When my farm has me stressed, and I want to leave it all behind, I throw the kids in the minivan and head down the coast highway to Big Sur. I call out every stream we cross on our way south like train stations. “ Salinas River, Carmel River, San Jose Creek, Maldonado Creek.” It never fails that when we pass over the Garrapata Creek bridge, a cry goes up from the back seat, “Tell us about the pancakes!”
“But that story has no redeeming social value,” I protest.
“Pancakes, pancakes, pancakes,” Graydon and Lena chant.
So I tell them again. When I was their age, a great friend of mine was an old cowboy named Jimmy Bell. Jimmy had a story about when he was a kid growing up on a little homestead up Garrapata Creek with his Uncle Harvey. This was back in the 1920’s, when life on the south coast meant growing all your own food and only going to town for essentials a couple of times a year. Uncle Harvey earned what little cash he had from selling a few head of cattle. Kerosene, bullets, baking powder, nails, wire, flour, and clothing all came from Monterey. Liquor came from local bootleggers, who traded it for dried beef. A lot of things we take for granted, Jimmy and his Uncle Harvey did without.
Uncle Harvey had a friend named Doolan, a hermit. He might have been a fugitive from the law. Doolan lived further down the coast, back in the wilderness, in a little cabin tucked away in a dark redwood canyon along a stream that fed into the Big Sur River. Locals called the remote spot “Doolan’s Hole.” Doolan hunted wild game and panned for the few flakes of gold hidden in the river gravel. But mostly he just laid low.
Every once in a while Uncle Harvey would saddle his horse, pack some supplies on his mule, and ride down the coast to visit Doolan and trade for gold. Jimmy would go along as part of the baggage on the mule.
Doolan’s Hole was dank and shady with ferns, moss, and mushrooms growing lush in the dim light. Sunbeams only penetrated the gloom for an hour or so a day during the height of summer. Doolan always had a cold, or maybe it was an allergy; anyway, he snorted like a pig.
A visit from Uncle Harvey with his mule load of supplies was like a visit from Santa Claus for feral old Doolan. Jimmy and Uncle Harvey would stay the night before starting out again for their homestead on Garrapata Creek. In the morning, Doolan would celebrate his guests by making his favorite treat: pancakes. While the little fire of manzanita burls burned down to coals, Doolan would get out the flour Uncle Harvey had brought him, and any chicken eggs that had survived the bone-rattling journey by mule from Harvey’s hen house. The skillet was pulled down from its nail on the wall of the shack, and greased with deer fat.
The jug of fresh milk Harvey had packed for the trip would be shaken by its mule ride, so the butterfat in it would already be churned into lumps. Jimmy would fetch the milk jug from the creek where it had been left to chill overnight, and fish the lumps of butter out with a spoon.
Once all the ingredients were gathered up, the batter could be ready in a jiffy, but you wouldn’t wan to pour it in the skillet too soon, or you won’t get a pancake that flips easy. To make sure his skillet was hot enough, Doolan had a method. He’d plug up one nostril with his right thumb and blow the contents of his runny nose into the pan. If the skillet sizzled, it was time to make the first golden brown pancake. If a cheery sizzle was missing, Doolan would stoke the coals in the fire pit and wait a bit before trying again with the other nostril.
“Oooh, gross!,” the kids cry out. “Tell it again!”
“No,” I answer. “Once is enough.”
We keep driving south, past the Little Sur River, past the huge rock that rises up like a small mountain from the surf and forms Point Sur. My great-grandfather, Marius Jorgensen, helped with the stonework in 1902, when they built the keepers quarters for the Big Sur Lighthouse that sits atop the rock. If the kids are bugging each other, or me, I’ll make them listen again as I tell them all I know about Marius.
I know that Marius came to Watsonville from Denmark in the 1890’s. Denmark is a small country and back then it was poor. When Marius was born, Denmark had just gotten even smaller and poorer because the Germans had invaded and seized the province of Schleswig-Holstein. For the youngest son in a farming family, the choice was to work on the farm for the oldest brother when he inherited the land, or go to sea. Marius emigrated to Germany and found work as a plasterer, a mason, and a painter. My uncle told me that when the Kaiser tried to draft Marius into the German Army, he too the money he’d saved, returned to Denmark to say goodby to his family, and sailed for America.
