A Summer in The Kingdom in the Clouds: Lessons From An Agrarian Society
Rafi Bildner ‘16 has worked as a Farm Manager for the Yale Sustainable Food Project. He writes about his summer in Bhutan:
It’s hard to imagine that just three weeks ago, I was waking up as cows and horses gnawed on artemesia and clover outside of my window, with wild dogs steadily barking in the distance, before walking to lectures in a early 20th century Dzong (traditional Bhutanese fortress), once used by Bhutan’s first king as a summer palace. As the days roll forward, and my time studying abroad in the Kingdom of Bhutan with the School for Field Studies fades evermore into the recent past, it seems as if each day, a new lesson from the the experience is unlocked and further unraveled.
Especially since arriving home here in Western Massachusetts a few days ago, where I farmed my family’s land for two seasons before coming to Yale, I have begun to really digest and reflect on what I learned, experienced and observed abroad, from an agriculture and food systems perspective. There were many things I didn’t fully comprehend about Bhutan prior to disembarking from that Drukair Royal Bhutan Airways Airbus two months ago; I certainly had no understanding of what an incredible case study the Kingdom would be, in terms of examining small-scale food systems.
I am typing these words from a part of our country that is undoubtedly a “local-food hot spot.” Especially right now, in the heart of the summer growing season, farms all over the area are bursting with new crops, farmer’s markets are chocked full with variety, and restaurants and stores have signs out on the street boasting about their locally-sourced options. Every year, new farms sprout up, restaurants with an emphasis on “farm-to-table cuisine” open their doors, and the Berkshire Co-Op Market struggles to find enough room on their shelves to display all of the locally-produced options. But what has become incredibly clear to me, even after only being back for a few short days, is that as much as this type of food system continues to grow in this area, at the end of the day, there is one significant roadblock going forward: At the end of the day, “local food” in our society is still mostly a novelty, a garnish, rather than the main course. We are attempting to bring back a food system that was once in place in our country many generations ago, but it is not engrained in the fiber of society.
Before studying and researching in Bhutan, I had never fully experienced what it is like to live in a truly agriculture-based society. While Bhutan is not immune to issues affecting rural communities around the world (the younger generation’s desire to live and work in cities, the inability to sustain a family purely from commercial farming), agriculture is still as engrained in the culture as eating itself. There isn’t that same disconnect that we suffer here in America, between food and land, and thus, in many ways, farming governs daily life. Again, I want to be clear that Bhutan is certainly not a food-system utopia; it faces many challenges, and small-scale agriculture in the Kingdom is not immune to global market pressures to scale-up. But it would be hard to ignore the fact that many communities in Bhutan are fully centered around farming. The village where my field research was based, Ugyencholing, in the central Dzongkhag (district) of the Kingdom (called Bumthang), is a perfect example of this. While strictly subsistence farming has given way to growing cash crops like potatoes (to meet a demand for more disposable income on hand), families still grow almost everything they consume on a yearly basis, themselves. What this means is that even the younger generations who are off studying in school, or working in other cities and towns still have a connection to the land on which they grew up, and come back to assist their family members with planting and harvesting. The year is based around farming, in fact, school vacations still coincide with the key agricultural periods of the year. It was clear to me that even if I met someone who had an occupation other than farming, at least one of their family members was engaged in agriculture; throughout the duration of my time in the country, I never met a Bhutanese citizen who wasn’t connected with the land in one way or another.
While there are a host of challenges that the Kingdom’s food system faces, unlike in many parts of the U.S. (and certainly throughout New England), a small-scale food system is very much in place, and engrained in societal culture. Because we are already so disconnected from the land on which our food is grown, and the farmers that grow it, and just about every intermediate step in between, “local food” is just an accent to an already established way of life. My experience this past summer has encouraged me to continue to examine how (and if it is even possible) to truly make this a system that people can rely upon, here in the United States. How does the local food movement in regions like New England become a food system? It would be naive to think of Bhutan as a country we can entirely base our efforts off of - after all, the Kingdom has less than a million people within its borders - but there is no doubt that there is something to be gained from re-examining what it means to have agriculture fully engrained in societal life.
Tashi delek, and hope to see you all around the farm this coming year!
The local vegetable market in Jakar, close to where I studied
Presenting my research to government officials in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital city
With my friend Dechen, who helped interpret while I researched in the village of Ugyencholing
A view of Ugyencholing’s wheat fields - almost ready for harvesting
Onagh MacKenzie ‘15 writes about her summer in Sitka:
By the grace of the universe, luck, and a generous fellowship, I managed to find my way back to Sitka, Alaska this summer. I happened upon this special island community in Southeast Alaska through a food-related internship last summer and promptly fell in love with its spirit, culture, and mountains that kiss the sea. Needless to say, I’ve been ready to return ever since my plane’s wheels took off last season.
