Farmyard With Cushaws

Remember the farm couple who gave me the massive hunk of pork liver the other day? Yesterday I pulled in to their farmyard, as I do every day. The night before I had washed out the bloody Ziploc bags which had contained the liver and bound them into a bundle with a rubber band.

The shamelessly racist farmer was nowhere to be seen, but his wife came out to get her paper. I suspect she was waiting for me to arrive, perhaps a welcome break for her in a long autumn afternoon.

I told her about my experiences with the hog liver and she was impressed that I had actually bagged and frozen what I hadn’t consumed. I tend to get along well with elderly farm wives. Often they are the gardener and cook of the family or couple, two of my interests, so there is common ground to cultivate.

We talked of the gardening year, the difficulties involved in raising a crippled fawn to adulthood, the pickiness many people have concerning okra and liver, cooking and preserving techniques — what’s that phrase from Lewis Carroll’s epic poem The Hunting of the Snark?

Of ships and shoes and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings

She said, “Do you want some squash? We have a big pile of them over there by the pump!”

“What kind are they?”

“We call ’em cushaws. Come over here and take a look!”

I got out of the car and we walked over to the squash array. I ended up taking home a twenty-pound cushaw and a small nameless orange squash. A photo of the harvest:

Such a scene! I was particularly intrigued by the set of iron wheels on a post, right next to the green pump. I’ll have to ask about that on a future visit. Notice the leaning martin house in the background.

I’ll conclude this illustrated screed with the enigmatic last line of The Hunting of the Snark:

“For the Snark was a Boojum, you see!”


Last Day of August (Photos)

This morning I brought my mystery aroid plant inside where there is no breeze and took some tripod shots. I think it’s a calla or a close relative. The blossom is ever-so-gradually unfurling; I assume the floral structures are the pistils, but where are the stamens?

A closer crop, a bit grainy but it shows the otherworldly sexuality of the flower:

My kitchen windows face north and west, so the morning light is soft and diffuse. I happened to notice a pair of tomatillos on top of my refrigerator proudly displaying their split papery husks in the morning light:

I mentally kick myself because I forgot to plant any tomatillos this year. They are so easy to grow and they are an essential ingredient in Mexican green sauces. You don’t even need a recipe; a simple salsa is just a pair of tomatillos roasted in the oven along with some chile peppers; the last time I made green sauce I used an Anaheim and a pair of Serrano peppers. Roast at 375 degrees until the tomatillos are soft and the peppers are charred. Rub the charred skins from the peppers and the husk and stem-end from the mushy tomatillos. Put these vegetables in a food processor along with some garlic, maybe some onion, chopped cilantro or flat-leaf parsley to taste, and a bit of salt, black pepper, and cumin. Chill and serve with bread, tortillas, or chips.

I like the Latin/Mayan taxonomic name of the tomatillo: Physalis ixocarpa.


A Tomato With a Tentacle

I was fixing some lunch today and picked up a ripe home-grown tomato, intending to slice it. Then I noticed a strange tentacle-like growth drooping along one side of the succulent fruit.
I was also reminded of an elephant’s trunk.

So strange — what could have caused this anomaly? Perhaps my garden was visited by a cephalopod while the tomato plant was flowering. I deferred lunch and took the tomato, a tripod, and my camera out onto my back porch and perched the tomato on the railing. After my photo shoot the briefly reprieved tomato succumbed to the knife. While I ate the tomato I kept thinking I detected a hint of calamari in its taste …

Photos of such vegetable deformities are a summer-time staple of rural and small-town newspapers.

An imagined scene:

Joe, a farmer who lives a few miles from the village, pulls up to the local weekly newspaper’s office.

He hops out of the battered “work truck” cradling a lumpy yellowish object in his arms.

Joe walks into the building. Antiquated Linotypes and printing presses are visible through an open doorway at the end of the hall. He knocked on the door of the editor/publisher’s office.

“Come on in!”

As Joe proudly displays his object, which turns out to be an oddly shaped banana squash, the editor (imagine him wearing a green eye-shade) leans back in his swivel chair and says, with a smile:

“What the hell ya got there, Joe?”

“This mornin’ I was out in the garden and found this here bananer squash. Don’t it look like Elmer Fudd? See, here’s the nose, and here’s where the chin should be. The eyes ain’t quite right, but still! And it even has a hat, see?”

The editor chuckled and pulled his old Speed Graphic camera from a desk drawer.

“Here, Joe, set ol’ Elmer up on this table and I’ll take some pitchers. Here, you stand behind the table and hold it up, and I’ll get you in the shot, too.”

After the impromptu photo shoot was over the editor said, “Well, Joe, you’ll see your Elmer in the paper this Saturday. Thanks for bringin’ him in — been a mite short on news this week!”