In the last century Danish immigrants had a reputation in America for being ignorant and stubborn peasants who were usually drunk. “Square-head” or “block-head” were two common derogatory epithets for Scandinavians. But Marius found that his skills as a plasterer, mason, and painter made him a marketable laborer. “Money is so easy to earn in America,” he wrote back to his family, “ that work is like stealing! Send me a wife!”
So they did. Marius met Petra for the first time at the train station. They married and had three daughters: my grandmother Anna, and her sisters Katherine, and Helga. Petra died young in 1905, shortly after the birth of her third daughter.
We pass over the bridge that crosses the Big Sur River and drive past the Forest Service Headquarters. I can remember back in the summer of 1967, when there was a line of hippies that extended from the Forest Service headquarters all the way up the grade to Post Ranch, hitch-hiking south to L.A. So many flower children tried to go back to nature that the Forest Service had to shut down some campgrounds because there was human feces in the river.
When I was a kid I asked someone why so many people wanted to come to Big Sur, and they said it was because Big Sur was a “power spot” where spiritual energy welled up out of the earth like a spring, and that a person could renew themselves by simply being there and soaking up the good vibes.
My father heard that and grinned. He was a scientist— empirical— and he said that what goes up must come down. If Big Sur was a fountain of energy, then Salinas must be the drain. Even now I wonder, because the Salinas Valley is a veritable salad bowl that feeds America, and yet despite all the wealth its land produces, not much seems to stay in Salinas. The money drains away.
The Post Ranch goes past the car window. Nowadays there are rooms for rent, and a very fancy restaurant. My grandparents, Anna and Graydon, stayed at the Post Ranch for their honeymoon in 1918. Post Ranch was a ranch at the end of the road back then, and only cattle trails stretched south along the coast. They took a romantic walk up the Big Sur gorge, and surprised some bootleggers who fired a shotgun at them. My friend Jimmy Bell would have been around the area at that time. In fact, he told me a curious story that I’ll tell my own children someday.
Jimmy said that one time he and his Uncle came south after visiting Doolan to see “the old Chinaman.”
This old gent lived in a cottage built of driftwood on a rock just above the surf some miles south of Post Ranch. He made his living gathering seaweed and abalone. He cut the abalone into strips, salt it with sea salt he collected, and laid the meat out to dry in the sun on a rock set back from the sea spray. He dried the seaweed he collected in the same way.
When the abalone and seaweed were properly cured, he would pack it in bags for storage. The next time someone like Uncle Harvey came along with a horse, he would pay them in dried abalone to haul the packages to Post Ranch, from where they would be sent by wagon to Monterey, and eventually to Chinatown in San Francisco— where a relative would sell them in his market. Sometimes the old man would carry his wares to Post Ranch on his back in a sack, but he didn’t like to visit civilization very often.
One day, as Jimmy and Uncle Harvey were passing by the Post Ranch heading south, they saw a strange sight. There was a long, black limousine parked at the end of the road, with a Chinese man in a formal black business suit brushing the dust from his black shoes. They called out “hello” to him, but he didn’t turn to greet them. He stepped into the back of the car, and it pulled away. Seeing a car that far south was odd enough. Jimmy told his Uncle Harvey that this was the first time he’d seen a Chinaman drive a car. Uncle Harvey reminded him that they hadn’t seen the Chinaman drive, only step into the back— and they hadn’t seen the driver at all.
Past Post Ranch the road got worse, and by Castro canyon it was no wider than a cow track. Jimmy and his Uncle counted the times they crossed streams, because the trail to the Old Chinaman’s shack was hard to find. When they did find the trail, they dismounted and led their horses on foot. The trail was steep and the brush closed in tight. To make matters worse, the old fellow was afraid of demons, so he had fashioned the trail as a maze, with false spurs and disorienting loops. In places there were little brass bells that tinkled to startle the evil spirits. It took someone with skill and patience— or better yet, prior experience with the Old Chinaman— to reach the rocky cove where the cottage stood.
