Pilgrimage to Malabar

Annette on the Road

Annette Laing. the Non-Boring Historian, with a big pile of poop! I’m the one on the right. We don’t like to think about poop and food in the same thought, but we think nothing of buying all those plastic-wrapped “foods”: The vegetables grown with chemicals, the meat raised on chemical-laden grain instead of grass. Poop, I assure you, is far less gross than chemicals. Using manure on Malabar Farm in Pleasant Valley, Ohio, to help produce food that could compete in taste with Europe, that could make farming profitable, that could change how we eat . . . This was one of the many ideas that Louis Bromfield —Ohio farmer turned glamorous and successful writer turned Ohio farmer— seeded. The seeds are only starting to germinate now. Photo: © Annette Laing, 2021.

Continued from: From Paris to Malabar to Your Table

So here I am yesterday at Malabar. No, not that Malabar. Rather, the exotically-named Malabar Farm in Pleasant Valley, Ohio. In the 50s, this was the most famous farm in the world.

Who cares, you might well ask? As someone who for most of my life never had any enthusiasm for trekking through poopy farmyards, I hear you. BUT, as I explained last week in From Paris to Malabar to Your Table, it really, really matters to you and me. Oh, and if you didn’t have a chance to read that post, I warmly encourage you do before reading this post.

I recorded this five-minute chat at the top of Mount Jeez. I know videos aren’t why you are here, but I’m always interested in my subscribers’ feedback. Comments are open on this post to both free and paid subscribers!

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A Visit to Our Past and Future

Do you feel a bit yukky after your burger and fries? Did your supposedly great chain diner breakfast taste a little less great when you got it to go, and it sat there looking all sad and lukewarm in its plastic container? Looking at the remains of my supposedly great diner breakfast (I’m traveling and desperate), and after a visit to Malabar Farm, I am definitely asking these questions. And more, like this: Why is more food not like it is in old school Paris, or in modern Madison, WI, a city surrounded by farmers producing amazing food on a few acres each? Why is the best-tasting affordable food in most parts of America the food that’s the worst for us?

So, a follow up on my first post on Malabar Farm, and it’s going to be very opinionated, so stand by! Yesterday started with HWSNBNOTI (He Who Shall Not Be Named on the Internets) and me taking a twisty dirt-road drive up Malabar Farm’s Mount Jeez. This was all so I could stand where Farm founder Louis Bromfield often stood, and pontificated about food, farming, and soil, to visiting garden club ladies, Boy Scouts, local farmers, and random tourists. His wonderfully witty secretary George Hawkins named this place “Mount Jeez” in exactly the tone you imagine.

Bromfield talked about subjects that resonated with Americans who well remembered the Dust Bowl, only twenty years or less before they stood on Mount Jeez: America’s land was so broken by bad farming that, in the 1930s, much of it blew away. Even farmers who weren’t in the Dust Bowl area were poor and miserable, barely hanging on in poverty, and even the food they ate was pretty awful.

Locals didn’t like someone telling them what to do, even when he was a local, and even when he was right. Bromfield got away with it because (as I can testify from personal experience) rural Americans deal with local critics either by hating them or, more often, because they are friends, relatives, and neighbors, by deeming them “eccentric”. This is what they did with Bromfield.

Louis Bromfield knew what he was talking about. He began his life’s journey on the struggling Ohio farm where he had grown up, a farm he tried to save as a teenager, and was forced to sell because the soil was exhausted, and middlemen took all the profits of what he did manage to produce. He had been raised to believe that the tasteless produce of the soil was not to be enjoyed, but to be eaten as fuel, in big quantities.

Bromfield discovered a different way to live. on his way to be a volunteer ambulance driver in France during World War I. On shore leave, he visited a cheese shop, and discovered a treasure trove of many, many kinds of cheeses in all shapes, colors, and size, all sitting unrefrigerated (it doesn’t hurt them, I promise). He bought a baguette (then unknown in the US, and far, far better than the tubular bread of that name an American supermarket sells to you today in the correct belief that most people don’t know the difference), and a bottle of cheap red wine. He made a picnic. A boy raised to believe there were only two cheeses, cottage and cheap “rat trap” cheddar, had a sudden moment of revelation as flavor danced across his tongue for the first time.

