Cinderella’s magic coach may the most famous pumpkin in history but we shouldn’t forget Peter’s squash.
Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater
Had a wife but couldn’t keep her;
He put her in a pumpkin shell
And there he kept her very well.
This nursery rhyme, with its dark overtones of spousal abuse and an obscure symbolic link between pumpkins and failed romance, presents an interesting counterpoint to the Cinderella myth. For Cinderella, a pumpkin became the vehicle that carried her to marital bliss, yet for Peter’s wife a pumpkin is a prison. As a pumpkin farmer, I’m unqualified to draw a psychiatrist’s conclusions from these two stories, but hollowed out gourds have a long and honorable history of being used as vessels to carry water and food stuffs, so it’s no surprise they should also be filled with romance, myth and contradiction.
The only pumpkin that grows large enough to hold a wandering wife is the pink shelled, yellow fleshed pumpkin from the Cucurbita maxima called “Atlantic Giant.” The Atlantic Giant pumpkin is the kind that wins all the giant pumpkin contests, and many specimens have weighed well over five hundred pounds. My copy of The Real Mother Goose, first published in 1916, has an illustration for Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater that shows a girl, barely old enough to be Jerry Lee Lewis’ wife, glaring balefully out from a huge pale pumpkin. The artist captured the fat, corky, round stem characteristic of fruits in the Cucurbita maxima, and the Atlantic Giant’s rampant habit is authentically rendered as well.
In the past, large pumpkins like Atlantic Giant were used as cattle feed. The high carotene content that gives pumpkin flesh its typical yellow color is nutritious and gives butter that comes from cows fattened on pumpkins a pleasing yellow color. Now that the development of alfalfa bales, alfalfa cubes, silage and a whole industry of enriched cattle feeds has rendered the pumpkin obsolete on the dairy farm, milk processors tint their butter with dyes where yellow colored butters are demanded by the market.
Today, even the canned “pumpkin” for pies is rarely rendered from the round, orange, hard-shelled winter squash most people think of as pumpkins. Other squash varieties, like Butternut, that have a heavier yield, are canned instead, and pie eaters are none the wiser. Because of changing social mores the pumpkin has largely disappeared from the rural scene except as a seasonal ornamental crop or a fetish crop for obsessive gardeners anxious to prove that “bigger is better.” Even the ornamental role of pumpkins as seasonal ornaments is under attack. Some merchandisers are attempting to replace the lovely, perishable jack o’ lantern pumpkins with orange polyethylene bags that have black triangular shaped eyes printed on them. These convenient faux orange plastic bag “pumpkins” can be stuffed with garbage the day after Halloween and set out on the curb. They will never rot.
Pies, no matter what they’re made of, came to America from Europe, just like the Halloween tradition. I’ve heard horror stories over the years about homemade pumpkin pies that turned out stringy, watery, and tasteless. The idea has grown up that only some pumpkins are edible. There’s truth to this idea today, now that breeders select for ornamental qualities only as they create new cultivars for the seasonal market, but the Native Americans who first developed pumpkins as a crop ate them all, and at all stages of their development.
The thick, fat pumpkin seeds are rich in nutritious oils and some of them would have been saved to toast over the fire for a tasty meal during the long, cold winters on the east coast. Pumpkin seeds are still an essential ingredient in traditional Mexican mole sauces. Pumpkin seeds would have been sprouted too, giving people starving for fresh vegetables a bite of greenery in the late winter or early spring. After the year’s crop had been planted out and the pumpkin vines began creeping across the earth, the first golden flowers could be eaten in salads followed by the little green developing fruits.
The pumpkin is a close cousin to the zucchini, and its fruits were picked green and tender to be eaten raw by the Native Americans. Our English word “squash”, in fact, comes to us from the Naragansett word asquutasquash, meaning “uncooked.” Ironically, the English word “pumpkin” comes to us from the ancient Greek word for “cooked.” “Pumpkin” is an English corruption of the French word pompion which in Old French had been pompon, and earlier popon. The early French speakers were simply putting a gallic twist on the Latin word pepon which was a cognate of a Greek word which meant cooked. It remains true of the squash that we have come to call pumpkins that to be enjoyed at their maturity they must be cooked. The Latin pepon survives in the botanical Latin name Cucurbita pepo for one of the many groups within the Cucurbita family.
Nowadays writers use the word pumpkin imprecisely to describe hard squash that are either reminiscent of the jack o’ lantern pumpkin in color or in shape. Some pumpkins like the white Lumina pumpkins are pumpkin shaped and pumpkin sized but come from the Cucurbita maxima, like Hubbard squash. Tan colored pumpkins like the Long Island Cheese pumpkin belong to Cucurbita moschata, as do butternut squash. The long and the short of it is that every pumpkin is a squash to a botanist but not every squash is a pumpkin to a chef.
Confusion reigns over the pumpkin patch because there are two types of pumpkin in the Cucurbita pepo which look awfully similar taste a lot different. The New England Sugar Pie pumpkin is a small, heavy, round orange pumpkin with a nice flavor. The Connecticut field pumpkin is a larger orange squash, somewhat oblong in shape, that superficially looks a pie pumpkin but has no sweetness to its flesh. The Indians on the east coast developed the Connecticut field pumpkin for the production of edible seeds, not pies. Later, this common pumpkin variety was “improved” into myriad ornamental jack o’ lantern cultivars.
The most celebrated Connecticut field pumpkin is probably the one that the Headless Horseman threw at Ichabod Crane in The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow. True, Washington Irving doesn’t specifically mention the breed of the pumpkin that he describes laying shattered on the road near Ichabod Crane’s abandoned hat. And yes, Sleepy Hollow is in New York, not Connecticut, but the Connecticut field pumpkins were a standard animal fodder crop along the eastern seaboard. But who cares, anyway? Writers who cover celebrities are rarely held to a high standard of proof, so if an academic one day proves that Irving intended readers to imagine a Kentucky field pumpkin (Cucurbita moschata) you’re not going to sue me.
Then there’s the pumpkin that made Richard Nixon a household name. I refer to the “Pumpkin Papers.” Nowadays the press would call the whole affair “Pumpkingate.” To tell the story briefly, in 1948 Whittaker Chambers accused Alger Hiss of being a communist. Then he hid the microfilmed evidence inside a hollowed out pumpkin on his farm. In due course, the House Un-American Activities Committee got a subpoena, searched his pumpkin patch and confiscated the pumpkin.
Going back to Cinderella, illustrated editions of the fairy tale often picture her riding to the dance in a ribbed, heirloom French Cucurbita maxima type pumpkin called le Rouge Vif d’Etamples. Cinderella’s coach was red. Rouge means red, and vif means vivid. California Congressman Nixon said that Alger Hiss was a “red.” Nixon got a hold of the pumpkin papers and used them to fan his fame. You might say that Nixon rode into history on a pumpkin, just like Cinderella. Blurry black and white photos of Whittaker Chamber’s infamous pumpkin taken by newspaper reporters at his Maryland farm show a squash with the longer, irregular five sided, stem of a Connecticut field pumpkin— Cucurbita pepo, the jack o’ lantern…. It’s fitting, somehow.
“Trick or treat!” Richard Nixon said to America.
You know how that fairy tale ended.
copyright 2007 Andy Griffin
Fresh broccoli is health food, but it almost killed me. It was in the early 1980s, when I worked at Star Route Farm in Bolinas. After a day in the fields, I’d walk downtown, buy a six pack at the liquor store, and sit on the sea wall at the end of Brighton Street looking out over the ocean. When it wasn’t foggy I could see the San Francisco peninsula off to the southeast across the Gulf of the Farallons. As the evening sky grew dark, the distant city lights would brighten, and soon San Francisco would float free from the hills she’s moored to and sparkle in the night from across the water like a magical ship. If I was going to make the drive south to the city later that night to deliver the farm’s harvest, I wouldn’t drink. But San Francisco glittered all the same for being so near at hand yet so far from my world at the same time.
