When my son, Graydon, was three he ran through the kitchen one morning. “I’m hungry Papa!” he yelled. “Make me lunch, make it quick, and make it crunchy!” I told him to eat a carrot.
Graydon is almost 16 now and he’s evolved into a more complex and meditative person. Carrots have evolved since their earliest days too. Back in the Stone Age it was the carrot plant’s greens, not its roots that attracted humanity’s attention. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Scientists classify carrots in the Umbelliferae, along with other aromatic herbs like cilantro, dill, cilantro, caraway, chervil, anise, parsley and fennel. Carrot greens are not especially strong smelling, but fresh carrot seed has a rich and complex scent. If I was going to leave the farming life behind for an urbane, sophisticated existence as a perfume designer I’d move to Paris and develop a fragrance from the essence of carrot seed that would appeal to all sexes.
The carrot family’s scientific name, Umbelliferae, refers to the characteristic umbrella shape of their flowers. Carrot flowers are pretty. Queen Anne’s Lace is one form of carrot that has found a home in the floral trade. The carrot’s affinity with the other Umbelliferae goes beyond the merely scientific; carrots marry well on the plate and in the pot with other Umbelliferae- think of carrot parsley salad, carrot chervil salad, carrot dill salad, carrot cilantro salad, etc. It has been a long time since carrot varieties were selected for their flavor of their greens, but a carrot’s leaves can be minced and used judiciously in salads or as garnishes, just like cousin parsley. Carrots tops can also profitably be used in stocks and soups.
After millennia of gathering and eating wild carrot greens and carrot seeds we humans settled down, invented agriculture, and developed carrot breeds with edible roots. For subsistence farmers root crops have certain advantages over leafy greens, namely, they can be stored for long periods of time in the ground or in a cellar without any processing or refrigeration. What follows below is an outline, painted in broad strokes, of the major types of carrots available to the cook and gardener with their relative advantages and disadvantages noted and compared:
1. White carrots: First developed from the native wild European carrot, white carrots have been used as fodder for horses and in the kitchen. White carrots are vigorous growers through all seasons, resistant to cold, tolerant of heat, with big, strong, feathery tops and they taste good, especially when roasted. I’m not crazy about raw white carrots– they’re not terribly sweet and can be chewy to the point of giving your jaws a workout– but they are fine roasted. The sugars that lie latent in the raw white carrot’s flesh are caramelized in the roasting process so the roots sweeten and the heat mellows the white carrot’s texture to an agreeable, toothsome degree that never degrades into the cloyingly soft mush that some orange carrots take on when cooked. Some cooks with French proclivities like white carrots for the stock pot because these carrots effectively flavor the broth without imparting an orange color that might distract the diner or spoil the appearance of a sauce or soup that’s intended to be whiter than white .
2. Colored Asiatic carrots: Forget white! Across Central Asia carrots come in a rainbow of colors from red through purple, all the way to black. Like white carrots, most rainbow carrots taste best when cooked. (Have you ever noticed that traditional Indian or Afghan cuisine is all about cooked food and features very few raw salads?) Asian colored carrot plants do grow vigorously, but– and it’s a big “but”– heirloom Asian carrots DO NOT produce roots reliably unless they’re planted after the summer solstice so that the plant is developing as the hours of sunlight are declining. Spring plant Indian red carrots will bolt to flower every time and leave the gardener with only a wiry, fibrous, woody root for their efforts. But plant these carrots in summer and you’ll get a nice fall crop of roots. In the fall, as night time temperatures drop, a carrot root naturally sweetens because the plant converts starches to sugars as a defense mechanism against freezing to death. Cells filled with sugary water have a lower freezing point. This organic process is why most root crops taste their best during winter.
3. Modern Orange carrots: Can you spell “felicitous miscegenation?” Orange carrots developed from a cross between the colored Asiatic carrots and their white European relatives. True, Romans had some carrots that tended towards yellow, but in general, when we read Roman cook books it’s hard to tell if the authors are talking about what we’d call a carrot or a parsnip since the used the same word for both distinctly different plants. Our iconic, Bugs Bunny style orange carrots didn’t develop until fairly recently. Don’t believe me? Go to an art museum and check out lush Dutch still life paintings from the 1600s that feature cornucopias of vegetables, fruits, and flowers. Dutch artists were so realistically inclined that they painted the iridescent flies the saw crawling on the food, and they painted WHITE carrots! Show me a Dutch still life from that period with a bright orange carrot and I’ll show you a fraud! But modern or not, orange carrots have many virtues; they reliably produce roots no matter what season they’re planted in, they’re sweeter than their white, red, purple, or black cousins, and they have a color that appeals to young children. There are several common types of orange carrot commonly available for the cook or gardener:
A. Imperator: I think of the Imperator as the “Safeway carrot.” Imperators are long, straight carrots that grow vigorously. Most important, many varieties of Imperator have been developed to grow evenly and rapidly so that they can be machine harvested when grown on sand ground. Imperator carrots also have slim shoulders so they fit well into a 1lb cello bag. Imperators are cheap, crunchy and they taste ok, especially if fresh, and they work well for major food processors. In Latin the word imperator translates into “commander” and is cognate with words like “emperor,” or “imperious.” I find the authoritarian flavor of this name to be somewhat distasteful and I choose not to grow Imperator carrots.
B. Chantenay: The Chantenay carrot is typically shorter than the Imperator, with broad shoulders, and triangular profile that tapers to a blunt tip when young but that can fill out almost to a beer can’s bulk if given time in the ground. These carrots store very well in the ground or root cellar and they taste great raw or cooked. Because of their shape they do not fit well in the industry standard cello pak so you don’t see them in the chain stores too often. I like Chantenay carrots a lot. My favorite orange Chantenay carrot is Royal Chantenay. My favorite yellow Chantenay is Yellow Sun.
C. Danvers half- long: The Danvers is a carrot type with good flavor and vigor. They have well-defined shoulders that taper to a point at the tip. They are shorter than Imperator cultivars, but they’re more tolerant of heavy soil and make nice bunched carrots for the farmers’ market. The soil on my farm is not particularly heavy and I’m happy with Chantenay carrots so I don’t usually grow Danvers carrots.
D. Nantes carrots: These carrots are cylindrical in shape, blunt and rounded at both the top and tip, and relatively fast to grow from germination to harvest. Young Nantes cultivars can be sweeter than other young carrots, and they make nice baby carrots for salads. By contrast, Imperator or Chantenay carrots may be better choices for cooking, but they need to mature in the field before they develop their full flavor profile or deliver an acceptable yield. A baby Imperator carrot is like an orange string! I like Nantes carrots for my spring planted early crops. Then I move on to the Chantenay types for my main season and over-wintering crops.
E. Paris market carrots: Parisian carrots are round like radishes. They can be a fashion forward choice for a whimsical cook intent on playing with form, color, and expectation. “What? A round carrot?” Because of they are very short Paris market carrots can tolerate very heavy soils. I grow Parisian round carrots from time to time, especially for my restaurant customers. Sometimes children like them too, because they’re different. Other times kids reject Parisian carrots because they’re round; kids can be SO conservative about food. I hope you’re liberal minded when it comes to dinner. Below are some recipes that stretch modern convention by including carrot greens.
copyright 2010 Andy Griffin
Recipes and Notes from Julia and Jonathan:
from Julia: ok: Andy’s last line threw me for a loop. Yes, carrot tops are 100% edible. Eat them all you like. However, I personally don’t find them palatable, and living in the amazing year-round fresh food arena we live in I ask: why eat carrot tops!? I’m simply not hungry enough. So here’s a recipe for Carrot Top Dye from the Carrot Musuem. That’s the best I can do. Here are more recipes for carrot tops in case you want to give them a culinary spin: just don’t invite me over for dinner! (insert annoying smiley emoticon)
Carrot Leaf Dye
adapted from the Carrot Museum: an amazing website with more carrot lore than you knew existed.
INGREDIENTS: chop up the green foliage of 6 large carrot tops, 1 litre boiling water, alum.
Extra foliage can be added to made a slightly darker colour using no more than 300ml of water
EXTRACTION PROCESS: boil tops for half an hour. Strain liquid, and add 2 teaspoons of alum; make sure the alum is dissolved.
COLOUR MADE: light yellow.
LIGHTFAST QUALITIES: 4: fugitive pigment. The colour fades away over 3 to 5 months, depending on the amount of carrot tops used.
