Fee! Fie! Foe! Fum! I smell an acre of fava bean plants in full bloom on my farm. The sweet scent of the fava blossoms prompts me to sniff critically at contemporary accounts of Jack and his magic beanstalk. What magic can a bean possess? What variety of bean did Jack plant, anyway? And what was really going on once-upon-a-time in fairy tale England? The vagueness of the folkloric record makes any forensic botanical taxonomy of the Jack myth speculative, but we do know when certain species of bean were introduced to
Favas are called broad beans in , and they thrive in plants thrive in Britain’s cool, moist climate. Summer in Britannia is roughly equivalent to winter in Aegyptus, and the plant has been a common food crop ever since the conquering Romans legions brought it to Northern Europe from the . Columbus encountered America in 1492, and it wasn’t long before the new beans made their mark on Old World cookery. Accounts of Jack and his magical beans first appeared in print in 1734 as The Story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean, but the tale of the beanstalk to the sky existed before in the oral tradition, though for exactly how long is uncertain. So, while the broad bean is the traditional English bean, it remains possible that Jack’s bean could have been any one of the more than three thousand cultivars of Phaseolus vulgaris.
Jack was sent by his mother to take the family cow to market and sell her. But he allegedly traded the cow to the first leprechaun he meets for a handful of beans. A cow was easily a family’s most important resource back during fairy tale times when eating locally and seasonally was the reality, so Jack’s exchange seemed like a stupid, doomed strategy. But supposedly when Jack planted one of the beans it grew into the stratosphere, and he was able to climb the stalk to where a giant lived in a castle set among the clouds. First Jack stole a sack of coins, then he slipped off with a goose that laid golden eggs, and finally he took a magical harp that sang. Jack killed the giant and used his new wealth to attract a lovely bride. In short, Jack owed his elevation in social status from that of a poor single cowboy living at home with his mother to being a wealthy bride-holder to a bean. The only question for those of us that would like to follow his footsteps is, “which kind of bean do we plant?”
New World Phaseolus beans differ from the Old World beans in that they grow during the hot summer months. Over much of the American tropics where Phaseolus beans evolved, rain comes in the summer months. In the desert Southwest region of and , where beans are a staple food, Native American farmers irrigated their crops from ditches during the summers. The dramatic growth rates that warmth-loving Phaseolus vulgaris can achieve during optimum conditions could well have appeared as magical to English peasant folk, accustomed as they were to the sedate pace of the cold tolerant fava. If you were an English farm worker in the 16th century, responsible to train the sprawling Phaseolus beans to poles, it might seem as though the new American beans could stretch out to touch heaven overnight. But vulgaris means common in botanical Latin, and Jack’s bean was anything but common. Ironically, for much of its history, Vicia faba was not only more common than Phaseolus vulgaris, but more magical as well.
Broad beans had been a staple food for people in the Mediterranean basin and central for over thirty thousand years. As the fava bean was passed from generation to generation, its reputation grew. Rameses III offered 11,998 jars of shelled fava beans to the Nile god. The hollow, tubular stems of the fava plant were understood by the priesthood of ancient Egypt to be channels through which souls passed to the underworld. It is probably for this reason that the Greek philosopher/mystic Pythagorus, who learned his wisdom in , promoted his theorem that “it is evil to eat beans.” Favas, which grew through ’s mild winters, were an obvious sign of rebirth, too. The tender fresh bean the fava plant yields in early spring was the first edible gift of the year from the ancestors to the living.
Later, in Christian Europe, a dried fava bean was traditionally folded into the batter of a Twelfth Night Cake at before the dessert was set into hot ashes to bake. One third portion of the cake would be dedicated to the virgin mother and one third part offered to the Magi. These pieces were offered to the poor, while the remaining third got eaten at home. Whoever ended up with the bean in their mouth was “King” for the day. From Rameses the third to Henry the eighth, and from the underworld to the heavens, broad beans were agents of transformation.
Jack’s poverty, trickery, and violence is faithfully reported in the beanstalk story, but no consistent, specific graphic details are included that might help any of us to pick out a magic bean from among all the common ones. Contemporary artists illustrating the story invariably picture the kidney shape of a Phaseolus bean in Jack’s palm, and when they draw foliage that in any way resembles bean leaves, they show heart shaped Phaseolus leaves hanging from the vine, not spoon shaped Vicia faba leaves. This artistic leap to conclusions is understandable, if unwarranted. Jack and the Beanstalk is considered a children’s story and children are not taught to be picky about the graphic details of systematic botany. Then too, many modern illustrators are computer savvy urbanites, comfortable with the virtual world, but unable to tell a bean tree from a banana vine on our actual planet. And if gardens have largely disappeared from the average person’s experience, it’s also true that fava beans have mostly disappeared from the American diet. Broad beans were once ground into flour and prepared in belly-stuffing starchy gruels, but that role has largely been taken over by the potato in the last two hundred years. But despite the testimony of children’s book illustrators, I think Jack’s bean was a broad bean.
Phaseolus vines can reach to fifteen feet in length, but the stems are and the plant must cling on something if the plant is to reach the sky. No edition of Jack and the Beanstalk that I’m aware of makes mention of a magical bean pole to support a magical Phaseolus. Maybe deceptive botany and sloppy illustration is appropriate for Jack and the Beanstalk because, “Fee!Fie! Foe! Fum! I smell an English scam at the heart of this fairy tale. The “immoral” to Jack’s story is that luck, trickery, and murder gain you the girl, but the real fairy tale here is that any honest agricultural endeavor can yield riches overnight.
But there is magic in a broad bean. Favas duplicate themselves so prolifically and reliably that they can remind us of the metaphoric geese that lay golden eggs. On Mariquita Farm, we harvest the green tips of young fava plants for cooks to use like pea shoots, and when the first beans are only the size of tender young green beans, we harvest them too. By the time the broad beans are swelling in their pods, we’ve been harvesting from the fava plants for several cool, wintery months, and the main harvest is still out in front of us. In that sense, favas work magic on our farm’s cash flow. Then too, fava beans are actinorhizal plants, which means that by virtue of a mutually beneficial relationship they have with a microorganism that infects their roots, they’re able to capture inert nitrogen from the atmosphere and convert it into a usable for of nitrogen, so that as they grow they fertilize themselves and enrich the soil for the crops that follow.
