The Fat of the Land

Category: Community

Water

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I just got back from a road trip to Tahoe, that stunning mountain lake straddling the California-Nevada border in the high Sierras. It’s spring, a time by which winter storms have historically filled lowland reservoirs and capped the high country with deep snowpack. You don’t need me to tell you that’s not the case this year. We drove by nearly empty seasonal lakebeds whose only chance of realizing their full-lake potential is right now; even Tahoe, the second deepest lake in North America, is so low that boat docks loom above sand and rock instead of the clear, sapphire-blue water for which the lake is famous.

And that color (which is still there despite the lake’s low water) is, to our eyes, water’s dream of itself—sparkling in its sequined gown, clear as a soprano’s C. Water so astoundingly blue electrifies the imagination, sends it diving toward rocks clearly visible meters below as if water was sky and our thoughts birds. But to water’s eyes, it is chameleon: hidden in underground reservoirs, it is no color at all; frozen in ice sheets, it is polished steel; flowing through plants, it glows green; rising as steam or falling as finely-cut flakes, it is white as the midday sun.

To a farmer in the Willamette Valley, water’s finest color is chocolate: fertile soil moistened to perfect smoothness—not the dry clods and dust of late summer, not the slick mud of winter, but the bouncy chestnut-brown of living, breathing, humus-rich soil. It’s a color they can see without even breaking through the crust: in the way the weeds explode into life, the way the seeds sprout without doting, in the color of the crops as they glisten a thousand shades of green.

We live in a land of water, and also a land of drought. In emerald spring, it’s easy to forget how the grass will dry down a couple months from now. Historically, our annual summer draught is moderated; though surface water recedes well before the summer irrigation season is over, snowmelt makes up the difference. Climate change threatens to unravel that neat symmetry. Tenacious droughts in the Southwest and California increasingly appear less anomaly than foreshadow of our own not-too-distant future as we repeatedly watch the Cascades’ snowpack dwindle (this year to around twenty percent of its historic average). Maintaining the status quo, we will undoubtedly reach the point of requiring much more water than we have.

On the residential end of the water-use spectrum, there are many straightforward ways to conserve: only run full washing machine or dishwasher loads; don’t water your lawn or, better yet, tear it out and plant a food garden that utilizes drip irrigation, or a xeriscape garden that will eventually require no supplemental water; water your garden with soaker hoses or drip tubing, or (if you insist on hand-watering certain plantings like I do) overhead water in the morning when the least amount of evaporation will occur; fix leaky faucets; install low-flow emitters and appliances; and, for the truly dedicated household, adopt an “if it’s yellow let it mellow” policy (toilet flushing accounts for nearly 40% of residential indoor water use, and averages 3.5 gallons per flush).

Beyond all these important behavioral adjustments, as individuals we can join another powerful collective voice in the conversation. Sourcing the majority of our annual groceries from small, local farms and producers can have a tremendous impact on water conservation. Agriculture is the single greatest waster of the world’s water resources, statistics pumped up by large commercial farms’ mass irrigation systems and focus on cash crops (many of which have particularly high water needs). Smaller farms mitigate those inefficiencies with labor and more expensive materials (such as the installation of drip irrigation tubing), dry farming techniques, and careful variety selection (choosing vegetables and animal breeds adapted to drier conditions means the same good food with less water).

Making observations on the ground instead of from the cab of an air-conditioned tractor, working with soil instead of petro-chemical fertilizers, these farmers will also be the source of adaptations and innovations that follow and respond to the shifting climate. Their research is collective; it echoes the desires of our communities and the features of our landscapes. Supporting their work now means investing in the knowledge (and good food) they can bring to our future.

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The Larder

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Somewhere in your kitchen, you have a larder. Although the word stems from a Latin term for rendered pig fat (morphed through old French to signify a cool, closet-like space where meat was held between killing and cooking), larder has come to mean, quite simply, the place where we keep our food. Sometimes it is the kitchen counter or pantry. Often it is the refrigerator, the cabinets, the basement or garage. It can be ornate, utilitarian, cluttered, beloved, or irrelevant.

Popularized again for its game-strewn associations of still-life-worthy abundance, the larder is called upon by today’s restaurants, specialty grocers, and food writers to signify an older way of eating, when food came from a specific place and belonged to a certain point in time. Unlike the shelves of a modern grocery store, the larder was a portrait of the season—pheasants, apples, squash, carrots, cabbage—it was a clock, a calendar, an edible phenology. And, in this way, its shelves were draped in simple, ageless poetry no refrigerator can rival.

In a technology-induced reversal, we are now more familiar with food in stasis than food in gradual decay. The larder embodied pause, an extra day or two before the meat or milk really lost it. Modern-day canned goods keep for startlingly long, stamped with expiration dates that evoke distance and unimagined futures. The metaphor is palpable—the historic larder kept us close to the limitations of the world as we have known it, the 21st Century canned goods shelf links us to a future that will have technologies and words we have not yet dreamed of. Times change.

Though our own larders may seem dull by comparison (stone slabs and heavy wooden doors replaced by flimsy prefab cupboards and magnet-speckled refrigerators), they maintain their role as the place where our food waits. We put it there and it waits for the moment, sooner or later, when we will call upon it. We will snack on it or cook it or give it away. In the meantime, it expresses, as any collection does, a fragment of our inner lives.