Carl Sauer On Agricultural Origins

Many years ago I used to get ideas for interesting books to read from the Whole Earth Catalog, and later from Coevolution Quarterly. Many of the books reviewed I would never have heard about without these publications, as I have never been in an academic environment or associated with the type of person who would read such books. Yeah, I’m one of those autodidacts you hear about, pale readers who flutter around the fringes of the academic and scientific worlds, hummingbird-like learners who take their prose nectar where they can. Naturally, aside from being the mother-lode of porn for those so inclined, the internet is a paradise for autodidacts, albeit it’s a paradise infested with the dragons of fallacy and illogical obsession.

One book reviewed and recommended in the Whole Earth Catalog impressed me, and still does to this day.

That book is a compilation of Carl Sauer’s talks and essays concerning the origins of the plants and animals we (and people of other cultures) eat every day, with any luck.

Sauer was a geographer, a specialty which sounds somewhat antiquated these days. Not a narrowly focused scholar, a geographer like Sauer ranged freely through a variety of disciplines, such as anthropology, botany, archaeology, and sociology. You might call him a synthesist and a student of speculative agricultural history. Another of Sauer’s interests was the effect of human occupation upon landscapes. He grew up in the Missouri Ozarks and was well aware of what dire changes had been wrought upon that landscape during his lifetime.

Why speculative? The source material is fragmented and scanty; during the thousands of years during which food plants and animals were developed humanity was pre-literate. All scientists have to go by are the still-existing cultivated plants and domesticated animals, along with the archaeological records, which include seeds and bones found in ancient middens. Botanists and zoologists try to identify still-surviving ancestors of our food plants and animals, populations which haven’t been subject to thousands of years of selective breeding.

The book bears the title Seeds, Spades, Hearths, and Herds; the title of an earlier edition was Agricultural Origins and Dispersals. Though the compilation was published in the early 1950s, from what I can gather from current sources Sauer’s conclusions and analyses have held up well.

One question Sauer ponders is: Why did Amerindian proto-cultivators use mostly vegetative plant propagation south of a zone roughly demarcated by the southern border of Mexico, while ancient plant-breeders north of that line used seed propagation and selection?

Another conundrum he deals with is the lack of domestication and improvement of North American plant species by the ancient first inhabitants of that continent. Blueberries, Jerusalem artichoke (a species of sunflower), perhaps the Paw Paw, the cranberry — really that’s about it. All other food crops grown in North America, both by the first inhabitants and by modern Americans, came from Mexico, Central America, the Andean region, and of course the Old World.

Here’s a quote; you should be aware that Sauer uses the word “hearth” to refer to a region where a particular plant or animal was first domesticated:

The hearth indicated [the interior of the Andean region] provided also, by means of fishing and hunting, aquatic and riparian, the possibility of living in sedentary communities before agriculture was known. Such precondition I hold necessary. The initiators of domestication required a comfortable and dependable margin above mere survival, permanent homes, and a living in communities in which they could share observations and have the leisure to begin the long range experimentation that led to domestication. The business of plant growing and selection did not proceed from “prelogical minds” by hocus-pocus or chance. It required ease, continuity, and peace. It was carried out by acutely observing individuals, primitive systematists and geneticists we may assert, who taught others to identify and select, by lore and skill handed from generation to generation. The plants fashioned by man are artifacts of skilled craftsmen; plant breeders anywhere are still few and exceptional individuals. I have difficulty in visualizing the spontaneous and independent origins of agricultural living and arts by reaching an unelucidated “stage” or “level” of cultural advance, or by assuming that people turned to producing food because they were getting hungrier. Distressed folk were least likely to have the capital reserves for investment in deferred returns. Such progress I should look for as originating in a most favored area, with a society amenable to new ways and recognizing original talent in its individuals. Were such congenial physical and cultural situations present as well anywhere else in the New World?

I admit that Sauer’s prose is a bit convoluted and dated, and lacking in humor. Nonetheless he gets his points across, sometimes eloquently, and he packs many ideas and speculations into a small space. Pithy is the applicable word, I think.

The book is out of print, but a quick look at reveals that used copies are available for as little as four dollars. I highly recommend the book; it’s always salutary to pay attention to the foods which sustain our civilization and their possible origins.


Recipe Continuums

I enjoy cooking. One of the advantages of cooking for myself alone is that I don’t have to take into account a house-mate’s inexplicable vagaries of taste and preferences. If something doesn’t turn out quite right I have only myself to blame and don’t have to hear any complaints.

I like to read recipes and try them out, but I rarely follow them exactly.

