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
Five Quechua girls followed me down the steep cobbled street at a distance, giggling, until one of them got up the nerve to dash past and confront me. “Would you please come to my house for tea?” she asked.
Her friends crowded around. They were thirteen or fourteen years old, dressed alike in the matching skirts and dark sweaters of their school uniform and their hair was tied back in long black, glossy braids. Having gotten over their shyness, they made the quantum leap to boldness and began pelting me with questions en patota; “Are you German? Why are you here? Do you like our town? Have you been to Miami? Are you married?”
“Shut up,” barked out the boss girl to her companions. “He’ll answer our questions one by one in a proper interview.”
“Why, yes,” I replied. “I would be delighted to come to your house for tea.”
The girls went into a brief huddle, and arrangements were made. One girl wrote out the address on a piece of note paper, another girl drew a map, and a third girl left to get some cookies. “We’re looking forward to visiting with you at 5:30,” they said. “Please don’t stand us up.”
They didn’t need to worry. I’d been traveling alone in Bolivia for a month. It was 1991. I’d been a farm worker for years but my first attempt at managing a business had ended in failure a few months before when a hard frost destroyed all my crops and froze my cash flow. Bolivia seemed like a good place to go and look at my life from a distance. I was just coming back from a walk in the mountains when the girls stopped me. It was late in the day and windy. I was cold and tired. Hot tea and feminine company sounded nice. These bronze faced girls were bright eyed and charming. I was curious to see how they lived.
I scrubbed up at the room where I was staying and found a clean shirt. The town was tiny, so the girl’s street wasn’t hard to find. I made sure to knock on the door precisely at 5:30, and the leader of the pack welcomed me into her home. I entered a small living room with a sofa against one wall. My young hostess motioned for me to sit. Her friends brought in chairs from the rest of the house and sat around the edge of the room with their backs to the walls. Hanging from the walls was a framed image of La Virgen del Socavón, a clock, and a calendar with a shiny picture of the Swiss Alps. The Alps looked like the painted backdrop for a toy train layout compared to the sullen peaks of the Andean Cordillera that loomed up outside. In the middle of the floor and almost filling the room was an immense pile of freshly dug potatoes.
The girls poured cups of mate de coca and passed around the cookies. After they each spilled a ritual drop of tea onto the floor they got down to business. “Are you German? Why are you here? Do you like our town? Have you been to Miami? Are you married?”
“One at a time,” I pleaded. So the girls slowed down and introduced themselves. Their homework was to study a foreign country and I looked foreign. I swung at their questions almost as fast as they pitched; “No, I wasn’t German. Yes, I liked Bolivia. No, I didn’t have children yet, although yes, I was already 32 years old, but no, I hadn’t met the right woman yet, and yes, I’d been to Miami, but no, I don’t live there, and anyway California is nice too.” I even tried to ask the girls a few questions of my own.
“How come you keep the potatoes in the house?” I asked.
“Because they’ll freeze outside or someone will steal them,” the girl said.
“In California I’m a farmer and I grow potatoes,” I said.
“Oh, everyone grows potatoes,” another girl said. I suppose she was right, at least in her world.
Her world was harsh. In the Andes the day may dawn icy, but by mid-morning the sun can be hot on your back. After sundown the temperatures drop again, until your hands and feet are numb. The atmosphere is thin and the air is dry. The sky overhead is deep blue by day, and by night it is jet black and sparkles with majestic drifts of stars. Outer space seems close.
Most people in Bolivia live on the Altiplano, which means “high plains” in Spanish. The Altiplano is high– the altitude ranges from 9,000 feet above sea-level to around 14,000 feet– but the land is nothing close to being as flat as its name implies. The daily extremes of temperatures in the Andes have prompted a number of plants to evolve tuberous growth habits. A tuber is a swollen, underground stem that stores up energy so that if a “killing frost” burns off all the foliage above the ground, the plant still has enough life protected under an insulating mantel of soil to sprout again. The concentrated sugars and starches found in tubers have made a number of them important food crops. The sweet potato, for example, is a tuberous morning glory from Peru that’s now cultivated all over the world. Andeans also cultivate an edible tuberous oxalis, called oca. Potatoes are tuberous nightshades that evolved in the Andes, and they are cultivated there in great profusion.
While we find just few varieties of potatoes on our supermarket shelves, a farmer’s market in Bolivia has potatoes of every imaginable shape and color heaped up for display. Little marble sized potatoes are piled up next to long, skinny ones and big round ones in colors ranging from blues, reds and purples to yellows, whites and browns. The potatoes heaped on the living room floor where I attended the tea party were brown.
Bolivian farmers have turned the extreme climatic conditions they must contend with to their advantage, and they use Mother Nature’s mood swings to preserve their harvests for the hard times they know lie ahead. Potatoes are cut into pieces and laid out on rocks under the sun to dry, while the farm dogs prowl and bark any marauding crows away. At night, any residual surface moisture that sweats out from the potato chunks is frozen into a spiky beard of ice crystals, which evaporate in the morning sun. After a few days of this treatment, the potato slices are essentially freeze-dried. These black leathery potato chips are called chuño, and can be kept without spoiling almost indefinitely. Chuño is an acquired taste, but when you get used to it, it’s earthy and satisfying in stews and broths.