I had been back in Sitka for a week when I got the call. It was a friend’s father, Floyd, on the other end of the line. Floyd was a longtime fisherman, handyman, and an expert in random but countless fields, as all Sitkans seem to be. He invited me out to fish; an opportunity for ocean travel, general fun, and a potential stocking of the freezer. I immediately accepted.
All suited up in my mustang suit, an unsinkable, orange, full body flotation device, and I was ready to hop in the skiff. We headed out to Biorca, an island about forty-five minutes on relatively calm water from Sitka. It was Salmon Derby weekend in town, and the flashy sport fishing boats watched our well-worn skiff amble by enviously. It was the crack of dawn and we had time and the tide on our side. The competing boats couldn’t head out from the harbor until 7 am.
Outboard engine slowed and the waves making their presence known, we began the ritual baiting of the hook. Watching a seasoned fisherman complete this initial task, one instantly becomes aware that fishing is steeped in tradition. Floyd prefers to use herring as bait, meticulously cutting the small dart of silver on the underside, down the belly to the tail. His confident hands hook one hook in the fish’s flesh, leaving the second to snag the too-curious salmon. A needle is then pierced through the fish, dragging the line through the eye. The eyeballs are kept in their socket at all costs, maintaining every possible shred of herring authenticity. The line then wraps around the chin, precisely twice. Floyd’s signature flair comes when he curls the herring, right at the neck and inserts a toothpick to keep the neck turned, giving the fish a realistic spin when trailing in the water. When I ask about this method, Floyd admits that he doesn’t know where he learned this and isn’t sure that it works better than any others, but it’s Floyd’s flourish and he’ll practice it as long as he fishes.
Almost immediately after we cast and start to troll, moving forward very slowly in the skiff, we sense a tug on the line. When Floyd places the pole in my greenhorn hands, I am immediately flustered, worried I don’t have enough arm strength to hoist what I could swear is a record-breaking King salmon on the other end. Floyd is completely unruffled however and clearly amused by my stress. After a few seconds of my unaided floundering, he steps in with seasoned wisdom: hold my pole up and don’t fight the salmon. Let the fish run. A tired King salmon is what we want in our boat.
And a tired King it is. Two in fact by the time we decide to head in, only one short of the three salmon allowed for a subsistence salmon permit in this opening. We stop at a floating cleaning station on our way into the harbor. As we de-head and gut our Kings, Floyd shares more local knowledge. Kings, I learn, have a different shape, tail form, patterns, and purple coloring on the scales, from any of the other four pacific salmon species, Pink, Coho, Chum, or Sockeye. We let our cleaning scraps slide into the ocean, an easy snack for some lucky sea lions.
We pull up to my host family’s driveway and Floyd breaks the news. He already has enough salmon in his fridge and he doesn’t eat frozen salmon. The logical conclusion: I am begged to take home two freshly caught, twenty-pound King salmon.
My host-parents, not fishermen themselves, are clearly overjoyed. Hours later, covered in vibrant orange flesh and surprisingly sticky scales, Peter, my host-dad, and I have learned to fillet a salmon. Definitely not the best fillet job an Alaskan salmon has seen, but it will have to pass. Cleaning our hands up a bit, we can’t help ourselves. We head to the computer and look up Alaskan King salmon fillet prices in an upscale Seattle market. By our rough metrics, we have over $400 of pink protein in our fridge.
After we bury the skeletons in the garden for added nutrients, we break out the phone book, calling up every non-fishing family friend we can think of. Unsurprisingly we’re met with overjoyed responses. Peter and I load up the car and begin the salmon drop-off. Laden with hugs, recipe suggestions, and a dozen fresh eggs from a recipient’s flock, we return home to our own bounty, excited for a week of salmon-centric dining and completing what we fondly coin to be our “circle of salmon happiness.”
Sophie Mendelson BK ‘15 has worked as a farm manager and a senior advisor for the Yale Sustainable Food Project. She is spending the summer working for an investment firm.
This summer I am working for an institution named after a park named after a creek named after a rock. The irony is inescapable. What I do each day has very little to do with parks, and even less to do with creeks. Does it have anything to do with rocks? From my desk I can hear the jackhammers chewing through the sidewalk six floors below, feel the vibrations humming through the foundation of the building, up, up, up. What is our foundation made of? This is the question that I am trying to answer.