If you have ever tried cooking in someone else’s kitchen, you know instantly what I mean when I say it’s like trying to speak a new dialect. Ingredients, like words, come together to tell a story. We all have our favorite words, the stories we tell best. Our personal larders reveal them: our preferences, aspirations, habits, and routines. An ingredient essential to your kitchen may be absent from your friends’. We take our own truths for granted and, faced with unfamiliar cupboards, we come to know our own with renewed devotion.

By extension, our neighborhoods, cities, regions, and ecosystems are shared larders, places we are drawn to for the flavors we identify with or are captivated by. Cuisine itself is a larder—a conceptual storeroom in which we keep the cherished foods, those we’ve sustained by necessity or design, that symbolize the abilities and values of our landscape and palates.

For farmers and gardeners in our region, the field itself is a larder; seeds started late summer are now grown to size or near enough, waiting in the dark cold of December and January, standing by to feed those who still prefer the freshly plucked over the nationally (and internationally) distributed. And though they must settle for less in the way of variety, the curators of such a larder keep an anchor in the same harbor from which that word came, a world where food belongs to a place, where it exists in the same time as our breath and our thoughts, where its story is not anonymous.

There is no better or worse larder than the one that fits your agenda and helps you live the way you’d like to live; it’s there whether or not you keep it with intention. And though our larders will, inevitably, change in form over time, it remains true that food is a vessel of culture. Our choices shape our story; what we grow and cook and keep keeps us.

Feast

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If you grew up in the United States in the past 130 years, you’ve heard the story of a 1621 feast shared by English Pilgrims and Wampanoag Natives to commemorate peaceful relations between the two communities and to share in the abundance that is a New England autumn. They ate wild turkey and venison, corn and cranberries, pumpkin, fruits, and root crops freshly harvested from their colonial gardens and the surrounding wilderness. On the other side of history, we have canonized the meal as symbolic of our nation’s origins. At the time, it was a welcome gorge preceding a long winter, an accidental union of two disparate cultures’ values.

Certainly the Wampanoag viewed such a feast through the eyes of thanksgiving. Holding a sense of thanks through all stages of the year’s cycle, planting, childbirth, harvest, and the hunt were tasks performed with deep gratitude to the powers that made them possible. Likewise, the Pilgrims’ spiritual tradition placed thanks at the center of their religious and daily life.

Feast is the opposite of famine, a dichotomy enshrined by the Puritan Pilgrims that colonized Plymouth Rock, who landed on that challenging shoreline in an effort to find a place to freely practice their unconventional version of Christianity. Staunch minimalists, the Puritans distilled the sum of their annual celebrations down to those that provided the fewest distractions to accomplishing work and observing the power of their god. The Puritans had abandoned Christmas, Easter, and all other Catholic and Anglican holidays before leaving England, celebrating two “holidays” outside of the weekly Sabbath: Thanksgiving Day and Fasting Day.

In line with the natural order of things, Fasting Day fell in spring, when the Puritans, who used fasting as a form of prayer, would hold a special day of fasting when the larder ran low and the seeds, so delicate and small, were placed in the coarse, unpredictable soil. Fasting Day commemorated the request for a good growing year, for relative fortune and health among their community. Thanksgiving Day was Fasting Day’s opposite, when the garden’s bounty (and another year of health) was gazed upon in the form of an indulgent spread, as if to say, “Look, we made it!”

The harvest has long held a singular place of reverence in temperate-climate cultures. Acknowledging that plenty is neither a constant nor a given, harvest time is the most exciting, the most culinary diverse, the wealthiest time of the year. Larders full, game fattened and plentiful, we can relax and tell stories, gather family and neighbors to share memories, thoughts, and thanks. It’s a time of year imbued with a sense of the spiritual; being an interval with the fewest external threats, the world (and our mind) opens itself to magic.

We call that meal shared by Pilgrims and Wampanoag The First Thanksgiving, though they, and two centuries of their descendants, didn’t see it that way. Our contemporary Thanksgiving came about through a mingling of the Puritan’s tradition of a religious Thanksgiving Day and regional harvest celebrations, and didn’t crystalize as a national holiday until the 19th Century. Its late November observance (a month or two off mark from the New England harvest season) is explained by the influence of a third holiday (or lack thereof): Christmas. Having given up the Catholic (and in their eyes, inappropriately indulgent) celebration of Christmas, the Puritans slid Thanksgiving back to winter’s parlor, shining that bright, festive meal onto the dark, cold days ahead.

Now entirely secular, Thanksgiving has become the quintessential American feast. Though most of the Americans that prepare a traditional Thanksgiving meal today have not harvested or hunted its ingredients, they adhere, by tradition, to a seasonal spread of mostly indigenous foods: squash and pumpkin, turkey, beans, cranberries, corn, and potatoes are New World foods that, in this particular configuration, still symbolize a sort of prosperity wrought from effort.

Thanksgiving today is less a sigh of relief for an agricultural season well played than the kickoff to an exhilarating (and often exhausting) holiday season, yet we maintain an emphasis on gathering with family and friends. And though outside forces (creeping Black Friday sales, football, and takeout, to name a few) increasingly compete with another era’s version of Thanksgiving, it remains in our time a cook’s holiday, venerating the traditional and innovative alike (just look at any cooking magazine’s November issue to see that the line between the two is walked carefully by our collective imagination).

Likely, someone in your life has prepared you a delicious feast on this day. Perhaps you have returned the favor. If you have been so lucky as to do the work or watch it, to smell the sacred rite of plenty, to let your mind slip into a starch-induced journey through memory or musing, then you know Thanksgiving’s least cynical secret: that food, as it is given and received, is a pure expression of love.

