Anyone living in the Pioneer Valley who is passionate about food understands how well situated we are. Between the cornucopia of luscious produce raised in the fertile soil along the Connecticut River Valley and the world-class restaurants in our cities and towns, it’s hard to imagine a palate that couldn’t be satisfied here.
But as vibrant as the spectrum of culinary adventures is, the vocabulary we use to describe these delights to the rest of the world often seems ham-fisted and even counterproductive. Though farmers, markets and restaurateurs increasingly emphasize the importance of locally grown foods in our diets, publications aimed at enticing visitors to break bread with us often describe our local cuisine with distant adjectives—Italian, French, Japanese, Indian, Asian—or meaningless ones, such as “contemporary” or “fusion.” We appear to want travelers to dine here because our food is a lot like foods people eat elsewhere, which hardly seems like a way to distinguish ourselves.
While there is a logic in describing a cuisine based on its origins or influences, doing so exclusively tends to obscure what’s important or unique about it. It creates a sort of silhouette, suggesting dimension and shape but avoiding an actual portrait. Describing a musician by the other artists he sounds like only fills our heads with other people’s music.
Earlier this year, Northampton’s Green Street Café held a competition to find a muralist who could capture the theme “Terroir: Location, Location, Location” on a long stretch of blank wall in one of its dining rooms.
Café co-owner John Sielski explained in an interview with the Advocate that “terroir” is a term used in relation to French wine to denote the strong role that geographic origin plays in a wine’s (or a cuisine’s) flavor. “Whether it’s minerals, or the climate, how the ground’s been used, or what water is moving through it,” John said, all these elements have an effect on the foods being harvested there. The same seeds harvested in two different locales under different conditions can result in vegetables that taste utterly dissimilar from one another. The reason Italian or French food recipes never taste exactly the same on this side of the Atlantic has less to do with the skills of the chef than with where and when the ingredients originated.
Recently, for instance, the Café has been experimenting with making its own pierogi. While the recipe and concept are foreign, the ingredients and approach are (mostly) domestic. The results are a savory delight. The boiled dumplings, stuffed with native potatoes or cabbage, are better, Sielski promises, than what his grandmother made.
Though there are many indications of European influence in the restaurant, Sielski and his partner Jim Dozmati have become less and less comfortable during their decades in business together defining their cuisine by anything remote.
“We’ve been thinking that there should be a new category: Connecticut River Valley cuisine. Instead of French, Italian or anything else,” Sielski said.
“Part of this idea came from thinking about my grandfather. When he moved to America from the Ukraine, he came especially to the Connecticut River Valley because back in the Ukraine, he had heard about its soil. Next to the homeland, he figured it must be the best in the world, and after working in the factories in Holyoke for three or four years, he bought a seven-acre plot on the river in Whately. Enterprise Farm is there now, and I grew up across the street from my grandfather on a tenant’s farm.”
Sielski was raised on foods harvested from the Pioneer Valley, and his love of food and passion for flavor were nurtured here by his parents, Albina and John. Though they lived in and amongst farmers—and raised acres of their own food annually—Sielksi’s folks did not consider themselves farmers but scholars. They both worked full-time in academia: his mother was a librarian at the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College and his father was a professor at UMass-Amherst. Still, the raising of food for their own consumption and sale was central to their lives.
“When we were young,” Sielski said, describing his childhood in the early 1950s, “my siblings and I raised our own cucumbers. My parents gave each of my sisters an acre and my brother and I shared one. We’d pick them all summer, and when my dad came home from work, we’d load up the truck and drive them to the pickle shop [the Oxford Pickle plant in South Deerfield]. My brother and I had great fun throwing the bags onto the conveyor belt, and sometimes there was drama. If the pickles had been left in the sun and they got a little bit yellow, then the pickle shop would reject them. One year, I remember, they gave us bad seeds and they all came out yellow. Talk about drama!
“At the end of the year,” he said, “we all got a check, which went to our school clothing and everything like that. Our parents made us self-sufficient early on; I think they had us picking up our own dental bills when we were like 15 or so. We didn’t think anything of it. It kept us busy and certainly not bored.”
Sielski remembers that his parents didn’t just descant about the merits of an agricultural life to their children.
“For six or seven years in the ‘50s, my father got a number of professors from the university to join him and during the summer they sharecropped several acres,” he said. “He’d plant the cucumbers, but they would come out and weed and hoe them by hand, and then they would pick their own and sell them.” Sometimes the professors’ wives and children would help, which meant that the Sielskis would have a lot of people hanging around their house.
