For a bearded fellow like myself the first step in preparing authentic birria de chivo is to swing by Quik Stop market and buy a package of disposable Bic shaving razors. Chivo is Spanish for goat, and birria is a traditional Mexican method of steaming meat over a chile broth. My mentors in the kitchen, Don Gerardo and Don Miguel, assured me the razors were essential. Having a smooth faced chef is not relevant to the success of birria feast; having four clean shaven goat feet is.
Since most super markets don’t sell goat meat, birria de chivo starts with catching a goat. While I make my living raising vegetables I keep a small flock of goats to control brush. It’s economical to eat the “fat of my own land”, and if I’m going to eat meat it only seems honest to slaughter the animal myself. This practice might be considered odd, or even blood thirsty, if you consider that meat is easiest to deal with when it comes pre-sliced and masked in plastic wrap, but a backyard slaughter wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in Michoacan where Gerardo and Miguel come from.
Besides razors and a goat we needed a twenty gallon pot, and plenty of vinegar, garlic, onions, marjoram, oregano, cumin, ginger, laurel leaves, and black pepper. And chile, of course. Because we were preparing the meal for a mixed crowd of Americans and Mexicans an executive decision was made by Don Miguel to go with a mild ancho chile for the broth. It’s not true that all Mexicans want their food to be “muy picante” but, left to his own devices, Don Gerardo would definitely favor a chile powerful enough to bring a sweat to the brow.
I caught a four month old kid. At the risk of being tasteless, let me assure you that I killed and dressed the goat kid in less time, and with less squealing, than it used to take on a school day morning getting my daughter, Magdalena, to brush her hair and get dressed. She’s older now, so grooming comes easier, but my daughter still gets mad at me for butchering goats. I can understand. Lena says it’s sick to eat a goat that you know. My argument to her has been that we’re omnivorous animals, just like the cute Grizzly bears, and anyway the predators don’t lie down with the herbivores until the End Of Time. Farm animals are raised for slaughter. Without human care domestic animals have no existence. Without farm animals our world would lack beauty, flavor, and security. We justify the killing and honor the animal we slaughter by using all of it and not wasting a drop of life.
Under Don Miguel’s instruction I chopped the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys of the goat together for a dish called Montalayo, which is basically a Mexican take on haggis. When I’d achieved a texture somewhat cruder than hamburger I mixed the organ meat in a big bowl with chopped potato, onions, peas, and carrots. Miguel washed the stomach and scrubbed it with lime until it was snowy white, inside and out, and then stuffed with the offal-vegetable mixture. When he was done, Don Miguel tied the open end of the stomach tight with a cotton string to seal it closed, and set to one side. We split ancho peppers open and removed their seeds, then soaked them in hot water for a bit to soften. Garlic and onions were peeled. Black pepper corns were ground to powder in a molcajete, or stone grinding bowl.
We had a small pot of water heating. Don Gerardo plunged the goat feet in scalding water to loosen the hair. The tiny hairs that didn’t pluck off were shaved off with the Bics. You don’t want to skin the feet or there won’t be anything left. After a quick, scalding bath the horny sheaths of the hooves slipped easily off the toe bones. While we shaved the goat feet the chiles finished softening. Don Gerardo pureed the chiles in the blender with some vinegar, water, cumin, marjoram, ginger and salt. The garlic, onion, pepper, and oregano were tossed in the bottom of the big pot with three gallons of water, the chile puree and five bay leaves. Don Miguel dropped the cleaned feet in the chile broth. I skinned and dehorned the head and dropped it in the pot. The head and feet are essential ingredients because they give the broth “body”.
Then Don Miguel took out his machete and chopped the goat carcass into small cuts with a series of authoritative blows. We slipped a round grill top into the huge pot and perched it upon four teacups for a makeshift steamer. Meat was carefully layered above the broth with the stuffed gut placed in the middle. The pot was sealed with aluminum foil and put to boil. The hard work was over. We each opened a can of beer and sat down. Don Gerardo and Don Miguel talked as the pot bubbled and a savory steam began to rise into the air. I listened.
I learned that birria can be made from many kinds of meats but it’s not an everyday kind of dish. Celebrations call for birria. Here in the States birria is a restaurant fare. Don Miguel said one of his favorite birrias was birria de guacolote, or turkey, but he’d made some good birria de armadillo. It all depends on where you are and what your circumstances are. When Don Gerardo was a child corn was so scarce his mama had to make tortillas from the paste of ground up green bananas. It had been Gerardo’s job in those years to catch tlacuaches, or possums. Tlacuatche makes a good birria. Don Miguel said that mapache, or racoon, makes excellent birria too, but Don Gerardo said that mapache is better with mole sauce.
Listening to the two of them discuss birria made me understand how alive the cooking of Pre-Columbian America still is. The aluminum foil was a concession to modernity, as was the steel pot, but birria could easily prepared in an earthenware vessel. True, the goat, the vinegar, black pepper, cumin, ginger, carrots and peas in the montalayo came from Europe with the Spaniards, but all the other vegetables and spices came from the New World or could easily be replaced with native ingredients. I imagine that deer was a typical meat for birria before the introduction of the goat. Both goats and deer yield lean carcasses that present well with long, slow cooking techniques.
Hearing Gerardo and Miguel reminisce about the hard times back in Mexico made me think about how cooking birria is a celebration of traditional, conservative values. A modern “special occasion” might call for broiled chops on the grill, assigning the “lesser cuts” and organs of the animal an uncelebrated role ground up into hot dogs. Making the montalayo with the birria puts the “whole” in holistic and uses meats that cant be dried or easily preserved. Using all the bones in the broth is an economical, flavorful way of capturing all of the nutrition that the animal has to offer.
After four hours of gentle steaming the birria was ready. I lifted the lid on the pot with great curiosity. Would the flavor of the birria be worth the opprobrium I had earned from my daughter? The meat was served in bowls with the spicy broth poured over the top and garnished with chopped onion, cilantro, and a squeeze of lemon. Warm corn tortillas were used to sop up the leftover liquid so not a drop was wasted. Cactus salad was a side dish. And of course we had beans.