Home Cooking: A Conversation with Katherine Deumling

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(Photo by Andrea Lonas)

 

After only a quick peruse of Katherine Deumling’s ‘Cook With What You Have’ website, I knew that I would love to pick her brain on the place of home cooking in our chef-obsessed but also convenience-touting culture. Once upon a time, home cooking was the only option; now it is framed as either a hobby or a chore. Fun eating means going out, practical eating comes packaged as a minute-in-the-microwave away. But what happens when you take the time to chop a vegetable and add a touch of your own nostalgia, whimsy, or daring? Read on as Katherine and I discuss the personal and social transformation that can result from stepping into the kitchen with intention.

I may be lucky in that my mom was one of those cooks who would often devise our dinner menu by looking at what was in the fridge. She found clever ways to put together what we already had in the house and that approach had a strong influenced on me. Home cooking means cooking from scratch and learning from recipes, but to me it also means using what I have on hand as much as possible. Home cooked food isn’t restaurant food, composed and perfectly prepared. It is sometimes sloppy, sometimes under seasoned, sometimes unexpectedly amazing, always a work in progress. What does ‘home cooking’ mean to you? What does it mean to “cook from scratch?”

My definition is very similar to yours with the exception of the under seasoned bit! I really emphasize tasting as you go, adjusting with salt, acid, herbs, spice, etc. so that the simplest from scratch dish is as flavorful as possible. Of course it takes practice but also just trusting your instincts and tastes to create something—realizing you have all the control and agency. And frankly when you have produce like we have here in Oregon, it’s pretty simple to make delicious dishes.

I absolutely love the challenge of looking around my small garden, fridge/freezer and pantry and creating something nourishing. I also happen to have a well-stocked pantry with beans, lentils, grains, dried peppers, spices, oils, vinegars, nuts, seeds, etc. which makes cooking pretty simple. I love the crafty, frugality of cooking this way. I get great satisfaction out of preparing dishes with seemingly “nothing” or dribs and drabs (as my grandmother would have said) of vegetables left in the crisper. I once made mixed vegetable savory pancakes with radish tops, carrots, scallions, a bit of cabbage and some cilantro that was about to go bad, into a dinner that my family raved about. That’s my idea of fun!

Many people have become accustomed to purchasing prepared or “instant” foods and do not believe they have the skills or the time to cook their own meals from scratch. When I began cooking fresh greens like kale or chard, I marveled at how quickly they could be sautéed into a delicious and healthy meal. Throwing together a hearty salad or stir-fry can take as little as 10 minutes. We perceive cooking as a time consuming, arduous task, but with a pinch of willingness, it becomes clear that time is not the primary obstacle to making tasty, nutritious meals. What do you believe are the main barriers to becoming a successful home cook

You hit the nail on the head. I think the barriers are multiple: 1) People often think they don’t like many vegetables because they’ve never had them prepared in a way that is simple and tasty and thus they don’t see the point in cooking them. 2) As you say, people think it takes a lot of time and has to be fancy and involve lots of ingredients. I think cooking shows have been a bit of a disservice in this regard as it furthers the idea that cooking is performance, art, fancy, etc. 3) Our culture (if I can generalize) gives the message that it’s not the best use of your time, it devalues everyday cooking, makes it something to be avoided. 4) Relatedly, it’s seen as a burden rather than something that might actually simplify one’s life, make it better, tastier, and more fun. 5) People aren’t accustomed to tasting as they cook and using their own judgment and taste buds in the process—so lack of confidence, lack of translating skills people use in other parts of their lives to cooking.

Food activists such as Dan Barber and Michael Pollen see cooking at home as a political act and believe it is the first and most necessary step to reversing a number of disturbing national trends relating to the industrial food system (increases in chronic diseases and obesity, factory farming, GMO crops, and even global warming and water use issues, to name a few). I tend to agree, largely because I see cooking as such a profound but simple act. It forces a higher level of awareness and is embedded with healthy constraints (i.e., because you are not hoping to preserve a meal longer than the time it takes to get it on the table, you would never use as much salt as is found in most processed foods). I would add that learning to cook also has the ability to create a sense of empowerment and satisfaction. What would taste mediocre at a restaurant tastes great at home because I made it. What do you believe home cooking has the power to transform?

With the risk of sounding hyperbolic, everything! First of all, if you know how to cook with simple, whole ingredients, including staples like beans and grains that are inexpensive and shelf stable and you can grow some herbs, you can eat well on little money and be healthy. There are many, many people who truly have few dolllars to spend on food and many who don’t even have access to a stove or basic kitchen equipment, but if you do and have the time/ability to cook for yourself, you will be much better off than with the industrial, pre-fab alternatives—resulting in better health, more agency, and confidence.

And while we talked about how cooking doesn’t have to take a lot of time I also want to stress that it does take forethought, organization, and certainly some time to do this on a regular basis and for a family. Doing so can be immensely satisfying and nourishing in many ways and does, as you say, connect you to place, community and ideally people and farmers—all of which runs counter to the industrial food system. Cooking with children gives them skills, engagement, joy and potentially a life-long independence and an awareness of the impact our food choices and policies have on people and planet. And lastly, the joy of good food shared with others should not be an underestimated force—this is one of the tenets of the Slow Food Movement—and we could use more well fed, happy people!

