Sunday, 15 September 2013

Saturday Recap: A Day at the Country Living Fair

As I took my first bites of a pulled pork barbecue sandwich, I heard the following from a nearby table: "This is the sixth one. Where have we been all this time? And did you see the individual carts? Clearly we weren't prepared. This year's just the practice round for us anyway." Yesterday was day two of Country Living Magazine's annual fair, which has apparently taken place in Columbus for the past six years. Also to be held in Atlanta, GA (October 2013), and Rhinebeck, NY (June 2014), this weekend's fair--or at least day two of it--brought in an amazing array of talent, ingenuity, and diversity, as well as a great deal of personality. Though I know this post won't do the fair much justice (let alone my own experience), here is but a taste of what went down in this section of Columbus.

I need to start off by my noting that yesterday's weather was absolutely perfect, particularly after this week's heat wave. And with the cool, fall-time weather adding a spring to my step, I headed over to the Ohio Village on foot and by bus, noticing familiar Michigan and other non-Ohioan license plates along the way. It was about 9:30 or so by the time I caught sight of the Ohio History Center, site of not only the Ohio Village, but a museum, research room, and the Ohio Historic Preservation Office. Already the cars were streaming in at an even pace and a huge line was forming for us non-early birds. I suppose the silver lining of it all was that I had pre-ordered my ticket so I didn't need to wait in a second line. As I waited in the main entrance line, I heard one man comment that the majority of the attendees were women: "because they've got all the money." I'm not sure where to place the observation, except to note that despite the gender gap, the diversity I alluded to was something else; among the many successes I noticed, the Country Living brand brought in an eclectic group that caught across generations and all sorts of identities. Indeed, as one woman from Pennsylvania observed, this is a culture all on its own.

The main entrances opened at 10am, and soon after the line moved smoothly, not that I was expecting any chaos. If I stepped back and removed the Country Living signage, the Ohio Village itself was reminiscent of Dearborn's Greenfield Village, also a symbol of America's heartland and Midwestern heritage, a source of innovation and "progress," and an appeal to not forget our roots. The setting, again coupled with the awesome weather, was perfect for the heavy-handed fall, country theme that I associate with Country Living.

Walking up and down the winding maze of vendors, the antiques and handicrafts mingled effortlessly with the potted plants and fresh foods. Families and friends took photos at the Great Pumpkin Patch, and wherever a Country Living banner was placed, you'd be sure to see another photo being taken there, too. And practically at the centre of it all--at least in my world--sat the Country Living Kitchen, where a good chunk of my day was spent.

After visiting the Country Living General Store, I made my way over to the Kitchen area and claimed an unobstructed second row seat.

Led by Ann Marie Craig of Wisconsin-based Century Farmhouse, the first Kitchen demo of the day was focused on handcrafted soap-making. The story of Ann Marie's business goes back to 1999-ish when she decided to cross off soap-making from her bucket list. After some trial and error, Century Farmhouse started up in 2001. Due to the fact that both her home and her business were located in the same place, she made the health-conscious decision (her background is in education and nursing) to use all-natural ingredients, and not submit her family to the cheaper chemicals one would typically find in soap. Her business continued to thrive and in 2008, she was named a Country Living Woman Entrepreneur. In 2011, Century Farmhouse moved to a studio in West Bend, and next week it'll move into a retail boutique space, complete with its own studio.

In addition to bringing her other artisinal soaps for sale, Ann Marie demos a new recipe tailored to each Country Living fair. This year, her recipe for The Red Carnation Soap is an homage to Ohio via Niles, OH-born President William McKinley, who wore Ohio's state flower (1904) every day of his political career. Throughout her demo, Ann Marie shared a multitude of symbolism behind this soap, the most eerie one being that President McKinley died 112 years ago on 14 September. The positive spin to the message, entirely applicable not only to soap-making but to any other endeavour, is that with a bit of luck and a lot of hard work anything is possible.