The birria was great. The meat was tender and rich with chile and garlic. But the meal was also flavored with the experience of the toes to nose preparation. In that respect I’d have to say the birria had an ever deeper taste for me than for Gerardo and Miguel because they were already at home with how they eat. Maybe the birria had the strongest flavor for my seven year old daughter who didn’t eat a bite because she was getting a taste of reality. We’ll have another birria feast in the Fall when our crops are coming in, the goats are fat in the pasture, and we have reasons to celebrate. My daughter can become a vegetarian if she wants, but first she’s going to have to get over her distaste of vegetables.
A real jackass is a monument of asinine masculinity, and a testament to will, virility, and intelligence. A jenny is a female donkey. A stallion plus a jenny equals a mule. A jackass plus a mare equals a hinny. There are more mules in the world than there are hinnies because it’s easier to get a jack to breed a mare than it is to mate a stallion with a jenny. Why this should be so is a matter of conjecture. I figure that the inequality in numbers stems from performance anxiety on the part of the male horses, who, in the presence of equine ladies with such lovely long ears, such dulcet voices, such soulful eyes and such independent manners, simply feel inadequate. Hinny foals and mule foals come out the womb equal though, with 63 chromosomes apiece, and they’re all valued by their owners for the unique hybrid mix they have of a donkey’s good looks and endurance and a horse’s gullible nature and athletic temperament. I’m a donkey fancier, but over the Memorial Day weekend I went to the Bishop Mule Days Celebration on the eastern side of the Sierras to see what the fuss was all about.
The Mule Days Celebration is a week long event dedicated to the premise that anything a horse can do a mule can do better. As a kid I worked on a horse ranch mucking out stalls and feeding the horses. I got jaded by the self-important manner that some horse owners pass on to their steeds. I hoped that Mule Days might be a corrective experience, and I was right. For me, the visit started with a mule race. Five mules lined up on the starting line with their jockeys all dressed in silks of different colors. The mule with the jockey in yellow jumped the gun and had to reined back. Then she jumped the gun again. At a horse race a spirited animal like this would be disqualified for its enthusiasm but the judge at Mule Days had a donkey’s patience in his soul; he simply asked the jockey in yellow to turn his mule around so that the animal’s ass, not its nose, was on the starting line. Bang went the starting gun, and the mules shot off like bullets. The mule with the yellow silks had to spin around on her haunches before she could start the race, but she wanted victory so badly that she laid her big ears back and flew. When she won by a length everybody in the stands cheered.
Then there was a donkey race. It was invigorating to see the philosophic nature of the ass on display. The racing donkeys seemed all too aware that enjoyment of the journey of life comes from the trip, not from the finish line. Three of the five donkeys set off at the starting gun and scampered down the track with alacrity, but they didn’t obsess on the event the way a mule or horse would. A fourth donkey loped along casually and looked at the crowds of spectators with curiosity. And it is curious how thousands of donkeys never gather to watch five humans run in circles. Left to their own devices donkeys are happy to just savor mouthfuls of grass and feel the warm sun on their backs. The last donkey was the most thoughtful of all. She halted halfway down the track before turning and strolling back towards the starting line. Everybody smiled. What a generous donkey she was to make such an ass of her jockey. If the gambling industry wanted to inject an element of suspense into parimutuel racing they’ll open the racetracks to donkeys. It’ll never happen, though, because when it comes to a donkey race “all bets are off.”
I enjoyed the “donkey in hand” obstacle course too. This event was open to donkeys of all breeds and sizes, from the miniature Sicilian donkeys that stand no taller than dogs all the way up to Mammoth Donkeys whose ears can shade an average horse from the sun. Here the goal of every contestant was to lead their donkey over, through, into, and around a series of obstacles that challenged the animal to demonstrate its training and its faith in its owner. I appreciate the donkey obstacle course because I can see the time and energy that the donkey trainers have dedicated to their animals. I’m humbled when I compare the compliant behavior of the show animals with the saucy attitude that my donkeys display
when I try to make them do something that they didn’t think of. “Donkey in hand” obstacle shows will never make for good tv, because patience, trust and discipline are on display, not speed, flash, and violence. There was one made-for-tv moment though. A miniature donkey grew bored with the “keyhole” obstacle and left the arena suddenly to give a nuzzle kiss to another donkey on the other side of the corral fence, forcing the judge to announce over the public address system that “contestant 312 has lost her ass.”
My favorite event at Mule Days was the Pack Scramble. With the snowy crags of the Sierras crashing down to the desert floor to the west and the high peaks of the Whites looming over the Owens Valley from the east, Bishop is a natural spot for wilderness pack stations to show off the mules that can match the mountains. For the scramble contest wranglers from each Pack Station lead strings of fully loaded mules into the arena. Each animal is unloaded, and all the tack and gear removed. When every mule is nude a cannon is shot off, and for a minute the arena is a swirl of dust as sixty or seventy mules run around in chaos. Then the wranglers get busy. The first team to pack their mules and lead the train around the quarter mile racetrack without losing so much as a frying pan wins. My favorite packers were the Powder Puff Girls, an all-girl crew from the McGee Creek Pack Station, who dolled their mules up with packs and tack that sizzled in Breast Cancer Awareness Month Pink.
As I sat in the bleachers in the sun on Memorial Day, watching the beautiful mules and donkeys, the Civil War came to mind. When General Sherman marched through Georgia he promised the newly emancipated slaves forty acres of confiscated Confederate land apiece along with a government surplus mule. A mule used to be considered the optimum “horsepower” for farmwork. Forty acres was thought to be land enough for a hard working man to wrest a living from nature. The Federal Government soon reneged on its offer of reparations for slavery and returned the farmlands to
the plantation owners, so “forty acres and a mule” came to be understood as shorthand for broken promises. I thought about this longeared 19th century formula for emancipation and took measure of my own dependence on diesel fuel. Yes, I’m a self-employed farmer, but like almost everyone in America I live in thrall to Big Oil.
When I was seventeen I worked on a farm in Oregon with teams of Percheron horses. You better eat your Wheaties before you spend a day working with a draft team. Even the leather harness is hard work to put on the horses’ backs, and then there’s the strain of holding up the reins all day long and convincing the horses to pull. Now, at age forty eight years I’m developing a curiosity about the path I didn’t pursue. Do I have the stuff it takes to farm the way my grandfather did? Am I too old to learn? So I read and I seek out the company of people who can drive a team or lead a pack train. My farm buys me the freedom to take a day off now and then so next weekend I’ll attend the Coastal Oaks Miniature Donkey Show in King City. But at home I’ve got two tractors, four trucks, and two cars to fill with fuel. I’m ad-d-d-d-d-d-d-dicted to oil. I’d love to be freed from this karmic burden. Is emancipation possible? Who knows? But I’ve taken a half step I already own twenty acres and a donkey.
