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
When I was a college student at UC Davis a kid named Bill lived down the hall from me in the Pierce Coop dormitory. Bill had grown up near Pleasanton in a gated community with a golf course and his father was a senior executive with the Bank of America. Bill’s privileged upbringing left him enraged at authority and hungering for an authentic life filled with want and struggle. So one day Bill stole a big sack of tomatoes from a field near the campus to make salsa for a party and the farmer caught him. “You’re never going to steal my tomatoes again,” said the farmer.
“Why not?” Bill asked. Bill believed that farmers are rich landowners and should share their crops with The People whether they want to or not. “What are you going to do; kill me?”
“No,” said the farmer. “But the tomatoes don’t taste good.”
Maybe if Bill had been an agriculture student the tasteless tomatoes he’d stolen wouldn’t have been so disappointing. The tomatoes produced around Davis in those years were processing tomatoes; they hadn’t been engineered for eating, or at least not for eating fresh.
Processing tomatoes have been developed to be extremely firm, even when dead ripe, and they’re not very juicy. Compared to many salad tomatoes grown in the garden, which are indeterminate, field tomatoes for processing are determinate. A determinate tomato grows as a low bush and sets all of its fruit at one time, so that the entire crop can be harvested at once by a machine. Processing tomatoes are firm to the point of being rubbery so that they aren’t damaged either during the mechanical harvest or when they’re dumped into the trailer with tons of other tomatoes for the trip to the ketchup factory. It will be in the ketchup factory that the processing tomato’s virtues as a food crop become apparent. The high heat of cooking caramelizes the sugars that are hidden in the processing tomato’s firm flesh so that flavor develops. Because the processing tomato doesn’t have a lot of juice in it there isn’t a lot of excess water to drive off in steam in order to make a paste. The fibers that make the processing tomatoes so hard soften with cooking so they can be pureed into the thick, gloppy texture that makes ketchup so hard to shake out of the bottle. Then too, cooking processing tomatoes deepens their shiny red color to the iconic Heinz red that kids find so satisfying.
Garden tomatoes, by contrast, are juicy, soft, and usually indeterminate; the plants grow tall and must be supported, but they flower over a long season so that the harvest off a single plant may stretch deep into the fall. Garden tomatoes come in many different colors. This year I have grown the following varieties:
1. Early Girl; a high acid, red saladette tomato
2. Beefsteak; a large, red slicing tomato
3. Green Zebras; high acid, greenish, striped yellow saladettes
4. Brandywine; large, heirloom pink, mid-acid, fleshy slicers
5. Striped German; large, heirloom, yellow marbled with red, low acid, fleshy slicer
6. Cherokee Purple; large, heirloom, mid-acid, fleshy slicer
7. Sungolds; tiny, sweet, orange cherries
8. Washington; a small, red cherry tom
9. San Marzano; a red, mid-acid salad/sauce tomato
This Labor Day weekend all varieties are available at our u-pick event, to one degree or other, though we clearly have the most San Marzano, Early Girls, Beefsteaks, Cherries, and Zebras. All our tomato varieties can be made into sauce, but the San Marzano is the traditional Italian sauce tomato. It has less juice than the other kinds and makes a sauce quickly. If you are coming to the u-pick come early. It gets hot in the afternoon. If you can’t come this Saturday but you do want to attend a u-pick, don’t worry. We will schedule some Sunday u-picks (at least one), and even a Thursday u-pick or two. We will also be selling box quantities of tomatoes for wholesale prices to the Ladybug Truck Farm Buying Club who want to can or make sauce but who can’t come to the field. More info on those deliveries: it’s open to all! no waiting lists!
I’m usually exhausted by the end of tomato season, and I’m lucky if I remember to make my own sauce for the winter, but I do look forward to the tomato crop every year. One year, when we were still selling at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market and when the Honorable Willie Brown was still mayor of San Francisco, The City hosted a nationwide conference of mayors. I set up my market stall at dawn and stepped back to admire the reds and greens and golds of the tomatoes I’d piled up, and I noticed a crowd gathering at the edge of the parking lot. America’s mayors were being seated for a prayer breakfast across the street on the waterfront and protesters had been drawn out of bed by the presence of so many august dignitaries. Several protesters approached me hoping to buy overripe, organic tomatoes “real cheap” to throw at the mayor. Then, as now, I needed money badly, but I declined these potential sales out of a lingering sense of reverence for the dignity of the democratic process. Besides, there are better things to do with over-ripe tomatoes than waste them on praying politicians; like making water, for example. I learned this trick from the San Francisco chefs I sell produce to.