Dan Barber goes on to say in his new book, The Third Table, that “a pattern of eating can support a landscape,” meaning how we cook and what we eat is a road that goes two ways. The food that is available to us in season informs and creates, over time, a unique regional cuisine. Likewise, the popularity of and attraction to foods in their prime season supports the realities of agriculture: we cannot have everything always, though our industrial food system has tried very hard to make that so. Gary Paul Nabhan, another advocate of regional eating, has proposed the idea of distinguishing what he calls foodsheds—boundaries defined by the sustainable (and therefore reliable) food sources unique to a region’s landscape and climatic limitations. What do you see as some characteristics of the foodshed, or the “pattern of eating,” in which we live?

We used to (pre-1980s) grow more staple crops in the Willamette Valley; even though our wet climate isn’t completely ideal for beans and grains, there used to be more. Since the economic downturn in 2008, we have seen a slow shift to more beans and grains again, in part because with the crash the grass seed industry took a hit and some of those acres are being transitioned to edible crops instead. I am particularly interested in these very nutritious, shelf stable crops and hope that we can really increase the number of people who purchase these foods locally and support this transition. The interest seems to be there, with seed breeders and farmers working hard to cultivate varieties that thrive here.

I believe we have an opportunity to do more of what Dan Barber talks about and not just eat the “sexy” fleeting greens and vegetables that get more attention. Even though we have an extraordinary abundance and breadth of varieties grown for market here, we still have a fairly small number of people who primarily buy local products so I think there is a bit of tension between how some perceive our region and the reality of how people shop and eat. Even with our vibrant local food scene, farmers do not have an easy time making a living and I would like to see our foodshed strengthened, especially on the consumer front in really putting our money where our mouth is.

Big box stores certainly command the lion’s share of the food market in our country, and farmers’ markets are perceived by many as an expensive, privileged alternative. I began shopping at farmers’ markets when I was a poor student and could provide myself with enough vegetables to get through the week on just $10-$15. I chose to shop at the market less because of price and more because I wanted a high quality product—one that would taste better and keep longer. I credit my cooking practice for teaching me how to taste and appreciate freshness, and farmers’ markets for exposing me to many new kinds of foods. How does where you buy your food influence what and how you cook? How do you respond to the idea that cooking is a pastime of the privileged?

Where I buy my food completely influences what and how I cook. The produce is so delicious that it enables me to spend less time on cooking it and fussing with it to make it good. I also cook things based on recommendations by the farmer who grew it. What I cook is completely determined by where I go to shop and I rarely go to the market with specific items in mind (other than restocking cornmeal, beans, etc.) but what I find that looks good and I can afford.
As to cooking being a pastime of the privileged I would say two things: It has been framed as such for a variety of reasons such as longer work hours, poorer wages, the growth of fast food and convenience foods of all kinds, and the notion that cooking is drudgery. We have a tension in our culture of cooking being, on one hand, relegated to the poor and mostly women who don’t have enough “skill” to do more “important” work, and on the other hand, it’s said to be a pastime of the privileged.

Crafty cooks can eat better on fewer dollars by cooking from scratch than by purchasing processed or prepared foods. I know many people, including some of the Head Start staff and families I work with, who cook well from scratch and with food boxes and are not privileged in the conventional sense of the word. I understand why this tension exists and there are so many structural reasons for it that are complicated and hard to even parse, and that vary from place to place. I think of my job, my teaching and recipe creation and farmer “boosterism” as a small part of working to counter these assumptions and real and perceived challenges about cooking.

That said, cooking boutiques make it appear that dozens of expensive gadgets are needed to cook well. What tools and resources do you believe are the most essential for beginning home cooks?

A good, sharp 8-inch chef’s knife, a big cutting board, and a cast iron or other heavy skillet. I love certain food blogs as a free and accessible resource to learn from, especially Heidi Swanson’s 101cookbooks.com. If you find a blog that resonates with you, it can be a regular source of inspiration and education. There are dozens of fabulous ones; I also love Rachel Eats (based in Rome), which keeps me feeling connected to my long-past Italian days. As for cookbooks, I LOVE many of my books. I’m not sure they would all be great for beginners, but one of my favorites that might appeal to any level of cook is Nigel Slater’s Tender. Other excellent primers include: Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food, Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, and Deborah Madison’s The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.

But really I think cooking—for beginners or more advanced folks alike—is about doing and doing with as much of your own creativity, judgment, and instinct as possible. This takes inspiration by others of course, but doing, doing, doing and guessing and trying and tasting is what I would suggest. And asking your friends, parents, grandparents, and farmers about what they cook and how they do it. This is how I learned to cook, and my mother makes any vegetable taste good with simply her giant cast iron skillet, olive oil and salt. Don’t start fancy. Start simple and you’ll be rewarded with satisfying meals. Sauté a bunch of summer squash until they are browning and soft, be sure to salt well and then sprinkle with fresh herbs and/or grated Parmesan. Fry an egg in one side of the pan and have yourself the most satisfying dinner!

Fresh

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It is sometimes the case that our intuitive nature knows—long before solid proof arrives—when a good thing is, indeed, good. So it goes with farmers’ markets. This once quiet, now prolific movement (started for reasons that range from the political, to the sociological, to individual and community health, to economics) wouldn’t have caught on if the food wasn’t good. Ideology rarely trumps flavor.

Perhaps it was a stroke of luck, guided by the collective unconscious of the ancestors who ate before us, but it’s my belief farmers’ markets have been so wildly successful because they offer something no other sector of the food supply chain has accomplished: regular access to ultra-fresh foods. In doing so, markets have bolstered local economies, created community, preserved farmland, provided a platform for education. Yet, without incomparably good food, these ritual gatherings would not hold the magnetic attraction that draws us to them each week.

