In my relatively brief tenure as a Vermonter, I have come to think of one product in particular as this state’s culinary identifier: cheese. I know, I know: maple syrup, right? Syrup, schmyrup. It’s everywhere in New England and everybody claims it as their own quintessential product. But who can resist the cheerful sight of the folk art-style Holstein on local dairy farm signage? Or on the label of some delicious concoction in jars sitting atop the local co-op’s shelves? Better still, who can resist sampling the dizzying array of artisanal cheeses in shops all over the place here? Er, not moi.
Not long ago I mentioned to Handsome Chef Boyfriend that grocery shopping with him was second only to dining out as my absolute favorit-est thing in the ever growing pantheon of Fun Stuff We Do Together. (He is after all a chef.) I marvel at the inspection—the squeezing, sniffing, poking, prodding, rolling around in the hands, pondering, and otherwise examining under a microscope—to which he will subject a common grocery store item. Frequently I find myself thinking he is right there behind me, only to discover he has evaporated and I am talking to myself. I have learned to backtrack one aisle, and there he will be, black reading glasses on the end of his nose, poring over the label on some product or other. Hmph, he will say; I could make this stuff, no problem.
It can take us a while to get out of the store.
Eating out with him evokes similar reactions, but most of the time I can at least keep track of him better in a restaurant setting. Again, nothing escapes scrutiny, from the smallest serving detail to the most egregious issues with menus. It does not bother me one jot; I find it enlightening on the whole, and more often than not entertaining, not unlike discovering all the groovy behind-the-scenes stuff you learned about The Wizard of Oz once you outgrew your early childhood enchantment with it. The incredibly real-looking tornado was not real; Margaret Hamilton injured herself falling from the lift in the notorious melting scene near the end; and the aluminum-based makeup that was used for the Tin Man caused a horrible allergic reaction in Buddy Ebsen, who was subsequently replaced by Jack Haley in that role because of it. Call me a dork, but I love that kind of stuff. Ditto professional chef and kitchen trivia.
So yesterday HCB and I struck out without much of a plan after early and midday flea marketing, ultimately finding ourselves in the middle of more mac and cheese than you could stir with a stick at Windsor’s Harpoon Brewery. Twenty restaurateurs made their own version of the darling of American comfort food with Vermont Farmstead cheeses, to be washed down with Harpoon’s delicious microbrews (pairings suggested, of course). For a modest admission price the event organizers slapped an orange band on patrons’ wrists and turned us all loose with forks in hand. Each competitor handed out small plastic cups of their creations, proudly announcing special ingredients that would ostensibly set theirs apart from the rest; tasters were given a page to make notes about each entry. Professional judges announced prize winners; patrons voted for their own.
HCB never tells anybody that he is a chef, ever, when we are in public. So when the various chefs and their staff at this event started laying on the foodie talk thick, I could not wait to hear (and watch) his reaction the second we turned around from the tables. By and large we were in agreement about whose creations were exceptional (only a couple), whose were horrible—and there were some—and whose were plain old pedestrian (why bother?).
The Harpoon was delicious. I am only an occasional beer drinker, ditto HCB; yesterday we had our beer for the year, sitting in comfy Adirondack chairs around an outdoor fire pit, listening to a band play classic rock-n-roll, watching mac and cheese revelers. Not a bad way to spend a cool, overcast early fall afternoon. I will say this: twenty tiny cups of the gooey stuff add up in no time flat. As HCB so artfully observed, you feel like you’ve got a lead pipe in your gut after you eat all that. Which is precisely how we felt as we lumbered back to the car.
To my Tennessee friends: Vermont has us beat in bringing freshness to the table. No, really. I have observed two reasons for this: Vermont is rural, and—significantly—most everyone I know drives right through that rural farm country on their daily commute to and from work. It’s pretty much unavoidable, unless you live and work in one of the smallish towns here, and even then there is a good chance the local co-op’s shelves are stocked with a fair amount of locally grown and manufactured food. Local farms operate beautiful farm stands during the growing and harvesting seasons; there is a particular one I’ve frequented during the relatively short summer here, and I am already anticipating how much I will miss its gorgeous bounty after it closes next month. There is fresh, and then there’s fresh. You just have to be careful about the potential for all this freshness to wreck your waistline. Ahem.
So now I’m adding tastings to the favorites list. And maybe a Holstein in my backyard.