Life isn’t easy in the Andes. Half the people I met in Bolivia talked of making their way to Miami. But among traditional people, it is still considered polite to thank the earth goddess, Pachamama, for the blessing of food. Even as the Virgin of the Mines looks down from the wall, the people will spill a drop of their beverage or let a crumb of their food fall to the ground before taking a drink or swallowing a bite. “A taste for Pachamama,” they’ll murmur, “a taste for me.” I heard this phrase so often in Bolivia that I began to notice the people who didn’t give thanks for what they had. Spilling drinks and food makes for sticky floors on buses and in public places but in the absence of any SPCA, giving “tastes” to Pachamama also keeps skinny, stray Bolivian dogs alive. Bolivia can be a tough place, but the habit everyday people there have of giving “thanks” lends a hard and austere country a grace that even affluent countries can aspire
When the tea party was over my mob of hostesses hopped up from their chairs and thanked me profusely for helping them with their homework.
“Encantado,” I said. “The pleasure was mine.”
Text and Photos, copyright 2009 Andy Griffin
A-Z Photo Galley from Andy
A-Z Recipes for Vegetables
Two Small Farms CSA
Some Food Bloggers We Know
Restaurants We Sell To
On Saturday we planted corn. I hope the crop is a success because the seed was expensive. My friend, John Bauer, is a seed salesman and he brought me a sweet corn variety he swears by. John used to farm in Massachusetts and he grew a lot of corn. Out here in California among us coastal growers more accustomed to planting broccoli, lettuce, or strawberries, he’s something of a “Johnny Corn Seed,” tramping the country and promoting the merits of Zea mays. John hauled a fifty pound sack of corn seed out of the bed of his pick-up truck by its ears and flopped it onto the barn floor. “There,” he said. “When your crew gets a taste of this sweet corn they’re going to think they’ve died and gone to heaven.
I looked at the bag of gold that lay between us. “I don’t know about that,” I said.
“Are you kidding?” he said. “This corn is like candy!”
The sun had already set and there was food on the stove in the kitchen and a bottle of wine on the table so I said, “come on in.” John and I sat down to dinner and talked about corn.
“This corn isn’t cheap,” he said, “but every seed will germinate, even in cold soil. You’re going to want to drop seed in a single row on forty inch centers with a six-inch spacing.”
That sounded easy. The way I farm, all my planting beds are forty inches wide. The axel on my tractor is set at eighty inches, so it can straddle two beds at once, and all my sowing and cultivating implements are set to accommodate those dimensions.
“Do you have a corn planter?” John asked.
John’s got that whole “Yankee ingenuity thing” going on. He thrives on building seed sleds, mechanical cultivators and other labor saving devices. I’m all thumbs. I don’t have much equipment on my farm, and since I’ve never grown a lot of corn, it’s never made sense for me to buy a special seeder. Besides, there’s my crew to think of.
“You know that ten acre piece on the south side of San Miguel Canyon Road,” I asked,” where the road leaves the valley and heads up into the hills?
Seed dealers get around. “Sure,” John said. “It’s in strawberries.”
“I farmed that ground in 1990,” I said. “Ofelio and his brother Juan worked with me then and they asked if they could grow a patch of corn at the edge of the field. Every time we irrigated the rows in that part of the field they’d put on an extra length of pipe and water their corn too.”
John could see where I was heading. “Did they grow field corn?” he asked.
“Well, Mexican corn” I said. Corn has been in cultivation a long time– between 7000 to 12,000 years according to some estimates– and archeobotanists trace its origins to the Rio Balsas in Mexico, not far from Jacona, where Ofelio and Juan grew up.
“Those two were old school,” I said. “Ofelio had a face like a toad. Juan looked like the Indian on the nickel, except that he always wore a cowboy hat, and he had a cast over his left eye, so he was half blind. They didn’t buy their corn from a catalogue. When it came time for seed they went to De La Colmena Market and bought a ten pound bag of the same purple Michoacano corn Ofelio’s wife used for pozole.”
No other plant that has been fiddled with by humans as much as corn. Probably working from Teosinte, a wild grass that is the most likely proto corn, Native American farmers evolved varieties that were adapted to many different environments, from cold mountain highlands to humid tropical lowlands. The culture of corn spread across the Americas like a shock wave, reaching south-eastern Canada to the north and Chile to the south. There were thousands of varieties of corn just in ancient Mexico. The kind of corn Ofelio and Juan liked had big, fat, starchy lavender kernels with a dent in the tip
“They planted it by hand?” John asked.
“Well, first they soaked the corn seed in a bucket of water,” I said. “Then they sharpened a couple of willow sticks. When the corn swelled up they dumped it into feed bags, and threw the bags over their shoulders. They poked holes in the soil with their sticks, let five or six seeds drop from the bags into each hole, scuffed a little dirt with their feet to cover it all, and took another step; poke, poke, drop, drop, scuff, scuff, step, step, over and over until the whole patch was planted.” Ofelio and Juan had come north during the Bracero program in the 50s. Since then, they’d been paid to do every kind of farm work in the US except plant corn by hand, but the rhythm of corn sowing they’d learned as kids stayed with them their whole lives.
“If you don’t have to plant a lot of seed, sowing corn by hand works just fine,” John said.
“Then on Sunday,” I said, “Ofelio’s wife and daughter would get dressed up and go to mass down at the Church of the Assumption in Pajaro, but Ofelio and Juan would worship the corn god.”
“They’d do what?” John asked.
“They’d throw a couple of folding in chairs and an ice chest into the back of Ofelio’s Datsun pick-up and head out to their milpa.”
A milpa is an ingenious agricultural system the ancient Mexicans developed. They planted corn in little hills, and at the foot of the corn stalks they planted beans. The beans grow with the corn, trailing up the stalks. In between the hills of corn they planted squash. The milpa is an example of the potential felicitous harmony between the earth and the human body; the corn supports the beans, the beans, being legumes, fix atmospheric nitrogen and enrich the soil for the corn, and the big, broad squash leaves shade out the weeds. Corn, squash and beans, eaten together, also make for a balanced human diet. Milpa agriculture doesn’t work in a production economy where labor costs are high, but as a form of subsistence agriculture, it is genius.
