Letters From Andy
Let Them Eat Snake
My mother feels that I’m too hard on my children, so when they visit her she likes to spoil them.
“Would you like a piece of chocolate?” she asked Lena one evening.
Lena was watching Loony Toons. “Is it Sharffenberger?” she asked over her shoulder.
I got a phone call about that. But what could I say? I’m a farmer. Many of my friends are farmers, or they have restaurants, or they take cooking seriously, or they have beautiful gardens. For better or worse, My wife and I are surrounded by great food. By the time Lena was seven she was personally acquainted with three chocolate makers. On the “worse” side of the equation, our children have to eat a lot of weird food-like salad.
“I’m not hungry,” Lena says, stirring her salad with her fork.
If I get flack from the kids because I’ve used a light vinaigrette that brings out the flavors of the lettuces, rather than a ranch dressing that cloaks them, I retaliate by telling a story.
“When I was a kid,” I start. “salad was a wedge of iceberg and a pink tomato.”
My son, Graydon, has learned to lay low in such circumstances, but Lena loves combat. She bugs her eyes out and gasps, “Must…must get…must get air.”
Her cynical riposte demands an escalation of rhetoric on my part. I grew up on the Hastings Reserve, a biological field station in the Santa Lucia Mountains managed by the University Of California in Berkeley, so my “when I was a kid” stories can get scientific.
“When I was a kid,” I continue, “I knew a parasitologist who trapped ground squirrels in order to count and examine any flukes residing in their livers. In order to make his research reach a little farther, he’d stew the squirrels up and eat them, once he’d removed the relevant organs.”
Lena is rendered temporarily speechless. Maybe she’s counting the days until she’s eighteen. When Julia and I struggle to get supper on the table for our kids at the end of a long day, and they reject it, I ask myself how, year after year, my parents cooked for my sister and me.
One way, of course, was convenience-my parents weren’t burdened with the ideology Julia and I have adopted of making home-cooked meals with fresh ingredients from producers we know and trust. We had dinner when I was growing up, not cuisine. The meat loaf was sauced with ketchup, the hamburger got “help” from a packet purchased from Safeway, and the chicken wasn’t an heirloom breed, it wasn’t brined, or free range- it was just baked. My parents didn’t cook with passion, but they cooked every day whether they wanted to or not, and I understand now that they cooked with love.
“Sick!” Lena has found her voice. “You’re just sick!”
“He shared his rodents with me,” I continue, ” and what I remember most, besides the bags of frozen squirrels in his ice box, with manila data tags dangling from their curled toes, recording the dates, times, and locations of capture, was spitting out bones. Bones, bones, and more bones.
“Completely, totally, absolutely gross!”
“The squirrels I ate at the parasitologist’s table were tastier, and tenderer that the rattlesnakes I ate with the herpetologist though.”
“Maybe the rattlers should have been brined.”
Observing with delight his sister’s discomfort with the salad and the conversation, Graydon asks for seconds on both.
“Can I have more salad? And please, tell us another story, Pappa.”
“Well, man cannot live off of meat alone. There was one post-graduate I grew up with, Dr. Michael MacRoberts, who studied the social habits of the California Acorn Woodpecker. The problem with eating acorns is that they’re very tannic when fresh. The Esselen Indians solved this problem by cracking the acorns and putting them in a woven basket in a fast moving creek to leach for a few weeks. Then they’d dry them and make flour. But there was no water in the creek when Michael was hungry and the acorns were ripe. So do you know what he did.?”
“Do we have to know?” Lena asks.
“He filled a plastic mesh bag with acorns and suspended it in the reservoir tank at the back of the toilet. That way, every time the toilet was flushed the tank was drained, and the water that had become infused with tannins was swept away. It wasn’t a babbling brook, but it worked. After several weeks of soaking I helped him grind the acorns, and we made gruel.”
“Maybe this salad should soak in the toilet,” Lena says.
Dinner conversation is going down hill fast, and I can tell I’ve taken my stories to far. I shut up, but I can’t stop remembering.
The field station where we lived was remote, the better for all the wild animals to go about their natural business uninhibited by the public, as scientists peered at them through spotting scopes, made notes about their various manners of sexual congress, or analyzed their feces, their feeding patterns, and their social structures. My father was a botanist, so he had only had to walk out the door of our home and he was at work in the middle of his living laboratory, with the wild hills and fields surrounding him. But my mom was a school teacher, and she had to get up at 5:30 AM and commute to Salinas, where she taught, thirty miles away. When she came home at 5:30 PM, mom had to cook for the family. Myfather deserves credit; as often as not, he cooked the meal.
Every once in a while my father’s boss, Dr. Frank Pitelka, would visit the reserve to inspect the work going on, and while he was there he would stay at our home. Dr. Pitelka was an erudite gentleman and when he was “at table” he liked to talk about food. It was the early seventies. Dr. Pitelka would sit down for dinner, look at the salad my mom had prepared, and begin to wax misty-eyed about this “charming little place on upper Shattuck called Chez Panisse, where they serve the most delicious mesclun salads.”
I know now that the word mesclun, the name of Dr. Pitelka’s favorite salad, comes from the Vulgar Latin verb misculare, meaning to mix thoroughly. I didn’t learn that at table. In between bites of shredded iceberg Dr. Pitelka only said that mesclun salad was a perfectly balanced mix of tastes, textures, and colors. In distant Berkeley, within the confines of what journalists would one day come to call the “Gourmet Ghetto” these perfect little salads were causing quite a stir. Mesclun salad remained an abstract notion for me until I was in college myself, at the University Of California in Davis.
I got a summer job on a farm on Garden Highway, north of Sacramento, owned by a fellow named John Hudspeth who worked at Chez Panisse restaurant.
On John’s farm I learned first hand about a world of lettuces I’d never heard of before like Merveille de Quatre Saissons, Rouge d’Hiver and Lollo Rossa. We even grew a lettuce named La Reins de Glace, from the French for “Ice Queen”, which can fairly be described as an iceberg lettuce that speaks French. But exotic salad greens weren’t the only crops John introduced me to. We grew an atlas of crops for Chez Panisse, from Sicilian purple artichokes, Black Spanish radish and French Breakfast radishes to Florentine Fennel, Lebanese squash and Hamburg parsley. I’m a horse that was led to water and drank. I’m still growing these crops thirty years later.
I was still working at John’s farm on Garden Highway when I visited my parents one Labor Day weekend. Dr. Pitelka was “at table.” Mom had prepared spaghetti and meat balls, with cantaloupe wedges for desert. Frank started in about “this perfect little French restaurant on upper Shattuck where the very ripest, most flawless Charentais melons are paired with prosciutto.” I cut him off.
“Chez Panisse doesn’t get the very best Charentais melons,” I said.
“Have you ever eaten at Chez Panisse, young man?” he asked.
“No, I haven’t,” I replied, “but I work on a garden that supplies them, and when I see the very best Charentais melon, a melon that is beyond compare in the beauty of its form and the succulence and scent of its flesh, since I’m only a farm worker and I can’t afford to eat at Chez, I cut that melon open, and I pop the slices in my mouth until the juice runs down my chin.”
Years later, my mother thanked me for those comments.
copyright 2007 Andy Griffin
Salad Dressing Recipes: Since Andy wrote about salad, I thought I’d pass on two of my favorite salad dressing recipes from two of my friends. -julia
Honey Mustard Cilantro Dressing
recipe by Chef Andrew Cohen
1C cilantro stems
1/4 C water
1/4 lime juice(or lime/lemon or lemon)
1/4 C honey
1/4 dijon mustard
salt and pepper to taste
1 small clove of garlic peeled(optional)
Puree in blender til smooth, then through opening in top add olive oil slowly until the hole at the center of the dressing disappears. This is usually the proper amount of oil for a properly emulsified vinaigrette.
