From Downtown to Down Home
When Annie and Simon Lehrer had dinner at Savor on a fall night back in 2005 to enjoy a plate of oysters and a bottle of Champagne, they shared the usual early dating causerie – jobs, travels, favorite foods – as well as a few less predictable companions to the ritualistic eye batting and leg crossing: How come strawberries used to taste so much better? Why isn’t corn as good as it was when they were kids?
They had reached the goal of any good first date – common ground – but as their feelings developed, they realized that their mutual interests reached far past how tasty the half shells in front of them were. “We really had a very similar philosophy on food and were noticing that all of our best food was coming from people we knew,” Simon recalled. “Having the memories of food from our childhood and realizing that when something finally tastes as good as I remember it tastes, if you dig deep, you get to know the people producing [it] and you realize that’s why – it’s fresh, it’s local and it’s good food.”
The couple’s interest in where their food was coming from was, of course, nothing new. But while most of us are out at area farmers’ markets filling our totes with fresh fruits and veggies to inspire the week’s eats, this sustainably minded pair was looking to go a step further – make that a few steps further. “We realized that we wanted to be able to produce what we want when we want it, not only for raw food products but also for processed products, starting with fruits and vegetables but then moving on to meats and cheese and processing everything ourselves so we know what goes into it initially through the end product,” Simon explained. “That eventually led us to the idea of a farm.”
SURROUNDED BY FOOD
Food had always been an integral part of Annie and Simon’s lives, which had been fiercely different and yet quite similar.
Though Simon was born in a large Wisconsin city, he spent weekends on his grandparents’ farm, tending to the chickens, pigs, cows, sheep and horses. He helped with the sizeable victory garden, growing corn, berries and even pumpkins, and he reveled in the traditions of Midwestern farming, like canning food. When Simon was 8, his father’s job as a real estate developer led the family away from the small Wisconsin farm and off to explore the country, giving Simon the chance to discover the many cuisines of the nation’s coasts and central region. He eventually moved back to the Midwest and, after an unsuccessful stint trying to start a business with a friend in Columbia, Mo., he began working for EarthGrains, a bread business originally owned by Anheuser-Busch, here in St. Louis.
With extra time on his hands, Simon sought work in wine and liquor, lured by the ever-expanding nature of the industries. “[With] all of the product changes every day, … you will never run out of things to learn about,” he explained. This wide-eyed inquisitiveness led him to The Wine Merchant, where owner John Nash had been looking to add a cheesemonger to the staff. Being from America’s dairy land, Simon jumped at the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of the artisan cheese industry. “It was 10 years ago, so things were still really just starting in the United States, and there weren’t nearly as many producers as there are today,” he recalled. “Between that and living in the city all my life, I came up with this idea that, eventually, I’d like to move back to the farm.
“But all that got put on hold when I met Annie.”
Born and raised in the South City neighborhood of Compton Heights, Annie Denny was a city girl. She grew up in a tight-knit Lebanese home with her mother, father, grandmother and great-aunt, a household where the women of the family prided themselves on their garden, a small patch of land that included grape vines, mint beds and other staples of traditional Lebanese cuisine. Her great-grandparents, who had immigrated from Lebanon at the turn of the 20th century, had three daughters who opened a tavern in North St. Louis, teaching the family the importance of supporting local businesses. Like many multi-generational families living under the same roof, the kitchen was where everyone gathered, and, as a curious and culinary-focused child, Annie took great advantage, spending most of her time with her grandmother and great-aunt learning how to grind her own meat, choose fresh bread and pick out good milk. During the summers, she worked Wednesday lunches at St. Raymond’s Church with her grandmother and the other women of the parish, peeling back the layers of her rich Lebanese heritage the only way she knew how – through food.
After graduating from Saint Louis University, Annie accepted a nursing position in Austin, Texas, where her culinary appetite was sated by the small-town feel and varied food traditions of Texas’ heartland. Her first microbrew at Celis, one of Austin’s most famous craft breweries, opened her eyes to craft foods – be they beers, spirits or cheeses – and the local people behind them. From there, Annie went north, accepting a traveling nurse position that, over the next three years, would take her from Pennsylvania’s Amish country to upstate New York to Martha’s Vineyard, where she reveled in the traditions of crab boils and enjoyed the simple luxury of fresh lobster. At night, she worked at the local specialty foods store; on her days off, she was behind the cheese counter at the local market.
After five years away, Annie returned to St. Louis to be closer to family, accepting a nursing position at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. “It just so happened that when Gerard Craft was moving into Niche and rehabbing [the space], I had purchased the brownstone across the street and was doing my own rehab, so I felt like it was a booming time in Benton Park,” she said. “There was something on the cusp in that city that I felt was interesting.” As one of Niche’s first customers, Annie was blown away by the then-unknown Craft’s talent and harbored hope that this was the catalyst for St. Louis’ culinary scene she had been hoping for. “At that point, I was very displeased with the state of food in St. Louis, the state of produce I was getting from our local mega marts,” she said. “I was realizing that what tasted good was what I got down from my Uncle George’s produce stand down at Soulard or the Cruise family or Scharf’s.”