Even (or especially) luxurious restaurants must practice tight-fisted economies if they wish to stay in business. The best chefs know how get the most out of their food budget. Extra tomatoes, soft tomatoes and tomatoes that are too damaged or cosmetically challenged to be of other use can be used for tomato water. First the ripe tomatoes are chopped, then lightly salted, and finally put into a cheesecloth bag over a pot and left to drain. The clear liquid that is captured has the clean, flavorful, essence of tomato without any distracting catsup “notes” or pizza “tones”. Tomato water can be used to give character to vinaigrettes, sauces, broths, juices and cocktails. Freeze the tomato water into ice cubes and bag them for use in the winter. The pulp that is left behind can be used as the basis for a sauce or broth. Maybe there won’t be so much want and struggle in America when we learn to treat our nation’s resources with the respect and economy that good cooks bring to every meal and when we vote for politicians that share our values.
copyright Andy Griffin 2009
Lots more about our Truck Farm bulk buying club:
Special Deliveries to your Community:
Wed Sept. 2nd San Francisco/Mission 3pm-6pm
Friday Sept. 4th Stanford/Palo Alto 3pm-6pm
Saturday 9/5 San Francisco Piccino 10am -1pm
Saturday 9/5 UPICK in Hollister 9am-1pm all are welcome!
Thursday 9/10 Santa Cruz or Capitola tba 3:30-5:30
List of what’s on offer:
San Marzano Tomatoes (paste type, like large romas) 20#/$28 (5 cases or more single variety $23/20#)
Early Girl tomatoes 20#/$28 (5 cases or more single variety $23/20#)
Heirloom tomatoes 10#/$16
Beefsteak tomatoes 10#/$15
Pimiento de Padron Peppers 1#/$9
Indian Corn for decoration or masa $3/3 pieces. beautiful!!
Red and Gold Bell Peppers for roasting and freezing. nice! no greens. $19/10#
what I do with sweet peppers: remove green stem; char in oven/broiler or over a fire/barbeque. then put in paper sack for a couple minutes. then remove skins, then stuff in modern canning jars that can also be freezer jars. (less plastic that way. but you can use zip locs) voila: roasted peppers for the year.
** do sign up for updates in your community!: to sign up for email alerts for these special deliveries:
At dawn the air is cool and still at the farm. We haven’t had rain for several months here on Mariquita Farm. The weather has been hot, so everywhere we haven’t irrigated the ground is dry. Where we have irrigated the mud bakes and cracks in the heat so that the silt clay soil curls up like pot shards. On the dirt road that divides the field into blocks for easy management, the daily traffic of trucks and tractors has pulverized the soil to a dust finer than flour. Before the sun warms the air and stirs it into breezes, this blanket of dust on the road can be read for animal tracks like a logbook that marks the night time visitors. Take a walk with me around the farm and let’s see who visited last night.
Those big footprints belong to Captain, my landlord’s dog. See how the tracks are leading straight into the tall hemlock weeds? That’s Pacheco Creek back there behind the brush. Captain is a Black Labrador and he can’t stay out of the water, so maybe he was heading off to take a midnight dip in the pool. Or maybe he heard a coyote and he was going to investigate. One of the nice things about having a creek so close to the field is that the riparian jungle of Carrizo canes, sycamores, nettles, and coyote brush makes good cover for a lot of wildlife. Squirrels and rabbits could become a problem if they were allowed to multiply without limit, but any coyotes in the neighborhood will help keep the population under control.
Look over there at that plume of dust rising up behind the pickup truck that Jose is driving; it’s like a smoke signal telling of loss. Dust in the air means soil is being lost from the earth and clarity is being lost from the sky. On our farm we try to minimize wind erosion by sowing every acre we don’t plant out in vegetables with a cover crop. All this stuff over here that looks like dead weeds is actually last spring’s fava bean straw we’ve left standing as a ground cover and for bird and insect habitat. I don’t use any pesticides, so I count on the birds and on beneficial insects to keep the pest insects under control, and if I don’t give them a place to harbor when we’re turning over a piece of ground with the tractor I’ll lose them all. You know those huge monoculture farms you drive past? They have to spray insecticide, because they don’t have any birds left to keep the bugs down, so life is out of balance, and when they plow their fields they kill all the beneficial insects that moved in. It’s sad. Look here; even bugs leave tracks in the dust. See these tiny little marks all in a row? These are beetle tracks.
