November 4, 2010

4 November 2010

Bok choi, Carrots, Celery root, Daikon, Garlic, Kale, Kossack kohlrabi, Lemongrass, Lettuce, Onions, Hot pepper, Potatoes, Indigo radicchio, Shallots, Hakurei turnips, Winter squash

These might be the last vegetables you get from us for some time so chew slowly. Fortunately we have put enough of them in this last share to keep you going for a little while. A crew of trapped Chilean miners could probably last for weeks on what you have in the box, especially since many of these vegetables will keep quite nicely for some time, particularly in a cool underground storage area. Not that I am saying you need to go deep underground to enjoy these crops, though I confess I have felt a strong temptation to crawl into my den these past few cold mornings. Nor am I saying you have to hang onto the vegetables for as long as possible. In these frosty temperatures you might feel the need for more sustenance. For a bowl of garlicky potato and kale soup, perhaps, or a spicy broth with lemongrass and bok choi, or a creamy winter squash bisque. You could get an especially large appetite working outside in this weather, digging potatoes for instance. But don’t take my word for it. Come to the farm on Sunday and find out for yourself just how hungry you can get doing manual labor outside in November as you help us pick some of the remaining produce for food pantries in Troy and Glens Falls. And yes there are still a few vegetable left in the field despite how much we have been putting in the boxes recently. We always grow more potatoes than we need. Well almost always. We have had a few terrible potato years when we needed every spud we could find. But like most years, we have gotten to the end of this season with a fair number of potatoes still in the ground, which is what we aim for. We want to have produce to give away. It may not enhance farm profitability (profitability being, in any event, rather too august a term for the net proceeds of this venture). But feeding people is what we do, and I do not think you can be in this business and not set aside at least a little to feed the people who cannot afford your food. By which, of course, I mean not that I think that not doing so is physically impossible, just morally indefensible. I don’t know that this moral obligation extends to you specifically (though the moral obligation to help those in need extends to all of us in one form or another). After all, this is not your business. But we could certainly use your help picking some of those potatoes, and we hope that you feel a strong enough bond both to your needy fellow citizens and to this farm that you will take a little time on Sunday to lend a hand. Well, maybe both hands. You can pick up potatoes using only one hand, which helps keep the other one clean. But it goes a lot faster if you use two, and the faster it goes, the sooner we get to go back to our house and have some hot cider and various potato dishes, some of which I will supply, some of which you might supply if you feel so inclined. And if picking potatoes really does not appeal to you, we do have some other crops to glean, such as turnips and mustard greens and chard, which you can pick without having actually to stick your hands in the dirt. Not that sticking your hands in the dirt is bad. In fact, it is good for you. Dirt has a bad reputation, I know, but an undeserved one. Do away with dirt and we will all be very hungry. Even getting dirty has its benefits. People who are too clean have a harder time fighting off infections. We have gone to considerable effort to get ourselves away from dirt, to sanitize and pave over the gritty parts of life. But we depend on dirt for our existence and ignore it at our peril. We should all go out occasionally and remind ourselves of the existence of dirt and take a good look at what it provides and feel at least a little gratitude and accept at least a little responsibility for looking after it. I am not saying you have to spend as much time with dirt as we do here on the farm. But you should not let us have it all to ourselves. So come out on Sunday and get a little good farm dirt all for yourself. You could bring a pail and fill it up, but I think you will find it easiest to carry it home under your fingernails, on the knees of your pants and on the soles of the sturdy footwear you have put on for this occasion. You could bring home a few vegetables too, if you want—if by some chance you have managed to eat everything in the share by Sunday. I would not, however, recommend that you try carrying home any produce under your fingernails, on your knees or on the soles of your sturdy footwear. And if you don’t run out of vegetables until after Sunday, but do find you want more in the coming weeks, you can order more from us to be delivered on Monday, November 22nd. You should receive a price list from me in a separate email. If you do not get it and want to place an order just get in touch with me. But first, perhaps you want to think about what to do with the vegetables you already have, such as the smooth, round green Kossack kohlrabi, which like the purple version is best eaten raw in slices or grated into a salad. You could use it combined with grated Daikon (the long white root) and celery root (the knobbly round one) and turnip (the round white ones). As for the kale (the bunched green), if you don’t want to use it in that potato kale soup, you could make it into crispy kale instead. It is easy to do—remove the stems, toss the leaves with a little olive oil and salt, and bake them at 325 for about 20 minutes until they are, well, crispy—and it is a tasty and healthy snack food, and tasty and healthy are not words that apply to most snack foods. If you come to the farm on Sunday I would be happy to show you just how easy it is. And you can return any boxes you might still have too. That is almost too much for one day: dirt, kale and returning boxes. You might have to lie down for a while afterwards. That’s okay. We fully understand. We feel a little like lying down for a while ourselves. Farming can do that to you after eight or nine months. Not that we are complaining. We like farming, especially in a year like this with decent weather. We could just use a little rest right now. Fortunately, other than picking those potatoes, there is not a great deal left to do on the farm. A little clean up, a few repairs, a couple of small construction jobs. But we have time to get our energy back for next season, time to sit by the wood stove and fill seed orders and decide on improvements (I hope to find an affordable cooler) and figure out where to plant everything—everything, anyway, but the garlic, which we finished putting in yesterday afternoon. Of course, in addition to getting back our energy, we hope to get you back for next season too. It would not do us much good to get all revved up and have nobody to grow for. We will offer an extra early sign up discount for returning members. If you join before December 15 you can get a 2011 share at this year’s price (I will send out forms soon). It is one small way we can thank you for helping to support the farm this year. Another small way we can do that, of course, is by thanking you.

