Photo: Jim Franco
Visit the Nischans and you might wonder, "Where do these people come from?" On what planet do 15-year-olds exclaim over the deliciousness of Mom's cauliflower and 17-year-olds voluntarily change a baby brother's diaper? In the idyllically named town of Fairfield, Connecticut, this family of seven comes dangerously close to being too good to be true. Lori Nischan, the mother of the brood, wears high heels when a reporter comes calling, then vamps facetiously that of course she wears them all the time. Incapable of putting on airs, these Norman Rockwell people seem both otherworldly and down-to-earth. Earth as in dirt.
The Nischans are suburban farmers. Or overactive gardeners. Either way, they're conducting an unusual domestic experiment, the results of which, they hope, will someday be replicated on thousands, or millions, of plots across the land: They're trying to feed themselves by themselves. It's a goal with a vanishing point; even with scores of vegetables and herbs being cultivated and with plans for a root cellar, pickling, canning, and preserving, they don't expect to grow absolutely everything they eat, or to adopt, say, a family cow. The third-of-an-acre farm isn't a puritanical test of their endurance but a family project, something to rally around.
For Michel Nischan—dad of the house, author of the James Beard Award–winning cookbook Taste Pure and Simple, and longtime chef (who isn't French, despite his first name)—the impetus behind what he calls "the whole grand thing" came, like virtually every aspect of his culinary life, from his late mother. She was the original farmer in the burbs. "Where other families would have bushes and flowers, we had vegetables," he says. "Every square inch of our subdivision yard in Des Plaines, Illinois, was cultivated." While his mother's crops were in rigorously straight rows, the Nischans' field has winding curves, each section bordered by tall half-logs. Lori Nischan has ensured that the family isn't overrun by squash, peas, and beets by mixing in flowers, lanterns, chairs, birdhouses, and more than a few iron roosters. Just outside the main vegetable garden, they've planted a teardrop-shaped bed of red, white, and blue flowers as a memorial to fallen soldiers.