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Home(grown) for the Holidays

Dining Services Cooks Up a Terp-raised Feast Today

By Chris Carroll and Annie Krakower

Illustration of a holiday feast

Illustrations by Valerie Morgan

The holidays lately are more than just a time for fun, family and friends—they’re also an opportunity to contemplate fragile supply chains and the gifts that got held up along the way.

But no long-distance delivery snafus are likely to throw a wrench into the array of delicacies—from juicy prime rib to roast leg of lamb to seasonal side dishes—that University of Maryland Dining Services is preparing for its annual holiday dinner from 4-9 p.m. today. That's because in some cases, the supply chain doesn’t even stretch to Baltimore Avenue.

“Most of what we’ll be serving comes from facilities managed by the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, including lamb that was raised right here at the Campus Farm, and Wye Angus beef from the Eastern Shore,” said Bart Hipple, assistant director of communication for Dining Services. Produce going into some of the side dishes, meanwhile, was raised at Dining Services’ Terp Farm, located at an AGNR research station in southern Prince George’s County.

And while the meal includes a genuinely astonishing array of meat dishes apportioned between the three campus dining halls, special vegan options are available as well, featuring plant-based protein.

Dining Services presents special meals each semester, said Senior Executive John Gray; what sets this holiday dinner apart is sheer variety. Pandemic staffing issues forced the cancellation of the harvest celebration dinner earlier this semester, which led to an even bigger spread today.

“It’s been a really great collaboration to get all these products,” Gray said. “It’s been growing for four or five years, and the cooperation is resulting in us being able to offer some great, locally sourced food we wouldn’t otherwise be able to offer.”

Read on for a look at some of the collaborations in action.

Beef illustration

Wye Research and Education Center Beef
When students tuck into a steak or burger or—one of Gray’s favorites—Guinness-braised short ribs, they’ll be tasting the result of a carefully designed cattle management and breeding program with roots stretching back nearly 85 years.

The Wye herd of Angus cattle was established by wealthy industrialist Arthur Houghton Jr. in 1937 on a plantation once owned by Declaration of Independence signer William Paca; in 1959, the herd was “closed,” meaning no outside genetics have been introduced since then, allowing a high degree of control of herd characteristics. In the late 1970s, Houghton donated the herd and land to the University of Maryland, and today the cattle live at what’s known as the Wye Research and Education Center on the Eastern Shore, part of AGNR’s statewide Maryland Agricultural Experiment Station.

Because of the herd’s consistent, well-understood gene pool, researchers have a perfect test bed for experiments like a current one on the effects of feeding grain to a segment of the normally grass-fed cattle, said Eddie Draper, the Wye Angus program manager.

From the beginning of UMD’s stewardship of the herd, conservation and sustainability research have been among the cornerstones of the program, and when Dining Services began to increase its own sustainability efforts several years ago—in part by responding to student requests for more local food production—a deal was struck in 2017 to begin supplying Wye Angus beef to UMD dining halls.

"Dining Services is committed to sourcing local food as a part of our sustainable food commitment,” said Allison Tjaden, assistant director of new initiatives for Dining Services. “It doesn't get more local than when it’s raised by UMD's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Our work with the Campus Farm and Maryland Agricultural Experiment Stations is such an incredible collaboration and so much fun."

Thanks in part to the arrangement, 31.7% of Dining Services food was sustainably sourced in 2020, well above the goal of 20% by 2020, Tjaden said.

Beyond the advantages of in-state production, the quality of the meat justifies the arrangement as well, Gray said.

“It’s exceptional beef, with outstanding marbling, and that’s what gives you the flavor and the tenderness,” he said. “It almost has a very slightly sweeter taste than regular beef.”

Lamb chop illustration

Campus Farm Lamb
But when it comes to eating local, Terps can’t do better than food straight from the Campus Farm.

That’s what Sarah Balcom, principal lecturer in the Department of Animal and Avian Sciences, and Crystal Caldwell, Campus Farm manager, had in mind when they partnered with Dining Services in 2014 to serve UMD-raised lamb.

“We could highlight that we are raising animals for food on our campus, and we’re doing it in a lot of ways that are sustainable and humane,” Balcom said. “(The lambs) get even higher levels of care and treatment and oversight than you would see on a typical farm.”

That intensive supervision comes courtesy of students in the spring “Sheep Management” class. It includes the popular “Lamb Watch” experience, in which they look after pregnant ewes during late-night visits involving feeding, cleaning and checking for signs of labor. Once lambs are born in February or early March, students weigh them, keep them warm and make sure they’re suckling, then close out the semester with physical exams and other labs.

Any lambs not kept or sold to other farms for breeding end up as meat that goes to Dining Services, Caldwell said. This year, the farm provided a dozen for the holiday dinner.

“Most of us don’t know where our food comes from. It appears as cellophane-wrapped pieces in a butcher case or a grocery store shelf,” Balcom said. “Simply involving people in the process (helps), because all of us eat every single day.”

Catfish illustration

Chesapeake Wild Blue Catfish
In a sense, what makes the invasive blue catfish so bad—it consumes native Chesapeake Bay aquatic species, from blue crab to striped bass and yellow perch, and reduces their populations—is the same thing that makes it so good. Unlike much wild-caught catfish, there’s no funky smell or taste to contend with.

“It’s not a bottom feeder, so it is a very clean, very delicious white-meat fish,” Gray said.

The state of Maryland in 2019 began promoting the fish as a food that when aggressively fished, actively benefits the bay by its removal, and purchases from commercial fishers feed into a fund to improve the Chesapeake’s health. University of Maryland Extension specialists and educators, meanwhile, have been working to educate the fishing industry and the public about the species, and Dining Services began serving blue catfish at the same time—more than 7,000 pounds during Fall 2019.

Illustration of cubed butternut squash

Terp Farm Produce/Side Dishes
Focusing solely on main dishes is a mistake when sweet and savory sides like various recipes starring butternut squash and sweet potatoes will be offered during the holiday meal.

They were grown on Terp Farm, which occupies five acres of AGNR’s Central Maryland Research and Education Center Upper Marlboro Facility, and has been supplying the dining halls with fresh produce, from salad greens to more carb-heavy options since Dining Services launched the farm in 2014.

“We have a story to tell about all these products, which is that we’re working closely with the culinary team in Dining Services and with students on everything we do,” said Guy Kilpatric, Terp Farm manager. “As students are eating and enjoying the produce, we want them to remember it was their peers who actually grew it.”

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