Fava beans are great, and magical in their own way, but even with a field of them to look at it still takes work to live happily ever after by farming. Jack is such a hustler I suspect that the real story is that he sold the cow and then spent the money on wenches and beer after the farmers’ market. At the inn, the barmaid was probably serving salted, toasted broad beans to help beer sales, and before he left, Jack probably stole a handful for the road. When he got home, he likely had nothing to show for the cow but bad breath and a handful of beans, so he made up a fairy tale about a leprechaun to satisfy his credulous mother, and then turned to a life of crime. The End.
copyright 2008 Andy Griffin
Fava Bean Recipes
rose-colored fava blossom photo
Fava Bean Ladder
Right now I’m working my way through The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle. This is a “no-food” book. If it had been written now, instead of in 1833, the chapter I’m reading now might have been titled “The Women Who Had Nothing to Eat,” or “French Women Can’t Get Fat.” As Carlyle relates, generations of appalling Royal French agricultural policy combined with a freak August hailstorm that destroyed the nation’s grain crop to bring
But women don’t want to live off of bread alone. Culture evolves when there’s enough food available that people can chew their meals slowly and ruminate on what life means. Charles Darwin is so famous for his speculations concerning the origins of species that his food writing came as a surprise to me. In The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin recounts stumbling over fossilized mastodon skulls on the Pampas and he ruminates on the implications of the shark’s teeth he finds imbedded in rocks high up in the Andes, but he also focuses his considerable forensic powers on his dinner plate. One night
Jeffery Steingarten might try to test
Then there’s Beatrix Potter, the gentle storyteller of ordered English landscapes. In The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, Beatrix Potter uses the soporific effects of lettuce as the dramatic device by which Farmer McGregor catches six bunnies. Before I flipped the third page I knew things wouldn’t go well for Farmer McGregor, but as a lettuce grower he had my sympathy. I put the Potter book down and turned to my copy of The Oxford Companion to Food, to learn more about the pharmacological properties of lettuce.
I learned that in the beginning there was Lactuca serriola, or wild lettuce, which grew on rocky or disturbed ground across Asia, North Africa, and
In the end, the Flopsy Bunnies are saved by a mouse. Beatrix Potter is no Steingarten, Carlyle, or Darwin. By lulling young readers with a drowsy tale of lettuce and bunnies, she makes the night comfy. But even for farmers like me, who might resent the fictional breaks she gives to varmints, there are reasons to admire Beatrix Potter. Carlyle and Darwin drew their readers’ attention to the dire consequences of shortsighted agricultural policy, but Beatrix Potter did something about it. She invested her earnings from her animal tales in farmland. She knew the best way to preserve the countryside is by protecting working farms, so that consumers can eat fresh, local food, farmers and farm workers remain gainfully employed, and the landscape is well husbanded. When Beatrix Potter passed away she passed her properties on to the National Trust, and today the land the Flopsy Bunnies paid for lies at the heart of
copyright 2008 Andy Griffin
“The best time to buy a new suit,” Greg said, “is when you’re broke.”
I hadn’t gotten into farming to wear a suit. Greg’s point was that it’s precisely when you have no money that you need the confidence a new suit can give you. But what we needed was a field.
We’d just lost the lease on the ground we were farming. We didn’t have any money or credit, but if we could find some land we could improvise. Time was on our side. In 1991 there was a future in organic farming. So Greg and I walked down the railroad tracks with his friend Steve, and had a business conference of sorts. Steve wanted to show us an abandoned field he’d found. You can see the field too, if you’ve got access to Google Earth.
Boot up, click on Google Earth, and rotate the planet until you see
The town of
If you watch East of Eden, starring James Dean, wait for the scene where he’s riding in a box car “from
Down stream from the quarry the
Have you found the field? Follow the river east from the quarry, to a point where three counties are shown to join, near an oxbow. It’s triangular, with the traces of an access road dividing the land along a north/south axis. The latitude is 36 53’53.15” North, the longitude 121 34’30.85” W. Elevation, 158ft. The horizontal grey strip that forms the northern border of the field is the railroad track that Greg, Steve, and I were walking on.
“Here it is,” Steve said.
We looked down from the raised roadbed of the train tracks across the field. Scattered clumps of coyote brush stood ten feet tall among the thatch of dead weeds. Any houses on the other side of the river were screened from view by the thick jungle of cottonwoods, willows, and live oaks along the riverbank. The field felt like a forgotten place.
My uncle George told me once that back in the thirties this field was called “Okie Flats,” because dustbowl refugee families squatted here. There were apricot orchards in Aromas then, giving migrants an opportunity to pick fruit. And on a hike one day, in a canyon behind the field, I found Indian grinding stones, splinters of obsidian, and an asphalt seep where the Indians used to collect the tar they used to seal baskets. I’ve read that tar from these pits was traded the length of
“We could farm here,” Greg said.
“Nobody’s farmed here since the forties,” Steve said. “Somebody did a crop of sugar beets. It was a bitch to haul the harvest out.”
Steve had touched on a problem. The only access to the field was a rutted four-wheel drive track that ran along the railroad right of way. The track had been the Stage Coach road between the
“Do you know who the owner is?” Greg asked.
“No,” said Steve, “but I talked to a cowboy who works on the ranch across the railroad tracks, and he says the owner is a Chinese guy in
“Maybe he won’t care if we farm this field just a little” Greg said.
“The cowboy said that for a thousand dollars he won’t notice if you do.
“The tall hemlock weeds make me think that the soil here is perfect carrots or parsnips,” I said.
“Then it’s settled,” Greg said.
So we broke the old rusty chain that stretched across the entry way to the field along Highway 129 back by the
The soil was rich. We chased the dirt bikers off that would come into the field to tear up the rows or chase the cattle on the hills beyond. We chased off guerilla recyclers that were stealing our aluminum sprinkler pipe valves to sell for scrap, or pulling the cables out of the Southern Pacific fuse boxes to steal the copper wire. We chased off the people from town that came to toss their trash in the riverbed. As we entered the field one day a pick-up truck pulled in behind us.
“I don’t know that guy,” Greg said. “Cut him off!”
I pulled over, blocking the road. The man jumped out of his truck. His face was red with fury.
“This is private property,” Greg said.
“You’re goddamn right!” the man yelled. “I’m the property manager. Get the f#$% out!”
Greg got out the car, wearing a warm smile and extending his hand.
“Hi. My name is Greg. This is Andy. We’re delighted to meet you.”