We have known this from the beginning. The first time you went to a farmers’ market and took home a bundle of glowing vegetables, you knew you’d be back. Fresh food, especially vegetables and fruits, speaks to us. We taste its authenticity first, then come to feel it in the deep compulsion of wanting what is best for us.

Though I have learned (shopping at markets and growing some of my own food) to value fresh vegetables as highly as any other currency through which I barter for survival, until recently, I thought of this preference as personal: a matter of taste, a symbol of privilege, perhaps. I could sense fresh meant better—more nutritious, even—but my hunch felt unquantifiable.

Lucky for us, there are sturdier feet to stand on than hunches. I recently got my hands on a copy of Jo Robinson’s newest book, Eating on the Wild Side. This meticulously researched work draws on hundreds of studies from various disciplines, summarizing how (to the best of our current knowledge) we can get the most nutritional benefit from common fruits and vegetables. Robinson’s wise tactic is not to insinuate that we incorporate a host of difficult to access (or unappealing to eat) super-foods, but to unlock the health potential of those we already cook with.

As I read through this book, it became clear that many vegetables touted for their nutritional prowess lose much of their potency mere days after being harvested. To get broccoli’s maximum nutritional benefits, it must be eaten within 2-3 days of harvest. In ten days of optimal storage conditions (mimicking best-case scenarios of commercial harvest and transport), one study found that broccoli lost 50-80% of its super-food powers.

Turns out, most leafy vegetables and shoots are significantly better for you when eaten as soon after harvest as possible. The harvested parts of these plants continue respiring (a plant’s version of processing energy) after harvesting, using up the phytonutrients that would have otherwise been replenished if they were still connected to the whole plant. As vegetables sit in transit and on display, their constant respiring also increases their bitter flavors. Fresh vegetables not only contain impeccable nutrients, they are more palatable to those who are sensitive to strong flavors (and tend to avoid eating the leafy green end of the vegetable spectrum).

While the industrial food chain continues to perform miracles of efficiency and abundance, it does so at the cost of nutritional potency. What we’ve known all this time as eaters of farmers’ market food is that freshness makes the difference. It makes our healthy vegetables healthier and trains our taste buds to know the distinction between good enough and better. Jo Robinson has gathered into one easy read a plethora of reasons why this is so, for those eager to know more.

Cold

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Winter farmers’ markets offer two basic categories of produce: storage crops and cold hardy crops. We know the characters well—whiskered roots, boxes of potatoes blinking in the daylight, stoic winter squash, bunches of bitter greens, snow-white leeks, fluffy blends of salad leaves looking like a pile of delicate miracles. We are lucky in our climate to enjoy a wide range of fresh vegetables throughout the cold season, from bunching greens to rutabaga, tonic to starchy sweet.

Storage crops are typically harvested in fall or early winter and held in barns or cellars at a temperature that protects them from freezing or sprouting. Cold hardy crops are planted in early fall and kept in the ground through winter, growing slowly and providing ultra fresh food at a time of year when it is much harder to find.

This year, hardy crops in our area faced an exceptional winter foe. Temperatures two weeks ago reached near record lows, dipping ten degrees below zero in Eugene area and hovering between six and ten degrees above zero around Portland. They were the kind of temperatures we rarely see west of the Cascades, for which farmers would be foolish to prepare defenses. The added cost of the necessary protections required to successfully grow cold hardy vegetables in sub-freezing temps is significant and largely unnecessary in our region most years.

As sure as any average is the occasional anomaly. We are tempered to expect mild winters and even in the wake of ominous forecasts, it can be hard to know how bad a freeze will be. Though area farms endured over a week of freezing temperatures, moderate cold can sometimes do more good than harm to edibles. A few seemingly insignificant degrees can mean the difference between frost-sweetened or frost-killed vegetables. And it is difficult to tell which fate has befallen your fields until they’ve thawed.

Many winter vegetable varieties are built to withstand a certain amount of cold, especially if it arrives incrementally. In a process known as “hardening off,” plants initiate subtle shifts in their physiology, making their cell walls more permeable to water (to allow movement of expanding fluids and avoid cell rupture) and increasing the sugar content of their cells’ cytoplasm. Sugar solution has a lower freezing point than water, thus acting as cellular antifreeze in a properly hardened plant.

Despite these clever defenses, physics demands that water turn into ice under 32-degrees Fahrenheit. When a vegetable plant is exposed to sub-freezing air, the water between cells inevitably forms into ice crystals, a process that attracts additional water from inside the cells. As the ice crystals grow, the plant responds again by increasing the sugar content of the cytoplasm, improving its ability to prevent ice formation inside the cells.

Winter vegetables can endure this game for a bit (typically to around 15-degrees), but if the temperature remains advantageous for ice, the cells will eventually become dehydrated and die. Add to this process the additional cooling and drying effects of wind chill on exposed plant tissue, and the chances of a field planting of broccoli or kale surviving our recent cold snap look ominous at best.

Crops under various forms of protection (plastic high-tunnels or row cover cloths) may have gotten the 3- to 6-degree buffer necessary to pull through. In most cases, it comes down to location. If the field is in a protected site (away from wind or cold pockets), got enough snow cover to act as insulation or stayed in the warmer range of our recent lows, its crops might have pulled through.

