Buttery smoke rolls out of the E.B. Room kitchen, where alternative farmer and local food advocate Joel Salatin is making good on his promise to whip up an omelet every 60 seconds.
He works two pans, a queue forming behind him. Into the sizzling butter goes half a cup of beaten eggs — plucked that morning from his movable henhouse at Polyface Farm in Swoope, Va. — then a handful of pungent Campbell County goat cheese. He folds one side over, and turns the cooked omelet onto a paper plate for a waiting diner.
Salatin talks as he works, explaining that adding water to the eggs lets them steam while cooking, making them moist and “more forgiving in the pan.” They look good — bright yellow, just slightly browned — although he isn’t going for visual perfection with his omelet assembly line. He is making a point.
The dinner, attended by Sweet Briar students, a few faculty and guests, preceded Salatin’s Jan. 31 evening lecture, “Folks, This Ain’t Normal,” in Memorial Chapel. The presentation is based on his latest book by the same title, in which he argues that the way we eat today — foods loaded with unpronounceable additives and transported 1,500 miles from farm to fork — is an aberration.
It’s so far removed from “historical normalcy” that he believes we cannot sustain our current food production systems long term. He isn’t suggesting we abandon technology, but predicts we must inevitably return to a model closer to that of our agrarian past.
He says we can start now by getting back into our own kitchens, which was the idea behind his cooking demonstration for the students.
“The point is we’re told all the time that ‘I don’t have time to cook and I don’t have the money to eat good food,’ ” Salatin said, adding he intended to show how the crowd could “eat like kings” for about $1.50 per person.
In truth, the full menu also included associate professor of environmental studies Rebecca Amber’s homemade breads, artisanal cheeses, and chili made with meat from a local farm and beans, peppers and tomatoes from Amber’s garden.
Salatin brought legally obtained raw milk and pure “cold-squeezed” apple juice ($6 a gallon, roughly equal to the cost of Coca Cola, he said) from a Shenandoah Valley farm to wash it all down.
“I want you to just enjoy the richness of the taste,” he told his listeners, who included several students in Bonnie Kestner’s course, “Nutritional Challenges of the 21st Century.”
Kestner, a faculty co-sponsor of Salatin’s visit with Ambers, covers his “beyond-organic” farming methods in the class through Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” which is required reading.
Salatin is the second-generation owner of Polyface Farm near Staunton. The family-run operation produces beef, poultry, pork, eggs and rabbits using a pasture-based rotational system designed to continually regenerate healthy soil and keep the land lush and productive.
The hens that produced the eggs for dinner, for example, are moved daily into pastures freshly mowed by the cattle that occupied it the day before. There, they roam freely for tender new grass shoots and scratch among the dung for bugs, scattering nutrients and sanitizing the soil.
Environmental science senior Stacy Ludington has no doubt these methods yield a better omelet. “They were fluffier and a deeper yellow than store-bought eggs. Quite tasty,” she said.
Cost is a different matter. Salatin’s eggs are reasonable at $4 per dozen, but Ludington says she doesn’t eat much meat because she’s picky about where it comes from and as a student can’t yet afford to buy local.
“I can’t wait until I make enough money to put my dollar where I truly feel it belongs, in the hands of our local farmers who care about what products they put on our tables,” she said.
“I plan on being an urban planner when I leave Sweet Briar and I’ll be looking for ways to adjust and incorporate Salatin’s techniques to urban farming. Shall be a challenge, but rewarding.”
Contact: Jennifer McManamay