Options: use some cayenne powder to heat it up. Use 3:1 basil to flat leaf parsley instead of cilantro and use red wine vinegar instead of citrus juice.
Creamy Salad Dressing
from Full Moon Feast by Jessica Prentice
you can make this a blue cheese dressing by adding 1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese to it before tossing the salad
1/4 cup creme fraiche
1 egg yolk (optional)
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon vinegar (white wine or apple)
generous pinch of salt
fresh ground pepper to taste
In a large bowl, whisk the creme fraiche into the egg yolk, and then whisk in the olive oil. Add them vinegar, salt and pepper. Put the cleaned lettuce leaves directly into the bowl and toss before serving.
“My salad days,” Cleopatra said, recalling her youthful tryst with Caesar, “When I was green in Judgement.” At least that’s how Shakespeare wrote the story. We’ve all got regrets about our salad days. In his book, Jeremiah Tower Cooks, celebrity chef Jeremiah Tower writes, “In the early 1970s at Chez Panisse, I smuggled in seeds from France and had them grown for us, little edible greens and wild greens to make a mix of various leaves….. The concept, now ubiquitous and misunderstood, is one of the major culinary sins that can be laid at my feet.”
I’m not quoting the lamentations of Jeremiah because I believe that he’s “responsible” for either the ubiquity or the mediocrity of processed salad mixes—let’s call this statement an example of “Towering” hyperbole. But I do find Mr. Tower’s assertion interesting, because out of all of the competing claims that I’ve heard over the year by individuals who claim to have “invented” baby salad greens, Mr. Tower is the only one I’ve found who regrets his role, and I find this stance refreshing and provocative.
Now that the largest organic farms are owned by the largest conventional food producers, and organic practices are embraced by farmers of all stripes because they are cost effective and practical, it’s a good time to think back to the “salad days” organic farming. Mesclun salad was a very important product in the development of the organic produce business. The first self-described organic farmers supplied the nascent natural food market with organic alternatives to conventionally grown crops, like organic potatoes, organic tomatoes, organic corn, etc. But once salads of mixed baby greens became available from organic producers everything changed. For several years there were practically no conventionally grown salads in the marketplace competing in the mesclun category at all, so the sudden popularity of baby lettuce salads gave the organic sector a credibility and a profitability earlier than would have otherwise been possible.
The early identification between “organic” and “baby mixed salad greens” was so complete, that now, years after conventionally produced mesclun salads entered the market, I still occasionally hear people talk as though all baby salad green are organic, just because they’re made of baby mixed greens For many consumers the convenience and flavor of baby mixed greens made the premixed salad the first organic crop they ever bought. It’s almost as if mesclun, which was commonly mispronounced as “mescaline”, as if it were the psychotropic alkaloid derived from the peyote cactus, was the entry drug for square shoppers, and heavier crops, like organic meats, came later.
When I was a kid salad meant a wedge of iceberg with a slice of pink tomato and a blob of ranch dressing. I grew up in the hills to the south of Soledad on the Hastings Reserve, which is a biological field station managed by the Museum Of Vertebrate Zoology at the University Of California in Berkeley. Every once in a while my father’s boss, Dr. Frank Pitelka, would visit the reserve and stay at our home. Dr. Pitelka was an erudite and worldly gentleman (read snob) and when he was “at table” he liked to talk about food. It was the early seventies. Dr. Pitelka would sit down for dinner, look at the salad my mom had prepared, and begin to wax misty eyed about this “charming little place on upper Shattuck in Berkeley called Chez Panisse, where they serve the most delicious mesclun salads.”
I know now that the word mesclun comes from the Vulgar Latin verb misculare, meaning to mix thoroughly. Originally mesclun salads were made by farmers, and their seasonably variable composition perfectly reflected a peasant’s “waste not, want not” ethic. The baby lettuce leaves were the young leaves thinned from the rows of lettuces in the cottage garden that were destined to be grown to full size, and the lettuces were augmented with chicories and herbs and edible flowers, like arugula, borage, or cress, which were gathered from the fields beyond the garden gate, where they could be found growing wild in forest and pastures and boggy areas, or sprouting out of rock walls.
Dr. Pitelka didn’t tell me any of this. He said that mesclun salad was a perfectly balanced mix of tastes, textures, and colors. In Berkeley, within the confines of what journalists would one day come to call the “Gourmet Ghetto,” these perfect little salads were causing quite a stir. Salads of baby mixed greens, or the idea of a restaurant as a phenomenon remained abstract notions for me until I was in college myself, at the University Of California in Davis. I got a summer job on a French Intensive Biodynamic farm on Garden Highway, north of Sacramento, owned by a fellow named John Hudspeth who worked at Chez Panisse restaurant.
It was 1979. Jeremiah Tower, who’d once smuggled the exotic mesclun seeds into the U.S., had already left Chez Panisse, but the restaurant was still working to develop local sources for the best ingredients. When there were no local sources for a particular item, Chez Panisse took a leadership role in subsidizing the efforts of gardeners who were willing to try. The farm on Garden Highway was only one of a number of garden projects with a direct link to the restaurant On John’s farm I learned first hand about a world of lettuces I’d never heard of before like Merveille de Quatre Saissons, Rouge d’Hiver and Lollo Rossa. We even grew a lettuce named La Reins de Glace, from the French for “Ice Queen”, which can fairly be described as an iceberg lettuce that speaks French.
Salad greens weren’t the only crops we grew at the farm on Garden Highway, but they were the most salable. We grew hundreds of kinds of crops from purple artichokes to valerian root, but much of what we grew was never harvested or sold. We weren’t peasants, the people who ate at Chez Panisse weren’t peasants, and certainly John Hudspeth, was no peasant; he was a rich party-boy. The first year I worked for John I was told that the farm lost twenty thousand dollars. The second year I was told it lost twenty six thousand dollars. It was clear that all the money the fields generated was being spent painting the fences white and garnishing John’s porno-Provencal lifestyle. It seemed to me that if a person approached organic farming with a production ethic it would be possible to make some real money.
I smile now when I think of the conventional vegetable growers and County Agricultural Agents that I met in the 1970’s who were so dismissive and hostile to the idea of organic farming that they prompted me, and lots of my peers, to keep on trying to make it past our failures just so we could stick our thumbs in their eyes. It soon became apparent that the baby lettuces we were growing for the mesclun salads were perfectly adapted for the sort of small, profitable farms we were trying to create.
Baby lettuces were a quick crop to produce, so the first payoff came quickly for undercapitalized, start-up farmers, and there were many potential crops per season. The oddball import french lettuces that “hippies” like me were growing could be harvested at a young stage, so the tip burn damage that’s always threatens the heart of a of mature lettuce during summer hot spells wasn’t a problem, and the harvest of baby lettuces could be easily cooled for local sales in a horse trough full of clean, cool water. Pest insects didn’t have as long to find the baby lettuce crop and destroy it before harvest the way they did with the full-sized lettuces. Baby lettuces were tolerant of a wide range of environmental conditions, suffered only a minimal amount of disease pressure, and above all, they commanded a premium price from sophisticated customers who were proud to pay.
By contrast, iceberg lettuce needs along the narrow to be grown along the coastal fringe of California where the foggy weather and marine influence provides the iceberg lettuce plant with the cool conditions it needs to achieve it best, most commercial, quality. Because arable land along the coast is limited, land and rent costs are high. And to handle iceberg lettuce successfully after harvest meant you needed to be linked with the huge forced air coolers necessary for chilling the lettuce down to its core for maximum shelf life. Because iceberg lettuce was already an industrial commodity, successfully selling iceberg lettuce meant having established relationships with the large shippers. No hippies allowed!