SHADEFAST QUALITIES: the colour fades over a 2 year period.
RUBBINGS: makes a very pale green colour.
METHOD: take the leaves and use them as a crayon, rub directly onto the paper.
LIGHTFAST QUALITY: 4: fugitive pigment. Fades over a 6 month period to an off white colour.
SHADEFAST QUALITY: 4: fugitive pigment. Fades over a 6 month period to an off white colour.
Now some real carrot recipes:
Carote all Giudia
Braised Carrots, Jewish Style
Adapted from Cucina Ebraica by Joyce Goldstein
¼ cup olive oil or rendered goose or duck fat
1.5 pounds carrots, any color, peeled and thinly sliced
¼ cup water
6 Tablespoons raisins, plumped in water or sweet wine
3 Tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
S & P to taste
Dash of vinegar or sugar to taste, optional
Warm the oil (or fat) in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the carrots and saute until well coated with fat, 5-8 minutes. Add the water and cover the pan. Reduce the heat to very low and simmer until the carrots are tender, about 20 minutes.
Add the raisins with their liquid, and the pine nuts. Season with S & P. Add a little vinegar or sugar, or both. Serve warm or at room temperature.
from Chef Jonathan Miller
Oil or butter
1 small onion, chopped
2” ginger, peeled and grated
1 lb carrots, chopped
2-3 cup veggie stock or chicken stock
¼ cup cream
Heat 2-3 TBL olive oil or butter in a pot and add the onion. Sauté until softened, about 8 minutes, then add the ginger and carrots. Lower the heat, stir to coat everything with some oil, then cover and cook for about 5 minutes. Add the stock – use just enough to barely cover the carrots – and the cream, bring to a simmer, cover again, lower heat and cook until the carrots are super tender, about 25-30 minutes, or up to 50. Allow to cool somewhat and then blend the soup in a blender. Add some salt and taste for seasoning. Reheat gently, then garnish with some chopped cilantro.
This Week’s Quinoa Salad
from Chef Jonathan Miller
1 c quinoa
4-8 carrots, depending on size, halved or quartered lengthwise
2 large red onions, cut into thick rounds
1 bunch cooking greens like chard, collards, or kale
sherry vinegar to taste
1/4 c parsley, chopped
1/4 c cilantro, chopped
Toss the carrots and red onion with some olive oil and sherry vinegar, salt and pepper. Roast on a baking sheet at 400 until caramelized and sweet, about 50 minutes. Allow to cool and cut into large dice.
Cook your quinoa while the veggies roast: rinse it under cold water to remove the saponin. Drain and put into a saucepan and toast over high heat until the quinoa smells nutty and is popping, about 10 minutes. Pour in 2 c cold water and a little salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and steam for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to rest for 10 minutes.
Wilt the cooking greens by either sauteeing them or blanching them, your choice. If using chard, include the stems, finely chopped, for texture and nutrition. Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl and toss well. Check for seasoning, adding salt or olive oil, or more sherry vinegar as you like. Serve at room temperature.
We will have even more recipes for carrots and also for escarole and kale in this week’s Ladybug Post Card! And We’ll have my own Quinoa Salad recipe in that letter too.
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A little brass band tootled its way through a waltz from their post in a small gazebo at the center of the plaza. The sun felt hot on my shoulders. At twelve thousand feet above sea level the sun burns with intensity. The short, stubby musicians sweated under the weight of their gold braid and heavy military uniforms. I stepped into the shade of a nearby plane tree and surveyed the scene around me. An ambulatory vendor sold ice creams from a push cart. A woman in a little kiosk sold colorful balloons to excited children. A shoeshine boy quizzically inspected my red Converse All-Star tennis shoes and offered to shine them up nice and black. I paid him to go away. What I really wanted was an ice cold lager.
Behind me in an old stone building was a tiny restaurant – three tables. I stepped into the cool, empty room and took a table by the window. The proprietress bustled out from her kitchen and handed me a menu. I’d been in Bolivia long enough to know that a menu was a list of what an establishment might be proud to serve when ingredients were available. It would be gracious of me to study the menu but even more gracious to ask my hostess what was best that day. I asked for a beer and some time. The house specialty, trout caught fresh that morning in Lake Titcaca, sure sounded great. Through the window I could see an Indian woman presiding over a colorful shawl heaped high with prickly pear cactus fruits. Passers-by would indicate the fruit of their choice and she would spear it with a popsicle stick, deftly pare the spiny hide off and hand it to them, red and juicy, to be eaten on the spot, seeds spat to the ground. Maybe I’ll have one of those for dessert, I thought.
My beer arrived accompanied by a plate of crispy fried potatoes. The beer bottle was huge by U.S. standards and had been recycled so often the heavy green glass was milky white from minute scratches. “Trucha?” I asked hopefully.
“I’m sorry señor,” she replied. “My husband catches trout every morning and they’re very delicious but this morning he didn’t catch many. Tal vez mañana.”
“I’m sure everything you cook is as good as the trout,” I responded. “What do you recommend?”
“We have goat’s head soup,” she replied. “Very satisfying.”
“Then goat’s head soup it is,” I answered, and she shuffled off.
But she was back in a moment looking concerned. “Ah, señor,” she began. ”It’s just that the soup is very picante – it has aji in it. Muy picante!”
Aji is chile. The cultivation of chile peppers started out high in the Andes and spread north to Mexico. Having grown many northern varieties of chiles myself I was delighted to taste the roots of the plant, so to speak. “Excellent!” I replied.
“But Germans don’t like food that is muy picante,” she answered. “Germans don’t like aji.”
“Not a problem, Doña,” I responded. “I’m not German.”
She looked long and hard at my red face and blond hair but she fetched the soup. Trailing behind her as she returned from the kitchen were teenaged daughters 1, 2, 3, all come to watch the white guy eat aji. Even the husband poked his nose through the door. The soup was delicious, hardly spicy at all, with kernels of corn, fava beans, and potatoes in a rich broth. “Muy rica.” I said after my first spoonful.
The youngest daughter asked her mother, “If he’s not German, what is he?”
“I’m an American,” I answered. The two older girls began to giggle at this news.
“He doesn’t look much like Michael Jackson.” remarked one to the other and all three girls broke out in a spasm of laughter.
“How do you come to speak Spanish?” asked the mother.
“Where I’m from, señora,” I responded, “more than half the people speak Spanish.”
“Then you’re from Miami,” my hostess declared.
“Do you know Gloria Estefan?” asked a daughter.
“No,” I answered with regret. “I don’t know Gloria. I work on farms. Nobody I know is famous.”
At this point the father entered the dining room carrying another beer and he shooed the women away. “Let the man eat in peace,” he said as he pulled up a chair at my table. His wife brought him a big bowl of soup, too, and put a saucer of fresh aji paste on the table.
“We eat the soup like this,” he declared, swirling a big dollop of aji sauce into the broth. I did likewise and soon could feel a familiar glow in my mouth and belly. “What do you grow?” my host wanted to know.
“Well,” I said, looking at my soup. “I raise goats, and I’ve grown potatoes, fava beans, corn, and aji.”
“I grew up on the farm,” my companion announced. “But when we married we moved to town to make more money. My wife cooks. I go fishing.” After a swig of beer he continued. “My father and brothers are still on the farm. This soup,” he said with a wave of the arm, “the goat, the potato, the corn, the fava beans, the aji – all from our farm.”
I considered this news as I savored my soup. “A lot of Americans have a dream,” I replied, “of a little restaurant, all their own, where they can cook and serve the food grown by their own family on their own land.”
My host was quiet for a bit. We could hear the waltz music from the park and see the barefoot shoeshine boys scurrying after patent leather shoes. I could feel a warm buzz from the beer, the high altitude, and the aji suffuse my body.
“They are dreaming of the countryside,” he finally answered. “And we are dreaming of Miami.”
Copyright Andy Griffin 2010
Julia’s note: This ran as part of our ladybug letter in 2003. and yes, this piece is 8 days late! Andy will have a new piece ready for early next week. We are also working on starting a weekly recipe letter apart from this article/Andy-driven note. Stay tuned. I believe this piece is so beautiful on it’s own, I’ve not added any photos or links or anything.