When they got to clearing, they shouted out a hello, as is proper in the country when you drop in unannounced. They could see the abalone drying on the rock, and the strips of green-black seaweed, but there was no sign of the old gentleman. The driftwood door was open. They heard the buzz of flies before they entered. The old Chinaman was sprawled out his back dead, his body riddled with bullet holes. Maybe that was Death back there, getting into the limousine, Uncle Harvey said. Maybe the Devil is Chinese, or maybe he can look like anyone. He couldn’t say, not having really seen his face.
copyright 2007 Andy Griffin
My mother feels that I’m too hard on my children, so when they visit her she likes to spoil them.
“Would you like a piece of chocolate?” she asked Lena one evening.
Lena was watching Loony Toons. “Is it Sharffenberger?” she asked over her shoulder.
I got a phone call about that. But what could I say? I’m a farmer. Many of my friends are farmers, or they have restaurants, or they take cooking seriously, or they have beautiful gardens. For better or worse, My wife and I are surrounded by great food. By the time Lena was seven she was personally acquainted with three chocolate makers. On the “worse” side of the equation, our children have to eat a lot of weird food-like salad.
“I’m not hungry,” Lena says, stirring her salad with her fork.
If I get flack from the kids because I’ve used a light vinaigrette that brings out the flavors of the lettuces, rather than a ranch dressing that cloaks them, I retaliate by telling a story.
“When I was a kid,” I start. “salad was a wedge of iceberg and a pink tomato.”
My son, Graydon, has learned to lay low in such circumstances, but Lena loves combat. She bugs her eyes out and gasps, “Must…must get…must get air.”
Her cynical riposte demands an escalation of rhetoric on my part. I grew up on the Hastings Reserve, a biological field station in the Santa Lucia Mountains managed by the University Of California in Berkeley, so my “when I was a kid” stories can get scientific.
“When I was a kid,” I continue, “I knew a parasitologist who trapped ground squirrels in order to count and examine any flukes residing in their livers. In order to make his research reach a little farther, he’d stew the squirrels up and eat them, once he’d removed the relevant organs.”
Lena is rendered temporarily speechless. Maybe she’s counting the days until she’s eighteen. When Julia and I struggle to get supper on the table for our kids at the end of a long day, and they reject it, I ask myself how, year after year, my parents cooked for my sister and me.
One way, of course, was convenience-my parents weren’t burdened with the ideology Julia and I have adopted of making home-cooked meals with fresh ingredients from producers we know and trust. We had dinner when I was growing up, not cuisine. The meat loaf was sauced with ketchup, the hamburger got “help” from a packet purchased from Safeway, and the chicken wasn’t an heirloom breed, it wasn’t brined, or free range- it was just baked. My parents didn’t cook with passion, but they cooked every day whether they wanted to or not, and I understand now that they cooked with love.
“Sick!” Lena has found her voice. “You’re just sick!”
“He shared his rodents with me,” I continue, ” and what I remember most, besides the bags of frozen squirrels in his ice box, with manila data tags dangling from their curled toes, recording the dates, times, and locations of capture, was spitting out bones. Bones, bones, and more bones.
“Completely, totally, absolutely gross!”
“The squirrels I ate at the parasitologist’s table were tastier, and tenderer that the rattlesnakes I ate with the herpetologist though.”
“Maybe the rattlers should have been brined.”
Observing with delight his sister’s discomfort with the salad and the conversation, Graydon asks for seconds on both.
“Can I have more salad? And please, tell us another story, Pappa.”
“Well, man cannot live off of meat alone. There was one post-graduate I grew up with, Dr. Michael MacRoberts, who studied the social habits of the California Acorn Woodpecker. The problem with eating acorns is that they’re very tannic when fresh. The Esselen Indians solved this problem by cracking the acorns and putting them in a woven basket in a fast moving creek to leach for a few weeks. Then they’d dry them and make flour. But there was no water in the creek when Michael was hungry and the acorns were ripe. So do you know what he did.?”
