The Fat of the Land

Month: May, 2012

Market Ode

There was a time, not many years ago, when groceries were almost exclusively purchased at box-shaped stores, wrapped in plastic bags, gathered together in larger plastic bags, carted away in loads big enough to feed a family for weeks. Fresh was relative: produce came from wherever it could be produced cheaply. An apple was an apple. Lettuce was lettuce. Potatoes were big and for baking or mashing. Bread was a sliced white loaf. Meat was cut or ground, and all was valued for low price. Food existed without identity, place or time and we praised ourselves for our efficiency.

That heritage remains. Conventional grocery stores of the world still supply the masses and mirror the trends of our appetite. They are fascinating temples of commerce, museums of ingenuity, artifacts of a world we hoped could catapult us out of our past—a place we associate with strife. But I believe we have desires that go deeper than our aspirations.

If there is one word that describes a farmers’ market, it is fresh. I remember vividly the feeling of going to our market in St. Paul, Minnesota as a small child. The heady smell of fresh bread and pastries mingled with the floral scent of apples in boxes, the alertness of vegetables laid out artfully, the cut flowers, some cloyingly sweet or peppery, some bland. I would follow my parents through it desiring everything, so tantalizingly alive it all seemed compared to the shelves of the grocery store. Along the floor I found flower buds popped off their stem in the hustle and bustle of a crowd. I collected them in my small fist, a miniature bouquet that mapped the way I had come.

Technology can give us tomatoes in January, strawberries that cross the country without rotting, apples all year round. When communities get involved, food technology becomes less relevant. Communities desire flavor, nutrition, vitality. These things come intertwined: when farmers are paid the true cost of food, they grow the best food possible; when a community desires real food, it comes to them; when food tastes alive, it makes a community happier and healthier. Fresh means food not long severed from the earth, but it also means the old made new: a question remembered.

We are fortunate to have the sort of community that asked again. The answer has been ten years of gathering together to share in the excitement and wonder of food done well. As Hillsdale Farmers’ Market turns 10 years old, we should all pause a moment to remember when lettuce was only green, carrots were always orange, and Sunday was just another day to work around the house. Here we are each week, standing in the open air, exchanging gratitudes. Thank you for growing and producing food I am proud of, that gives me pleasure and sustenance. Thank you for buying the food that allows me to work a job I love, that keeps my land alive and ignites the energy to do more.

(Originally published in the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market newsletter, The Grapevine, May 31, 2012)

Seed Stories

Gardening is an act of culture. To those who claim ours is a country lacking significant or individual character, I would counter with a stack of heirloom seed catalogs. Stories abound in these pages, celebrating a cultural artifact that can only be maintained through use. To save a seed in the vaults of a library or the shelves of a museum is hopeless. In short time, the once possible seed becomes a lifeless speck, dried and useless, unable to convey the foliage and fruits, flavor and mystery it could once unfold. Seeds are an artifact that must be continuously reborn—nurtured, cultivated, harvested and destroyed—garden plot after garden plot, year after year. They cannot be held in stasis for long because their value is rooted in the cyclical.

For thousands of years, gardeners have worked alongside these plants, tending them, selecting favorites each year from which to save seed, passing that seed onto the next season, the next plot, the next generation. For most of our history, flowers and vegetables have been handed parent to child, neighbor to neighbor, native to visitor. In contemporary times, most gardeners browse seed catalogs for these heirlooms, choosing the best stories with which to populate their gardens; living artifacts in a living museum.

Some seeds’ stories embody our rootedness. Turkey Craw, an heirloom bean grown for many years in the Southeast, said to have been found originally in a wild turkey’s craw. Stowell’s Evergreen, a sweet corn perfected by and then swindled out from underneath Newman Stowell’s nose when a two-faced friend bought his seed for $4 and resold it for $20,000. Grandpa Admire, lettuce seeds held in the family for over 100 years (“held” by being grown at least 100 times), named after civil war veteran and grandfather George Admire.

Some tell the stories of ancestral homes, what our forbearers deemed essential to take with them when they left their past behind for a new land. Rat’s Tail, a Southeast Asian radish variety grown in the US since the 1860s for its edible seedpod. Red Russian Kale, a Siberian variety brought to Canada by Russian traders in the late 1800s.  immy Nardello, a sweet Italian roasting pepper that immigrated with Jimmy’s mother in 1887 when she left Italy for the United States.