The fact that conventional lettuce growers didn’t follow sustainable farming practices meant that after years of mono-culture production they had ferocious soil born disease issues to contend with like sclerotinia. When commercial growers said that it wasn’t possible to grow lettuce organically, what they really meant was that THEY couldn’t grow iceberg lettuce organically. The Titans of the fresh produce business didn’t mingle with the chefs who were jaded on iceberg either, so that they had no idea about how to market specialty lettuces. For the big boys in Salinas, iceberg WAS lettuce, and the full sized heads of red leaf -greenleaf-butter-romaine- lettuces passed for specialty lettuces. The heirloom varieties of lettuces that restaurants like Chez Panisse were at best considered a novelty, and at worst a joke, and the people who paid high prices for them were fruitcakes or chumps.
The first customers for baby greens were restauranteurs who were passionate about a return to seasonal values and they made their salads to order. But the market for mesclun salads soon grew beyond the needs of a handful of restaurants and began customers among the restaurant patrons who wanted to make these salads on their own at home. For the convenience of the public, so that a rabbity mesclun consumer wouldn’t have to buy separate heads of half a dozen different baby lettuces, plus a head of chicory, a bunch of arugula etc. the farmers began washing and mixing the salads on the farm and selling the blended greens to the public for a high price.
Consumers swarmed the farmers markets to get the salads they couldn’t find in supermarkets. For the small farms the mesclun boom was a bonanza. But because the salad fad had sprouted in alleys of Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto it was also politically suspect. Mesclun, the one time peasant salad inspired by thrift had become upscale fodder for foodies. “Yuppie chow,” sniffed puritan minded, sourpuss lefties. Real proletarians didn’t eat babies. On the right, the old guard of Salinas scowled at the specter of dirty longhairs selling foreign weeds. I was in the middle, and having finally begun making a modest living as an organic salad grower after years in the fields, those were funny times.
As the numbers of farms making salad green increased growers sought to distinguish them selves from each other by increasing the number of ingredients. Isn’t more always better? Customers who weren’t confined to a Mediterranean palate began asking for something different in their salad mixes, hence the introduction of tat-soi, mizuna, and Japanese red mustard. The charm of the tat-soi was a deep green, spatulate leaf that contrasted nicely with the lighter green of the lettuce. Mizuna’s spiky, serrated leaves stood out in sharp contrast to the other salad green, and the Japanese red mustard had leaves that were purple on one side and green on the other. Because we were farmers producing for consumers, not peasants plucking greens from our gardens for subsistence, visual effects that would increase the eye appeal for consumers inevitably took precedence over any notions of a balance of flavors.
At Riverside Farms, where I worked as a managing partner in charge of the salad harvest, we employed over two hundred full time cutters, with twenty more employees mixing salads in the refrigerated packing sheds. Sales climbed from 300 pounds a day to over 30,000 pounds a day. The gourmet ghetto couldn’t consume that much mesclun. We shipped the stuff to New York, Chicago, Boston, Miami and Dallas by the jet load, and so did our competitors. As the sales of pre-washed baby salads took a bite out of iceberg’s market share the large farming corporations from Salinas jumped into the salad game, and they brought their economies of scale with them. The price for salad greens began to go down as the supply increased. Isn’t bigger always better?
A different aesthetic went blending the salads compared to the early days—call it a “production aesthetic”. Mizuna picks quickly so a lot of mizuna found its way into mesclun. Chicory frisee can be harvested in advance, hydro-cooled, and then torn into the mix as needed, so it became an essential ingredient. Bitter radicchio had always been a potential ingredient in seasonal mesclun, but since its brilliant purple leaves help a salad mix sparkle in a plastic bag, and since radicchio is heavy and can be held in cold storage for a long time after harvest, consumers began to find more and more of it in their salads.
Food service giants like Sysco, and Markon, Ready Pac began to compete for the institutional market. The big buyers demanded year around supply, so farms started up winter mesclun production in the low desert valleys and in Mexico. If one salesmen promised the corporate customer “14 different ingredients year round” the competing sales manager offered “16 different kinds of leaves in every bag,” so the lawyers began writing ingredients like baby Red Russian kale into the supply contracts the industrial salad packers made with their growers. Isn’t more always merrier? The constraints of shipping meant that salads needed to last up to twenty days in refrigeration, so a lot of chlorine went into the chilled wash water to eliminate bacteria. The complex chemistry behind successfully embalming baby mixed greens in sealed plastic bags created new restrictions for the recipe of mesclun which put a premium on tough little leaves that could take a lot of handling.
“You buy mesclun and it has bloody kale leaves in it,” thundered Jeremiah Tower in a New York Times interview of April 18, 2001. “What is the most disgusting thing you can eat? It’s a baby kale leaf. Even the cows hate it.” Jeremiah’s right, of course, and I say that as a person that went from picking salad greens in a garden by hand with a few other long-hairs for Chez Panisse back in 1979 to managing hundreds Mexican farm workers on an industrial plantation in 1995 . Yes, at times we made salads with too much mizuna, too much radicchio, and too much baby red Russian kale. But our salads tasted like success and we shipped thousands of cartons of them every day to wholesale buyers all over the America. Thanks to the efforts of a lot of people the simple salad of mixed baby greens that took its cue from the seasons and the native thrift of the Provencal peasantry had been warped into a standardized U.S. commodity.
There’s a tang of irony to Jeremiah Tower’s chagrin over his salad days because in his book California Dish, Mr. Tower also takes credit for the invention of the concept of “California cuisine” The mass produced salads Jeremiah abhors are no longer European, even if the seeds for the lettuces are still imported from France. Whether you enjoy them or not, the bagged salads of mixed baby greens with lettuces, arugula, mizuna, tatsoi and radicchio, are Californian in the purest sense. They are mass produced by huge farms, and California has always been the land of the large scale enterprise. The mixed salads are produced year around without respect for the seasons, and California has been at the forefront of the effort to convince people that we can have an endless summer. The typical industry name for mesclun became “spring mix,” because California worships the freshness of youth. Salad mix is mechanically harvested now to reduce labor costs, and then triple washed in stainless steel factories, before being merchandised nationally using gauzy images of nature and flowers and little farm girls. Pure Hollywood, California uber alles.
In 1996 my partners and I sold the farming corporation that I worked for to one of the biggest Salinas vegetable producers. There was a non-competition clause in the sales contract, and I was pleased to sign it. I had no wish to compete with Salinas any longer. In the space of sixteen years I’d gone from being a farm worker to being a field manager, and finally to being an owner and corporate vice president sitting behind a desk. And I’d grown to dread my job. The non-compete clause would prompt me to start out small again, and the money from the sale would allow me to start a new farm so that I could do things my way, whatever that would be.
As I sat with my partners and the lawyers and signed page after page of documents I thought back to the days when I was just starting out on my organic adventure, fresh with enthusiasm and green of judgement. I was still working at the farm on Garden Highway when I visited my parents one day. Dr. Pitelka was “at table” at their house. Mom had cantaloupe wedges for desert. When Frank went off again about “this perfect little French restaurant where the Charentais melon paired with prosciutto was so divine.” I cut him off.
“They don’t get the very best Charentais melons,” I said.
“Have you ever eaten at Chez Pannise, young man?” he asked.
“No, I haven’t,” I replied, “but I work on a garden that supplies them, and when I see the very best melon, a melon that is beyond compare, in the beauty of its form and the succulence and scent of its flesh, since I’m only a farm worker and I know I can’t afford to eat at Chez, I cut that Charentais open and pop the slices in my mouth until the juice runs down my chin.”