Without going into too much detail here, Ann Marie brought two different pots to an equal temperature hovering around 104°F. The first pot contained soybean oil, coconut oil, unprocessed wax and olive oil; the second, mixed extremely carefully and with ample vinegar in sight, contained lye crystals that had been added to filtered rain water. After both pots reached the magic number, they were combined together and stirred until a deep, rich, canary yellow.

The peppermint oil (a nod to the mint of Wisconsin) and lavender oil (a nod to Ohio's lavender fields) shown in the foreground, cost $50 and $70 per pound, respectively. By contrast, the carnation absolute Ann Marie is holding in her right hand for the audience to see costs about $50.
To this lot, lavender, peppermint oil, carnation absolute and microwave-dried carnation petals were added, and then transferred to a well-greased and lined plastic container. The end result (imagining 18-36 hours of setting and three weeks or so of curing) is a sweet, lightly-fragrant soap that was entirely fitting for the occasion.

Later in the day, I found the Century Farmhouse booth and chatted briefly with Ann Marie. Ever encouraging and clearly willing to share her enthusiasm for soap making, I just may need to add soap making to my bucket list. Also: In writing up this post, I also found out that Ann Marie is a nominee for Martha Stewart's American Made audience choice awards, which recognises entrepreneurs for their ingenuity and excellence. If you're reading this post in time, category voting goes until 22 September, followed then by voting for the grand prize winner; you can vote for Ann Marie here.

If I remember correctly, the Country Living Fair first caught my eye when I saw on Facebook that Dr. Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell, aka The Beekman 1802 Boys, would be in town. Perhaps better known by others from The Fabulous Beekman Boys (currently re-running Sundays at 16:30 on the Cooking Channel), I knew them as the goat farmer contestants and winners (1,2,3) of The Amazing Race's 21st season. Following TAR, life got even better for them. The mortgage on their farm in upstate New York, Josh moved full-time to the farm, and they got married this past summer. (You can view photos and commentary from none other than Martha Stewart here.) This past spring, the Beekman Boys launched (as planned, post-TAR) an heirloom food line of which 25% of the profits will go to other small American farmers to pay off their respective mortgages.

And speaking of heirloom, Brent and Josh's success continued this past week with the release of their second "heirloom" cookbook, this time focusing on heirloom desserts. The Beekman 1802 Heirloom Dessert Cookbook, contains 100 time-tested, common-ingredient recipes alongside insanely beautiful and delicious photographs. Taking after their first cookbook, The Beekman 1802 Heirloom Cookbook, they were able to assemble the same production team, and maintain a seasonal approach to the cookbook's organisation. (For behind-the-scenes photos of the photoshoot, click here.) Of final note on the cookbook, there's a section for each recipe for notes, which speaks to the Beekman Boys' belief that these are recipes that should be adjusted as we make them our own, and that should be passed down from generation to generation. I'm reminded, as some of you may be, of Laurie Colwin, who wrote one of my favourite quotations. In the foreword to her book Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, she writes: "No one who cooks, cooks alone. Even at [one's] most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers."

With this in mind, and aided by Josh's mom, Jackie (whose birthday had recently been celebrated), the Beekman Boys demoed for us one of the recipes from their new cookbook (pg. 111): "Cardamom Cake with Coffee Glaze." (Again, you can find links to booksellers here.) From the onset, Brent noted an intentionality demoing one of the most difficult recipes, in that all the rest are comparatively easier and much more accessible. Moreover, Josh noted that we didn't need to take notes (as I was scribbling away), since the recipe's in their book.

A part of me wishes I didn't put my notebook away, as they were full of quite a few helpful cooking tips; though, I must admit I was able to appreciate their playful banter even more. Among the tips I learnt: 1) try using breadcrumbs instead of flour when "flouring" your baking tin; 2) add a touch of sugar to any nuts you want to chop up to prevent it from turning into a buttery paste; and 3) to make homemade espresso powder, take used espresso grounds, dry them out and grind them up using a sharp blade.