Copyright 2007 Andy Griffin
Photos of Mule Days that Andy and Lena took
At Mariquita Farm we’re getting lined up to do the “
Not all varieties of tomato require tying. Determinate tomato breeds set most of their flowers at once, so the harvest, when it comes, is relatively concentrated. Determinate tomatoes are often harvested by machine. Because tomatoes destined for mechanized harvest need to be tough and rubbery to withstand the rigors of being picked by a blunt instrument many determinate tomato breeds are designed to have fruit that can be beaten off the vine green, then ripened artificially with ethylene gas, before being cooked down into tomato paste for canning. But I don’t grow tomatoes for industrial processing. I prefer to grow the so-called indeterminate tomatoes, which flower over a long period.
As indeterminate tomatoes flower they keep growing….and growing….and growing. Tomatoes evolved in tropical South America as short lived perennials with a rampant, vining habit. One wild tomato type that is still available to gardeners is the so-called currant cherry tomato. Currants have fruits that are hardly bigger than peas, but the vines can reach over twenty feet. The old fashioned, heirloom breeds of tomatoes that I plant still show off their origins as rampant, perennial tropical vines by sprawling over a wide area if they’re not restrained. To avoid treading on the tomato plants, to make harvest easier, and to assure that the fruits are not laying on the dirt it is necessary to introduce a little discipline into the life of an indeterminate tomato.
So we pound wooden stakes at ten foot intervals down the tomato rows while the plants are still young. As the vines grow, we lash lines of twine from stake to stake, passing first on one side of each pole, then on the other side, so that the foliage is supported between the taunt strings in an upright fashion. That’s the Weave. As the plants grow up we spin more twine higher and higher up the poles, so we end up with linear walls of tomato foliage. The workers can walk easily down the rows to inspect the plants, repair the drip irrigation tubes that run along the rows at the base of the plants, or trap for gophers. Breezes can pass between the rows, keeping the plants dry so that any threat of losing plants to humidity loving mildews is mitigated. Eventually, clusters of colorful, flavorful fruits will hang by the cluster, well above the dusty ground, and easy to pick. I’m planning on a bountiful harvest, but in the end, I remind myself that success isn’t only up to me. Farming is always a dance, and nature calls the tune.
copyright 2007 Andy Griffin
Tomatoes and Basil and Padron Peppers: Upick and Mini Market plans for the summer:
Mariquita has many heirloom and sauce tomatoes planted, lots of tender basil and loads of pimiento de padron peppers, and friarellis too! We plan to have many upick Saturdays (maybe the occasional weekday too) in August, Sept. and October. We also hope to host mini 2 hour markets throughout the city in different neighborhoods with canning portions of the same items. Stay tuned! If you have a great driveway that would make a good one-time only Mariquita Mini Market later this summer, let me know. Thanks!
My son, Graydon, was about three and a half when he came running half naked through the kitchen one morning while I was cleaning up. “I’m hungry Papa, so make me lunch!” he shouted. “Make it quick, and make it crunchy!” I told him to eat a carrot.
Children can be wiggy about what they eat, so the carrot, with its inherent versatility, is an almost perfect food. For kids that need to everything be “theirs,” eating a whole baby carrot can be a satisfying experience; when a larger carrot split into pieces is absent there’s the chance of being served a smaller piece, or fewer pieces, than a rival sibling. Orange seems to be a comforting color for food, too, whereas all kinds of suspicious, sickening things are green.
Of course, with baby carrots the young diner always faces the potential trauma of being confronted with a flawed or crooked root. Food corporations handle this existential issue well by taking larger carrots and mechanically lathing them into perfectly rounded facsimiles of baby carrots, thus achieving a level of uniformity that many children find comforting.
And then there’s the whole issue of carrot flavor to consider. For centuries the carrot’s natural sweetness was enough to make it an attractive vegetable to people and beasts. My donkey comes to the fence every time she sees me, because she hopes to get a carrot. If you want to see an “Oscar level” expression of disgust, just look into my indignant ass’s face when she expects a carrot and I offer her a handful of cabbage leaves instead.
Flavor is still an important component of the carrot eating experience, though these days it is customary for many cooks to focus more on the flavor of the dip they serve with the carrot than the natural flavor of the root. Many consumers only eat the pre-bagged, pre-peeled “baby” carrots. These “value added” carrots are treated with an antiseptic solution for “long life” in refrigerator storage and they often smell like a high school swimming pool, so it helps if the dip is flavored strongly enough to over-ride any lingering chlorine essence.
My favorite “baby carrot” is a variety called “Minicor.”. They have been developed to be harvested young so they plump up fast. They are small, but they’re not really babies, as in “infantile”—more like adolescents. Sometimes the so-called baby carrots don’t always have the depth of flavor that comes with mature, deeply rooted winter carrots, but they have their own charms. When I was a kid I didn’t like to eat cooked carrots—actually, I didn’t think there was anything nastier on earth than a cooked carrot, but I now that I’m old and grey and most of my taste buds have died, I like to cook baby carrots. Here’s my favorite recipe:
Put the carrots in a pan (washed, not peeled) with a pat of butter, a pinch of salt, and a splash of white wine, and steam them till they’re halfway cooked. Then remove the carrots from the flame, garnish them with minced fresh parsley and tumble it all around. The heat of the carrots will wilt the minced herbs, the melted butter helps the savory herbs cling to the roots, and a delicious aroma rises up. I like to apply a final twist of black pepper, and serve the carrots warm.
Carrots are members of the Umbellifer family, along with cilantro, chervil, fennel, parsley, and celery. Many members of the Umbelliferae make excellent garnishes for carrots. If you buy your carrots fresh by the bunch, and not embalmed in a bag, then the greens, minced finely, might make a pretty good garnish themselves. Stir the garnish into the baby carrots just as you remove them from the heat, so the garnish wilts and releases it’s aroma without cooking down into sludge.
