Our Edible Landscape

Elderflowers, soon to be elderberries, soon to be elderberry wine.

It must have been close to a hundred degrees in the hoop-house. After weeding down one row of tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and melons, I paused to put my glasses, made useless by the sweat streaming down my face, in my overall pocket before continuing. The next row, a first planting back in April, was now laden with tomatoes of all stripes and types. I snacked on the ripe cherry tomatoes as I pruned and tied up the heavy branches.

Finishing the last row, I harvested a handful of bell and jalapeno peppers before heading to the house. In the breezeway of the barn, substantial piles of red onions and garlic lay curing. Security against winter want, they provided visions of future stews and gumbos. After a quick stop in the herb garden for a fistful of cilantro, I dropped off the produce with Cindy, who was busy making salsa, and returned to my next morning task.

I am an avid procrastinator when it comes to weeding and mulching perennials. There always seems to be something more important to do, whether it’s trimming sheep’s hooves or sitting on the deck with a cup of coffee. But yesterday the looming chore rose to the top of the list. I weeded and mulched the grapes, blackberries, pawpaw orchard, and blueberry bushes. As I worked I snacked, first on the blueberries and then on the blackberries, in a comfortable rhythm. Eat berries. Pull grass. Repeat.

There is a satisfaction in being able to walk the farm and snack or harvest in any season. Whether it is greens in deep January or wild chanterelles in late July, the real “movable feast” is there for the taking (with a little bit of sweat and labor). Even the sassafras trees make a contribution; I gather and grind their leaves to a fine powder in my annual production of gumbo filé.

Yesterday’s munching was just an appetizer for the summer months to come. Soon there will be ripe beefsteak tomatoes, juicy sweet melons, platters of figs, and salads of peppers, cucumbers, homemade yogurt, and dill — each month’s cooking informed by the season, each month with its own theme.

July already has me salivating in anticipation. I’m thinking grilled ribeye with a little salt and pepper, garlicky mashed potatoes, a salad of sliced tomatoes topped with fresh basil, homemade bread, and a few glasses of wine for a theme.

This work of farming sure goes down easier if you enjoy the pleasures and conviviality of the table, or just the taste of a warm, fat blackberry on a humid afternoon, plucked from the vine a moment before you pop it in your mouth.

 Yep, it is going to be a great summer.

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Reading light this weekend: John Grisham’s latest, Camino Island. And, Martin Walker’s latest “Bruno” novel, The Templars’ Last Secret.

Father’s Day: a Thanksgiving

This weekend I am in Oregon for the wedding of my niece, daughter of my eldest sister, Cynthia. Here is a “Thanksgiving” post from the archives about the importance a father plays in shaping who we are today. Happy Father’s Day, dad.

It always seemed cold out on the Louisiana marsh as a boy. On Thanksgiving eve my father and I would head out to the hunting camp, a ramshackle building under centuries-old live oaks. At dinner we’d sit down at a long communal table and enjoy hearty bowls of duck gumbo. The dozen or more men would talk, and we the sons would keep quiet, seen but not heard. The morning smell of bacon and eggs served as an early alarm. And by 4:30 we were climbing into mud-boats and heading off across the marsh. At regular intervals a father and son would disembark into a wooden pirogue and push off into the darkness, usually arriving at a duck blind an hour before sunrise. Our hunt would begin with my father calling the ducks, enticing them to circle and land.

 At the end of the hunt in late morning, we’d head home, pulling into the drive around noon. Thanksgiving preparations inside were well underway, pies lined up on the counter. I’d cast an anxious gaze to determine that a favored sweet potato pie was among them, then off for a shower and a change to clean clothes. The table was set and dinner typically eaten in mid-afternoon; afterward, the calls would begin from distant relatives.

Today, as a grown man, my rituals have changed. I’m now the relative calling across the distance of a time zone and seven hundred miles. Instead of a duck hunt early Thanksgiving, my morning is filled with chores: feeding pigs, sheep, cattle and chickens, stacking wood for the woodstove. Busy, but still time will be made later for a woodland walk on our farm. We eat late, so no need to rush dinner preparations. Some years we are graced by the company of friends, and other years we dine alone. This year, Cindy travels and I will dine by myself or with a couple of friends.