“Do we have to know?” Lena asks.
“He filled a plastic mesh bag with acorns and suspended it in the reservoir tank at the back of the toilet. That way, every time the toilet was flushed the tank was drained, and the water that had become infused with tannins was swept away. It wasn’t a babbling brook, but it worked. After several weeks of soaking I helped him grind the acorns, and we made gruel.”
“Maybe this salad should soak in the toilet,” Lena says.
Dinner conversation is going down hill fast, and I can tell I’ve taken my stories to far. I shut up, but I can’t stop remembering.
The field station where we lived was remote, the better for all the wild animals to go about their natural business uninhibited by the public, as scientists peered at them through spotting scopes, made notes about their various manners of sexual congress, or analyzed their feces, their feeding patterns, and their social structures. My father was a botanist, so he had only had to walk out the door of our home and he was at work in the middle of his living laboratory, with the wild hills and fields surrounding him. But my mom was a school teacher, and she had to get up at 5:30 AM and commute to Salinas, where she taught, thirty miles away. When she came home at 5:30 PM, mom had to cook for the family. Myfather deserves credit; as often as not, he cooked the meal.
Every once in a while my father’s boss, Dr. Frank Pitelka, would visit the reserve to inspect the work going on, and while he was there he would stay at our home. Dr. Pitelka was an erudite gentleman and when he was “at table” he liked to talk about food. It was the early seventies. Dr. Pitelka would sit down for dinner, look at the salad my mom had prepared, and begin to wax misty-eyed about this “charming little place on upper Shattuck called Chez Panisse, where they serve the most delicious mesclun salads.”
I know now that the word mesclun, the name of Dr. Pitelka’s favorite salad, comes from the Vulgar Latin verb misculare, meaning to mix thoroughly. I didn’t learn that at table. In between bites of shredded iceberg Dr. Pitelka only said that mesclun salad was a perfectly balanced mix of tastes, textures, and colors. In distant Berkeley, within the confines of what journalists would one day come to call the “Gourmet Ghetto” these perfect little salads were causing quite a stir. Mesclun salad remained an abstract notion for me until I was in college myself, at the University Of California in Davis.
I got a summer job on a farm on Garden Highway, north of Sacramento, owned by a fellow named John Hudspeth who worked at Chez Panisse restaurant.
On John’s farm I learned first hand about a world of lettuces I’d never heard of before like Merveille de Quatre Saissons, Rouge d’Hiver and Lollo Rossa. We even grew a lettuce named La Reins de Glace, from the French for “Ice Queen”, which can fairly be described as an iceberg lettuce that speaks French. But exotic salad greens weren’t the only crops John introduced me to. We grew an atlas of crops for Chez Panisse, from Sicilian purple artichokes, Black Spanish radish and French Breakfast radishes to Florentine Fennel, Lebanese squash and Hamburg parsley. I’m a horse that was led to water and drank. I’m still growing these crops thirty years later.
I was still working at John’s farm on Garden Highway when I visited my parents one Labor Day weekend. Dr. Pitelka was “at table.” Mom had prepared spaghetti and meat balls, with cantaloupe wedges for desert. Frank started in about “this perfect little French restaurant on upper Shattuck where the very ripest, most flawless Charentais melons are paired with prosciutto.” I cut him off.
“Chez Panisse doesn’t get the very best Charentais melons,” I said.
“Have you ever eaten at Chez Panisse, young man?” he asked.
“No, I haven’t,” I replied, “but I work on a garden that supplies them, and when I see the very best Charentais melon, a melon that is beyond compare in the beauty of its form and the succulence and scent of its flesh, since I’m only a farm worker and I can’t afford to eat at Chez, I cut that melon open, and I pop the slices in my mouth until the juice runs down my chin.”