“Juan and Ofelio would poke around in their garden for an hour or two, weeding or watching out for gophers, and by noon they’d retire to the shade of an oak tree nearby, and open up their folding chairs and a couple of beers. They’d tune their radio to the oldies station that spun Ranchera hits by singers like Vicente Fernandez, or Rocío Dúrcal, and they’d hang out. They could make twelve ounces of Budweiser last for hours.”
“How did their corn taste?” John wanted to know. In the US, some dent corn varieties are used to make hominy grits, but many are grown for livestock feed.
“Well, it depends,” I said. “Sweet corn gets right to the point– small plant, big ears, fast growth. But their corn grew, and grew, and grew. When the ears were finally starting to fill out, and the kernels were in the milk, they picked some and Ofelio’s wife made special tamales, not out of masa from dried corn, but from the fresh corn she scraped off the cob with a knife. And instead of wrapping the tamales in dried corn husks, she used green corn husks. Those tamales were sweet, and just about the best Mexican food I’ve ever had.
“And then when they found some ears infected with corn fungus, so that the kernels were all swollen and black and distorted, they picked them and took them home as cuitlacoche.
Cuitlacoche looks gross, but it has kind of an earthy, smoky flavor when it’s cooked that’s real good, like mushrooms.
“When the kernels were still fresh, but turning lavender, they’d roast them in their husks over the barbecue and bring them to work to eat cold. I thought their corn on the cob was pretty chewy, but they said it had authentic corn flavor. Who am I to argue? And in the end, when the corn was dried, they took all they had left to Ofelio’s wife for pozole, so I guess you could say their corn tasted like home.”
So maybe Ofelio or Juan wouldn’t be entirely happy with my sweet corn, but my daughter and my wife will be, so I’m looking forward to our harvest. Last Friday I hauled the seed out to the field. I took the big sack by its ears and hauled it off the truck. José opened the bag and reached for a handful of the yellow kernels. He’s from Oaxaca, not too far to the south from Rio Balsas. José looked skeptical. “These seeds sure are small,” he said, “but before we plant them we’ll soak them in water. They’ll swell right up.”
copyright 2009 Andy Griffin
June 21st Spring Fandango With Piccino and our Farm: Sunday June 21, Noon to 9:00
A-Z Recipes for Vegetables
A-Z Photo Gallery from the farm
Some Food Bloggers We Know
“How does your wife cook roosters?” Elias asked. Elias is a Zacateco of the old school, raised on a small ranch in the foothills of the Sierra Madre. He’s been here in California for thirty years, but he still wouldn’t dream of going to the store for chicken or eggs when you can have a flock of hens scratching around the dust. Elias also believes in the restorative power of pure, natural food. A happy chicken makes a tasty chicken! Because it’s natural, and so that his hens can be happy, Elias also keeps a number of brightly feathered roosters to strut about the yard and crow their own praises. Of course, living as he does now on a suburban street and not on a ranchito in Mexico, Elias has to contend with neighbors who don’t share his appreciation for natural living. Recently he decided to slaughter several of his older roosters and keep only the most virile cocks to husband his flock. I had to explain to Elias that my wife had probably never cooked a rooster in her life.
“My wife cooks gallos long and slow in a caldo like pozole,” Elias said. Traditional pozole is usually made from a pig’s head that’s been quartered and cooked slowly in a light chile broth with plenty of hominy corn so that the soup gets body from the bones, but I imagine a whole chicken would make a very acceptable substitute. I told Elias that I’d like to try cooking one of his birds, so a few days later he brought me a big one, all cleaned and ready to go. It was a Sunday morning, so I got out a big earthenware pot I bought at the Spanish Table over on San Pablo in Berkeley, heaped up some dry rounds of oak, and built a fire. I placed the chicken in the pot and surrounded it with vegetables fresh from my fields. I used several stems of green garlic, a couple of leeks sliced into rounds, a few sprigs of thyme, a bunch of soup celery stems chopped up fine and a bay leaf or two, plus sliced fresh mushrooms, and chunks of Chantenay carrot and parsley root.
Parsley root is a curious vegetable. I’d read with interest the passage in Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini by Elizabeth Schneider where she writes that “(parsley root) has been deemed the significant indicator of authentic Jewish chicken soup.” I’m not Jewish, but great soup is nondenominational. Besides, if I’m going to grow parsley root on my farm I’d better be proficient in using it. Parsley root is a common vegetable across Central Europe– it’s often called “Hamburg parsley”– but it’s not too well known here in California, compared to its leafy green cousins, Italian parsley and curly parsley. I didn’t have any potatoes on hand and I hoped the parsley root could thicken the broth as it cooked, as well as add an herbal, savory note to the stew. I splashed a couple of cups of white wine into the clay pot, added enough water to cover the bird and the veggies, nestled the pot in the coals at the edge of the fire pit, and set the heavy clay lid down on top. After a half hour I had steam coming out from under the lid, so I raked a few coals back so that the liquid only simmered and sat back with my dog in the shade to enjoy the day.
Six hours and three beers later I judged the chicken to be almost ready. The meat had fallen from the bones. Droplets of golden fat had risen to the surface, and I do mean “golden.” Because the rooster had spent his life in the sun chasing after hens and flies, pecking at grass and weeds, and eating ants, bugs, and seeds, he’d taken in a lot of natural carotene. He hadn’t been a fat bird, but what fat he’d had was saffron yellow, and the dark meat was dark like a game-bird’s flesh. I added some pasta shells to the broth, let them cook a bit, and then carefully carried my clay pot into the kitchen. When the stew cooled enough I took out the bones, the bay leaves, and the thyme stems. The meat wasn’t as tender as a mother kissing her baby, but it wasn’t as tough as my pair of Tony Lama rough-out cowboy boots either. Company was coming over so I decided to cut the chicken into small pieces. We gathered around the table and sat down.