Here we are in the corn patch. Pheasants love to take cover in the corn. Those rusty squawks you hear scratching the early morning calm are the pheasants talking to each other in their leafy hideout. These big chicken-like footprints you see crossing the dusty road are the tracks pheasants left when they slipped into the tomato patch at dusk to peck for dinner. Yesterday I found some big, three toed tracks that told me turkeys had wandered through here. I’m always amazed that the turkeys can survive in the wild at all, being as how they’re so big and tasty, but they’re seem to be more of them every year. They don’t do any real damage to the farm, and they are very beautiful.
These little scuffs in the dust are jack rabbit prints, and you can tell by how far apart they are if the hare was running fast or not. Poor Captain tries, but he never even comes close to catching the jack rabbits. We see the jacks every day and Captain takes off after them in a big lather, but as soon as he gets close enough to get his hopes up, the jack just slips into a higher gear and leaves him in the dust.
Yesterday a rubber gasket on our three inch aluminum irrigation pipe blew out and water puddle up before Rogelio was able to turn off the pump. You can see here where last night a raccoon took advantage of the pool to take a drink and maybe wash the dust off some morsel it found where the crew takes its lunch. Those prints that look like little human hands are the raccoon’s front paws, the longer paw prints were left by its back feet. Raccoons are cute but they are fierce like little bears. The smaller rat- like paw prints you see in the road are possum tracks.
Quail like to make their nests in the weeds here along the back of the field. Big families of quail come down off the levee in the evening and cross the road to peck for ants and seeds in the field. These tiny, confused, chicken-like prints were left by them. The inch wide trails worn smooth and straight through the dust are ant roads. Ant armies invade the field too to forage for seeds. Sometimes ants arrive bearing aphids which they put to pasture on our crop plants so that they can milk them for the honey dew they secrete. Where ant trails and quail tracks cross the ants lose. But the karma of biology evens the score. If you look carefully over here you will see weasel tracks.
I saw a little reddish weasel with a spotted tail just a minute ago out of the corner of my eye making a rippling dash from the bell peppers to the tomatoes. Weasel’s bodies are so long and their legs so short they have to comically arch their backs to run. Weasels aren’t funny to the quail; they eat the little birds like popcorn and rob their nests of their little speckled eggs. In the end weasels die too, and then the ants will hollow out their bodies if some thing else doesn’t get to them first.
Did you feel that warm breath of breeze puffing up just now? It’s only nine AM. By one in the afternoon this breeze will be a wind. Already the animal tracks are being sifted away. The animals are all safely tucked away in their nests waiting for the cool of the evening. The day will get a lot hotter as the sun climbs higher. Only we humans are crazy enough to work under the full sun and stir up the dust. When evening comes and we’re long gone home to our dinners and families, all the creatures will emerge again and sniff at our tracks. They’ll want to see who visited their field this hot day and discover what we’ve left behind.
copyright 2009 Andy Griffin
August 14th Andy and I will be at the Hayes St. Grill 30th Summer celebration at their Tomato Dinner! Join us!
Ladybug Buying Club update For the convenience of those who want bulk quantities of vegetables and herbs at wholesale prices so they may can, pickle, juice, dry, freeze or otherwise enjoy the summer harvest, we are planning a series of special deliveries starting next week. The San Marzano tomatoes are still a little ways off, but the Early Girl tomatoes have started, as have the Beefsteak toms and the Cherokee purples, plus we’ll have Padron peppers, tiny Hungarian wax peppers for pickles, limited quantities of small pickling cukes, and Elderberries for pies. If this service looks interesting to you, please sign up to be included on the list of people to get a special email alert. For now we plan to try using different CSA pick up site locations (with the hosts permission, of course!) stay tuned, and thanks for your interest! We hope to start next week…
Padron is a town in Spain north of Portugal in Galicia on the Atlantic coast. I passed through Padron in 1993, and stopped for lunch, but I didn’t try their world-famous peppers. I was with Julia, and we were on our honeymoon. We shared a plate of sardines and a carafe of Albarino wine. I learned about the Pimiento de Padron the hard way, here in California in the fields, not on a cool, breezy restaurant patio by the Spanish seashore, and I lost money and burned my tongue off. If you’re a cook or gardener maybe I can help you to avoid making my mistakes.