And some tell the story of now—new varieties that reflect our current desires, tastes and geographies. Purple Dragon, a purple carrot with a fiery orange center bred in Washington by John Navazio of the Organic Seed Alliance. Oregon Homestead, a selection of the Oregon Sweet Meat winter squash variety made by Carol Deppe of Eugene for its ability to produce exceptionally flavored flesh in the cool clay soils of the Willamette Valley. Lettuces, numerous and enigmatic, bred in Philomath by Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed. These discoveries will be our gift to the next generations.

Seeds, and the vegetables and flowers they produce, are the fruits of cumulative labor: it is blooming in our gardens, it is the flavors we will share with those we love, with neighbors, our community, the next garden plot, the next season. It is the hand of the past pulling us back and pushing us forward.

 

For further reading on heirloom seeds, send away for any or all of the following catalogs: Seed Savers Exchange, Wild Garden Seed, Nichols Garden Nursery, Adaptive Seeds, Uprising Seeds, Victory Seeds, Siskiyou Seeds, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Kitazawa Seed Company.  Many of these sources are local, all are exceptional in the work they do to preserve our seed heritage.

(Originally published in the Hillsdale Market newsletter, The Grapevine, May 17, 2012)

Salad as Still Life

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Salad is an ancient meal. Our modern chopped and dressed version has not wandered far from the baskets of leaves gathered in forests and meadows since before remembered time. Our tastes have expanded and contracted over the millennia; the iceberg faze of the mid-twentieth century being the most recent contraction, and the diversity of greens we see in today’s markets and restaurants the next expansion.

Salad has changed the way I see my own garden. Still the place I once intended it to be—rows of lettuces for tearing and tossing with vinaigrette, peas for raw eating or a quick sauté, radish for slicing, kale for soups or braising—it has also become something akin to those ancient meadows. I wander through, nibbling, learning the flavors of young and old leaves, stems, tendrils and, when they come, whole blossoms or petals of flowers. Even my garden’s weeds have occasionally delighted me with a surprising complexity of flavor. And I have found myself on a hike now and then choosing carefully identified specimens from the forest floor for a quick burst of flavor, a true appetizer, sparking dreams of the next meal. (Of course, eating indiscriminately even from your own garden, is not without its hazards.  Be safe and look it up if you don’t know.)

Since I began harvesting my garden as a forager, endless combinations have appeared on my plate. And with a dose of romanticism, I’ve begun to think of salad ingredients as a painter would her paints. I search for beauty in juxtaposition, so diverse my palette of flavors and textures has become: silky, curly, nutty, tender, mineral, crunchy, buttery, briny, fibrous, juicy, bright, bitter*, grassy, tangy, hot.  From herbs a whole spice cabinet of accents is available—anise, cinnamon, pepper, clove. And the colors! Deep purples and reds, green splashed with red, reds and greens fading into one another like clouds at sunset, green as sweet and new as spring itself stretching all the way to green that is almost black, pinks and violets, oranges and yellows bright as any citrus rind. The garden holds as many possibilities as the painter’s box.

Spring is salad’s grandest season for eaters like me who adore the soft, subtle flavors of greens grown in the sparse sun and frequent showers of Western Oregon’s lengthiest season. I do almost nothing to help them along, then carry my salad bowl outside to collect at whim: small leaves from the bolting stalks of overwintered kale or broccoli, mache, baby arugula, mizuna, pea shoots, spring planted chard, miner’s lettuce, bittercress and, of course, plump lettuces (crowns of the spring garden) with names like ‘Divina,’ ‘Flashy Trout’s Back,’ ‘Ice Queen.’

Salads made this way need very little else to accompany them. Fresh oil, a splash of light vinegar, flaky salt and a good toss will have you on your way, leaves glistening and bare, to museum quality.

*A quick note on bitter, the flavor in the garden perhaps most difficult to love. In my experience, there are two main categories of bitter: the one that fills the mouth with a hard, pungent taste that lingers the way skunk musk persists over a patch of road, and the one that starts like the first but finishes sweet, a deep hint of caramel at the back of your mouth that makes you reach for another leaf. I used to go for nothing bitter, and now the second category, with its alluring sweetness, has become something I rarely want a salad to be without.

(Originally published in the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market newsletter, The Grapevine, May 3, 2012)