“The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.”-”Genesis 1:12
“What is a Weed? A plant whose Virtues have not yet been discovered.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson-
You can take the mouse out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the mouse—which must be one reason I like Erica, because I’m a country mouse too. Erica Holland-Toll is the Executive Sous Chef at the Americano Restaurant in the Hotel Vitale, on San Francisco’s waterfront, right across the Embarcadero from the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, where we sell our vegetables every Saturday. Some Saturdays Erica passes by our stall to buy vegetables, sometimes she stops by to say hello, and sometimes she comes looking for information. One day she came asking after chickweed. Did I know what it was? Did I have any?
Every farmer knows about chickweed – ”it must be one of the most successful weeds in the whole world. Chickweed started out in Eurasia, but it’s now found on every continent, even Antarctica. Chickweed can tolerate all kinds of environmental conditions, but it thrives in moist, nitrogen-rich soil, so it’s a common garden weed. Even in shade chickweed can sprawl into a lush mat that competes with the “legitimate” vegetables. I’ve read that a single chickweed plant can produce over 15,000 seeds, and that those seeds can remain viable in the soil for years. Just to make the odds on survival even better, chickweed propagates itself vegetatively too, by sending roots out from recumbent stems. “What do you want chickweed for?” I asked.
“Salads,” she answered.
I had to smile at that. Sure, I know chickweed is edible, in a green, herbaceous, weedy kind of way. Chickweed stems are slender and slightly crunchy to the tooth. The leaves are small, ovate, succulent, and mild flavored, with a soft texture. The plant often sports tiny, white, starry flowers, hence its scientific name Stellaria media, from the Latin stella, for star. ( I’ve read that a chickweed seedling can flower and set seed only five weeks after germination. Under snow!) But chickweed is humble salad compared to a “real” salad green like butter leaf lettuce, and the Americano is a sophisticated restaurant with a glossy, modern take on traditional Italian cuisine.
The Americano also has a very popular bar. Walk down the Embarcadero on any evening you’ll see mobs of dressy, fashionable patrons spilling out the Americanoâ’s doors onto their patio. I couldn’t see the women, having just descended from the office towers, wanting to subdue a tangled chickweed salad as they maneuver through the crowd atop high heels, and I couldn’t see the flatfooted men bothering about chickweed when there are so many women to pay attention to.
“Yes,” Erica said, “the bar is popular.” But she reminded me that the popularity of the bar with drinkers is one reason that her boss, Chef Paul Arenstam, can afford to be committed to purchasing the finest, seasonal ingredients from local farmers. That’s another reason I like Erica. She could flaunt a big attitude, like you always hear that gourmet chefs have, and she could whine that the Americano’s bar steals the attention from the kitchen, but instead she works quietly backstage to make sure diners get a memorable meal. And I’m sure that any chickweed salad Erica makes will be memorable. It could even be that chickweed’s little green stems tickle ancestral memories deep inside us. It tickles me to think that to enjoy the sort of wild salad that a shepherd, a goat, or a sheep might nibble at it’s necessary to go to a soignee joint like Americano.
Chickweed may grow everywhere, but it’s a free spirit— its very tenderness makes for its strongest defense against any attempts by commercial agriculture capture, brand, and warp it into a commodity. Chickweed can survive temperatures well below freezing, but the plants would be bruised in the icy rain of a big farm’s hydro-cooler. Chickweed’s lax stems allow it to sprawl and mat across a garden or a meadow, but its slender stems would be smashed if a worker tried to wrap a wire twist tie around them to make a retail-friendly bunch. Chickweed can be enjoyed as a salad green but it needs to be handled with care. Care is precisely the last virtue that a mass market, commodity driven economy wants to encourage.
Spring mix salad greens makes for more suitable 21st century greens than chickweed, because the harvest and handling of baby lettuces can be mechanized. But, as we’ve seen with the repeated E. coli scandals, even machines can’t solve every problem that mass marketing poses. Manufactured products like toilet paper meet the needs of today-s retail environment more perfectly than fresh vegetables can – ”everybody needs toilet paper all the time, and it can be stored indefinitely in inventory without rotting. Toilet paper comes in a variety of consumer friendly “decorator colors” too, appealing to the eye, and the product is immune to consumer complaints about flavor. Plus, the plastic film the toilet paper rolls come wrapped in provides a perfect platform for advertising “information,” from the brawny image of a he-man to the coo-worthy face of a baby. Best of all, toilet paper can be scented, so as to distract us from the more graphic details of our own existence. From a mass marketing perspective toilet paper is golden, and chickweed is – well, chickweed is shit.
I asked Erica what prompted her to think of chickweed, and she told me that when she was a girl, growing up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains she and her friends would wander through the woods and meadows and gather things to eat. She would try anything, she said, from blackberries, chickweed and miners lettuce, to less obviously delicious fare like manzanita berries. Once Erica made herself sick eating the berries off of an oleander bush in someone’s yard. Her parents could tell her “No!” but they couldn’t stop her, so they kept the number for poison control prominently posted by their telephone..