What would Pitelka say about the state of mesclun salad if he were alive today? Yuppie chow no more, baby mixed salad greens can be found at McDonalds. If there’s anything original left about the salads of today that we can trace back to Provence it’s that once again small, fresh lettuce and chicory leaves are being eaten by working class people. There’s no shame in that. But bigger isn’t better. Big is big, small is small, and the best is the best, where ever you find it
Toes To Nose Recipe For Birria
For a bearded fellow like myself the first step in preparing authentic birria de chivo is to swing by Quik Stop market and buy a package of disposable Bic shaving razors. Chivo is Spanish for goat, and birria is a traditional Mexican method of steaming meat over a chile broth. My mentors in the kitchen, Don Gerardo and Don Miguel, assured me the razors were essential. Having a smooth faced chef is not relevant to the success of birria feast; having four clean shaven goat feet is.
Since most super markets don’t sell goat meat, birria de chivo starts with catching a goat. While I make my living raising vegetables I keep a small flock of goats to control brush. It’s economical to eat the “fat of my own land”, and if I’m going to eat meat it only seems honest to slaughter the animal myself. This practice might be considered odd, or even blood thirsty, if you consider that meat is easiest to deal with when it comes pre-sliced and masked in plastic wrap, but a backyard slaughter wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in Michoacan where Gerardo and Miguel come from.
Besides razors and a goat we needed a twenty gallon pot, and plenty of vinegar, garlic, onions, marjoram, oregano, cumin, ginger, laurel leaves, and black pepper. And chile, of course. Because we were preparing the meal for a mixed crowd of Americans and Mexicans an executive decision was made by Don Miguel to go with a mild ancho chile for the broth. It’s not true that all Mexicans want their food to be “muy picante” but, left to his own devices, Don Gerardo would definitely favor a chile powerful enough to bring a sweat to the brow.
I caught a four month old kid. At the risk of being tasteless, let me assure you that I killed and dressed the goat kid in less time, and with less squealing, than it used to take on a school day morning getting my daughter, Magdalena, to brush her hair and get dressed. She’s older now, so grooming comes easier, but my daughter still gets mad at me for butchering goats. I can understand. Lena says it’s sick to eat a goat that you know. My argument to her has been that we’re omnivorous animals, just like the cute Grizzly bears, and anyway the predators don’t lie down with the herbivores until the End Of Time. Farm animals are raised for slaughter. Without human care domestic animals have no existence. Without farm animals our world would lack beauty, flavor, and security. We justify the killing and honor the animal we slaughter by using all of it and not wasting a drop of life.
Under Don Miguel’s instruction I chopped the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys of the goat together for a dish called Montalayo, which is basically a Mexican take on haggis. When I’d achieved a texture somewhat cruder than hamburger I mixed the organ meat in a big bowl with chopped potato, onions, peas, and carrots. Miguel washed the stomach and scrubbed it with lime until it was snowy white, inside and out, and then stuffed with the offal-vegetable mixture. When he was done, Don Miguel tied the open end of the stomach tight with a cotton string to seal it closed, and set to one side. We split ancho peppers open and removed their seeds, then soaked them in hot water for a bit to soften. Garlic and onions were peeled. Black pepper corns were ground to powder in a molcajete, or stone grinding bowl.
We had a small pot of water heating. Don Gerardo plunged the goat feet in scalding water to loosen the hair. The tiny hairs that didn’t pluck off were shaved off with the Bics. You don’t want to skin the feet or there won’t be anything left. After a quick, scalding bath the horny sheaths of the hooves slipped easily off the toe bones. While we shaved the goat feet the chiles finished softening. Don Gerardo pureed the chiles in the blender with some vinegar, water, cumin, marjoram, ginger and salt. The garlic, onion, pepper, and oregano were tossed in the bottom of the big pot with three gallons of water, the chile puree and five bay leaves. Don Miguel dropped the cleaned feet in the chile broth. I skinned and dehorned the head and dropped it in the pot. The head and feet are essential ingredients because they give the broth “body”.
Then Don Miguel took out his machete and chopped the goat carcass into small cuts with a series of authoritative blows. We slipped a round grill top into the huge pot and perched it upon four teacups for a makeshift steamer. Meat was carefully layered above the broth with the stuffed gut placed in the middle. The pot was sealed with aluminum foil and put to boil. The hard work was over. We each opened a can of beer and sat down. Don Gerardo and Don Miguel talked as the pot bubbled and a savory steam began to rise into the air. I listened.
I learned that birria can be made from many kinds of meats but it’s not an everyday kind of dish. Celebrations call for birria. Here in the States birria is a restaurant fare. Don Miguel said one of his favorite birrias was birria de guacolote, or turkey, but he’d made some good birria de armadillo. It all depends on where you are and what your circumstances are. When Don Gerardo was a child corn was so scarce his mama had to make tortillas from the paste of ground up green bananas. It had been Gerardo’s job in those years to catch tlacuaches, or possums. Tlacuatche makes a good birria. Don Miguel said that mapache, or racoon, makes excellent birria too, but Don Gerardo said that mapache is better with mole sauce.
Listening to the two of them discuss birria made me understand how alive the cooking of Pre-Columbian America still is. The aluminum foil was a concession to modernity, as was the steel pot, but birria could easily prepared in an earthenware vessel. True, the goat, the vinegar, black pepper, cumin, ginger, carrots and peas in the montalayo came from Europe with the Spaniards, but all the other vegetables and spices came from the New World or could easily be replaced with native ingredients. I imagine that deer was a typical meat for birria before the introduction of the goat. Both goats and deer yield lean carcasses that present well with long, slow cooking techniques.
Hearing Gerardo and Miguel reminisce about the hard times back in Mexico made me think about how cooking birria is a celebration of traditional, conservative values. A modern “special occasion” might call for broiled chops on the grill, assigning the “lesser cuts” and organs of the animal an uncelebrated role ground up into hot dogs. Making the montalayo with the birria puts the “whole” in holistic and uses meats that cant be dried or easily preserved. Using all the bones in the broth is an economical, flavorful way of capturing all of the nutrition that the animal has to offer.
After four hours of gentle steaming the birria was ready. I lifted the lid on the pot with great curiosity. Would the flavor of the birria be worth the opprobrium I had earned from my daughter? The meat was served in bowls with the spicy broth poured over the top and garnished with chopped onion, cilantro, and a squeeze of lemon. Warm corn tortillas were used to sop up the leftover liquid so not a drop was wasted. Cactus salad was a side dish. And of course we had beans.
The birria was great. The meat was tender and rich with chile and garlic. But the meal was also flavored with the experience of the toes to nose preparation. In that respect I’d have to say the birria had an ever deeper taste for me than for Gerardo and Miguel because they were already at home with how they eat. Maybe the birria had the strongest flavor for my seven year old daughter who didn’t eat a bite because she was getting a taste of reality. We’ll have another birria feast in the Fall when our crops are coming in, the goats are fat in the pasture, and we have reasons to celebrate. My daughter can become a vegetarian if she wants, but first she’s going to have to get over her distaste of vegetables.
Forty Acres and a Mule
A real jackass is a monument of asinine masculinity, and a testament to will, virility, and intelligence. A jenny is a female donkey. A stallion plus a jenny equals a mule. A jackass plus a mare equals a hinny. There are more mules in the world than there are hinnies because it’s easier to get a jack to breed a mare than it is to mate a stallion with a jenny. Why this should be so is a matter of conjecture. I figure that the inequality in numbers stems from performance anxiety on the part of the male horses, who, in the presence of equine ladies with such lovely long ears, such dulcet voices, such soulful eyes and such independent manners, simply feel inadequate. Hinny foals and mule foals come out the womb equal though, with 63 chromosomes apiece, and they’re all valued by their owners for the unique hybrid mix they have of a donkey’s good looks and endurance and a horse’s gullible nature and athletic temperament. I’m a donkey fancier, but over the Memorial Day weekend I went to the Bishop Mule Days Celebration on the eastern side of the Sierras to see what the fuss was all about.