Thank you.

October 28, 2010

28 October 2010

Beets, Cabbage, Upland cress, Fennel, Garlic, Leeks, Lettuce, Onions, Potatoes, Pie pumpkin, Radishes, Rosemary, Rutabaga

I feel pretty confident the Tea Party folks have failed to interpret their namesake moment entirely accurately. Those earlier angry patriots were not really complaining about government or even taxation, let alone their leader’s putative religious beliefs or unfair regulation of the energy industry or attempts to improve the health care system or immigrants. They got riled up that day about a system of government that seemed to pay no heed to their interests and concerns.

To be fair, a kindred sense of impotence and injustice may well have helped set off our Tea Party. People fear, not unreasonably, that they have lost control of their government. Of course, a fair number of them simply dread the end of their unmerited racial and ethnic advantages, a position anyone with a moral sense might find less than entirely sympathetic. And a rational observer might puzzle over how the longing for a more representative and responsive democracy necessarily leads to a vituperative defense of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. But then rage has a funny way of skidding about and losing track of its target. Anyone who has spent time around small children knows that, knows how even the most justified juvenile outrage can quickly become a randomly destructive tantrum.

Come to think of it, you just need to spend time with people of any age to understand that. There are coherent factions of the Tea Party, but the general mood seems to be that of a person whose car has broken down late at night on a dark stretch of highway, and who in frustration gets a sledgehammer from the trunk and attacks the vehicle before thinking to call a tow truck.

As a mechanically incompetent farmer I understand full well that urge to bang on complicated machinery that won’t do you what you need it to do. I understand too the odd kind of joy one can take in such pointless demolition. But I also understand how short-lived that joy is, how quickly replaced by less captivating feelings. A little banging, carried off with a certain sense of restrain, has its merits. But you have to have a more constructive plan in addition to the hammer, some notion of how you are going to fix things. And coming up with such a plan requires, of course, a calm assessment of what is actually broken. We seem to be a long way off from that at the moment.

Perhaps we should try a different misinterpretation of the Boston Tea Party and see if that leads somewhere better. Instead of seeing the colonists as a bunch of spry Reaganite conservatives out to free the New World from the burdens of effective social programs, we might try imagining them as seriously motivated locavores. They objected not to the tea tax but the tea itself. A mass produced commodity of a multinational corporation with unhealthily close ties to government and a terrible record of worker safety violations, shipped unsustainable distances, dumped on the New England market at prices that put local artisanal beverage producers at a competitive disadvantage, the tea represented everything these 18th Century food activists objected to. Dumping the tea in the harbor was a blow against the tyranny of a food system designed at the behest of large companies solely for their own benefit and without regard to the welfare of the planet or vast majority of the people on it.

