HUDSON, Ohio — On a warm June evening in Organic Garlic from Thaxton to Hudsonscape season was in the air.
The delicious aroma emanated from the fields and from the fridge that Fred Thaxton opened, revealing plastic bags full of green curlicues they sell to chefs and foodies, followed a few weeks later by ripe bulbs of garlic.
What started as a hobby to supply the many cooks of Chris Thaxton’s Italian family led the couple to the kitchens and dining rooms of restaurants across the country, friendships with prominent chefs and experiences like host over 100 people in their backyard for a “restaurant trip.”
“We met a ton of really good people, we ate some really good food because of the garlic culture, which is crazy,” Fred said. “We’re a tiny little button on a big blue whale from a garlic farm, but we’ve been shipping garlic all over the United States.”
The pair of science teachers never planned on becoming garlic gurus next door. Fred said he never even ate garlic growing up.
But two decades ago, he and a friend first tried growing it in a small plot. “Then my wife’s family, every time they came here…they thought they were supposed to have garlic. So we grew more just to nurture the family habit,” Fred said.
This small patch had grown to a few thousand plants on the Thaxtons’ 10-acre property when Chris saw an article in the newspaper that Hudson was going to start a farmers’ market. They decided to sign up to support the effort, even though they weren’t sure anyone would be interested in buying.
They sold their entire harvest in four weeks.
Greater expansion of their garlic fields followed, and within a few years they were able to grow enough to last the whole season and even expand into more markets.
“We met with the chefs because Hudson brought in some great chefs to try and get more people when they started up,” Fred said. Among them Kevin and JJ Altomare, Vinnie Cimino and Jonathon Sawyer, who became clients and friends. These relationships led to more contacts in the Cleveland culinary scene, which was on the rise thanks to acclaimed chefs like Sawyer and Michael Symon, and the business grew.
“Other chefs would wonder where they got their garlic and they would tell them,” Fred said. “We never talked about growing garlic and selling it. We never set down to have a little meeting about it. But we fell into it at the right time and met the right people.
At first, the Thaxtons only grew and sold mature garlic bulbs. The scapes, the flower stalks that emerge from hard-necked varieties, were something of a chore.
“You cut them so that instead of the energy going into the flower, the energy is going into the bulb and the bulb gets bigger,” Fred said. “I was chewing on one while I was cutting them just so I wouldn’t have to go for a drink, you know, to get your mouth wet. And we threw them on the ground.
“And then I read somewhere that people were selling them for up to 25 cents apiece. It’s like throwing money on the floor! And then Sawyer started wanting them, and when he wanted them, other people wanted them.
The chefs came up with a variety of creative ways to use the landscapes of the Thaxtons. The Altomares offered a popular seasonal pasta dish dressed with scape pesto at their nearby restaurant, Hudson’s. The Lady Pierogi stuffed them into his offerings. A baker cut up stems and mixed them with his bread dough.
Fred said the “pesto entrée” — finely chopped scapes tossed in olive oil — is probably the most versatile way to experience scapes. Chris will grind four or five cups of scapes with half a cup of olive oil, put them in freezer bags and pat the bags flat, so they stack nicely in the freezer. “Then you just break off a piece when you’re making gravy, or throw it in your mashed potatoes or whatever you’re doing,” Fred said.
Fred likes to wrap whole skirts, or potato slices and skirts, in foil pouches with a little olive oil and toss them on the grill for a side dish. Mix the leftovers into your scrambled eggs the next morning.
“The season is so short, so you want to use them for everything,” Chris said. She suggested try them in salads, pasta salads, stir-fries, marinades, gazpacho, as a topping for burgers or steaks, on pizza, even on their own as a green vegetable, with their asparagus-like texture.
Lately she’s been trying to beat and fry them, and she’d like to make creamy flower soup one day, but that idea wasn’t appealing on this 95-degree day.
“I really like seascapes because they’re crunchy and tasty,” Chris said. “There are a whole bunch of chefs who pickle scapes to add to their meals throughout the year since they only get them for a month, so they have to find ways to use them.”
The Thaxtons even made garlic-infused vodka for Bloody Marys — imagine a curly shank instead of a stalk of celery for a celebratory brunch cocktail.
Landscape ideas abound on foodie websites this time of year. Steam them or sauté them with butter and salt like green beans; substitute them in all recipes that call for green onions; stuff them under the skin of the chicken before grilling them; mix them with cream cheese or make a compound butter. By far the most popular suggestion is to use them in your favorite pesto recipe, in addition to or in place of basil, cilantro, arugula or any other herb needed. Like garlic cloves, the flavor of the flowers mellows with cooking.
The stems are harvested when they begin to curl up on themselves. If you cut it too soon, the remaining stem will continue to grow and pull nutrients from the bulb, Fred said. If the stem stays on the plant too long it will become tough, and once it flowers it may look nice in an arrangement but it is too woody to eat.
The season only lasts about a month, but the stems will keep in the refrigerator for several weeks after harvest. Fred suggests storing them in an open plastic grocery bag. If they start to get wet, lay them out on a table on paper towels, let them dry, and put them back in a cool bag.
The Thaxtons expect to save some of their landscape harvest for their tenth Outstanding in the Field dinner party, a “culinary caravan” that sets up shop in their backyard for an epic night of local food and drink.
OITF travels the countrysetting up a mobile kitchen and extra-long table at the chosen site, showcasing “local chefs, farmers and artisans to create a unique and immersive experience that truly tells the story of its place,” according to the website of the organization.
They first became hosts when Sawyer was chosen as the main chef for one of the events.
“If the chief is chosen, he chooses the farmer. We had no idea what we were getting into,” laughed Fred. “They came in around three in the morning, and it’s like Deadheads getting off a bus, with vans and big trailers with all the kitchens and everything in there.”
A long table that seats around 120 people is set up on their property, while the chefs design a multi-course meal with local foods and prepare it in the mobile kitchen. Cimino is the main chef for this year’s event, September 13, which sells out.
Garlic also brought the Thaxtons to one of the biggest music festivals of the past decade, in 2016.
“Outstanding in the Field called us once and said, ‘If we take you to California, will you be talking about garlic at this rally? ” Fred said. “And that was for the desert trip. We got to hear The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, The Who, Roger Waters, Paul McCartney and Neil Young, after talking about garlic… It’s like, ‘We’re here because we grow garlic?’ “
“We had some great experiences,” Chris said. “I keep saying that before we go out of business – which we always threaten to do because it’s a lot of work – I want to get a map of the United States to show how our garlic is everywhere. C is in Nome, Alaska. We ship to Key West.
This year, the Thaxtons are growing around 9,000 garlic plants, down from a peak of around 20,000.
“When COVID came along, we lost our restaurant business,” Fred said. They used to go to Cleveland every week or two and deliver garlic to several restaurants, “but then with COVID, they didn’t know what they were doing, when they were going to have to close. “.
The catering business has rebounded, but Fred and Chris are now retired from their teaching jobs, wanting to spend more time with their grandchildren, and the farm and market circuit can be grueling.
“We’ve reduced our operations, enough that we can manage them a bit better,” Chris said. They now ship their products to chefs and home cooks by order, and sell out of their barn by appointment. They say they are open most weekends during the season to accommodate the habits of customers who have been buying from them for two decades.
“We met a ton of great people and had amazing food that we never would have had,” Fred said. “It was funny.”