I’ll prepare a roast duck in memory of those boyhood hunts with my father. And I’ll regret the absence from the table of a sweet potato pie. But since it is Thanksgiving, I’ll be grateful for reasonable health, a loving partner, a satisfying life, a full library; that my father is still with us, as is a large abundance of siblings and other kin. I’ll also be thankful for what is absent in my life, namely, the darkness of war and the dislocation from hearth and home of the refugee.

As I step out on the porch before sunrise Thanksgiving morning, the air will smell of smoke from a dozen farmhouses in our valley. It will be cold on our farm here in the hills of East Tennessee. The cattle will begin to bawl. But over their din, if I listen well, I will hear the sound of my father calling the wild ducks out on the marsh.

Don’t Make a Meal of It

We had finished hauling a half-dozen pine logs to the lumber yard. There were still a lot of small branches to pick up. So I told the kid to pick them up and pile them in a ravine and “don’t make a meal of it, come find me when you are done.” He said, sure, and got to work.

Told off since we were kids that a job is not worth doing unless it is done right has mislead generations, left them dithering at the crossroads of inaction A dear friend of ours often abused her husband for cleaning up the house less than perfect. She, being a perfectionist, never cleaned. Knowing in her heart of hearts it would never measure up.

Now sometimes doing the job thoroughly is important, such as heart surgery. But, and perhaps this is my Southern sensibility, I’m a 90% guy: Take care of 90% and the other 10% typically doesn’t matter. In fact, that last 10% can take 90% of your time. Sometimes, actually pretty darned often, not making a meal of it, instead of spending too much time on minor projects, is the appropriate amount to get done.

Learning the balance in completing work or spiraling down an anal retentive vortex of making nail cozies can be a fine line. It is a process we actively engage in each day on the farm, where the list of items increases minute by minute, wind storm by wind storm. Sometimes, even a half-assed completion is the spot-on-amount needed to accomplish the task. The skill and the talent of a good worker is determining when good is good-enough.

We pride ourselves on work well-done. But, we need to know when to move on and that every task fits in a larger framework.

Yesterday we pruned our new wine grapes to a central leader, put up the trellis wire and tied the vines off. I left undone the thorough weeding that was needed and an application of manure and mulch. It was time to move on and rake the hay in preparation for baling today.

Sometimes it is best to snack and not make a meal of it.

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Reading this weekend: The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben. A fascinating look at the “intelligence” and social life of trees. The writing is a bit uninspiring, I was hoping for something both profound and beautiful.

A Small Storm of No Consequence

Massive Old Man of the Woods

Perhaps, when compared to all the dancers on the world’s stage on that particular day, it was of little import. But­ on our farm, last week’s mini-blast nonetheless cut a deadly rug through the woods.

This has been the spring of many odd and intense storms: The recent eruption that dropped an inch of rain here and seven inches less than a dozen miles away. The storm whose gusts knocked out power in 800 residences in nearby Kingston, yet hardly sent a breeze down Paint Rock way.

The storm last week was a whirling dervish that came through with such force that the windows and walls shuddered, the trees swayed, and at least one neighbor was left looking for the roof of his barn. It arrived as an unexpected guest, late last Saturday night. Rain blowing at the horizontal wetted the front porch wall to the five-foot mark. Our lights flickered and went out for a few hours.

The storm, spending its energy in a fury, moved through the valley in less than an hour and then petered out over the eastern ridge. The following morning’s blue skies revealed no damage but a few small branches down around the house and a porch swept clean of chairs and rug. Only did my walk through the back forty to forage for mushrooms later that day tell the true tale.

Up the lane, in the heart of the wood, four modest oaks, each approaching their century celebration, lay in a tangle across the roadbed. Two reds and two whites, branches intertwined as if clutching at each other for support in their last moments.

Further into the wood, on a west-sloping ridge, lay a giant white oak. Assessing age by diameter is difficult, since trees can stay small for many decades before exploding in growth when the opportunity arises, often at the death of a parent weakened by age or illness. But this oak was twice the diameter of the other trees, fully mature, now laid low by this localized event, this small storm of no consequence.

Giant old Red Oak

Across a fence into the upper pasture, on opposite sides of a field, two of the most ancient oaks on the farm lay toppled, majestic sentinels of the wood now sprawled like drunks on a bar floor. One red and one white, both already anchoring their communities at the nation’s founding, they somehow looked out of place, prone instead of upright, in their slow death.