The man thrust a business card at Greg. Greg glanced at the card and pocketed it.
“You’re trespassing,” the man said. “This land is owned by CSY Associates. Get out, or face charges.”
‘You know, you’re absolutely right, Herman,” Greg said. “Can I call you “Herman?”
Herman’s face looked like a boil about to burst.
“You can call the Sheriff,” Greg said. “It’s criminal. I mean, we even went and got a power drop.”
“You’ve got no goddamn right,” Herman said.
“Herman,” Greg said. “Let’s all try to look at this situation as an opportunity. If you go to the Sheriff and charge us with trespassing, you become the property manager who was so slack he let hippies invade the field. We’ll go to jail and you’ll look like a real asshole….”
I was hoping Herman wouldn’t hit Greg, but Greg was mellow.
“But what if you present the Associates with the opportunity to realize a profit off their previously unproductive asset?” he said. “You tell your employers that if you’ve found some potential tenants who will accept the responsibility of grading an access road to the field, clearing the land, and getting a power drop, in trade for a free year’s rent. After that, they’ll be able to pay 400 dollars per acre rent for a five years’ lease on thirty acres. That’s 60,000$ your employers wouldn’t have had in their pockets if you hadn’t put it there. When we look at things my way, Herman, you’re a hero.”
“We’ll be in touch,” Herman said.
The rent contract ushered in a prosperous period, and we farmed the field for the next seven years. We laser-leveled the ground so that it was perfectly flat and pitched just slightly towards the river away from the centerline road, so it drained well. We alternated vegetable crops with cover crops of legumes, oats, and rye. Cool breezes blow up the
In the summer we could reach the field easily in a pick-up truck. In the winter we’d ferry the harvest out in wagons pulled behind four wheel drive tractors. During floods, when the road was submerged, we’d walk our harvests out on our backs. I drove the tractor up onto the railroad tracks a couple of times and drive right past the flooded sections of trail, but after I almost got flattened by a locomotive I stopped that foolishness.
The CSY Associates had a golf course/ luxury home concept for their property, which extended for thousands of acres across the railroad tracks towards the town of
We started having problems with meth-fueled punks in jacked-up pick-ups tearing around the field in the middle of the night. Thieves tried to steal our tractors. We called all four Sheriffs’ Departments, but they were unable to help us. There was no Google Earth back then, and the way the Sheriffs understood it, our field was just over the line in somebody else’s county.
Then a California Fish and Game representative arrived and said that due to new regulations we’d no longer be able to pump from the
Until I dropped in on the field via Google Earth, I hadn’t been back. Sometimes I miss the field. We used to see wild turkeys there, and badgers. I liked the quiet, and it was fun to wave at the engineer and the passengers on the train when it rolled past. Nobody has followed us onto the field yet. As you can see from Google Earth, the field is fallow, waiting for a farmer in a new suit.
copyright 2008 Andy Griffin
Carrot Mint Salad
I love mint. I love carrots. Here’s the result of another Tour du Fridge. This was actually at a restaurant I worked at. – Chef Andrew Cohen
1 lb. Carrots
2 T lemon juice
4 T fruity olive oil
1/2 shallot, minced
A pinch each of powdered cumin and caraway or A largish pinch of ras el hanout
2 T fresh mint, minced
Peel the carrots and use a mandolin to shred medium, or use a grater and grate the carrots coarse. If carrots are tender, proceed. If not, quickly blanch the carrots just long enough to render them tender, then plunge in ice water to stop the cooking and refresh the carrots.
Make dressing; add the spices to the lemon juice, along with the shallot. Allow the flavors to bloom for a few minutes. Whisk in the olive oil. Toss carrots with the dressing. Add the mint just before service. If you wanted something a little creamier, you could add in a little plain yogurt to the dressing.
Chocolate Chip Carrot Cake adapted from Recipes from a Kitchen Garden by Shepherd & Raboff
1 cup butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 ½ cups flour (I use half whole wheat)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon allspice
2 Tablespoons cocoa powder
½ cup water
1 Tablespoon vanilla
2 cups shredded carrots
¾ cup chopped nuts
¾ cup chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. (I use my standing mixer for this recipe!) Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Sift dry ingredients together. (if using whole wheat flour mix thoroughly but don’t sift); add to creamed mixture alternately with water and vanilla. Fold in carrots, nuts, and chips. Pour/smooth into greased and floured 9×13 inch pan. Bake for 45 minutes. Cool and top with dusted powdered sugar or a citrus glaze or a cream cheese frosting.
Be gone, flee from Toulouse ye red ones,
For the sacrifice to make expiation:
The chief cause of the evil under the shade of pumpkins:
Dead to strangle carnal prognostication.
-The Prophecies of Nostradamus, Century IX, quatrain 46.
I don’t have the gift of vivid obscurantism that has given the rhymed prophecies of Michele de Nostradamus such relevance to so many people over the centuries and provoked so many varied and contrasting interpretations. Nor do I claim to be able to predict the fates of nations and princes as far out as 3797 AD, the way the French seer did. I’m a farmer, yoked to the mundane and obvious. But it’s a new year, and I’m not going to let my plodding, blindered, draft horse mentality hold me back any longer. I have six prophetic visions of stories that will be covered in the food/agricultural press during 2008, and if it turns out they’re not, they should have been. I’m not much of a poet, but you only have to wait one year to see if I’m totally full of bull. As a courtesy to the literal minded or cryptically impaired I provide my own interpretations for three of my oracular raving below, but let’s see if you can guess the rest. Here goes:
- Demeter and Pomona in chains, tied to scaly trunks,
Of giant eucalypti that smother all new shoots.
Children in face paint talk to scarecrows at the harvest festival,
While inspectors certify the parade.
- Tattooed youth flash navel rings,
And suck on silver straws.
Carried in a hollow gourd, green, frothing and aromatic,
The vice of Paraguay spreads across the northland.
- A new ice age dawns.
The Queen of Holstein bellows in pain,
Her breasts swollen to bursting.
But no men in white hats ride to her rescue.
- The apple tree goes up in smoke,
But the little apple lingers.
A joint turns on the spit
While the sated critic looks into the coals.
- With a pass of the wand
Decay shows itself beneath the green.
The miles, the days— all is revealed.
A little knowledge is an evil thing.
- Stupid thieves have eyes for gold,
Coins, rings, and the pendent dangling in her cleavage.