The Mule Days Celebration is a week long event dedicated to the premise that anything a horse can do a mule can do better. As a kid I worked on a horse ranch mucking out stalls and feeding the horses. I got jaded by the self-important manner that some horse owners pass on to their steeds. I hoped that Mule Days might be a corrective experience, and I was right. For me, the visit started with a mule race. Five mules lined up on the starting line with their jockeys all dressed in silks of different colors. The mule with the jockey in yellow jumped the gun and had to reined back. Then she jumped the gun again. At a horse race a spirited animal like this would be disqualified for its enthusiasm but the judge at Mule Days had a donkey’s patience in his soul; he simply asked the jockey in yellow to turn his mule around so that the animal’s ass, not its nose, was on the starting line. Bang went the starting gun, and the mules shot off like bullets. The mule with the yellow silks had to spin around on her haunches before she could start the race, but she wanted victory so badly that she laid her big ears back and flew. When she won by a length everybody in the stands cheered.
Then there was a donkey race. It was invigorating to see the philosophic nature of the ass on display. The racing donkeys seemed all too aware that enjoyment of the journey of life comes from the trip, not from the finish line. Three of the five donkeys set off at the starting gun and scampered down the track with alacrity, but they didn’t obsess on the event the way a mule or horse would. A fourth donkey loped along casually and looked at the crowds of spectators with curiosity. And it is curious how thousands of donkeys never gather to watch five humans run in circles. Left to their own devices donkeys are happy to just savor mouthfuls of grass and feel the warm sun on their backs. The last donkey was the most thoughtful of all. She halted halfway down the track before turning and strolling back towards the starting line. Everybody smiled. What a generous donkey she was to make such an ass of her jockey. If the gambling industry wanted to inject an element of suspense into parimutuel racing they’ll open the racetracks to donkeys. It’ll never happen, though, because when it comes to a donkey race “all bets are off.”
I enjoyed the “donkey in hand” obstacle course too. This event was open to donkeys of all breeds and sizes, from the miniature Sicilian donkeys that stand no taller than dogs all the way up to Mammoth Donkeys whose ears can shade an average horse from the sun. Here the goal of every contestant was to lead their donkey over, through, into, and around a series of obstacles that challenged the animal to demonstrate its training and its faith in its owner. I appreciate the donkey obstacle course because I can see the time and energy that the donkey trainers have dedicated to their animals. I’m humbled when I compare the compliant behavior of the show animals with the saucy attitude that my donkeys display
when I try to make them do something that they didn’t think of. “Donkey in hand” obstacle shows will never make for good tv, because patience, trust and discipline are on display, not speed, flash, and violence. There was one made-for-tv moment though. A miniature donkey grew bored with the “keyhole” obstacle and left the arena suddenly to give a nuzzle kiss to another donkey on the other side of the corral fence, forcing the judge to announce over the public address system that “contestant 312 has lost her ass.”
My favorite event at Mule Days was the Pack Scramble. With the snowy crags of the Sierras crashing down to the desert floor to the west and the high peaks of the Whites looming over the Owens Valley from the east, Bishop is a natural spot for wilderness pack stations to show off the mules that can match the mountains. For the scramble contest wranglers from each Pack Station lead strings of fully loaded mules into the arena. Each animal is unloaded, and all the tack and gear removed. When every mule is nude a cannon is shot off, and for a minute the arena is a swirl of dust as sixty or seventy mules run around in chaos. Then the wranglers get busy. The first team to pack their mules and lead the train around the quarter mile racetrack without losing so much as a frying pan wins. My favorite packers were the Powder Puff Girls, an all-girl crew from the McGee Creek Pack Station, who dolled their mules up with packs and tack that sizzled in Breast Cancer Awareness Month Pink.
As I sat in the bleachers in the sun on Memorial Day, watching the beautiful mules and donkeys, the Civil War came to mind. When General Sherman marched through Georgia he promised the newly emancipated slaves forty acres of confiscated Confederate land apiece along with a government surplus mule. A mule used to be considered the optimum “horsepower” for farmwork. Forty acres was thought to be land enough for a hard working man to wrest a living from nature. The Federal Government soon reneged on its offer of reparations for slavery and returned the farmlands to
the plantation owners, so “forty acres and a mule” came to be understood as shorthand for broken promises. I thought about this longeared 19th century formula for emancipation and took measure of my own dependence on diesel fuel. Yes, I’m a self-employed farmer, but like almost everyone in America I live in thrall to Big Oil.
When I was seventeen I worked on a farm in Oregon with teams of Percheron horses. You better eat your Wheaties before you spend a day working with a draft team. Even the leather harness is hard work to put on the horses’ backs, and then there’s the strain of holding up the reins all day long and convincing the horses to pull. Now, at age forty eight years I’m developing a curiosity about the path I didn’t pursue. Do I have the stuff it takes to farm the way my grandfather did? Am I too old to learn? So I read and I seek out the company of people who can drive a team or lead a pack train. My farm buys me the freedom to take a day off now and then so next weekend I’ll attend the Coastal Oaks Miniature Donkey Show in King City. But at home I’ve got two tractors, four trucks, and two cars to fill with fuel. I’m ad-d-d-d-d-d-d-dicted to oil. I’d love to be freed from this karmic burden. Is emancipation possible? Who knows? But I’ve taken a half step I already own twenty acres and a donkey.
Copyright 2007 Andy Griffin
Photos of Mule Days that Andy and Lena took
The Tomato Dance
At Mariquita Farm we’re getting lined up to do the “Florida Weave.” This probably sounds like the name of a square dance, but actually the “Florida weave” describes a common way to stake up tomato plants.In the Central Coast, April 15th is generally considered the “frost-free” date. From the 15th on we’re unlikely to suffer any overnight freezing. Mother Nature makes no promises about the temperatures she’ll cast. This year, on the morning of the 20th there was snow on the top of the Sierra De Salinas south-west of Soledad, and I can remember various frosts on the Pajaro Valley floor after the 15th over the years, but I always start to plant my frost tender tomato vines in mid-April. A month after we plant the tomatoes it’s time to start tying them up.
Not all varieties of tomato require tying. Determinate tomato breeds set most of their flowers at once, so the harvest, when it comes, is relatively concentrated. Determinate tomatoes are often harvested by machine. Because tomatoes destined for mechanized harvest need to be tough and rubbery to withstand the rigors of being picked by a blunt instrument many determinate tomato breeds are designed to have fruit that can be beaten off the vine green, then ripened artificially with ethylene gas, before being cooked down into tomato paste for canning. But I don’t grow tomatoes for industrial processing. I prefer to grow the so-called indeterminate tomatoes, which flower over a long period.
As indeterminate tomatoes flower they keep growing….and growing….and growing. Tomatoes evolved in tropical South America as short lived perennials with a rampant, vining habit. One wild tomato type that is still available to gardeners is the so-called currant cherry tomato. Currants have fruits that are hardly bigger than peas, but the vines can reach over twenty feet. The old fashioned, heirloom breeds of tomatoes that I plant still show off their origins as rampant, perennial tropical vines by sprawling over a wide area if they’re not restrained. To avoid treading on the tomato plants, to make harvest easier, and to assure that the fruits are not laying on the dirt it is necessary to introduce a little discipline into the life of an indeterminate tomato.
