recipe featuring four nightshades: tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplant. It has a Middle Eastern flavor profile (cinnamon with tomatoes and eggplant) crossed with a Sicilian influence (the sweet and sour combo of raisins and vinegar). I make this with potatoes, but you could just as easily leave the potatoes out and serve it over rice or couscous. (One of the friends I made it for, a German/French Canadian/Filipino woman raised in Dubuque, Iowa, suggested that I keep the potatoes and serve it on rice anyway. She also suggested that it would taste a whole lot better with lamb in it, which is true, but then it wouldn’t be a vegan recipe, would it? Still, if you want to throw in a half a pound of ground lamb or lamb stew meat, be my guest. Just sear the stew meat in oil first — there’s no need to dust it with flour. Ground lamb can go directly into the pot. You can sautee it with the onions or you can throw it in right after the tomatoes.)

I use frozen green beans in this recipe. Usually I try to avoid using frozen foods simply because of the energy it takes to freeze them and keep them frozen, but this dish just isn’t any good without them (seriously!) and I only make it once or twice a year.

This is a two-step recipe. You want to get the eggplant baking in the oven while you chop the other vegetables. You can skip the roasting step if you like and just add the chopped eggplant straight into the stew, right after the tomatoes, but the texture will be mushy. You can also leave the eggplant out all together, but then it’s just a three-nightshade stew.

Step One: Roast the eggplant

1 medium eggplant, chopped into bite-size pieces (about five cups)
1/3 to 1/2 cup olive oil
salt and pepper

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Cut the eggplant into bite-size pieces and toss the pieces with olive oil. Salt and pepper the pieces quite lightly and then spread them out on a baking sheet. Bake them until they are cooked all the way through. Each oven’s different, so you’ll just have to watch it — I can’t give you a specific time, but you’ll know they’re done when they don’t look all moist and fat anymore. It’s fine for the eggplant to have some brown on it. If you like the skin to be a tiny bit charred, that’s OK, but don’t overdo it because the whole dish will just taste like smoke. Also, I never do that whole salt-the-eggplant-and-let-it-seep routine anymore. I’ve been told that was more important before eggplants were bred to have fewer seeds and be less bitter, as they are now.

Step Two: Make the stew

1/4 cup olive oil
1 large onion, chopped (about 2 to 2 1/2 cups)
2 28-ounce cans of chopped tomato (I like the organic fire-roasted kind from Muir Glen)
The eggplant that you’ve already baked (see above)
2 cups water
2 cups washed, quartered small red potatoes
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 15-ounce can of chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1/2 cup raisins
1 cup chopped red bell pepper
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar (or cider vinegar)
1 teaspoon garlic
1/2 pound frozen green beans

Optional finishing flavors:

1 tablespoon peppadew peppers (tiny peppers in brine), diced
OR 1/2 teaspoon harisa or Asian chili pepper paste
OR 2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup crushed, lightly toasted walnuts

Pour the olive oil into a stockpot and heat it over a medium-high flame. Add the onion and cook until transparent. Add the chopped tomato, baked (or raw) eggplant, water, potatoes, cinnamon, and salt. Cook until the potatoes are just soft enough to spear with a fork.

Add the chickpeas, raisins, red pepper, balsamic vinegar, and garlic. Add the half-pound of frozen green beans. Cook just until the green beans are cooked through and then take the pot off the flame and serve.

Next add the peppadew peppers, or the pepper paste or harisa, or the lemon juice. Top each serving with some crushed walnuts.