Spanish food is different than Mexican food and the Padron pepper is as instructive an example of the difference between the two cuisines as I can think of. When I finally figured out how to handle the Pimiento de Padron I took time to fry up a few platefuls in the classic Spanish tapas style for my Mexican workers so they’d understand how to pick and sort these peppers the way a Spaniard might. My workers smiled at my cooking demonstration and they ate the peppers willingly, but they assured they never did things this way back home in Michoacan.
When it comes to peppers, Mexican farm workers have the right to grin at the antics of Spanish chefs, or wanna-be Spanish chefs like me. Padron peppers, like all varieties of capsicum peppers, originally came from the New World, and a lot of them came from Mexico. Columbus promised his financial backers that he could sail across the Atlantic to India. When he made landfall he didn’t understand or accept that he’d encountered a new continent so the indigenous people he met were “Indians.” These “Indians” didn’t cultivate Piper nigrum which yields the familiar–and costly– black peppercorns that lured adventurers to the Indian coast, so the botanically unrelated, utterly dissimilar and wildly various pods of American Capsicum plants had to stand in as “peppers.” Pimienta means “pepper” in Spanish.
The town of Padron is on the banks of the Rio Ulla where it flows into the ocean. The citizens of Padron would have been among the first Europeans to see and experiment with these new “peppers” that the explorers brought back from overseas. Columbus’ ship, the Santa Maria, was even nicknamed Gallega, which means “the Galician.” As Spain’s new empire expanded across the Americas, Spanish sailors brought many different varieties of pimiento back home. Modern plant scientists have improved the pepper, but before Columbus was even born Native American farmers had already developed every basic form of pepper that we know today, from the large, sweet, and painless bell peppers to the tiny, incendiary chiltepin. The citizens of Padron adopted one particular variety out of all these newly arrived peppers to be their own “Pimiento de Padron.” Because Padron is near the sea and sailors were as common there as sand fleas, I think a waterfront bar tender had something to do with this.
The so-called “heat” in a hot pepper comes from a chemical called capsaicin. When a “hot” pepper is tiny and undeveloped its tender pod will contain little, if any capsaicin. Over time, as the pepper pod matures, capsaicin begins to concentrate in the developing seeds and internal ribbing membranes. One theory is that the pepper plant developed capsaicin as a deterrent to herbivores; if a deer or a squirrel eats a pepper they get a burning sensation in their mouth and remember to not to eat another one. Frankly, I don’t buy this notion; the pepper plant is smarter than that.
A pepper plant grows for quite a while before it flowers and fruits. The Padron peppers in your share box come from plants sown in the greenhouse in February and transplanted into the field in April. We’ve only just started the harvest, but already the plants are five months old and very few of the peppers pods are mature enough yet to have much heat at all. According to the “herbivore deterrence” theory these plants would be vulnerable for most of their lives and only develop their protective concentrations of capsaicin at the last minute. That’s stupid evolution. I think the pepper genus developed “heat” in order to provoke herbivores to eat them.
What “irritates” one person (or mouse) may excite another – and I have had many problems over the years with mice eating the dried chilies I’ve saved for seed. Humans save seeds for re-planting, and mice store seeds to eat that then get rained on and sprout, so by being “irritating” and getting eaten the pepper assures its propagation and survival. Of course not everyone likes spicy food, and hot peppers are not typical of Spanish cuisine.
Five years ago, when Chris Cosentino, the chef at Incanto, an Italian restaurant in the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco, came back from a European trip, he brought me seeds of the Pimiento de Padron. “I can grow those,” I said. I remembered Padron. The weather in Padron is cool and temperate. The Gallegan landscape looks a lot like the Monterey Bay area, where I farm. “Any crop a Gallego can grow, I can grow better.”
My Padron peppers grew well. By September the plants were five feet tall and hung with gorgeous fire engine red peppers. I tried one. My eyes popped out of my skull and my tongue smoked. “You waited too long,” Chris said. “I can use a few of these to make dried pepper flakes, but that’s about it. Next year, pick them when they’re tiny.”
