Monday, January 19, 2009

Trains, Planes, and Cheesemobiles.

I've had trains on the brain for the last couple of weeks now. It all started with a conversation I had with my grandma over Christmas, and after seeing yesterday's newspaper featuring our new president on that swanky old train car, I figured I'd better just get my locomotive ya-yas out and write a little something about it. Maybe there's a future for trains and cheese? Seems a bit pie in the sky, but in these new times, you just never know... The picture above is a map, circa 1901, of Boston's milk supply by railroad. I tried to find one for New York but was stymied. All I know is, if Boston's was this far-reaching, New York's was labyrinthine!

Milk and trains are inextricably linked in the history of dairy and cities. My grandma June, who grew up on a small farm near Racine, Wisconsin recounted stories of getting up at the crack of dawn with her grandfather to deliver cans of milk to the local train depot. Her motivations were two-sided, loving the time spent with her grandfather, but also relishing the stop off at the local general store on the trip home for a double dip (that's right, double!) of ice cream for breakfast. And all this before the clock struck 7:00 am... I (and my mom) now know who to blame for our freakish love of ice cream.

From the late eighteen hundreds to the 1930's and 1940's, milk trains were the commonest way of supplying urban populations with milk. As cities grew, and farmland in and around them diminished, urbanites began depending more and more on milk from the country. Milk trains were so important and vital to the urban food supply that they often took precedence over passenger trains and frequently caused backups and delays on various lines entering the city from upstate and Connecticut. It is rumored that milk by ferry was tried, and abandoned, for the simple reason that milk lacks sea legs... the jostling of the boat would churn it into butter.

So where did our milk trains come from? Milk was shipped to New York City from the far reaches of New York State, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Vermont, averaging a distance of about 250 miles by train, but sometimes nearing distances of up to 400 miles away. Before dawn in small towns all across New England, farmers would bring their fresh milk (in milk cans) to their local train station or depot. In some special cases, if the farm was far from a town but near to a rail line, the farmer would leave the milk at a 'milk stand' which was an elevated building next to the train tracks where the milk cans could be easily schlepped into the boxcar. Milk trains were cooled by large chunks of pond ice (harvested in the winter and kept in thickly insulated buildings for use in the summer) and kept the fragile delicacy intact for its journey to the city.

In New York, the 'milk yard' was located at 60th Street on the West Side, and the creameries (responsible for pasteurizing and bottling the milk) were located as close as possible to the rail yards. There were creameries in the Bronx and Brooklyn as well, but the largest and most impressive operation was a company called Sheffield's, who set up shop literally alongside the rail lines at 60th St. The milk would arrive in the city around 11:00 pm, be pasteurized and bottled by 2:00 am and sent out for delivery either to dairy stores or on local milk routes.

By the 1940's, the trend in milk supply shifted from trains to trucks, as the cost of transport was cheaper. Inexpensive fuel coupled with not having to maintain tracks, trains, and other expensive equipment soon made moot the tradition of milk by rail. However, there are inklings of this tradition coming back to life... A few years ago an economic feasibility study was done upstate New York with the intention of linking Catskill dairy farms to the city by rail. Maybe President Obama wouldn't mind putting a little dairy caboose on his inaugural train??

Monday, January 12, 2009

To Market to Market to Buy a Fat Pig...

This Week at Saxelby Cheesemongers
This week's email is dedicated to the pig. Seems a bit strange I know, but if you let your eyes sally forth, it should all come into focus. We aim to disseminate some factoids related to pigs and the dairy biz, as well as alert you all to a fantastic pork-eating opportunity coming your way in the next few weeks.

First things first. Why don't people make pig cheese? 'Tis a common enough question, heard 'round the cheese shop and out at tastings on a pretty regular basis. I mean, they are domesticated barnyard animals after all, and we all know that they provide some pretty delectable fodder for the dinner table. But cheese, alas, is not a pig product to be added to the wondrous canon of pork.

The main reason that farmers of yore didn't make pig cheese stems from the simple fact that pigs, like us, are omnivores. Sure they eat slop and garbage of the vegetable variety, but given the chance, they'll tear into a chunk of meat faster that you can say "That's All Folks!" alla Porky. All of our other beloved milkers are herbivores, ruminants to be exact, meaning that they feed off of grass and transmit all that photosynthesized sunshine-y goodness right into their milk, creating an indelible flavor of fresh green pasture. It could be be argued (and I've never tried it so I don't know, but I have my suspicions) that cheese made from the milk of slop eaters wouldn't be so tasty.

Take that fact, couple it with the multitudinous tiny teats found on the underbelly of a pig (whose fingers are small enough to deal with that?!) and a somewhat nasty and unpredictable disposition, and you've got more than enough reasons to steer clear of pig milk.

So, while our little porcine friends may not be so good in the dairy department, they more than make up for it with all the delicious meat they provide us with. And what better way to savor a pig than to roast it whole? This is where the eating opportunities come into play...

On Sunday January 25th, the New York City incarnation of Cochon555 will be making it's debut at the Hiro Ballroom at the Maritime Hotel. Cochon555 features five of New York's top chefs, each of whom will roast a whole pig, and leave it to a panel of expert eaters to decide who the winner is. The chefs include Mark Ladner of Del Posto, Corwin Kave of Fatty Crab, Bobby Hellen of Resto, Juan Jose Cuevas of EightyOne, and Michael Clampffer of Mosefund Farms. The rest of us non-experts are invited to nosh alongside the best of 'em, weighing in with our tummies as to who roasts the meanest pig!

Saxelby Cheesemongers will be manning the cheese front, with a selection o' fromage to complement all that bacon fat! Proceeds from Cochon555 go to benefit Spring Brook Farm, a farm and education center for kids in Reading, VT.

For tickets and further information, visit

Three cheers for pigs! You may not be cheese makers, but we love you just the same.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Farming Life for Me...

So, the new year is here, and no doubt there are resolutions a-plenty floating around. This week's email is dedicated to those of you who resolved to go out there and learn something new, be more self-sufficient, and maybe even get your farm on in 2009. And remember all those burgeoning cheese makers I was talking about last week? Well, if you harbor a secret (or not so secret) desire to count yourself among them some day, there are dorky and wonderful ways to get your urban feet wet, should you so choose!

Wintertime means a bevy of farm conferences, as farmers (though chronically busy and pretty much always working) have an iota of extra time to devote to learning new techniques and meeting up with their compadres to share ideas and plan for the new year. In the next month or so, two of the northeast's biggest farming conferences will be taking place, and contrary to what you may think, there's no need to be a farmer to attend!

The NOFA NY Conference (Northeast Organic Farming Association) will be held in Rochester, NY from January 23rd to the 25th, and the PASA Conference (Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture) will be held in State College, PA from February 5th to the 7th. Anybody can go and sign up for workshops, from composting, to victory gardens, to cheese making, to biodiesel production. So, if you've got a hankering to farm in the city or out there in the great blue yonder, take a look!

NOFA NY Conference

PASA Conference

Now, keep in mind that farmers (and farm conference organizers) are not graphic designers... when you visit these sites and download the clunky brochures, don't despair. After a little bit of wading through, you'll get the gist of all the amazing workshops up for offer!

Here's to our farmers, past, present, and most of all, future!