Hey, readers,let’s try a thought experiment. No, no, don’t begin to edge away — such experiments are good for your imaginative faculties and helps keep them limber and supple.

Okay, gird your mental loins and let’s go:

Imagine four circles, each of which contains a recipe. Three of the four circles are arranged as the vertices of an equilateral triangle, while the fourth circle is smack dab in the center of the triangle. Now imagine lines extending from each vertex-circle to the central one.

Riding on these lines are little tabs, one for each line, which can be easily slid back and forth, closer to and farther away from the circles, but which have enough friction to stay put when you have them positioned where you want them. Got that?

My mental image, as yours probably is as well, is rather starkly Euclidean — a bit too abstract. Let’s color the circles a nice shade of aubergine, with the recipes printed in cursive scarlet script. Each circle is bordered by woven garlands of oregano shoots. Now let’s make the lines tightly-stretched bristly sisal ropes, with the movable tabs shaped like Kalamata olives and cast in bronze.

The three outer circles contain respectively recipes for hummus, pesto, and baba ghanoush.

Now we need a pleasant background for this scene. Since the recipes contained within the three outer circles are of Levantine or Italian origin, let’s make the background a steeply-sloped mountainside with scattered groves of olive trees. Goats graze the aromatic shrubby plants which thinly dot the areas between the groves. One curious goat wanders over to the array of circles in front of us and tentatively nibbles on one of the ropes.

I say, “Scat! get out of here!” The goat looks at me insolently and wanders away as if it’s his own idea.

The arrangement of circles, ropes, and bronze olives are magically suspended before us in a vertical plane. We approach this unusual arrangement which seems to defy gravity. One of the three outer circles contains a recipe for hummus:

1 can garbanzo beans/chickpeas (15 oz), drained
1/2 cup fresh spinach or basil
3 oz, crumbled feta cheese or possibly Asiago
1/4 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons tahini
1/4 cups red pepper flakes or a diced and fried Serrano pepper
1 teaspoon garlic roasted whole or sliced and fried

In a food processor combine, beans, tahini, spinach, garlic, olive
oil, and lemon juice. Blend well. Add cheese and red pepper flakes and
blend to a smooth and creamy dip.

The next outer circle contains a recipe for baba ghanouch:

1 large eggplant
1 teaspoon salt
2 cloves garlic
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon tahini

Preheat oven to 425. With a fork, punch a bunch of holes in the
eggplant and place it on a baking sheet. Cook for about 45 minutes,
until the eggplant is all sunken in. Remove from the heat and let it
cool until you can peel it safely. Peel and put it in a food
processor. Add the salt, garlic, lemon juice, and tahini, and process
until it’s smooth.

The third outer circle contains a recipe for pesto:

2 cups fresh basil leaves, packed
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
1/2 cup olive oil
1/3 cup pine nuts, sunflower seeds, walnuts, or cashews
3 medium sized garlic cloves, minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Combine the basil in with the pine nuts, pulse a few times in
a food processor. (If you are using walnuts instead of pine nuts and
they are not already chopped, pulse them a few times first, before
adding the basil.) Add the garlic, pulse a few times more.

Slowly add the olive oil in a constant stream while the food
processor is on. Stop to scrape down the sides of the food processor
with a rubber spatula. Add the grated cheese and pulse again until
blended. Add a pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

The central circle contains a variable composite of the three recipes, depending on where the bronze olive-shaped sliders are placed. Go ahead, here in this imaginary Mediterranean scene — reach out and slide the bronze olives to different positions on the ropes. Do this for a while and you will notice, if you are paying attention, that the closer a bronze slider is to one of the outer recipes, the more influence that recipe has on the composite central recipe. As an example, if the slider on the rope tied onto the baba ghanouch circle gets close to that circle the central recipe will have more eggplant in it. Garbonzo beans begin to predominate if the slider on the rope hooked to the hummus recipe is moved closer to that circle.

It’s quite fascinating to watch the central circle as you move the bronze olives along the ropes. The composite recipe changes fluidly, reflecting the positioning of the sliders.

Now allow the imagined mental scene to fade away. What we have imagined is a graphical representation of some quite complex mental processes, a series of decisions a cook with a knack for improvising might make.

Here’s what I came up with tonight:

The stuff in that jar is nameless and very tasty but I’ll probably never make another batch just like it. I kind of like the idea of eating a food which I’ll never taste again!

I’ve found that the squat jars which “Talk of Texas” okra pickles come in are the ideal size for a batch of any similar dip. I use such jars for tahini, too.

If you have a food processor or a blender try one of these recipes, or a composite. Every variation I’ve made has been delicious, either eaten with pita bread or used as a sandwich spread.