Mystery Box Winter Vegetable deliveries in the bay area: get your winter vegetables in SF, San Jose, Menlo Park, Los Gatos, and Palo Alto
Cilantro Emergency Day in SF at Fatted Calf on Dec. 15th 4:30-6:30pm
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Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It’s hard for retail’s darker angels to parasitize a celebration that is essentially an observation of gratitude. And I’ve got a lot to be thankful for. This year I’m thankful that we’ve made it through to the end of the season in relatively good order. We’ve had our challenges.
The weather didn’t help this year. The exceptionally cool, overcast summer caused the heat loving crops like sweet peppers, tomatoes and eggplant to grow slowly. Then, all of a sudden we had 104 degree temperatures and the peppers especially, weren’t ready for it. Almost every pepper got roasted on one side by the blaze of the sun; an almost total crop loss. But that’s farming. Thankfully, other crops preferred the cool weather, and the tomatoes struggled through against the odds– maybe not it the quantities that I needed to afford our supporters a nice U-Pick this year, but there’s always next year.
Family life was far more challenging than farming this year. Julia was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. There were anxious months of appointments and waiting, tests and waiting, struggles with the insurance company and waiting, prescriptions prescribed and waiting. Thankfully, things could be a lot worse. Julia was accepted into the breast cancer program at UCSF and her program treatment has begun. She feels like she’s in good hands. The prognosis for managing the disease is good, and she feels well when she’s not feeling the side-effects of the chemo drugs. I want to thank Gayle, our book keeper, and Shelley, your CSA administrator, and all of Julia’s friends, for the support and loving attention they’ve given her.
This year I’ve sometimes felt distracted and stressed by the competing demands of farm and family, but thankfully Julia and I have got a great crew of people helping us out. I especially want to thank Gildardo, Jose, Ramon and Nato for keeping all the plantings on schedule. I first hired these men when I worked at Riverside Farms back in the early 90s. Then they worked with me when I was a founding partner in Happy Boy Farms. I’ve always been able to count on their work ethic and good will, but this year, seeing the worries I had, they really kicked it up a notch. I also want to thank Manuel, Lourdes, and Guillermo for their attentive work packing, and Elias, Adam, Miguel, and Gerardo for all their help with the driving chores. Thanks to our crew, Mariquita Farm’s fields are looking filled out, well groomed, and winter ready.
Julia’s diagnosis has prompted us to reassess our priorities. The Two Small Farms CSA program started out over eight years ago when Julia and Jeanne would meet each other in the park with little kids pulling on their legs. They talked about what it meant to be married to farms and farmers. They speculated that two small, too small, struggling farms might not have to struggle so much if they cooperated, and that two struggling farmwife/mothers might not have to work so hard if they shared tasks. So Two Small Farms was born; Jeanne, Stephen, Julia and I working together to solve problems. And thanks to you all, our community of supporters, for eight years, the Two Small Farms CSA has been a success.
A lot has changed in eight years. The kids are older now and aren’t pulling on our legs any longer, only stretching our patience- and our minds- at times. Each farm has developed into a sturdy little business; High Ground Organics with a new ranch, a farm stand, and a farmers’ market stall, Mariquita Farm with a restaurant delivery route, a bulk sales delivery program, and additional leased acreage to farm. Julia has “retired.” She works too hard and she likes to work too much to actually stop doing things for the farm, but she needs the liberty to pay attention to her health. I need to focus my efforts on our issues and can no longer hold up our end of the Two Small Farms partnership. I’m not “retiring” from farming or from community supported agriculture; that’s not an option or a desire. But each of the two small farms is now strong enough and diversified enough to stand alone, and I want to focus on a farming program and business plan that fits my life. Starting in the 2011 season Two Small Farms CSA will once again become two small farms; still small, but no longer “too small.” And finally, I want to thank Jeanne and Stephen and the crew at High Ground Organics for eight great years of growing together.
Going forward, each farm’s CSA share-box prices and policies will stay the same in the 2011 harvest year, and the quality and variety of the produce we each grow for you can even get better. Look for details on how we’re dividing up the csa delivery routes between High Ground Organics and Mariquita Farm in our Two Small Farms December newsletter. And thank you for all your support.
copyright 2010 Andy Griffin
Julia’s Note: so… this is the same letter we’re sending out to our Two Small Farms list… but we likely won’t send the same letter in the future? and me? well… I’ve started a little blog about this cancer nonsense called Four Crying Out Loud (stage 4 cancer… get it?). And while the docs tell me “I will likely ultimately die from this disease” we’re looking at it as a chronic thing, with decades left in me. I feel good nearly all days, and I’m fired up about life. Yoga, kids, cooking, farming, traveling, art, music, all of it. Let’s just say it’s not the last you’ve heard from me. love, Julia
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Cocktails are all the rage these days. Cutting-edge bartenders are no longer content to simply pour liquor from a bottle or pull the lever on a tap– they’re chefs too, making their own syrups and bitters from scratch, reviving forgotten drinks from the happy hours of yesteryear and concocting new cocktails for a new century. There’s even a growing literature about cocktails. Some drinkers end up sick as a result of over-indulgence, but if you read much about cocktails maybe, like me, you’ll be surprised to learn that these stimulating mixtures of spirits, sugar, water, and bitters got their start as medicinal potions— the combined sugars, water, and liquors in the cocktail being the sweet vehicle by which the curative bitters were “delivered” to the patient. I happily drink fancy cocktails when they’re offered but they aren’t a big part of my life. I live too far from the big city hot spots to have much of a night life. And then I’ve got kids, a vegetable farm, and livestock to care for so I’m too tired to study mixology anyway. I’m content with beer. Given my circumstances, I think it’s funny that in my cow shed, on my farm at the end of a dirt road, I recently helped to prepare the most artisanal, authentic, and curative cocktails imaginable. I’ll get to the recipe in a minute, but first, a word about parenting.
As I was driving our kids to the school bus stop one morning recently, Lena, my thirteen year old daughter, suggested that I take her to Starbucks for a latte. I demurred. She then raised some concerns about my parenting skills. Luckily, I have a reservoir of self-esteem to draw on over the next few years.
“You remind me of something my mother once told me about the challenge of childrearing,” I said.
“Oh, great!” said Lena.
“My mom told me once that raising a kid is like carrying a newborn calf; every morning you get up and sling that calf over your shoulder, and then one day you realize you’re carrying a cow.”
“What is it with you and cows?” Lena asked. “It’s like some sort of obsession.”
Lena’s right. When I was in high school I raised beef steers for my FFA project. FFA stands for Future Farmers of America; it’s a vocational agriculture program. When I became a farmer I chose to raise vegetables, but several years ago, as an avocation, I got two Dexter cows. Then I got two more. Then I got a Dexter bull. Pretty soon I had little herd of Dexters and a freezer full of beef. Then, finally, a month ago, in service of my obsession, I bought a four year old Jersey cow named Jenny. When Lena found out how much I’d paid she said, “With that much money you could have bought some milk at the store AND the cell phone I’ve been asking for.”
Jerseys are a dairy breed. We milk Jenny the Jersey every morning, typically getting around 3.5 gallons, a half gallon of which is pure cream. The milk isn’t white– it is ivory colored, and sometimes you can see tiny droplets of pure fat floating in the pail. Jenny eats pumpkins and cull carrots every day, and when I make butter it comes out bright yellow from all the carotene in her diet. I enjoy having a cow, but watching Jenny eat makes my donkeys honking mad. I can’t help it. Milk cows are like race cars– if you don’t give them a lot of high quality fuel, they can’t perform well.
So anyway, early one recent, rainy, Sunday morning I gathered up my buckets and jars, put on my hat, and went out and got Jenny ready, filling her manger with hay and washing her tits off with warm soapy water. Washing the teats is important, not only for hygiene, but because the massaging motion and the warm water helps the milk cow relax and let down her milk. Music is said to help too. When I worked on the Straus Dairy in West Marin back in 1979, Antonio, the milker, said that classic musica Ranchera recordings of Vicente Fernández inspired the cows to give the most milk. Albert Straus, the dairy owner and boss, said that the cows found David Bromberg’s music to be more soothing. I don’t have an informed opinion about bovine musical tastes, but I do know that, by their nature, cows are very conservative. They find solace in routine. If we milk her at the same time every day, in the same place, feeding her the same kind of food and rewarding her with same bucket of grain, Jenny is happy. The music in my cow shed is the ping as the first stream of milk hits the bottom of the empty stainless steel pail and with my ear next to her belly I can hear Jenny’s belly rumble. The cow munches and snuffles as she plows through her alfalfa, there’s a contented burp or two, and pretty soon there’s steam rising out of the bucket of warm milk.
