When faced with the opportunity to give an award in the 2006 Independent Food Festival for excellence to a single food item, I was looking at a crowded playing field. The instructions we received said: "You should feel very strongly and passionately that the recipient deserves the recognition and that the food you are describing is truly special."
I went through all my photographs and blog entries from the past year, to refresh my memory. (I recommend this. Go back through your blog and see all the wonderful food you've eaten. If you don't have a blog, use mine. Heh.) How could I pick just one thing from a list that included a Marin Sun Farms steak dinner on a foggy hilltop in Marin County, prepared by Chef Michael Tusk and the Quince staff; multiple meals and dozens of courses at Manresa, several trips to the Ferry Plaza marketplace, a chef's tasting lunch at Dévi in NYC, dinner at Blue Hill Stone Barns prepared by Chefs Michael Anthony and Dan Barber—or the figs, crosnes, cardoons and more that farmer Peter Jacobsen had handed to us during the visit to Jacobsen's Orchard in Yountville, where everything he grows goes into the kitchen at French Laundry? And what about that corn-lobster bisque I had at Theo's restaurant in my little village of Soquel, which was so good it brought tears to the eyes of Jasmine Roohani and Kirsten Roehler, the farmers who had grown the corn? And then there is that sandwich I get at River Street Cafe and Cheese Shop: Niman Ranch steak with a cognac-gorgonzola sauce, that I've recommended nonstop since I had my first one in December. Yow.
Not to mention the things my farmer friends grew: Cynthia Sandberg's Love Apple Farm heirloom tomatoes (145 kinds—though I didn't taste them all), Rancho Gordo beans, Thomas Farm "Red Gold" potatoes, Dirty Girl Produce shelling beans or haricot verts, the yellow raspberries at Live Earth Farm, Happy Boy Farms' pattypan squash, the delicate pea sprouts from New Natives, Marina Di Chioggia pumpkins from Crystal Bay Farm, Swanton Berry Farm's strawberries, the amazing peppers from Everett Family Farm, the beautiful baby carrots that Ronald grows on Windmill Farms, or Betty Van Dyke's Blenheim apricots, so fragrant and flavorful?
This is not an easy choice to make.
I made a list and thought and thought. I quickly eliminated anyone who wasn't actually growing the food I'd eaten, which makes sense if you know why I'm blogging at all. I then decided I would give my award to a local grower, and thought some more. When I chose the winner, I knew it was the right choice for so many reasons.
My first visit to TLC Ranch (which by the way, stands for Tastes Like Chicken Ranch, and not the other TLC you're perhaps expecting) took place at the end of August, 2005. I'd met Jim Dunlop and Becky Thistlethwaite, pictured at left with baby Fiona, at the farmers markets, and they were gracious enough to let me come take a look at how their operation works. (I wrote about it here.)
Like so many of the beautiful places I visit, everything is pretty low-tech. And like so many of these places, it works because of the depth of Jim and Becky's commitment and love—to each other and to the ranch—and plain old hard work. In August, Jim was raising broilers and egg-laying chickens, and experimenting with feeding the chickens the clabbered milk from Claravale Dairy. (Claravale is one of the only raw organic dairies in the state of California.) Jim had been reading lots of old farm books, and had learned that milk is an ideal component of a healthy diet for chickens. Without being too graphic about it, he said he could notice a difference in the way the coops smelled, after feeding them milk for a short while. The milk, which had been sitting in a drum in the sun for a couple of days, smelled like clean yogurt.
Spending the afternoon with Jim as he worked the pasture, moving the portable pens, hauling huge sacks of feed on his broad shoulders, I found myself realizing anew that farmers and ranchers like him embody the maxim: "Work is love made visible." Anyone who spends ten minutes with Jim realizes that he is raising his animals in the healthiest possible way, from time-honored traditions that supercede bureaucratic standards.
I managed to obtain one of the last of these milk-fed birds—which I jokingly call "Sunday Dinner Chickens"—at the market, and it was a revelation. Part of the reason for this is that you can just see how clean the animals are. Having been one who (regrettably) purchased Foster Farms chicken or whatever was on sale at Safeway or Trader Joe's for so many years, I had no idea of the difference in appearance between a healthy chicken and one injected with water/salt/phosphates. TLC Ranch chickens are pinkish white, not a sickly pale yellowish white. They are neither watery nor squishy. The flesh is firm, clean, and smells healthy. (Have you recently sniffed your supermarket chicken? No, and you don't want to, because you know better, right? Don't think it's just because it needs cooking.)
