Techniques of the Working Landscape
This half of the Vermont Foodways database will share information on how Vermonters use the land for nourishment and livelihood. The first section of this section will cover acquisition and cultivation of raw food ingredients include hunting, fishing and foraging practices to represent the original ways humans fed themselves from the land and also agrarian traditions and farming practices that came with the first homesteaders, followed by commercial-scale farming. These materials will deal mostly with the actual procurement or growing/raising of the food.
The second area within Techniques of the Working Landscape will deal with processing of raw ingredients for consumption including cooking, cheese-making, canning and other methods of preservation. The bulk of these materials will be cookbooks representing a variety of stages/styles/regions.
- explore Agrarian Practices
This section, while by no means comprehensive, touches on some of the key aspects of food acquisition and cultivation in Vermont. Below is some brief background on some of the major food sources and farming emphases in Vermont over the last 200-plus years.
Maple: Legends describe the discovery of the sweetness within the maple tree in various ways. The most common tale involves a native hunter who notches his tomahawk into a sugar maple for safe storage one night. When his children go to fetch water the next day they leave their empty pot at the foot of the tree while they run off to play. The pot mysteriously fills with clear liquid and the venison their mother cooks in it has an unusually sweet flavor. The liquid, they discover, was not water, but sap dripping from the hatchet notch in the tree. The first settlers learned from the natives to make “Indian molasses” or “Indian sugar,” a homemade sweetener used when white sugar was rare and expensive. Although it can be hard to find today, maple sugar–then solidified into cakes–was the common form before refrigeration enabled longer-term storage of syrup. The Quakers promoted it as slave-free sugar and Thomas Jefferson, who planted a sugarbush at Monticello, hoped that maple sugar might make the country more self-sufficient. Founded in 1893, the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Association claims to be the oldest agricultural association in the country and the state is the largest U.S. producer of maple syrup.
Hunting/Fishing: Bow hunting represents the earliest form of deer hunting in Vermont as practiced by the indigenous Abenaki, who depended on wildlife including the once abundant Atlantic salmon that returned each year to spawn before dams and polluted waterways put them on the endangered species list. Early settlers followed their example and Vermont still has an active community of hunters and fishermen who hunt everything from quail to cottontail rabbits to black bears. What is killed is almost always eaten and community game suppers even offer tastes of raccoon, muskrat, and squirrel. Long weekends away at deer camp are legendary and a young hunter’s first buck is reason for major celebration–and lots of venison stew or chili. During the winter, small huts sprout up along the frozen edges of Lake Champlain from which hardy souls fish through the ice for perch, smelt, trout, and hatchery-bred Atlantic salmon. In mid-April, anglers can start fly-fishing for trout in rivers and streams and in October, camouflaged boats slowly purr through lakes in search of duck.
Foraging: Like all first nations peoples, the Native Americans as the first human settlers in Vermont made use of existing plant life as food, eating inmature leaves, roots, berries and mushrooms. Early settlers followed their example as part of their efforts to survive while establishing agriculture. The traditions remain and have, in fact, become almost faddish with restaurants boasting of the first wild leeks (ramps), fiddleheads (the curled tips of ostrich ferns) and a variety of wild mushrooms. Other commonly foraged items include young dandelion leaves and berries.
Dairy has been Vermont’s most important agricultural product for more than 150 years, although the state’s dairy farmers struggle today in a commodity market in which larger out-of-state farms have advantages over typically smaller-scale Vermont agriculture. Many are going organic or creating local milk brands to keep small family farms alive and preserve the working landscape. Vermont does boast the highest per capita number of farmstead cheesemakers (meaning the cheese is made on the same farm as the herd or flock of animals) and has built a reputation across the country for award-winning cheese.
Sheep and lamb: Despite folklore to the contrary, cows have never actually outnumbered people in Vermont—but sheep have. From the 1820s to the 1860s, Vermont farmers made a great business of raising wool to satisfy the booming New England textile mills, bringing the sheep population at one point to well over one and a half million animals against a human count of less than three hundred thousand. Lamb and mutton for the farmhouse table were an inevitable sideline and spring lamb was especially welcomed as the first fresh meat after a long winter. But prices fell and the frontier pushed westward, opening up the wide flat plains of the Midwest for more economical ways to raise sheep.
Apples have blossomed in Vermont since colonial times when every hill farmer planted a few trees as part of their homestead. The fruit had many uses; they could be eaten fresh or stored to eat months later; cooked into pies or sauce; dried, canned, or pickled; and made into cider and cider vinegar. Cider—both sweet and hard—was the homegrown beverage of choice, and was also sometimes distilled further into applejack or apple brandy. Early varieties included Cox’s Orange Pippin brought over from Europe, Fameuse or Snow known for its snow-white flesh, and the whimsically named Sheep’s Nose. There were good keeper apples, apples with the juicy tartness perfect for cider, and naturally sweet apples that collapsed quickly into applesauce. As apple-growing developed into a commercial business in the late 1800s, apple diversity continued with traveling grafters carrying twigs across the state to ensure the perpetuation of preferred varieties. A few severe winters in the early 1900s, however, devastated many Vermont orchards and replanting focused on the most disease-resistant, cold-hardy, shippable varieties, led by the now iconic McIntosh. The harvests of the roughly 40 commercial apple producers left in Vermont today are still dominated by this shiny red variety, although many are rediscovering some of the older, less familiar apples.
Wheat: Historically, the Champlain Valley was a grain-growing area and was known, around the 1820s at its peak, as the bread basket of the U.S. As the Champlain Canal down the Hudson River opened up the market opportunity initially, the Erie Canal brought its demise because it opened up access to the flat plains of the west where grain production was more efficient than Vermont.
Sources: various from my own writing for Burlington Free Press and Cooking with Shelburne Farms.
Processing and Preparation
- explore Processing and Preparation
This section includes about 20 cookbooks selected from the Wilbur Special Collections extensive Vermont cookbook collection for their representation of different points along the home-cooking chronology, from fully scratch cooking with a Yankee emphasis to the introduction of packaged products and the expansion of global flavors and recipes seen in cookbooks.
In addition this section includes interviews, excerpted recordings and articles on aspects of food production from butter-making, to cheese production, to cellaring and canning vegetables and fruits. These mostly refer to historical processes, although there are a few items that talk about the renewed interest in some of these types of processing, showing that older foodways have become new again.