If you have any kids in the house who turn up their noses at any flecks of green garnish contaminating the purity of the orange carrots, or if you cook for a partner who is close to “the child within,” remind them how lucky they are to be alive in the modern era. In the infancy of humanity, when all of us wandered naked through the forests, it was the carrot’s greens that we ate, since the carrot plant’s roots had not yet been improved by agriculturalists into a sweet, quick, crunchy snack crop.
And dip? Well, The first dips that humanity discovered was probably yogurt made from donkey, horse, yak, sheep, cow, or camel milk, with some crushed herbs and salt mixed in. That still sounds pretty good, even if it requires a little work. Back in the stone age, the quick-fix, emotionally satisfying, commercial, salty, pre-made dips that come in plastic tubs or packets were still far off in humanity’s adult future, along with tax deadlines, hydrogen bombs, and this laptop computer I’m writing to you on. Convenience took a long coming.
copyright 2007 Andy Griffin
I’m a roaming cowboy riding all day long,
Tumbleweeds around me sing their lonely song.
Nights underneath the prairie moon,
I ride along and sing this tune.
See them tumbling down,
Pledging their love to the ground,
Lonely but free I’ll be found
Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.
Tumbling Tumbleweeds, by The Sons Of The Pioneers.
What if Tumbling Tumbleweeds went from being the title of a classic cowboy song to being the name for an scramble egg recipe? It’s not as farfetched an idea as it sounds.
Tumbleweeds are an introduced species called Salsola tragus, that first popped us in the U.S. in South Dakota in 1877. Since tumbleweeds are widely distributed over the steppes of Russia and Central Asia it’s thought that Ukranian immigrants pioneering the great plains were the most likely vector. Once rooted in the new world the exotic tumbleweeds took care of spreading themselves. The plant is now classed as a noxious weed by the U.S. Department Of Agriculture.
The tumbleweed plant is a tender herb when young, and grows into a stiff round ball of stems that breaks loose from the soil when the autumn winds blow, so that the plant can roll across the landscape, spreading seeds. The following spring the old severed roots sprout new growth, and the tumbleweed’s dispersed seeds sprout in new locations. Tumbleweeds spread so successfully, “Pledging their love” to a virgin continent, that they soon made their way over the Colorado Rockies, all the way to Death Valley, and even into the musical top 40. Maybe the food network comes next.
I’m growing an Italian green called agretti, or Salsola soda in Latin. Agretti is a tender, succulent herb when harvested young, with a pleasing, sour taste. In Italy this herb is used chopped and tossed in salads or sauteed with onions to slip into omelettes. The family name Salsola comes from the Latin “salsus”, meaning salt, because the various Salsola family members can tolerate very salty soil. The tumbleweed’s tolerance of, and even appreciation for, tough conditions, helped the plant spread aggressively across the American West.
The Italian Salsola soda I’ve planted in my fields grows with the vigor of a weed, just like its Russian cousin Salsola tragus. But agretti seeds are hard to find in the States, and costly to import. Young tumbleweeds have a similar texture and flavor to agretti, and are often eaten back home on the steppes, cooked like spinach. I’m going to grow out some of my agretti seeds to maturity and harvest a seed crop so I’m not so dependent on imported agretti seed. I’m also going to drive out to the Panoche Valley, east of Hollister, in the fall and gather the seed of some tumbleweeds as they go tumbling past.
The Panoche Valley is a very quiet spot, hidden in the hills between Hollister and the San Joaquin Valley. I like it. With film, when directors want to suggest loneliness and rootlessness one device they occasionally resort to is to show a tumbleweed rolling across the screen, just as the Country and Western musical group, The Sons Of The Pioneers, used the tumbleweed to suggest a relationship between loneliness, rootlessness, and freedom.
In the ideal Italy of the past, or in the re-imagining of the future that The Slow Food Movement is promoting from it’s base in Italy, food is more than fuel for a restless body. Our daily meals can be reaffirming moments that strengthen our ties to tradition, to family, to seasons and to places. We’re all sons and daughters of pioneers here in America, and we’ve changed our landscape just as it has changed us. Someday we will understand our freedom as the choice to take root and to take responsibility for our behavior in this community of plants and animals that sustains us.
When that day comes, a weed will simply be a plant out of place, instead of any old plant we don’t understand or pay attention to unless it’s to scrape it off the landscape or spray it into submission. It’s an ideal world I’m talking about, I know. But, with agretti, the Italians learned to cook an alkali tolerant weed and transform it into a treat, so why can’t we learn to savor our own landscape? You’ll know that we’ve learned how to “pledge our love to the ground” when a traveler can pull off of I-5 at dawn on the way to or from L.A., and buy a tasty, fresh, local, braised tumbleweed taco for breakfast.
Film reviews aren’t part of my routine, but in the case of the recent release “Miss Potter”, starring Rene Zellweger, I’ll make an exception. Thumbs up! Five stars. Saw it twice!
The story is based on the life of Beatrix Potter, the authoress of classic children’s books like The Tale of Peter Rabbit, but this isn’t a children’s movie. Instead, “Miss Potter” is a story of how a young woman had the inner strength to overcome the stifling social mores of the Victorian era. After I saw the film with my wife I took my ten year old daughter, Lena. Like young Beatrix, my daughter loves to paint. I thought it would be instructive for Lena to see how women’s roles in society have changed over the years, by seeing the struggles of a woman with whom she could sympathize.
I loved the farm-life angle to the film’s storyline too. Beatrix Potter painted scenes from the English countryside around her. Her illustrations are so well observed that I can name the breed of animal or the variety of flower or vegetable pictured. In an illustration for The Tale Of Jemima Puddle-Duck it’s clearly a rhubarb plant that Jemima has chosen to hide her eggs under. “She tried to hide her eggs;” Beatrix Potter writes, “but they were always found and carried off.” The farm boy in the picture looks at the silly duck hen confronting him with a reproach, and Jemima looks concerned. Beatrix writes that Jemima was “quite desperate.” The authoress was probably aware that rhubarb is synonymous with words of dispute, like ruckus, quarrel, controversy, debate, disagreement, bickering, fuss, and flap. The picture has a homey tartness that can appeal to the parent reading the story, as much as the sweeter elements appeal to the child being read to.