After the all important taste test, the batter makes its way into the oven. The end product is a bundt cake that has a slight bite to the exterior and an earthy, luscious interior full of texture and flavour. The combination of the ground pistachio, cardamom, chocolate, and espresso is exquisite and warming. And though it's listed in the "Spring" section of the cookbook, this Middle Eastern take on coffee cake definitely works as a fall time dessert, if not as a snack any time of the day or year.  

Oh, and for the record, Brent and Josh did a great job with this demo, seeing as this was the first event in which they were promoting the recipe and by extension their new cookbook. Additionally, I should note they mentioned their new Beekman contest which ends on 25 September, more info of which can be found on their Facebook page.

After the demo, I made my way to the Country Living Hall, where the Beekman Boys were signing folks' cookbook copies. As I waited in line, I had a clear view of the square dancing taking place just outside.

Soon enough, I met Brent and Josh who were just as friendly and personable as I had heard them to be. We chatted briefly about The Amazing Race, and after being encouraged to apply and getting our photo taken, ended the conversation with food, culture, and blogging. (Imagine that..)

By this point in the day, it was time for me to seek out some food. I had sampled some of the food vendors' offerings but was inevitably guided by my mind, heart, and stomach, to that little square in the above photo and the BBQ being served by Tastebuds Custom Catering.

Despite my better judgment (and the fact that the Cup o Que would be fairly difficult to photograph), I settled on "Just the Sandwich," which I alluded to at the top of this post. The sandwich contained about half a pound of pork that had been coated in TCC's own dry rub, slow smoked and then hand pulled. The meat itself was tender and moist, and sat between two halves of a locally baked kaiser roll. Unfortunately, the bread was a bit too plentiful for my taste and seemed to soak up some of the flavour and liquid, the saving grace of which was the addition of their small batch made BBQ sauce.


Following my break, I went through a few more booths and heard some Grass Fed Bluegrass before heading back to the Country Living Kitchen for a final demo.

Led by Country Living Magazine contributing food editor Cheryl Slocum, mouths watered as she entertainingly worked on two roasted autumn soups. With a base of butter and onions for each soup (already a great start), the first was a thick, roasted roma tomato soup, one of the best I've ever tasted. Complete with olive oil, salt, balsamic vinegar, dried oregano, thyme, and chicken broth, this soup looked to be incredibly simple to make while also being complexly rich with flavour.

For the garnish, Cheryl also made a cheese crisp with all-purpose flour, cayenne, fine salt, sharp cheddar, and a few tablespoons of water; the result is a crisp perfect for scooping up the sauce (and/or for eating on its own, #noshame).

The second soup, and the one that everyone in the audience seemed to be craving, was made with three heads of roasted garlic, bay leaf, chicken broth, a large potato (as a thickener), and heavy cream. I wasn't able to taste it (which just means I have to make it now), but it looked great, especially topped off with an bright oil Cheryl made by rendering some chorizo fat into some olive oil.


My admission ticket to the fair also paired with admission to the Ohio History Center's museum, which is themed around Ohio’s history, natural history, and archaeological heritage. With the day nearly complete, I made my way to the museum and browsed through some of their main floor exhibits, my frame of reference immediately heightened to that of anthropologist and ethnographer as soon as I saw the above right sign. And truth be told, I geeked out when I saw the sign on the bottom left. I could have easily spent more than the half hour or so I committed to the museum, so I'll definitely have to return in the near future.

Back onto the fair grounds, one of my final stops was at the RePurpose booth, belonging to fellow Michigander Cari Cucksey of HGTV's Cash & Cari. I ended up choosing to go to only one day of the fair (rather than making the trek each day), but as luck would have it, not only was Cari (who was scheduled to present her demo today) there, but so too was Haas, who was kind enough to take our photo.

All in all, yesterday was another great day here in central Ohio. I left the fair with a sense of belonging (within this cross-cultural and cross-generational community, as well as a resident of Columbus), motivation and support (to keep up with my anthropological training and food research), and greater respect, appreciation, and admiration (for everyone I met throughout the day). Bringing us back to where I began, this felt like more than just a practice year; in any case, expect another Country Living Fair blog post next year.

For these and other photos taken throughout the day, check out the following albums:

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