But junkies and men in loafers look beyond the surface,
And see the wealth that glitters in dull metal.
1. Pomona in Chains: As Americans become more aware of their ignorance about where their food comes from and how it is produced the curious among us naturally want to learn more. Consumers, suspicious of the food for sale in chain stores and fast food restaurants, are turning to farmers markets as a wholesome alternative. But does the farmers’ market industry, as an institution, live up to the image the public has of it, or merit the faith and good will that the public places in it? Consumers can find the same farmer selling apples in at a farmers’ market in Vista, down by San Diego, as well as in others along the San Francisco bay. In fact, if you travel from market to market, you will see a number of the same farms selling all over the state— this in a state with thousands and thousands of farms. “Small” farms that have secured spots in the most profitable markets are becoming retail chains that spread their branches like mighty, water sucking trees, while new, local, smaller farms struggle in the shade to get any exposure at all. And the farmers markets themselves are increasingly organized under umbrella organizations that give consumers cookie-cutter versions of what “small” and “local” means in town after town. I predict that in 2008 an enterprising reporter for the business section, or community-minded bloggers with interest in the vitality of the food-shed, will begin to look beyond the face paint to seek answers for the following questions:
a) What is a farmers’ market legally, and how does it differ from a flea market, a supermarket, or the black market? Does the CDFA have the budget and the staff to adequately fulfill its mandate to oversee the markets? Is anyone really checking to see that all of the farmers are really farmers? Are inspectors or market managers willing or competent to tell the difference between dried apricots imported from Turkey or garlic imported from China? Can anyone explain how some small farms are able to “harvest” perfectly sized, graded red creamer potatoes all year long, while other farmers have to contend with seasonal harvests of potatoes of mixed sizes?
b) Who decides which farms get in to a farmers market, and why? Does the state have an interest in making sure that the institution of the farmers market serves the public as an incubator for a rising generation of new farmers, or should the privileges of a choice spot in a choice farmers market remain with the farmer/vendor in perpetuity? Should tax-paying farmers have to compete for limited farmers’ market stall spaces or divide their retail sales with tax-exempt non-profit organizations? Do farmers pay income taxes on their farmers’ market sales?
c) What role do farmers’ markets play in addressing the public’s increasing concerns about food security? Are the pesticide use reports that farms must submit to county agricultural agents public records, and if so, in this age of digital everything, might the public ever be in a position to know what’s really being put on the crops they eat? Why do some neighborhoods have farmers’ markets and others don’t. In short, what are farmers markets’ really like at the present, and what could they be, or are they perfect the way they are?
3. An Ice Age Dawns: It’s all the rage to bash illegal immigrants for all the jobs they’re stealing, and politicians of every stripe outdo each other in promising how fast they’ll throw the Spanish speaking terrorist/parasites from our country, but none of them want to discuss how the work is going to get done if they don’t also make it possible for trained workers to become legal. ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, has been stepping up workplace raids. I have a farmer friend who was next door to a dairy out in the valley when ICE raiders hauled the entire workforce off to Mexico in a bus. “You should have heard the cows bellowing,” my friend said. What happens to all the cows with engorged udders when the dairy workers are deported? Who feeds the confined cows or checks their water when, all of a sudden, the cowboys are shipped off to Mexico? Does anyone really believe that there’s an available pool of trained, legal milkers available to take on the burden of milking several hundred extra cows for an employer who’s just been raided? Does anyone really think America’s unemployed come crowding into the milking barns at 2AM to regain the jobs that were stolen from them two generations ago? If the mainstream press doesn’t hear the cows mooing for relief, the “vegangelical”/animal rights activist blogosphere will. Got milk? Got mercy? Got a clue?
5. A Pass of the Wand: “Use-by dates” are on every box of milk, but what about bags of prewashed ready-shreddy salad. Actually, given the amount of press given over to “fresh and local,” it might be far more interesting for shoppers to learn when something was picked, and where. After all, you can use your eyes and nose to tell when your veggies are rotten. In a basement laboratory somewhere a tech nerd with an interest in food science is even now inventing a tiny gadget that can be installed in every cell phone. Soon, all the information about where and when “farm-fresh, triple-washed” salads were harvested will be digitally contained on bar codes on the side of the bag. Industry already keeps this information to comply with health and safety regulations— or at least they’re supposed to— they just haven’t focused on how and why they could/should share it. Impossible? Know this: Even if digitalized harvest data gets lost or computers crash when health inspectors go looking to determine who’s responsible for an e coli outbreak, the information was gathered. Modern corporate “farms” are more like interlocking partnerships than “Old MacDonald’s” back forty. Behind a “label” and an advertisement showing a little girl in an Edenic setting, there’s a sales company that represents the label, there’s a wash plant that blends the harvest of dozens of far-flung fields, there are “independent” harvest companies that do the cutting under contract, hauling companies that get paid by the load to deliver greens from the field to the wash plant, and there are finally even farms that plant, cultivate, and irrigate the product. At each step of the harvest process there are reams of data collected, not to satisfy the health inspectors should they ever come calling, but to help the accountants who must reconcile all of the bills and bills of sale that are passed around. If the health inspectors can’t figure out where something came from, then maybe they should ask the book keepers. Accurate “picked-when, picked where” information will be appreciated by stores and consumers alike. Shoppers will appreciate knowing when and where their greens were harvested before they choose to buy their salads, and stores will find new cross-marketing opportunities for sedatives by offering bottles of pills in little racks next to the jars of salad dressings. The information age could come to the produce aisle.
That’s my idea of what Nostradamus meant by “evil under the shade of pumpkins,” and I’ve tried to give you some “carnal prognostication” to strangle on. I look forward to seeing if anyone hazards a guess as to what the other three prophecies mean. Have a happy New Year.
copyright 2008 Andy Griffin
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Tradition says that in 1531 the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to an Indian named Cuauhtlatoatzin, or Juan Diego, on the hill of Tepayac, near Mexico City. Mexico was in crisis, her territory only recently conquered by the Spaniards, her population diseased, her pride crushed. “Juanito,” said Mary, “Let not your heart be troubled. Am I not here, who is your Mother?”
Tradition also says that where the Virgin Mary appeared to Cuauhtlatoatzin, roses of Castile grew and bloomed overnight, even though it was the middle of winter. Mary is the mother of botanical miracles. In Europe, the swaths of marigolds that sprang up in green fields in the spring were said to mark the footsteps of the Virgin Mother. On my farm, when the rosemary patch bursts out with tiny, sky blue blossoms, tradition says we can thank the Virgin Mary for that too.