After grace was said– me giving thanks to the Lord for giving us this time to share a meal together, and for all we’ve been blessed with etc. etc. – my twelve-year old daughter opened her eyes and stared into the pot.
“Is there pig in that?” she asked.
“Of course not, Lena,” I replied. And here’s where I went wrong. Up until this point I’d been living out the small family farm, local, organic, grass-fed, sustainable gospel; really “walking the walk,” so to speak. “It’s a boiled rooster!”
Lena put a curl to her lip that would have made Elvis patented sulky sneer look like Alfred E. Neuman’s idiot grin. I got the message. Sometimes it’s important to know when to swan in and “talk the talk.” Here’s what I should have said:
“Tonight’s special, Miss, is le Coq a la international.”
And when Lena looked up at me quizzically, I could have hooked her.
“Chef has prepared le coq hearthside over cured Black oak in a terracotta olla from Spanish Table, seamlessly blending Hamburg parsley, Rioja garlic and English thyme with French wine, Welsh leeks, Italian pasta and Greek laurel. Enjoy!”
But it was too late; I’d already called my stew “boiled rooster.” Naturally, there was plenty left over, even though it tasted pretty good. I had some for breakfast, lunch and dinner the next day, and so did Julia. But my stew seemed to grow in the pot. I’d originally made a couple of quarts of chicken stew, but by the third day the stuff filled up a five gallon bucket and was threatening to overwhelm the refrigerator. I decided to share some with my dogs.
Blue got a hefty serving of chicken stew. He’s a big, hard-working, hard-barking livestock guard dog, and his portion of stew disappeared so fast it was as though the whole doggie dish had been sucked down a black hole like a stray photon. Red, on the other hand, is a reflective dog, timid around sheep, and less subject to violent passions, so I had a chance to work on my sales pitch. I wanted to balance my developing kitchen chops with some “front of the house” finesse.
“Hi, darling,” I said to Red. “Today’s special is a rich stew of crispy- crunchy kibble mixed with lots of tasty-licious, roostery goodness.” I set the bowl down with ceremony. When I came back five minutes later Red had finished her meal. She’d polished her bowl, but she still sat peering into it like a lonesome lover gazing down a wishing well. When Red finally looked up, her shining eyes told me that I can cook a rooster for her anytime. Cooking is like that; it’s impossible to please everyone all the time, but when the stars align, cooking brings as much joy and satisfaction to the cook as it does to the diner.
copyright 2009 Andy Griffin
Julia’s new Food Blog Index: each of these is someone I personally know one way or another
A-Z vegetable recipe index
April showers bring May weeds! And one of the fastest growing weeds on my farm is Chenopodium album, or “fat hen,” an exasperating member of the spinach family. But besides any vegetable “fat-hens” that may be found popping up among the rows of vegetables, our farm also hosts any number of actual avian hens.
During the winter months, when the farm is cloaked in nitrogen-fixing cover crops, pheasants take cover under the tall stands of oats, peas and fava beans. Pheasants aren’t native to San Benito County but were introduced into the Hollister Valley back when the land was covered with hay fields so that the ranchers could augment their income by running hunting clubs. Today, many of Hollister’s hay fields are gone, replaced by a scatter of mammoth homes, hobby “ranchettes,” and row-crop vegetable fields, but the feral pheasants remain. As I walk around the farm I can hear the birds calling to each other from their hiding places. Their voices sound like rusty gate hinges grating, but pheasants are beautiful creatures. Their banded, speckled, iridescent plumage provides them with excellent camouflage against soil and amongst the shadows of the grasses; they’ll wait until you almost step on them before they explode into the air with a tremendous flapping of wings.
While clearing pipes from in front of the tractor one morning so that we could plow down the cover crop, our irrigator, Rogelio, found a clutch of pheasant eggs nestled in the grass. Among rural Mexicans, any wild food is esteemed as especially natural and healthful, and so pheasant eggs, like quelites, are reputed to be unusually nutritious. For example, Chenopodium album, the weed we call “fat hen,” is known as “quelite de ceniza” in Spanish and is much appreciated as a flavorful cooking green. Rogelio gathered a cowboy hat full of pheasant eggs to take home and eat and he gave me some to show my children. The nest would have been crushed by the tractor anyway; when the cover crops are turned under the pheasants have to move along. They move into the brush along the banks of Pacheco Creek which runs along the edge of our fields and sometimes make new homes in our artichoke patch. Pheasants occasionally come out of hiding to peck at emergent lettuce sprouts, but they’re not really pests. They eat weed seeds, bugs, snail eggs and ants, just like wild chickens, but there aren’t enough of them to do any lasting damage.
Because artichokes are a perennial crop and the stand remains “standing” in one plot of ground for several seasons, the artichoke patch is an attractive place for birds who seek cover under the big, silvery leaves. When an artichoke plant’s first bud begins to develop in the early spring, it sits atop the nascent flower stalk buried in the basal core of the foliage. One day, as I went through the artichoke patch from plant to plant, peering down inside to see if my artichoke crop was forming, I encountered a little nest full of speckled eggs, perched atop an emergent artichoke. The eggs were tiny; too small for a pheasant to have lain. A quail hen must have thought that the fat artichoke bud made a perfect foundation upon which to build her home and family. But as the artichoke flower stalk rapidly lengthened under the long spring days, her nest was thrust upwards from the comfortable, spiny heart of an artichoke plant ground into the sky. Soon the mother bird was exposed as she sat on her nest, so she fled, leaving her eggs behind. Quail are cute, but they’re stupid, and the hawks, skunks, foxes, bobcats, owls, coyotes and snakes all eat them like popcorn. Sometimes, like pheasants, the quail peck at our crops along the margins of the field, but I don’t feel them as any sort of a threat to production either. Quail eat a lot of ants, which is good, because ants will import aphids and pasture them in a crop in order to milk them of their honeydew, and aphids can be a real pest. In the grand scheme of things, quail are friends to a farmer.