We can carry on the true rebellions these patriots started not by stomping around bitching about how hard it is to be white in this country, but by refusing to eat fast food or drink soda, by demanding that our grocery chains carry local produce, by lobbying Congress to end its ridiculous farm subsidy system, by insisting that we take the alarming rise in childhood diabetes as seriously as the financial interests of Pepsico stockholders, by forcing state and local governments to work to protect farmland, by besieging processors with complaints about the unnecessary and even dangerous ingredients they add to food, and maybe even by tossing a few crates of Lunchables into some nearby body of water.

All right, so that is a bogus version of history used as an excuse to support a wide-ranging program of protest at best only loosely related to it in any logical way. Mea culpa. But at least it would lead to people addressing some legitimate concerns in a direct way calculated to improve our lives, and I have to think the mass protests would not feature too many pointlessly offensive, racist placards. Plus the food at the organizing meetings would be good.

Not that we need the imprimatur of patriotic history to object to the ways food is made in this country. When a company spends millions of dollars to convince kids to eat deep fried chicken-tinged corn mush lightly sprayed with butane we don’t need to know if Madison would have approved to think something is wrong with this. When a meat packing company that abuses workers and produces tainted food because indifference to safety boost its income uses a portion of those profits to purchases the compliance of legislators and regulators, we don’t need to seek historical antecedents for our anger.

Except we aren’t visibly angry. Or not about this. About Socialism, sure, and Islam, and about having to help poor people get something to eat. Even as we learn more and more about the corruption of our food supply we cannot for some reason rouse ourselves to take to the streets. There are changes for the better. You know you are making headway when Walmart promotes local produce. But it’s a quiet movement. There’s no foodie Glen Beck getting people out, no vegetable-obsessed oil billionaire funding it. It mostly just consists of people sitting around the dinner table sharing a good meal. People like you.

You may not have realized that getting a share makes you a foot soldier in a food revolution, but nearly everything about a CSA goes against the dominant corporate food culture. Modern American food is a chemical and geographic mystery hiding behind a tag line, a clever simulacrum of something real designed for quick and thoughtless consumption.

The only real mystery about a CSA share is what on earth some of those crops are, like the weird little white and green root in this week’s box, which is a variety of daikon radish called Green Meat (though the flesh is actually white). Just treat it like a normal radish (i.e., with respect and courtesy). Or like the bag of greens, Upland Cress, closely related to watercress, and like its cousin a nice peppery addition to a salad. Or the big round yellowish root, which any Northern European could tell you is a rutabaga. It is like a bulked up turnip, a good keeper, and tasty cubed, tossed in oil and salt, and roasted with other roots (potatoes, beets, celery root, shallots) and a few sprigs of rosemary, or braised in a little chicken stock, or boiled and mashed.

Every foot soldier needs time out, and your tour of duty is nearly up. You get your last share of the season next week. For those of you who cannot quite break the vegetable eating habit we will offer various crops for sale after the season. We will deliver orders on the Monday before Thanksgiving (November 22nd). I will send a price sheet separately.

For those of you who need a little more time in the dirt or want to help get food to the hungry, we will have our end of season gleaning day on Sunday, November 7th, weather permitting. We will spend the morning, starting at 10:00, gathering some of the remaining crops to give to Community Action and Capital District Community Gardens, and then we will have a restorative midday potato repast. Bring sturdy shoes, gloves, kids, friends, and, if you feel so inspired, a potato-based dish.

With only one more week of shares, the time has arrived to return any of those waxed produce boxes you may have been hoarding. We have gone through a significant portion of our two pallets of boxes, meaning that around 500 of them are out there somewhere waiting to come home. We would love to have them back so they don’t go to waste and also because they represent a fairly significant investment for a small farm. So if you have a chance, please get them back to your site (or any of our sites, for that matter) before next Thursday.