The Bible says in Genesis that God created the heavens “for signs.” The sun and moon measure out the days, months and years so that we know where we stand in the present. The billions of stars scattered across the night sky serve us like a diamond-studded Rorschach test to open up inner vision and give access to the future.
With all the sky to serve as a billboard, it’s no surprise the early Christians said the Lord chose a blazing star to announce the birth of a son. The Christmas story tells of three wise men in the East who read this news in the heavens, and I imagine royal Persian astrologers sighting on a newly bright star from observatories atop their ziggurats. Three astrologers didn’t confuse the message with the messenger and deem the star itself to be a King like Cepheus or a Queen like Cassiopeia. Instead, they took the Christmas star as a road sign, and followed it to the court of King Herod in Jerusalem.
“You say the stars announce the birth of the Prince of Peace,” said Herod. His eyes narrowed as he addressed the men of the East. “When you find the infant, report back to me, so that I can go and worship him too.”
The three astrologers were wise because they could read the faces of men as well as the stars of the sky. “Herod means to kill the child,” they said to each other. The three wise men reached the end of their journey, and found an animal shed where a carpenter’s young bride cradled her infant in her arms. The astrologers gave the baby Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They gave his mother some frank advice: “Get out of Bethlehem while you can. ”
They astrologers must’ve also given Mary the star-spangled burkha she wears in icons, where she’s portrayed, standing on a crescent moon, back-lit by sunbeams, in her role as Mother Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Queen of Heaven and Mexico. A carpenter’s wife couldn’t have afforded such a splendorous and significant garment. But what an appropriate gift for wealthy astrologers to give a poor young Queen Of Heaven! Mary fled with her young family into Egypt. Along the way, perhaps still in the hills of Judea, or in the stony wastes of Sinai, Mary spread her burkha over a rosemary bush and took shelter underneath. While the sun was still up, the blue cloak could cast cooling shade, and after dark, the burkha could serve as a makeshift tent to protect her baby from the dew and chill of a desert night.
Rosemary, like Mary, is native to the Mediterranean. The pointed, waxy, and resinous leaves of the rosemary plant are drought adaptations that reduce water loss through transpiration. The Holy Lands are revered by three religions, but that doesn’t mean the climate is any kind of paradise. Mary had practical reasons to spread her starry, blue cloak over the rosemary bush before she slept beneath it with her baby. Rosemary is a mint family member, and eighteen different essential oils are produced in its leaves, giving the herb its complex pine, camphor, and citrus aroma. Most people enjoy these scents, and find them healing— but flies, lice, and fleas do not. Country girls all around the Mediterranean have known for ages how to take advantage of rosemary’s bug repellent properties by spreading their wet laundry out to dry on rosemary bushes, so that the scent infuses the fabric. Mary, who’d already talked with angels and astrologers, would also have had mystical reasons for draping her cloak over rosemary brush. Rosemary was said to ward off the “evil eye.”
In the morning Mary gathered up her things from the ground. She wrapped herself in her blue shawl once more, and took up her journey east towards exile in Egypt. The Bible says the sun and moon and stars were placed in the heavens for signs, but tradition tells us that plants have things to say too. The rosemary plant that had given shelter to Mary and her child, which before that night had flowered white for purity, now bloomed blue for fidelity. Today, in Spanish, rosemary is called romero, which means “religious pilgrim.” And to this day, rosemary’s flowers reflect the blue of heaven where Mary will always walk.
Julia’s Rosemary Recipe page, including rosemary lemonade, cheese fingers, and other uses of the herb.
Dear readers: The weekend after Thanksgiving our office trailer was robbed and the thief made off with one of our computers, some memory sticks, a cell phone, and a hundred dollars in change. The overall value of the stolen items was not significant and the thief couldn’t stay high long off his sales at the flea market, but the loss of the information contained in the hard drive and memory sticks was devastating to us. The thief is now in jail on felony charges, but the computer is still gone and we’ve lost several thousand email subscriber addresses that came in over the last year. We already have new computers, and Julia, Caitlin, and Gayle have pieced together most of the relevant financial information, but we’re sad about the loss to our Ladybug Letter. The newsletter project has always been a labor of love, and we don’t want the people who appreciated it to think we’ve given up. In the wake of the theft, Julia and John are revamping the website and the blog and switched the subscribing to a service that can do it automatically. If you’re no longer getting the Ladybug Letter and you miss it, please re-subscribe. If you know someone who we’ve lost tell them about the theft so they can sign up again. We’re still in business, and Julia and I would like especially to thank Marcel Beerli, our farm landlord and computer wizard, and John Mauceri, our longtime friend and techno-mentor, for helping us get on our feet again. -Andy Thursday Night Sales: Serpentine this week!
Tales of Innocence and Experience
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice:
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
-William Blake Songs of Innocence and of Experience
“Widdle-Wham!,” is my new name for our newest sheep, a waggy-tailed, spotted lamb whose wide, innocent eyes and squeak-toy bleat prompt a nod to Blake.
I went down the hill the other day to check on my flock of sheep and see if any ewes showed signs of incipient lambing, like full or dripping udders, swollen vulvas, or irritated behavior. I must have approached the field quietly, because my sheep didn’t turn to greet me the way they usually do, but remained shoulder to shoulder with their noses to the ground, grazing. Behind the flock by a few paces lay the year’s first new baby lamb tucked in between two hummocks of grass, snoozing in the late afternoon sun as her mother nibbled at the green pasture. And behind the lamb by only fifteen feet, crouched down and creeping forward, stubby tail twitching, was an adult bobcat— a Tyger Tyger burning bright, in my field in broad daylight!
I yelled and scrambled over the fence. Five of the last six animals born on my ranch last spring—two lambs and three goat kids— disappeared without leaving a hair behind. I suspected a bobcat, but I’d never caught one in the act. Bobcats are like that. You could loose a baker’s dozen of bobcats in the empty parking lot at the Oakland Coliseum and still not spot a single one, they’re so good at quietly blending into their surroundings. When bobcats make a kill they strike fast, bite hard through the neck and carry their limp prey off to a discreet spot to eat their meal in privacy.
The bobcat spun to face me, and then it ran off, but it didn’t run in panic. Instead, the cat loped gracefully towards the woods, and before springing over the fence it looked back at the lamb one last time, as if to say, “It’s ok. You’ll be fatter when I return anyway.”