Farmers are a resilient lot. Though this winter’s cornucopia may look slightly less magnificent than years’ past, know your able farmers are already plotting the next round, adding this anomaly to their seasoned calculations, taking the good with the bad because they know, as some of us forget from time to time, that the two are always inseparable.

Don’t worry and fret about the crops. After you have done all you can for them, let them stand in the weather on their own.

If the crop of any one year was all, a man would have to cut his throat every time it hailed.

[…] the real products of any year’s work are the farmer’s mind and the cropland itself.”

-Wendell Berry

(from Prayers and Sayings of the Mad Farmer)

Turf

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Long before boulevards, city parks or TruGreen existed, the Renaissance painter Albrecht Durer captured the loveliness of grass in his naturalistic study, A Large Piece of Turf. The painting is deceptively simple, presenting a patch of grass and a foreground of bare soil with nearly photographic accuracy, and depicting a diversity of species that would make any golf course groundskeeper choke on his coffee during morning rounds. Dandelion and grass seedheads float atop a woven tapestry of foliage textures and shades of green that add up to something more than the commonplace subject they portray.

Green turf, the bigger the better, dominates our residential landscapes. Yet a quick look at the gardening section of an urban bookstore might convince you the American cult of the lawn is dead, so numerous are publications on cramming yards with edibles or ornamentals to create grass-free oases. Of course, the lawn abides, as a drive through any suburban development proves, even in regions where the usual turf grasses won’t grow; such as in south Florida, where walking through a lawn barefoot feels like strolling across a scouring brush. It doesn’t seem to matter, in these instances, that the tactile pleasure of shorn Bluegrass is lost to a less flexible species, perhaps because it’s the aesthetic that counts—that wide, monotonous expanse of greenness our brains adore.

I, too, once resolved to abolish the lawn, ripping out sod and planting perennials, shrubs and vegetable beds, a makeshift patio of cedar chips in the center—anything but boring old turf. I enjoy the cozy clutter of my backyard space, but woodchips (or any other hard surface) do not replace the usefulness of lawn: a place to walk or sit with or without shoes or furniture. And though it’s taken me some time to admit it, the combination of well-kept turf and intricate plantings is my favorite sort of garden composition. I’ve recently acquired a much bigger space that requires regular mowing and I love it most just after the grass is cut; its cool plushness and elegant simplicity amid the tangle of everything else.

In his book PrairyErth, William Least Heat-Moon contemplates why we might have a hard-wired affinity for the visual transition between cluttered forest and open grassland. As humanoids, our species moved over time from dwelling in the forest to the more abundant savanna. And it is in that tall grass where we may have first learned to walk upright, in order to see above the grass and scan long distances for water, safety or prey.

Of the Midwestern prairie lands he writes, “While something primal in me may long for the haven of the forest, its apprenticeship in the trees, it also recognizes this grand openness is the kind of place where it became itself.”

Surely affinity for the setting that triggered one of our most significant evolutionary transformations is the pearl turning inside our obsession with manicured turf. But the African savannas bear little resemblance to suburbia. The link between untamed grassland and our current standards for landscape grass is ruminants.

The word lawn has Celtic origins, referring to a place of enclosure. “Natural” lawns have been maintained in English forests by wild herds of grazing animals over the centuries, and their domesticated cousins did the same in the communal pasturelands of towns and cities. Thus, the lawn aesthetic we aspire to today originated in the maritime climate of Celtic cultures, where consistent rainfall and mist kept the grass lush and grazing herds nibbled it to a thick, low mat. Over time, desire for the aesthetic crept into landscape design, and shorn grass eventually became a symbol of wealth (unused space being the ultimate prerogative) in European and then American estates.

The problem, of course, is that most climates are not like the British Aisles’, and grass growing elsewhere needs significant pampering to maintain such deep, endless green. Collectively, contemporary lawn care practices are estimated to eclipse agricultural applications of herbicides and fertilizers, and are responsible for fuel spillage equal to an Exxon Valdez oil spill each summer from leaky engines and dribbles missing the gas tank. Lawns planted in arid regions are especially detrimental because of their taxation of the water supply and the increasingly complex (and environmentally destructive) infrastructure required to bring it to them.

In our poetic way, we love what we can’t really have, and we love it from a place we can’t name or control. The challenge is to reconcile our intrinsic desire for grassy expanses with their overuse of resources. Some replace turf with native plantings of perennials, grasses and shrubs. Others go for production, sacrificing lawn for vegetables. A few brave souls and indifferent renters (even some daring golf courses) let their lawn go brown in the dry season. We are lucky to have a natural time of greenness in our climate, so perhaps we should also think of green turf as a seasonal delicacy, to be relished in its time and dreamt of in its absence.

The Secret Lives of Seeds

Much has been made in our neck of the woods over the use of genetically engineered commodity crops (notably sugar beets and canola) whose DNA has been manipulated to allow these plants to withstand an onslaught of chemical applications, easing the farmer’s job of controlling weeds or pests. This new technology is a serious threat to farmers who still practice the art of seed saving, or those who grow vegetables primarily for their seed (as many in our Valley do), because the same DNA that provides the resistant traits has been deemed eligible for patenting.

In this surprising scenario, pollen dust that rides on the haunches of insects or is caught in a drift of wind belongs to someone (someone with an extensive legal team). That same pollen, once it enters the pistil and ovaries of a neighboring plant in the same botanic family and twists itself into a new genetic combination, still belongs to someone. If the patented DNA floats onto your land, the seeds from your fields and your toil belong to the company that owns their genetics. This makes saving these tainted seeds illegal and permanently infiltrates (and renders unusable) the genetic stock of a seed grower’s operation.