Now that the largest organic farms are owned by the largest corporate farms, and most of the little independent hippie natural food stores have been swallowed whole by the big fish, vegetables are displayed for retail like sculptures or jewels and it’s funny to think back to those early days of the natural food movement when consumers half expected organic vegetables to be beat up, wilted, or dirty compared to “regular store-bought vegetables.” Some perverse customers even needed organic produce to look battered, as if being unclean or un-cooled was proof that the vegetables had really sprung from the earth. In the early eighties Star Route Farm had thirty acres under cultivation, which made it one of the largest organic farms in California. The vegetables we grew were beautiful in the field. But the industry was young then, and farmers and store keepers alike lacked the tools, and sometimes the knowledge, to perform the post-harvest handling procedures that could help deliver on the whole promise of organic, fresh and natural.
Take broccoli for example. Truly fresh broccoli is a revelation. When I worked at Star Route Farm I didn’t earn much money, and I saved my wages for important things, like beer and toilet paper. ate everything I could from the fields. The first time I cut a head of broccoli and steamed it four minutes later, I was amazed . The broccoli had a sweetness I’d never tasted before. Any dressing or sauce would have only clouded the fresh purity of the flavor. But to deliver some facsimile of that green sweetness to a distant customer is tricky. As broccoli ages it begins to express the odor and flavor of the mustard oil that is a characteristic component of every member of the Brassica family, from arugula to broccoli to cabbage to kale. Nowadays, organic growers follow the same post-harvest handling practices for broccoli as chemical farms do. These procedures help retain some semblance of freshness in the crop over time and distance. But back then post harvest technology was beyond our reach and the economies of scale that make it possible were not yet present.
As soon as commercial broccoli is harvested it’s packed into a waxed cardboard carton, and the boxes are stacked on a pallet. The pallet of broccoli is then fork-lifted into a hydro cooler, where water chilled to 34 is rained down through the boxes, washing away the field heat, until the core temperature of the broccoli drops into the thirties. Then the pallet of chilled broccoli is forked from the hydro cooler into a chamber where each box is pumped full of slush ice so that the broccoli is embedded in a square artificial glacier. The broccoli is then held in a refrigerated warehouse until it’s sold. The ice melts, but it melts slowly, trickling cold water through the broccoli stems. After the sale, the refrigerated truck that comes to carry the broccoli away backs up to the portal of the refrigerated warehouse until the rubber lips of the insulating diaphragm .kiss the square mouth of the refrigerator trailer and create a seal. Then the doors are raised, and the pallet of broccoli is trundled from the refrigerator warehouse into the refrigerated trailer. The doors are closed, the truck pulls forward, the lips unlock, and the truck drives off across America.
The pallets of broccoli will move from the reefer truck into another refrigerated warehouse at a regional distribution center. Food scientists will tell you that it is almost as important to the shelf life of green vegetables that the temperatures they’re stored at be stable as to be cold. Fluctuating temperatures cause tissue breakdown, just as warm temperatures do. At the regional distribution center pallets of broccoli are broken down into smaller units for delivery in other refrigerated trucks to outlying stores, where the boxes of broccoli will be stored in walk-in coolers. From there, individual bunches of broccoli will be lifted from the boxes where they nest, and laid out for the consumer to ogle on beds of crushed ice, or perhaps stacked in a pyramid beneath florescent lights and treated to an intermittent icy mist. These are the links in the “cold chain” that makes our “fresh anytime anywhere produce departments” in chain stores possible. Unless or until the frantic increase in the cost of oil one day makes waxed boxes, water chillers, freezers, ice, and trucking too expensive to ignore, it’s this cold chain that makes fresh broccoli cheap enough to waste.
But in the early eighties in the natural food industry was only just coming to grips with the techniques of post harvest handling or the goal of serving a national market. For Star Route Farm, as for most organic farms in the greater Bay Area, marketing a crop meant harvesting vegetables during the day and hauling them to Veritable Vegetable in San Francisco at night. Veritable Vegetable, or “V.V.” to produce insiders, was a feminist organic produce distributor collective. The women at V.V. delivered to the all the little hippie health food stores. Veritable has matured into an institution. Even men work there now. It makes me happy to see Veritable’s trucks on the road today because I know she’s a survivor that’s managed to evolve in the face of stiff competition. When the women at V.V. complained to us that our broccoli was turning yellow we had to listen. They suggested we find some way to ice it down.
We didn’t have an ice machine on the farm, and we didn’t know where to go to buy one that could
make the quantities of the crushed ice slurry we would need, so my boss had me buy ice in town. There isn’t much town between Bolinas and San Francisco, especially if you consider I delivered at night in a big truck that was hard to park. So I’d leave the farm around nine PM, late enough to avoid traffic, but early enough to get to the liquor store before it closed for the night. I’d drive slowly around the Bolinas lagoon to avoid hitting animals. The eyes of the racoons and possums crossing the highway to forage for food on the tidal flats would flash in the glare of the headlights. Just past Stinson Beach I’d gear down for the slow grind up the grade that hugs the rocky cliffs. I’d stay in low third past Slide Ranch and gear down even lower for the descent to Muir Beach. The swirling fog in the headlights was disorienting, but I’d keep the window cracked open so the fresh air would keep me alert, and I could smell the brine of the ocean and hear the boom of the surf at the bottom of the cliffs. The uphill grade past Green Gulch was steep, and the road downhill into Tam Junction was curvy. I wouldn’t pick up speed until I got onto southbound 101.
The streets of San Francisco were jarring after the wilds of West Marin. I’d blink against the brightness and watch for drunks and tourists instead of coons and possums. Veritable Vegetable was located in the warehouse district south of Army Street. I’d stop at a liquor store on Bayshore Boulevard that was nearby and stayed open late. The night clerk got to know me. He couldn’t leave the register, but he’d take my money, hand me the keys to the freezer they had out in back, and I’d load all the bags of ice they had in their cooler onto my truck. I’d spread the boxes of broccoli out across the loading dock at V.V. and open them. Then I’d rip open the bags of ice, one by one, and pour the ice into the boxes, then close them, re-stack the pallet, and roll it into Veritable’s cooler. It wasn’t cheap, it wasn’t efficient, and it probably wasn’t even effective, but back then, that was the best we could do.
One night when I got to the liquor store both lanes of Bayshore Boulevard were blocked by a couple of pimps with flashy cars. I don’t know for sure they were pimps. They could have been librarians dressed to kill, out for a night on the town in dark glasses and comporting themselves like fighting cocks, so that ignorant country boys like myself would presume they were successful pimps. The casual manner they took the whole street for their own was threatening. I parked behind them and stepped into the liquor store.
“Sorry Boss,” the clerk said. “No ice in back, but you can take what we’ve got in the store.” He waved me towards the refrigerator cases full of beer. “It’s closing time anyway.”
I went down the aisle, past the display racks of potato chips and the shelves of cheap wine. In the back corner there was a freezer locker with some ice— not enough that I’d be able to ice down the broccoli in conformance with optimum post harvest protocol, but more than I could haul out to the truck by hand. I went to get my dolly.
The two pimp/librarians were still blocking the street, but out of their cars now, strutting, boasting and swaggering. They knew each other, but it wasn’t clear they liked each other. One of the girlfriends was thirsty. “Come on baby,” she called out over the dissonant blare of music pulsing and clashing from both cars’ stereo systems. “Get me a drink.”
I pushed my dolly back to the liquor store, and proceeded to the rear of the store. I laid the dolly down so I could load it. I was on my knees pulling out ten pound sacks of ice when I heard the two pimp/librarians push their way into the store. Ding went the bell. They both wanted liquor— Courvoisier for the one, Johnny Walker for the other. And they each wanted to be served first. It
wasn’t going well for the clerk, who had to decide which arrogant prick of a customer to offend. I straightened up to pull my dolly. From where I stood I could see that the clerk had slipped one hand under the register. Just then, another man entered the store, white, bald, and wearing a camouflage army surplus jacket. He grabbed the first bottle of wine he came to and shoved it onto the counter next to the register.
