Tuesday, August 12, 2008
I Will Feed You Nothing But Yogurt and Honey
My first day on Frosty Morning Farms Karl drove me from Cortlandt to Commonplace. Jason and Alison were at the Farmer's Market in Cazenovia. My bus was an hour late and I was starving and experiencing the usual anxiety I get whenever I'm physically discomfited. We stood silently in the kitchen I'd get to know pretty well over the next ten days until Karl politely asked me if I'd like some yogurt.
I mentioned before that he makes his own yogurt from their goat's milk. How you make yogurt-heat a bunch of milk, add a container of yogurt. More yogurt ensues. Sorry, didn't write down the recipe. Really I'm not a huge yogurt fan but I'd taken a personal (and thus easily broken) vow to embrace whatever foodstuffs were thrown my way during this little trip, since that seemed like the spirit of eating locally and off your own labor. So I said yes, a bowl of yogurt would be dee-lightful.
From one of the coolers he plucked a mason jar full of white liquid. It didn't have the consistency of milk, exactly. Cream was gathering on top and it dripped slightly slower than water into a bowl the size of my head that he'd set out for me. "That's plenty!" I shrieked but it was already full up to the brim. I was holding a spoon and looking at the glop despondently when he pushed a second mason jar my way-this one was opaque gold and the top came stickily away. Honey, raised right there on the farm, unfiltered and the perfect compliment in a heaping spoonful to Karl's yogurt. I'm not exaggerating when I say these two things together were in the top five best flavor combinations I've ever had in my whole life. I slurped that mother up.
While the mysteries of yogurt propagation are less than intriguing to me, bee keeping is like Jedi Knight mysterious...by which I mean COOL. Honey itself is an amazing entity, something edible that never goes bad or sour or molds or does anything but taste like heaven sauce. Something my main squeeze Michael Pollan writes (about apples, not honey, in The Botany of Desire) is that in this day and age with sugar cheaply abounding we take for granted the transcendent power of sweetness. How precious a bee hive would be in a world without sugar. Can you picture the anticipatory mouth watering that happens in your mouth when you long for something sweet? How when it touches your tongue it's so overwhelming it's almost like pain?
A few weeks later at Cross Island Farms I got to peak into actual beehives and wear the hat and everything. David Belding keeps three beehives, two that he harvests from and one that is just building up its brood now. They're Buckfast, a popular variety that is a hybrid from England known for its gentleness...except in the Americas where they're known for their swarming and possible hybridization with the African killer bees blah blah. David prefers the Italian honey bees which are supposed to be quite sweet but they're very vulnerable to harsh winters and there are quite long harsh winters up by the St. Lawrence river. His last Italian hive died out awhile ago. He does still have an Italian Mentor, a man named John who came by the house one day to check on David's hives while David was out. I watched him open up the Buckfast hive and cut out combs the bees had been building in a gap between frames. He had a wild turkey feather he used to brush the bees out of his way and told me in a heavy Italian accent that David's bees were nasty and made no honey unlike HIS bees which were totally awesome super great. Later I found a wild turkey feather of my own by the house and have kept it to start off my bee keeping kit.
A couple days later David decided to check on the hives himself at John's urging. He and another bee-keeping friend, also confusingly named David, donned their suits. After watching John perform the same tasks with nothing more than a hair net and turkey feather they looked a bit like overdressed aliens wandering down the road in the blazing heat.
David Two was a very mild-mannered man who proudly showed me his swollen thumb, stung just a few days before. One of his hives had flown suddenly off which is not an uncommon occurrence. He'd found them in a tree near his house about fifteen feet off the ground and was considering how to reclaim them without being swarmed and stung at the top of a ladder. The interesting thing about bees (one of the many interesting things) is that even the most domesticated varieties might pick up and leave you someday or a wild variety might fall under the spell of man's hand, lured by sugar water and protection from mites or simply the hazy dream of a smoking bellow.
Perhaps you've heard about the sudden death of honeybees we've been having the last few years, huge populations dying out dramatically and unexpectedly. Most of the deaths are taking place in the large commercial migratory beekeeping sector. That's exactly what it sounds like-companies that tie up their bee hives, shove them on the back of a truck and cart them from farm to farm. It's mainly for pollination and without that pollination vegetable and fruit growth is detrimentally affected. David One and Two agree that the deaths aren't necessarily environmental factors such as pollution, the more likely cause is just plain old stress. Bees aren't meant for the highway (also the idea of a giant angry bee filled truck driving beside you sounds kind of like a bad idea on steroids). They're yet another example of something in nature that can be hugely beneficial to its caretakers when managed on a small scale, on site, but when taken to a commercial size will collapse in on itself.
Bees have some advantage. Unlike livestock shoved in CAFOs or genetically modified corn they can decide when they've had enough, close up their combs and set off for the wild wild woods, leaving us behind. With our sour yogurt.