I have to admit that I felt a small, secret thrill at the prospect of working this summer in an industry that has been deemed conventionally Important. Ah, people who did not know me would say, nodding, as I told them that I would be working in finance. That makes sense, they would think. I would not have to explain myself this time, not have to face the unspoken accusation in their questions, You go to Yale but you’re working on a farm? You go to Yale but you want to be a farmer? (Translation: You are wasting your talent. You are wasting your good luck. You are wasting an opportunity that so many others would use to do something Important). Despite my deep reservations about working for an investment firm, and despite my conviction in the importance of farming, I could not help but feel some amount of relief that this summer, at least, I would not have to stand guilty as charged.
I think it is this matter of Importance, though, that sits at the root of a discomfort with the financial world that I have not been able to shake. When I’m farming, I feel hugely important, though on a very small scale. I matter immensely to the lives of the plants and animals that it is my job to care for. I make a difference in a tangible way to the people who eat the food that I help produce. At the firm, I sometimes feel Important – combing through international financial news, analyzing managers for their potential to make money multiply, watching Bloomberg play over the flat screen TVs that flank either end of the office. The scale of the Importance that I feel at the firm is large, pulsing through a network of relationships that spans the continents. Expanding, contracting, warping – a global economy, changing in constant response to itself. But the grand Importance of this system feels inflated and even empty, a huge balloon floating untethered, tugging us all skyward (or so at least we’d like to think). It is Important because we have all agreed that it is. Where an ecosystem indisputably is, an economy, for the most part, is imagined.
Which brings us back to the question of foundations. I feel myself straying into literalist territory: it’s only real if I can touch it. I reject that notion. But when the connection to anything “real” can only be drawn at the top (the experienced fall-out of profits and losses) and seldom at the bottom (the relationship between price and value), the economic system begins to look precariously top-heavy. The Barbie model of capitalism – she can’t stand up on her own.
The economy strikes me as a system of metaphors. Numbers standing for relationships, for worth, for people’s lives expanding and contracting. Metaphors that sometimes forget what they are referring to: parks and creeks and rocks. Six floors down they are tearing up the sidewalk and planting trees.
Let the Sun Shine
Sophie Mendelson BK ‘15 is a farm manager and a senior advisor for the Yale Sustainable Food Project.
Last night, I, along with a large assemblage of relatives, went to see a cousin perform in a production of the musical Hair. During intermission, the adults remarked to one another about how things were back then, remembering being at college during the hippie era, attending rallies, and marching on Washington. How different it was, they laughed to each other, and then turned to me. But you, as a young person, what do you think of it? I blinked, stunned not only by being asked to represent the perspective of my entire generation, but also by the clear disjunction between the perspectives of my older relatives and mine. How different it was? “It all seems so familiar,” I replied.
Sure, we dress a little differently now (though maybe not as much as some might think…), but in the production I see much more of what I share with those young people than what I don’t. These aren’t just aimless hippies – they’re reacting against a catastrophe that bears down on their generation like a starved predator, leading to the suffering of a collective pre-traumatic stress disorder. Anger, energy, creativity, fear, helplessness, desperation in the face of an impending and probably inevitable tragedy of a colossal scale – I have experienced all of those emotions. No, my government isn’t trying to send me to die in a senseless war that I don’t even agree with in the first place, but the threat of climate change parallels the Vietnam War in more ways than one. We don’t fully understand what is going on; from what we do understand, it is clear that the poor and underprivileged will suffer first and worst; many lives are at stake; and nobody is safe. I look at the actors on the stage and I see my friends, fiercely insisting on a future alternative to the one that seems to be closing in on us, and demanding that the government and the public step up and do their part to steer us down a different path. We too, are fighting to preserve what is beautiful and what is worthy of love; and we too are afraid that we won’t be able to.
There is one difference between the Hair-era flower children and the present day youth environmental movement, though, which stands out to me. In the face of a random draft that could at no notice steal their lives away and the dragging on of a horrific and hopeless war, the hippies decided to disconnect. Society was asking them to do something unconscionable, so they left society. But that is not what I see happening with the environmental movement. Where the hippies disengaged, we are engaging. Because in this case, it is not just our American generation at stake – it’s every generation to come, in every part of the world. Disengaging is not an option, because this will not pass with time. We can’t wait it out. So, instead, we have to take action, and hang onto the hope that it’s not yet too late, and that there is still something left that we have in our power to save.