Years later, my mother thanked me for those comments.
copyright 2007 Andy Griffin
Salad Dressing Recipes: Since Andy wrote about salad, I thought I’d pass on two of my favorite salad dressing recipes from two of my friends. -julia
Honey Mustard Cilantro Dressing
recipe by Chef Andrew Cohen
1C cilantro stems
1/4 C water
1/4 lime juice(or lime/lemon or lemon)
1/4 C honey
1/4 dijon mustard
salt and pepper to taste
1 small clove of garlic peeled(optional)
Puree in blender til smooth, then through opening in top add olive oil slowly until the hole at the center of the dressing disappears. This is usually the proper amount of oil for a properly emulsified vinaigrette.
Options: use some cayenne powder to heat it up. Use 3:1 basil to flat leaf parsley instead of cilantro and use red wine vinegar instead of citrus juice.
Creamy Salad Dressing
from Full Moon Feast by Jessica Prentice
you can make this a blue cheese dressing by adding 1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese to it before tossing the salad
1/4 cup creme fraiche
1 egg yolk (optional)
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon vinegar (white wine or apple)
generous pinch of salt
fresh ground pepper to taste
In a large bowl, whisk the creme fraiche into the egg yolk, and then whisk in the olive oil. Add them vinegar, salt and pepper. Put the cleaned lettuce leaves directly into the bowl and toss before serving.
“My salad days,” Cleopatra said, recalling her youthful tryst with Caesar, “When I was green in Judgement.” At least that’s how Shakespeare wrote the story. We’ve all got regrets about our salad days. In his book, Jeremiah Tower Cooks, celebrity chef Jeremiah Tower writes, “In the early 1970s at Chez Panisse, I smuggled in seeds from France and had them grown for us, little edible greens and wild greens to make a mix of various leaves….. The concept, now ubiquitous and misunderstood, is one of the major culinary sins that can be laid at my feet.”
I’m not quoting the lamentations of Jeremiah because I believe that he’s “responsible” for either the ubiquity or the mediocrity of processed salad mixes—let’s call this statement an example of “Towering” hyperbole. But I do find Mr. Tower’s assertion interesting, because out of all of the competing claims that I’ve heard over the year by individuals who claim to have “invented” baby salad greens, Mr. Tower is the only one I’ve found who regrets his role, and I find this stance refreshing and provocative.
Now that the largest organic farms are owned by the largest conventional food producers, and organic practices are embraced by farmers of all stripes because they are cost effective and practical, it’s a good time to think back to the “salad days” organic farming. Mesclun salad was a very important product in the development of the organic produce business. The first self-described organic farmers supplied the nascent natural food market with organic alternatives to conventionally grown crops, like organic potatoes, organic tomatoes, organic corn, etc. But once salads of mixed baby greens became available from organic producers everything changed. For several years there were practically no conventionally grown salads in the marketplace competing in the mesclun category at all, so the sudden popularity of baby lettuce salads gave the organic sector a credibility and a profitability earlier than would have otherwise been possible.
The early identification between “organic” and “baby mixed salad greens” was so complete, that now, years after conventionally produced mesclun salads entered the market, I still occasionally hear people talk as though all baby salad green are organic, just because they’re made of baby mixed greens For many consumers the convenience and flavor of baby mixed greens made the premixed salad the first organic crop they ever bought. It’s almost as if mesclun, which was commonly mispronounced as “mescaline”, as if it were the psychotropic alkaloid derived from the peyote cactus, was the entry drug for square shoppers, and heavier crops, like organic meats, came later.
When I was a kid salad meant a wedge of iceberg with a slice of pink tomato and a blob of ranch dressing. I grew up in the hills to the south of Soledad on the Hastings Reserve, which is a biological field station managed by the Museum Of Vertebrate Zoology at the University Of California in Berkeley. Every once in a while my father’s boss, Dr. Frank Pitelka, would visit the reserve and stay at our home. Dr. Pitelka was an erudite and worldly gentleman (read snob) and when he was “at table” he liked to talk about food. It was the early seventies. Dr. Pitelka would sit down for dinner, look at the salad my mom had prepared, and begin to wax misty eyed about this “charming little place on upper Shattuck in Berkeley called Chez Panisse, where they serve the most delicious mesclun salads.”
