Vermont is where farm-to-table kitsch comes to die.
In New York City, restaurants oftentimes emphasize their connection to local markets; they are “market restaurants,” “farm-to-table,” or participate in “sustainable foodways.” Still, eating fresh produce sequestered in a metropolitan fortress of steel and concrete feels disingenuous. Knowing the name of the farm that grew those ramps or raised that rabbit means little without context. A name is only a name when stripped of the named object. So we go to the farms, the creameries, the foragers, and the fishermen, seeking the intrinsic narratives of the food we consume. So we go to Vermont.
Unlike in the East Village, in Vermont one gains the opportunity to look out a restaurant’s window and see the land, the crops, to meet the people who work those fields and learn their stories. At Hen of the Wood, Chef-Owner Eric Warnstedt, one of Food & Wine‘s Best New Chefs of 2008, attempts to fulfill that fantasy. Located in a venerable grist mill, Hen of the Wood offers a menu that gestures towards the farm-to-table experience. Many of the vegetables hail from nearby farms, but on this past Wednesday’s menu only the rabbit [clarification: the rabbit was the only protein that] clearly came from the Green Mountain State. Gazing over the waterfall, one might pretend that a silky salmon fillet powered a fish up those rocks hours before. Such fictions contribute to the “farm-to-table” kitsch so evident in the big city; a theme park of sustainability that sacrifices local vision for price point, quality, convenience, practicality, and the bounds of mere possibility.
Where then does Vermont meet or even generate a real farm-to-table ethos? At Cabot Creamery, a dairy cooperative sources milk from Vermont cows and pumps out thousands of pounds of cheese. Gloriously rubbery and indistinct, Cabot’s factory product tastes of, well, the mechanized and futurized factory: devoid of soul. Yet, Cabot’s clothbound cheddar feels authentically Vermont: twangy, crumbly, and tinged with caramel and walnut flavors that resonate insistently on the tongue in a slowly diffusing golden glow. Cave aged at Jasper Hill Farm, Cabot’s clothbound cheddar represents a fusion of mass production and local production, a global-local cooperative that seems satisfying on pragmatic, ethical, and gustatory levels.
After Cabot, I craved a nonindustrial food experience though, a gastronomic landscape without sales figures or marketing or automation. Stumbling into a hidden town in the Vermont hills, somewhere between Cabot and Stowe, I found lunch at the Buffalo Mountain Coop, a funky grocery store and cafe. Hardwick, Vermont exists humbly, quietly, an amateur boxing club, two grocery stores, a gas station with old-fashioned pumps. Buffalo Mountain Coop serves “food for people not for profit.”
Following a simple lunch of turkey on wheat with mesclun and mustard, I perused the grocery. Strange legumes and esoteric dietary supplements line the walls. There’s a grind your own peanut butter machine. For dinner, I picked a loaf from Bohemian Bread, locally grown cucumbers, carrots, and tomatoes, and figured a sizable chunk of that clothbound cheddar would round out the meal nicely.
Of course, the local foods manifesto has been discussed and spread thin across internet and print media. I have little of particular note to add beyond a finger wag towards pragmatics. I will, however, emphasize how delicious that cheddar tasted on that bread. Bubbly, airy, yeasty, and soft on the interior and suitably crunchy along the crust, the Bohemian Bread took well to its cheesy companion, allowing the almost crunchy, crystalline cheddar to burrow into its most intimate pockets. It would be a good life to eat such bread and such cheese.
Ultimately, I believe that the difference between farm-to-table kitsch and farm-to-table authenticity lies in the distinctions between fantasy and reality. Kitsch relies on the customer’s desire to engage in an imaginative game that simultaneously comforts the ethical self and transports the childlike self. Eating cheese from Jasper Hill Farm, or Cabot Creamery for that matter, means little in New York City, removed from any original context. Other than the bare knowledge that one supports a particular farm, understanding the provenance of a product holds no inherent value. Comprehending the reality of the land, watching fields turn into pine-covered mountains that arch unbearably into fog and clouds, and then eating that cheese on bread and knowing the people that live in the hills and drive beyond the sky—that learning possesses an inherent value. Vermont, its food, its people: these can only be known here, in this place. A fantasy of the local gone global denies the very existence of an underlying reality, commodifying a hyperreality for consumption.
