The Alleged Farm News – 29 October, 2015

This week’s share: Carrots, Endive, Leeks, Lettuce, Mustard, Onions, Hot peppers, Nicola potatoes, Pumpkin, Sage


I have been watching a cooking show. It starts with 12 home bakers given three baking challenges, the results sternly judged by two imposing experts, and the person with the worst baked goods sent home. Each week the remaining contestants take on three more baking challenges, and each week another one gets knocked out of the competition. Pretty standard reality fare really.

Except it is a BBC program, so it shows British reality. And British reality differs from ours in a number of ways. For instance, that they have much worse refrigerators. The contestants, operating under time constraints, suffer a great deal of anxiety about getting things to cool down fast enough, which would be less of a concern in a country with modern home appliances. Seeing the refrigerators on the show–on a televised cooking show–reminded me of my grandparent’s kitchen in their Cotswold cottage forty years ago.

Actually, the show seems to have made no particular efforts to provide any fancy equipment at all. The contestants have what they need, but nothing beyond what you would find in my kitchen (except their greater baking skill). American shows often have fancier gadgets. But then American shows also manage to mention or prominently display the brand names of those gadgets, so they don’t have to pay for them. I did not hear anyone on the British show mention a single brand in the course of the whole ten episode contest.

So what do they talk about? Well, with the exception of a few self-deprecating jokes, not themselves. If they have problems in their lives to overcome or great successes to brag about or hopes for personal growth and redemption they keep quiet about it. And nobody probes for details. The show offers the scantest of biographical information about the 12 bakers at the outset and proceeds to add more or less nothing through the ensuing episodes. It is almost as if whatever the contestants might have been through in their personal lives has no special bearing on their baking and is thus irrelevant and none of our business. Or maybe it does have some bearing and still isn’t any of our business.

For comparison I watched one episode of an American skill-based competition show, in the course of which I learned that one contestant’s father had been killed by a drunk driver, another contestant had been bullied in school–by teachers as well as other students, one had worried about coming out to her deeply Christian parents but had found them wonderfully supportive when she did, and one had been born to a fourteen-year-old and raised by her grandparents. These were not entirely irrelevant details–they at least allegedly played some role in shaping the contestants’ skill–but it is hard to say precisely how they affected the skill or what we were supposed to do with this knowledge.

The American shows seem to believe that we want to get to know the contestants–apparently their skill is not a good enough reason to watch even though it is the putative reason for the show–and that to know them me must know what they have overcome. Just being born with some talent and then working diligently to develop it apparently does not hold enough interest. To be fair, showing someone honing a skill on television is hard–or at least to do so and get anyone to watch. Plus it can depress viewers. It helps to remind us what separates us from great talent, which is about 10,000 hours of tedious practice. That is not the sort of deficit you overcome easily. Whereas going through some struggle or tragedy and learning from it, we can all see ourselves doing that. And if that is where true talent comes from, we still have a chance. Plus it elicits our mawkish sympathy, and TV shows love to elicit that. It has an odd way of making us stick with a story and you want to hang onto your viewers. Even better, perhaps, it renders us wonderfully susceptible to the hokum of advertising, which plays almost exclusively to our emotions and therefore prefers us in a worked up, less than rational state.

Even though the baking show is on the BBC–no advertising to get worked up for–I am sure it wants to hang onto viewers too. But the show seems to think that its premise contains sufficient interest–that people who watch a baking show actually want to see baking–and that the contestants will reveal themselves sufficiently through their baking. Which they do in time. By watching them at work we gradually discern aspects of their character. We see who is precise, who disorganized, who likely to experiment unwisely, who bold, who likely to handle the pressure. We see elements of their history shaping their choices about what and how to bake. And we see how they react to the silly hosts, somewhat intimidating judges and one another (politely, modestly and ironically, of course, because they are British). This knowledge gives us a little sense of who these contestants are and thus some notion of how they might respond to future challenges on the show and then we get to watch what unfolds. It is this developing understanding that gives texture and drama to the show, though the show never lets it get in the way of the baked goods themselves, which are far more intimately revealed than the bakers.

In tone, the British show is rather like a genteel 19th Century novel, the American one more like an action film based on a comic book. Or perhaps the British show is more like farming, which develops slowly, demands hard work without much apparent drama, involves characters disinclined to divulge too many details about themselves and is judged in the end by the produce more than the producer. It is not for the impatient and the easily bored, for those seeking quick thrills, brash visual effects, raw emotions, the fundamental clash of good and evil.

Like a British baking show or a old novel, farming is somehow a little out of step with modern America, set at a contemplative pace that does not really work in a world of instant self-promotion, but also serves to give it a kind of countercultural cachet. Basically, it is hip because it is boring. I am not sure how I feel about farming’s hipness, but this kind of boring doesn’t bother me. But then I was raised by an English mother in a house with no TV where we kept ourselves amused, among other things, by doing a fair amount of baking. So maybe it is no surprise I ended up here. Or maybe it is. Not sure it matters as long as I keep producing some decent vegetables.


Vegetable notes: You can make a small jack-o’-lantern out of your pumpkin. But you could also make a large pumpkin pie since it is a pie pumpkin. Or cook it as you would a winter squash, which is what a pumpkin more or less is.

You can make a pie with your leeks too. Perhaps a leek quiche or a leek and mushroom tart or a leek, potato and bacon empanadas (in case you are wondering, all of those would count as pies for the farm pie contest).

You can even make a pie with your carrots. One of my former farm workers made a surprisingly tasty candied carrot tart for Thanksgiving a couple of years ago (far better than the turnip pie he once brought).