It was that revelation that brought Louis Bromfield again and again to the top of Mount Jeez, his weary but excited visitors trailing behind him. This farmboy turned Pulitzer Prize-winning author, bestseller, movie writer, friend of Humphrey Bogart, could hook people with his celebrity and his local cred. But when he converted them, he did so with sheer enthusiasm. He was a missionary for food, and good food started with good soil.

Excuse me for interrupting, but I have to share this: In Paris, in 1976, as an eleven year old on a school trip, I bought a Camembert and a baguette. I didn’t know you were supposed to eat the rind, but I enjoyed the cheese anyway. After the grim stuff of postwar British food, it was an astonishing experience. And so was being taken to Paris for a week by a state (public) school in those days when public schools were managed by educated people who knew what education meant.

What’s Wrong with Aunt Cassie’s Casserole, You Snob?

Look, what I have written so far may sound like nonsense to you. You may say, “Annette, you just never tried Aunt Cassie’s casserole. There IS good food in America.” It’s thanks to the huge amount of work and creativity that Aunt Cassie and so many other home cooks put in that we can look with fondness and nostalgia to their food.

But can we also just be honest? Guys, I have lived in this country for forty years, and hold a doctorate in American history. I cook for my own family. I know all your secrets, including Aunt Cassie’s. Aunt Cassie relied on a can of cream of mushroom and canned green beans. Her casserole truly tasted greater than the sum of its dreadful parts. It was delicious. And Uncle Fred died a happy man, at age 52.

So here’s the history of how we ended up thinking that Aunt Cassie’s casserole can’t be beat. We just don’t know better, and I do say “we” because I am British. I was taught French by Madame Gibson, a woman from Paris, married to a Scot, who used to say “The English eat to live. The French live to eat.”

That’s why we could go back to colonial America and still search in vain for good food, or even good crops: In Stephen Heyman’s outstanding book on Bromfield, “The Planter of Modern Life,” he quotes Jefferson and Washington mulling over the problem that it was cheaper, after exhausting the land with tobacco or wheat, to move onto fresh land, than it was to manure the old land, as was done in Europe, and produce more and better crops. Neither of these future presidents were able to make their plantations profitable, despite forcing hundreds of enslaved people to work the land all their lives. Indian nations had replenished the land in many, many ways. Now I am wondering about enslaved people who kept little gardens . . . I bet they knew a thing or two about sustainable agriculture . . . But I digress.

English colonists, who had carefully conserved trees and land in Europe (where lots of people lived on small amounts of land and fuel) went a little berserk when, to their delight, they found wood and land in unbelievable abundance in America. I started really thinking about this while visiting Hatfield Forest near London a few years ago. Hatfield Forest was Royal land, used for hunting, where the King’s servants brilliantly regrew trees from stumps, often two or three trunks from a single stump(!), using techniques called pollarding and coppicing. And another lesson comes to me when I go all the way home, to Scotland, where we fondly celebrate our native landscape , which is barely fertile and treeless, as something beloved, wild and beautiful, where our ancestors brilliantly scraped a living from oatmeal and sheep’s innards, when we are actually looking at an environmental disaster area.

I was saddened to realize that Louis Bromfield’s experiments didn’t last at Malabar Farm. The State Park that it is today does a fantastic job in so many ways: Admission is free, the visitor center staff are cheerful and knowledgeable, and the place is still a farm, producing grass-fed meat, which we can buy in the gift shop, while a concessionaire runs a nearby restaurant serving farm-to-table foods. But some of Bromfield’s land is rented, and the farmer rotates among single crops, like soy, that have more to do with filling the needs of an industrial food system than with providing good food.

Why? If I were to guess (and I will) demand for real food in rural America still isn’t close enough to driving supply. In fact, we are NOT going to point the finger at poor old rural America, which is full of good folks. Very few city people, even in Madison, WI, home of the largest farmers’ market in America, ever eat anything that’s not off a truck, grown using chemical fertilizers and pesticides (and don’t get me started on “organic” supermarket stuff, which is a travesty). We don’t eat better, because we just don’t see the need, even despite our sister’s cancer scare, and our persistent weight and health issues. We? Oh, I try, but Madison made it a WHOLE lot easier, and I still struggle with my sugar addiction.