Consumers of food products may wish to seek out terms such as non-genetically modified (non-GMO) and non-genetically engineered (non-GE) on grocery store packaging if they’d like to boycott the practice of patenting plant DNA. As a consumer of seeds for the home garden, you run little risk of accidentally encountering said patented genes, but a newly developing branch of plant patent law leaves the gardener’s seed catalog with its own gamut of ambiguities.

Two terms the seed catalog shopper has surely encountered are ‘open-pollinated’ and ‘F1 hybrid.’ Both refer to a vegetable variety’s breeding history. F1 hybrids, as you may recall from your high school biology introduction to the work of Gregor Mendel, are the result of a cross between two true breeding (or homozygous) parents. This first generation not only ends up with the desirable traits from both parents, its seed stock is also nearly uniform. Thus, F1 hybrids are known for their consistency and vigor, as well as their marketable traits.

If you felt so inspired to cross two identical F1 plants, however, you would find that the genetics unleash, leaving you with a wildly diverse set of F2 varieties, few bearing resemblance to their parents. The practical outcome of this phenomenon is well known to gardeners: F1 seeds cannot be reliably saved—they must be purchased annually from the company that goes to all the trouble of creating them year after year, making them a good candidate for trait patenting.

Open-pollinated (OP) has a variety of meanings, ranging from genetic crossing facilitated only by wind and insects (a form of hybridization that occurs freely and all of the time), to a more intentional cross facilitated by placing plants with desirable traits in close proximity and repeatedly selecting the best progeny until the genetic variation mostly stabilizes. Unlike F1 hybrids, open-pollinated crosses will always have a subtle spectrum of traits among the batch. But what a gardener accepts in slight loss of uniformity she gains in ability to develop her own seed stocks, which over time will adapt to the character of her garden.

One is not necessarily more virtuous than the other. I buy both for my own vegetable plot, with a significant bent toward the OP varieties. I like the integrity of something owned by the commons—like mythology, folk songs or cherished recipes, each gardener, each season leaves its residue and passes it forward. I also enjoy saving my own seeds.

Certain vegetables, such as tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and beans, self-pollinate (meaning the pollen is already located within each flower, needing no more than a bump or a gust of wind to move it to the right place). This allows a gardener to basically carry on as usual, planting different tomato or lettuce varieties side by side, and still collect seed that will produce a similar plant the next year.

It was through reading the Wild Garden Seed catalog (a local seed breeding operation that works in in partnership with Gathering Together Farm of Philomath, OR) that I caught wind this year of how the vegetable-breeding world is changing because of a new trend in plant variety patenting. The gist of it is that larger breeding operations are starting to apply for patents on specific traits they have selected for, including such difficult-to-qualify features as color, shape and flavor (read Frank Morton’s full article here).

This troubling and outrageous development has serious implications for an operation like Wild Garden Seed, but also for the rest of us. Once vegetable traits legally belong to a business entity, their genetic wealth becomes blocked from meaningful participation in the greater genetic pool. And, more immediately, it is illegal to save seeds from patented varieties.

As eaters, we don’t (and rarely can!) look so deeply into the chain of food production to learn the background of the seeds that grew into our salad, or whether the seeds that grew into the feed that our hamburger ate were bred in a way we would accept of our own feed. For this reason, I am thankful to businesses like Wild Garden who grow seeds with integrity and make them available to the farmers that help to nourish our community. But as members of this society, we must also consider our part.

Though I have long been suspicious of patented plant DNA, until recently, I would doubtfully have understood the implications of a patent on an F1 hybrid or OP variety. I urge you to read more and learn why we must protect the ability of our nation’s farmers to grow the best food they can.

Wild Garden Seed’s webpage has an archive of well-researched and well-written articles on plant patenting as well as the politics of GMO’s in the Willamette Valley.

Frederick Kaufman further discusses the dangers of plant patenting in his piece published on the Slate website in December 2012.

Margaret Roach recently wrote an op-ed titled, Look Carefully at those Seeds, for the NY Times regarding the need for more organic seed sources.

Flavor

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We have always known it. Some revere it, some only partially perceive it, others shrug it off. Whatever stance we take in the face of it, flavor runs a deep line through our lives, revealing ancient preferences, feeding our current ones, and performing, without us knowing it, a concert of molecular movement and electricity that triggers emotion, memory, pleasure or alarm.

Conventional Western thought once divided our tongue into regions of perception corresponding to four basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Added recently, umami (a borrowed Japanese word meaning “good flavor”) is considered the fifth taste. It refers to savory sensations, such as those created by meat or mushrooms. Sweetness, we were told, is perceived on the front of the tongue, bitterness at the back, salty, sour and umami at various locations along the sides.

This, of course, is over-simplification. Taste bud receptors of various kinds are located throughout the tongue, and in a range of concentrations. Our ability to taste is related to the number of papillae our tongue contains, and this concentration varies among ethnic populations.

Papillae are small bumps that house the taste buds and molecular receptors that attract certain flavor molecules in the food we eat. Bitter taste receptors attract bitter flavor molecules, transferring that information through tiny pore openings in the taste buds, where it is perceived by nerve endings and transferred to the brain.

