A young business that relies on locally grown food has sprouted wheels and is rolling into Winchester Lofts. Just don’t label it “farm-to-table.”
That request comes from Meg Fama, founder and owner of The Farm Belly. As the operation turns three this year, it is settling into a new spot in the parking lot of the Winchester Lofts, an upscale apartment complex where the Winchester Repeating Arms Company operated until 2006.
On a recent day, Farma was out in the lot early, serving up breakfast to the 7 a.m. crowd. As she flipped breakfast burrito filling, assembled egg and vegetable sandwiches and put out homemade bottles of hot sauce and ketchup, she dipped her hands back into her own culinary history, coming out with a story of where they came from.
Fama grew up in Shelton, the youngest of three kids to an Italian dad and Irish mom. As a kid, she wanted to be a detective (she still watches episodes of Law & Order SVU to unwind), but found that she was more curious about the insides of kitchens than what might be happening at crime scenes. Her dad did most of the cooking at home, offering her friends something from an extra meat freezer — “just packed with meat!” Fama recalled — when they visited after school.
Spending weekends with her paternal grandmother, she found herself asking about food. What was her grandmother making? Why did a dough look a certain way? How did she know when something was just right? Measurements were never committed to paper. They didn’t need to be, insisted her grandmother. Fama just needed to listen to her food.
“It will tell you what it wants,” her grandmother told her. So Fama started listening.
She claimed a section of the family’s garden as her own, growing Sun Gold tomatoes and watermelon in the summertime. In high school, she started to work part-time at a deli, and said she was enthralled when a rush came in and the staff had to scramble to assemble slices of meat and cheese, quick cuts of bread, and sandwiches stacked for customers.
Her cooking bug led her to a pastry chef in Fairfield, whose tutelage she valued even as she realized baking wasn’t for her (“It’s not very forgiving,” she said). In 1996 she got involved with Common Ground High School through Joe Lesiak, one of the school’s founders. Remaining involved with Common Ground, she worked a series of cooking jobs; line cook, high-in-command chef at fancy restaurants, fast-paced toast duty at a restaurant called Taste in the Valley, where orders piled up within minutes.
“Toast kicked my ass,” she recalled. “But once you do that, you can kind of do anything.”
And she kept calling her grandmother, regaling her with stories of the day’s most succulent artichoke, or a bread dough that was the right consistency, a tomato that had come off the vine as it was turning red. Just keep listening, her grandmother urged.
While Fama was listening to her food, life was happening around her. She picked up food allergies — strawberries, then pineapple, kiwi, dates, beets, and turnips — and began to grow wary of eating out. She met and started dating the woman who is now her wife. And she landed a job at a New Haven restaurant, where the work was good. For a while.
“I had been working so much, and I’d missed so many holidays and birthdays,” she said. “I got to the point where I thought: I don’t want to do this anymore.”
So she quit, and looked forward, where the horizon line met the dirt.
Mother Trucker No More
Fama took six months off after she quit. She doesn’t cook at home, she said — so she hardly cooked anything for that time, letting her now-wife take control of the kitchen. When she emerged from that culinary hibernation, she wanted a food truck. A food truck called Mother Trucker, that sourced from local farms.
The farms wouldn’t be the biggest hurdle, said her friends. Through her relationship with Common Ground and Connecticut farmers and chefs, she already had the connections in place. She had the savings to afford the truck, too.
But the name had to go. Mother Trucker would alienate families, they insisted.
“So we were trading ideas, and I said ‘well, it’s from a farm and it’s good for your belly,’” said Fama. Farm Belly stuck. In 2014, she bought a truck from a guy named Mike in Massachusetts.
“His wife wanted her driveway back,” she recalled.
She networked with farms that stretched from New Haven to the Naugatuck Valley, and traveled farther out across the state. Artist Jamie Ficker, a friend with whom she’d always joked about a restaurant, started working on designs for the truck.
Fama could hear her food again, whispering secrets of local soil and seasonality to her as they traveled from farm to truck, and truck to New Haveners. As she devised menus with vegetables straight from the farms, the truck caught on by word of mouth. It started making appearances at CitySeed’s weekly farmer’s markets at Wooster Square and Edgewood Park, and catering events on some of the weekends.
Two and a half years in, she’s worked out a system where she’s out from 5 a.m. to 5 or 6 p.m. most days, in constant communication with over 30 farms across the state. It means long days of hopping in her car for farm site visits and discussions over how many carrots, cucumbers, or tomatoes she can expect in any week. She experiments with new vegetables constantly.
“I actually love that,” she said when asked if the need to improvise ever intimidates her. “My body thrives on that. At the end of the day, I feel great.”