October 21, 2010

21 October 2010

Bok choi or Chinese cabbage, Chinese broccoli, Carrots, Celery root, Escarole, Lemongrass, Onions, Peppers, Ancho hot pepper, Yellow Finn potatoes, Shallots, Acorn and Butternut winter squash

I recognize that my recipes often leave people feeling frustrated. They lack details. Amounts, times, even ingredients are frequently a little vague, as though cooking were an almost entirely ad hoc undertaking. Some people think I am just being coy, protecting my culinary secrets behind this irritating imprecision. Some people think I am just being irritating. Few people believe me when I say I don’t have recipes for most of what I cook and that I am not entirely sure I can remember everything I put in the dish, let alone exactly how much of any ingredient.

We tend far too often to think of recipes as authoritative texts, as the final word on how make a particular dish. We want to believe in their accuracy, believe that cooking can be made relatively simple and scientific, believe that there truly is one way to make each dish. If that is true then all we have to do to succeed in the kitchen is master reading comprehension and have a decent gourmet shop nearby. We will get predictable, praiseworthy results every time.

And a lot of recipes happily play along, adopting a tone of certainty. If you want to create, let’s say, Gratin Dauphinois or onion tart or celery root remoulade, then these, the recipe dictates, are the ingredients you must have on hand and the precise steps you must take in order to end up with that dish. You only have skim milk for the potatoes? No pastry flour on hand for the tart shell? A bit short of shallots? Oven imperfectly calibrated? Then don’t bother. You simply won’t end up with the dish you desire unless you strictly obey the recipe.

I see people come to a late fall farmer’s market with a list and walk away empty-handed because none of us had cucumbers or basil or lemons (yes, people ask if we have lemons) or whatever it was they needed to make some dish. And clearly they could not amend their plans when confronted by the seasons and a pavilion full of fresh produce. They had chosen what to make and given themselves over to the recipe, and the recipe most definitely did not tell them to go to the market and see what looks good and get that and figure something out from there. Nor did it suggest that in the absence of good fresh basil they might try using some other herb, cilantro perhaps or thyme.

I suppose modern recipes can afford to be dictatorial. They may well suggest you check the local farmer’s market for really fresh ingredients, but they know that you will always find cucumbers and tomatoes at the supermarket. Who needs spontaneity or ingenuity when the modern food distribution system can provide you with a full range of crops year-round.

But a recipe is not an unequivocal solution to a mathematical problem. It is just a set of directions, and like any directions it offers one of multiple possible routes to your destination. The person offering it probably considers it the best—the fastest or shortest or prettiest—way to go and so may present it as the only real choice. But you could take a different path and end up in the same place. Deciding which way to go might depend on all sorts of conditional factors: the time of year, your skills, your esthetic sensibilities, your schedule, other people’s schedules. Even if you trust the person offering the directions enough to choose his route—if you know he has tried all the routes, know him to be sensible, find his relevant opinions sympathetic— you have to be prepared to find an alternate way should you encounter some roadblock.

Produce varies even more than traffic and road conditions. An early October tomato won’t yield the same results as an early August one. If you insist on having a tomato salad in the fall you will be unhappy if you make it just the way you did with summer fruits. You need to use more salt and vinegar and perhaps a little sugar (how much more? Well, how salty and sour and sweet do you like your tomato salad?) to get anything like the flavor the tomatoes gave you two months earlier, and there’s nothing to do about the texture. You would be far better off forgetting about that salad until next summer and trying a celery root (the dense, pale greenish orb) remoulade instead. Obviously it is not the same as a tomato salad. But it is good in its own way, and far better right now than just about any tomato you can get your hands on.

