Patchwork: Regular potlucks make strong community

Editor’s note: Our guest columnist this week, Theresa Gleason, and her husband Ben own Gleason Grains in Bridport, where Ben has grown wheat and milled flour since 1980. Theresa baked and sold Gleason Grains bread at the Middlebury Farmers Market and Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op for several years. She currently helps out on the farm and is a psychotherapist in private practice in Middlebury.
One April afternoon, a group of friends and neighbors, mainly organic farmers, came to a potluck at our home. Notably, we all mentioned how much work we had to do. It was a glorious spring day; 65 degrees, calm, sunny, not a cloud in the sky, the kind of day when farmers take advantage of every waking moment. Yet, here we sat together, idly, for two hours during the middle of the day, eating a good lunch, talking about the usual things.
Potluck Scalloped Potatoes
In Ohio and Indiana, where I grew up, my mother made these scalloped potatoes for special occasions. I have since learned (courtesy of Jacques Pepin), that this is a potato gratin. I often take these to our potlucks, because it is fairly simple to make a large dish, and everyone loves creamy potatoes, especially children!
This is a great localvore dish since potatoes store really well in our root cellar. We usually have a few left in May, just before we start eating asparagus and spinach. We also use our own stored onions, our flour in the white sauce, and usually local milk and butter.
4 lbs. potatoes (about 12 medium)
6 Tbs. butter
6 Tbs. flour
2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
5 C. whole milk (2 percent works fine as well)
1 large onion, finely chopped
Slice the unpeeled potatoes in the food processor or cut thin slices by hand.
Heat 6 Tbs. butter in a saucepan over low heat until melted. Blend in flour, salt and pepper. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until mixture is smooth and bubbly; remove from the heat. Stir in milk. Heat to boiling, stirring constantly. Boil and stir one minute.
Arrange the potatoes in a 15x10x2 glass baking dish (alternatively, you can use two gratin dishes for this amount). Arrange in three layers, topping each of the first two layers with half of the onion and 1/3 of the white sauce. Top with remaining potatoes and sauce. Cover and cook in 350-degree oven for 30 minutes. Uncover and cook until the potatoes are tender, 60 to 70 minutes longer.
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One family had a new cow, a Guernsey who was ready to calf. Someone had new baby goats and invited anyone who wished to come feed them. We had a long discussion about the mischievous personalities of the goats we had known. We relished Judy’s mashed parsnips and carrots, and Kirk’s roasted turkey. We decided to get together near the end of June to see the piece of land that Ken recently bought.
Several years ago, when we formed this informal group of organic farmers, we thought we would start an activist group, maybe work on legislation that would be of benefit for farmers, maybe get a little exposure for our farms; instead we started a community. We gather together monthly for a potluck at someone’s home. During this time, as many of 20 of us discuss politics, share our successes and failures, eat and laugh. Some of us helped elect one of our numbers to the statehouse.
Primarily though, we talk, laugh, and gather together to eat and celebrate the glorious food our families have raised. We have learned in our years of monthly potlucks that what holds us together is not a set of goals or achievements, but the gathering itself, a community where we feel cherished for who and what we are. It is this gathering, this community, which helps inspire us to continue farming and make our way, to create a world that is more about what we value and not about how much money we can accrue in our bank accounts.
The defining moment for this group of friends came a few years back when we decided to hold a series of educational events about farming. We invited guest facilitators to a series of three meetings where we placed ourselves on a panel to share the stories of our farms. We thought we might encourage future farmers, or at the very least share with curious others the reasons we find farming to be such a compelling way of life. Fifty to 60 people showed up to each meeting, and they didn’t want to leave at the end of our time together! So what was it, we wondered that brought so many people to hear us?
We came to think that it was the hope and courage we offered them. Farmers who make their living from the land simply must believe that there is always a next season. Not all of the stories we told our audience had perfect or even happy endings. Will and Judy’s organic crop was completely wiped out one year by a neighboring farmer who sprayed herbicides by plane. The herbicide drifted to Will and Judy’s land. (A group of neighbors organized a benefit to help them recoup financially.) Other friends tragically lost their entire herd of pigs when they escaped from their pen and found a pond where they all drowned. We had plenty of stories of morning sojourns to the henhouse in below-zero weather, crop failures and contaminations, low pay or none, 14-hour days and years on end without vacation.
Despite these stories, we are all reasonably happy people, willing to get up each day and go at it again. Next season may produce the bumper crop, each spring the wheat comes up. Yesterday, April 21, was cold. When I looked out the window and saw the rain, sleet and snow, I complained loudly, pulled the blinds, heated up the oven and decided to bake bread. Ben went off in the toasty warm car to deliver some flour and eggs. I called Bay Hammond over at Doolittle Farm. She was cheerfully collecting all her warmest rain gear and boots and heading out across the muddy barn yard to feed the lambs. Spring always comes.

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