The first time I roasted one of Jim's chickens, I used a recipe from A New Way to Cook, a "foolproof" method. It involved starting the bird breast-side down at a high temperature, and flipping it and lowering the temperature later. In the roasting pan were baby carrots, shallots, and onions. It couldn't have been simpler, and it couldn't have been better. I can say, in all honesty, that with the exception of a chicken dish I'd had at Manresa last summer, which I am convinced had the chicken marinated in bacon, wine, and crack cocaine, that I have never had a more flavorful chicken in my life. You could taste the milky sweetness in the flesh.
These chickens just flew off the shelves, so to speak, at every farmers market I attended. (Subsequently, every chicken I had from TLC Ranch, whether on the clabbered milk diet or otherwise, was sublime. The meat is delicate and flavorful, and is perfect for use in any dish.)
It wasn't just me who loved them, or the hundreds of home cooks (like Nell Newman) who were taking them home each week. Chefs like Amaryll Schwertner and Lori Regis at Boulette's Larder praise the birds, and have used them for special Slow Food convivium events. Last summer, for a crowd of 150 people at Dirty Girl Farm in Santa Cruz, Chef David Kinch used TLC ranch chickens in a dish described by Christina Waters: "Slices of francese arrived in huge baskets, along with smooth, tender breasts of wood-grilled poularde from Jim Dunlap’s [sic] farm. Whole garlics and radishes joined the presentation, which ... was topped with a luxurious red-wine stew of shredded chicken leg meat."
On a recent visit to TLC Ranch, Jim talked about the difficulty and undesirability of having to deal with USDA standards...to take his animals to a processing facility, he'd have to rent a truck and take them hours and hours down congested Highway 101 to San Luis Obispo. That would be stress on the animals that would immediately result in lower health. Then they'd be put into a processing facility for killing, and Jim doesn't think that is particularly humane. Then, two weeks later, he'd have to rent a refrigerated truck to collect the processed meat, and of course that isn't very environmentally sane, is it?
On TLC Ranch, Jim's chickens and pigs are roaming around in the fresh air, happily grazing or perching or sleeping, until their number is up. Jim's a happy guy (married to a woman who happens to be smart, beautiful, sassy, and funny—and happy herself, no wonder), and the animals are happy, too.
I firmly believe that, when someone loves the food they've grown or cooked, you can taste that love. And the love that surrounds Jim and Becky and their beautiful baby girl, Fiona, comes out onto your fork.
As a friend and supporter of these hard-working people, Jim Dunlop and Becky Thistlethwaite, I am delighted to present this award for Best Sunday Dinner Chicken You Will Ever Get Your Hands On to TLC Ranch in Las Lomas, California. (NOTE: Tastes Like Chicken Ranch's website hasn't yet been designed.) Meanwhile, you can get contact details and stuff at the LocalHarvest.org listing. Also know that they are raising heritage pigs. Biggles, are you listening?)
Mmmmm, tastes like chicken!
• • • • • • • • • • •
NOTE: There is a nice article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel on New Natives, my friends Sandra and Ken who grow sprouts. (Their baby pea shoots, mentioned above, are my favorite salad ingredient.)
And finally, guess who has another new book coming out? Michael Ruhlman. (If you're a food blogger, he's probably one of your heroes, right?) This one, due out in May, is called The Reach of a Chef. Amazon says:
Michael Ruhlman has enjoyed a long love affair with cooking and food. His explorations of kitchens and the professionals who call them home led Anthony Bourdain to call him "the greatest living writer on the subject of chefs—and on the business of preparing food." But even his vast experience couldn’t have prepared him for the profound shift that has occurred in the chef’s place in society.
Beginning at Per Se, the newest and most expensive of Manhattan’s four-star restaurants, Ruhlman takes readers into some of America’s most illustrious—and most innovative—kitchens. Throughout his travels, he seeks new trends and phenomena, like Las Vegas’s recent elevation to the country’s food Gomorrah with the addition of Picasso and Aureole to the Strip’s already formidable selection, and returns to legendary haunts like The French Laundry, Le Bernardin, and Café Gray to see what’s changed. A dispatch from a new world where chefs are celebrities and culinary school classes are burgeoning, The Reach of a Chef looks at the state of professional cooking in the post-Child, Food Network era. In the end, an audience who loves to talk about, read about, and dine in the finest restaurants in America gets an in-the-trenches look at the professionals whose very life’s work is to feed us.
I am currently re-reading The Soul of a Chef, and appreciate anew Ruhlman's elegant and interesting writing. He's such a good noticer.
• • • • • • • • • • •
That's all for now.
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: "In all human affairs there are efforts, and there are results, and the strength of the effort is the measure of the result." —James Allen
Thanks for visiting.