If you don’t believe me, try making it. It is easy. Just peel your celery root and julienne or shred it (why can’t I just say to do one or the other? Because I don’t know if you have an implement that makes julienning vegetables easy and I don’t know which texture you prefer and either works), add a finely sliced shallot or a more or less equivalent amount of onion (or two shallots if you like shallots (or no shallot or onions of you don’t like them)), and mix it with a dressing made of a little oil (I always use olive oil), some heavy cream or sour cream, a dash or so of paprika, lemon juice (the lemoniness of lemons varies enormously, so see how strong your lemon is and add enough juice to give the remoulade a distinct but not overwhelming sourness), a big dollop of Dijon mustard (I think you have to use Dijon mustard to get the right flavor), salt, pepper and finely chopped parsley (or maybe a little marjoram or oregano or perhaps even lemon balm). Exactly how much of each component of the dressing? Enough to make enough dressing to coat your variably sized, variably cut up vegetables well. You can eat the remoulade right away, but the flavors and texture seem to improve if you let it sit for a couple of hours so the dressing can do its work on the celery root. You could use mayonnaise instead of the cream (or sour cream) and vinegar instead of the lemon, and come to think of it you could use kohlrabi or turnip instead of the celery root. Or of course you could make something else entirely with the celery root such as a pureed celery root and apple soup, or a celery root-stuffed baked apple (apple and celery root go together nicely). Or you could make potato and celery root pancakes. Or celery root sorbet (I have actually made it—and more than once).

Is that a recipe? Well, it is a reasonably accurate description of how I make remoulade, though I admit it is probably not the easiest set of directions to follow, especially since it ends up possibly backtracking and taking off in some entirely different direction. But then that is how I think one should go about making food. Open the box, see what you have got, try to figure out what the hell it is (the Chinese broccoli is the bunched green,and just needs to be lightly steamed). Sniff it, especially the lemongrass (the slender stalks), which has a wonderful scent and can be used to particularly good effect in spicy Thai soups and curries (just for flavoring purposes; it has exactly the texture you would expect from something that looks like that). Taste it. Think about what you feel like eating and start cooking, and keep tasting and amending until it tastes good. Now that is a recipe.

October 15, 2010

14 October 2010

Arugula, Beets, Chard, Cilantro, Dill, Lettuce, Peppers, Satina potatoes, Pie pumpkin, Radishes, Tomatoes, Winter squash

I think my brain took early retirement. Unfortunately, it did not have the decency to inform me of this before I started trying to write the newsletter. So I have been sitting here for nearly four hours putting down pieces of sentences and shuffling them more or less randomly in the vain hope that somehow meaning will emerge. Occasionally I think of something to say—or think I think of something to say—but when I try put it on the page I find I cannot quite get a hold of it any longer and nothing will coax it near enough for me to grasp it properly. Not that this differs radically from my normal (by which, of course, I mean abnormal) writing process. But something about the complete futility of the effort this evening suggests that whatever cognitive functions I still had a few days ago have now departed.

Perhaps my brain took the frost as a sign that its work was done for the season. Lots of people assume that our season ends with the first frost. Our basil season certainly ended Saturday night. But basil is particularly sensitive. Just saying the word frost to basil can cause it to keel over. Most of the other crops out in the fields did not pay the cold much heed. Even the late tomatoes withstood the frost well enough for us to get another harvest, as you can see, and the pepper patch hardly suffered at all.

Frost is an odd thing. The freezing air flows like water. You can feel it running down along the drainage ditch by our field houses at night, and it does its damage where it pools up and sits long enough to burst the cells in the leaves of tender plants. The peppers were spared because we put them on a slight rise, probably no more than six feet above the early tomatoes, which the frost did in (a mercy killing since those tomato plants had already done all they could and were fading away). The north end of the row of late tomatoes suffered more than the south simply because it is near the ditch where the frost runs.

People also assume that we lament the loss of our summer crops to the frost. Our emotions are mixed. Nobody who likes to eat can entirely celebrate the end of tomato season. Nobody, however, who has spent the summer picking all of those tomatoes can entirely mourn it either. And it is not as though we have time to just sit around and moan because we don’t have zucchini. There are all those crops that don’t mind a frost to distract us from our sorrow, such as arugula and radishes, which grow better at this time of year.

Of course, this time of year does not last very long. At some point soon the weather will get cold and miserable enough to make life hard even for hardy vegetables, not to mention farmers. But I trust (for no particularly good reason) that weather won’t come until next month, so we will deliver shares through the 4th of November. That means you only have three more weeks to give back all those waxed boxes you have been storing up to return en masse.