So we pound wooden stakes at ten foot intervals down the tomato rows while the plants are still young. As the vines grow, we lash lines of twine from stake to stake, passing first on one side of each pole, then on the other side, so that the foliage is supported between the taunt strings in an upright fashion. That’s the Florida Weave. As the plants grow up we spin more twine higher and higher up the poles, so we end up with linear walls of tomato foliage. The workers can walk easily down the rows to inspect the plants, repair the drip irrigation tubes that run along the rows at the base of the plants, or trap for gophers. Breezes can pass between the rows, keeping the plants dry so that any threat of losing plants to humidity loving mildews is mitigated. Eventually, clusters of colorful, flavorful fruits will hang by the cluster, well above the dusty ground, and easy to pick. I’m planning on a bountiful harvest, but in the end, I remind myself that success isn’t only up to me. Farming is always a dance, and nature calls the tune.
copyright 2007 Andy Griffin
Tomatoes and Basil and Padron Peppers: Upick and Mini Market plans for the summer:
Mariquita has many heirloom and sauce tomatoes planted, lots of tender basil and loads of pimiento de padron peppers, and friarellis too! We plan to have many upick Saturdays (maybe the occasional weekday too) in August, Sept. and October. We also hope to host mini 2 hour markets throughout the city in different neighborhoods with canning portions of the same items. Stay tuned! If you have a great driveway that would make a good one-time only Mariquita Mini Market later this summer, let me know. Thanks!
Make It Quick!
My son, Graydon, was about three and a half when he came running half naked through the kitchen one morning while I was cleaning up. “I’m hungry Papa, so make me lunch!” he shouted. “Make it quick, and make it crunchy!” I told him to eat a carrot.
Children can be wiggy about what they eat, so the carrot, with its inherent versatility, is an almost perfect food. For kids that need to everything be “theirs,” eating a whole baby carrot can be a satisfying experience; when a larger carrot split into pieces is absent there’s the chance of being served a smaller piece, or fewer pieces, than a rival sibling. Orange seems to be a comforting color for food, too, whereas all kinds of suspicious, sickening things are green.
Of course, with baby carrots the young diner always faces the potential trauma of being confronted with a flawed or crooked root. Food corporations handle this existential issue well by taking larger carrots and mechanically lathing them into perfectly rounded facsimiles of baby carrots, thus achieving a level of uniformity that many children find comforting.
And then there’s the whole issue of carrot flavor to consider. For centuries the carrot’s natural sweetness was enough to make it an attractive vegetable to people and beasts. My donkey comes to the fence every time she sees me, because she hopes to get a carrot. If you want to see an “Oscar level” expression of disgust, just look into my indignant ass’s face when she expects a carrot and I offer her a handful of cabbage leaves instead.
Flavor is still an important component of the carrot eating experience, though these days it is customary for many cooks to focus more on the flavor of the dip they serve with the carrot than the natural flavor of the root. Many consumers only eat the pre-bagged, pre-peeled “baby” carrots. These “value added” carrots are treated with an antiseptic solution for “long life” in refrigerator storage and they often smell like a high school swimming pool, so it helps if the dip is flavored strongly enough to over-ride any lingering chlorine essence.
My favorite “baby carrot” is a variety called “Minicor.”. They have been developed to be harvested young so they plump up fast. They are small, but they’re not really babies, as in “infantile”—more like adolescents. Sometimes the so-called baby carrots don’t always have the depth of flavor that comes with mature, deeply rooted winter carrots, but they have their own charms. When I was a kid I didn’t like to eat cooked carrots—actually, I didn’t think there was anything nastier on earth than a cooked carrot, but I now that I’m old and grey and most of my taste buds have died, I like to cook baby carrots. Here’s my favorite recipe:
Put the carrots in a pan (washed, not peeled) with a pat of butter, a pinch of salt, and a splash of white wine, and steam them till they’re halfway cooked. Then remove the carrots from the flame, garnish them with minced fresh parsley and tumble it all around. The heat of the carrots will wilt the minced herbs, the melted butter helps the savory herbs cling to the roots, and a delicious aroma rises up. I like to apply a final twist of black pepper, and serve the carrots warm.
Carrots are members of the Umbellifer family, along with cilantro, chervil, fennel, parsley, and celery. Many members of the Umbelliferae make excellent garnishes for carrots. If you buy your carrots fresh by the bunch, and not embalmed in a bag, then the greens, minced finely, might make a pretty good garnish themselves. Stir the garnish into the baby carrots just as you remove them from the heat, so the garnish wilts and releases it’s aroma without cooking down into sludge.
If you have any kids in the house who turn up their noses at any flecks of green garnish contaminating the purity of the orange carrots, or if you cook for a partner who is close to “the child within,” remind them how lucky they are to be alive in the modern era. In the infancy of humanity, when all of us wandered naked through the forests, it was the carrot’s greens that we ate, since the carrot plant’s roots had not yet been improved by agriculturalists into a sweet, quick, crunchy snack crop.
And dip? Well, The first dips that humanity discovered was probably yogurt made from donkey, horse, yak, sheep, cow, or camel milk, with some crushed herbs and salt mixed in. That still sounds pretty good, even if it requires a little work. Back in the stone age, the quick-fix, emotionally satisfying, commercial, salty, pre-made dips that come in plastic tubs or packets were still far off in humanity’s adult future, along with tax deadlines, hydrogen bombs, and this laptop computer I’m writing to you on. Convenience took a long coming.
copyright 2007 Andy Griffin
Sons Of The Pioneers
I’m a roaming cowboy riding all day long,
Tumbleweeds around me sing their lonely song.
Nights underneath the prairie moon,
I ride along and sing this tune.
See them tumbling down,
Pledging their love to the ground,
Lonely but free I’ll be found
Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.
Tumbling Tumbleweeds, by The Sons Of The Pioneers.
What if Tumbling Tumbleweeds went from being the title of a classic cowboy song to being the name for an scramble egg recipe? It’s not as farfetched an idea as it sounds.
Tumbleweeds are an introduced species called Salsola tragus, that first popped us in the U.S. in South Dakota in 1877. Since tumbleweeds are widely distributed over the steppes of Russia and Central Asia it’s thought that Ukranian immigrants pioneering the great plains were the most likely vector. Once rooted in the new world the exotic tumbleweeds took care of spreading themselves. The plant is now classed as a noxious weed by the U.S. Department Of Agriculture.
The tumbleweed plant is a tender herb when young, and grows into a stiff round ball of stems that breaks loose from the soil when the autumn winds blow, so that the plant can roll across the landscape, spreading seeds. The following spring the old severed roots sprout new growth, and the tumbleweed’s dispersed seeds sprout in new locations. Tumbleweeds spread so successfully, “Pledging their love” to a virgin continent, that they soon made their way over the Colorado Rockies, all the way to Death Valley, and even into the musical top 40. Maybe the food network comes next.
I’m growing an Italian green called agretti, or Salsola soda in Latin. Agretti is a tender, succulent herb when harvested young, with a pleasing, sour taste. In Italy this herb is used chopped and tossed in salads or sauteed with onions to slip into omelettes. The family name Salsola comes from the Latin “salsus”, meaning salt, because the various Salsola family members can tolerate very salty soil. The tumbleweed’s tolerance of, and even appreciation for, tough conditions, helped the plant spread aggressively across the American West.
The Italian Salsola soda I’ve planted in my fields grows with the vigor of a weed, just like its Russian cousin Salsola tragus. But agretti seeds are hard to find in the States, and costly to import. Young tumbleweeds have a similar texture and flavor to agretti, and are often eaten back home on the steppes, cooked like spinach. I’m going to grow out some of my agretti seeds to maturity and harvest a seed crop so I’m not so dependent on imported agretti seed. I’m also going to drive out to the Panoche Valley, east of Hollister, in the fall and gather the seed of some tumbleweeds as they go tumbling past.