When foxy gentleman’s house is pictured, later in the same story, there’s a Digitalis purpurea plant in full bloom at the edge of the frame. Digitalis grows well in dank, moist, shady areas, and the most common name for Digitalis is foxglove—another name is “dead man’s bells.” Is Beatrix insinuating that Jemima is a dead duck? Most illustrations for contemporary children’s books feature generic images of nature that are pretty, but iconic and lacking detail. I like all kinds of art, from the religious psychedelia like The Garden Of Earthly Delights by Bosch, to Klimpt’s line drawings of women to Magritte’’ surrealistic businessmen with their faces obscured by large green apples. But I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for super-realistic images of bunnies in britches too, especially when there are shadowy innuendoes drawn in to give the pictures more depth.
The movie “Miss Potter” captures the rustic beauty of the Lake Country,but it doesn’t take us down a saccharin garden path. Beatrix Potter looked deeply into the world around her, and her familiarity with nature bred love. She overcame societal obstacles and personal inhibitions to become a millionairess, and then she invested her money in land to save working farms from destruction. We can still enjoy England’s Lake country because of her. Beatrix Potter was WAY ahead of her time, and her curious, amusing Victorian morality tales are only part of her legacy.
Oceans are rising, the ice-caps are melting, the apocalypse is nigh, and there’s always so much doomed news to dwell on. The fact that Hollywood moguls saw a market for a movie about Beatrix Potter, and then made a movie where love for the natural environment is as important a theme as the search for romantic love—well, it me think that those of us working towards a sustainable, nature based agriculture can hope for a happy ending too! This farmer says “Go Beatrix!”
“I must either command, or be silent!” -Napoleon in exile
When Robinson Crusoe was shipwrecked on a deserted island he survived by catching wild goats to use for meat, milk, and hides. The story of Robinson Crusoe is fiction, but there’s nothing imaginary about the flocks of goats on the scattered islands of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The island goats weren’t native to the islands, they were feral—descended from the pairs of bucks and does that early Spanish and Portuguese sailors let loose as “shipwreck insurance,” so that non-fictional shipwrecked sailors could hope to wash up on an island where a familiar food source existed.
Since they had no natural predators on these remote, previously undiscovered oceanic islands, goat populations expanded exponentially, and they often turned lush deserted islands into desert islands by eating everything. For example, a Portuguese explorer named Jo o da Nova discovered an uninhabited, heavily timbered isle 1200 miles off the coast of Southwest Africa on the feast day of Saint Helen, May 21st , 1502. He named the island St. Helena, took on water, dropped off several goats, and sailed on.
The existence of St Helena was kept a secret by the Portuguese until 1588, when the British explorer, Cavendish, came across the island and made note of both the goats and the trees. Witnesses say there were still a lot of trees standing as late as 1716, but by the time the famous Corsican megalomaniac was exiled on St. Helena in 1815 the island’s native vegetation had been destroyed. Charles Darwin visited Longwood, Napoleon’s home on the island, in 1836 on the historic voyage of the Beagle. He wrote of St. Helena that, “Goats were introduced in 1502. Eighty-six years later, during the time of Cavendish, it is known they were exceedingly numerous. More than a century afterwards, in 1731, when the evil was irretrievable, an order was issued that all stray animals be destroyed.”
But goats don’t have to be destructive. At High Ground Farm in Watsonville goats are being used to help restore native California plant communities. Laura Kummerer, a grassland restoration specialist working for High Ground Farm, has borrowed fourteen of my goats to help her with her native range rehabilitation project. We released the goats at High Ground Farm last week, and their immediate task was to eat the introduced species like the annual Mediterranean grasses, wild mustard, wild radish, and orchard grass that infest what remains of the native Californian coastal grasslands. Eating these weeds comes naturally to goats—after all, the goats and these weeds all evolved together in the Old World.
Two hundred years ago the lands that now make up the fields and pastures of High Ground Farm were part of an intricate web of wet lands and prairies that ran along the shores of Monterey Bay. Elk grazed on the grasslands and deer browsed in the brush. Waterfowl nested in the reeds, and every manner of creature found a niche to exploit and enjoy. Near the top of the food chain, one rung under the Grizzly bear, communities of native Americans lived on the bluffs and took advantage of all the natural riches that the area had to offer.
The Spanish conquest changed everything. With guns at their disposal, the newcomers were equal to the Grizzly bears. Adios osos! The Native Americans were crowded into missions and lectured to about salvation in heaven. No one thought to listen to the Indians to find out if their long tenancy in California had taught them anything about how to live here— our ecological consciousness was still a long time off in the future. The Indians themselves were the first victims of an environment out of balance—many of them died from the diseases that the Spaniards had evolved with and adapted to. The herds of elk were slaughtered. The coastal prairie grasses were over-grazed by long horned Iberian cattle, and the native perennial bunch grasses gave way to the Mediterranean annual grasses that hitchhiked into California as sticker-burrs in the cows’ tails.
When the Americans came the oaks and redwoods were cut down, the fields were ploughed for farming, and the wetlands were drained. When I started farming in Watsonville the rich, peaty soil from the drained marshland was still being strip-mined by fertilizer companies and exported. Finally, and recently, much of what was once wetland habitat for a wide range of native species has been converted into housing subdivisions. But Santa Cruz County isn’t St. Helena Island. We’re not marooned. We’re not in exile, and there’s no palace of mirrors for us to return to. We’re here to make a permanent home, and we’re smart enough (I hope) to learn how to live here gracefully, and not comport ourselves like conquerors who would despoil their own prizes.
For some people the environmental changes of the past and present are of no concern. I have to admit that I’m not sad that the Grizzly bears aren’t prowling outside my door—taxonomists don’t call them Ursus horribilis for nothing. But as we become deeply acquainted with our environment we’re beginning to learn how all the different organisms work together to maintain a stable yet dynamic ecology. Get rid of the coyotes and the rodent populations surge out of control until bubonic plague brings them back in line. Get rid of the nesting areas and the birds that keep the mosquitos in check disappear. Get rid of the mosquitos with chemicals and the birds that depend on them for food disappear, plus a lot of other organisms get poisoned.
As farmers and consumers we’re learning to take responsibility for our actions. Organic farmers have a special role to play in redefining how society interacts with nature. As business people we understand that we can only farm organically if we can make money, but we also understand that not everything that’s of value can be easily quantified in terms of dollars. The checks and balances that count for survival aren’t only the ones at the bank. A healthy, diverse ecosystem where a natural matrix of pest and predator is an agricultural asset. The hawk that floats overhead the field isn’t merely a beautiful bird, it’s also the cheapest and most effective gopher trap a farmer can have.