Speaking of storing things en masse, we will once again offer you the chance to order various storage crops for delivery on the Monday before Thanksgiving (the 22nd of November). I will send out a price list next week. In the meantime, you can practice with some of the vegetables in the share. I think you will find that the roots and tubers like to hang out in a cold damp (but not wet) place, while the onions and shallots and winter squash prefer a somewhat warmer and much drier residence (based on that I guess I am more of an onion than a tuber). Or you could eat them.

October 8, 2010

7 October 2010

Endive, Lettuce, Purple mizuna, Onions, Peppers, Numex and Burning Bush hot peppers, Potatoes, Radishes, Shallots, Thyme, Hakurei turnips, Butternut winter squash

I hope you will forgive the shortness of this note. Though come to think of it that is a rather presumptuous request. For all I know many of you will welcome, not lament, my rare attempt at brevity. Some of you may not even notice it because you gave up on the newsletter weeks ago, certain that you would never glean enough pertinent information to make wading through the mire of prose worthwhile.

Of course, if you are not reading this then there’s really not reason for me to say anything at all about the length of the newsletter and or how you might feel about it or, well, anything. But as anyone out there who does actually read the newsletter has probably noticed, such a lack of a sensible reason to write would hardly constrain me.

What does constrain me is my annual catering gig for the Agricultural Stewardship Association. Once upon a time I took on the task of making a nice dinner for a few major donors and members of the Board, all in all around 20 people. Somehow over the years that has evolved (perhaps a little like the antlers of the Irish Elk) into appetizers for 250. Putting together half a dozen or more different little dishes for a large crowd takes time and involves a lot of increasingly tedious repetition of small tasks.

Fortunately, I have come to realize that there are better ways to feed the masses than making several thousand individual pastries. Thus the little squash empanadas and onions tarts are off the menu, replaced by polenta cakes with roasted tomatoes, and bread stuffed with greens, and red pepper-walnut dip, and pickled carrots, which we can make in large batches and serve in small pieces. But it still takes time, time I might otherwise spend crafting ornate sentences on who knows what topic for the newsletter.

So I will get straight to the vital information. As a general rule you should approach small, brightly colored hot peppers with caution. As a specific rule, you should approach the small, orange/pink pepper in your share with extreme caution. I don’t mean to frighten you away from going anywhere near it. Just avoid, let’s say, slicing it and then touching your eyes or deciding it looks so delicious you will just pop the whole thing into your mouth. Instead, try putting some portion of one (depending on how much you like hot food) into a blender with some fresh pineapple or mango, garlic, onion, lime juice and salt and making a fresh hot salsa that would be excellent with grilled fish or pork. Or you could use a piece to spice up your chili or you’re a Thai soup.

The Numex peppers, the very smooth pointy ones, do not pose anything like the same threat. I have been roasting and peeling them and pureeing the flesh with garlic, a little vinegar and salt. It makes a great sauce for all sorts of things and you can stir some into an endive and potato soup.

Because they are relatively easy to peel (I just use a vegetable peeler and keep going until I am down to solid orange flesh) and fleshy, I like to cut Butternut squash into cubes and roast the them tossed with butter, maple syrup and paprika until the have started to caramelize. Or you can just bake them whole until soft and then scoop out the flesh use it as a filling for little empanadas.

The mizuna, the frilly purplish leaf, is a Japanese mustard green. You can cook it, but I prefer it in salads. I like the texture as well as the taste. You could add some minced or grated ginger, a little soy sauce and perhaps a splash of heavy cream to your vinaigrette to go with the mizuna.

Thanks to everyone who helped pick potatoes last Sunday. We had an especially enthusiastic crew of child laborers. I trust I will not be held liable if any of them decide to be farmers later in life. For those of you who would like to pick potatoes again or for the first time, we will have a potato day late in the season in order to harvest as many of the remaining potatoes as possible for a local food pantry, and afterwards we will eat potatoes in various forms.

And thanks to the entrants in this year’s pie contest. The judges had a hard time choosing a winner, but after lengthy debate we named Tracey Boyd the 2010 pie champion. She claimed the title with a plum tart that the whole judging panel agreed we would happily eat more of should Tracey ever feel like dropping off another one at the farm.