I was a gallon and a half into the milking when Manny showed up with his compadre, his “compa,” Octavio, from Uruapan, who I’d never met before. Octavio lives in San Jose now and works at the San Jose pulga making and selling the little carpets emblazoned with images of the Virgin Mary that go on the dashboards of custom vans and pick-up trucks. Octavio grew up on a ranch and likes the country life. But he’s a city dweller now so it’s been a long time since he was able to enjoy a real, authentic pajarete. We were introduced and Octavio produced a bottle of “vino.” (In rural Mexican parlance “vino” can be any sort of distilled alcoholic beverage, but it’s almost never actual wine.) It was pajarete time!
It was four years ago when I first heard about a roots Mexican “CSA” down in Moss Landing that specialized in pajaretes. “CSA” is an acronym that stands for “Community Supported Agriculture,” or in this case “Cow-munity Supported Agriculture. CSA works like this: a “community” of consumers who want a traditional product, a product not generally available through the common retail outlets, or who just want to see a local, community farm survive, “support” that farm by paying for the farm’s produce in advance, so that the farmer has the up-front monies needed to keep production going. The “Cow-munity” supporters wanted fresh, unpasteurized, un-homogenized raw milk— REALLY FRESH MILK, REALLY RAW MILK— so that they could make their pajaretes just like they had done back home on the rancho in Mexico. These men would leave their homes early every Saturday and Sunday morning from the suburbs of Salinas, Marina, Watsonville or Seaside and drive to the rancho in Moss Landing that they supported to get the milk they’d paid for. This practice probably ran afoul of USDA and CDFA regulations, Health Department regulations, zoning regulations, the AMA, the California Dairy Council AND the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms but let’s forget about the bureaucrats for a minute. As any curandero can tell you, pajaretes are health food; they take the ache out of a hangover, assuage the stomach and nourish the body even as they brighten one’s outlook and mellow the mind.
Octavio said his bottle was Charanda. Charanda is clear liquor made from cane sugar, common enough in Michoacan but hard to find around here. I looked at the bottle and read the label– 95% alcohol! Whatever Octavio chose to call it, the liquor was essentially Mexican white lightning.
“Híjole,” I said. “Relámpago blanco! You definitely don’t want to be smoking around this stuff– one stray spark and we all go up like Molotov cocktails.”
“Simón,” said Octavio. “Muy auténtico!”
Manny showed me what to do. The first step is to put a spoonful of sugar at the bottom of your cup. “Any kind of sugar will work,” he said, “but the best sugar is crumbled piloncillo.” Piloncillo is a crude, coarse, brown sugar made from unfiltered, boiled sugar cane juice, and it’s very common in the cane fields. “Es lo más natural!” Manny said. “Lo más puro!”
You dissolve and dilute the sugar with a few fingers of charanda. (Outside of the sugarcane growing regions, in areas where agave culture dominates, tequila is the preferred liquor.) How much “vino” to put in the mug is a matter of taste. I’m told that in Mexico when bartenders serve pajaretes they ask the teparochos , or “los winos,” if they want their drink prepared “media bloque, un bloque, o dos bloques?” A bloque is a city block. The question really is, does the patron want his pajarete so strong that he passes out and fall face flat after staggering down the street for a ½ block, a whole block, or two blocks. Country living being the clean, hardworking enterprise that it is, we decide on a mere finger of vino per glass.
Once the sugar has dissolved into the alcohol it’s time to add the milk. Of course you could just pour milk from a carton into the liquor but the idea is to milk the cow directly into the mug, squeezing the tit with enough gentle force so that the stream of warm, healing milk comes squirting out in a jet and forms a froth that makes your basic Starbuck’s barrista with his steam machine look like a citified loser. Then, when your cup is full, bottoms up!
Manny is on the wagon so Octavio and I raised our drinks and toasted the cow. “Salud! To Jenny!”
So how do pajaretes taste? They go down easy. The liquor Octavio brought was so pure of any ingredient besides alcohol that it had no distinguishing flavor, only an effect, so the taste of the pajarete was sugary sweet and milky smooth, like something a bad mother might give a colicky baby to shut it up and put it to sleep. “What’ll it be Junior? Media bloque?”
I stood back, sipped my pajarete and watched Manny finish milking the cow. I felt good. The white noise of the rain pattering down on the corrugated tin roof of the cow shed was comforting. The white lightning and fresh milk in my belly was warming. Jenny was content munching on her pumpkin. Octavio and Manny reminisced about old times in Michoacan. They informed me that milkers on Mexican dairies feel that it is a basic right to enjoy at least three pajaretes per shift. “Good Lord,” I thought.
They also told that pajaretes can be made with goat milk, sheep milk, cow milk, or donkey milk, and that of these four kinds of milk donkey milk is by far and away the most healing. It gave me an idea. Life in the country isn’t always idyllic. Sometimes my wife, Julia, comes home, opens the gate, sees the cat sunning herself in the driveway, and then sees the cows, sheep, goats, donkeys, dogs, children, and chickens wandering about in the corrals and fields beyond, with all the attendant mooing, bah-ing, bleating, braying, barking, complaining, and squawking, and it’s enough to make her wish she could turn the car around and drive off to her imaginary cute little Craftsman bungalow in Pacific Grove within walking distance of the library, the farmers’ market and the post office. But I’m different. In a world full of terrorism, conspiracy, and insurance forms to fill out I find reassurance in a yard full of critters. Mentally, I haven’t gotten much beyond Jehoshaphat from the Bible who measured his wealth in flocks. It’s that darned obsession again.
“What if I started a donkey dairy milking 50 jennies a day?” I asked myself. A marketing plan formed itself in my head. “It’s perfect! During the week I’ll sell the donkey milk to Hollywood celebrities of a certain age who want to bathe themselves back to youth in donkey milk a la Cleopatra, and on the weekends I’ll open the ranch up for pajaretes. I can nail a cardboard sign to every telephone pole between Watsón and Alum Rock: Amigos! Compas! Michoacanos! Pajaretes de burra en el Valle de Pajaro. Puros! Autenticos! Naturales! Que Vengan Todos Para Su Salud!
And then, maybe not. I do want to stay married. Besides, my teetotaling Grandma Anna– the grandma who kept this ranchito of mine in our family long enough for me to enjoy– she had a saying she was fond of repeating: “The man takes a drink, the drink takes a drink, and then the drink takes the man.”
It might be fun for a morning to have a pajarete or two, but as far as the idea of opening my farm gates to the world and selling healthful drinks every Saturday and Sunday morning goes, like some sort of rural Mexican Jamba Juice, well, that must have been the liquor talking. The only cocktails around here will have to be hanging off the ass end of our roosters.
copyright 2010 Andy Griffin
When I pulled up in front of Bi-Rite Market on 18th Street there were two orange, plastic, traffic cones at the curb. Sam, the owner of the store, was on the sidewalk waiting. He jumped out and moved the cones so that I could park. “This isn’t normal procedure,” I told Miguel. I was training Miguel to do the farm’s deliveries and I didn’t want him to get the wrong idea. “On any normal day you have to fight like a heathen for a parking place. I usually end up double-parking. This is a stop that calls for fast work!”
I stepped out of the truck and Sam came to greet me. A photographer stepped forward and snapped several pictures of the two of us shaking hands and talking. I grabbed a wet box of chard off the back of the truck.
“Hold that pose,” said the photographer. So I held the box and smiled as a thin stream of muddy water drained out of corner of the crate and onto my foot. Miguel looked amused.
“Now another one,” the photographer said. Miguel moved to grab a box off the truck.
“Not you,” I told Miguel. “You relax. Let the photographer record for all posterity a moment when I’m actually caught working.” Miguel happily got back in the truck to watch me unload the order and watch the photographer capture images of the event. Ten minutes and a hundred snaps later I was done with the delivery and we drove off. I set Miguel straight. “Sam is making a cookbook out of the recipes he’s developed for the store’s delicatessen,” I said. They’re taking pictures of all the farmers and fishermen and bakers and vintners that serve the store to put in the book.” Miguel nodded. He was still new to 18th Street.