What Erica didn’t know was that even chickweed is toxic if you eat enough of it. Chickweed has a natural chemical in it called saponin, a steroid alkaloid. Lest Erica’s employers become concerned that she wants to serve a chickweed salad, let me remind them that other foods, like asparagus, wine and olives also have saponins- it’s all about partaking with moderation. Chickweed is also medicinal. It is listed as having anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and anti-oxident properties. If more farmers picked chickweed for their local restaurants instead of spraying their fields with herbicides to kill it we might not need so many anti-cancer drugs.
I’m happy Erica survived the edible experiments of her childhood. Seeing Erica at the farmers market, happy and smiling in her chef’s whites, I can see her as a girl, arranging impromptu, woodsy salads on skunk cabbage leaves, the Sierra Nevada Mountains around her as her imaginary restaurant with blue skies, the green meadow at her feet transformed into a white tablecloth, and her friends all grown up into sophisticated women out for a night on the boulevard.
I’m a lot older than Erica, and I’m glad I got to meet her when I was all grown up. If we’d both been kids in the same hills I’d have liked her, and I’m sure I’d have been an oaf about expressing it. I knew chickweed, and miners lettuce, and I gathered them, but that’s where any parallels between Erica and I go askew. I remember racing ahead of my sister, grabbing wads of miners lettuce and chewing it until my spit turned green. Then I staggered back drooling green foam and making gagging noises before falling down in a spasm. Anything for a reaction. I wasn’t ready for the patio bar at the Americano. After all my years there are still days I don’t shine like silver when I’m placed next to a white tablecloth.
Erica has balanced her country mouse roots with her inner town mouse. One thing is for sure – when you want to eat a shepherd’s salad sit down at Erica’s table, not mine. I have sheep, but I don’t have any chickweed, at least not growing among my crops. I have chickweed growing in my pastures, but it would be too expensive for me to forage it from among the grasses, even for Erica. I don’t want to contradict a sage like Emerson, but sometimes we can know a plant’s virtues, yet it remains a weed— it grows rank until the moment we can make money off it, then disappears. Every plant is virtuous in the right circumstances. Weeds are the virtuous plants that smile at us and the absurd limitations of our unholy economy. I don’t need herbicide. When Erica asks to buy chickweed the chickweed in my field dies of laughter.
A little old man with a short, curved bladed paring knife came down to the farmers market one cold, wet, winter day and picked up a fat carrot with a broken tip that had fallen into a puddle. He stood in the middle of the wide aisle with shoppers streaming around him and with an economy of deft slices rapidly carved the carrot into a dramatic goldfish. Passersby gathered around in amazement to watch this spectacle of a fish being released from a stumpy root.
“Oooh, gorgeous” proclaimed a woman. The old gentleman bowed, replied in Chinese, and handed her the piscine carrot.
Another woman perceived her opportunity and handed the sculptor a watermelon radish from her shopping bag. No, a watermelon radish is not a genetically engineered cross between a melon and a radish but rather an antique Asian radish variety that can easily grow to the size of a grapefruit. The off-white skin of the watermelon radish is tinted green at the top where the root is exposed to the sun. Slice the vegetable open and the dull exterior is revealed to wrap up a core of brilliant ruby flesh, hence the name watermelon.
The old fellow held the radish up high by its tail and inspected it. He made his decision and began cutting in swift, short, strokes. Red chips of radish meat rained down onto the pavement as the root was turned in his hands. Three minutes passed and the radish blossomed into a most refined, delicate, scarlet dahlia cupped in his palm for all to see.
Agriculture can be a competitive business. As a young man trying to make my way in farming I was blessed with an employer who helped me immeasurably by answering my questions as completely and as honestly as possible. Later, when I had a farm of my own and gave my mentor stiff competition in the marketplace, he remained invariably gracious, supportive, and friendly to me. While I can’t ever repay my former employer in kind, I can express my gratitude by freely giving information and candid advice to any employees of my own that ever ask me for it. One day I got a chance.
Ryan was a fellow that worked for us selling our produce at farmers markets in the East Bay. Working at a farmers market is fun, and you meet a lot of people, but in the end farmers market work is retail work, not farm labor. Ryan decided that he wanted to farm. He applied for, and was accepted into, the U.C. Santa Cruz Organic Farm Apprenticeship Program. He payed his fees, moved into a tee-pee at the edge of their field, and went to work. When the time to enroll for the second session came around Ryan showed up at my house.
“I’m enjoying the garden program, but it costs a lot. I’m getting a macrocosmic perspective on how agriculture could be improved worldwide, but I don’t feel like I’m getting a whole lot of the practical experience that’s going to help me start my farm. What do you think I ought to do?”
I was blunt.