Gallegan farmers learned long before me that their favorite pepper gives a big yield of tender little peppers in early summer and that if you pick the plants clean, they’ll flower and set fruit again and again. Picking the peppers young and green creates early cash flow that allows a farmer to live until other crops are ready to harvest in August and September.
Gallegan cooks learned that the tiny, tender peppers are very flavorful, and rarely have much heat at all to them if they’re picked young enough. Only the older, firmer, heavier, waxier peppers are hot, and they learned to pick them out and set them aside. The cooks learned too that these new peppers could be cooked fast, in just a little more time than it takes to heat up a cast iron skillet. They’d get the pan hot, splash a little olive oil onto it, and when the oil was almost smoking hot, they’d toss on a handful of the tiny peppers. The peppers would hop and sizzle for a few seconds. When the peppers were blistered on one side, the cooks would shake the pan, toss the peppers, and let them blister on the other side. Then a quick sprinkle of sea salt, a deft sweep of the pan with a wooden fork, and the peppers were served, ready to eat, sweet, savory, salty, and piping hot.
But a Gallegan bartender’s is to sell drinks. They learned to put a little extra salt on the peppers. And Bartenders wouldn’t pick out the more mature peppers, either. A sailor bellies up to the bar, orders a bottle of cool Albarino wine, and grabs a handful of the fried peppers the bar maid had left within arm’s reach. The first ten or twelve peppers down the hatch are delicious; sweet, savory, salty, and piping hot. But the last one? “Hijo de la !@#$%,” it’s picante. So the sailor, his tongue burning, gulps his wine down and orders another bottle to extinguish the blaze. The bartender is happy to oblige.
True, a glass of cold milk works best to put out a pepper fire on the tongue, but what kind of self respecting sailor orders milk in a waterfront bar? Besides, even the spicy peppers taste great, especially after a couple of drinks. And so the reputation of these fried peppers spread out like a ship’s main sail and traveled the world. “You think your stale pretzels are good,” the sailors said to the bartenders of Boston, London, Lagos, and San Francisco. “You ought to cook up some pimientos like they do in Padron.”
copyright 2009 Andy Griffin || Gardeners who really like them should plant a few plants in their back yard. I get my seeds from Bill McKay at GrowItalian
Ladybug Buying Club!!
For the convenience of cooks who would like to can, pickle, juice, dry, or otherwise consume bulk quantities of fresh vegetables, herbs and fruits we are planning a series of special deliveries of bulk quantities of tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, peppers, basil, strawberries etc. whenever our the harvest permits. If this service looks interesting to you, please sign up to be included on the list of people to get a special email alert. We have three separate lists: San Francisco, the Peninsula, and the Monterey Bay Area. If we’re going somewhere that’s not convenient for you, delete that particular email. If something looks good to you, email us firstname.lastname@example.org and reserve what you need. Whole cases only, please. If a whole case is too much, find a friend to split it with or consider our CSA program. Let the cooking begin!
I live on a farm so I wake up with the rooster. When the donkeys see the kitchen light go on they bray for hay, and then the goats and the sheep hear the donkeys and bleat and bah for attention. After coffee I feed the animals, and by 6:30 I’m locked into a series of phone calls about the day’s work with Jose and Espana out at the row crop farm in Hollister, and with my partner Stephen at High Ground Organics in Watsonville. When Manny arrives I have a brief conference with him about the herbs, the animals, and the packing schedule for the day, then I have a phone conversation with Elias about his duties as the farm driver, and finally I leave myself for the farm in Hollister. On my way I might stop at Debbie’s market for a second cup of coffee, where I’ll run into Bobby Peixoto, and we’ll talk about farming for a minute. Once at the field my farm occupies my attention, unless Vince, Darrel, Steve, Ramon, or Martin should happen to call about the restaurant delivery route that we work together on, in which case we’ll talk about their farms and their harvests. When I get home I’ll talk with my wife, Julia, about our farm’s business, and after dinner, if I don’t play with my donkeys or haul water to my cows over on the Kliever Ranch, I might take time to write a CSA newsletter essay about farming or work on the book that I’m writing about farming. So by 9:30, when I’m looking for something to read something before I go to sleep, I don’t usually pick up a book about farming. I want a break. My favorite three books from the last several years have been The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play, by Ben Watson, The Painted Word, by Tom Wolfe, and Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics, by Frederic Spotts. Each of these books is about art, and not a single one of them has so much as a whisper about agriculture in it. So when my friend, Martin, gave me a book about urban farming called Farm City, by Novella Carpenter, I thanked him, but I wasn’t sure I’d read it.