These old ones now await, in a condition of helpless indignity, men who will scramble up their sides, hack off limbs, and saw up their trunks, before carting the bits off for the beneficiaries’ own purposes — the oaks’ final will and testament ignored, that they may lay in the ground they lived on and with for so long, their utility reduced into so many cords of firewood and saw logs and days of labor.

No one will miss them but I and the other residents of the backwoods. I, for their solid, reassuring presence as I pull up my tractor into their shade for a midday lunch. The squirrels, for the mast harvest of massive proportions, a feast epic in tales to be told through the generations.

They were only seven oaks of varied age on a small farm in a small valley, located in the lower end of one of the 95 counties of one of the 50 states of one country on this planet. And now they are gone.

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Reading this weekend: Meditations on Hunting, by Jose Ortega y Gasset

 

The Local Table

We are spending part of tomorrow helping a friend complete some fencing. So, in keeping with last week’s local theme, as well as not having written a new post… here is one from the archives.

We cook with lard

We were sitting around last night during the lightning storm. Our neighbor Tim was playing the banjo while we talked. We were eating bowls of chili verde and gently arguing the merits of what a local food culture means. There were six of us for our monthly discussion, as much a convivial outing as it was a chance to exercise the gray matter.

In an era of global food distribution what is a local cuisine? I remember the awkward first outing by the Knoxville Slow Food chapter when they hosted a kimchi workshop. One can certainly use local ingredients to make kimchi, and we do. But hosting that workshop highlighted the difficulty of defining a local cuisine in this global economy and era of global migration.

When the current epoch declines, as it surely will, and we are left to pick up the pieces, what will our local table look like? All the various peoples will certainly add a mixture to that table. But the table will be influenced by what is producible in the local food shed. Your post-global cooking culture will probably still have access to imported foods. But, if coming from any distance then they will be expensive and used more for special celebratory events.

Waverly Root, in his excellent The Food of France, organizes the culinary regions based on the fat used in cooking. Which I always thought was a marvelous way to view local cooking: butter, lard, goose fat or oil. It made sense to me. All of our cooking begins with the base fat used to add flavor. The fat used in non-global cuisines is a product of your land base. A nice Mediterranean climate and you will use olive oil in your cooking. A more mountainous land or one composed of poorer soils and you are more likely to use lard or goose fat, a land composed of rich pasture land and the cooking will be based on butter. The fat used in cooking seems as convenient a way as any to explore the local table.

But for many regions of this country what could be or what was a local table is now buried beneath so many Costco’s, Trader Jo’s and Walmart’s at the intersection of an interstate commerce. That table, if glimpsed, has a museum like quality.  Like a carefully curated exhibit of old cookbooks to remind us what our table may look like again in the future.

I’m fortunate to have come from a cuisine in south Louisiana that is still vibrant and has survived the global march, largely intact. But after thirty years in Tennessee I only catch rare sightings of what an indigenous cooking culture here would look like. But that table, when it does emerge, will consist of what we raise in this, our particular food-shed. My guess is that lard and butter will once again reign supreme and define the table. And olive oil will be a mere Mary Celeste of the imagination, ghosting along the coast in search of a port.

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Reading this weekend: the Oedipus plays.

Peak Local

Doing the sexy work of farming

We were sexy once, back in the heady days of 2009. Courted by all, admired, imitated, and flattered. Yes, we were your local small farmers. Tho­se were the days of Food, Inc.; Omnivore’s Dilemma; Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, all released in a three-year span, exploding the world’s interest in all things small-farmy. We were, for a brief moment, in the zeitgeist.

That was the moment when the American consumers got it, realized that their health and their economy could be shaped for the better, and that they could make it happen. That was the moment when a friend in Nashville could sell all the $7-a-dozen eggs his hens could produce. Farmer’s markets were the place to be on Saturday mornings. The great recession provided a steady stream of new customers and people learning to do for themselves. In a fragile world economy, local was the anchor. Local had become hip.

But, Mr. Zeitgeist is both a capricious master and himself a servant to larger forces. If anyone thinks farming is hard work, try being an American consumer. A la Bakunin-turned-beer brand, capitalism was quick to pick up on a good thing: small farms became the darling for ad campaigns, commodified, eye candy for the machine. And social media played their role. The iphone, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram were all loosed on the land between 2004 and 2010, and all began carving a chunk out of our mental landscape. Instead of “eyes to acres,” we lost the battle to “eyes to screens.”