September 30, 2010

30 September 2010

Tongues of Flame shell beans, Cabbage, Carrots, Garlic, Lettuce, Onions, Peppers, Ancho hot pepper, Nicola potatoes, Sage, Tomatoes, Acorn and Carnival winter squash

What is a pie? This is not merely an academic question. With the pie contest only a few days away, you have surely spent some time contemplating this very issue while choosing exactly what to enter in competition. You could stick with the obvious sorts of pies—fruit and sugar and maybe a little spice backed in a crust. There’s nothing wrong with that. The most basic berry pie, well executed, is one of the great foods of the world.

And apparently one of the hardest to make given how many awful berries pies there are on the loose. The blame for this tragic situation lies mostly with commercial pie makers. I cannot absolve home bakers entirely. It is certainly possible to make terrible pie at home. The vast majority of bad pies, however, are made not in homes but in commercial kitchens, and made not with taste but cost in mind. With as little cost as possible, to be more precise.

There are many ways to make pie cheaply—to stint on the quality of the ingredients or take shortcuts to reduce the time needed—and just about every one of them is also a way to make pie badly. The average commercial fruit pie has a pasty, insipid crust made with nasty shortening and a glutinous filling that tastes of little more than corn syrup and thickener. You might not notice if they skipped the fruit—if in fact that is fruit in there and not some sort fruit substitute composed largely of paper manufacturing byproducts.

We have to take some responsibility for this sorry state of affairs because we keep buying these pies. Presumably if we refused to have anything to do with them nobody would make them. But as with so much of what we eat these days, we put up with bad commercial pies because they don’t cost much and someone else did the work. I think we must also have started to forget what real pie tastes like even as we cling to a nostalgic fondness for it, and so we keep buying pies the quality of which we are no longer equipped to assess accurately.

Of course, our pie nostalgia is precisely a longing for homemade food. It’s a nostalgia for moms in aprons rolling out dough on the kitchen table, a nostalgia for picking sweet berries on a perfect summer day, a nostalgia for the aroma of baking pies wafting from the oven, a nostalgia for families gathered at the table finishing a good meal with a slice of fresh pie. Even a good commercial pie, if such a thing exists, cannot possibly satisfy us the way a proper one does.

To be honest, I doubt even an excellent homemade pie could fulfill that sort of longing. We are not going to make the modern world, with all its hurry and alienation and commercialization and complication, disappear simply by working a bit of fat into a nice pile of flour with our fingertips, or rolling out a silky disk of pale dough, or cutting the peel from a crisp apple in one long aromatic curl, or smelling the oozing fruit juice caramelizing onto the bottom of the oven, or watching the motley brown crust shatter beneath the fork.

So what. We would probably find we do not like that lost world as much as we think anyway, and at least if you make a pie have a pie. You can take pleasure in a good homemade pie no matter what has happened to life.

Whatever a pie is. It could be the classic apple version, but it could also be a quiche with a layer of caramelized onions under the cheesy custard filling or a savory winter squash pie with sage and paprika or a chicken pot pie with tender cubes of potato and carrot and little kick from diced ancho or a tomato and onion pie with parmesan and garlic and lots of black pepper or a ground beef and cabbage pie or, well, just about anything you think would taste good baked in a crust. Maybe even shell beans (those red and white pods, which you want to split open to get at the speckled beans within, which can be boiled about half an hour until tender and eaten hot or cold (I like them cold with olive oil, garlic and sliced onion)). It does not matter. Pie is forgiving, open-minded, inclusive. As long as you put in a little effort, show a little care, it will reward you.

If you bring a pie to the farm this Sunday and impress the pie contest judges with your effort and care (well, actually we tend to judge the pies on taste and texture, but I don’t want to spoil the mood) more than any of the other competitors we will reward you with an Alleged Farm t-shirt.

Not that you have to bring a pie in order to come to the farm this Sunday. The pieless are welcome too. In addition to the pie contest we will tour the fields, harvest potatoes, make hot sauce. You can gather some husk cherries, meet other members, swap recipes, commiserate with one another about having to eat all those vegetables. And, of course, eat some real pie. The farm crew gets to judge the pies, but everyone gets to eat them.

