Archive for the ‘heritage’ category

mob mentality

February 28, 2010

From today’s New York Times:

 The Crop Mob, a monthly word-of-mouth (and -Web) event in which landless farmers and the agricurious descend on a farm for an afternoon, has taken its traveling work party to 15 small, sustainable farms. Together, volunteers have contributed more than 2,000 person-hours, doing tasks like mulching, building greenhouses and pulling rocks out of fields.

 “The more tedious the work we have, the better,” Jones said, smiling. “Because part of Crop Mob is about community and camaraderie, you find there’s nothing like picking rocks out of fields to bring people together.”

In a rural hamlet like Roseboom, community and camaraderie are naturally occurring phenomena. One neighbor can be counted on to come by with his tractor and till up my plot in May; another is happy to share some old manure. Last year, I left town for a few days not long after planting some apple trees. When I got home my hose had been unspooled and stretched to their site; not knowing how long I was going to be away, my next-door neighbor walked across the lawn each day to give the saplings a healthy soaking. 

Next to these sweet habits of small-town life, the internet-based pop-up communities of today’s fashionable farmophiles might appear vaguely artificial. But this is the time in which we live, and it’s as much a part of our ecology as the climate in which we garden. The smart farmer gets to know his dirt and works with it, not against it. 

This weekend a big snowstorm hit Roseboom, so I stayed in New York. (We had snow here, too, but I didn’t have to drive in it.) And yesterday–via facebook–one of my neighbors offered  to pick up her shovel and attack the pile of snow at the end of my driveway. Good fences may or may not make good neighbors, but good communication is key, and we’re lucky to have so many ways of doing it.

and the verticals of trees

May 20, 2009

000_0652When I finally closed on my house, my first thought was of fruit trees. I figured I would spend the first fall/winter doing research, plant the next spring, and enjoy the fruits of my labors…. about now.

That didn’t happen. In fact, until this year’s asparagus, my only permanent plantings have been pretty un-noteworthy—a few bunches of sorrel, a couple of clumps of lavender. 

How I got stuck: I started my apple research at the farmers’ market in DC (where I mostly lived at the time). I found a few varieties I liked. Then I started reading, and quickly learned that none of my favorite cultivars would survive Otsego County winters. I also started to read about garden design. And light and soil requirements. And pruning. And disease. To top it all off, my lovely large yard is on the side of my house, so not only were my orcharding efforts going to be fraught with peril, any failures were going to be very public.

But this spring I was determined to plunge in my shovel and make a mark. I lost someone very close to me a year ago, and a few of my friends got me a gift certificate to a local nursery “to get something lovely for the garden.” I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate his life than with a tree—something that would live on, perhaps even longer than me, while at the same time illustrating life’s glorious and heartbreaking cycle with the turning of the seasons, year after year.

As it happened, the days leading to the tree-planting adventure brought more sad news. And while my sweet brother was foremost in my heart as I worked on Tuesday, I also thought about two others who had touched my life in very different ways. One I had never met in person, but his teachings (as master of Ashtanga yoga) have had a profound effect on me, particularly in this year. Another was a musician I didn’t know very well, but who had been a regular part of my landscape for the past 16 summers; it is hard to believe we will no longer exchange hellos on the hill behind the wardrobe house.

You never plant a single apple tree, nor do you plant your property with a single cultivar. In order for any one apple tree to bear fruit, it needs to be around other apple trees, and it needs to be around other kinds of apple trees. And here’s a cool thing: every apple seed will grow up (if it can) to be completely unique. The idea is that, of the thousands of varieties thrown off by the hundreds of apples that fall from any one tree in any one season, a few just might have the right qualities to thrive where they land. (For more on this, see Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire.)  And if two or more different trees grow up near enough each other, they will likely bear fruit, beginning the wildly creative cycle again.000_0645

Unfortunately, survival is no predictor of palatability. So when we humans discover that one-in-billion tree that produces an apple that tastes good to us, we clone it. Every MacIntosh is descended from a single tree, as is every Winesap, every Gala, every Newton Pippin.

I chose Macoun, Cortlandt and Honeycrisp. I moved them around the yard for awhile in their heavy pots until I found a configuration that felt right. I gave them luxurious holes, plenty of manure, a good soaking, thick rings of mulch. And now they’re settled into what I think of as their permanent spots. Nothing is permanent, of course, but it is nice to imagine some of our labors will bear fruit even after we’re gone.

Back to basics

May 15, 2009

A surfeit of any one ingredient is a good test of ingenuity, or endurance, or both. It wasn’t until I faced the end of this latest greens heap that it occurred to me to reach back and approximate a familiar taste from my past: Plain greens, in all their vegetalmineral glory, cooked down with a hunk of pork into a sinewy-soft mass.

A side of greens is pretty standard fare in south Louisiana, where I grew up. I ate turnip greens and mustard greens from three generations of gardening ancestors, though I can’t remember having a very strong opinion of them, for good or ill. They were just there.

For a time, my family frequented a restaurant called ‘Round the Bend, which offered a bottomless pot of greens, served family style, to precede the meal. The greens were pretty good, especially when doused with pepper vinegar, though probably not good enough to explain my enthusiastic consumption of bowl after bowl. (That pre-adolescent appetite was more an appetite for attention than for the greens themselves. In the end I got both.)