Sure, there were an expanding number of farmer markets, where friends could sit all day on a Saturday to sell $25 worth of peppers. But, the real question, behind the hype of buying local and keeping your dollar in the community, was: how much of that average dollar spent on food was truly spent on locally grown meat and produce? Precious little (at most, maybe 5 percent, according to the little research out there). It is just not culturally relevant, expedient, or, most important, convenient in our global economy for most Americans to think outside the grocery box-store.

Already, the voices of protest rise up against this message that local has lost the battle for the consumer. “Why, just last week, Huffington Post had a series on a local farm,” you say. “My mother and I went to a farmer’s market on vacation.” “Here is an article on restaurants supporting local farms.” “I like my favorite farms on Facebook.” “My ‘Where is a farmer’s market?’ app works great when I visit New York City.”

It is that very clutter of modern life that works against our efforts. We are irrelevant, not because of what we do but because we are a small, tinny voice, lost in the great Babel of the running of a great machine. Yes, we small farms still have our loyal customers who go out of their way to support us, and we thank them for their unwavering support. And yes, the press, social media, and even advertisers have made the education of the customer easy, allowing we small farmers to partially pay our way in this life we have chosen.

But that good press allows us collectively to think inside a bubble. We see the Tweet, the post, the like, the ad, the book, the movie, and we assume that there is a major change underway. Yet, the average grocery bill has an ever-diminishing content of locally produced food. The decline has been going on for a very long time: Even a short 40 years ago, many grocery stores still routinely bought the bulk of their produce from area and regional farms. Farm stands and farmers selling from their cars and trucks along the roadside were commonplace. The resurgence of local today is merely an upward blip on a declining trend line that mirrors another rising line, one of global supply chains.

So, it should not surprise my readers that I am not sanguine about the success of the local food movement. Yes, I support it, work in it, and encourage everyone to do the same. Because by doing so we preserve a functioning framework of what was and could be again. Yet, I have come to believe that a truly successful local food movement will come at the expense of the collapse of the global.

Local is the obverse of global. It’s not just a good soundbite to say that we cannot have both a dominant global economy and a thriving local economy. For one is the master and the other the servant. And this master doesn’t give a shit about the local. It is a destroyer of worlds, and it won’t stop until the fuel, both metaphorically and literally, runs out.

When that happens, if we are all very, very lucky, we will get the local economy we need to survive. And, we will all be sexy again.

It’s Not the Grapes

In the John Sayles play “At the Anarchist Convention,” one of the old anarchists makes it a point to say that he refuses to eat grapes at the annual dinner. In a beautiful bit of back and forth with his comrades, he conflates the grapes on the plate with the famous 1970s grape boycott in support of striking farmworkers.

As a small-farm farmer, I often think of this play and how we, as a society, are prone to confusing the thing (the grape) with the process (the strike). For example, we disparage any grain feeding of livestock, when what we’re really protesting are the practices of the industrial feedlots and the monocultural production of millions of acres of commodity corn. Now this is not to say, Mr. Pollan, that raising livestock exclusively on grain hasn’t got its own set of problems, whether on an industrial or a small farm. But addressing appropriate process, scale, and humane treatment can help us frame a better question that yields a better answer than simply blaming the thing.

Yesterday, we butchered a couple of dozen Cornish X White Rock chickens. The day-old chicks we purchased a mere 8.5 weeks ago had grown out to produce an astounding 4.5-pound carcass. (Think of a Rottweiler and a Chihuahua side by side, and you’ll have an idea of how fast the cross grows compared to the traditional farm variety.) As a super-fast-growing bird, the Cornish-Rock has several issues of concern from the small-producer standpoint — weak limbs and lack of hardiness, to name two. But the bird, in and of itself, is not the crux of the problem.

The real problem is its role in the agri-industrial system. This commercial cross was bred specifically and exclusively for industrial exploitation: The Cornish-Rock cross is an ideal partner for the vertical factory model — a model in which bird, agribusinessman, and illegal immigrant plant worker are tightly bound in the same machine that spits out soylent green parts for consumption by the masses. The model that provides cheap protein, provides cheap veggies, provides cheap clothing, provides a cheapened life….

The grapes ain’t the problem, folks. It’s the process by which the grapes got to your table.