Note: An individual representing themselves as the owner of Hen of the Wood responded to my post on Chowhound. Here’s the link
And here’s the post:
I am the owner of Hen of the Wood and was handed this review from my manager. Thanks for mentioning us but the information you provided about your dinner here was grossly wrong. You stated that we only ‘gesture towards farm to table’ and you mentioned that the rabbit was the only thing sourced locally on our menu on Wed, June 23. I will keep this short but here are a few of the things on the menu that were sourced not only from our state but mostly from just miles away…the entire cheese, minus one from New Hampshire, Radishes, beets, all potatoes, garlic scapes, oyster mushrooms, bread, head lettuce, peas, cucumbers, all diary and eggs, pork bellys for bacon, basil, cornmeal, kale, chanterelles, beans from the beanery in Maine, spinach, mesclun, flowers( edible and displayed), pork loin and the hanger steak was not local but from NE family farms cooperative…our menu wednesday was actually about 2 apps and 2 entrees short that night due to some availability issues but both verbal specials, the app and entree were completely local….
next time you are in VT give us a call we will send you on a food trip like no other…and a stop at Cabot Creamery will not be on that list!
And here’s my response:
I respectfully disagree that the information I provided was grossly wrong. First, I don’t claim that rabbit was the only ingredient sourced locally on that particular date. I even indicate that “many of the vegetables hail from nearby farms.” My comment regarding the rabbit was intended to contrast the sourcing of your proteins versus the sourcing of your vegetables, I apologize if that wasn’t explicit enough in the original post–I’ve noted this on my website. Furthermore, I include the word “clearly” to remark that only the rabbit’s Vermont provenance was evident. Even if your pork belly bacon came from Vermont, this was not (I believe, correct me if I’m wrong) printed on the menu under the Hen of the Woods Tartine that night, although on previous menus (like your restaurant week menu) it may have been. Regardless, many of your proteins are not sourced from local farms. So yes, I agree with your account of and accurately represented your vegetable/dairy sourcing in my original post. But when “pork loin and hanger steak was not local” and you serve a lot of non-local seafood, I think that my characterization of a “gesturing towards farm to table” is wholly accurate, especially in the context of my overarching hyperreality argument. I’ll definitely take you up on that offer then next time I’m in the area. Just out of curiosity, why is Cabot clothbound cheddar on your cheese menu if you think that Cabot Creamery isn’t a worthwhile Vermont food attraction? Also, I’m wondering about a previous post you made on a Hen of the Wood thread where you represent yourself as a customer defending the restaurant (I’m reproducing the entire post here): “….funny how different the reviews can be. I am new to chowhound but have lived in VT since Hen of the Wood opened. I could nitpick a few things but overall I think Hen of the Wood is the best of the best for VT. I do love the Kitchen Table as well. We have never had any portion size issues – if anything some portions have almost been too big – it is the kind of food that you savor every bite so a larger portion seems unnecessary. We when we first moved here we were surprised to find the prices so reasonable for such high quality food – like shopping at the supermarket compared to the co-op – high quality, local, organic food is EXPENSIVE so I am always amazed at people who find this kind of dining to be too pricey – it costs what it costs – I am familiar with short rib gnocchi dish – maybe it was just a mistake – that is normally a pretty filling dish – but I think there hope is to attract more ‘foodies’ that are there to really EAT – apps, entrees, dessert, cheese, wine – over the top portions arent needed. anyway, what is your favorite restaurant in B-town. We live in Moscow and dont head that way often because we havent really found any restaurants we feel are that worth it…” Did you just recently become the owner having previous been a customer? Sorry to question you about your posting history, but I think there’s either a question about posting ethics or of identity here. (http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/522264?tag=highlight-4798752;post-content-4798752#4798752) I’ve included this response as an addendum on this post at
Note: The link to the original Chowhound thread where the “owner” shills for Hen of the Wood now fails to display his post, likely due to his deletion of that post or a moderator’s.