The Panoche Valley is a very quiet spot, hidden in the hills between Hollister and the San Joaquin Valley. I like it. With film, when directors want to suggest loneliness and rootlessness one device they occasionally resort to is to show a tumbleweed rolling across the screen, just as the Country and Western musical group, The Sons Of The Pioneers, used the tumbleweed to suggest a relationship between loneliness, rootlessness, and freedom.
In the ideal Italy of the past, or in the re-imagining of the future that The Slow Food Movement is promoting from it’s base in Italy, food is more than fuel for a restless body. Our daily meals can be reaffirming moments that strengthen our ties to tradition, to family, to seasons and to places. We’re all sons and daughters of pioneers here in America, and we’ve changed our landscape just as it has changed us. Someday we will understand our freedom as the choice to take root and to take responsibility for our behavior in this community of plants and animals that sustains us.
When that day comes, a weed will simply be a plant out of place, instead of any old plant we don’t understand or pay attention to unless it’s to scrape it off the landscape or spray it into submission. It’s an ideal world I’m talking about, I know. But, with agretti, the Italians learned to cook an alkali tolerant weed and transform it into a treat, so why can’t we learn to savor our own landscape? You’ll know that we’ve learned how to “pledge our love to the ground” when a traveler can pull off of I-5 at dawn on the way to or from L.A., and buy a tasty, fresh, local, braised tumbleweed taco for breakfast.
Bunnies In Britches
Film reviews aren’t part of my routine, but in the case of the recent release “Miss Potter”, starring Rene Zellweger, I’ll make an exception. Thumbs up! Five stars. Saw it twice!
The story is based on the life of Beatrix Potter, the authoress of classic children’s books like The Tale of Peter Rabbit, but this isn’t a children’s movie. Instead, “Miss Potter” is a story of how a young woman had the inner strength to overcome the stifling social mores of the Victorian era. After I saw the film with my wife I took my ten year old daughter, Lena. Like young Beatrix, my daughter loves to paint. I thought it would be instructive for Lena to see how women’s roles in society have changed over the years, by seeing the struggles of a woman with whom she could sympathize.
I loved the farm-life angle to the film’s storyline too. Beatrix Potter painted scenes from the English countryside around her. Her illustrations are so well observed that I can name the breed of animal or the variety of flower or vegetable pictured. In an illustration for The Tale Of Jemima Puddle-Duck it’s clearly a rhubarb plant that Jemima has chosen to hide her eggs under. “She tried to hide her eggs;” Beatrix Potter writes, “but they were always found and carried off.” The farm boy in the picture looks at the silly duck hen confronting him with a reproach, and Jemima looks concerned. Beatrix writes that Jemima was “quite desperate.” The authoress was probably aware that rhubarb is synonymous with words of dispute, like ruckus, quarrel, controversy, debate, disagreement, bickering, fuss, and flap. The picture has a homey tartness that can appeal to the parent reading the story, as much as the sweeter elements appeal to the child being read to.
When foxy gentleman’s house is pictured, later in the same story, there’s a Digitalis purpurea plant in full bloom at the edge of the frame. Digitalis grows well in dank, moist, shady areas, and the most common name for Digitalis is foxglove—another name is “dead man’s bells.” Is Beatrix insinuating that Jemima is a dead duck? Most illustrations for contemporary children’s books feature generic images of nature that are pretty, but iconic and lacking detail. I like all kinds of art, from the religious psychedelia like The Garden Of Earthly Delights by Bosch, to Klimpt’s line drawings of women to Magritte’’ surrealistic businessmen with their faces obscured by large green apples. But I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for super-realistic images of bunnies in britches too, especially when there are shadowy innuendoes drawn in to give the pictures more depth.
The movie “Miss Potter” captures the rustic beauty of the Lake Country,but it doesn’t take us down a saccharin garden path. Beatrix Potter looked deeply into the world around her, and her familiarity with nature bred love. She overcame societal obstacles and personal inhibitions to become a millionairess, and then she invested her money in land to save working farms from destruction. We can still enjoy England’s Lake country because of her. Beatrix Potter was WAY ahead of her time, and her curious, amusing Victorian morality tales are only part of her legacy.
Oceans are rising, the ice-caps are melting, the apocalypse is nigh, and there’s always so much doomed news to dwell on. The fact that Hollywood moguls saw a market for a movie about Beatrix Potter, and then made a movie where love for the natural environment is as important a theme as the search for romantic love—well, it me think that those of us working towards a sustainable, nature based agriculture can hope for a happy ending too! This farmer says “Go Beatrix!”
“I must either command, or be silent!” -Napoleon in exile
When Robinson Crusoe was shipwrecked on a deserted island he survived by catching wild goats to use for meat, milk, and hides. The story of Robinson Crusoe is fiction, but there’s nothing imaginary about the flocks of goats on the scattered islands of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The island goats weren’t native to the islands, they were feral—descended from the pairs of bucks and does that early Spanish and Portuguese sailors let loose as “shipwreck insurance,” so that non-fictional shipwrecked sailors could hope to wash up on an island where a familiar food source existed.
Since they had no natural predators on these remote, previously undiscovered oceanic islands, goat populations expanded exponentially, and they often turned lush deserted islands into desert islands by eating everything. For example, a Portuguese explorer named Jo o da Nova discovered an uninhabited, heavily timbered isle 1200 miles off the coast of Southwest Africa on the feast day of Saint Helen, May 21st , 1502. He named the island St. Helena, took on water, dropped off several goats, and sailed on.
The existence of St Helena was kept a secret by the Portuguese until 1588, when the British explorer, Cavendish, came across the island and made note of both the goats and the trees. Witnesses say there were still a lot of trees standing as late as 1716, but by the time the famous Corsican megalomaniac was exiled on St. Helena in 1815 the island’s native vegetation had been destroyed. Charles Darwin visited Longwood, Napoleon’s home on the island, in 1836 on the historic voyage of the Beagle. He wrote of St. Helena that, “Goats were introduced in 1502. Eighty-six years later, during the time of Cavendish, it is known they were exceedingly numerous. More than a century afterwards, in 1731, when the evil was irretrievable, an order was issued that all stray animals be destroyed.”
But goats don’t have to be destructive. At High Ground Farm in Watsonville goats are being used to help restore native California plant communities. Laura Kummerer, a grassland restoration specialist working for High Ground Farm, has borrowed fourteen of my goats to help her with her native range rehabilitation project. We released the goats at High Ground Farm last week, and their immediate task was to eat the introduced species like the annual Mediterranean grasses, wild mustard, wild radish, and orchard grass that infest what remains of the native Californian coastal grasslands. Eating these weeds comes naturally to goats—after all, the goats and these weeds all evolved together in the Old World.
Two hundred years ago the lands that now make up the fields and pastures of High Ground Farm were part of an intricate web of wet lands and prairies that ran along the shores of Monterey Bay. Elk grazed on the grasslands and deer browsed in the brush. Waterfowl nested in the reeds, and every manner of creature found a niche to exploit and enjoy. Near the top of the food chain, one rung under the Grizzly bear, communities of native Americans lived on the bluffs and took advantage of all the natural riches that the area had to offer.
The Spanish conquest changed everything. With guns at their disposal, the newcomers were equal to the Grizzly bears. Adios osos! The Native Americans were crowded into missions and lectured to about salvation in heaven. No one thought to listen to the Indians to find out if their long tenancy in California had taught them anything about how to live here— our ecological consciousness was still a long time off in the future. The Indians themselves were the first victims of an environment out of balance—many of them died from the diseases that the Spaniards had evolved with and adapted to. The herds of elk were slaughtered. The coastal prairie grasses were over-grazed by long horned Iberian cattle, and the native perennial bunch grasses gave way to the Mediterranean annual grasses that hitchhiked into California as sticker-burrs in the cows’ tails.