No less an authority than Guy Trebay of the New York Times Fashion & Style section has called Bi-Rite Grocery, “a kind of foodie Vatican.” Does that make Sam a “Pope?” I wondered when I read the article. One thing’s for sure; with the Bi-Rite Creamery and the Dolores Park Café just up the street from the Bi-Rite Grocery, and Delfina restaurant, the Delfina pizzeria, and the Tartine Bakery just down the street, the 3600 block of 18th Street is a veritable gourmet ghetto. 18th Street has only two lanes. In the morning the street crawls with delivery trucks and traffic gets choked down to a trickle. But heavy traffic is an indicator of a good business environment; by brunchtime 18th Street is crawling with women.
Again, let me quote the New York Times: “Those girls are the local Holly Golightlys,” Mr. Ospital of M.A.C. said of women like Rachel Corrie, a waitress at Tartine, who as she left work last week hopped onto her bike wearing what looked like a gingham onesie, feet shod in gladiator sandals and a velvet equestrian hunt cap passing as safety gear perched atop her head… Girls like her are all over the Mission.” I agree. So it shouldn’t be hard to understand how I managed to overlook the actual fashion models when I delivered to Bi-Rite only a few days after the cook book photo shoot.
I arrive at the store a little later than usual, but the day was normal enough. There were no cones saving a parking spot for me. Au contraire– I had to double part beside the paper goods truck and behind a bread truck. The paper goods driver kindly inched forward and I squeezed in next to the curb in front of a truck from Full Belly Farm. The side walk seemed crowded too. There was a small group of young women all dolled up and standing around, but they didn’t stand out.
I overheard someone ask one of the Bi-Rite employees, “How is the shoot going?”
“What a nightmare,” he said.
“This can’t be the same photo shoot as the cookbook,” I said to myself. I unloaded my truck. A young San Francisco policeman strolled onto the scene looking like a Chippendale dancer on his day job. I looked up and down the street. There was a beer truck, a fish van, and a wine distributor, all double parked. And a second bread truck too. Virtually the whole block had the east bound lane blocked by double-parked delivery vehicles. Drivers and bicyclists that wished to continue east down the street had to thread their way around the trucks, against the flow of traffic. They made me think of the steelhead trout that slip past boulders and throw themselves upstream in a frantic, thrashing attempt to fulfill nature’s imperative. But the cop made me nervous.
I saw Simon, a store employee I know well. “I guess I have a guilty conscience,” I said. “I’m not even double parked.”
“Don’t worry about the policeman,” Simon said. “There’s a photo shoot for Dr. Scholl’s shoes today. I guess the City permit has a clause that says they have to have a cop on hand for security. Who knows?”
I looked at the cop. He seemed relaxed. I look at the street. A huge bus had thrust itself into the narrow lane. And there was some sort of problem down the street by Tartine Bakery. Traffic wasn’t moving at all. A middle aged woman driving a red Mini Cooper convertible got aggravated at being stuck behind the bus. She saw the cop and jumped out of her car and onto the sidewalk. “Aren’t you going to do anything?” she asked.
“Good morning, Miss,” he replied. “I am doing something.”
“It looks to me like you’re just standing there looking at girls,” she said.
“Those aren’t ‘girls,’” he said. “Those are professional models and I have been tasked with duty of protecting them from the public.”
“Are you #$%&^* kidding me?” she snapped back.
Chippendale put his hand on his holster with a melodramatic flourish. “Do I look like I’m #$%&^* kidding you?” he growled. Then he grinned.
“I can’t #$%&^* believe this,” the woman said. She started into a Tea Party rant about taxes, big government and the stimulus.
The officer broke in. “If you don’t move your car I’m going to have to cite you for blocking traffic.”
It was true. The logjam in front of Tartine had broken. The bus has cleared the gauntlet. Traffic could theoretically flow again. Only the red Mini Cooper convertible was left to block the only open lane of traffic. Honking horns echoed down the block. Fingers flew.
“Ahggg!” squealed the Tea Partier.
The cop smiled. I smiled too. One of the things I love about delivering into the big city is that my farm seems all the more peaceful when I get home.
Copyright 2010 Andy Griffin
photo above courtesy of Sally Katherine S.
Ladybug Truck Farm Deliveries This week = Thursday 10/21 from 4-6pm at Frances with tomatoes: romas… and padron peppers! and Menlo Park that same day. If you’re interested in these and or future deliveries of bulk vegetables and fruits and mixed vegetable boxes, please make sure you’re signed up for your geographical area:
Julia’s note: Andy and I are working on photos for future posts… thank you for your patience!
Hi Everybody: What can I say? It’s been a difficult and busy year and it hasn’t been easy to find the time to write, but life is smoothing out a bit and Julia and I are looking forward to getting our Ladybug Letter out on a regular basis again. The summer was unusually cool- until it became unusually hot- and summer crops were later, lighter, and less successful than I’d hoped, but, looking on the bright side, we were able to get a series of late fall and winter crops in on time and they look beautiful. We are planning a series of “Ladybug Truck Farm deliveries” this fall and winter so this essay about that I wrote this summer seemed an appropriate story to kick off our renewed effort at the Ladybug Letter. Thanks, Andy
The office at Organic Matters was scuffed and drab. Dorothy managed the company. She had a caustic wit she kept her attitude tamped down in an effort at professional courtesy. Russell was slouching against the counter. He drove the bobtail delivery truck for OM. Russell had that rock band roadie look; black Jack Daniels T shirt, pony tail, mirrored shades, blurry tattoos and a cigarette. He’d gotten the job through a government program that subsidized employers who were willing to take a chance and hire people who were on parole, but lately Russell had been in a series of confrontations with OM’s customers. Organic Matters distributed fresh organic produce to a string of natural food stores and juice bars from Monterey to San Francisco, little hippie joints that smelled of incense like McDharma’s, Sunflower Natural, and Community Foods. I worked in the refrigerated warehouse as a forklift driver. Dorothy had kept her license to drive big rigs current, but she was in no mood to get back behind the wheel. It was time for a serious talk with Russell.
“So what I’m hearing you say, Russ, is that you don’t really like driving.”
“Wrong again, honey,” Russell replied. “I love driving— I just hate to stop!”
“That’s sad,” said Dorothy, “because the ‘stops’ are what produce delivery is all about.”
So I got a battlefield promotion that afternoon out of the cold box and up into the cab. I could sympathize with Russell’s attitude though. When I’d first gone to work on farms I’d been attracted to the notion of being out in a field, far from any peering, poking supervisors. A life in the dirt with the wind and the weeds seemed like an even trade for “freedom.”
But farmers have to make money just like anybody else. I was legal and I didn’t have any DUIs, so it was inevitable that I’d end up driving the farmers’ delivery trucks. I was fine with that at first. Driving has its own romance. I liked the idea of rolling across the green San Joaquin past corn fields and alfalfa, watching the dairy cows in their pastures give way to range cattle, seeing the oak trees fade into pine forests, then revving up the engine to crest the Sierras before gearing down for the long descent into Nevada and the Great Basin, freewheeling with all the wild west out ahead of me and the boss no more than a speck in the rear view mirror.
In the early eighties I worked five years at Star Route Farm in Bolinas, and I drove the produce truck down Highway One to San Francisco. But the coast highway is all curves and cliffs and majestic ocean vistas, so I needed to concentrate on the white lines to avoid ending up in the drink. And then there was driving in the City; getting dogged by meter maids, dodging taxis and bike messengers, breathing bus exhaust. One day there was a traffic accident half a block ahead of me on Stockton Street and I had to back the truck down hill through Chinatown while the crowds swarmed around me. The truck was a manual transmission that you needed to double clutch– not an easy truck to drive in downtown traffic! Every time I let out the clutch and slipped into reverse somebody would step behind me and I’d have to stop. Eventually a cop helped me by swatting pedestrians out of my way, but by the time I rolled backwards into Columbus Avenue my right leg was so stressed it was as stiff as rebar. I double parked in front a brew pub, switched on the flashers as if I was making a delivery, and limped inside for a beer.
“What am I doing here?” I asked myself. “I got into farming because I wanted to be in a field with the birds and the bees and now I’m running with the busses in the shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid?”
Stops! I was making stops. But I didn’t want “stop,” so I quit.
I worked on other farms down in Santa Barbara County, Monterey County and in Santa Cruz County. At every farm I ended up making stops. It slowly sank into my skull that if the stops stop, the farm stops.
