Newsletter – 22 August, 2013


The Alleged Farm News – 22 August, 2013

This weeks share: Basil, Beans, Broccoli, Cabbage, Carrots, Eggplant, Garlic, Lettuce, Onions, Jalapeno and Newmex Hot Peppers, Potatoes, Tomatoes

I majored in Literature in college. It was really comparative literature, but the graduate program considered us undergraduates unready for the rigors of their discipline, so we had to do absolute literature instead. At the time, studying literature involved delving into a lot of obscure theory written by French guys with a nasty sense of humor. We spent a long time, as I recall, contemplating what a coin would mean if the surfaces were rubbed blank–or maybe if they came that way. I have forgotten the details, perhaps because I did not understand much of what we were talking about. Even the people actually talking about it turned out not to understand much of it, and I remain unconvinced that the theorists themselves could explain it all. It seemed like a particular sort of Gallic intellectual joke, though you were not allowed to suggest any such thing. It was all terribly serious, a long overdue assault on the unmerited hegemony of the dead white European male and his deliberately noninclusive literary canon. Basically we had set out to destroy books, which struck me as an odd enterprise for a literature department

One of the saving graces of this approach was that we were encouraged to take a wider view. If the literary enterprise  as we knew it was a form of oppression, then we would have to look elsewhere to find the right tools for our deconstruction project. Thus I encountered the work of Clifford Geertz, an anthropologist who wrote with unusual clarity and grace about the meaning of culture. I hung onto none of the books of theory I struggled through in college, but I still have two of Geertz’s on my shelf. While I would likely feel a bit lost wading into them now 25 years removed from fluency in the relevant ideas and arguments, I am always pleased when I come across them. They are like two old friends I have sadly fallen out of touch with but remember fondly. They also serve to remind me that I sometimes wish I had majored in anthropology instead of literature. It seems, at least based on Geertz’s work, a similar sort of endeavor, but focussed on real people rather than characters in novels.

Vegetable notes: As I may have mentioned in a previous newsletter, the onions have done well this year. Our one bed of Candy onions (the yellow onions in the share this week) produced 40 bushels, many of them quite hefty. The barn where we dry the onions and garlic is starting to fill up and we still have not brought in most of the onions. We pulled almost all of them this week, but it has been sunny and dry to we left them out in the field to cure. I am trusting the the deer will not suddenly develop a taste for them. I guess I am also trusting that you do have a taste for them. I have heard of people who do not like onions, but I think they are just being difficult. I don’t see how you can like eating if you don’t like onions. I like onion sandwiches. Get a slice of really good bread, sprinkle it with olive oil and vinegar, salt and fresh ground pepper, perhaps a little chopped basil, and top with some very thin slices of a juicy mild onion (Candy would be a perfect onion for an onion sandwich). Onions are also, of course, excellent in tomato salad, bean salad and potato salad, crucial in salsa (the Newmex and Jalapeno peppers, roasted, peeled and diced, are excellent in salsa), tasty grilled with eggplant (you could top them with that salsa), a vital component of good cole slaw (or broccoli slaw). And then there are onion rings, onion tart, onion soup. Plus you have to have onions in just about every stew, in pot roast, in coq au vin, gazpacho, tomato sauce,Greek salad. Plus I have to mention the blooming onion, even though it is gross as well as tasty, because it is fair week (the Washington County Fair runs through Sunday; worth a trip if you are a cow fancier) and the blooming onion is quintessential fair food. Where else would dipping a whole huge onion in batter and dropping it into a vat of oil seem like a reasonable way to make food?