The hawk needs a tree to nest in. And we need the hawk and the tree to add “interest” to our lives. Our lives are a gift from Mother Nature, and the intelligent thing to do is to show some respect to the old girl. There is so much to learn about how all the different species work together to weave a seamless web of life, but several things seem clear already. Diverse ecosystems are more stable, more resilient to temporary climatic fluctuations, and more beautiful than mono-cultures. We don’t stand outside of nature—we’re an integral part of it. We’re still evolving, and it’s not to late to change. With that sentiment in mind, a number of different groups in Watsonville are working together to restore the Monterey Bay wetlands.
The mining of the Watsonville peat bogs is history, and water is filling the wetlands again. At High Ground Farm seeds from the surviving native perennial bunch grasses have been collected from the pastures and grown out to replant and strengthen the remaining established stands. A handful of cattle have been brought into the pastures because, if properly managed, their grazing habits mimic those of the vanished elk. Native grasses evolved with ruminant grazing as a part of the equation, and they need grazing to thrive. My goats have been introduced because their browsing habits can be an effective control for the introduced Mediterranean weeds that are choking out the native California plants.
The goats got to work right away, wolfing down mustard blossoms like bar flies around a dish of salted peanuts. When the thatch of non-native weeds has been reduced from the rangeland, native wild flowers and native perennial grasses will have an easier time getting re-established. Laura Kummerer monitors the progress that the cows and goats make and moves the animals from paddock to paddock as necessary. When the goats have finished their work for the season they will return home to Mariquita Farm to resume their important “work” eating poison oak brush.
My father, Dr. James Griffin, was a research plant ecologist for the University Of California who did some of the pioneering studies on the re-establishment of native grass communities. His work thirty years ago, and that of his like minded peers, has inspired people like Laura to look at the inter-related issues of habitat management and animal husbandry in new ways. I grew up on a University field station, and as a kid I can remember all the enclosures my dad made around plots of native grasses to study the effects of grazing on regeneration, and I remember the controlled burns he conducted to understand the ways that perennial grasses depended on fire ecologies for survival. Then I grew up to raise goats.
My interest in raising goats may make me seem like an atavistic throwback to a stupider time, but I’m proud to be able to help Laura and contribute to the spirit of father’s work in my own way. And of course I’m proud of my goats for being so “ecologically sensitive” and “politically correct.” Goats are wonderful animals, and we can’t blame them for the deserts. Learning from our mistakes and making appropriate corrections in our behavior is a survival skill, and it’s the only real shipwreck insurance we’ve got.
Photos of Before and After the goats arrived
Photos of some native plants found at High Ground Organics
(Andy’s photo of a local mustard field is below)
Jesus said “the kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed.” A mustard seed is tiny, like the head of a pin. Can heaven fit?
Metaphors that were evocative and illuminating two thousand years ago come across opaque and weird to modern ears. Today mustard is as celestial as a yellow emulsion on a ballpark hotdog. That can be a pretty good experience, but a cultural anthropologist will tell you that mustards were meaningful across the Middle East throughout antiquity, both as weeds and as cultivated crops. Farmers sowed mustard by scattering hand-fulls of the seed on tilled soil. Then the farmers would sit back to wait, and pray, for rain.
People living during the time of Jesus would have gathered tender mustard seedlings from the fields in the spring for salads. As the mustard greens matured they would have picked them for cooking greens. Some form of wild mustard may well have been the bitter herb eaten during Passover. And when the mustards’ flower buds swelled the country people would have plucked them to steam like tiny heads of broccoli. Then, when the plants went to seed, the little brown mustard seeds were pressed for oil. When Jesus said that heaven was like a mustard seed he was telling his followers that they didn’t have to look very far to find it.
Heaven in the valley, heaven in the bowl,
Heaven in the belly, heaven in the oil,
Heaven on the hillside, heaven in the seeds,
Heaven in the flowers, heaven in the weeds.
All around the Mediterranean mustard fields come into blazing yellow flower in the spring. From a distance the hills appear to be yellow. But look closely at a mustard plant and you’ll see that the yellow blossom is actually a cluster of smaller flowers, each of which takes the simple form of a four-petaled cross. Botanists have given the mustard family the Latin name of Cruciferae, meaning “of the cross.” Many of our most important food crops, like cabbage, turnips, broccoli, radishes and cauliflower are crucifers. When Jesus said that heaven was like a mustard seed, was he implying that it reveals itself in
full flower tortured on a cross?
Jesus said that mustard, “the smallest of seeds,” when fully grown is “ the greatest of shrubs, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” The wild mustard weeds in my farm’s fields stand five feet tall, but I would hardly call them the “greatest of shrubs,” or “trees.” Jesus was a carpenter, so he would have known about trees. Was he engaging in poetic licence, or was he suggesting that the smallest things sometimes contain within themselves the most unforseen ramifications?
Sometimes I wonder if Jesus wasn’t making an empirical observation. We know that there are deserts in Texas now where, before the settlers came, there used to be prairies of grasses that grew taller than a man on horseback. And there were millions of bison swarming across the plains. The skies over my farm in California used to be black with waterfowl, and the fields were crossed by huge herds of elk.. Was the soil in the Middle East richer a long time ago when Caesar Augustus stomped the terra? Were plants more vigorous in The Land Of Milk And Honey before twenty centuries of war, over-grazing and erosion depleted the soil?
The Spanish conquistadores brought Mediterranean culture to California; they brought their religion, their livestock, their crops, their political institutions, their diseases, and their weeds. Today the Spaniard Empire is history and most of the Indian peoples the Padres converted to Catholicism are dead, but California is still beautiful. It’s not for nothing that John Steinbeck titled a book that took place in Central California “The Pastures Of Heaven.” But the California that existed before Cabrilho planted the first cross in 1542 in San Diego can hardly be imagined. Today, our valleys are yellow with
wild mustards in full bloom for Easter, and the fields are covered in crosses.