The pimp/librarians pushed forward to object, and the white guy reached to pull a handgun out of his jacket. If he was intending to rob the store, he’d picked a bad night. Before he had his pistol drawn and leveled, the clerk and both pimp/librarians pulled their guns on him. I dropped down behind the Cheetos and the Ding Dongs. There was a frozen moment while the bald man with the gun decided whether or not he cared if he got shot. The clerk broke the ice.
“No worries Boss, just leave”
And he did, moving slowly backwards out onto the sidewalk. I peeked around the snack rack. The clerk pushed the two bottles of liquor towards the pimp/librarians.
“Thank you sirs. On the house. Come back soon. We’re closed for tonight.”
If delivering produce into the city in the middle of the nights had its film noir moments, there were things about it to appreciate too. The night-shift always plays by its own rules. Meddlesome middle managers are tucked away in bed. Working nights means never getting enough sleep, but the stress of having your circadian rhythms scrambled is partly compensated by a degree of freedom not often seen during the day. There’s a “we’re in this together” feeling that gives you something in common with everyone else you meet, and there’s a camaraderie among strangers at night that’s missing in the daylight.
I remember one night run from the farm into the city. It had rained off and on all day, and at dusk the storm intensified. I left the farm at ten in the evening and drove slowly around the Bolinas lagoon. The tide was rising. The incoming wall of sea water acted like a dam at the mouth of the lagoon and blocked the outward flow of rain water streaming down off the ridges of the G.G.N.R.A. The lagoon was full to the brim and wavelets already lapped at the pavement. At Stinson Beach the wind hit the broad side of the truck like it was filling a sail. Highway One was closed ahead due to a mud slide, so I turned up the Panoramic Highway and away from the coast to take a detour over the shoulder of Mount Tam. There was no traffic and no creatures to be seen. All intelligent sentient beings were snug in their nests, tucked under rocks, sheltered in the holes of tree trunks. The road was covered in twigs and fir needles whipped from the trees by the wind. I stared into high beams and navigated around loose rocks in the roadway. When I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge I felt the full force of the gale, and I held the steering wheel tight in both hands to keep the truck from bucking.
Trucks that cross the Golden Gate always pass through the toll plaza in the far right hand lane. Since I entered the city on a regular schedule, every Tuesday and Thursday around eleven PM, I’d gradually came to know by sight the woman who worked for the Bridge Authority taking tolls. When her mustache and beard grew out enough to contrast oddly with her eyeshadow and rouge it became obvious, even to me, that she was a transvestite. I’m embarrassed now to say that I told jokes at her expense back on the farm, because she had wings under her vinyl windbreaker.
When I pulled up to her booth that night she was waiting for me.
“You hauling potatoes, sugar?” she shouted up.
“How’d you know?”
“You’re allover the scanner! Northbound C.H.P. turned around to look for you. Your potato box lids have been blowing off all across the span.”
“No shit!” she replied. He’ll ticket you . Littering. Spilling your load. Causing a traffic hazard! Take the Presidio off-ramp. They won’t look for you there.”
I gave her my money and took her advice, dodging back into the cover of the tall black cypresses in the Presidio. Sure enough, when I got to Veritable Vegetable the top layer of potato boxes, 50 in all, were missing their lids. I hadn’t secured the plastic tarp well and it had blown away, exposing my cargo. The strong winds I encountered on the Golden Gate must have sent the lids flipping and twirling off in the night like bats. The potatoes were wet from the rain and glowed bright red under the florescent lights in the warehouse.
The following morning I returned to San Francisco in my Volkswagen bug with a load of dry potato
box lids folded flat so the warehousewomen could efficiently stack the order I’d delivered. As I crossed the bridge I stayed in the far right lane hoping to thank this person I’d been making fun of, but she was gone. I guess she only worked graveyard. I never saw her again.
Several years ago in the dead of winter I took my family for a vacation in the City. It rained the entire time, but we had a nice time anyway. Some friends who were off traveling let us house-sit their home in Sutro Heights. Late one afternoon I took my daughter, Lena, and my son, Graydon, for a walk in a lovely park that perches high on the cliffs above Ocean Beach, and we wandered down the rain washed city streets to Baker Beach The clouds over the sea lifted long enough for me to see the outline of Bolinas Head on the northwestern horizon. So much had changed in twenty five years. The same rocky Marin Headlands, the same black cypresses in the Presidio, the same gray, choppy water under the Golden Gate Bridge, but I was different. I had my own farm now, south of San Francisco, with a wife, kids, employees, and a sagging body to care for.
My kids got bored as I stood there looking out across the Golden Gate, and they tugged at me to
leave. So I left. I knew what had happened to the organic food movement I’d come of age in, and I
keep in touch with my friends at Star Route Farm, but I left wondering whatever happened to the clerk, the pimp/librarians, the thief, and my drag queen toll taking angel. So much water under the bridge, but what a beautiful bridge.
copyright 2007 Andy Griffin
The Jerusalem artichokes in my fields aren’t artichokes, and they’re not from Jerusalem. So what are they? For one thing, they’re a problem I need to solve soon.
Scientists call Jerusalem artichokes Helianthus tuberosa. Helios is Greek for sun, and anthus means flower, so the Jerusalem artichoke is a sunflower that makes a tuber. A tuber is an enlarged, subterranean stem, not a root, with buds that can send out roots, other stems, or leaves. Botanists will tell you that plants evolve a tuberous habit to survive harsh environmental conditions. A tuber can remain alive under an insulating blanket of soil for a long time. When rain finally does come, underground tubers are stimulated to sprout stems and greenery, and the plant grows up into the sun. As conditions get hot and dry again, or freezing cold, the life force of the plant retreats from the foliage back down the stems into the tubers that nest protected in the soil. A tuberous plant stores enough nutrients and water in it’s tissue to survive until the soil warms up and the rain comes.
The sugars and proteins stored in the tubers make many of them valuable crops for people. The potato, for example, is a tuberous member of the Solanaceae, that comes from the Andes, where hot days and cold nights make survival a constant challenge. Potatoes are agriculture’s most commercial tuber, but many other plant families have contributed tuberous crops to agriculture. Anu, or Tropaeolum tuberosum, is an edible tuberous nasturtium from the Andes. Yams, or Dioscorea alata, are tubers from Africa. Oca. Oxalis tuberosa, is a tart, edible oxalis from South America. Some home gardeners in California struggle to overcome the sulphur yellow flowered oxalis weeds that overcome their garden plots. They pull the succulent foliage up by the armful, every spring, but the oxalis always comes back, because it’s re-sprouting from tiny tubers buried deep in the soil. A tuberous habit can be a good adaptation to survive the environmental pressures presented by suburbia.
The French explorer Champlain observed the Indians that he encountered in America cooking Helianthus tubers, and he took them back to Europe. The Italians dubbed the plants ” girasole articocco.” The Italian verb girar means to turn, and sole means sun. Helianthus plants have flowers that turn on their stems during the day so that they’re always tracking the sun, facing east at dawn and facing west in the evening. You can observe this behavior if you pay attention to the common sunflowers in a garden. The English, showing their sensitivity for nuance and that spiritual touch that’s made them such an influence in the Middle East , heard the Italian girasole as “Jerusalem,” and named the plants “Jerusalem artichokes.”
There is a faint rationale to calling the Helianthus tuberosa an “artichoke,” since the flesh of the tuber tastes faintly of artichoke, and both sunflowers and artichoke are members of the Compositae. Plants in the Compositae are distinguished by their flower heads, which are made up, or composed, of many independent florets fused into one apparent common flower head. The face of a sunflower is really the face of a community, not an individual. Lettuces, dandelions, thistles, and radicchio are also composites.
But where the iconic garden sunflower makes one huge head, the Jerusalem artichoke is multi- branched, and makes many small flowers. Helianthus tuberosa will produce seeds, but many of the seeds are sterile. Instead, the Jerusalem artichoke spreads by spreading its tubers underground. In a garden setting Jerusalem artichokes can quickly morph from a crop into a weed if the gardener doesn’t remove every last piece of tuber from the soil. I’m not worried about Jerusalem artichokes infesting my field, because we’ll do a good job on the harvest, and what we don’t get, the gophers will.