I might not have read Farm City either, if it hadn’t been for the cute cover image of a wheel barrow all covered in graffiti. The last thing I need before I go to sleep is some doom-soaked call to action about the threats of lead in the soil or the politics of food security, but the cover promised humor. Besides, the wheelbarrow reminded me of Martin. He’s a funny guy. He farms in Chualar, south of Salinas, but he lives in Noe Valley, in San Francisco. He’s single and child free, so he has the time, money, and energy for lifestyle; if anyone I know is going to make it to the most interesting exhibition, the most exciting concert, or the opening of a new restaurant it’ll be him. He lives with one foot in the field and the other in the street, and talking to him allows me to vicariously live the life of a boulevardier. We both sell to restaurants and our delivery trucks are even the same make and model, except that he parks his at night on city streets, so it’s completely covered in graffiti.
In the 80s, years before I met Martin, he and I were ships that passed at night; I worked at Star Route Farms in Bolinas and delivered lettuces in the night time to the Hayes Street Grill in San Francisco and Martin worked as a bus boy at the restaurant in the daytime. He saw our lettuces, thought that it would be fun to grow food, and began a back yard farm, so Martin’s roots are in urban farming. As a farmer and a city dweller he’d know if Novella was writing truthfully. So I opened Farm City, and I really enjoyed it.
I’m not going to ruin the story for you by retelling it. Just let me say that when I first started writing for our CSA newsletter I crafted a piece about gopher control by telling a story about speaking to the Watsonville Christian Women’s Club on the subject of organic farming practices. My friend, Patty Unterman, read my story. She is a writer, a restaurant critic, and a restaurateur (she’s an owner of the Hayes Street Grill). When Patty talks, I listen.
“I liked your story,” she told me, “especially the line about the church lady and the rifle. You’ll find that you can write about any subject you know, and readers will be interested, as long as you write about people.”
That conversation with Patty crystallized something for me, and since that day that’s what I’ve tried to do; write about my subject, agriculture, by telling stories that convey didactic content in a context of human interest, so that facts and figures find a place in the tale the way nuts and cherries bring color and flavor to a fruitcake. And that’s just what Novella Carpenter has done so well in Farm City. She writes stories about raising, chickens, turkeys, pigs, and watermelons in the Oakland ghetto. Subjects that can get wonky and tedious, like food security, economic democracy, the spiritual dimension to taking responsibility for food choices, or the p.c. mantra of “fresh, local, and organic” all get covered, but in a fresh and provocative manner that introduces the reader to a tribe of people who don’t usually show up in contemporary food writing. I can write stories about chickens, turkeys, pigs, and watermelons too, but not these stories.
By this time of every year, tired and distracted from the months of work behind me, with the corn chest high and beginning to tassel, and with the first tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers just coming on, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the immense amount of work about to hit. The money’s all been spent, the harvest is hanging in the balance, and Thanksgiving seems like its ten years off; it’s too easy to ask, “Why, Andy, didn’t you choose to be a venture capitalist or a Chippendale dancer? Why did you want to be a farmer?” Well, Farm City is a fun book that reminds me why. Last night, July 7th, at the Capitola Book Cafe, Novella Carpenter did a reading from Farm City. Julia and I went and heard her speak even though it was in the evening and she did talk about farms. She’s as good at speaking as she is at writing and I enjoyed the fact that she didn’t take herself as seriously as some of the people in her audience did. Her next three gigs are in LA, NYC and Danville: go see her if you can. Here’s a link to an interview Novella Carpenter did with Gene Burns, in case you don’t live in Danvillle or you can’t fly to LA or NYC to hear a neighbor talk about pigs in Oakland. Or buy her book, enjoy it, and give it to a friend.