Some birds can be a problem. José called me one day to tell me of a problem we were having with “los patos nalgónes” that were eating a sowing of escarole. I couldn’t imagine what he was talking about; “pato nalgón” literally means “fat-assed duck.” When I got to the field he pointed out an offender- a big brassy Canada goose was hauling its keel out of the pond that lies just over the fence on the southern boundary of the land we lease and heading into our field. The goose was truly making a mess, eating one row of escarole seedlings after another, like a cheapskate at a smorgasbord!
“Don’t just stand there” I said “Chase that pinche @#$%&* ganso out of there!”
José put his hoe down and strolled off, picking up dirt clods. The rest of the crew looked on with interest. The first few clods fell wide of their mark but soon the goose took note of José. The big bird was anything but scared. It reared up on its stumpy black legs, flapped its big wings, and advanced with a swaggering waddle, hissing and waving its long, black, snaky neck. The crew howled with laughter and joined in the dirt clod barrage. The gander retreated back to the pond under heavy fire and sailed off out of sight behind some tules. The crew returned to work, delighted with the diverting scandal and already evolving the story of how José, who studies Asian martial arts on his time off, was almost beaten up by a fat-assed duck.
But the contest wasn’t over. Fifteen minutes later the goose returned- with seven other geese, and all eight of them were aggressively hosing up escarole.
“That goose means war,” I cried. “Attack!” And attack we did, waving hoes and ululating like banshees. The geese took to the air, wheeling above us, slowly gaining altitude. They must have felt smug looking down on us as we shrank into mere barking specks by a puddle’s edge.
“Los patos nalgónes” are a pain in my butt when they choose to touch down and treat the farm as just another Motel 6 and Denny’s Restaurant along their international flyway, but actual ducks cause the us few problems, if any. While I was walking in the potato patch once, I found a duck’s nest tucked away in the leaves, all lined with down, and filled with six eggs of the palest green. Sometimes reporters will use the phrase “feather the nest” when speaking of politicians or corporate pirates who connive to lead lives of luxurious circumstance at the public’s expense. Compared to human raptors that roost in cushy penthouse suites high above Wall Street this feathered duck nest seemed so vulnerable under the open sky. What did I do with the eggs? Nothing. I like to see ducks on the farm, and there is nothing more adorable that a duck hen leading her string of ducklings to the pond for swimming lessons. But as I moved away down the row of potatoes a crow that had been shadowing me flapped over. In minutes the duck eggs were consumed. It made me sad for a moment; sometimes it’s a bird eat bird world out there, and I guess you could say that Mariquita farm is “all fowled up.”
copyright 2009 Andy Griffin || Fat Hen Recipes || A-Z Vegetable Recipes
Andy helps Kelsie Kerr (wonderful chef and caterer who yes, did a lengthy stint at that place in Berkeley) with a cooking class at Cavallo Point: Farmer, Vintner, Chef.
Saturday, April 25th 4:30-8:30pm.$150/head includes meal and wine and of course Andy’s rhetoric!
Dinner in the Field! Saturday, June 20th at High Ground Organics, our Two Small Farms partner farm,to raise funds for their children’s school. In Watsonville at a gorgeous organic farm. $130/head includes farm tour, amazing meal prepared and served in the field by fabulous chef Andrew Cohen. Read More.
The dandelion greens sold in supermarkets are not the same breed of plant as the yellow flowered weeds we see squeezing from between the cracks in sidewalks or smiling up from cemetery lawns. “Dandelion” is a common name that comes to English from the Medieval Latin dens leonis, meaning “lion’s tooth,” and it has been applied without precision to a number of different weedy annual herbs that have jagged edges to their leaves. Scientists recognize over 1200 subspecies of the common parking lot dandelion, which they know as Taraxacum officinale. The word Taraxacum comes from the Greek words taraxos and akos, meaning, respectively “disorder” and “remedy.” Wild dandelions are considered medicinal plants as well as spring salad greens and are used in traditional cultures as a diuretic. The diuretic aspect gave wild dandies one of the more colorful names in culinary botany, pissenlit in French or pissabed in English. In some places, like Italy, tender young Taraxacum officinale dandelions are still gathered from the wild or grown on farms. There they are sold in the markets as “wild chicories,” even when they’re cultivated and even though a botanist will tell you they are not technically chicories. (If you want to pick fights with traditionally minded Italian shoppers over the proper scientific Latin names for their common vegetables or about the arcane details of botanical taxonomy, go ahead, but I won’t be there to back you up!)
The plant usually sold as “dandelion” in the U.S. is related only distantly to the sidewalk dandelion, though both are members of the same sprawling plant family, the Compositae, along with lettuces, artichokes, sunflowers, and thistles. The scientific name for cultivated dandelions is Chicorium intybus. The chicories that we call “dandelions” are more commonly known in Europe as Catalogna chicories, presumably because they were first developed in Catalonia. If allowed to bloom, a Catalan dandelion will show off a multi-branched spray of lovely, sky-blue flowers instead of the solitary yellow flower-head of a pissabed dandy. To make dandelion nomenclature even more complex, there is a vertitable tribe of different kinds of “Catalogna dandelions” within the Chicorium intybus, including some varieties whose leaves are smooth, defying the whole reason for calling them “lion’s teeth” in the first place.