What does concern me about my Jerusalem artichoke crop is the sheer volume of bio-mass that we are going to have to hack through to get to the tubers.
After they flower, the Jerusalem artichoke plants will start to die back. As the stalks wither they take on a hard, fibrous character. It will be easy enough to cut the dry stalks down with machetes, but trying to incorporate the tough, woody stems back into the soil could be like trying to plough an acre of hemp door mats under. The Jerusalem artichokes are just flowering now, so they’ve finished their upward growth, but they’re very tall. Chef James Ormsby came down to visit the field, and the Jerusalem artichokes dwarfed him. I’m 6’1″, and James is much taller than me, but he looks small standing among the Jerusalem artichokes. Some of the plants must be fourteen feet high. I’m thinking of renting or buying a brush chipper, and feeding the stems through it, so that they’re chewed up mechanically and spit out as a mulch before on top of the soil.
Once the plants have died back and the tubers have formed their protective skin, we’ll begin the harvest. There are tons of tubers to dig up and we don’t have enough space in our refrigerator to store them all, but storage won’t be a problem. By their very nature, tubers store well in the ground, so we will leave the Jerusalem artichokes in the soil and dig them up as needed. The tubers we don’t sell we’ll dig up right before they re-sprout in late February, and plant them out in a new patch of ground for our 2008 crop. Which brings me to my last point- by growing some Jerusalem artichokes and propagating my own plants from tubers I save, I can lower my seed costs, which helps me adapt to the sometimes harsh economic conditions I have to outlast.
copyright 2007 Andy Griffin
it includes the following photos:
1. Jerusalem artichokes emerging from the ground in March 2. Jerusalem artichokes in May 3. James and the giant Jerusalem Artichoke 4. Flowering Jerusalem Artichokes
It’s easy to rent land or borrow money to buy a tractor, but having a family farm means having a family, and that starts with a good woman. The world is full of good women, but not every woman is an asset on a farm. Like many people, I took a few missteps when I first went looking for a life mate. Diana was my most striking failure.
Argentina was a duller place once Diana left to come to America. She’s a beautiful woman, with blond hair and strange golden eyes. She’s a smart woman, who besides her native Castilian, speaks fluent French, Italian, Portuguese, German, and English. The French she speaks properly, because she learned it at an English-style boarding school, the German she learned on her mother’s knee, the Italian she learned from the ladies her mother was friends with in Buenos Aires, and the Portuguese she picked up in a Brazilian women’s prison where she served time for cocaine trafficking. Her affluent father bought her way out of Brazil by selling one of his racehorses.
When I met Diana she used no drug stronger than hierba maté. The herb of hierba maté is a South American desert shrub, Ilex paraguariensis, the dried leaves of which are brewed into a strong tissane called maté. Maté is also the word for the dried gourd which is used by the maté drinkers as a cup, or vessel. Maté is prepared by putting a small quantity of hierba maté leaves in the bottom of the dried gourd, then pouring hot water in to fill it. The maté is then sipped through a silver straw, called a bombilla, that has a spoon-shaped strainer on the end to filter out any particulate matter. Serious Argentinians drink maté daily, or even many times daily.
Diana took her hierba maté like a sacrament, and made a point of using water that was hot enough, but not too hot, else the scalding water drive bitter alkaloids from the stems of the hierba. She considered it important that the drink froth up with a fine foam, not in big bubbles. The only hierba she’d consume was of the highest quality, imported straight from trusted sources in Argentina. Hierba maté is delicious, and because it’s loaded with caffeine, it’s stimulating, but perhaps the most charming thing about the hierba mate ceremony is its social nature, because it is considered right and proper for a hierba sipper to pass their gourd and bombilla around, and in this way people are brought together, and conversations are born.
It was always interesting to hear Diana talk. “These hippies in Santa Cruz,” she’d start out, with exasperation in her voice, and I’d lean forward with a smile, waiting to hear what would come next, because of all people Diana was always the one to have a vision, or feel energies, or talk to birds. She was as close as someone born to Buenas Aires high society can be to being a flower child. And to hear it from her, her neighborhood back home had always been a cradle of non-conformists— the Guevaras lived just down the block. “And wasn’t their son their a disappointment!”
“These hippies in Santa Cruz calling people Nazis because they vote Republican!” She’d continue, and wave her hand in scorn. “In Argentina, we have real Nazis, like my brother, that ignorant, #%^@&*$% prick, tripiando en Hitler!”
But if Diana wasn’t “tripping on Hitler” like her brother, she had a few rough edges, as we all do. When she moved in with me I still was still sharing my house with Ramiro Campos and his family. She and Ramiro crossed swords, and she called him an “indio” — and not with the reverential tone she reserved for a guru she’d visited on an ashram in India. Ramiro called her La Dianamita, The Diana-mite, because she was usually having an explosive emotion, passion, enthusiasm or scandal.
In San Francisco, Diana understood the empty curb sides by the fire hydrants to have been painted red by the City so that She would always have a place to park. All the yellow, blue, green, and white curbs were marked for her convenience too, and the delivery trucks, the handicapped, and the cabs, taxis, and limousines could all wait. When meter maids failed to appreciate this distinction, she’d give them a piece of her mind. But Diana was generous to a fault, and she’d give anyone anything. “If we all shared what we had, and took what we needed, then we’d want for nothing, because life is a miracle, and greed is the constipation of the world!” Meter maids loved hearing that.
“I’m telling you, if you want for something, expect a miracle, and it will come,” she’d insist. But if the city ever got a penny from Diana for her parking fines, THAT would be a miracle.
Diana loved the United States for the freedom of opportunity that it offers, and she wouldn’t stand for our country being trashed by pathetic self-loathing Americans. One day we were selling produce at the Santa Cruz Farmers’ Market, and from across the parking lot she saw a trio of well-dressed, bronze-skinned women with platinum hair and Gucci bags approaching.
“Oh shit,” she said, and turned to busy herself unloading the far side of the pick-up truck where she couldn’t be seen.
But the women had already seen her, and soon there were hugs and kisses and much chatter in rapid-fire Spanish and Italian. The three women were friends of her mothers from Buenos Aires, visiting the United States, and “what an unexpected surprise to see you Diana— and looking so good, so thin, so tan!”
But when the ladies left, Diana’s smile left too.
“You watch,” she said. “When those #%^@&*$% bitches get back to the hotel room, they’re going to call my mother up and tell that they saw me skinny, in rags, and selling potatoes in the streets like an Indian. They’re running for the phone right now!”
And sure enough, when we got home, there was a message from her father, appalled that she’d fallen so low— the prodigal daughter— and offering her air fare home so she could get her life together once again.
“You see?” she said. “Argentina is so stupid! That’s what I love about America!— that anyone can do anything, and if they want to sell vegetables in the street, then that’s honorable too.” Then Diana went down to the beach and threw her Argentinian passport into the ocean, vowing never to return.
As it turns out, Diana went back to Buenos Aires three weeks later, and her father didn’t pay her airfare. It was her aunt— her favorite aunt— who wrote her a letter with an airplane ticket in it, and begged her to come to Buenos Aires as the guest of honor at her upcoming wedding.
“This is important,” Diana said. “This is her sixth wedding, and nobody in the family takes her seriously anymore. If I don’t go, then no one from the family will be there, and what is family, if it’s not standing by your people?”
“Plus,” she added, “Tia’s weddings are so much fun. Last year she booked the reception at the finest hotel in Buenos Aires. Then she got drunk, stripped naked and danced in the fountain in the lobby. The security guards tossed her out of her own party!”
Diana had airplane tickets, but she didn’t have her passport. It was sitting on the seabed 10,000 feet deep in the Monterey submarine canyon off of Moss Landing. So she called the Argentinian consulate in San Francisco and explained the situation to them— that she’d lost her passport and a family emergency in Buenos Aires had arisen. The consular official listened with all due concern, and promised her a copy of her passport within a month. Diana hung up, scowling. A month wasn’t good enough. The wedding was next week.
