Robyn Metcalfe is an historian, lecturer, and scholar specializing in the study of urban food markets. She serves as the director of the Food+City at UT Austin, a publication centered around transforming modern food trends and fostering efficiency in future food markets. In an interview with Lisa Flynn, Robyn, a passionate and creative talent in the kitchen, shared a part of her life that sounds like the ultimate dream for many foodies: a meal-obsessed stay on a Maine island with friends, instruments, and a wood-fired oven.
Lisa Flynn: Tell me, when you're picking a wood, how do you think about which meat goes with which wood?
Robyn Metcalfe: Well, you know, you don't want anything that is really going to overwhelm it. In terms of, I just – good oak. Good hard woods so you can get a good hot fire. Of course it has to be the right size. It has to be dried just right. All of it makes a huge difference, and your oven makes a huge difference. You can work with convection. You can work with low temperatures. We've got one here on an island in Maine, and we're about to really experiment. I invite 15 of my really good girlfriends to the island, and we spend four days cooking and baking and eating and talking. The 18th year, I think, of doing that.
LF: Oh my gosh. What's on the menu this year?
RM: Oh yeah, right. We're doing, because it's Maine wild blueberries, so, you know, baking anything we can with that, in terms of sort of country style tarts and pies, and Maine sweet corn, peak of the season. Doing some nice roasted corn, and also some corn chowder because I looked ahead and it looks like it could be rainy and foggy one of the days. Let's see. What else? We're doing some chicken in sort of a big Dutch oven in the wood fired oven for, I think it'll just be a nice tomato, maybe some capers. Onions. Maybe a little basil. Of course we're going to make our own pizzas. Both for breakfast, and flatbread for lunch. Just anything we can put on anything flat in there. Then we're going to do, let's see, halibut steaks, and also take fresh mussels from the ocean and do a really nice white wine reduction mussel meal. With the broth and all that good stuff, for the next day. Lots and lots of salads.
LF: You may need it.
RM: And a homemade gelato. Yeah, we really get into it.
LF: Wow. That is – I hope to be doing that in 20 years. That's a dream come true.
RM: It is really fun, because you've got to take everything out there. You don't have much, there's no electricity. It's really pretty basic. But it just, it tastes pretty good. Oh, sweet peas are in now too, so we'll get to figure out something good to do with those. Oh, did I mention the lobster?
LF: No, not yet. So set the stage for me. You're on an island where you have to bring everything out there, and you have no electricity. You're cooking for four days.
RM: Right. Or doing other things. Like we talk about everything in the world. We've now started doing, we have our own badges that we do. We have, we're doing a hip hop badge this year, I want you to know, and a reading badge. We do a lot of different things.
We have an outhouse, which we've named Delphi, because it sits over a crack like the Delphic Oracle. We have tents on tent platforms. We have a little tiny cottage that we use as a fireplace. It does have a gas oven and a gas camper, like a propane refrigerator. We collect rainwater off the roof, and we have these little water harvesting things. But it's beautiful. It's on this little island way out in the Penobscot Bay. We have a couple of gals that play musical instruments. One plays “Taps” every night on her trumpet. The other one brings her portable harp and plays harp music. It's really magical. The food is not the main thing, but we care about it, and so we go to great pains to have fun making some of it. It's good fun.
LF: This is all in that wood oven you're going to cook all of this?
LF: That sounds amazing. For this weekend, if it had a signature drink what would it be?
RM: I don't know. We do a fair bit of wine drinking. But we don't really do anything like making, you have to understand that you have to bring everything over. You have to think about empties and things like that coming back. Island living really makes you be intentional about, “What's the best experience you can have with a minimal amount of stuff?” No big fancy cocktail thing, only because that just means more bottles, more glass, more weight. Then garbage on the return.
LF: What tools do you have in the kitchen?
RM: We have a pretty good set of knives. Lots of big pots and pans for feeding that many people. I'm right now making up as we speak, I've got a bunch of fresh raspberries, because it's raspberry season, on the stove, and Maine blueberries. Cooking them down so I'll have fresh jam and spreads and things like that, and fillings for various things. There's a lot of great cheesemongers around here, so I've got a whole bunch of difference cheeses, and charcuterie from the local butchers. I'm getting hungry just telling you about this.
LF: Tell me about it. Robyn, I'm thinking this is Camp Metcalfe or something.
RM: Actually it's called Big Girls Camp, because we consider ourselves big girls.
LF: I love that. This is so cool. So who is helping you in the kitchen? Is everyone working?
RM: Everyone sort of pitches in, yeah. We have this nerdy little way, we sound off into three teams. Not that we're competitive or obsessive, but we all are. We sort of do a rotation of clean, prep and chop, and put out there. It's all part of the experience, sort of the pitching-in sort of deal. Breakfast is pretty laid back because everyone sort of rolls out of their tents whenever they want to. There's good coffee. We do make some stove top espresso. We have regular coffee as well, all done from the local roasters in terms of beans. Actually one does wood fired roasting up here nearby us, of the beans actually. You try to give them some business by getting coffee from them.
LF: Wow. Wood fire roasting.
LF: Can you taste a difference?
RM: You can get a smokier flavor to it. Not too smoky, but you can tell they're wood fired.
LF: This is so fantastic. Okay. A couple clarifying questions. So the butterfly lamb that's been marinated, what are you doing with that? That sounds so good.
RM: That's a grilling thing. I've grilled that for probably 25 years. It's just a great go-to. You use rosemary on it, garlic, onion and the marinade. Lots of good olive oil. Let it marinate for 24 hours and then just put it on the grill. It's just so good.
LF: That sounds ... What cut are you using?
RM: Just a leg. Leg of lamb.
LF: Yum. Then you mentioned the brined chickens. How do you brine your chickens?
RM: Just in a big ol' plastic bag with bay leaf and salt and pepper, and a little bit of seasoning.
LF: That sounds so good. Okay, I wanted to keep this brief. I could obviously talk to you all day, because now I'm starving.
RM: I know. Let's go eat.
LF: Now I know that you could do a “Cooking Class with Robyn” when you get back into town.
RM: Definitely. I love to do that kind of stuff. We have people over. Manuel [Rosso], I think he's been at one of our pizza nights. You should ask him about that.
LF: We're big fans of the pizza night. I actually just found out that you can buy fresh pasta from Enoteca Vespaio. For a dollar per serving.
RM: That's great. Okay, go eat.