The seventies, eighties and nineties were interesting years to be in organic farming. At first, little organic farms could sell anything they grew to the little organic food stores. Then the farms grew and multiplied, and the stores grew and multiplied. There were more stops. Then the bigger stores started to gobble up the smaller stores. When I was working at Organic Matters in the late 80s the bigger produce distributors began gobbling up the smaller ones. I got back into farming as a partner with another farmer. Then the littlest farms began to fail and the biggest farms began to gobble up the medium farms. Then the biggest chains began to gobble up the smaller chains which meant even bigger sales for the huge farms but even fewer stops for the little farms. The buying public benefited, I guess; there was a general trend towards more access to organic food for more consumers.
I was a partner at Riverside Farms in the Pajaro Valley in 1997 when we sold out to the company that became Natural Selections, America’s largest organic grower/packer/shipper. I wonder now if the Darwinian tone to their name was intentional, but I was happy to sign a non-competition agreement and Julia and I got enough money to start our own little farm. Julia and I didn’t even want to “compete” with Natural Selections. We farmed using a new business model; community supported agriculture, CSA, where a group of people support a farm and the farm supports the people.
I was thinking about all this the other day because my CSA route driver had asked for the day off and I was covering his route through San Francisco. I rolled into the City on 19th and down the foggy streets of the Sunset, through Golden Gate Park into the outer Richmond, then the Inner Richmond and up into the Haight , geared down for Masonic and over the hill into the sunny Castro with the rainbow flags flapping in the breeze, and all along I had stops, lots of stops; on to Soma, the Mission, Noe Valley, Glen Park. Every stop made me feel good. I know what I’m doing here now and I can remember all the other farmers who gave up or went broke. I want to stay in field on my farm with the birds and the bees and the wind and the weeds and I’ve learned that the City is the other half of my life’s equation. I’m grateful for all the people who’ve chosen to support my farm, especially the people who lend us their homes and businesses so that we can make our stops. Freewheeling across Nevada is a fantasy, but I’ll stick with the stop and go of small-scale vegetable farming; they don’t call small farms like mine “truck farms” for nothing.
Copyright 2010 Andy Griffin
Ladybug Truck Farm Deliveries This week = Thursday 10/21 from 4-6pm at Frances with just tomatoes: dry farmed early girls and romas… and Menlo Park that same day… and Pacific Grove on Wednesday 10/20. All by pre-order. If you’re interested in these and or future deliveries of bulk vegetables and fruits and mixed vegetable boxes, please make sure you’re signed up for your geographical area:
Andy is again writing every other week. (We are all glad he’s ‘back’!) We plan to continue to update this blog with the same articles that go out via email. There may be more announcement type things in the email version… but mostly it will be the same content. -Julia
During a Passover Seder feast a blessing is recited over two kinds of bitter herbs, Maror and Chazeret. In America, the bitter herb often used for the Maror is horseradish while Romaine lettuce stands in for Chazeret. Since a Seder is the ritual retelling of the liberation of the Israelites and of their exodus from Egypt, and since the bitter herbs are meant to evoke the bitterness of slavery that the Jews endured under the Pharaohs, you might think that using lettuce would be cheating. Sure, horseradish is harsh, but can a mouthful of lettuce evoke anything more than mild discontent? As a lazy Lutheran and a dirt farmer I’m not qualified to speak to the spiritual implications of different vegetables in Jewish practice, but as a student of vegetable lore I can say that both horseradish and lettuce are deeply rooted in Egypt’s history, agriculture and cuisine.
Opinions differ on how and when the tribes of Israel fled Egypt but horseradish is known to have been cultivated in Egypt from at least 1500 BC onwards. Horseradish evolved in western Asia and was doubtless gathered in the wild for eons before it was confined behind the garden gate. The bitter, stinging flavor of raw, grated horseradish root comes from the mustard oil that is released when the plant’s tissues are damaged. Horseradish is a member of the Brassicaceae family, along with mustards and turnip greens. Cooked greens may be less biting than that of their horseradish cousins but what bitterness they do have is due to the presence of mustard oil as well. Like horseradish, mustards and turnips have been cultivated around the Mediterranean basin since agriculture began and I’d imagine they’d make for acceptable Maror too if horseradish was unavailable.
Little Gem Lettuce, or Lactuca sativa, also has origins in the Middle East. I’ve read that there are wall carvings in the temple of Pharaoh Senusret I who ruled over Egypt circa 1971 BC to 1926 BC. If lettuces don’t taste very bitter to you, that’s not to say that they didn’t have a stronger flavor in the old days. Wild lettuces are still found growing around the world as garden weeds and they’re still very bitter and are only palatable when picked quite young. The ritual feast that marks the beginning of the Passover is held on the evening of the 14th day of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, which corresponds to late March or early April in the Gregorian calendar. It’s worth noting that in the Sinai, where the tribes of Israel fled after their Exodus from Egypt, wild lettuces are young and tender at this time of year, still fresh and leafy from the spring rains. Plant breeders have selected for lettuces that don’t taste bitter, but even modern lettuces will turn bitter when they don’t get enough water, or when they suffer stress from heat. Persistent summertime heat in Hollister is one reason that the Two Small Farms CSA lettuce harvest moves from Mariquita Farm to High Ground Organic Farm in Watsonville by April or May.
I trust that the lettuces we’ve harvested for our CSA customers this week are too mild to serve as convincing bitter greens but we have also harvested rapini greens. Rapini, or Brassica rapa, is a form of turnip greens. Yes, rapini is “bitter”, but only in a mild mustardy and savory way. And speaking of “savory,” did you know that the word comes to us from the Latin sapere, meaning “to taste or to know,” as does the Spanish cognate verb saber. English speaking cowboys in Texas borrowed saber from Mexican vaqueros and rebranded it as “savvy” to mean “well informed” or “perceptive.”
So what does savory mean?
Something that is savory can’t be purely sweet, or bitter, or salty, or sour, but somehow appeals to a fifth sense or experience where the other four flavors find a rich and satisfying balance. By the time we humans have some years on us hopefully we will have matured into savvy Homo sapiens, truly wise and men and women, capable of finding balance in an unsettling world.
As I research the Seder meal on Wikipedia and think about bitter herbs, I imagine that the Seder cook is trying to achieve a celebratory meal that teaches wisdom and tradition to the children even as it reminds the adults of the richness of their heritage, not just through words, but through flavors. Besides bitter herbs, the Seder table is always set with Karpas, which is some mild vegetable, like carrot or potato, which can be dipped in salt water or vinegar to recall the tears of slavery, and there is Charoset, which is a sweet paste of fruits and nuts meant to symbolize the mortar used by the Israelites to set the bricks of the buildings they built in Egypt— the sweet, the salty, the bitter, and the sour. Then the family gathers, the wine is brought to table, the chairs are pulled out, the first blessings are said, and everyone sits down together to savor life and tradition and each other’s company.
copyright 2010 Andy Griffin
note from julia: I know it’s been a while since Andy has sent out articles via The Ladybug Letter. He’s taking a bit of a writing break. When he has something to say, or I think one of our CSA newsletters would be interesting to all of you, we’ll post it here! thanks for all your continued support and well wishes as this talented writer mostly just tends to his farm.
I’ve got a glass bowl in my cupboard with a handful of obsidian arrow points I’ve found over the years on the different farms I’ve worked on. No surprise there; the native Californians who made the Central Coast their home before the Spanish invasion chose to make their villages on sunny, well-drained and well-watered flats of ground that late arriving farmers valued too. The farm I worked on in Bolinas in Marin County was a vast midden with charcoal-black soil from the centuries of cook fire. We’d plow the field and the soil would sparkle from all the chips of abalone shells that had been smashed open by the Miwok to make dinner. When we were on our hands and knees harvesting lettuce we’d see splinters of baked deer bones left behind from the people breaking them open to suck out the marrow. One day I cut a lettuce and my knife stuck into the soil. When I went to clean the mud off the tip, I found a small, perfectly formed arrow head for shooting birds stuck to my blade.
Here on my home farm in Watsonville I’ve got a number of stone pestles we’ve uncovered in our farming activities. The pestles are invariably chipped and broken by the rototillers but I keep them anyway. Sometime the people who work for me smile at my antics. “Why keep an old, broken mano,” they ask, “when you can buy a new molcajete y mano at La Princesa Market?” On the one hand, they’re right; these Ohlone acorn pestles are just old stones. But this area’s past means something to me, maybe especially because my family hasn’t been here (or anywhere) for long.