I know now that the word mesclun comes from the Vulgar Latin verb misculare, meaning to mix thoroughly. Originally mesclun salads were made by farmers, and their seasonably variable composition perfectly reflected a peasant’s “waste not, want not” ethic. The baby lettuce leaves were the young leaves thinned from the rows of lettuces in the cottage garden that were destined to be grown to full size, and the lettuces were augmented with chicories and herbs and edible flowers, like arugula, borage, or cress, which were gathered from the fields beyond the garden gate, where they could be found growing wild in forest and pastures and boggy areas, or sprouting out of rock walls.
Dr. Pitelka didn’t tell me any of this. He said that mesclun salad was a perfectly balanced mix of tastes, textures, and colors. In Berkeley, within the confines of what journalists would one day come to call the “Gourmet Ghetto,” these perfect little salads were causing quite a stir. Salads of baby mixed greens, or the idea of a restaurant as a phenomenon remained abstract notions for me until I was in college myself, at the University Of California in Davis. I got a summer job on a French Intensive Biodynamic farm on Garden Highway, north of Sacramento, owned by a fellow named John Hudspeth who worked at Chez Panisse restaurant.
It was 1979. Jeremiah Tower, who’d once smuggled the exotic mesclun seeds into the U.S., had already left Chez Panisse, but the restaurant was still working to develop local sources for the best ingredients. When there were no local sources for a particular item, Chez Panisse took a leadership role in subsidizing the efforts of gardeners who were willing to try. The farm on Garden Highway was only one of a number of garden projects with a direct link to the restaurant On John’s farm I learned first hand about a world of lettuces I’d never heard of before like Merveille de Quatre Saissons, Rouge d’Hiver and Lollo Rossa. We even grew a lettuce named La Reins de Glace, from the French for “Ice Queen”, which can fairly be described as an iceberg lettuce that speaks French.
Salad greens weren’t the only crops we grew at the farm on Garden Highway, but they were the most salable. We grew hundreds of kinds of crops from purple artichokes to valerian root, but much of what we grew was never harvested or sold. We weren’t peasants, the people who ate at Chez Panisse weren’t peasants, and certainly John Hudspeth, was no peasant; he was a rich party-boy. The first year I worked for John I was told that the farm lost twenty thousand dollars. The second year I was told it lost twenty six thousand dollars. It was clear that all the money the fields generated was being spent painting the fences white and garnishing John’s porno-Provencal lifestyle. It seemed to me that if a person approached organic farming with a production ethic it would be possible to make some real money.
I smile now when I think of the conventional vegetable growers and County Agricultural Agents that I met in the 1970’s who were so dismissive and hostile to the idea of organic farming that they prompted me, and lots of my peers, to keep on trying to make it past our failures just so we could stick our thumbs in their eyes. It soon became apparent that the baby lettuces we were growing for the mesclun salads were perfectly adapted for the sort of small, profitable farms we were trying to create.
Baby lettuces were a quick crop to produce, so the first payoff came quickly for undercapitalized, start-up farmers, and there were many potential crops per season. The oddball import french lettuces that “hippies” like me were growing could be harvested at a young stage, so the tip burn damage that’s always threatens the heart of a of mature lettuce during summer hot spells wasn’t a problem, and the harvest of baby lettuces could be easily cooled for local sales in a horse trough full of clean, cool water. Pest insects didn’t have as long to find the baby lettuce crop and destroy it before harvest the way they did with the full-sized lettuces. Baby lettuces were tolerant of a wide range of environmental conditions, suffered only a minimal amount of disease pressure, and above all, they commanded a premium price from sophisticated customers who were proud to pay.
By contrast, iceberg lettuce needs along the narrow to be grown along the coastal fringe of California where the foggy weather and marine influence provides the iceberg lettuce plant with the cool conditions it needs to achieve it best, most commercial, quality. Because arable land along the coast is limited, land and rent costs are high. And to handle iceberg lettuce successfully after harvest meant you needed to be linked with the huge forced air coolers necessary for chilling the lettuce down to its core for maximum shelf life. Because iceberg lettuce was already an industrial commodity, successfully selling iceberg lettuce meant having established relationships with the large shippers. No hippies allowed!
