From farm to kitchen to table

Cyrus Kennedy and James Szkobel-Wolff enjoy the fruits of their labor. Photo by Sara Piazza
Cyrus Kennedy and James Szkobel-Wolff enjoy the fruits of their labor, and both agree that food you raise yourself tastes best. Photos by Sara Piazza

Story and photos by Sara Piazza - August 10, 2006

In keeping with the Farm Institute's mission to educate and engage with the community, and in conjunction with its production of the free-range chickens that it sells to local restaurants, some campers last week participated in the "chicken processing elective," as it is called. The unique class began in the chicken coops of Katama Farm and culminated in the kitchen of the Coach House restaurant at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown.

Explains Matthew Goldfarb, the institute's executive director: "The chicken is the best model of sustainable agriculture and humane livestock treatment, a great model of local food production. Where all other livestock on the Island has to get shipped off for processing, the chicken is a complete Island-grown product, and the kids are part of the whole process, from raising them from day-old chicks to caring for them every day."

A Farm Institute chicken, raised with the help of young campers. Photo by Sara Piazza
A Farm Institute chicken, raised with the help of young campers.

At any given time, The Farm Institute is raising approximately 200 Cornish Rock meat birds - a cross of the Plymouth Rock and the Cornish Hen - in movable "tractors," deep in the fields of Katama Farm. Teacher/Farmer Bridget Meigs says, "We rotate the chores; every kid at the camp works with the chickens. The kids are responsible for feeding them and giving them water and moving the tractors every day. By moving the tractors every day, the growing birds have access to fresh grass and insects, and the chickens give back to the farm by fertilizing the ground along the way.

"The kids who signed up for this elective had to be age eight or older and had to have their parents' permission. On Monday they cleaned the area and visited the birds, bonded with them, and we discussed how the birds were giving their lives. On Tuesday the birds were slaughtered, which the kids witnessed, and on Wednesday they took a taxi to restaurant."

Cyrus Kennedy, James Szkobel-Wolff, Chip Williams and Chef Joshua Hollinger watch carefully as Chef Travis Baptiste prepares the chicken for cooking in the Harbor View kitchen. Photo by Sara Piazza
Cyrus Kennedy, James Szkobel-Wolff, Chip Williams and Chef Joshua Hollinger watch carefully as Chef Travis Baptiste prepares the chicken for cooking in the Harbor View kitchen.

At The Coach House, the kids were given a hands-on cooking lesson by Executive Chef Joshua Hollinger, who taught them how to make chicken and dumplings, using the chickens they had helped to raise, of course. Chef Hollinger was happy to participate in this project.

"My Pennsylvania-Dutch roots inspired me to support the Farm Institute," said Mr. Hollinger. "The free-range chickens feed on the grasses of Katama, giving them a healthy lifestyle, and supporting a local farm also teaches the children the value of sustainable farming."

Chef Hollinger says that because of the source of the chicken, this chicken and dumpling dish is the restaurant's most popular item. "Chicken tastes like what it eats," he explains.

Last Wednesday, one of the hottest days of the summer, while the temperature in the kitchen registered well above 100 degrees, four campers, Cyrus Kennedy, Hudson Krebs, James Szkobel-Wolff, and Chip Williams were taught about sanitary kitchen procedures, which in the case of working with chicken includes frequent hand-washing and sanitizing; they watched sous-chef Travis Baptiste cut "their" chicken into pieces; and helped to roll dough for Mennonite-style potato dumplings. At the end of the lesson, the four were served a royal, sit-down lunch (of chicken and dumplings, of course, and ice-cold sodas) in the dining room.

So, how does it feel, growing your own food? Between mouthfuls, both Cyrus and James agreed, "It feels really good. You can taste the difference, definitely!"

Camper Chip Williams, who says this class was "really fun and interesting," has a new understanding of where food comes from. "The next time I eat chicken, I'll think of this."

Matthew Goldfarb is pleased with this project - the pilot of what will be one or two more during this summer - and says, "The kids made the connection, as in, 'Hey, we did the work, now we get to eat it.' They 'got it' that this was all local. They thanked the chef, and they felt honored."