Because dandelion chicories grow well during our cool California winters I grew three kinds this year (see the family portrait). Puntarelle Galantina, the one with the weirdo, swollen coral-like stalk is used for a traditional Roman winter salad, and I grew it for SPQR, a restaurant in San Francisco that has a Roman inspired menu. I also grew another dandelion variety that is also sometimes known as “puntarelle,” the Catalogna Frastigliata, which has the thick, white stems to the leaf, but is otherwise “normal.” I’m told that it is customary in Rome to cut the stems into slivers for the traditional Roman puntarelle salad described below. Julia and I have “done in Watsonville what the Romans do at home” by using a funny looking Roman “knife” used to slice the slender puntarelle leaves that a friend picked up for us in a Roman flea market. (See photo) Can you imagine an America where enough people eat dandelion salad to support flea market vendors that specialize in the appropriate tools? The green part of the Frastigliata leaves can be used as a cooking green, just like the regular “supermarket” dandelion that we see most often in the United States.
The third dandelion that I grew for the “family portrait” is a leafy form of dandy with leaves that entirely lack the toothy edges that gave the plant its common name in the first place. Variety is the spice of life, and here are many other forms of dandelion out there, including a red–stemmed form from Greece that is becoming popular here now because it is colorful and looks nice on a produce rack. The Greek dandelion is pretty, and it tastes just as good as the other forms. To me, all dandelions taste like spring.
copyright 2009 Andy Griffin || Dandelion Recipes
1 head puntarelle: cut the white part into thin strips then plunge into ice water. They should curl up a bit. Leave them in the water while you make the dressing:
Mix together: (I use a small blender jar for this)
2-3 stalks green garlic or 2 cloves garlic, chopped
3 anchovy fillets, rinsed, patted dry
Large pinch of coarse kosher salt
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Dress the puntarelle curly sticks.
Julia was away with Graydon to visit Great Grandma Marie, leaving me at home with Lena. It was a Sunday— a clear, bright, winter day with the farm shut down and no chores to take care of— and I thought it would be fun if she and I had a little picnic. We wouldn’t need to go anywhere, except to the store for some chips, soda-pop and hotdogs, because we have a canyon on our property with redwood trees, and at the bottom of the gulch there’s a perfect little spot.
Lena and I went to the market in nearby Corralitos, and then I gathered up some tools. I brought loppers to cut any twigs of poison oak away from the trail, and a pair of pruning shears so that Lena could clip any brush away from the picnic site. I also brought a rake, a mattock, and a shovel, so that I could dig a fire pit, and sweep the area free from sticks and leaves. Lena hauled the picnic goodies, and I hauled the tools. In five minutes we were at the bottom of the canyon and in the middle of the fairy ring.
The blackened remains of the stump of the original mother redwood tree were still in the middle of the ring. That’s the pattern—the original redwood tree is cut down or burns down, then new saplings shoot up in a ring from the roots of the stump. Redwoods do not always sprout readily from seeds. Since any redwood groves that are accessible have usually been logged at least once, almost all the large redwood trees we ever see are re-growth, and many are often found growing in some semblance of a ring. This vegetative form of self-propagation was true in the redwood groves even before settlers started to chop down the old-growth forests.
The first redwood trees that the Spaniards encountered during Portola’s expedition in 1769 were growing near the site of our home ranch in the Pajaro Valley. These ancient redwood trees measured thirteen feet in diameter and were the largest, tallest, straightest trees the Spaniards had ever seen. Portola’s men encountered old-growth fairy rings grown out around once fallen, now decomposed Redwood giants, and in those places the rings of massive redwood trunks seemed to surround the central clearing like palisades. The Spanish soldiers needed to rest, so they pastured their horses in the middle of these fairy rings and called the area “Corralitos,” which means “little corrals.”
I dug a pit in the thick duff of fallen redwood leaves. There hadn’t been any rain for weeks, but the soil was damp. We swept an area clean and built a small fire. Lena and I fed the fire with the sticks that she gathered from around the area, and when there were coals in the fire pit I cooked the hotdogs in a little cast iron skillet. We enjoyed the hotdogs, which we never have if Julia is around (All-beef, from the Corralitos Market. They also make great sausages in-house.) We crunched our chips, (also normally verboten junk food) and we swigged our soda drinks (suspect, but allowed under party circumstances).
When our meal was over, Lena and I lay on our backs and gazed up into the redwoods. The canyon is so deep and the redwoods tower so high, that being inside the fairy ring is like visiting a primeval world. I told Lena about how her great-grandma, Anna, and her great grandpa, Graydon, got married underneath these redwood trees in 1918. Anna and Graydon were poor and couldn’t afford a church wedding. Besides, picking the right church was difficult since they were from different religions— Anna being a Lutheran, and Graydon a Baptist!
“Don’t you think we should stretch a hose down from the house to put out the campfire?” Lena asked when we were getting ready to go.
“Nah,” I replied. “The soil is wet, and besides, I’m going to put out the coals with shovelfuls of dirt.”
I sent her home, and I stayed to extinguish the coals. I heaped dirt into the fire pit until there was no smoke and then stayed for a while by myself, thinking. The last time the redwoods on our property were cut down was in 1907 when the rebuilding of San Francisco after the earthquake and fire of 1906 made for a hot lumber market. But my grandparents weren’t married under saplings, so maybe these trees are re-growth from the first timber harvest of 1868. That would account for their great size.
Then again, these redwoods could even have been cut down the first time even earlier. In 1827 this land was part of the original Rancho Corralitos, granted to Don José Amesti, a Spaniard Basque, by Mexican Emperor Iturbide. Don Amesti built a saw mill in the 1830s and leased parts of his ranch to timber harvesters, so these trees could have been cut down for the first time even earlier.