The fact that conventional lettuce growers didn’t follow sustainable farming practices meant that after years of mono-culture production they had ferocious soil born disease issues to contend with like sclerotinia. When commercial growers said that it wasn’t possible to grow lettuce organically, what they really meant was that THEY couldn’t grow iceberg lettuce organically. The Titans of the fresh produce business didn’t mingle with the chefs who were jaded on iceberg either, so that they had no idea about how to market specialty lettuces. For the big boys in Salinas, iceberg WAS lettuce, and the full sized heads of red leaf -greenleaf-butter-romaine- lettuces passed for specialty lettuces. The heirloom varieties of lettuces that restaurants like Chez Panisse were at best considered a novelty, and at worst a joke, and the people who paid high prices for them were fruitcakes or chumps.
The first customers for baby greens were restauranteurs who were passionate about a return to seasonal values and they made their salads to order. But the market for mesclun salads soon grew beyond the needs of a handful of restaurants and began customers among the restaurant patrons who wanted to make these salads on their own at home. For the convenience of the public, so that a rabbity mesclun consumer wouldn’t have to buy separate heads of half a dozen different baby lettuces, plus a head of chicory, a bunch of arugula etc. the farmers began washing and mixing the salads on the farm and selling the blended greens to the public for a high price.
Consumers swarmed the farmers markets to get the salads they couldn’t find in supermarkets. For the small farms the mesclun boom was a bonanza. But because the salad fad had sprouted in alleys of Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto it was also politically suspect. Mesclun, the one time peasant salad inspired by thrift had become upscale fodder for foodies. “Yuppie chow,” sniffed puritan minded, sourpuss lefties. Real proletarians didn’t eat babies. On the right, the old guard of Salinas scowled at the specter of dirty longhairs selling foreign weeds. I was in the middle, and having finally begun making a modest living as an organic salad grower after years in the fields, those were funny times.
As the numbers of farms making salad green increased growers sought to distinguish them selves from each other by increasing the number of ingredients. Isn’t more always better? Customers who weren’t confined to a Mediterranean palate began asking for something different in their salad mixes, hence the introduction of tat-soi, mizuna, and Japanese red mustard. The charm of the tat-soi was a deep green, spatulate leaf that contrasted nicely with the lighter green of the lettuce. Mizuna’s spiky, serrated leaves stood out in sharp contrast to the other salad green, and the Japanese red mustard had leaves that were purple on one side and green on the other. Because we were farmers producing for consumers, not peasants plucking greens from our gardens for subsistence, visual effects that would increase the eye appeal for consumers inevitably took precedence over any notions of a balance of flavors.
At Riverside Farms, where I worked as a managing partner in charge of the salad harvest, we employed over two hundred full time cutters, with twenty more employees mixing salads in the refrigerated packing sheds. Sales climbed from 300 pounds a day to over 30,000 pounds a day. The gourmet ghetto couldn’t consume that much mesclun. We shipped the stuff to New York, Chicago, Boston, Miami and Dallas by the jet load, and so did our competitors. As the sales of pre-washed baby salads took a bite out of iceberg’s market share the large farming corporations from Salinas jumped into the salad game, and they brought their economies of scale with them. The price for salad greens began to go down as the supply increased. Isn’t bigger always better?
A different aesthetic went blending the salads compared to the early days—call it a “production aesthetic”. Mizuna picks quickly so a lot of mizuna found its way into mesclun. Chicory frisee can be harvested in advance, hydro-cooled, and then torn into the mix as needed, so it became an essential ingredient. Bitter radicchio had always been a potential ingredient in seasonal mesclun, but since its brilliant purple leaves help a salad mix sparkle in a plastic bag, and since radicchio is heavy and can be held in cold storage for a long time after harvest, consumers began to find more and more of it in their salads.