“I think you ought to get a job on a farm where you’re paid for your labor. Learn from experience. U.C. S.C. can teach you about practices which can theoretically be implemented on organic farms, but once you’re out of the ivory garden, the economic climate is going to be as important as the weather. Having a farm that fills a niche in the retail environment, and pays your bills, is as critical as maintaining the health and biological diversity of the natural environment. Spend a few seasons working for people who are doing the things you want to do, and you’ll see how idealistic visions of a nuclear-free, organic, sustainable world, with liberty, justice, and self fulfillment for all, are tempered with respect for short term cash flow. Plus, if you work on a ‘for profit’ farm, you’ll likely pick up some Spanish, which is as important a skill for a farmer as knowing how to make compost.”
“But I want to grow edible flowers. I want to grow pansies for dessert chefs, and borage blossoms, nasturtiums, lemon thyme flowers. Marigold confetti, Bachelor’s buttons, that kind of stuff. Where do you think I ought to work?”
“You want a pansy ranch?”
“Being clear about what it is you want is a good start,” I said . But I couldn’t think of any pansy ranchers Ryan could work for.
“Maybe the fact that aren’t many edible flower farmers is good news,” I suggested. “Maybe you should jump into the market and go for it— learn to grow pansies the hard way, before some corporate outfit starts growing them like cotton, and swamps the market.” That’s the beautiful thing about farming for guys like Ryan and I; to start farming you don’t need to complete a program, pass a test, earn a diploma, get a licence, or pay for a permit. All you have to do is be willing to work your ass off, take risks, and trust in Mother Nature.
So Ryan rented a small piece of ground, and bought a tractor, some irrigation pipes, and a Spanish/English dictionary. I introduced him to some guys that were looking for work and gave him the addresses of some packaging companies and trucking firms he’d need to know about in order to do air shipping. Ryan must have been busy, because I didn’t see him for a while. I heard that he picked up a partner, another drop-out from U.C.
One summer evening two years later Ryan stopped by the house. I was sitting in the yard.
“How do you do it?” he wanted to know. “I’m working like a slave. I’ve got customers, I’m getting by, but all I ever do is work. I’ve got no social life. I’m exhausted.”
“Well,” I replied,”You wanted a flower farm and you got one. No one ever promised you a rose garden. I worked like a slave for years too.”
“Yeah, but right now you’re sitting down, drinking a beer, and petting the cat at six thirty in the evening. How do you do it?”
I considered his question carefully.”.
“I married well.”
“You married well?”
“Seriously. I married well. I’m not saying that marriage works for everyone, but it worked for me. Julia’s not just my alpha chick, she’s my beta site, she’s my in-house focus group. Our farm depends on people just like her subscribing for our weekly boxes of produce or shopping at the farmers market. What I don’t know about the needs and expectations of the consumer would fill a book. Look at me. Almost all my friends grow food, and all I’ve ever done was work on farms. Before I got married a store was just someplace I went for beer, and toilet paper. Successful farming is about selling what you grow, and with Julia, I know that when she’s happy with what I’m growing, when she’s not outraged about the prices we charge, then we’re doing ok.
“I’ve got happy customers,” Ryan said. “I just can’t get the billing done on time, or keep up with the payroll taxes. What kind of software are you using for your accounting?”
“Are you kidding? I don’t even have decent mouse skills. I rely on Julia to solve all that stuff. When I met her Julia was a kindergarten teacher with benefits. She grew up in Venice Beach. Being a farm wife never crossed her mind. That’s key! Women with visions of a little house on the prairie with a pie in the oven and a horse in the yard ought to come with warning labels, because once they marry into farming they’re liable to measure the reality against their fantasies. Farming always comes up short, and then they leave, and you’re stuck with tractor payments, land lease payments, payroll, packaging costs, power bills, plus alimony.”
Ryan nodded. He’d started his farm with a friend named David who thought he wanted to be close to the earth but realized soon enough that there’s steadier money in construction. “Maybe it would pay to hire an administrative assistant.”
“Sure, but if you hire someone to be an administrative assistant that’s just more payroll out the door, and sometimes a small farm can’t generate enough money to justify all the expenses. Because Mariquita Farm is a family farm, with a farm wife, the administrative costs stay in the family. Plus, an administrative assistant might quit, but a farm wife is going to pay attention all the time, because she’s the C.E.O. the C.F.O and the B.F.D, all at once. I couldn’t do this without her.”
“Are you enjoying farming?
“Yeah. It’s got it’s stresses, but I like the people we work with, and I feel like Julia and I are building something positive together.
So did Ryan listen to me? Did he respect my counsel? Maybe, or maybe not. All I can say is that six months after our conversation he sold his tractor, his pipes, his land lease, and his list of clients to another young farmer, moved to San Francisco, and enrolled in cosmetology school. He is now a professional hairdresser. I’m sure that his farming background will help Ryan in his new profession. The focus and discipline that farming demands are good skills to cultivate for any business, and as Ryan styles his customers’ hair he can fix his whole attention on them, undistracted by dreams of going back to the land. All I can say is the citizens of San Francisco with hair better keep buying our vegetables, or I’ll quit farming and open a beauty salon.
copyright 2007 Andy Griffin
note: This is a true story, but the names have been changed a bit to protect the innocent.