Rather than dropping out, we are digging in. And in the case of myself, and many of my peers at the YSFP, we are doing so in the most literal sense. Farming, to me, represents a chance to make a change for the better in some kind of tangible way, by engaging in a constructive, creative, and necessary process. So often with the environmental movement it can feel like attempting to deconstruct the Wall of China with a nail file; the opposition just seems so massive. But if that’s the task we face, and that’s the tool we have, the only way that I know to go about it is to choose just one stone and go at it with all of my file-wielding might. And when that stone is reduced to dust, I’ll move onto the next one. This is what going into alternative agriculture means to me – a conscious defiant act undertaken at a local scale but with cumulative and meaningful effects. And eventually, maybe, with enough help, the wall will fall, and we will, as in the song, “let the sunshine in.”
Ron DeSantis: Creating “The Fellowship of a Table”
The letters “CMC” are stitched into Ron DeSantis’s white coat. The terse abbreviation does not do justice to his full title: Certified Master Chef. He’s one of only 67 people alive in the country who can honestly print that on their business card. The lofty epithet of “master” was bestowed upon him after he passed a rigorous ten-day exam that tests one’s skills at freestyle menu planning and food preparation, as well as one’s knowledge of gastronomy and nutrition. Only 12 percent of people pass all the stages; a Navy SEAL candidate can expect a higher success rate.
He is Yale Dining’s current (and first) Director of Culinary Excellence; the position was created for him. Don’t let the “master chef” designation lead you to think Ron wears a cape everywhere or acts holier-than-thou. Once he began speaking at a Master’s Tea in Trumbull College, he struck me as humble and down-to-earth. If he took off the coat and told me he was a barber, I would believe him.
Ron began his three-decade-long professional culinary career in the U.S. Marine Corps, where he went through cooking school and placed 28th in a class of 30. He got better with practice, and after leaving the service enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America, “the original CIA.” His Jedi-like education continued when he moved to Germany, which he felt attracted to because all the great chefs he had met at the CIA seemed to have foreign accents. He originally planned to stay for a year; that turned into five years, because it took a while to convince this one pretty German girl to marry him.
As a chef, Ron has cooked at restaurants like the Ritz Carlton, taught at the CIA, served as the presidential chef at Camp David, and consulted for Sonic, McDonald’s, and Borders (he apologizes for the sandwiches they once served in their café).
Food has the potential to evoke strong emotions in people, and Ron says his mission as a chef is to craft memorable experiences with the dishes he serves up, whether it’s to George Bush or some bearded Yale junior scribbling incessantly in a pocket notebook. To him, the Pixar film Ratatouille—particularly the scene where the restaurant critic eats the peasant food and is taken back to a meal his mother made him when he was a young boy—really nails the joy of the culinary arts. Every meal is an opportunity to make someone’s day great.
Eager to show us just how great our days can get, Ron announces that he has talked enough about himself, and leads us into the Trumbull master’s kitchen for a cooking demo. The dish he has in mind is pasta with sautéed vegetables and a white bean velouté sauce. It’s both vegan and gluten-free. Ron sees the trend in American eating towards a more plant-based diet as a good thing, and tries to practice it himself.
He floats to the front of the cutting board, swifty picking up the chef’s knife and beginning to chop up shiitake and cremini mushrooms. The up-and-down movement of the blade reminds me of a sewing machine. Then it ceases.
“Of course,” Ron says, “I’m just showing off.”
He then demonstrates how to chop properly, first on the remaining mushrooms, then an onion and some sun-dried tomatoes. The tips he shares—hone a knife with a steel every time you use it to keep it sharp, place a wet paper towel under the cutting board to keep it from slipping, fold your non-dominant fingers and rest the middle phalanges against the blade—all sound familiar to me; I’ve heard them from cookbooks and other chefs I’ve encountered. It pleases me to recognize a canon of cooking.
Now it’s time to make some sauce. “All blenders are not created equal,” Ron tells us. Well, his blender, “a Vitamix knock-off,” appears to be at the top of the heap. If kitchen appliances were evaluated for overall quality by their potential to cause damage when dropped on someone’s head, this one would be a winner. Ron pours in some cooked white beans and vegetable broth that had been simmering on the gas stove, and then kicks the blender into high gear. The roar of the blades spinning at 30,000 RPM, pulverizing the ingredients into a white paste, compels Ron to yell in order for all of us to hear.
“You really just want to let it run for a while! When the food’s as smooth as possible, you unlock the most nutrients out of it!” That part sounded like something I had heard on a late-night NutriBullet infomercial, so I asked him if it was really true. “Oh yeah!” I guess you can believe some things you hear on TV.