We came here at the end of the 19th Century; my Grandma’s family from Denmark and my Great Grandfather’s family from Farmersville down in the San Joaquin Valley— one hundred years and change. That makes me an “old-timer” in a certain sense maybe, compared to the people who’ve just moved here, but I don’t feel like we’re well rooted. I’d like us to be. I’ve tried to get my two children to the tops of all the mountains in the area like Fremont ’s Peak, Jack’s Peak, and Mount Carmel so that they can see the whole area from above and recognize all the landmarks. I quiz my kids when we’re driving. “What river did we just cross?” I’ll ask. “What valley are we in?” Graydon and Lena get bored with my game, but I don’t care. They’ll probably have to move away someday to find work, and I want them to have a feel for what they’re moving away from.
I was thinking about what it means to be rooted to a place- and to be uprooted- the other day after Jose showed me some photos from his family’s farm in Oaxaca . Jose has worked with me since 1995, first on Riverside Farms where I was one of four partners, then at Happy Boy Farms where I was half of the partnership, and finally here at Mariquita Farm, so he and I go way back. I hear Jose talking with his brother about going home to Oaxaca to visit their parents, but they haven’t been back in twelve years. I’ll miss them when they go. I depend on them a lot. I hear people talk about farm labor as though it’s “unskilled,” but it’s not. Jose’s family farms cacao, just like they have “since God,” but just because I don’t grow chocolate doesn’t mean Jose didn’t come to without an invaluable skill set. There are plenty of simple tasks on a farm, for sure, but there are also many jobs that require an eye, an understanding, an attitude, and a touch that can only come from long experience.
The photos from the family farm that Jose shared with me were jarring. His father wrote to say he’d been walking around on their land after a heavy rainstorm and he found a vent in a low hill that was gushing out muddy water. Mixed in with the mud were lots of ceramic pot shards. He suspected there might be a cave in the hill, so when the water went down he dug around. One of Jose’s brothers took pictures of what their father found and sent them via email. Jose was excited. I get excited finding an arrowhead that someone else’s ancestors chipped from obsidian, so just imagine how it must feel to find statuary carved by your own ancestors. It makes me think that when it comes to being grounded in our region, after a couple of hundred years in California, we farmers are only scratching the surface. How do you think that we modern Californians will choose to farm or live if we put down deep roots? What would California be like once we were here long enough to move past our contemporary struggle with tolerating our diversity and developed a deep running, collective identification with this land that sustains us?
copyright 2009 Andy Griffin
Photo Credits: the two of statues from Oaxaca were taken by Jose’s father at their cacao ranch in Oaxaca and emailed to us; the photo of the molcajete and tomatillos was taken by Andy Griffin.
all 4 photos from Jose’s ranch in Oaxaca
Ladybug Truck Deliveries: I may do a few of these during the winter: carrots, apples, oranges/citrus, whatever we have for you in bulk, or what our fruit-growing friends might have! Sign up for occasional notices about these deliveries. (the sign ups are to the left on that page)
** What happened in October!? it’s true: we’ve been busy farming bees and just didn’t post anything in October. Sorry about that! We’ll try to get back on our every-other week schedule this winter. Thanks for your patience.
Earlier this summer we harvested a block of sweet corn. I also grew two small experimental plantings of Indian corn; one an heirloom dent corn with pastel, multicolored kernels called “Earth Tones Dent,” the other a green seeded variety called “Oaxacan Green Dent.” Corn is pollinated by the wind, so in order to keep the three different kinds of corn from crossing it was important to isolate each variety. There are two simple ways to isolate corn; geographically and chronologically.
Corn is grass. The tassels that stick out of the top of a corn plant are male flowers that catch the wind and let it carry the pollen. The silky threads that protrude from a developing corn ears lower on the stalk are the parts of female flower that capture the pollen and conduct the grains to the ovaries so that they can become inseminated and develop into the corn seeds. When you shuck corn and find a cob only sparsely populated with kernels, you know that there was unsatisfactory pollination. To aid corn in achieving good pollination it is best to plant the crop in a block, so that the silks emerge from the ear to find themselves practically marinated in a cloud of pollen no matter which way the wind blows. A single row of corn, planted like a dam against a strong wind, might have all the pollen blown away from the top of its stalk to parts unknown, so that the female ears remain completely unfertilized and barren. I was careful to plant our corn crop in wide blocks so that there was a chance for good pollination.
There are many kinds of corn, including pop corn, flint corn, dent corn, sweet corn, hybridized sweet corn, hybridized super sweet corn, and genetically modified industrial corns, or GMO corns, some of which carry insecticidal genes. All corn varieties are as closely related as you and I and can cross on a whim, so to protect the genetic integrity of the varieties, and to preserve the specific characteristics and flavors of each distinct kind of corn it is necessary to guard against pollen drift. Sweet corn can lose its sugar and get chewy if it is cross pollinated with other varieties. The flour qualities of heirloom Indian corns could be compromised if crossed with sweet or super sweet varieties, and no organic farmer can tolerate their crop being contaminated with GMOs.
Mariquita Farm is located in the Bolsa District of San Benito County, along Pacheco Creek between Gilroy and Hollister and we get a good breeze every afternoon. From our fields looking south and west you can see the pass between the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Anzar Hills called the Chittenden Gap. Behind the farm and to the north and east lies the Pacheco Pass and the San Joaquin Valley beyond. Every afternoon the heat of the San Joaquin Valley acts to pull cool, moist air off the Monterey Bay. The breeze passes through the Chittenden Gap and over the Pacheco pass. This pattern is as predictable as the sun coming up. If you could look down on our farm when the corn is in flower and if you were sharp-eyed enough to see the pollen in the breeze you’d see a plume of corn pollen drifting on the breeze from my fields away towards Los Banos. To protect the flavor of my sweet corn I planted it upwind from my Indian corn. I had to plant my Indian dent corn downwind from the sweet corn, but to protect its genetic integrity I planted it well to the west, out of the main flow of the wind, and I also planted it behind an Elderberry hedge which acted as a wind break. The Oaxacan Green Dent corn I planted at my house in Corralitos, thirty-five miles away.
It’s never possible to be absolutely certain about where the wind will blow, so I also isolated the Indian corn from the sweet corn chronologically. The bicolor sweet corn variety I used takes an average of 75 days of growth until it flowers. Indian corn takes around 100 days to flower, so even though I planted both varieties on the same day they weren’t in flower at the same time, so there wasn’t much danger of them crossing. The Oaxacan Green corn takes about 95 days to flower, but since it wasn’t in the same county as my other corn it hardly matters, unless of course my crop is down wind from someone else’s corn patch, which raises a series of interesting ethical questions.
If I don’t want to grow corn that has been genetically modified, and my customers don’t want to eat corn that has been genetically modified, but my neighbor is up wind and chooses to grow a GMO corn, what rights do I as a farmer (or you as a consumer) have to keep our crop clean from genetic contamination?
If my neighbor is downwind and concerned that his GMO corn (or regular sweet corn, for that matter) will be contaminated by my crop of sweet corn or Indian corn, what right does he have to keep me from growing what I want to grow?
If one variety of sweet corn crosses with another variety the result could be a loss of quality; the randomly hybridized kernels may not be very sweet, or they could be chewy and fibrous. An affected grower could lose money for a season. But if a GMO corn crosses with an open pollinated, non-GMO variety the consequence might easily be that a new gene is introduced into an otherwise heirloom variety, compromising its purity. This could fall very hard for subsistence farmers that save their own seed. How can they know that the genetics of the seed they’ve saved has been compromised? Over time, we might actually lose our open pollinated, heirloom varieties if they’re allowed to evolve under the influence of randomly introduced, foreign genes– and not just genes foreign to the plants of the area, but perhaps even genes foreign to the Plant Kingdom. When this happens, who is responsible for the loss of a crop species? The Taliban blew the heads off the antique Buddha statues in the Bamyan Valley of Afghanistan with artillery and were widely excoriated in the press as ignorant vandals and terrorist extremists. But if genetically modified corn varieties are allowed to compromise the genetic integrity of the open pollinated Indian corns will anyone hold the scientists and drug companies accountable for vandalizing cultural achievements? How can subsistence farmers afford to fight for their “genetic” rights in the courts against the international drug companies that are seeking to patent the gene pool?