September 23, 2010

23 September 2010

Cilantro, Rhodos endive, Lincoln leeks, Lettuce, Red onion, Peppers, Numex hot pepper, Romanze potatoes, Tomatoes, Acorn and Delicata, winter squash

Somewhere around 8,00 years ago the last Irish Elk expired. Nobody knows why this huge Eurasian deer died out then. It might have had something to do with the up and coming homo sapiens, a species that towards the end of the last ice age seems to have worked up both a serious appetite and some nifty new hunting techniques. This combination of skill and desire certainly appears to have had a devastating effect on the megafauna of the time. The ground sloth, the mastodon, the wooly rhinoceros, the cave bear, the giant wombat, they all disappeared as man extended his range and his reach across the planet.

Not that we deserve all the blame. Hardly anyone ever deserves all the blame. Being chased around by cavemen with ever sharper and more accurate projectiles was probably just one of several serious problems the megafauna faced as the ice sheets retreated. Climate change and disease may have played as large a part in their extinction as we did.

As for the Irish Elk, it may have faced a special problem. Irish Elk were large, perhaps the largest deer ever, but it was the size of their antlers more than their bodies that was truly remarkable. Male Irish Elk carried around antlers so huge and ornate they would make the most impressive Bull Moose weep with shame over his own pathetic display. And that, in effect, was the point. Irish Elk stags wore their antlers sticking straight out from the sides of their heads—as much as six feet in either direction—a position that made the antlers more or less useless for combat and defense, but much easier to admire. The were meant to impress potential mates and to cow rivals.

History has not recorded precisely what led female Irish Elk to believe that a guy with absurdly large bony protuberances jutting from his brow would make a better catch, but if that was indeed the commonly held view it would have placed evolutionary pressure on the stags to have ever larger antlers. Unfortunately, growing antlers that size each year places a serious strain on even the stoutest elk. It is entirely possible that in this case evolution, which we tend to think of as a process leading to ever more sophisticated and useful adaptation, led the Irish Elk astray.

I wonder if some day after we too have died out another species will look back and wonder if perhaps evolution played the same trick on us. Learning to work with stone and bone to fashion killing points and to work cooperatively with the guys in the nearby caves to bring down a ground sloth gave us a huge advantage. Just ask the ground sloths. We have thrived because of our remarkable ability to take what we want from our environment, something we have gotten stunningly good at. We can literally move mountains to get at whatever lies beneath. But what has looked like an asset for so long is starting to seem like something of a liability as rapaciousness empties the seas, levels the forests, paves over the plains, sucks the rivers dry and fills the air with a heat-trapping haze. And we continue on our merry way, convinced that the intelligence that got us in this mess will get us out of it—convinced that when things get bad enough we will simply change our ways.

Given our history, though, it is not clear that we have another way. We evolved to exploit nature in every way we can think of, and just because that might be a bad idea in the long run does not necessarily mean that we can simply switch to some more sustainable lifestyle to save ourselves any more than the Irish Elk could suddenly have decided to go anterless and try flowers and poetry instead.

Sure, we are more self-aware than the elk probably were. I don’t suppose any Al Gore elk offered urgent warnings in An Inconvenient Antler. But just because we are smart enough to know what is happening (and smart enough too, it must be pointed out, to come up with clever denials) does not mean that we can easily overcome 100,000-year-old habits. At the very least, we need to come to terms with our nature—with the way we have been shaped by the world and its processes. Simply recognizing that we are just another species on this planet would be a good way to start thinking seriously about how we plan to stick around on it for much longer.

Switching to a diet that contains a lot more fresh, local produce would probably be another small step in the right direction. No matter how we go about it, feeding all six billion of ourselves will places strains on vital resources (water in particular). But we don’t need to clear the rain forests for ever more space on which to graze carrots, and unlike a can of soda a simple tomato salad contains all sorts of thing that are actually good for us. At the very least, a diet heavy on vegetables would give us something healthy to chew on while we contemplate our fate. There’s nothing like a good salad to help you through an existential crisis. Well except maybe salsa or a nice bowl of leek and potato soup or baked squash.