The numbers don’t lie. Since the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market moved from its temporary site at Green Street to the Ferry Building our gross receipts have fallen. Meanwhile, our farm’s costs, like labor, diesel, insurance, electricity, seeds, and supplies continue to rise. If I thought that raising prices for our vegetables would make our farmers market stall more profitable I would do so, but I doubt that charging more is going to make much difference over the long haul. This candid posting about the Ferry Plaza Market from the Yelp web site by “Toro E.” in April, 2006, is instructive. After making glowing comments about the market’s setting and the prepared foods Toro writes, “ I usually leave the place with only few things in my hand. I know many people do all their grocery shopping here, but I think it’s easier to get that done at Trader Joe’s, throwing bags in the car trunk rather than lugging it back from Ferry Plaza walking. ”
The market has changed. Many farms have changed with it by turning their attention towards providing value added products like juices, preserves, herbal salts, and snacks that can be eaten out of hand. We’ve changed at Mariquita Farm too, by focusing on serving the restaurant trade to make up for lost retail sales. I figure that if I can’t sell fresh vegetables to diners and tourists, then I’ll sell my vegetables to the chefs that cook for them. But with a selection of bulky, fresh, wet, dripping, heavy crops that need to be prepared, we are ill suited to take advantage of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market’s upscale retail demographics. Vegetables we don’t sell at market can’t go back into inventory the way salted nuts or frozen juices can, but have to be counted as a loss against the day’s sales. The farms that we compete with at market for the cooking public’s vegetable dollars are better than they’ve ever been too, and there are more of them. Sometimes the hardest business decision to make well is to decide when to quit. Ego gets in the way.
Julia and I are proud of the contribution that our farm has made to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market over the years. We’ve been there since the beginning. We’re bowing out now, but my ego isn’t sore. I’m not quitting farming, I’m just changing how we do business. Our farm is stable and solvent. I’m sad, because over the years Julia and I have made many friends in San Francisco, and we won’t be able to see them every week any more. Saturday at the farmers market has been the high point of our social lives for years, and no matter whether Julia or I went to the market, the first question we’ve always asked each other when the truck got back to the ranch wasn’t, “How much money did you make?” but “Who did you see?”
Thinking back, it’s hard to fix on any moment that was the high point of the farmers market for me. I remember once I was able to display a harvest of strawberries, sweet peas, basil, lavender, mint, and thyme all at once, and the fragrance was almost overwhelming. Customers stopped in front of the stall like I’d clubbed them with a mallet. One woman, who worked as a Muni driver, said that my stall smelled so good it made her want to cry. That was a nice morning.
I remember, too, the first time I sold vegetables to Mr. Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, and San Francisco always seemed as distant to me as Constantinople. In high school, when I was 15, our class took a field trip to the Steinhart Aquarium, and I slipped away from the schools of fish and crossed town for a pilgrimage to the City Lights Bookstore. My literature teacher, Wally LeValley, had been a taxi driver in North Beach during the poetry renaissance, and he turned me on to the Beat writers. Mr. Ferlinghetti. had a lot of moxie to take on the Federal Government and fight for the right for the right to publish Ginsberg’s poem Howl. He won that battle so that any of us can publish uncensored poetry! That was a real Patriot Act. So years later, when Mr. Ferlinghetti came to my stall for broccoli and cippolini, it made me feel good to have something for sale that he appreciated.
All the years in the Ferry Plaza Farmers market gave me a chance to meet a lot of interesting San Franciscans, but some of the most pleasant times at every market have been the moments at dawn just before the people showed up when I could step back and admire all the colors and smells and shapes in my vegetable display. I’d pause for a moment, and then, back at Green Street, the flock of parrots from Telegraph Hill would swoop over the market, right on schedule, squawking and scandalizing in their flight as they made their way to their hidden gardens. Then the crowds would pour into the parking lot, and the day would be a blur until I’d get home and tell Julia who I’d seen.
Customers who’ve shopped with us since the beginning can remember how many times I’ve changed our farm’s mix of products over the years. I started out with salad greens and tomatoes, then turned to herbs, flowers and strawberries, and more lately focused on bunched greens and heirloom Italian vegetables. It’s never enough to just grow vegetables to survive as a farmer. The challenge of farming is to change as fast as the marketplace does. The only thing that doesn’t change is the fact that everything always changes. Like the poet said, “He not busy being born is busy dying.” We’re not dying at Mariquita Farm, we’re just molting.
Julia and I plan to focus ourselves on Two Small Farms community supported agriculture program that we run in partnership with High Ground Organic Farms, and we intend to improve service to our restaurant account. Julia and I are going to keep putting out our Ladybug Letter because it’s a project we enjoy doing together, and we’ve started a blog because we want to stay in touch with the people we’ve met as best we can. Look for a newsletter article soon on how Mariquita Farm goats are working to restore native California coastal prairie habitat at High Ground Organic Farm in Watsonville.
And we’re going to continue to open Mariquita Farm up to the public for u-picks and open houses. This summer I hope to host America’s first Pimiento de Padron u-pick. Maybe I can convince one of my chef friends to come and toast some peppers in a skillet so that we can all enjoy tapas. Laura Kummerer, the native plant specialist who is guiding the habitat restoration project at High Ground with my goats, is planning to host a no charge field trip to show any interested people what we’re up to. High Ground is a gorgeous ranch, so I encourage you to visit. Check our next newsletter or our blog for details of this, and other events. When my crop of red flowered fava beans is ready to harvest I’d like to share the seed with gardeners who would like to help me pick and clean the crop. Details tba when the beans begin to dry.
The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market has been good to us over the years, and any number of times a good day at market helped us make payroll. Julia and I can feel confident as we evolve our new marketing strategy in part because we have met so many chefs and restauranteurs at market over the years. It is our hope that another small farm can take our space and grow into a strong, sustainable business by taking advantage of the unique opportunity that the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market offers. I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to serve on the Ferry Plaza Board. It was a great education. I want to thank all of you for your support over the years, and I especially want to thank farmers market’s founding Executive Director, Ms. Sibella Kraus, for inviting us into the market in the first place. I’m grateful for all the work the C.U.E.S.A. staff puts in on behalf of farmers like us and I’m thankful to Dexter Carmichael, the manager, for all the hard work he’s put in over the years. Thanks again. I’ll miss you all. Andy
here’s a gift to all our ‘frequent market customers’: a virtual farm bouquet of unexpected agricultural flowers
Julia’s note: I’ll MISS THE MARKET. And…. we hope to see many of our frequent customers and friends down on our farm when we have open days, and at dinners we’ll attend and host with restaurants we sell to. -julia
Pity the hog. Observant Jews won’t eat pork because it’s unclean. Neither will Muslims. Christians love pork, but when Jesus of Nazareth wanted to tell the story of the prodigal son he illustrated how the young man hit rock bottom by making him a swine herd before sending him home to the forgiveness of a loving father who slaughtered a fatted calf to welcome him back. The pig gets no respect, which is why, when the press decided that “Once upon a time” a dirty swine was voted the most likely vector for the E. coli O157: H7 contamination in bagged spinach and spring mix salad greens that killed three people and sickened at least 200 others last year I smelled the feces of the “scape pig.” Recent developments in the story reaffirm my convictions.