I know I have written this in many previous newsletters, but it cannot be stated too often: don’t overcook the beans. They only need a couple of minutes in boiling water. Any longer and they start to lose their excellent texture, and then you might as well be eating beans from the grocery store

Not that the study of anthropology would have proved particularly more relevant than the study of literature to my current work. I suppose I could have done some field work in an agricultural community and picked up a few farming tips. But by and large grappling with the symbolic interpretation of cultures provides no more insight into weed control or post harvest handling than a good book will. But who said our intellectual pursuits have to be in thrall to our professional endeavors? Actually, I would guess that lots of Americans have said something like that. We tend to favor the view of education as direct preparation for everyday life, as apropos preprofessional training, rather than as an opportunity to develop less obviously remunerative intellectual skills such as the interpretation of symbols. Well, so be it; I obviously never said it. I came to farming with lots of education, not a jot of it having anything to do with growing vegetables.

I still think about anthropology from time to time not because it will make the tomatoes grow better next year (though it would be nice if it did), but because I find the ways we choose to construct our culture interesting. It seems unlikely at this point that I will ever pursue it seriously (let alone catch it), but it’s amusing to contemplate. And while it probably won’t get me much recognition in academic circles, I did recently make what I take to be an interesting anthropological discovery: I identified the last two Americans to try pesto. I would like to say that this discovery was the result of arduous and exciting field work amongst the suspicious, sometimes hostile natives, but in fact I just came across them in our local newspaper. A woman whose stunningly mundane column about minor events in her life appears in the Sunday paper mentioned that due to an oversupply of various herbs she had been forced to come up with ways to use them and chose to make pesto, which her husband grudgingly agreed to try. She even offered a rough explanation of what pesto is in case any of her readers had not encountered it.

If this column had appeared ten years ago I might have been impressed by her culinary adventurousness. Pesto would have been an unusual choice around here, the sign of some kind of snooty gourmet at work. She would have had to take either a bragging or defensive tone, and her efforts to explain pesto would have made sense. But I assumed that by now pesto has so thoroughly penetrated the culture that making it and eating it would go unremarked. Unless it were your first time making and eating it, in which case you would have to offer some cute, apologetic story to excuse your embarrassingly late arrival to the pesto party. But the columnist seemed completely unembarrassed. She wrote about it as she might have about making french fries at home: not an everyday thing for sure, and quite possibly something many of her readers had not attempted, but hardly a big deal–except that it left a garlic taste in her mouth the next day. 

I forget sometimes that what strike me as the most widespread food trends still have plenty of room to spread out around here. In Brooklyn they are busy debating the relative merits of morning and evening harvested basil and worrying about sourcing fair trade pine nuts and making ironic versions of pesto served as dessert. But in many places people are still approaching fresh herbs cautiously, worrying about cost, leery of the unfamiliar, too busy to learn new ways of cooking, and turned off by the foodies’ disapproval of their diet. For a certain segment of Americans our relationship to food–how, why, where, when and what we choose to eat–has become perhaps the essential component our relationship with the world. It is used to signal our social and moral standing, and the standard by which we judge others.

But for lots of Americans food largely remains, well, food. Sure, that food has become far more diverse in recent times, incorporating salsa and stir fry and even pesto. And there are distinctions between fancy and simple, expensive and cheap, new and familiar, native and foreign, but these distinctions have no special cultural significance and you believe you choose what to eat based on what you like, what you can afford and what you can get, not on what you want to tell the world about yourself. 

And from either side of that divide, the other side looks pretty silly. Ignorantly indifferent to their own and the planet’s future or snobbishly obsessed by pointless concerns. And, I suppose somewhat as an anthropologist should, I feel a bit like a foreigner on either side. I am a farmer in a rural county, a manual laborer, but I sell my weird vegetables in a weird way. I am too old and grumpy and averse to faith to be a food activist, but I am sure as hell not a local (ask the locals). I would like to believe you can care in large and small (or, as Geertz would say, thick and thin) ways about what you eat without turning it into a fetish. Leading a dispassionate life style tends not to gain you many allies or acolytes, but then I am not really looking for them. In fact, I am mostly just trying to keep my head down. It is a good way to avoid notice and makes weeding the carrots a lot easier.