Essential Elements: Meeting John O’Brien

Always on the lookout for exceptional local food in an effort to support the Vermont economy and reduce transportation-associated carbon, Linda Hamilton introduced me to John O’Brien’s lamb … luscious, local and surprisingly inexpensive.

Each fall Linda emailed John our orders for chops, shanks, ground lamb and legs and, a month or so later, collected them at some designated meeting spot. As our order was more than I could possibly store in our refrigerator freezer, Linda carted most of the lamb to her two out-sized freezers chock full of delectable frozen fruits and vegetables she had amassed in the summer and early fall, as well as local chicken, pork and, yes, John’s lamb.

The lamb exchange process worked flawlessly. When we craved lamb, the call went out to Linda who would neatly pack it into her portable cooler and drive, in her red bumper-sticker sheathed Prius (extolling local food and world peace) to the Charlotte Library where she volunteers. I collected it from her there, transferring it to my own little cooler that would sit patiently in the back of our Prius until I returned home, having expended no additional carbon in the transport. I’d pop the lamb into our more modest freezer, thawing it as needed in the following weeks. Distributed judiciously, John’s lamb provided extended pleasure, lasting us through the next summer. The following fall we’d repeat the ritual.

Fall 2016 began as in previous years, with Linda informing John of our continued interest in purchasing his lamb and inquiring when it might be available. Before he could respond, however, Linda’s husband, Larry, died unexpectedly, leaving lamb low on Linda’s to-do list. A month or so later, it occurred to me that the fall was progressing rapidly, our lamb was long gone, and we’d not arranged for more. Had Linda heard back from John, I enquired. She thought not, but couldn’t be sure. Yes, she’d love it if I would take over this year.

I contacted John immediately via email and as promptly received my message back as undeliverable. What could have happened, we wondered? Had he foregone lamb for more profitable ventures? As the producer/director of A Man with a Plan, a movie about a Vermont dairy farmer running for the U.S. House of Representatives because he lacks the skills, strength, and education for any other job lucrative enough to pay his father’s costly medical bills, it was just possible that John O’Brien had moved on. Undaunted, I contacted him again, this time through his movie website address. Still no response, and by now it was mid-December. So sure was I that we’d seen the last of John O’Brien’s lamb that in a moment of weakness at Costco I guiltily slipped a tray of 16 Australian lamb chops into my shopping cart, small consolation for the lack of John’s lamb, but lamb nonetheless. I would not tell Linda.

Two days later an email from John O’Brien appeared in my inbox. “So sorry,” he said. “My email went down for some weeks in the fall and I got behind. But I saved some lamb for my Charlotte lamb lovers and could deliver it the next day or the day after (in time for Christmas, I thought). How much did we want? Baa.” (That’s how he signed his email…Baa! I loved this guy already.) Within the day, I’d assembled my lamb list, elicited Linda’s, and sent them off to John, signing off with “Baa back at ya.” We arranged to meet two days later at Village Wine and Coffee in Shelburne.

I arrived promptly at 2:30, the designated hour, examined the parking lot for a pickup (I assumed he’d drive a pickup … he was a farmer), and not espying such a vehicle, surveyed the café for someone who looked like he lived off the land. I had never seen John O’Brien and had neglected to ask Linda how to identify him, but imagined him as older and overall-clad. No such person inhabited the café. Thinking perhaps I should expand my image of farmer John, I asked one bespectacled, middle-aged fellow entering the café if his name was John. Nope, he said, what does he look like? I don’t know, I replied. I’ve never met him. That’s why I asked you. The next person I accosted examined me quizzically and politely pointed out that he was Marcy Webster’s father, someone I’d know since Marcy and our Erick were in preschool together.

Shortly thereafter an old pickup pulled up to the curb. When a hefty guy in overalls trundled down from the cab, I thought, “Aha,” and called from the porch, “Are you John?”

“Yes,” he replied and walked toward me smiling. “Have you had your coffee,” he wanted to know. I hadn’t and hadn’t planned to, but thought I should join him given that he’d driven all the way from Tunbridge to deliver his lamb. As we placed our coffee orders, his accompanied by a large slab of chocolate cake, the staff chatted with him familiarly, prompting me to enquire if he came here often. He did. He had just finished collecting and distributing toys for Christmas. He also repaired shoes. Wow, I thought, what a busy guy … lamb, toys, shoes.

As we approached a table with our libations, I asked if he was working on another movie. His back to me, I thought I heard him say, “I think you have me confused with someone else.” Before I could clarify, a darling not-yet-50 fellow with hair that stuck up around his head as if he’d just pulled off his stocking cap, gave me a tentative smile. “Susan,” he said, “I’m John O’Brien.”

“Ah,” I laughed, explaining as I did that I had mistaken this other rustic gentleman, whose name was also John, for himself. “What did he say about the lamb,” the real John wanted to know.

“We hadn’t gotten around to that,” I acknowledged, blushing.