Dandelion greens are hardly delicate, but they don’t stand up to the same kind of treatment as the muscular greens of my childhood. There is another Louisiana tradition—one which I’ve read about but which is not part of my culinary heritage—called gumbo zhebes (or z’herbes). It traditionally calls for seven different greens, though of course more is better. Beyond that—controversy abounds. Some begin with roux, some do not…. and it goes on from there. 000_0631

I was not interested in achieving authenticity. I was just interested in borrowing the “more is better” idea, using what I had on hand. My version had bacon, dandelion greens, ramps, chard, thyme, sorrel, cooked for around five minutes. The taste was surprisingly reminiscent of the greens at ‘Round the Bend—dark green and tangy and ever so slightly porky. I was sorry my pot was not bottomless.

Bayou hallelujah

April 13, 2009

Life isn’t fair, and sometimes that works out in your favor. Just ask the Catholics who live in south Louisiana. Fish on Fridays may count as mortification of the flesh in certain land-locked locales, but I’ve never heard anyone in bayou country complain about being deprived of red meat and/or poultry.

It’s even harder to deny the moral slipperiness of fish as penance when you consider how we choose to celebrate after forty days of Lenten “fasting.” In most places, Easter alleluias are followed by a mid-day meal featuring some kind of roast beast—a leg of lamb, perhaps a ham. But in my family, the fruits of the bayou remain at the center of the table.

So, let us raise up crawfish bisque. Keep your chocolate bunnies; for me this is the taste of Easter. It’s made of ingredients that can be found in any number of common Cajun dishes, but its preparation is so labor-intensive that I’m about as likely to construct a multi-tiered wedding cake from scratch as I am to try my hand at it. So I will not attempt a recipe, but for those poor souls who have no idea what I’m talking about, the basic architecture is as follows:

1. Start with a pile of crawfish. Pull off the tails, then use your fingernails to split the undersides of the shells and extract the tail meat and fat. Each hard-shelled crustacean will yield about a teaspoon of meat—maybe. The other part of the animal—“the head”—encloses various organs and is studded with a number of appendages. Get rid of everything, inside and out, except a large (relatively speaking) hollow curl of shell, between one and two inches long and just under an inch in diameter. 

2. Mince the tail meat fine with binding agents and seasonings. These will undoubtedly include the “holy trinity” of Creole cooking: onion, bell pepper, celery, in roughly equal proportions. The other ingredients vary from cook to cook, but the final mixture is sure to be highly seasoned.

3. Using a very small spoon, stuff this mixture back into the cleaned shells, each of which will hold approximately one bite. 

4. Make a dark roux and use this as a base for a rich brown gravy. Add any leftover crawfish and seasonings. Simmer the stuffed shells in the gravy. Serve over white rice.

It’s easy to see why this dish belongs to the feast, and I suppose one might make the case that a simpler seafood preparation could still properly be considered fasting. Except. I’m not sure we Louisianians grasp the concept of a non-celebratory meal. 


April 5, 2009

A lot of people who live alone talk about the challenge of cooking for one, but I don’t buy it. Sure, there are some dishes that only make sense to prepare in quantity, and some of those aren’t very good left over. But there are also delicious small-quantity meals that can be put together in less time than it takes for  the delivery to arrive. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy sharing a repast—I love to sit at table passing the bread from hand to hand, refilling each other’s wine, lingering over the last morsels of food and conversation. But there is something equally—if very differently—lovely about preparing a meal for oneself with care and enjoying it slowly with the company of a good book, or perhaps a just a view of the darkening sky.

Last week I went to a concert with some friends, which is unusual for me. I first developed the habit of going to performances alone by accident (it’s not always possible to find a companion who shares my latest curiosity), but it’s now become a more conscious practice. I go to the theater, or to the concert hall, for the communal experience, but I like being the master of my own attention in the buzz before the event, whether it’s taking in the stage, eavesdropping on fellow audience members, perusing the program, or just trying to shed the day. And while some terrible evenings can be salvaged by lively post-show analysis, I’ve never had a truly great evening anything but diminished by discussion. 

Recently I began studying with an Important Yoga Teacher. I had resisted this path, partially because seeking out a “star” yoga teacher just seems kind of gross–the worst kind of New Yorkness. Also, the chain near my apartment is cheap and convenient, and while there are some inexperienced or merely adequate teachers cycling through, there are also a couple who are quite wonderful.  In first weeks following the move, I spent a fair amount of time thinking about the quality of instruction—was it sufficiently better to justify more than doubling my monthly yoga cost? The quality of instruction is excellent, but lately I am coming to realize that the quality of the community is equally valuable. I appreciate that I do not swipe my bar code upon entry, just as I appreciate the fact that I do not walk through a retail shop on the way into the studio. I especially appreciate the sense of the sacred space, which is created not so much by the representations of the various deities as by the intention and the intensity of the practitioners.

In Ashtanga yoga, you practice a set sequence to the beat of your own breath. The teacher(s) move about the room, offering adjustments and teaching the next pose in the sequence as individuals are ready. Because each person begins upon entering, there is no opportunity for conversation: I know almost no names, and certainly no personal details, of my fellow yogis, and yet there is something that passes between us as we come together each morning. It is a daily experience of being completely absorbed in one’s own practice, and at the same time being aware of oneself as a member of a community. One of the most important techniques of the Important Yoga Teacher seems to be to simply leave us alone… so we can practice.

Back to the solo supper: There is a story told about Lucullus, one of the canonical great men of Roman history who was also known to be quite the gourmand. The story goes that one of his servants, upon hearing that there would be no guests for dinner, served only one course. Lucullus reprimanded him, saying, “What, did not you know, then, that today Lucullus dines with Lucullus?”

More than three decades into a life that has turned out to be more solitary than not, I understand that there is a difference between being alone and being lonely. More recently I’ve come to see that conversation and connection are two very different things—and in fact, some of the most satisfying communal experiences can involve no exchange of verbal data whatsoever.