I read that Don Amesti had three daughters, and one of them was nick-named “Mariquita,” or “ladybug.” When the Americans came, many of the Mexican rancheros were unable to defend their land patents in court because they couldn’t produce the original paperwork signed by the Spanish or Mexican authorities. Maybe the deeds had been destroyed in fires or lost through accident, or by negligence. Sometimes the rancheros “fell off their horses” and broke their necks on their way to their hearings, and the relevant documents blew away like pieces of garbage. Apparently the Amesti heirs were able to successfully defend their claims to the land twice.
The next day, around one in the afternoon, I was padding around in the kitchen in my rubber chef’s clogs, helping Lena with her homework. She’d discovered the old slate that my grandmother used for her school work back in 1905, and wanted to do her homework on it. I reminded her that it was a family heirloom, and that she should treat it with care. Then Manny came running to the kitchen window and pointed. Looking up I could see a great plume of smoke rising beyond the field. The donkeys and goats were bolting for the high ground— they’re not stupid. I tore out of the house.
The fire in the canyon was spreading quickly. Flames licked up through the dried leaves of the brush and wrapped around tree trunks. The hill is so steep that the rising heat was igniting leaves on the ground well ahead of the flames. The smoke was thick.
“Should I connect some hoses and get some water down here?” yelled out Manny over the flames.
“No,” I yelled back. “There’s no time. We have to stop the flames before they get to the eucalyptus.”
Indeed, up the hill is a grove of eucalyptus that my great grandfather planted in the ‘20s. The native redwood trees have evolved within the challenges of fire ecology; their bark burns slowly, the damp needles smolder. But the eucalyptus trees that were introduced from Australia burn like gasoline, and they carpet the forest floor with flammable leaves and bark. I ran uphill through the flames and started to cut a fire line with the mattock. The smoke was searing. It would’ve been smarter to dial 911 on the cell phone. Sometimes singed pride hurts worse than charred flesh.
Manny, his brother, Miguel, and I flailed at the flames like demons. In twenty minutes we stopped the advance of the flames, so we went back to beat out isolated hot spots. I was ripping on adrenalin, but reason began to assert itself. Obviously I had not put the fire out after the picnic with Lena. It must have burned underground all night. Much of what had been burning was poison oak brush, and I’d inhaled a lot of smoke. It dawned on me that my rubber clogs were no protection against coals and could even melt onto my feet.
I sent Manny to string some hoses together and bring water. Miguel kept working on the fire line, since this fire was still burning underground where we couldn’t see it. I threw dirt on glowing logs. Eventually Manny showed up with a garden hose. It had taken him a while to find and connect the dozen or so loose hose we had scattered around the property. With his thumb, he tried to guide the flow at a flame. The hose pissed out a tepid stream of water. I grabbed the hose. I couldn’t increase the pressure, but because I’m the tallest person on the farm, I was the one to try and spray down the little blazes that were still going up high in the crotches of trees.
I had a hold of the hose when the loose duff beneath my feet gave way and I went skidding down the hill on my butt through the smoking leaves and coals. The eucalyptus trees up the hill had rained down hard little, oily nuts for years, which had been baking in the fire, and which now began rolling inside my pants and catching in the crotch. Great Balls of Fire! It was exciting! Even though the afternoon had been no laughing matter, Miguel had to grin when he saw me stuff the hose down my pants and hold it there until the water ran out my pants leg.
I’d been gone from the house for a couple of hours now, and Lena was worried. The flames had died down and the smoke had dissipated when I looked up and saw Lena stepping gingerly down the trail into the forest up the slope from me.
“Get out of here, Lena” I yelled. “It’s still dangerous.”
Even as I yelled a slight breath of breeze caused the black cinders on a charred trunk of eucalyptus to glow with new life. There were pits in the ground where rotten logs had burned to ashes and left a nest of coals. But Lena doesn’t scare easily.
“Was I right, Papa?” she called out.
“Go home, Lena. You could get burned!”
“But was I right, Papa?” she repeated.
I’ll never live this one down.
“Yes Lena. You were right Now, go!”
So Lena turned and made her way back up the hill, happy that her papa was all right.
The Indians used to burn these woods in the winter to keep the country side open for acorn gathering and game hunting. If I’d planned the fire, gotten a permit and taken precautions, burning the canyon would have been a wise move. As it is, I remember my grandmother saying, “God has mercy on idiots and children.” I’m no child. At least I’m alive. But maybe Julia is right when she says hot dogs are no good for my health.
Copyright 2009 Andy Griffin
Photos taken by Andy today, March 17th, 2009:
#1) Lena at the gate to the fairy ring, two years after this story takes place.
#2 Lena standing by one of the very few old growth trees left in the canyon by the earliest loggers.
Vegetable Recipes A – Z
It’s only the beginning of March and a few of my customers are already thinking about summer. “When are you going to have tomatoes?” they ask. We’ve only just planted the seeds in the greenhouse and they haven’t even germinated yet, so it’s too soon for me to begin counting the crates. Of course I could grow hot house tomatoes and be in the middle of my harvest season right now. I’ve done that before. But over the years I’ve changed my ideas about how I should farm, and for the last ten years I’ve followed the same schedule for tomatoes; we sow seeds in early February, transplant the seedlings into the field after the 15th of April when we can reasonably assume that the frost is done for the year, and then we start harvesting at the beginning of August. This production schedule is relatively safe and predictable. I’m no gambler, not in Vegas, not on an Indian Reservation, and not in the field. Other farms often have tomatoes for sale before I do but I won’t do anything special to speed the harvest up. When it comes to tomatoes my philosophy is “Better late than never.”