When the Americans came the oaks and redwoods were cut down, the fields were ploughed for farming, and the wetlands were drained. When I started farming in Watsonville the rich, peaty soil from the drained marshland was still being strip-mined by fertilizer companies and exported. Finally, and recently, much of what was once wetland habitat for a wide range of native species has been converted into housing subdivisions. But Santa Cruz County isn’t St. Helena Island. We’re not marooned. We’re not in exile, and there’s no palace of mirrors for us to return to. We’re here to make a permanent home, and we’re smart enough (I hope) to learn how to live here gracefully, and not comport ourselves like conquerors who would despoil their own prizes.
For some people the environmental changes of the past and present are of no concern. I have to admit that I’m not sad that the Grizzly bears aren’t prowling outside my door—taxonomists don’t call them Ursus horribilis for nothing. But as we become deeply acquainted with our environment we’re beginning to learn how all the different organisms work together to maintain a stable yet dynamic ecology. Get rid of the coyotes and the rodent populations surge out of control until bubonic plague brings them back in line. Get rid of the nesting areas and the birds that keep the mosquitos in check disappear. Get rid of the mosquitos with chemicals and the birds that depend on them for food disappear, plus a lot of other organisms get poisoned.
As farmers and consumers we’re learning to take responsibility for our actions. Organic farmers have a special role to play in redefining how society interacts with nature. As business people we understand that we can only farm organically if we can make money, but we also understand that not everything that’s of value can be easily quantified in terms of dollars. The checks and balances that count for survival aren’t only the ones at the bank. A healthy, diverse ecosystem where a natural matrix of pest and predator is an agricultural asset. The hawk that floats overhead the field isn’t merely a beautiful bird, it’s also the cheapest and most effective gopher trap a farmer can have.
The hawk needs a tree to nest in. And we need the hawk and the tree to add “interest” to our lives. Our lives are a gift from Mother Nature, and the intelligent thing to do is to show some respect to the old girl. There is so much to learn about how all the different species work together to weave a seamless web of life, but several things seem clear already. Diverse ecosystems are more stable, more resilient to temporary climatic fluctuations, and more beautiful than mono-cultures. We don’t stand outside of nature—we’re an integral part of it. We’re still evolving, and it’s not to late to change. With that sentiment in mind, a number of different groups in Watsonville are working together to restore the Monterey Bay wetlands.
The mining of the Watsonville peat bogs is history, and water is filling the wetlands again. At High Ground Farm seeds from the surviving native perennial bunch grasses have been collected from the pastures and grown out to replant and strengthen the remaining established stands. A handful of cattle have been brought into the pastures because, if properly managed, their grazing habits mimic those of the vanished elk. Native grasses evolved with ruminant grazing as a part of the equation, and they need grazing to thrive. My goats have been introduced because their browsing habits can be an effective control for the introduced Mediterranean weeds that are choking out the native California plants.
The goats got to work right away, wolfing down mustard blossoms like bar flies around a dish of salted peanuts. When the thatch of non-native weeds has been reduced from the rangeland, native wild flowers and native perennial grasses will have an easier time getting re-established. Laura Kummerer monitors the progress that the cows and goats make and moves the animals from paddock to paddock as necessary. When the goats have finished their work for the season they will return home to Mariquita Farm to resume their important “work” eating poison oak brush.
My father, Dr. James Griffin, was a research plant ecologist for the University Of California who did some of the pioneering studies on the re-establishment of native grass communities. His work thirty years ago, and that of his like minded peers, has inspired people like Laura to look at the inter-related issues of habitat management and animal husbandry in new ways. I grew up on a University field station, and as a kid I can remember all the enclosures my dad made around plots of native grasses to study the effects of grazing on regeneration, and I remember the controlled burns he conducted to understand the ways that perennial grasses depended on fire ecologies for survival. Then I grew up to raise goats.
My interest in raising goats may make me seem like an atavistic throwback to a stupider time, but I’m proud to be able to help Laura and contribute to the spirit of father’s work in my own way. And of course I’m proud of my goats for being so “ecologically sensitive” and “politically correct.” Goats are wonderful animals, and we can’t blame them for the deserts. Learning from our mistakes and making appropriate corrections in our behavior is a survival skill, and it’s the only real shipwreck insurance we’ve got.
Photos of Before and After the goats arrived
Photos of some native plants found at High Ground Organics
Pastures Of Heaven
(Andy’s photo of a local mustard field is below)
Jesus said “the kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed.” A mustard seed is tiny, like the head of a pin. Can heaven fit?
Metaphors that were evocative and illuminating two thousand years ago come across opaque and weird to modern ears. Today mustard is as celestial as a yellow emulsion on a ballpark hotdog. That can be a pretty good experience, but a cultural anthropologist will tell you that mustards were meaningful across the Middle East throughout antiquity, both as weeds and as cultivated crops. Farmers sowed mustard by scattering hand-fulls of the seed on tilled soil. Then the farmers would sit back to wait, and pray, for rain.
People living during the time of Jesus would have gathered tender mustard seedlings from the fields in the spring for salads. As the mustard greens matured they would have picked them for cooking greens. Some form of wild mustard may well have been the bitter herb eaten during Passover. And when the mustards’ flower buds swelled the country people would have plucked them to steam like tiny heads of broccoli. Then, when the plants went to seed, the little brown mustard seeds were pressed for oil. When Jesus said that heaven was like a mustard seed he was telling his followers that they didn’t have to look very far to find it.
Heaven in the valley, heaven in the bowl,
Heaven in the belly, heaven in the oil,
Heaven on the hillside, heaven in the seeds,
Heaven in the flowers, heaven in the weeds.
All around the Mediterranean mustard fields come into blazing yellow flower in the spring. From a distance the hills appear to be yellow. But look closely at a mustard plant and you’ll see that the yellow blossom is actually a cluster of smaller flowers, each of which takes the simple form of a four-petaled cross. Botanists have given the mustard family the Latin name of Cruciferae, meaning “of the cross.” Many of our most important food crops, like cabbage, turnips, broccoli, radishes and cauliflower are crucifers. When Jesus said that heaven was like a mustard seed, was he implying that it reveals itself in
full flower tortured on a cross?
Jesus said that mustard, “the smallest of seeds,” when fully grown is “ the greatest of shrubs, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” The wild mustard weeds in my farm’s fields stand five feet tall, but I would hardly call them the “greatest of shrubs,” or “trees.” Jesus was a carpenter, so he would have known about trees. Was he engaging in poetic licence, or was he suggesting that the smallest things sometimes contain within themselves the most unforseen ramifications?
Sometimes I wonder if Jesus wasn’t making an empirical observation. We know that there are deserts in Texas now where, before the settlers came, there used to be prairies of grasses that grew taller than a man on horseback. And there were millions of bison swarming across the plains. The skies over my farm in California used to be black with waterfowl, and the fields were crossed by huge herds of elk.. Was the soil in the Middle East richer a long time ago when Caesar Augustus stomped the terra? Were plants more vigorous in The Land Of Milk And Honey before twenty centuries of war, over-grazing and erosion depleted the soil?
The Spanish conquistadores brought Mediterranean culture to California; they brought their religion, their livestock, their crops, their political institutions, their diseases, and their weeds. Today the Spaniard Empire is history and most of the Indian peoples the Padres converted to Catholicism are dead, but California is still beautiful. It’s not for nothing that John Steinbeck titled a book that took place in Central California “The Pastures Of Heaven.” But the California that existed before Cabrilho planted the first cross in 1542 in San Diego can hardly be imagined. Today, our valleys are yellow with
wild mustards in full bloom for Easter, and the fields are covered in crosses.