Friday Takeaway: Caroline Pam

  • Caroline Pam and her family reel ’em in. Courtesy Caroline Pam

Thursday, August 24, 2017

What does the vegetable farmer do on vacation? Go fishing, of course! This has been a favorite joke since my husband Tim and I started farming 12 years ago. The punchline varies — Pick fruit! Hunt mushrooms! — to describe the hilariously consistent ways we choose to spend our free time. For some reason, even though we bust ass all year long to grow 50 acres of vegetables on our farm, we can’t resist the pull of procuring food from the forest, the water and neighboring farms as soon as we manage to spring ourselves loose from our own. 

Last week we left our farm in the capable hands of our farm crew and took our two kids, seven and nine, to Martha’s Vineyard for a week of ocean swimming, hammock napping and a successful fishing excursion where we landed several bluefish and a few whopper striped bass (“stripahs,” to the locals). 

We were joined on the charter boat by a chef friend who was one of our first customers when he ran the kitchen at Green Street Café in Northampton before it closed and he moved away. This is the same friend who gave us half a pig for our wedding gift and spent a week with us making charcuterie, paté and cuts for the chest freezer (another gift from our registry). “Make Salami” could be another possible punch line for our joke.

We didn’t always take a summer vacation. For many years when the farm was just one, then two, then three acres, Tim and I couldn’t imagine leaving during peak season, so we worked straight through and felt sorry for ourselves. In those days, the farm was smaller, and we did almost all the work with our own hands because we couldn’t afford to hire much help or invest in decent tractors and equipment. 

As the farm has grown, in scale and complexity, the physical demands have lightened some now that we have the proper tools. And we’ve been able to put together a team of skilled and dedicated farmers who work alongside us to produce literally tons of vegetables on a daily basis. 

Even so, Tim and I both work 60-plus hours a week at the farm, and when we go home to feed our kids and put them to bed, we’re still taking orders and responding to emails. Our children don’t get much of our attention this time of year, and they’re in back-to-back camps all summer long. 

In fact, it only gets busier as we move into fall when we start the marathon harvest and processing of peppers, tomatoes and tomatillos for our line of sriracha and salsas; host our annual Chilifest hot pepper festival; and bring in acres and acres of kale, broccoli, cabbage and storage roots. 

So for one week in August, we get away to experience summer with our children and recharge before the fall madness. It’s also our chance to actually cook our vegetables, since farm produce tends to wither in our fridge as we serve mac and cheese for the kids night after night. 

For this vacation, the car was loaded with heirloom tomatoes and the first ripe chili peppers for pico de gallo that we ate with homemade tortillas (the kids made them from fresh masa with the tortilla press we brought with us). Skinny green eggplant and sweet Tropea onions made the journey with us to be blackened on the grill for a Thai salad we ate with smoked bluefish as the sun set at the beach. Instead of cereal for breakfast, we served the kids our yellow Nicola potatoes grated and fried into rosti with the first pullet eggs from our new flock of chickens back home. 

Our insistence on bringing a carload of Kitchen Garden veggies on vacation might seem crazy (my parents certainly think so) but it’s actually the whole point. We grow all this stuff because we love to cook and eat and take pleasure in sharing food with family and friends. It’s easy to lose sight of that when you’re caught in the grind of getting through the day, and this brief pause allows us to remember what motivates us so we’re able to go back home and work like crazy to make the food appear.

So, of course, we brought back the fish we caught off the Vineyard and served it up for farm lunch to thank our crew for keeping the ship afloat while we were gone. Monday’s menu was oven-roasted bluefish filets topped with caponata from our tomatoes and eggplant plus spaghetti alla vongole with cherrystone clams we picked up at Larsen’s Fish Market on the Menemsha pier, where our fishing boat docked.

I was already envisioning this meal when we were out on the Atlantic Ocean aboard the Lauren C near Nomans Land, where the U.S. Navy once set off test bombs; it’s now a wildlife refuge. 

When I felt the decisive tug on my line I cried out, “Fish on!” as our captain had instructed me. As I struggled to reel in the 20-pound fish that mistook my metal lure for a sand eel, it was good to know I’d have the help of 15 hungry farmers to eat it. 

Everyone who works at our farm cares about good food — and some are as passionate about cooking, foraging and preserving as we are. When our crew gets together outside of work, more often than not it’s to go blueberry or strawberry picking or to check a favorite chanterelle or morel spot. At the end of August, we’re doing an all-day tomato-canning party at the farm to fill our pantry with enough jars to feed us through next summer. And as we head into pepper season, we can expect spicy pickles and hot-sauce experiments to show up almost daily. 

We may be crazy, but we’re lucky we’ve been able to convince some equally crazy friends and farmers to join us.

Caroline Pam owns and operates Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland with her husband Tim Wilcox. The farm grows organic vegetables, makes award-winning sriracha and salsa and hosts an annual hot pepper festival, Chilifest, in September.