By Carol Ann Sayle
Winter…our favorite culinary season! Even the Boggy Creek chickens cluck in joyous anticipation for the cold-season greens that take over the farm from November to April.
Just after dawn on a December day, the harvest ladies (the mother-daughter Marias, Andrea and I) head out to the field to cut broccoli and cauliflower, pull root crops, and bunch greens. But first we have to pause and admire the beauty before us.
In undulating rows stretching over two hundred feet, south to north, various greens, freshly dewed and intensely colored under a leaden sky, paint a vivid canvas: green chards ribbed in red, white and yellow; broccoli leaves tinted viridian green; the gray-green “bubbled” dinosaur kale against the bright greens of spinach, carrots, snow peas and arugula; the glossy green romaines, some freckled with burgundy; and the warmer-hued cauliflower and mustard greens. The view is pure ecstasy for greens lovers. We taste all of it with our eyes first.
Now out in the field, bundled against the cold and donned in canary-yellow slickers if it’s raining, we bend, constantly, to the task of selecting the best leaves for bunches, then place the individual leaves in one hand while we cut more. Often, for support and to save our backs, we prop on one knee the elbow of the hand that’s grasping the growing bunch. Finally, the unwieldy bouquet is corralled with a rubber band, the ends of the stalks trimmed, and then it’s placed atop others in the waiting wheelbarrow.
We aim for at least 10 or 12 varieties of greens for market, including the leaves of Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower. Many years ago, our friend John Welsch suggested (and was enthusiastically seconded by our chickens) that these brassica leaves are quite edible. Indeed, there is even more nutrition in the leaves and stalks than in the flower buds.
Unfortunately, through the winter months, the chickens are confined to their large run, which, tragically, has a great view of the fields. If they were to roam free all day, their wise lust for greens would easily demolish the first six feet of every row. However, any visitor walking the farm in winter knows that this is not an iron-clad prohibition. Monitored visitation to the bounty is sometimes tolerated and the little telltale triangular pieces of pecked-out spots on the leaves at hen-level are the proof. (Folks not-in-the-know must think we have a real problem growing a complete row of good-looking greens!)
To further compensate for the torturous view from the henhouse, I harvest cosmetically-imperfect larger leaves and haul armloads of them to the run, where the deliriously happy occupants quickly eat them down to the ribs—pinning the stalks to the ground with their feet for leverage. Of course, they would finish off the stalks and ribs, too, if they had teeth—another injustice.
In wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow, the vibrant, official bunches of greens are transported to the “salad shed” where they are rinsed, placed stems-down in tubs holding an inch or two of water, then immediately trundled to the walk-in cooler. There, they will drink and rest for tomorrow’s big performance.
On the market tables the next morning, the stars of winter quickly disappear in the first hour. The harvesters hustle to provide an encore via bunches brought still quivering with life from the field to the waiting receptacles. “It’s better than growing it yourself,” one customer tells me. “Yes,” I concur. “You didn’t have to bend over, and you didn’t have to share with the chickens.”
Indeed, small sacrifices are required from both human and hen in order to offer and enjoy the resplendent edible rainbow of cold-loving greens.