I promptly named the lucky lamb “Widdle Wham!” and hustled her and her mother up to the corral by my house where I could keep a better watch over her. Seven days have passed, and I still have Widdle Wham! in one piece, looking cute, bleating in a tender voice, and waiting for another lamb to play with.
Of course I could put all my animals next to my house, but these security measures cost me money. When my animals are confined I have to feed them hay. Right now, I’m looking into buying a livestock guard dog. They cost a lot of money too, but I have no other alternative. In the Bible the prophet Isaiah speaks of a day when such precautions won’t be necessary— The wolf shall lie with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid…and the lion shall eat straw like an ox— but he gives no firm dates for this rosy scenario. Meanwhile, I’ve got a flock that is threatened, and a sore thumb and a pain in my leg to remind me that nowhere in the Bible does it ever say that one day the lion will lie down with the ram.
A ram is an adult male sheep. Widdle Wham’s mother is a wooly, black-faced Suffolk sheep, but her father, Alfonso, is a 200 pound Katahdin ram, a sleek, white hair sheep. Several weeks ago I observed two men hiding in the reeds on my neighbor’s property and fishing for bass in his pond. When they went to leave, they crossed onto my property, I confronted them.
“You’re trespassing,” I said.
“What are you going to do about it?” one of them asked. “Shoot us?”
“You’re putting yourselves at risk,” I said. “I’ve got a crazy ram out here, and he’ll come after you.”
One of the two smart-ass fishermen looked across the field at my goats grazing peacefully and scoffed. “They don’t look fierce to me!”
“Those are goats,” I said. “Nanny goats. Girls. They each have two horns, because that’s they way God created goats, and I don’t cut their horns off. I’m talking about a male sheep. He’s only got one horn because he broke the other one off in a grudge match with an oak tree that waved its branches at his girlfriend. He’ll come after you for less.”
“We only climbed over the fence,” one guy said. “We weren’t fishing on your property.”
“When you climb over the fence you push the wires down, and you make it easier for my animals to get out. A ram can be a dangerous animal, and I don’t want to put you or anyone else at risk. You’re not welcome here, and the next time you come, I’ll call the sheriff— or the hospital.”
The two trespassers left, but they left thinking I’m a bullshitter. I didn’t even tell them that last week Alfonso got into a fight with a 700 lb shed and knocked it off its pier-blocks. His face was all scuffed up from the battle, but he “won.”
Like most people anymore the trespassers knew very little about farm animals. They don’t know that both male and female goats naturally have horns. And if the crypto-klepto-bass-busters had seen my ram, they’d have thought he was a goat, because like most people, they don’t know that there are sheep that aren’t wooly, but have sleek hair coats. Most people even think billy goats are more dangerous than sheep, which I find odd, because my bucks have always been pussycats.
One thing I always do is to leave each buck with a doe for company so they don’t get lonely. Maybe that’s why my bucks have never been aggressive. But I don’t trust in their good manners, and I always keep an eye out, because I remember “Bill.”
When I was a kid, someone brought a billy-goat out to the ranch where I worked. Jimmy, the rancher, named the goat “Bill” and parked him in the corral while he figured out what to do with him. Bill was tame, and he had an impressive sweep of curled horns and a long beard. There was also a big old Formost Milk truck refrigerator in the corral that we used as a walk-in cooler, and we dry-aged beef in it. There were metal steps at the back we climbed to get into the cooler.
One day Jimmy and I went to remove a quarter of beef. The billy was in the corral at the far end. We were wrestling a two hundred pound beef quarter out, Jimmy backing out, me following, each of us straining to hold the ungainly beef by greasy, cold meat hooks. We couldn’t see the billy turn and charge. Bill butted Jimmy from the back, catching him right behind the knees, and he tumbled backward into the dirt with the beef—and me— on top of him. Jimmy scrambled up swearing, grabbed for a rifle, and drew a bead on Bill. But Jimmy couldn’t shoot. One view over the sights of the handsome, stupid buck peeing on his own beard with masculine pride and delight and Jimmy’s heart melted— a little bit. He lowered the rifle and we loaded Bill into the back of a Jeep pick-up with stock racks. Then we drove the old goat up the Tassajara Road into the Los Padres National Forest. We jumped Bill out of the truck on the back side of Chews Ridge at the trail head to Pine Valley, and wished him the best of luck. Two years later I overheard a story in the bar at Miller’s Lodge out in Arroyo Seco — a drunk guy bragging about the trophy big-horn mountain sheep he’d just bagged in Pine Valley.
“That makes a better story than telling everyone you shot a tame, piss stained barnyard billy,” Jimmy said.
Yesterday I went down to the field to check on my flock of sheep. I saw my old dowager fifteen year- old ewe, hooves to the heavens, struggling on her back. I scrambled over the fence and ran over to see what the problem was. I was trying to right the old gal when I heard hooves behind me. It was Alfonso, head down, coming at me like a crazy buffalo. I dodged him, but he came back at me, and on the fourth try, before I could make it over the fence, he gored me in the shin. I flipped him off me, but I sprained my thumb, and there was blood soaking through my jeans into my sock.
I got Manny to come help. We each roped Alfonso by the head and tied the lassos off to separate fence posts. As long as Alfonso didn’t strain on either rope he didn’t gag, so he stood still, looking cross, as we tried to diagnose the problem with old Mrs. Sheep. We brought her some hay and water, and she ate and drank with gusto, so we knew she wasn’t sick, but she wouldn’t stand. Just an old lady with a bum hip.
Manny told me to go to the doctor. Horn wounds are dirty, he said. He’d seen guys die from infections in Mexico.
The doctor had me on the table, and as he worked, I told him my story. He sewed up the wound with seven stitches and gave me a tetanus shot.
“I’m going to have to recommend that you take an antibiotic,” he said. “And keep the wound dry for at least 48 hours. Also, speaking strictly as a medical professional, I’m going to have to suggest that you change your story. It sounds better if you were ‘attacked by a savage, four hundred pound wild boar. But you beat it off, suffering only one deep gash from its curving, ivory tusks!’”
I thanked him for his advice, and he called for a nurse to come and dress the wound. The nurse entered. He was a fifty-ish male, balding, with a sensitive manner and round glasses.
“Oh dear,” he said. “What have we got here?”
The doctor turned and put down his clipboard.