And who can really “own” genetics, anyway? The drug companies that are working with corn varieties and improving them aren’t starting from scratch; they’re building on a foundation of genetic work carried out by previous cultures and generations. If modern industrial varieties of corn make extinct the ancient varieties that are the foundation of agronomy, aren’t we losing as much as we gain? And how can the people who developed and maintained the original corn varieties receive compensation for their work and their loss? Custer had a lot of hubris to think that we had the right to exterminate the Indians and claim their land— a fatal hubris, because he got caught with his pants down and died for our sins. But the hubris before nature of these drug companies that blandly claim to own the blueprints for life make Custer look like Cultural Diversity Sensitivity Seminar Training coach. Call me a wooly-bearded, superstitious old hippie, but I think the Karma Kops are going to pull this planet over to the side of the ecliptic and give us a ticket for reckless driving.
Think about it. Butterflies are like rainbows come to life. Some GMO corns have been developed that carry the BT gene, so that the larval forms of Lepidoptera are killed when they try to feed on the corn. This is very convenient for the companies that hold the patents, and arguably (very arguably!) for consumers who supposedly pay lower prices for the corn syrup in their processed foods because of these “advances.” But what happens to the matrix of life beyond the corn patch if populations of moths and butterflies decline or fail because of the ubiquity of insecticidal GMO corn? They are pollinators.Who pays for the biological consequences of ripping the fabric of life into shreds? We all do.
And is there even really a price to environmental balance? I respect the scientific method, but scientists are human too. When Dr. Labcoat chooses to answer consumers’ concerns about the introduction of GMO material into the biosphere with a “Hey, baby! Don’t sweat it, I’ve got everything under control” routine, I instinctively cross myself and reach for my wallet. Were the geniuses at Monsanto ever children? Didn’t they watch Mickey Mouse play the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Fantasia? Talk about isolation; I think too many scientists are too distant from the world around them.
Luckily for me, for right now at least, all these questions are theoretical. There are no corn growers nearby our Hollister farm, GMO or otherwise, and downwind from us is a cherry orchard, a vineyard, and miles and miles of rangeland. My corn production isn’t being hurt by anyone, nor am I damaging anyone else’s production. I like growing corn, and I want to grow more of it, but before I plant corn next year I plan on researching the botanical, political, spiritual and ethical dimensions of corn. Meanwhile, check out the photos I’ve taken of the Oaxacan green corn; they’re beautiful. I’ll tell you how my green corn bread comes out this winter, and if there’s any interest I can grow a whole bunch of it next year.
copyright 2009 Andy Griffin
Tomatoes and Peppers this Week in San Francisco and Palo Alto! We don’t know how long the tomatoes will last, we may have future tomato days, we may not! Available: Sweet Peppers for roasting, San Marzano Tomatoes, Early Girl Tomatoes, Spicy Red Padron Peppers
Thursday, October 1st in SF at Piccino 4:30-7pm. by pre order only. see the webpage for list, prices, etc.
Friday October 2nd in Palo Alto 3:30-5pm by pre order only. see the webpage for list, prices, etc.
Saturday, October 3rd Harvest Fair at our partner farm in Watsonville: at High Ground Organics. Clicky
3 Photo Essays for your kitchen inspiration:
*San Marzano Sauce Making
*Dried Red Chile Flakes
*Roasted Sweet Peppers
Autumn isn’t far off now. It’s too dark anymore at 6AM for us to harvest so we’re now starting the work day at 6:30. The sun is bright and hot on our backs at mid-day, but the shade under the trees along the creek at the edge of the field is getting deeper and cooler. Evening arrives earlier than it did a month ago, and even with the smoggy glow from Silicon Valley dulling the brilliance of the night sky we’ll soon be able to see Capella rising just after dark.
Capella means “little female goat” in Latin, but don’t look to the sky for a goat jumping over the moon. Capella is a giant star, relatively close to earth as stars go. To scientists, the Goat star is alpha Aurigae, a spectral type G 8 III 0.1 magnitude, binary star that lies 42 light years away in space. This astronomical data sounded like Greek to me until I read what the Greeks really thought.
The ancient Greeks identified Capella as the she-goat Amalthea who suckled the infant Zeus. While he was playing rough house with his goatish wet nurse the rowdy young god broke one of Amalthea’s horns by mistake. Later, as a more mature god, Zeus imbued this broken horn with the power of dispensing copious quantities of food and drink to all who desired it. Poor, wounded Amalthea’s horn became the Cornucopia, or the horn of plenty.
Over time this mythic image of a broken goat’s horn bleeding forth nature’s bounty was appropriated by artists who wished to suggest overflowing abundance. Advertisers followed in the wake of art and the horn of plenty made its appearance in countless ads and logos. Illustrators working for advertising agencies reworked the original bloody goat horn into a charming but less visceral horn-shaped wicker basket. No mystery there; Madison Avenue invites us to wallow in consumption; there’s not much money to be made stimulating consumers to meditate on the capricious nature of abundance.
The identification of overflowing bounty with a goat’s horn didn’t seem as odd to the ancients as it may to us now. At one time people measured their wealth in goats. Second Chronicles 17:11 tells the story of Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah. “Some of the Philistines brought Jehoshaphat presents, and silver for tribute; Arabians brought him flocks, seven thousand, seven hundred rams and seven thousand, seven hundred goats. And Jehoshaphat waxed great exceedingly and he built in Judah castles…” As the Goat star made its seasonal ascent into the evening sky the ancient farmers of the Fertile Crescent were reminded that both the autumnal equinox and the bounty of the fall harvest were drawing near.
Scientists look at Capella through a telescope and describe two distant balls of constantly exploding gas locked in a gravitational Fall Renewal Time tango. The Goat star’s ritual fall rising is dismissed as an optical illusion. Earth is not the center of the universe. We spin on an axis and in due course we revolve again to witness Capella over our northern horizon at dusk. The fact that this cyclic event occurs as our seasons slip from summer into fall is a mere coincidence having nothing to do with goats. Science leaves the nanny goat, Amalthea, with no role to play at all in astronomy and the myth of her broken horn is a children’s story.
But even when science explains everything, it means nothing. Explanation is about facts, and meaning is about us; we are self-centered and significance revolves around our needs. Naming a spectral type G 8 III 0.1 magnitude, binary star after a goat tells us nothing to us about stars but the myth of Capella can be appreciated for the faint light it casts on the meaning of abundance. Capella, the name, is cognate with the Latin noun capra, meaning goat. Mother Nature is “capricious” in the purest sense of the word, which originally meant “to behave like a goat.” The harvest does not come spilling out of a horn-shaped wicker basket horn; that is truly a childish attitude. There is blood to pay. We work hard for everything we eat, whether we labor in actual fields of vegetables, grains and fruit, or slaughter and butcher livestock or work in more metaphorical “fields of endeavor.” Sometimes a rich harvest is a just reward for all our labors. Other times, despite our best efforts, abundance bounds away from us like a wild goat gone to hide from the slaughter in thick brush.
This year, as I look around our two small farms, I see tomatoes and peppers hanging red and gold on the vines, and rows of carrots, strawberries and lettuces. Our coolers are stuffed with potatoes, our barns are stacked high with onions, and our fields are filled with squash and pumpkins turning sweet in the heat of late summer. When I get out of bed in the middle of the night to check on a bleating sheep or quiet a barking dog I see a faint sparkle getting brighter, low in the north eastern sky; Capella is rising. Alpha Aurigae shines back down at me unblinking. I rub my eyes and I think of the slit pupils of Amalthea’s weird, golden, goat eyes; alert, beautiful, inscrutable and uncanny.
copyright 2009 Andy Griffin
This Saturday I’ll be in San Francisco with one of our ‘Too Many Tomatoes‘ Events: all by pre order: email me to let me know what you’d like. I’ll be on Folsom at one of our Two Small Farms pick up sites. When you make an order, I’ll send you the address. 10am-12 noon. San Marzano Tomatoes, Early Girl Tomatoes, BeefSteaks, Mixed Sweet Peppers for roasting and freezing, Spicy Chiles for making salsa etc, and of course Pimiento de Padron peppers!
brand new San Marzano Tomato Canning Photo Essay! 1 box = 9.5 quarts in my house…
2 more Tomato Upick Days planned: Thursday 9/24 & Saturday 9/26: both in Hollister at our farm, both from 9am to1pm. All Tomatoes 50 cents/pound. See you there! (open to all)
Ladybug Truck Farm Buying Club (open to all)
Vegetable Recipes A-Z
Two Small Farms CSA
Food Bloggers We Know