“My parents were big on picnics and barbecues,” he said; embracing a more-the-merrier ethos, the family would put on huge, open-air feasts. “My father built a barbecue in a machine shop—they weren’t really available in stores back then—and we’d drag that and a huge wooden table into the woods all over the place. He’d invite friends from Amherst or Holyoke that didn’t have access to farmland like we did, and we’d bring out a mountain of food. We’d have these tremendous feasts almost every weekend. My parents loved to cook, and they loved to cook together. They were each other’s best friend.”
And they loved to cook all kinds of things, some of which challenged John Sielski’s immature palate.
“But usually, if I didn’t want to eat something put before me,” Sielski said, “the line from my parents was, ‘Oh, then you won’t be able to come with us on the around-the-world trip we’re planning for when you’re older, because we don’t want you to starve.’ Like a fool, I ate everything: tripe, liver, kidneys, anything. And of course, I never got the trip. But that’s how I developed my food palate.”
John and his siblings were far from passive participants in the kitchen or the dining room.
“We all ate dinner together every single night, all six of us,” he remembered. “We had a dining room we used about twice a week for meals that were a little bit more formal— when my sisters got to dating age, for instance, every Tuesday night Linda got to cook dinner and invite her boyfriend. She made up the menu and did everything.”
The brothers had plenty of opportunities to help out as well.
“Sometimes my mother would call from work at around three in the afternoon—for a number of years she was the secretary to the headmistress at the Northampton School for Girls [which later merged with Williston Academy to become Williston Northampton School]—and she would tell me and my brother to start peeling potatoes so they’d be ready to boil by the time she came home,” he said.
“We were cooking our own breakfast when we still had to use a chair at the stove,” Sielski recalls, “and we were making our own cookies before we were 10. We were home alone a lot while my mom was at work, and on school vacations I remember riding our bicycles two miles to Hatfield River Road, where there was a sort of bar and convenience store where they had walnuts and things we might not have at home. We’d bring bottles for the deposit, and we’d get the ingredients, and by the time our parents came home, we’d have these cookies baking in the oven.
“Everyone in the family cooked, and it never seemed to be a chore. That’s where I got my food sense.”
When Sielski was about 15 and was attending boarding school, his parents moved to a new home in South Deerfield. The house was in town and not attached to farmland, but in part to help John’s older brother, who was having “trouble getting through his later adolescence,” they bought a 33-acre farm outside of town with better soil than they had had previously.
Still maintaining their day jobs, the couple, then in their late 50s, farmed seven acres themselves.Their interest in agriculture had matured, and they began their new endeavor with a new sense of purpose and exploration.
“They were some of the founders of the Amherst Farmer’s Market, which back then was called the Amherst Common Market,” Sielski said. “When I was young, most farmers only grew potatoes, onions, tobacco or asparagus on their land. No one diversified, and most of the produce was packaged up to be sold elsewhere. But this group of farmers, my parents included, started growing a dozen or more different kinds of crops. And of course, Chang Farm came in a few years later [in 1976], and they brought Asian vegetables to the market and their restaurant.
“When I grew up, all I knew were green peppers, but then there were suddenly 15 different kinds of peppers. There were dozens of kinds of tomatoes and squashes.” This explosion of diversity was due mostly to people in the Valley, like Sielski’s parents, spending their winters huddled over their seed catalogs, dreaming of what they’d grow next.
In addition to adventures in horticultural variety and a pioneering effort to make fresh produce available to their neighbors, the Sielskis became interested in reviving approaches to local agriculture that we now refer to as sustainable and organic. They experimented with food preservation—pickling, canning and using cold storage to keep vegetables throughout the winter—and they were also interested in documenting whether it was possible for a small family to support itself through farming.
Sielski’s father, who was mechanically inclined, built an irrigation system that could be operated by one person, siphoning water from their small pond to the rest of the land, and he also built a device attached to his tractor to help them plant. One or two people sat behind a large water tank while someone driving the tractor moved them slowly up and down the planting rows as they put seeds in the ground.
Sielski’s mother kept records documenting their efforts during the 15 or so years until, in their late 60s, they sold the farm. She opined “that if a couple bought the farm, they could build a house, have two or three kids, and have a nice lifestyle if they were hardworking and thrifty.”
As more and more people in the Pioneer Valley begin to buy shares in our local farms and worry about issues such as sustainability and food security, it’s important to recognize that these are not new ideas or goals. They are part of a tradition that has been here since people first began cultivating the Valley’s rich soil. While the 20th century and the age of transportation transformed the economics of food production, making us extroverts—sending our produce to be eaten by people in distant places and making products from distant places available here—the challenges of the new millennium appear to be shifting us not into a strange new place, but a comfortable old one.
Rather than identifying our Valley’s gastronomic successes with those of other cultures and regions, perhaps it’s time to recognize what we eat here is born out of a tradition and ethos with many influences, but which is all its own.