The Alleged Farm News – 28 July. 2016

This week’s share: Genovese basil, Cabbage, Cucumber, Eggplant, Garlic, Lettuce, Onions, Parsley, Potatoes, Squash


A guy I knew with in middle school recently friended me on Facebook. Now I have learned that he runs a lot–or at least dresses like he runs and hangs out with similarly dressed people, went to Italy some time recently, maybe keeps bees, likes soccer (Italian, not English), has a son in college and more facial hair than he did in sixth grade, and teaches medieval history at Tulane. It’s like the last forty years melted away and we are still hanging out eating his mom’s lasagne and talking about the Mets.

Actually, he does not seem to mention the Mets anymore. Which is fine because I stopped following baseball about the same time he moved away, back when the Mets were in their second period of incompetence. Instead, he seems to use Facebook surprising frequently to ask quite specific questions of is fellow medievalists. Things like, what was the Christian symbolism of the raven in Italy around 1430? Which is a tough one, I must say. If he had asked about some time later in the fifteenth century, well piece of cake. But 1430 has me stumped.


In this vein, he also recently posted a long piece by a Norwegian medievalist attacking Stephen Greenblatt, the Shakespeare scholar, for the silly views of the dark ages in his book The Swerve. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but apparently Greenblatt has seriously misled us about the middle ages. He has presented us with a “histrionic cartoon” relying on long debunked myths about intellectual stagnation and self-flagellation. It is an academic outrage, and to make it worse he is outside his specialty, he just won a huge prize in Norway, he teaches at Harvard and his book was a best seller. Now if that doesn’t make the blood boil.

There are moments when certain types of people I tend to sympathize with reveal their pomposity and pettiness and I say to myself, “ah, so that is why people hate…” I had that feeling when a historian published a complaint that the musical “Hamilton” had failed to deal with the man Hamilton’s difficult relationship with race. Oh dear, a hip hop musical on Broadway hasn’t tried to present every single aspect of the life of its title character. Here’s another tack you could take, one was a little tempted to respond: get down on your knees and thanks the show for making anyone think about Hamilton at all.

I had the feeling again reading this lengthy screed about the misdeeds of Stephen Greenblatt. I don’t necessarily disagree with the Norwegian’s complaints about Greenblatt’s arguments and it is delightfulI that she has a more nuanced and generous view of medieval history. Plus she is of course right that these sorts of books that claim world history hinges on one thing tend–who’d have imagined?– to oversimplify a bit. All human achievement does not depends solely on salt or the cod or the rediscovery of one infrequently read Latin poem.

It should have been easy, however, to make those arguments without resorting to professional petulance. Should have been, but wasn’t. However much Greenblatt’s methods and argument irritate her, she sounds far more aggrieved about a non-medievalist horning in on her specialty. As much as she claims to worry about us being misled by Greenblatt, she cannot help revealing her patronizing belief that us common folk are too ignorant and credulous to resist the lure of a well crafted story. And then her professional envy just gets the better of her, and leaves her sputtering about Greenblatt’s success, as though it were proof of his deviousness or, worse, shallowness. The whole performance reminds one why so many novelists cannot resist writing academic satires.

It made me wonder if farmers behave in more or less the same way. Do we overstate our importance, engage in vicious internecine warfare, let our learning turn us into killjoys, disparage the untrained masses? Well, it would be odd if we did not do all that at least a little. We are people too. But it is hard to bring the same passion to these tasks when you have the feeling that just about anybody else could do what you do because once upon a time just about everybody else did do what you do. A hundred years ago, the average dairy herd in Washington Country was five cows, which tells you something about how the dairy industry has changed, but also suggests that a lot of families had their own private dairy herd of one cow. Plus their own laying hens, pigs, vegetable garden, apple orchard. They made their own tomato sauce, their own hard cider, their own bacon. But they probably did not write their own medieval history books.

Not that most people produce their own food any more. Or could produce much of what we eat without significant advanced training in various forms of engineering. But lots of people could start growing at least some of their food again–and without being specialists in anything.

And should start. I recognize it is not in my business interest to say that, but it is true. Like our electrical grid, our food system would be better off getting away from centralized mass production. There are good reasons to have some farms–solar, wind, vegetable–where the conditions are just right, and not all of us can grow avocados and limes, and I would be sad without them.

Producing food, unlike the law, say, or surgery or food science or academia, has no formal barriers to entry. There’s no requisite degree, no arduous exam, no period of formal training. You can just walk out into a patch of dirt, like I did 21 years ago, and stick some seeds in the ground and see what happens. Chaos, actually, and a lot of weeds and frustration if I remember correctly (not that I need to remember because I still have all that now). But also food. Real food, just like us fancy professional farmers grow. And we know that, which helps stop us from makings pompous asses of ourselves too often.


Vegetable notes: The timing of a number of our crops seems to be a little off this year. I am still waiting for someone to convince the tomatoes that it really is summer. Maybe the eggplants, having only just caught on to that fact themselves, could pass along the message. They could tell the peppers too, though in the peppers’ defense, they were set back somewhat when the deer ate the tops off them.

Now that you have an eggplant, you should fire up the grill. You can do lots of things with an eggplant–there’s a Turkish dessert made with eggplant–but it is probably best grilled. Plus I assume you keep your grill outside, so cooking on it won’t heat up your house, which is a good enough reason right now to use it. Cut the eggplant into thinnish slices and brush it with oil and cook it until it has good grill marks on both sides. It will go well with your grilled squash, topped with oil, vinegar, lots of chopped herbs and a healthy dose of garlic.

While you have the grill going, you could throw your quartered cabbage on to give it a little smokiness and char. Then use it to make cole slaw.

If you have a nice, smoky grill going you could put the potatoes on too–either straight on the grill or in a cast iron pan with a little oil and a lot of salt. The idea of a smoked potato may seem odd, but it tastes good.