To The Fields
Last Tuesday, Fama had heard from two farms — Massaro in Woodbridge and Clover Nook in Bethany — about fresh strawberries and freshly cooked and canned tomato sauce, which she uses with mushrooms, arugula and fresh cheese from Sankow’s Beaver Brook farm. Just past 1 p.m., she hopped in her car, flipping on Wilco as she wound down the tree-lined roads to Woodbridge.
In a week, Fama said as she drove, she goes through pounds and pounds of seasonal vegetables — and never knows exactly what she’s going to get. One week she’ll have spinach, radishes, asparagus, bok choy. Another, it’s hearty, sweet carrots, spring onions, young berries. Because this spring has been exceptionally cool, wet and cloudy, produce is growing at a slower rate, with sun-craving crops like corn way behind schedule.
At Massaro, she and Farm Manager Steve Munno headed toward rows of fabric-covered strawberries, Fama’s sneakers sinking into damp soil. At the first few — a mix of red and green berries, no larger than a person’s thumb — Fama knelt down, snapping photos of the berries on her phone before asking Munro a series of questions for the Farm Belly Facebook page. She headed towards a storage shed where Munro had stored pints of strawberries washed for her. Fama examined them carefully, turning one over between her fingers.
Allergic to strawberries, she handed it off to this reporter for a taste-test. Firm between the teeth, the berry bloomed from sweet to floral, with just an edge of tart at the end. Fama loaded the berries into her trunk, and checked her watch. It was time to head over to Clover Nook. She waved to Munro and hopped back in the front seat.
As Fama headed to Clover Nook, her car smelled overwhelmingly of green — a scent that comes from the produce and fresh meat she ferries back and forth almost every day, after packing up truck operations at 3 p.m. Sometimes that transport will take her well into the evenings, she said.
At Clover Nook, Fama surveyed a new farm stand, populated with fresh bushels of asparagus, radishes, spinach, rhubarb, strawberries and tightly-wrapped, cooler-packed fresh meat. Before picking up a few pints of strawberries and veggie-filled marinara sauce, she headed out onto the farm’s 90 acres with eighth-generation Clover Nooker Lars Demander, checking out rows of soon-to-be tomatoes, delicate artichokes, and young corn.
Crossing the road into a field, Demander pointed out a group of four sheep, munching at an overgrown patch of grasses and flowers. Fama approached quietly, murmuring a hello. A sheep looked up, and then went back to its lunch.
That’s an added perk of the job, said Fama — she gets to meet the animals that may end up on her truck, experiencing how they come into the world, live their free-range lives, and make their worldly departure. Making a third, impromptu stop at Stone Gardens Farm in Shelton, she visited with piglets, chickens, and friendly cows — some who are just about ready for slaughter — before talking produce with farmer Stacia Monahan, who owns and runs the farm with her husband Fred.
Farm Plot To Parking Lot
Thursday morning, Fama was back at the truck, adding ingredients to a quinoa salad on one counter while assembling breakfast burritos on another.
Fama is full of peculiarities as she cooks. She doesn’t like eggs, so she’s never tried any of her breakfast sandwiches, burritos, or egg salad. Because of her allergies and a long-held vegetarianism, she also doesn’t taste her own food. She goes by smell and appearance, and the way it chatters with her as vegetables sizzle and pop from the grill, or an aioli gently settles and swooshes in its vat.
But she doesn’t like the label “farm to table,” she said. It’s too chic, with blurry, rough edges around where the farm ends and the table begins.
“I just care about the fact that they come from the farms,” she said. She recalled photographing a pint of fat, chemical-fed strawberries that had made the journey from Salinas, California, and putting the image alongside a pint of small berries from Massaro. “The things that they do to preserve that fruit — it’s not so nice.”
Instead, she sees Farm Belly as part of an agricultural ecosystem. When customers eat locally, they’re supporting their farmers, and taking better care of their bodies, she said. It’s common for her to pull up at a farmer’s market and catch a “farm fresh” vendor who has actually picked up produce at a restaurant depot, and is selling it as his or her own. She watched the Monahans fight for legislation last year that would find and fine farmers peddling “fakes” — off-season, non-local ingredients. She seeks to fight that with her product.
And as part of that quest for agricultural equity, she changes her pricing based on neighborhood, trying to keep it as low as possible while still paying the farmers — and her upkeep costs — fairly. Parked at Winchester through an arrangement with the management, she’s sensitive to the gentrification of the neighborhood, and the “properties that Yale keeps buying up.” She said she gets about equal traffic from students and staff who are at Science Park, people who live around the lofts, and folks from the wider neighborhood.
“”It makes me so happy to just make food for people,” she said.