Here in Watsonville there is a VERY LARGE strawberry farm, whose fields entirely surround a very small feedlot and slaughterhouse facility. The fellow who runs the feedlot/slaughterhouse brings in goats from Texas to slaughter for sale to local Watsonville customers who want authentic birria for quinceaneras, bodas, and general pachangas. He also has a number cattle for people who want fresh beef. Recently the strawberry company found out that the cattle feces at the feedlot in the middle of their fields tested positive for the pathogenic E. coli strain that killed people last year. Because the strawberry corporation is a socially responsible BIG corporation with BIG money to lose if they are the cause of illness or death they naturally enough want the small feedlot operator to go out of business or (and this is the interesting part) put BIRD NETTING over the feedlot!
Do Pigs fly? Of course not. Rumors fly. Fear takes flight. Emotions and pigs run wild. The point is that the VERY LARGE STRAWBERRY GROWER doesn’t have the right to run the feedlot out of business just because there is a chance that a bird might stop to eat the seeds out of a cow turd and then fly across the fence and sit on a strawberry. They’re not going to talk about this in their advertisements because fears and rumors fly farther than birds, but nobody, apart from the press and the public, believe that keeping pigs away from the fields is going to solve America’s food insecurity issues. I have farmed the land where the VERY LARGE STRAWBERRY GROWER is farming, and I’ve had goats slaughtered at the slaughterhouse before I learned how to do it myself, so I’m watching the story unfold with much interest. I’m especially watching to see what happen when the press gets hold of this story .
I don’t want to make light of the dangers posed by contaminated food. Far from it. I’m a food producer. But it seems to me that the biggest threat to America’s food security is not posed by any particular strain of bacteria but the immense concentration of production and distribution in a few hands. As I pointed out in a previous article, where a single company controls production for a few gargantuan distributors one dirty blade on one harvesting machine can contaminate the salads consumed by hundreds of thousands of consumers. When most of the greens are for a vast nation are handled by one company out of one facility it seems to me as though the danger of infecting a whole nation are higher than if many smaller producers are handling local business out of scattered facilities. Maybe with diffuse food production by many smaller producers there is a greater risk that any individual producer may fail at their task and sell infected food, but at least the whole nation isn’t stricken at once.
Obviously we have to learn how to purify the food chain at every level, and no effort is wasted that goes to making the food supply more secure. But it shouldn’t be taboo to talk about the devastating implications of having a few large producers handle the food supply for a vast nation. We should be talking about how we can recreate a diffuse food net with lots of local suppliers over the whole nation. Food security is about more than prevention. There ought to be a pro-active element to any security that involves a lot of people. Reinvigoration of local food sheds, a greater acquaintance by consumers with the sources of their food and the practices of production, and a greater openness on the part of producers are all part of the overall strategy for success. If the public doesn’t play it’s part in the ongoing debate about food security they are going to get politicians who offer to solve the problem by having cowboys fix diapers on cattle while contractors cover the skies with bird netting. And everyone lived happily ever after.
My patience with this issue is over for the evening. Just for fun, so I don’t end on a sour note here’s a piece I wrote about a real fairy tale.
Everybody knows the prince says “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair,” but do they know what Rapunzel means?.
The pregnant mother in the fairy tale wants to eat an herb called rampion so badly that she thinks she’ll die without it. Her obedient husband scales the wall that surrounds the witch’s garden and steals some leaves. The name for rampion in botanical Latinis Campanula rapunculus— which translates to ramponzolo or raponzo in medieval Italian, and raiponce in French. Rapunzel is the German name for the plant.
When he’s caught by the witch, the husband trades away his yet unborn child to the witch in return for a steady supply of rapunzel for his wife. The witch names the infant Rapunzel after the herb.
The medieval appetite for rapunzel was not usually for its leaves, but the plant’s thick, fleshy roots. Before the potato came to Europe, the foot long roots of Campanula rapunculus were cooked as a starchy food. In the spring, when rapunzel’s leaves were tender and fresh they were used in salads, too. Once potato production became common, rapunzel moved from the kitchen into history.
It’s our ignorance of botany that lets the bowdlerizers, Disneyfiers, and other agents of mediocrity reduce any disturbing content in the Rapunzel tale to fit the limits of their fears. Not only have editors bled the fairy tales of much of the sex, violence, and adult content that made them so interesting to children in the first place but, they are making the world a stupider place to be. In reviewing contemporary versions of Rapunzel I find the father trading his fetal daughter away for ramps, lettuce, parsley, and even apples.
Ramps are an Allium native to the Americas, and could not have been any more known to the craving mother or the wicked witch that the potato. The editors who substitute rapunzel for apples are probably from New York, where consumers can imagine that everything is in season all the time. But in the middle ages, before apples ripen in the fall. As the father’s theft of tender leaves of rapunzel indicates, this fairy tale is a springtime tale.
Having the pregnant mother crave rapunzel, rather than lettuce, is important to the meaning of the story, because rapunzel means something. Rampion flowers in the spring, just as Rapunzel begins to bloom in her twelfth year. Lettuce has an ugly flower and it is a soporific, which means it has natural chemical in it that put you to sleep. Rapunzel gets pregnant in the earliest version of the tale.
The thick roots of the rampion plant suggest Rapunzel’s long braids. Campanula means bellflower, and the plant has a lovely flower. When Rapunzel turns twelve, the witch locks her up high in a tower with no stairs – a tower like a campanili, or bell tower. The Prince is attracted by this wild flower and he doesn’t think he can live without her. He doesn’t climb Rapunzel’s braids to eat lettuce! Fairytales are bedtime stories, and the best ones awaken dreams.