She called back.
“Perhaps there’s been some misunderstanding,” she said.
“No, we don’t think so,” the clerk replied.
“Because you don’t want to mess with me!” Diana started in. “My father is an ambassador!” (Not true. That would be her Uncle. Her father was an alcoholic, a gambler, and a race horse afficionado.) “And my mother’s lover is a prominent general!” (Not sure there, but Diana’s father may have been a retired army officer) “And I am the close personal friend of….” and here she veered off into a litany of socialites that would have been known to anyone current with the beau monde of Buenos Aires. She concluded by slamming down the phone.
The passport arrived the next day, by special post.
“And that’s what I love about Argentina,” Diana said.
Diana left for the wedding, and all was calm on the farm. When she returned it was high season, and we were busy harvesting everything from Apple pimientos to Green Zebra tomatoes. She helped me load the truck to go to the farmers’ market in Santa Cruz, but we were late. I was speeding down Highway One through Aptos when I heard a siren, and saw a highway patrolman in my rear view mirror. I pulled over.
“You let me handle this,” Diana hissed. “You keep your mouth shut!”
The patrolman approached my pick-up on the passengers side, to avoid being sideswiped in the heavy freeway traffic. My truck was piled high with wet vegetable cartons, tables, tents, and all the paraphernalia of the farmers’ market stall. I was hoping I wouldn’t get a ticket for exceeding my load limit too. Diana rolled her window down. The officer stuck his head in the truck and asked me for my driver’s licence.
Diana looked up at the officer with her golden eyes, and tears began to well up. She sobbed. Then, choking back tears, she began to jabber and plead in German. The office stepped back, looking concerned. She gesticulated, spouted more German, spouted more tears, and when she was done with the cop, he’d welcomed us to Santa Cruz, apologized for frightening us, given us a pantomime of directions to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and wished us a happy stay in America. The patrolman walked back towards his car.
“Go!,” Diana whispered. “Go!”
So I went. The cop didn’t follow.
“What did you say to him,?” I asked.
“Are you happy you didn’t get a ticket?” she asked me.
“Yes, I’m happy. But why were you speaking in German?”
“Your cops,” Diana said. “So cute, and so stupid. If I’d spoken in Castilian, he’d of thought I was a Mexicana, and given you a ticket. And if I spoke in Portuguese, he’d of thought I was a Mexicana, and given you a ticket, and if I spoke in Italian, he’d of thought I was a Mexicana, too, because you Americans can’t tell anyone apart. Everybody knows Americans feel shamed by the French, so I spoke German.”
That’s a snapshot of life with Diana. She lived for novelty, adventure, travel, excitement, and spontaneity. When, after twelve months she tired of the endless cycle of winter, spring, summer, fall, she took off, and moved in with an insurance agent who lived a mile away. I cried with tears of relief to see this striking woman with the golden eyes go. I’m a farmer, and I can only take so much spontaneous combustion. Besides, I agree with Diana. “What is family, if it’s not standing by your people?” Diana found her family before I found mine, but mine was worth the wait. And that’s the lesson of farming— Nature wants to renew herself, but she takes her own time doing it.
copyright 2007 Andy Griffin
Classic pesto is an emulsion of basil, pignoli, or pine nuts, olive oil, and Pecorino cheese. Opinions differ as to whether the olive oil can be augmented (or adulterated) with butter for added creaminess, whether the sharpness of the sheep-milk cheese ought to be moderated (or cut) with a mellower cow- milk cheese, like Parmesan, and whether there ought to be parsley and garlic in the blend. Nobody worth listening to disputes the necessity of the pine nuts for the best pesto.
Pesto is called “pesto,” not “blendo,” because it was traditionally made by hand in a mortar and pestle. Like most people these days, my wife, Julia, makes pesto in a food processor, and I eat it without complaint. I’ve been known to gripe about cleaning all the various paddles, blades and rubber rings that fall out of the food processor, but Julia doesn’t take me seriously. She knows my objections to electric blenders are irrational.
We don’t use my favorite kitchen utensils. Those would be the Indian grinding stones I’ve unearthed over the years while working on different farms. I also have a modern, machine-ground stone mortar and pestle that was a gift from some Mexican farm workers I lived and worked with twenty five years ago on a ranch in Marin county, and I do use that occasionally.
These men weren’t legal to drive, and the farm was an hour from the city, so I bought them bulk tortillas, dry beans, and chiles when I delivered the farm’s produce to San Francisco. They cooked over an open fire, and we all gathered around the coals to share dinner. For lack of a comal, which is a flat griddle for cooking tortillas, they toasted their tortillas in an old hubcap laid on top of the coals.
When the guys finally made it to la pulga, or flea market, in Santa Rosa, they bought a proper comal, they bought me a mortar and pestle, or molcajete y mano. “Here’s a new one,” they said, laughing. They found my fascination with the old, dirty grinding bowls and pestles we dug up in the field amusing.
The meals we shared weren’t much more than tortillas, beans, and barbecued chicken backs, with home-made salsa in the molcajete to spice things up. The food was always simple, but sharing dinner with them was never a grind.
Recently, I had an opportunity to take a trip to an area called The Indians, tucked away on the eastern side of the Santa Lucia Mountains in southern Monterey County. The region is characterized by massive sandstone formations that jut from the earth. I found numerous bedrock mortar holes left in the sandstone by the Salinan Indians.
This area is called The Indians because it was a last redoubt of the Salinan tribe. Following Mexico’s declaration of independence from Spain, the mission system collapsed. The Indian acolytes who’d been at Mission San Antonio, near Jolon, fled back into mountains around 1835, and took refuge in the sandstone rocks. The oak trees nearby gave the Salinans acorns for meal, and pine trees were a source of rich pine nuts. Pine nuts contain up to 31% protein- more than any other nut- and unless they’ve been shelled, they keep well without going rancid.
The Italian Stone pine, Pinus pinea, is the standard commercial source for pignoli, and it’s been cultivated for its nuts for more than 6000 years. The pine the Salinan Indians depended on is Pinus sabiniana, also called Gray pine, Ghost pine, or Digger pine. These pines are sparsely cloaked in gray-green needles, and they cast scant shade. They can survive on only 10 inches of rain a year. Gray pines are usually multi-branched, and they lean at crazy, drunken angles out of the brushy stony slopes that support them.
The American settlers didn’t value Pinus sabiniana because its wood is coarse, twisted, and prone to splitting, and they didn’t value the Native Californians. Salinan Indians survived by foraging for wild foods. They dug in the earth for edible roots, and they dug into rotten logs for edible grubs. To the forty-niners, who dug into earth for gold and cut down the straight, tall Ponderosa pines for lumber to reinforce their mine shafts, the Indians were “diggers,” and the “useless” pines that supported them were “Digger pines.”
Since “Digger pine” is a pejorative- think nigger with a “d”- scientists discourage the use of this derogatory common name in favor of the colorless “Gray pine.” I prefer the equally unscientific name Ghost pine, because it evokes a spirit of times past.
On my trip I took some photos of the bedrock mortars, and I gathered a handful of pine nuts to take home I’ll make my kids crack the tough shells to help build their character, and they’ll think I’m nuts. But to make a perfectly balanced pesto, there’s nothing like the resinous sweetness of pine nuts to serve as such a perfect foil for the unctuous richness of the olive oil and the spicy fragrance of the basil. Besides, pine nuts have always had a significance that went beyond flavor.
The pineal gland is buried at the geographical center of the cranium. It was named by the ancients from the Latin pinea, meaning pine nut, which it presumably resembles. The pineal gland is a tiny organ of mysterious function, identified by various authorities as the “third eye,” or the “sixth chakra.” Pine nuts are shaped like human eyes, so their identification with a gland that promises “inner vision” makes “magical sense.” I don’t know if it’s magic, but when I eat pine nuts, they help me taste the past.
Andy’s Photo essay
Growing vegetables is my business, but raising farm animals is my hobby. I’ve got sheep and goats, but my special pets are my two donkeys, Primavera, a six year old jennet, and her nine-month old foal, Sweetpea. In the evenings, when the scandals and stresses of running a small business can be put to rest for the day, I enjoy taking my donkeys for a walk around our home ranch. Sometimes my daughter, Lena, helps me brush them until their coats are glossy.