Copyright 2009 Andy Griffin
If FDA officials ever find out about basil’s intoxicating qualities they will want to regulate it. Actually, when speaking of basil, the word “intoxicating” misleads since it implies that the herb contains toxins; “euphoric” might be a better fit, since basil’s fragrance is a cocktail of cinnamate, citronellol, geraniol, pinene, and eugenol, conjuring up cinnamon, citrus, geranium, pine, and clove. A whiff of this herb lifts the spirits so much that basil is practically the perfume of good health. In the Greek Orthodox tradition, basil is said to have sprouted around the tomb of Jesus after he rose from the grave. The word basil comes to us from the Greek, meaning “kingly,” so it’s no coincidence that this herb should be associated with the man Christian tradition considers to be King of the Jews. Of course resurrection from the dead is the cure to end all cures, but basil is recognized across many cultures as a potent medicinal herb.
In India the fragrance of basil is said to invite sattva, or harmony. One species of basil, Tulsi, or Ocimum sanctum, is a woody-stemmed, perennial plant that is considered sacred to Vishnu. In fact, the herb Tulsi is revered as the incarnation of the Goddess Tulsi. Amulets made of beads shaped from the stems or roots of Tulsi are worn by the reverent because the plant is valued as a demon repellant. There are many different kinds of basil, but all of them got their start in Asia before being disseminated by trade throughout the rest of the world. Even the Genovese basil, which seems as Italian as Columbus, originated in the tropics, so it is likely that basil arrived in the Mediterranean already crowned with its divine reputation.
Evil takes on many identities and one name for the Devil is Baal-zebub or “Beelzebub,” which is often translated from the Hebrew as “Lord of the Flies.” Because basil is credited with being able to drive off flies, vases of the pungent herb have been placed at times around the altar in Greek Orthodox churches. Some religious traditions consider Beelzebub to be a different malevolent spirit than Satan, a mere demonic lieutenant, but no one thinks of basil as an herb of secondary importance. Besides being the herbal base for pesto, basil is a good accent for summer squash dishes, rice or pasta salads, and as a leafy ingredient in savory sandwiches.
Basil is my favorite herb, and I look forward to growing it every year. I take my cues for how to cultivate basil by considering the conditions under which it evolved. Tropical Asia is warm and humid, so I wait until the soil warms up before I sow basil, and then I give the plants plenty of water. The biggest threat that faces my basil crop comes from the Dibrotica beetle, which looks like a little yellow-green Ladybug. Dibrotica beetles are a triple threat; they chew on the basil leaves, they spread viral diseases through their saliva, and they defecate on whatever they don’t consume. Dibrotica beetles taste nasty to the birds, and I’m not aware of any insect predator that can control them. I don’t use pesticide, so my only prophylactic remedy against the threat of Dibrotica infestation is to cloak the basil crop with a woven fiberglass fabric or “row-cover” called Agribon, which I buy from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply.
Agribon row-cover serves me in three ways. First, the fabric is so tightly woven that it acts to completely fence out the Dibrotica beetles, so they can’t attack the basil. We drape the Agribon over wire hoops made of #10 gauge wire that arch across the beds, forming low-profile tunnels. The hoops act to keep the fabric off the plants so that the basil leaves are not scuffed and abraded when the wind blows. We have to lift the fabric every time we harvest, and we put it back every time we finish, so that the crop is protected. The Agribon is translucent, but there are several degrees of shade created by the fabric, which is a good thing, because the basil grows just a little bit more lush and tender under the row-cover than it does under the open sun. Lastly, the aromatic oils which give basil its fragrance are volatile– that is they can blow away, as in the Italian verb volare, meaning “to fly away”– so the row cover breaks the wind and keeps the herbal essence of the crop from being exported to Los Banos. Basil is at its most potent around the time the flower heads are forming, so that’s when we start the harvest. When we cut the flowering stalks off before the plants have had a chance to set seed, they will send out new shoots. In time, we’ll harvest those shoots too. If we’re careful, we can make a single basil crop last all season long with many successive harvests, which is good for the bottom line.
Basil is supposedly good for hair too. One book on my shelf says that basil tea makes for a perfect hair conditioner and that one basil rinse will leave your coiffeur bouncing like the Breck Girl’s mane. Some traditions consider basil to be an aphrodisiac. I’ve heard that Mexican curanderas recommend that you tuck a sprig of basil into your pocket to recapture a bored lover’s wandering eye. Do any of these quasi-magical tricks work? I wouldn’t know. But I am happy to grow basil, and I like to think I’m doing my part for world peace by supplying an herb that sanctifies life, invites harmony, raises hair from the head, and flavors food even as it attracts women and repels flies.
copyright text and photos 2009 Andy Griffin