“This man was attacked by a savage 450 lb wild boar, right here on the outskirts of Watsonville, and he was barely able to drive the beast off and shoot it with his sidearm. He got tusked in the leg, but I’ve stopped the bleeding.”
“Jesus Christ!” said the nurse. His eyes behind his glasses were wide with astonishment. “I didn’t even know that could happen anymore!”
“You see?” the doctor said. “It’s a better story!”
Copyright 2007 Andy Griffin
Dawn in the Andes can be icy, but by mid-morning the sun may be hot on your back. After sundown the temperatures drop again, until your hands and feet are numb. The Andean Altiplano is a landlocked depression lying between the eastern and western ranges of the Cordillera, and it slopes from around 9,000 feet above sea-level in Peru to around 13,000 feet in Bolivia. Altiplano means “high plains,” but the Altiplano is not nearly as flat as its name implies. The atmosphere on the Altiplano is thin and the air is dry. The sky overhead is deep blue by day, and by night it is jet black and sparkles with majestic drifts of stars. When I visited Bolivia I was impressed by the snowy peaks that surrounded me, but outer space seemed infinitely deep— and very close. I went out star gazing at night and felt dizzy, as if I was more in danger of falling off the planet than of tumbling down the mountains.
The daily extremes of temperatures in the Andes have prompted a number of different plant species there to evolve tuberous habits. A tuber is a swollen, underground stem that stores up energy so that if a “killing frost” burns off all the foliage above the ground, the plant still has enough life protected under an insulating mantel of soil to sprout again. The concentrated sugars and starches found in tubers have made a number of tuberous Andean plants important food crops for people. The sweet potato, for example, is a tuberous morning glory from Peru that’s now cultivated all over the world. There’s also a tuberous oxalis, called oca, that is a common food on the Altiplano, and of course everyone is familiar with the tuberous plant from the nightshade family known as the potato.
[singlepic=16,320,240,,right]Potatoes evolved in the Andes, and they’re still cultivated there in great profusion. While we find just few varieties of potatoes on our supermarket shelves, an average farmer’s market in Bolivia will display potatoes of every imaginable shape and color heaped up for display. Little marble sized potatoes are piled up next to long, skinny ones and big round ones. Colors ranging from blues, reds and purples to yellows, whites and browns. The variety of potatoes for sale helps to make up for the relative scarcity of other foodstuffs in the highlands.
The harsh environment on the Andean Altiplano means farming is a risky way of life. Bolivian farmers have turned the extreme climatic conditions they must contend with to their advantage, and they use mother nature’s mood swings to preserve their harvests for the hard times they know lie ahead. Fresh dug potatoes are cut into pieces and laid out on rocks under the sun to dry, while the resident farm dogs prowl and bark any marauding crows away. At night, any residual surface moisture that sweats out from the potato chunks is frozen into a spiky beard of ice crystals, which evaporate in the morning sun. After a few days of this treatment, the potato slices are essentially freeze-dried. These black leathery potato chips are called chuño, and can be kept without spoiling almost indefinitely. Chuño is an acquired taste, but when you get used to it, it’s earthy and satisfying in stews and broths.
Besides potatoes in all their myriad forms, the people living on the Altiplano depend on beans, chiles, corn— and Guinea pigs. Each of these crops is enjoyed fresh during its brief season and then dried for future use. Guinea pigs, or cuy, are native to South America, and they occupy the same ecological niche in rocky peaks of the Andes as the marmot does in our High Sierra, but they’re raised in captivity by farmers too. After the slaughter, cuy are skinned, gutted, butterflied, and given the chuño treatment. Guinea pigs have so many tiny bones that removing them would be tiresome, inefficient— and wasteful. Much of the protein and minerals would be lost if the bones and marrow were discarded.So the cuy are set out spreadeagled on the rocks, just like the potatoes. In the mornings, after the rime of frost has evaporated from the drying flesh, the guinea pig carcasses are gently pounded with a wooden mallet. Little by little, the rodent’s tiny bones are pulverized and the flesh is dried and flattened until the cuy resembles a crisp, meaty, pancake. These cuy pancakes are stacked away and stored until called for. Dried cuy can eaten like crackers or crumbled into soups and stews to give them more flavor and “body.”
Life isn’t easy on the Andean plateau. It seemed to me like half the people I met in Bolivia dreamed of making their way to Miami. But among the traditional people, it is still considered polite to thank the earth goddess, Pachamama, for the blessing of food. Before taking a drink or swallowing a bite, a splash of the beverage or a piece of the food is always spilled on the ground for the goddess. “A taste for Pachamama, a taste for me,” murmurs the grateful diner. I heard this phrase so often as I traveled around Bolivia that I began to notice the people who didn’t give thanks for what they had. This practice of spilling drinks and food makes for sticky floors on buses and in public places. In the absence of any SPCA, giving “tastes” to Pachamama may be the only national institution that keeps skinny stray Bolivian dogs alive. Bolivia can be a tough place to live, but this common, everyday habit people have there of saying thanks gives an otherwise hard and austere country a grace even affluent countries can aspire to.
copyright 2007 Andy Griffin
In 1924, long before he became the cold-blooded, paranoid, reactionary, right-wing dictator of
The wild parsley, or “Sheep’s parsley,” that modern cultivars of true parsley descend from, still grows across
Laid out side by side, the roots of
I wondered if parsley and parsnip are related etymologically as well as botanically. Parsley sure sounds like parsnip. But no. The noun “parsnip” is a corruption of the Latin verb pastinare, meaning to dig up. The verb evolved into pastinaca and was given as a name to the parsnip root. The “nip” in “parsnip” comes from Latin too. Napus, Latin for turnip, became neep in old English and Scottish. Thick-tongued British farmers called pastinacas “pastineeps” since parsnips were roots. It wasn’t until the 16th century that German farmers developed the strains of parsley that grow fat roots. The plant’s generic name “
Elizabeth Schneider, in her authoritative tome Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini, writes of the parsley root that, “It has been deemed the significant indicator of real Jewish chicken soup.” A cautious cookbook author might want to say real “Ashkenazi” Jewish chicken soup. The Sephardic Jewish communities of North Africa and
On July 11, 2002, Moroccan soldiers occupied a desert island that stands between the Pillars of Hercules, 13.5 kilometers south of Gibralter across the Straits, and only several hundred yards north of
Was wearing a wreath of parsley a hero’s irony, to garnish himself like a Denny’s burger, as he placed a sandaled foot on the furry head of the dead King of Beasts? Perhaps. Or, was Hercules preoccupied with the fluff, bounce, and shiny vitality of his own mane? Parsley oil, after all, rubbed into the scalp is supposed to make hair grow. Was Hercules bald? More likely, this peculiar act by the Greek superman speaks not only of the pride that Hercules had in himself, but attests to the morbid reverence the ancient world had for parsley. To the Greeks, parsley was an ominous herb, having originally sprung up out of the rocks from the droplets of blood spilled by another hero, Archemonos, who was slain by serpents. Fresh parsley was fed to war horses to give them strength, but it only served humans as an evergreen reminder of death.