You can tell when donkeys are relaxed and happy because they hang their heads in contentment and close their eyes. When Prima is being groomed, her lower lip hangs down as if she’s beginning to melt. Sweetpea likes to be brushed too, but as she’s young and energetic, she’s often impatient to go on her walk. When she and I do go walking, I have to pay attention, because she’s only half-trained. At nine-months, Sweetpea already weighs 400 pounds, and she is strong in both body and spirit.
The other evening, Lena was helping me with Sweetpea, and she took a turn at leading her around the barnyard. I explained to Lena that managing a donkey is a question of will – donkeys are stronger than we are, and their big ears serve as radars to pick up even the slightest tremor in our self-confidence – then I handed Lena the lead rope.
A covey of quail flew up from the grass at the edge of the corral with a flurry of wings, and Sweetpea took advantage of the surprise to lunge in terror. Lena lost hold of the halter rope instantly, and Sweetpea proceeded to race around the pen, bucking and snorting, with the lead-rope dragging behind her like a purple snake. When Sweetpea calmed down, I picked up the rope.
I was a surprised at how easily Sweetpea had been able to break free – my daughter doesn’t scare easily – but then I remembered a traumatic incident involving a donkey in Lena’s early childhood.
When Lena was three, she had her first experience of a Mexican style birthday. It was a picnic at Palm Beach in Watsonville for her friend Saiya. Saiya isn’t Mexicana – her mother, Senai, is Japanese and her father, Mark, is German – but they’d met in Paraguay when they both worked for the United Nations. Spanish and English are their common languages. Watsonville is overwhelmingly Hispanic, so it was natural that little Saiya would adapt to local birthday customs.
Mark went to Happy Burro Market out on the edge of town, and selected a bright piñata from the display that hung from the ceiling above the brooms and mops. He could have chosen a chartreuse and orange Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtle piñata, or a blue and red Spiderman piñata. But Saiya was more interested in animals than action heroes, so he picked out a classic donkey piñata, and bought enough candy to fill its round belly.
Mark and his brother hung the donkey from the overhanging branch of a eucalyptus tree in the middle of the picnic grounds that lie behind the beach. The piñata swayed gently in the breeze. The gray crepe paper strips that made up the donkey’s coat were nicely set off by the animal’s cream colored nose and belly. Black crepe paper made for a pretty mane and tail. The piñata donkey was dressed with a colorful paper saddle of red, yellow, green, and blue, and it even wore a little straw sombrero. Saiya, who was turning four, loved the piñata, and so did her five young guests, Lena, Lydia, Maija, Anwen, and Iliana. There were no brothers present.
When the time came to hit the donkey with a stick, it was difficult, because it was so beautiful. But the violence had to be done. The piñata always comes before the presents, and most importantly, before the cake. These little girls had never beaten a piñata before. When her papa handed Saiya a stout, dry stick he’d picked up from underneath the eucalyptus tree, she looked confused. He showed her how to swing it. Because the girls were so young, the parents present decided to forgo the typical custom of blind-folding the children when they struck at the piñata.
Saiya was the birthday princess, but she was a gracious hostess, so she let Lena go first. Lena missed the piñata on her first swing, and only grazed it with the stick on her second. On her third attempt, she struck a solid blow across the ribs of the donkey, and she turned to me with big eyes for a sign of approval. Lena had hit the piñata hard enough for it to swing in an arc on the end of its rope, but not so hard as to crack it. The donkey made a half turn in the air and came back at Lena like a pendulum, kicking her in the back of the head, and knocking her face-flat in the sand.
The other little girls didn’t have much luck either. It was the first party I’d ever been to where it looked like the piñata was going to win. The little gray donkey with the straw sombrero raged at the end of its tether like a rodeo bronco, and one girl after another bit the dust. Finally, Saiya begged her Uncle to do the deed. While the girls covered their eyes, he took up the stick and delivered a mighty whack to the paper donkey. The piñata’s belly finally tore open, spraying a rooster tail of brightly wrapped candies across the white beach.
The girls swarmed the sand like baboons, and minutes later, when they trooped off to the picnic table for the ceremonial unwrapping of the birthday presents, there was nothing left for the seagulls but a couple of pieces of red and silver foil that smelled like chocolate kisses. I guess the moral of the story is that no matter how sweet and lovely a donkey may appear, you always want to be careful when you’re around the business end of an ass.
copyright 2007 Andy Griffin
The tomatillo is related to the tomato. Its fruits look like immature green tomatoes wrapped in a papery husk, and they’re used throughout Latin America to make salsa verde, or else fried, baked, used in soups, or sliced thin for salads or
sandwiches. The cultivar of tomatillo I usually grow is called Toma Verde. Of the half-dozen or so garden varieties of tomatillo available, Toma Verde is perhaps the most widely cultivated here in the United States. The seed is easy to get, the plants are vigorous, the harvest is generous, and the plump fruits have a pleasant sweet / tart flavor. Yet in spite of- or because of- Toma Verde’s impressive list of domestic virtues, Ramiro Campos told me it was an insipid excuse for a tomatillo.
Ramiro worked for me as the foreman on my farm. We had a long history together. When I was a foreman at Frogland Farm in Watsonville I hired Ramiro as a harvester. When I got a job with Riverside Farms in Aromas as harvest manager, he went with me. When Riverside Farm grew and I became a co-owner, Ramiro became our head foreman, responsible to oversee production across hundreds of acres. Before I got married I shared my house with Ramiro, his wife Amparo, his baby daughter, and his sister. For me, living with the Campos family was better than a trip to Mexico. I got a chance to learn Spanish in a family setting, and I got to eat home-cooked Mexican food like I’ve never tasted in restaurants.
“Wait until you taste salsa verde made with the tomatillos de milpa that grow wild on our ranch in Jalisco,” Ramiro said. “You’ll never grow these Toma Verde again!”
There’s a flat one-acre field with decent soil below my house. Ramiro proposed that we grow a garden on it with the foods he missed from Mexico, like fresh garbanzo beans and tomatillos de milpa. If I donated the field to the project and the tractor to work the soil, he’d do the sowing and cultivating. Ramiro’s brother, Renato, could help with the harvesting, and if I loaned my pick-up to the cause, Renato’s wife, Chupina, would sell the crops in the town of Pajaro. We’d split the profits equally. “Pajaro is full Jaliscanos, right off the ranch,” he said. “They’ll line up for fresh garbanzos and tomatillos de milpa like they’re buying bus tickets.”
I considered Ramiro’s idea carefully. All we had for water was a spring on the hillside that had been dug out by great-grandfather and lined with bricks. A little domestic pump brought the water up to the house, and we barely had enough flow from the spring to wash the dishes, bathe five people, and flush the toilet. “It’s an interesting idea,” I said. “But we don’t have much water. If we raise a crop, but we can’t clean our clothes, and your baby’s dirty, then where’s the profit?”
“Someday you’ll visit us at our ranch in Jalisco, Andres, and you’ll see how much we do without water. We’re thrifty. We can grow garbanzos and tomatillos de milpa without irrigation.”
We walked to the fence and looked out across into the field that spread beneath us.
“See how the field is slightly dished?” Ramiro said, pointing. “This field catches the rain. A foot down the topsoil turns to adobe, and adobe holds the moisture for a long time. If we’re careful when we sow, then the crops will root into damp soil follow the moisture down as the water table recedes in the summer. We’ll keep the field clean, so we don’t lose any moisture to weeds. Without irrigation, a second crop of weeds won’t sprout, and we’ll get a harvest without much labor.”
I didn’t have much to lose.
Ramiro’s uncle came back from a Christmas visit to Jalisco, bringing tomatillo de milpa seeds from plants he found growing wild in the huerta and a sack of garbanzo beans. Ramiro plowed the field in the second week of February, and hilled it up in rows. Half the rows he sowed to garbanzos, and half the beds he left blank to soak up more rain. He planted trays with tomatillo seed in my greenhouse. As the weather permitted, he cultivated the field with the tractor, destroying the weeds that had sprouted between the rows of emerging garbanzos and loosening the soil.
