One way or another, the choice will be made by our generation, but it will affect life on earth for all generations to come.
——Lester Brown, Earth Policy Institute
Two summers ago I spent a week at the unique Quillisascut Farm School of the Domestic Arts, located on one of the country’s premier, sustainable goat cheese farms in Eastern Washington. LoraLea and Rick Misterley, the visionary farmers and goat cheese masters who own Quillisascut, created this school to give chefs, culinary students and food writers an opportunity to get their hands dirty in the quest to better understand the intricate web that links producers and consumers with the land.
Our immersion into the simple life of the farm was immediate and complete from the time we checked into our rustic dormitory-style lodging and were handed our schedule for the week. I noted with alarm that each day’s program started at 5:30 a.m. in the goat pens at the top of the muddy hill behind our bunkhouse. The communal kitchen and cheese room, on the other hand, reminded me of the glistening teaching facilities at the Culinary Institute in Napa. It was clear where the Misterleys’ priorities lay.
We (chefs, food writers and farmers) not only milked those goats, we spent hours in the cheese room crafting chèvres of every ilk. And we actually turned out some surprisingly delicious cheeses. But still, that was kind of what I’d expected. The part that really made me think was the cooking¾our cooking. This was definitely a barebones vacation, and we paying students were expected to work in teams to prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner from the farm’s bounty for the group. In fact, almost exclusively from the farm’s bounty, which sounds sweet until you try to come up with an impressive menu (after all, we were in competing teams of chefs) with a larder like the one at Quillisascut.
It changed daily, but consisted mainly of lots of fantastic cheeses, farm-fresh duck eggs, great grains, some greens from the garden and scant little packets of meat. The Misterleys raised and butchered one cow a year and several goats. Like farm families for ages, that was all the meat there would be to serve their family—and, in this case, eight groups of fifteen who would be coming for the summer camps. Some days the pantry choices left me feeling like I’d opened one of those horrifying ingredient baskets on The Next Iron Chef—eggs, tomatoes, radishes and goat shoulder? Are you serious?
But, over a few days, my expectations of what a meal should look like began to shift. In effect, we were forced to discover how great a few simple ingredients could be if they were perfectly fresh. And that taking the time to cook the meal together made the food taste even better. Farro (an heirloom predecessor of wheat), topped with a perfectly cooked duck egg and a sauce we fashioned from freshly picked sorrel, turned out to be a stupendous communal supper around our farmhouse table.
That week I went through all the stages of grieving for my accustomed conveniences (sheets, my own room, salmon) and came out the other side with a visceral understanding of my relationship with the earth and our food that I’d never really been able to absorb from even the most well-intentioned books.
The Misterleys are pursuing a way of life on Quillisascut that’s at least three parts inspiration and—as far as I can tell—seven parts sweat. And while I’m not likely to be tethering goats out back or building a henhouse, the experience left me even more fired up and inspired to do what I can in my urban environment.
If I choose to order meat in a restaurant (something I do less and less often) I can’t always know for certain where it came from. But I can insist on buying only humanely-raised products when I shop for myself. I definitely peer into my fridge on those between-shopping-days with a more open mind. Now I think long and hard before throwing out limp celery—great for soup, or shriveled corn on the cob—delicious in succotash. And, I can and do make my own fresh cheeses now.
The result of spending an unwashed, exhausting week in that rustic utopia appears to be threefold. I’m saving money on my groceries, experiencing less of the low-grade guilt triggered by tossing out food I’ve allowed to become questionable, and I’m turning out more interesting, adventurous meals.