Tongues, however, are blunt sensory instruments compared to those in our nasal passages. The old trick of holding your nose to swallow a distasteful bite works so well because it reduces our experience of flavor to the tongue alone.

When the nose becomes involved, flavor increases exponentially. Our olfactory sensors are themselves nerve endings. Unlike tongue receptors, which must pass flavor molecules through several channels of perception, olfactory nerves have a direct connection to the brain, giving them their heightened sensitivity. When working together, tongue and olfactory sensors are capable of detecting a delightfully wide range of flavor variation.

Olfactory signals go directly to the part of the brain involved with memory, especially that of place and experience. Tongue receptor signals travel to parts of the brain that, among other things, regulate our perception of fullness, control salivation, and, combined with the olfactory signals, create a conscious sense of taste, what we experience as the flavor of our food.

There are many reasons for our bodies to have a refined sense of taste. Flavor reliably indicates chemical attributes of the things we put in our mouths, and thus can function as an assessment of calories and nutrients. Sweetness indicates sugar and its associated vitamins and carbohydrates, salt provides an essential nutrient for organ function, sour indicates acidity that could assist the detection of rotten foods, while umami may reflect the presence of protein. Bitterness stands as our strongest indicator of danger—most poisonous alkaloids have a bitter taste, though this does not mean that all bitter foods contain harmful substances.

No taste exists in isolation. Greens such as mustards and radicchios do contain a strong bitter note, but one laced with sweetness. In the case of grapefruit, sweet and sour are also detectable. The presence of sweetness in particular can (but does not always) indicate that the type of bitter compound present is not dangerous. Such benign bitter compounds promote gastric juice production, thus aiding the digestion of accompanying vitamins, carbohydrates and fats.

Flavor is revelatory, and while it is a highly subjective enterprise (physiologically and otherwise), we are rewarded for paying it attention. We are not necessarily predisposed to try new things, to break the spell of habit and grab that unfamiliar bunch of greens to take home and sample. Yet, the more flavors we try, the more we learn about their nuances, and the more capable we become of discerning the many ways in which our foods feed us.

(Originally published in the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market newsletter, The Grapevine, January 31, 2013)

Origins of Cooking

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I was looking recently at a gorgeously photographed cookbook from the celebrated Copenhagen restaurant, Noma. Led by the young and talented chef Rene Redzepi, Noma is credited with reinventing Nordic cuisine by using exclusively local ingredients, foraging and exploring the edible potential of what seems a bleak and limited landscape. I had heard about this chef and was interested in his zeal for found foods, though what I saw in his cookbook looked more like contemporary art than any meal I have eaten—beautiful but weightless, these dishes do not convey sustenance.

One dish, titled Vegetable Field, tricks the eye into seeing a patch of dirt with carrots and other root vegetables lifting their shoulders out of the ground. In reality, it is made of roast vegetables and malt “soil,” and although I have never eaten such a thing, I assume it tastes at least as intriguing as it looks given the restaurant’s Michelin stars. Pressing the familiar into whimsy, Redzepi’s creations seem as interested in imagining nostalgia as simply tasting like the exquisite ingredients they likely are. They are dinner in the form of an art gallery.

But how has fine food come to this degree of abstraction? We once, long, long ago, wandered our world picking and eating as we went, taking only what lay before us in whatever form we found it. Fruits plucked, herbs sampled, we filled our stomachs without thought of preparation or storage: an improvised Eden. Then, some 250,000-odd years ago, we harnessed the nuances of fire. Under its tutelage we learned, slowly, to coax from the vegetables and meats we were accustomed to eating raw, new and perhaps more agreeable flavors and nutrition.

Cooking has taken many forms over time. Fire, an open flame that singes and chars, is the most basic (and still one of the most delicious). Underground cooking chambers made by burying coals or hot rocks in the earth have translated to the high tech convection ovens of our day. Clay or metal vessels used to hold and heat water or oil for more controlled, precise cooking are the forbears of our myriad stockpots and sauté pans.

Even wood itself, a fuel of combustion, was once fashioned into a container for heating food: the folded cedar boxes of some Pacific Northwest coastal Indians, heated by adding fire-hot rocks to the water-filled interior rather than heating from below, boiled seal meat, berries or starchy roots. The endless combinations of what we cook and how we cook it have enthralled and nourished our species for millennia.

Scientists quibble over which came first—cooking or the larger brain. But in either equation, the practice of cooking our food has, over time, played a crucial role in our cognitive ability. When we expose food to heat, we alter its complex chemical structure and make more of its nutrients available to our ravenous brains, which on average consume 25% of our modern caloric intake. Cooking unlocked hidden potential in the food we took so much time to hunt and gather, providing increased return for the effort.

In this way, the practice of cooking has contributed to our cognitive capabilities. The most “recent” addition to our brain, the cerebral cortex, is responsible for the feats of language and reasoning, and for the capacity of a brain that once merely existed to begin to know itself. This remarkable development was likely encouraged by the simple but profound notion of applying heat to food. Cooking has nourished both our physical and mental capabilities alike.

From its very inception, cooking has always been a creative impulse, an abstract thought garnered from observation. The first limb seared in flame was likely both an informed and impulsive experiment. Watching the effects of wild fires on nearby vegetation, ancient hominids may have wondered what would happen if they took a piece of this heat and applied it where they chose. Cuisines such as Noma’s sparse but artistic plates reside in this same conceptual realm. Food preparation has always been a form of art, sustenance drawn from the ethers of our interior and exterior wildernesses, feeding our present minds as much as capacities yet unknown.