The garbanzos grew green and lush and set the first flowers. Ramiro called on his brother, Renato, to come and help him weed the rows. Then the two of them transplanted out the young tomatillo de milpa plants By the middle of spring the garbanzos began to set seed, two beans per pod. Ramiro could hardly wait for the harvest.
“Nothing,” he said, “nothing tastes as much like spring as fresh garbanzos. Shell the beans while they’re still tender and plump, then fry them in a little butter- a moment, no more- until they’re bright green. Wrap them in a tortilla with a little salsita, and maybe some scrambled eggs, or eat them by the bowl.”
“I’m sure glad I didn’t sign on to do the labor in this project,” I said. “Because with only two garbanzo beans per pod, and only ten pods per plant, it’s going to take you and Renato all month to pick dinner.”
“We don’t pick the beans, Andres,” Ramiro said. ” We pick the whole plants, and make huge bunches tied with twine. Then we pile the back of the pick-up high with them. The amas de casa, the housewives- when they walk down the street and see the mountains of fresh garbanzos in the truck, they’ll crowd around, hungry for a taste of home- they buy the bunches. They pick the beans.”
I admired Ramiro’s campesino logic, but I needed to know more about the Mexicana ama de casa.
“What kind of a value is that? The women don’t have time to shell the beans. How many beans are there per bunch, anyway?”
“When you come to Jalisco, you’ll understand,” Ramiro said. “It’s hot during the spring at the ranch. And after they pick the garbanzo beans out of the bunch, the women take the leaves and put them in large clay jars. They fill the jar with spring water and set it outside in filtered shade. The garbanzo leaves exude a golden liquid, an acidic nectar, that infuses the water with a most delicious tang. When we come back to the house after a day in the sun- don’t talk about cerveza- there’s nothing healthier or more refreshing than cool garbanzo water!”
Ramiro harvested the first garbanzos, and Amparo prepared a meal. Part of me will always be disappointed when I eat in a Mexican restaurant because the meal, heavy as it is may be with meat and beans and corn, never floats through my memory the way Amparo’s fresh “guiso de garbanzo” does. I’ll put fresh garbanzos up against English peas in a grudge match any day. And the garbanzo water? On a hot afternoon in the fields, a thermos bottle full of cool garbazo water beats a six pack of cerveza any day, because you can drink long and deep, and you’re left satisfied, with a clear head.
But what about the tomatillos de milpa?
Ramiro’s tomatillos grew like weeds throughout the spring, even though our last rain fell on the first of April. By June, the field was a galaxy of yellow stars, as the tomatillos showed off their five petaled blossoms. The green papery husks appeared next, and slowly, through June and into July, tiny, nascent tomatillos gradually swelled within them into round green fruits.”
“Compared to los tomatillos de milpa, Toma Verde are insipid,” Ramiro promised.
“The proof is in the salsa,” I said.
Ramiro filled the crown of a cowboy hat with tomatillos de milpa. The fruits were smaller than Toma Verde, hardly larger than a marble, and firm. Each tiny tomatillo was wrapped in a sticky, papery husk. Some of the fruits were purple, others green or yellow.
“It looks like a lot of work to prepare them,” I said.
“You’ll see,” Ramiro said, holding out the hat for me to inspect. “The small size of the tomatillos de milpa doesn’t come at the cost of flavor. All that’s missing is the taste of muddy irrigation water, so the salsa verde will be rich, just like it is on the ranch.”
We built a fire in the yard and laid a comal on the coals. When the comal was hot, we peeled away their papery wrappers and spread the tiny tomatillos de milpa across it. We toasted them until the skins split with the heat. Amparo laid cebollas de rabo verde, or “green-tailed onions” around the edge of the fire to roast. She threw a handful of serrano peppers on the comal. When everything was ready she got out her mano y molcajete, or mortar and pestle. She mashed the roasted onions and tomatillos together with salt and a little flame blistered serrano chile, and served up an autentico salsita verde del rancho, to complement the beans and potatoes in a brace of perfect taquitos.
“Riquissimo!” I said. “The tastiest! And the profit?”
That was a sore point. After Ramiro and Renato had harvested the garbanzos, they’d gone to town with a pick-up load of huge, leafy-green bunches. The Jaliscana amas de casa crowded around the pick-up, arms outstretched, hungry for a taste of home. But they didn’t want to pay any more for the garbanzos in the U.S. than they did back in Jalisco. Price affects appetite. Ramiro ended up giving bunches of fresh garbanzo away for free to the workers on our farm. They paid him in praise.
When Ramiro and Renato harvested the tomatillos de milpa, they loaded the pick-up, and drove with Renato’s wife, Chupina, down to the corner of Porter Drive and San Juan Road in Pajaro. An excited crowd of amas de casa crowded around the pick-up truck and admired the baskets of tiny tomatillos- “Que lindo! Just like the tomatillos from mi tierra!” But the housewives didn’t want to pay any more for tomatillos de milpa than they’d pay for regular Toma Verde tomatillos down the street at the fruteria in Watsonville. “Un peso! Un peso,” they cried, thrusting single dollar bills in Chupina’s face.
It’s one thing to sell tomatillos for a dollar a basket if you can fill the basket with five plump, sweet/tart Toma Verde fruits, but it’s entirely different if it takes fifty tiny, sweeter/tarter tomatillos de milpa. The cost per hour for labor to harvest remains the same, no matter the size of the fruit. For tomatillo de milpa to be as profitable as Toma Verde, they’d have to cost ten dollars a basket. Ramiro paid Renato out of pocket to help pick the tomatillos de milpa, but his harvest costs weren’t covered costs by the sales. On top of that, he paid Chupina for the time she spent trying to sell the tomatillos de milpa on the street corner. He was cross, but I was happy. “We’ve profited equally,” I said. Ramiro shot me a questioning glance.
“Now I know how good food on the ranch can be. And now you understand why I calculate the cost of labor all the time. Not because I want to- but because I have to! Amas de casa are the center of our universe, and they’re thrifty.”
“Amparo isn’t thrifty enough,” he said.
That was true. One of the problems between Ramiro and Amparo was her credit account at Joyeria Don Roberto. (A local jewelry store) I changed the subject. “On the ranch in Jalisco, where money is scarce, picking wild tomatillos de milpa in the huerta is a necessity born of poverty, but up here, where there’s more money, eating like a campesino is a luxury!” I could afford to make light of the situation. Ramiro was eating crow, and I was enjoying home-cooked Mexican food.
Maybe Ramiro gets the last laugh. When their daughter reached school ge, Ramiro and Amparo returned to Jalisco so she could get a proper Mexican education. Ramiro bought a ranch with the money he earned in California, and now he raises goats and makes cheese. His offer to host me when I travel to Jalisco still stands, and one day I’ll make the trip. But no matter how novel Jalisco will seem to me, some things will be familiar- like the tomatillos. I’ve tried twice, and failed both times, to grow fresh garbanzos, but every spring in the field below my house Ramiro’s wild tomatillos de milpa sprout like weeds among my herb beds, whether we work the soil, or not. It’s my business if I choose to grow Toma Verde, but Ramiro might say it’s my own damn fault if I choose to eat them.
Copyright 2007 Andy Griffin
When my farm has me stressed, and I want to leave it all behind, I throw the kids in the minivan and head down the coast highway to Big Sur. I call out every stream we cross on our way south like train stations. “ Salinas River, Carmel River, San Jose Creek, Maldonado Creek.” It never fails that when we pass over the Garrapata Creek bridge, a cry goes up from the back seat, “Tell us about the pancakes!”
“But that story has no redeeming social value,” I protest.
“Pancakes, pancakes, pancakes,” Graydon and Lena chant.