Because of nostalgia and habit, we reckon that Aunt Cassie’s casserole is just fine, thanks. We don’t need fancy, cheffy foods. They’re expensive, and the people who go on about them are stuck up. But, please, I beg you, hear me out: Great food doesn’t have to be cheffy and it isn’t stuck up anywhere else. Look, think of the veggies you or Uncle Bill or your neighbor grow in your back yards. Think of the difference between a homegrown tomato and one you buy in the stores. Imagine that you could taste that difference every day, in every food, and that it wouldn’t take hours in the kitchen, because fresh-grown asparagus sprinkled with butter, lemon juice and salt, steamed for just four or five minutes, tastes better than anything in Aunt Cassie’s recipe book. Amirite? Now imagine that instead of being broke, in debt, and depressed (an old, old story in American farming, because, yup, Washington and Jefferson were in debt), farmers were happy, working with lots of different animals and crops, able to live from the land, and hear the praise of their customers? Imagine. Louis Bromfield did.

There were sad stories at Malabar: Bromfield’s woodlands had to be sold to pay his end-of-life medical bills, and when he died, he assumed his trees would be clear-cut, which must have broken his heart. But (oh irony!) tobacco heiress Doris Duke, whose money came from a crop that has devastated the land since the 17th century, gave the money to buy Bromfield’s land for posterity. So you can walk the Doris Duke trail (or any of the other lovely short trails) through gorgeous woodland, you can rent the old Maple Syrup cabin for a few days R&R, and you can discover that, you know what? You don’t need to leave this country for an experience you might have (wrongly) thought only Europe offers. America really is beautiful. Meanwhile, the seeds that Louis Bromfield planted, of sustainable agriculture (meaning farming that we can keep going, and not end up dying from), of wonderful food, are springing up all over the nation. Treat them carefully, for they are only seedlings, and it doesn’t take much to crush them underfoot.

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My first-ever Zoom on location with my Nonnies (that’s you!), live from Mount Jeez, Malabar Farm, May 16, 2021.

Big thanks to my brave Nonnies (that’s you, Non-Boring History fans!), who turned out from as far away as California, for my first-ever Zoom chat, at the top of Mount Jeez, to hear me pontificate where once Louis Bromfield held court. I wish I could share this experience, but, sadly, I didn’t record it. :(

Thanks also to Kathy, visitor center staff member at Malabar Farm, whose energy, cheerfulness, knowledge, and enthusiasm are amazing. To answer one question at the Zoom meeting, did the Bromfields do kitchen composting at the Big House at Malabar Farm, Kathy writes:

We don't have any solid facts about the Bromfields’ composting, but being the environmentalists and conservationists they were, it’s safe to assume all scraps were either used to feed the animals or improve the soil. Be sure to pick up the book "Pleasant Valley" by Louis Bromfield. Full of great info!

More on Malabar Farm:

I strongly recommend Stephen Heyman’s The Planter of Modern Life (2020), all about Louis Bromfield’s life and Malabar Farm. I don’t provide a link to Heyman’s book, because that would likely to be to the dreaded A______n, which I prefer to avoid supporting whenever I can. Before you go to Amazon, please do think of Thriftbooks, independent bookstores, and the Malabar Farm gift shop (which might possibly be able to help you get a signed copy…) And don’t forget your public library. Please note also: Unless I say otherwise, I buy the books I recommend to you. There’s no kickback.

Outside the Big House, Louis and Mary Bromfield’s home at Malabar Farm, Pleasant Valley, Ohio. This is where Bogey and Bacall got married. If you want to get married here, you can book the big barn in back with Malabar Farm State Park. ©Annette Laing, 2021

Visit Malabar Farm in northwestern Ohio, and enjoy the animals, including the talking parrot, the breathtaking scenery, the cabin where part of The Shawshank Redemption was filmed, the tours of the Big House (where Bogey and Bacall married), the fishing, the trails, the nearby Malabar Farm Restaurant (reopens soon), and so much more. There’s also a terrific little kids’ playground. Bring the whole family, and a picnic of good food, because there are lots of places to enjoy it on a pretty day. Admission? Free. Never thought of a vacation in Ohio? Why not? Just look at that face.

The locals at Malabar Farm are friendly. Photo: ©Annette Laing, 2021