by Katie Powers
My grandparents never cooked – or ate – without their aprons. They kept a matching pair at our house: his and hers navy blue pinstripe, like a train conductor’s overalls. From the moment coffee was on through the ritual morning Checkers tournament, their aprons stayed put, my grandmother’s pulled taut across her middle.
Whenever they visited, my mom would make lasagna. My grandparents donned their aprons and pulled up their sleeves, and my brothers and I scurried around setting the table. I grew up in a family of six, in an old farmhouse with stiff joints, and the best way to warm up the kitchen and fill our bellies was to bake an overstuffed lasagna. We’d sit around the table, my brothers talking over each other, the dog waiting patiently for flying crumbs, and pile food onto our plates.
It was always simple and irresistible, with so much sauce that it had to be mopped up with a crust of spongy bread. The recipe wasn’t written in any of our cookbooks, it just happened quietly between my mom and the countertop. An hour later the house would smell cozy, and she’d lift the casserole out of the oven and onto the stove, where it would hiss and bubble and “set up.”
Lasagna was not reserved for our table alone: at pot luck dinners, at the church’s annual Italian Supper, when the weather called for rain, we ate lasagna. I’ve never grown tired of it.
Last winter my mom, Priscilla Powers, and my older brother, Ben Powers, started dreaming of a lasagna business. In June, she would retire after thirty-five years of teaching. “I don’t want to stop working until I find another focus,” she always said. Ben, who has a business background and lives in Vermont part-time, was eager to explore the opportunity. In late spring, the two launched Heart to Hearth Lasagna, and they’ve been selling their homemade casseroles every Wednesday morning at the Middlebury Farmers’ Market.
The concept of Heart to Hearth is to provide a high quality prepared meal that brings people together. Family dinners, pot lucks, evenings with old friends: these are the foundations of community, the gatherings that foster positive relationships. My mom and brother believe in the potential for a stronger, more healthful food culture, and in the value of Vermont’s local economy. They also recognize that there isn’t always time to make dinner from scratch. They decided to offer an oven-ready lasagna that is vegetarian, gluten-free and made with one hundred percent organic ingredients.
The debut has been a success. They’ve been well-received at the Farmers’ Market, where people are excited about a healthy meal crafted in a nearby kitchen. In July, the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op began carrying Heart to Hearth lasagnas in their frozen foods section. In the near future, my family hopes to work with an incubator kitchen, increase production, and make their lasagna available to a wider audience at regional specialty and natural foods stores.
It appears as though my mother has made the transition from classroom teacher to Farmers’ Market vendor quite easily. When I helped her one Wednesday morning, she nearly had the truck packed before I’d even had my coffee. She set up her booth like she’d been doing it for years, and had plenty of time to chat with other vendors before the opening bell. My parents’ mudroom is full of market supplies: chafing dishes, stacks of aluminum trays, and lightweight folding tables. Her favorite new toy, which she couldn’t wait to show me, is the vacuum sealer. “Kate, you have got to see this. It’s just about the coolest thing since sliced bread.”
While my mom is in charge of cooking, and Ben of keeping the books, the rest of us can’t quite stay away. When my brother Joe is home, he helps in the kitchen. My dad drives into town early each Wednesday for the market, unpacking tables and tent and coolers before strolling down to a neighboring vendor who sells fresh pastries. And, of course, there are the taste tests. Last weekend I got to sample a preview of the fall special, featuring roasted butternut squash and kale.
When we talked in the kitchen during our casual interview, I got a sense of something else that my family members might be creating: a different way to make “slow food” work. We’re lucky, here in Vermont, to cherish our health, our communities, and our environment, and to therefore strive for a smarter way of eating. We understand the perils of fast food, and we want to have a hand in slowing things down. Sometimes it isn’t possible to do it all: to till the garden to plant the seed that grows the tomato that makes the sauce that binds the casserole. A vibrant food culture means thoughtfully grown and crafted food, yes, but it also means sitting at the kitchen table as an act of connection.