So I tell them again. When I was their age, a great friend of mine was an old cowboy named Jimmy Bell. Jimmy had a story about when he was a kid growing up on a little homestead up Garrapata Creek with his Uncle Harvey. This was back in the 1920’s, when life on the south coast meant growing all your own food and only going to town for essentials a couple of times a year. Uncle Harvey earned what little cash he had from selling a few head of cattle. Kerosene, bullets, baking powder, nails, wire, flour, and clothing all came from Monterey. Liquor came from local bootleggers, who traded it for dried beef. A lot of things we take for granted, Jimmy and his Uncle Harvey did without.
Uncle Harvey had a friend named Doolan, a hermit. He might have been a fugitive from the law. Doolan lived further down the coast, back in the wilderness, in a little cabin tucked away in a dark redwood canyon along a stream that fed into the Big Sur River. Locals called the remote spot “Doolan’s Hole.” Doolan hunted wild game and panned for the few flakes of gold hidden in the river gravel. But mostly he just laid low.
Every once in a while Uncle Harvey would saddle his horse, pack some supplies on his mule, and ride down the coast to visit Doolan and trade for gold. Jimmy would go along as part of the baggage on the mule.
Doolan’s Hole was dank and shady with ferns, moss, and mushrooms growing lush in the dim light. Sunbeams only penetrated the gloom for an hour or so a day during the height of summer. Doolan always had a cold, or maybe it was an allergy; anyway, he snorted like a pig.
A visit from Uncle Harvey with his mule load of supplies was like a visit from Santa Claus for feral old Doolan. Jimmy and Uncle Harvey would stay the night before starting out again for their homestead on Garrapata Creek. In the morning, Doolan would celebrate his guests by making his favorite treat: pancakes. While the little fire of manzanita burls burned down to coals, Doolan would get out the flour Uncle Harvey had brought him, and any chicken eggs that had survived the bone-rattling journey by mule from Harvey’s hen house. The skillet was pulled down from its nail on the wall of the shack, and greased with deer fat.
The jug of fresh milk Harvey had packed for the trip would be shaken by its mule ride, so the butterfat in it would already be churned into lumps. Jimmy would fetch the milk jug from the creek where it had been left to chill overnight, and fish the lumps of butter out with a spoon.
Once all the ingredients were gathered up, the batter could be ready in a jiffy, but you wouldn’t wan to pour it in the skillet too soon, or you won’t get a pancake that flips easy. To make sure his skillet was hot enough, Doolan had a method. He’d plug up one nostril with his right thumb and blow the contents of his runny nose into the pan. If the skillet sizzled, it was time to make the first golden brown pancake. If a cheery sizzle was missing, Doolan would stoke the coals in the fire pit and wait a bit before trying again with the other nostril.
“Oooh, gross!,” the kids cry out. “Tell it again!”
“No,” I answer. “Once is enough.”
We keep driving south, past the Little Sur River, past the huge rock that rises up like a small mountain from the surf and forms Point Sur. My great-grandfather, Marius Jorgensen, helped with the stonework in 1902, when they built the keepers quarters for the Big Sur Lighthouse that sits atop the rock. If the kids are bugging each other, or me, I’ll make them listen again as I tell them all I know about Marius.
I know that Marius came to Watsonville from Denmark in the 1890’s. Denmark is a small country and back then it was poor. When Marius was born, Denmark had just gotten even smaller and poorer because the Germans had invaded and seized the province of Schleswig-Holstein. For the youngest son in a farming family, the choice was to work on the farm for the oldest brother when he inherited the land, or go to sea. Marius emigrated to Germany and found work as a plasterer, a mason, and a painter. My uncle told me that when the Kaiser tried to draft Marius into the German Army, he too the money he’d saved, returned to Denmark to say goodby to his family, and sailed for America.
In the last century Danish immigrants had a reputation in America for being ignorant and stubborn peasants who were usually drunk. “Square-head” or “block-head” were two common derogatory epithets for Scandinavians. But Marius found that his skills as a plasterer, mason, and painter made him a marketable laborer. “Money is so easy to earn in America,” he wrote back to his family, “ that work is like stealing! Send me a wife!”
So they did. Marius met Petra for the first time at the train station. They married and had three daughters: my grandmother Anna, and her sisters Katherine, and Helga. Petra died young in 1905, shortly after the birth of her third daughter.
We pass over the bridge that crosses the Big Sur River and drive past the Forest Service Headquarters. I can remember back in the summer of 1967, when there was a line of hippies that extended from the Forest Service headquarters all the way up the grade to Post Ranch, hitch-hiking south to L.A. So many flower children tried to go back to nature that the Forest Service had to shut down some campgrounds because there was human feces in the river.
When I was a kid I asked someone why so many people wanted to come to Big Sur, and they said it was because Big Sur was a “power spot” where spiritual energy welled up out of the earth like a spring, and that a person could renew themselves by simply being there and soaking up the good vibes.
My father heard that and grinned. He was a scientist— empirical— and he said that what goes up must come down. If Big Sur was a fountain of energy, then Salinas must be the drain. Even now I wonder, because the Salinas Valley is a veritable salad bowl that feeds America, and yet despite all the wealth its land produces, not much seems to stay in Salinas. The money drains away.
The Post Ranch goes past the car window. Nowadays there are rooms for rent, and a very fancy restaurant. My grandparents, Anna and Graydon, stayed at the Post Ranch for their honeymoon in 1918. Post Ranch was a ranch at the end of the road back then, and only cattle trails stretched south along the coast. They took a romantic walk up the Big Sur gorge, and surprised some bootleggers who fired a shotgun at them. My friend Jimmy Bell would have been around the area at that time. In fact, he told me a curious story that I’ll tell my own children someday.
Jimmy said that one time he and his Uncle came south after visiting Doolan to see “the old Chinaman.”
This old gent lived in a cottage built of driftwood on a rock just above the surf some miles south of Post Ranch. He made his living gathering seaweed and abalone. He cut the abalone into strips, salt it with sea salt he collected, and laid the meat out to dry in the sun on a rock set back from the sea spray. He dried the seaweed he collected in the same way.
When the abalone and seaweed were properly cured, he would pack it in bags for storage. The next time someone like Uncle Harvey came along with a horse, he would pay them in dried abalone to haul the packages to Post Ranch, from where they would be sent by wagon to Monterey, and eventually to Chinatown in San Francisco— where a relative would sell them in his market. Sometimes the old man would carry his wares to Post Ranch on his back in a sack, but he didn’t like to visit civilization very often.
One day, as Jimmy and Uncle Harvey were passing by the Post Ranch heading south, they saw a strange sight. There was a long, black limousine parked at the end of the road, with a Chinese man in a formal black business suit brushing the dust from his black shoes. They called out “hello” to him, but he didn’t turn to greet them. He stepped into the back of the car, and it pulled away. Seeing a car that far south was odd enough. Jimmy told his Uncle Harvey that this was the first time he’d seen a Chinaman drive a car. Uncle Harvey reminded him that they hadn’t seen the Chinaman drive, only step into the back— and they hadn’t seen the driver at all.
Past Post Ranch the road got worse, and by Castro canyon it was no wider than a cow track. Jimmy and his Uncle counted the times they crossed streams, because the trail to the Old Chinaman’s shack was hard to find. When they did find the trail, they dismounted and led their horses on foot. The trail was steep and the brush closed in tight. To make matters worse, the old fellow was afraid of demons, so he had fashioned the trail as a maze, with false spurs and disorienting loops. In places there were little brass bells that tinkled to startle the evil spirits. It took someone with skill and patience— or better yet, prior experience with the Old Chinaman— to reach the rocky cove where the cottage stood.
When they got to clearing, they shouted out a hello, as is proper in the country when you drop in unannounced. They could see the abalone drying on the rock, and the strips of green-black seaweed, but there was no sign of the old gentleman. The driftwood door was open. They heard the buzz of flies before they entered. The old Chinaman was sprawled out his back dead, his body riddled with bullet holes. Maybe that was Death back there, getting into the limousine, Uncle Harvey said. Maybe the Devil is Chinese, or maybe he can look like anyone. He couldn’t say, not having really seen his face.
copyright 2007 Andy Griffin
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