The sauce is composed of just the two ingredients, beans and broth. The simplicity lends potential for a wide variety of meal types. “I would serve this dish to anybody,” Ron tells us as the blender whirlpool dies down. “The beans and stock make a great mother sauce that can be used in all sorts of cuisine. Mediterranean, Asian, whatever.”
Let’s go back to the veggies. Ron tosses the chopped mushrooms into a pan over high heat, with no oil. It’s not long before they begin to sizzle.
“Hear that?” Ron asks us. “Cooking is all of your senses.” He keeps his distance from the whispering mushrooms. “Everybody wants to move stuff around when it’s in a hot pan like this. Well, don’t worry, it’s cooking!” If you don’t disturb the food while it’s cooking, you get more caramelization, therefore more flavor. Ron merely monitors them with a watchful eye. “The equipment never burns food. You do.”
As if he’s received some signal that’s invisible to the rest of us, he snatches up a bottle and drizzles some extra-virgin olive oil into the pan. The hearty Italian aroma of browning mushrooms and hot oil fills the kitchen. Ron notices the pleasant change in the group’s expressions. “See, it’s the smallest things! You can make a room full of people salivate just by sautéing some onions!”
He picks up the pan and carries it around to give us all a peek at the delicious alchemy that’s taking place inside. Heating the mushrooms reduces their moisture content; this causes them to shrink and concentrates their umami flavor.
Into the pan go the diced onion and julienned tomatoes. He leaves it alone for a bit (caramelization!), then dumps the white bean velouté sauce onto the veggies. It smothers the sizzling. Next comes the steaming rotini pasta. Stirring the end result together, Ron mentions how rotini is an ideal noodle to use for a dish like this; the sauce invades every nook and cranny of the pasta surface.
After about 25 minutes total prep and cooking time, the meal is ready. Ron spoons some of the pasta into a bowl and brings it to his face. He takes a slow whiff of it, then holds his spoon in the air like a confident professor holds a piece of chalk. “As a cook,” he says, “What should you do before serving your guests the main meal?”
We know this one. “Taste it,” we answer.
He shakes his head. “Torture them!” He plunges the spoon into the dish and takes the first bite.
Jackson Blum ‘15 is a farm managing intern.
Product Development Specialist intern Shizue RocheAdachi ‘15 makes a mean salsa. Here, she shares a radio piece reflecting on her time as a ranch hand.
There is a grace to death––a beauty to be found in the heavy moments that linger as present becomes past. The slaughter of an animal is rarely afforded such moments of grace, however, as carcasses are hung and processed in rapid motion, each worker on the slaughterhouse floor making a repeated slicing motion. Yet when I had the opportunity, as a ranch hand, to participate in a field slaughter after one of our steers had broken his leg in the cattle guard, I discovered that there was another way to carry an animal into death.
This is a five minute piece I put together of some audio taken on that cool morning, as wet clouds hung low providing a welcome respite from the summer heat. It is not a somber or gruesome piece, rather I like to think I captured the sweetness of the event and the sense of ceremony. There is a respect afforded as the eighty-year-old butcher, Tom, pulls the skin from the steer he lovingly refers to as “sweet pea” but there is also an understanding that this is not something to treat as precious. A steer breaks his leg, he is shot, he is skinned, he is cut open, he is gutted, he is sliced in half, and he is loaded into the back of a pick-up truck to hang in a cooler before being broken down into cuts. This is the way it goes.
Miya’s Sushi: How to Adapt Traditional Cuisine So Both Sushi and Ocean Life Can Survive
Jackson Blum ‘15, a farm intern, drew upon his love of a local sushi restaurant and a Yale College course he took to make an informative and entertaining podcast.
This past fall semester, I took Karen Seto’s Environmental Studies seminar “Urbanization, Food Systems, and the Environment.” In lieu of a boring final assessment, like a test or research paper, the students each created some kind of outreach project that presented some of the class’s takeaway lessons in a publicly digestible form. I elected to have a little fun and produce a podcast. My subject: my favorite New Haven sushi restaurant.
In early December, the class got together for a closing dinner, catered by Miya’s Sushi. The head chef and manager of Miya’s, Bun Lai, said a few words about the philosophy of his restaurant and its place in the modern world of sushi. I recorded Bun’s remarks about the popular Japanese cuisine and turned it into a podcast that illustrates the perils that many fish species experience in the face of the modern seafood industry and how one New Haven restaurateur and sushi chef hopes to address these challenges.