As a writer, you never really know where a story’s going to take you. Ruth Reichl writes a column for Town & Country magazine that’s about special delicious things. Recently, she set out to write about prosciutto and ended up in a place that moved her beyond what she’d imagined. That place is The Center for Discovery, a facility where people suffering from severe disabilities find not only nourishment from the organic food they help raise, but also a sense of purpose. She talked with Francis Lam about her eye-opening experience. (By the way, Ruth did get her prosciutto story for Town & Country, and it's well worth reading: "Meet Cesare Casella, the Tuscan Chef Who's Known as the 'Prosciutto Whisperer.')
Francis Lam: Ruth, you went in search for a story on marvelous prosciutto and ended up learning about a wonder place you’d never heard of. Tell about it.
Ruth Reichl: Francis, I was totally unprepared for what I found. I went to write about Cesare Casella’s prosciutto. I have loved Cesare, who’s a wonderful chef, and have followed him for many years as he had restaurants like Beppe and Maremma. He was kind of famous for being the chef who had rosemary in his pocket always, and for being a generous soul. I mean, I think everybody loves Cesare.
RR: I heard about the fact that the Edwards Smokehouse in Virginia had burned down.
FL: The country ham people?
RR: The country ham people. And that it had left the farmers high and dry because there were farmers who were providing the heritage pigs at a rate of 250 pigs a week.
FL: Oh, wow.
RR: And they were all going to go out of business. I mean, it’s a huge investment. You have a year’s worth of pigs in the field, because you’ve got to raise them, and these are happy pigs who are raised beautifully.
FL: All of a sudden, the one buyer burns down.
RR: The one buyer is gone. Patrick Martins, who’s the head of Heritage Foods and who had brokered these pigs to the Edwards family, was kind of desperate. He called up Cesare and said, “Can you take some pigs this week?” Cesare was making salume, and he instantly said, “You know what, I’ll take them all for the rest of the year. I’ll start making prosciutto.”
FL: Thousands of pigs.
RR: Thousands of pigs, 250 a week. And it’s wonderful prosciutto. So, I thought, I’ll do this for my column. Cesare said to meet him at The Center for Discovery. And I said, “What’s that?”
FL: It sounds like the name of a place in a comic book. This is where we’re inventing the hero’s weapons.
RR: Or an amusement park. The Center for Discovery is in rural New York, in Sullivan County, and I really didn’t know quite what to expect. I got there, and it turns out to be a facility for severely disabled people. It is also one of the most beautiful and inspirational places I have ever been. This is a place where they have hundreds of acres. The housing is for people, many of whom are severely autistic, there are people in wheelchairs, there are blind people, there are people of all ages. There are 1,000 people who are in this facility, they live not more than five or ten people in a house – the houses are lovely – and they all work in some way on the farm.
FL: Oh wow.
RR: They raise every kind of animal you can think of: pigs, and chickens, and cows. They have horses because horses turn out to be very good therapy for certain disabled people.
FL: I’ve heard that.
RR: They actually have a way of hoisting people from their wheelchairs onto the horses. So, here we are in this beautiful place and Cesare says that Patrick, the director of The Center for Discovery, wanted food to be a basic part of the program; they raise everything that they feed these people.
FL: Wait, so this is like a hospital or it’s a like a lifelong sort of situation?
RR: What would you call it? A ranch? There are some people who live there for many years. There are many people who have to leave when they turn 21 because they’re there on disability that stops at that time. But, it’s not like any facility for disabled people that you’ve ever seen before. One of the people who works there told me that the staff realizes that people need to work, they need activity, these people do what they can. So, they have the CSA, and there are people who are picking and packing. They raise herbs, they make all kinds of herbal teas. There are people who can’t get up, so they sit in this beautiful airy space and they separate the leaves from the twigs on the dried herbs. There are people who clean and pack the eggs. They have schools there for the 1,500 people who work there.
FL: 1,500 people work there?
RR: Yeah. There are a thousand people who are taking care of the residents.
FL: It seems like a small city.
RR: There’s a nearby city called Hurleyville and they have sort of bought up much of the town itself: the old movie theater, the cafe, the newspaper. They really involve all the local citizens. So, the whole idea is that they will not be apart, that they will be part of this community.
RR: It’s kind of extraordinary because it makes you realize how badly treated most very sick people are. And the idea is that this beautifully raised organic food is part of the therapy.
FL: And, also, that they’re part of the growing and the production of it. I think so much of that is about, as you said, it’s important for people to have something to do, but to have purpose and to have activity and to have that sense of productivity and community around work.
RR: Absolutely. And it’s just everything about the place is inspiring.
FL: Yeah. That sounds amazing. Thank you so much for telling us about it.
RR: My pleasure. Everybody should go visit.
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.