Something sparked in her. Though thrilled to be back in the city, she dreamt of one day having a big backyard in the country where she could grow all her own food – produce that was free of pesticides, herbs that grew fresh in her garden. It was a sentiment shared by a man she met while he was having a beer on the deck of her building one day after work. A man named Simon Lehrer.
TIME TO PREP
Over the next few years, the couple, who married a short 18 months after they first met, did all they could to prepare for a life in the country. They trekked across the States for a month, visiting small farms from California to Oregon to Washington, and garnered a network of like-minded friends, farmers and chefs here in town. Simon completed an externship on family farms in Northern Ireland and dove deep into the artisan cheese world. They even spent a year living in Arizona – a move that, while driven by family circumstance, solidified their decision when the land proved unsustainable for even a small vegetable garden.
So by the time the Disalvos – a family who had learned of the Lehrers through a mutual friend – called regarding their father’s sprawling 500-acre farm just south of Festus, Annie and Simon were ready. That is, of course, except for the life they had built for themselves in the heart of St. Louis. Annie had reached her nurse practitioner status and was working at Barnes-Jewish Hospital; Simon had worked nearly a decade to establish himself as a well-respected cheesemonger at The Wine Merchant. Together, they had settled into a cozy loft overlooking Washington Avenue, gotten used to taking the Metro everywhere they needed to go and made a network of local foodies into family.
After a few long phone calls, the Lehrers finally made the trip south to see the farm. They fell in love with the land in front of them. A few test gardens and lease negotiations later, and it was clear: Even though the farm was south and they wanted to be north, even though it was 400 acres larger than they had wanted, even though they had established a fruitful life for themselves in the city, their dream of living the sustainable country life was theirs for the taking.
And take it they did. They signed the lease and created a timeline for moving out to the country, deciding that they would keep their loft in the city while they rehabbed the old farmhouse and make the 45-minute commute to the city and back each day to continue with their day jobs indefinitely.
THE (COUNTRY) ROAD AHEAD
As soon as the lease for their new farm was signed, the couple got to work on the long journey ahead. The sprawling 500-acre farm had been mostly untouched for the last 50 years, aside from 20 head of cattle that had prevented the land from becoming overgrown, so the tasks were tedious and many. They drew up plans to transform the old hunting cabin into a livable farmhouse and began preparing the fields and pastures for planting. They explored the Internet, read books, went to auctions and spoke with friends about the types of chickens they could use for both meat and eggs, the breed of pigs that local chefs liked to eat, the type of sheep that would produce the milk they wanted for the artisan cheeses they hoped to create, and, of course, which types of animals were sustainable, a process less transparent than it seems. “As much as we may like something because it’s super rare, you have to ask why it’s super rare,” Simon explained. “Is it because nobody ever tried it or is it because – guess what – these are really hairy animals and they don’t like Missouri humidity and they get sick or pneumonia or a number of other things? We are learning just as much about what doesn’t work as what does.”
The couple also studied what vegetables they would grow, transforming their Washington Avenue loft into a makeshift greenhouse that harbored table after table of tomato plants, sunflower seeds, peppers and greenery. They gathered their friends on a Friday night to swap this type of tomato seed for that one, this variety of squash with another. “That’s one of the things that spurs us on the most, that all of our friends and everyone we know is very excited about the whole program,” Simon said. “They really like this idea of doing it and also … not having to do it themselves but being able to have access to it,” a factor the Lehrers are hoping means their farm can become a place for friends, family and members of St. Louis’ food community to learn more about where their food comes from.
While that sense of community will, of course, comprise invitations to friends to bring their family down for the day and to local chefs to come make a meal with full access to their garden, it also means, as Simon explained, a learning opportunity. “A lot of people, I think once they even see a chicken being slaughtered really wouldn’t be comfortable eating chicken, much less a cow or a pig,” he said. “While I don’t want people to come out and think they have to watch it, … they should realize that somebody has to do it. It doesn’t come out of the ground looking like that.” It was a fact that hit home for Annie one day when she watched cows roam a nearby processing plant while she unloaded butchered meat.
The experience, she admitted, raised her concern regarding the effect raising animals will have on her own meat consumption, but it also further confirmed to her that the life she wanted to lead was right in front of her. “[My animals] are going to be able to forage in our hills and forest and be happy as much as an animal can be, as much as you can project human happiness onto an animal,” she explained. “It will be living in a natural habitat and living the life it’s meant to live.”
As the Lehrers prepare to make the move to the farm later this month, it’s apparent that they, too, are living the life they were meant to live.
Follow the Lehrers on their farm-building journey in their monthly series, From The Farm, available exclusively on SauceMagazine.com.
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