Hercules didn’t garland himself with the stiff, curly parsley we are used to seeing at the edge of a plate. The wild parsley that fed the sheep and goats and adorned the heroes across the ancient world would have been closer to the flat-leaved types we know today as “Italian parsley.” While Sheep’s parsley grows all around the
The Spanish came back to Parsley island too. On the morning of July 18th, seven days after “empty island” was filled with Moroccans, Spanish commandoes attacked “Tura,” captured the garrison, and removed the soldiers to Ceuta, the Spanish enclave along the Moroccan coast, from whence they were escorted across the border into Morocco. Then they turned the occupation of “Isla Perejil” over to the Spanish Legion, which makes poetic sense— under Franco, the Spanish Legion had as its motto, “Viva la muerte,” or “Long live death!” Life is never short enough for some people, and to some minds, the domination of a rocky goat pasture is a crowning glory.
In 1859 the Spaniards began an occupation of the mainland of Morocco, which lasted until 1956. The 100 year long Spanish occupation of Morocco was stupid and pointless beyond measure. The Spaniards fought four protracted wars in what can only be understood as an attempt to recreate the heroic age of the reconquista when the Catholic armies turned the Muslim armies out of the Iberian peninsula in 1492 over 700 years of fighting. Over 1290 years of intermittent warfare have passed since the Moorish invasion of Spain, and the sovereignty of the little island— by whatever name— is still in dispute. Happily, the Spanish Foreign Legion left the island once they made their point, and Isla Perejil is a no man’s land once again— empty— populated again only by peaceful goats nibbling at what’s left of the wild parsley. War has moved elsewhere, to Iraq, Darfur, and Lebanon. It’s too bad that we people can’t stop fighting, but diplomacy seems to be the role of Sisyphus, while world peace remains a Herculean task.
copyright 2007 Andy Griffin
The photo at the top is: Hamburg Parsley on the right and Parsnip with greens still attached on the left.
Ramakrishna compared the ego to an onion. If you peel away an onion’s rings the way spiritual experiences strip at the ego, after all the layers are gone, there is nothing— no central core with an egoistic structure, and no onion either, just a void, and no barrier remaining to a union with Brahma.
I peeled an onion, a semi-flattened, saucer-shaped, Italian, cipollino Bianco di Maggio. After tearing eight layers away I was left with a tiny, pearly white, teardrop-shaped piece of bulb. I broke it open — layer number nine — and nothing remained but tears in my eyes from the oxidized sulfur compounds released from the onion’s tissue by my violence. Am I having a deep and metaphoric experience, I wondered, or have I just wasted an onion?
I gathered up the curled, juicy onion pieces and tossed them in a bowl of cool water so they couldn’t oxidize any more and turn bitter. Onions may be cheap and ubiquitous, but they are not easy to grow, at least not organically, so I didn’t want to waste even one. I’ve shed more tears over the trials of growing onions than I ever have from slicing them.
To yield well, an onion bed must be kept completely free of weeds because onions are shallow-rooted and the plants can’t tolerate much competition. Without recourse to herbicides and soil fumigants, organic onion culture can entail costly hand-weeding once the plants are too large for mechanical cultivation. Onions grow slowly, too, giving weeds lots of opportunities to sprout. And onions are hungry for fertilizer and thirsty for water. If a farmer expects a decent yield then he or she needs to sow onions where they will receive full sun and perfect drainage. It is fair to say that onions are among the most self-centered and egoistic of the garden vegetables. Am I what I eat?
Sourdough bread sat on the table in front of me next to a cube of butter. My tearful meditation had leftme feeling a void at my core. So I spread some butter on the bread, and poured the bowl of onion shards into a colander and shook it to drain them. “Would Ramakrishna approve?” I asked myself as I cobbled the buttered bread with puzzle pieces of raw onion and sprinkled them with a pinch of salt.
Not everyone appreciates onions. Some religious traditions in Hinduism hold that Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaisyas— or the priestly, warrior, and professional classes— should avoid “hot” foods like onions that lead to lustful thoughts. Jains supposedly don’t eat onions either, and neither did the priests or royalty of ancient Egypt. The slaves who built the pyramids ate onions though, both raw and cooked, and with great frequency. I bit into my sandwich and enjoyed it. I must not have been Cleopatra in a past life. But that’s ok; some of us have to be peasants.
Funny how the onion that Ramakrishna saw as a perfect metaphor for the illusion of individuality and the nothingness of the void should have been seen by ancient Latins as a symbol of wholeness. Our words “onion” and “union” share a common Latin root in unio, meaning unity. The successive layers of an onion wrapped up in a single round bulb do suggest unity, especially when compared to their cousins in the Lily family, the multi-cloven garlics.
Onions are like the spicy, girly, back-up singers whose role on stage is to sway back and forth and coo the sweet harmonies that allow some hunky but mediocre lead singer to sound good. What cuisine hasn’t been sweetened and enhanced by onions? Where would we be if onions didn’t add zest to American potato salad, or sugar to Pakistani dal, or bind together Chinese dumplings? If ancient Egyptian priests, Jains, Brahmins, warriors and Vaisyas can’t share in my onion harvest, that just leaves more for the rest of us.
I swallowed the last bite of my onion sandwich and felt full for a moment— full of onion, full of thoughts about the onion-eating pyramid builders that came before us. Peeling onions and looking for an ego can leave anybody feeling hollow and teary-eyed. So if you’re feeling empty and blue, cut an onion, cry a little, and forget your worries as you prepare a meal you can share with friends. Soon people will be talking, glasses will be clinking, and the hot, spicy lilies will be shaking their hips and harmonizing in the background. What did those ancient Latins used to say? “E Pluribus Onion?”
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