In 1993, when I farmed with my friend, Greg, we tried to have an early tomato crop by transplanting into the field in early March and protecting the tomatoes from the rain, wind, hail and frost by putting hoops of PVC pipe over the rows and covering them with plastic sheeting. The plastic had slits for ventilation. Results were mixed. The hoop houses were expensive and time-consuming to build. The plastic film caught the raw spring wind like a sail, and we had to anchor the hoop houses to earth during and after every storm. Despite the ventilating slits, conditions inside the hoop houses were moist and breezeless, so we had problems with fungal attack. We had an early tomato harvest that year, and we were able to get a premium price from impatient farmers’ market customers (briefly) for our first crop, but we also had a depressing mess of dirty, torn plastic to throw away in the dump at the end of the summer. I won’t do that again.
In mid-January of 1994 Greg and I went to Mexico to look into growing organic tomatoes for the early market. Our fields in Hollister were waterlogged and the sky was gray when we crossed Pacheco Pass and turned south on I-5. Down in Huron and Five Points on the west side of the San Joaquin the skies were still heavy, but the empty fields were dry. That evening, in the low hills outside of San Diego, we saw tractors preparing ground for the first stateside tomato plantings of the New Year.
At dawn the next day, on the outskirts of Maneadero, south of Ensenada, we saw the first tomato plants in the ground, but they were small, only six inches tall. Farther south down Mexican Highway 1, in the San Quintin Valley, we saw fields of knee-high tomatoes, but they weren’t in flower. Gangs of workers walked the rows stabbing crooked sticks into the ground to serve as tomato stakes, and other men followed behind unspooling twine and tying the plants up. We jumped back in the truck. Colonet, Camalu, and Colonia Guerrero slipped past; more dusty tomato fields, garbage blowing in the wind, and the occasional rooster strutting down the centerline of the highway, challenging fate and traffic.
Past Rosario the highway turns inland and enters the clean, open desert. We drove south. It wasn’t until we crossed the Tropic of Cancer outside of Todos Santos in the State of Baja California Sur, nine hundred miles later and almost 1,400 miles south of Hollister, that we saw the first red tomatoes hanging on the vine. Land was for sale. Greg found a ranch, a thirty hectare field crisscrossed with power lines and watered with an irrigation canal and a well. He bought the land, and I helped him set the farm up. I was proud of the label I dreamed up– Star of Baja– a tomato in the sky like a sun shining over a desert landscape with the star-shaped calyx on its face.
America has an enormous appetite for winter tomatoes but the vegetables that make good rotational crops are not in demand, so Mexican farmers grow tomatoes year after year in the same fields. This means the soil-born pathogens that affect tomato production multiply until the soil is so contaminated that it has to be sterilized with Methyl bromide to be usable at all. Greg’s land had been fallow, and the soil was clean and alive, but tropical pests like leaf miner were alive too. The business of farming starts with knowing the market, but good agricultural practices take into account what the land can do naturally. A business with a truly organic perspective meets its challenges by growing solutions from the ground up, not mandating results from the top down. Greg and I had a lot of learning to do.
Doing business in Mexico wasn’t easy. There weren’t ready sources for organic fertilizers, packaging materials, or farm equipment. There were farm supply stores, but they couldn’t afford to maintain an inventory of even the most obvious items, like drip tape, PVC pipe fittings, or aluminum gate valves. We could order what we needed, but delivery dates were uncertain, and some things might not arrive at all, so we had to ship most of what we needed down from Alta California. Because Baja is a tourist destination there are plenty of jets flying out of San Jose del Cabo, and you’d imagine it would be simple to book freight to any number of American cities, but the Mexican Airlines were indifferent to the notion of hauling cargo, and US carriers were over-booked.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about farming in Mexico was the labor situation. Greg and I had imagined that since so many Mexicans come to the United States to work that if we went to Mexico we’d have a ready, local labor pool to draw from. But Baja Californians don’t want to work on farms any more than Alta Californians do. I saw lines of workers alongside the highway before dawn, shuffling off to get a day’s work done in the fields before the temperatures got hellish, but they were migrant Oaxacans from Southern Mexico where prevailing wages were only five dollars a day. Employers in Baja paid as much as seven dollars a day, so people came north to work, hoping to save enough money to buy their way across the international border into the land of seven dollars an hour. The Oaxacans lived in a squalid camp in the middle of the desert. Their huts were roofed with dried palm leaves, pieces of cardboard, and scraps of galvanized iron sheeting. There was a single rusty pipe and a water tap that dribbled.
Mexico had plenty of arcane regulations for companies to comply with, but enforcement of the labor code managed to be both lax and arbitrary at the same time. The same officials who threatened dire consequences to any employer who disrespected the dignity of the workers freely handed out the business cards of lawyers that could “pre-solve” labor problems. The contrast between the hard working Oaxacan tomato pickers and the narcotic torpor of the authorities was stark. There are good companies doing good work in Mexico, and if it wasn’t for export business a lot of poor Mexicans would have no work at all, but I found growing off-season tomatoes in Mexico to be a depressing affair, and I was glad that it wasn’t my business.
Then, during 1996 and 1997, Greg and I grew organic winter tomatoes in a hot house here in California. This was an interesting project too, but even then energy costs were prohibitive. Greg and I went our separate ways after that and as I watch fuel prices fluctuate wildly I’m glad that when Julia and I started Mariquita Farm in 1998 I didn’t continue indoor tomato production. I had to try everything else first, but I’ve decided to plant tomatoes outside when the soil is warm, let the sun coax the fruit to ripeness, and deliver the harvest to my neighbors in its own time.
“Well, finally,” you might say.
But I say, “Hey, better late than never!”
copyright 2008 Andy Griffin