Food service giants like Sysco, and Markon, Ready Pac began to compete for the institutional market. The big buyers demanded year around supply, so farms started up winter mesclun production in the low desert valleys and in Mexico. If one salesmen promised the corporate customer “14 different ingredients year round” the competing sales manager offered “16 different kinds of leaves in every bag,” so the lawyers began writing ingredients like baby Red Russian kale into the supply contracts the industrial salad packers made with their growers. Isn’t more always merrier? The constraints of shipping meant that salads needed to last up to twenty days in refrigeration, so a lot of chlorine went into the chilled wash water to eliminate bacteria. The complex chemistry behind successfully embalming baby mixed greens in sealed plastic bags created new restrictions for the recipe of mesclun which put a premium on tough little leaves that could take a lot of handling.
“You buy mesclun and it has bloody kale leaves in it,” thundered Jeremiah Tower in a New York Times interview of April 18, 2001. “What is the most disgusting thing you can eat? It’s a baby kale leaf. Even the cows hate it.” Jeremiah’s right, of course, and I say that as a person that went from picking salad greens in a garden by hand with a few other long-hairs for Chez Panisse back in 1979 to managing hundreds Mexican farm workers on an industrial plantation in 1995 . Yes, at times we made salads with too much mizuna, too much radicchio, and too much baby red Russian kale. But our salads tasted like success and we shipped thousands of cartons of them every day to wholesale buyers all over the America. Thanks to the efforts of a lot of people the simple salad of mixed baby greens that took its cue from the seasons and the native thrift of the Provencal peasantry had been warped into a standardized U.S. commodity.
There’s a tang of irony to Jeremiah Tower’s chagrin over his salad days because in his book California Dish, Mr. Tower also takes credit for the invention of the concept of “California cuisine” The mass produced salads Jeremiah abhors are no longer European, even if the seeds for the lettuces are still imported from France. Whether you enjoy them or not, the bagged salads of mixed baby greens with lettuces, arugula, mizuna, tatsoi and radicchio, are Californian in the purest sense. They are mass produced by huge farms, and California has always been the land of the large scale enterprise. The mixed salads are produced year around without respect for the seasons, and California has been at the forefront of the effort to convince people that we can have an endless summer. The typical industry name for mesclun became “spring mix,” because California worships the freshness of youth. Salad mix is mechanically harvested now to reduce labor costs, and then triple washed in stainless steel factories, before being merchandised nationally using gauzy images of nature and flowers and little farm girls. Pure Hollywood, California uber alles.
In 1996 my partners and I sold the farming corporation that I worked for to one of the biggest Salinas vegetable producers. There was a non-competition clause in the sales contract, and I was pleased to sign it. I had no wish to compete with Salinas any longer. In the space of sixteen years I’d gone from being a farm worker to being a field manager, and finally to being an owner and corporate vice president sitting behind a desk. And I’d grown to dread my job. The non-compete clause would prompt me to start out small again, and the money from the sale would allow me to start a new farm so that I could do things my way, whatever that would be.
As I sat with my partners and the lawyers and signed page after page of documents I thought back to the days when I was just starting out on my organic adventure, fresh with enthusiasm and green of judgement. I was still working at the farm on Garden Highway when I visited my parents one day. Dr. Pitelka was “at table” at their house. Mom had cantaloupe wedges for desert. When Frank went off again about “this perfect little French restaurant where the Charentais melon paired with prosciutto was so divine.” I cut him off.
“They don’t get the very best Charentais melons,” I said.
“Have you ever eaten at Chez Pannise, young man?” he asked.
“No, I haven’t,” I replied, “but I work on a garden that supplies them, and when I see the very best melon, a melon that is beyond compare, in the beauty of its form and the succulence and scent of its flesh, since I’m only a farm worker and I know I can’t afford to eat at Chez, I cut that Charentais open and pop the slices in my mouth until the juice runs down my chin.”
What would Pitelka say about the state of mesclun salad if he were alive today? Yuppie chow no more, baby mixed salad greens can be found at McDonalds. If there’s anything original left about the salads of today that we can trace back to Provence it’s that once again small, fresh lettuce and chicory leaves are being eaten by working class people. There’s no shame in that. But bigger isn’t better. Big is big, small is small, and the best is the best, where ever you find it