Now you can let your imagination relax after its exertions. Turn on the TV or pick up a book and let someone else do the imagining for you!


On Oatmeal

(The photo above I cropped from a fine photo shot by Julia Adamson, who lives near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Thanks, Julia!)

These days I eat a bowl of hot oatmeal every morning. I prefer “old-fashioned” oats, rather than the supposedly “quick” oatmeal, which I’ve always suspected comes from oat fragments swept up from around the rolling machines which flatten the oat groats. Old-fashioned oats don’t really take that much longer to cook.

Over the years I’ve experimented with many variations of the basic porridge. Of course sugar and milk are traditionally eaten with oatmeal, but there are all sorts of other additives which can greatly enhance the rather bland taste and texture of plain old oatmeal.

Many years ago my ex-wife Betsy and I noticed that a bowl of oatmeal wasn’t quite enough to keep us going until lunch. At about ten or eleven AM hunger pangs would strike. “Hmm..” I thought. “It probably needs more protein and fat”. We tried adding about one-quarter cup of raw wheat germ to the pot. Actually we started out using Kretschmer toasted wheat germ, a Quaker Oats product which comes in a jar. Then we noticed that raw wheat germ was less than half the cost per pound at a Mennonite bulk-food store not far away, up in Scotland County. Raw wheat germ has an unpleasantly raw taste when eaten straight, but cooking it with the oatmeal cooked the oil, I suppose, and it really enhances the taste and staying power of the porridge. Raw wheat germ can also be lightly toasted in a dry frying pan for use on boxed cold cereals, which also don’t have much staying power.

The next variation became a favorite of mine. I assume Betsy liked it as well, but she gave me quite a bit of leeway if I got up early and made the oatmeal before she got up! I’d lightly grind a small handful of raw unsalted sunflower seeds in a small ceramic mortar and pestle and add the fragments to the pot. Sometimes I’d peel and dice one-quarter of an apple and add it to the mix. I still do that. A sliced banana topping on a bowl of oatmeal is a welcome variation from time to time. A dollop of butter is good too, either cooked in with the oatmeal or applied afterwards.

I learned another cereal technique from Betsy’s father Chris, a shoe-store proprietor who grew up poor in the Missouri Ozarks. He would top oatmeal with a handful of commercial boxed cereal. A box of ridiculously over-priced cereal would last a long time used in that manner. His Depression boyhood made him a thrifty soul.

Look again at the photo at the top of this post. Have you ever seen a breeze wafting across a field of oats? Each seed dangles loosely from a thin and limber stem and the slightest breeze causes delightful waves of movement across the field, reminding me of wind blowing across water.

A sublime sight!


Collaborative Garden: 2011

My friend Jeff lives just a couple of blocks from my place. Jeff had obtained permission from another friend to till up part of the back yard of a house he owns for a vegetable and flower garden. Jeff and I decided to share the labor and we’ve had the good fortune to have had a nearly ideal growing season so far. The rains have been plentiful but not torrential. Here are some photos I shot; the first of them taken in May and the second series in late July, about a week ago.

Radishes were the first seedlings to appear. They are ridiculously easy to grow and most of them were eaten while working in the garden — a pleasantly pungent snack for a mild day in May. The seed-leaves have a peculiar shape:

Many plants were getting started by the middle of May but the garden looked a bit sparse. The nights were still cool:

Here’s Jeff watering a young yellow crook-neck squash plant with a tin can which has holes punched in its bottom:

The following photos were shot about a week ago, during late July. We’ve had several 100 degree days lately so much of the garden maintenance has been at dusk. Jeff planted two “topsy turvey” cherry tomatoes. The plants are planted at the bottom of bags of soil with a hole in the bottom. The tomato emerges from the hole very confused but eventually figures out the peculiar arrangement. As a plant, you can’t go wrong if you grow towards the sunlight! The bag planters are hanging from a structure originally intended to support a bench swing.

Here’s a view of the garden these days, hundreds of plants busily photosynthesizing while hoping to avoid the numerous rabbits which infest the area like bedbugs on a couch:

I enjoy growing and eating cow-peas and crowder peas. The long slender pods grow up above the creeping leguminous foliage, looking like vegetative helicopter blades:

I like the taste of dill but don’t really use it in cooking all that much. I like having it growing in a garden, though; the yellow flower umbels are like starburst fireworks and a pinch of the lacy aromatic foliage is pleasant to munch on now and then.

I didn’t grow up eating eggplant very often, but when I was in my thirties I fell in love with the plant. The fuzzy gray-green leaves are pleasing to the eye and the fruits are just beautiful, glossy black with a large toothed calyx enclosing the stem end of the fruit. This year I’m growing a slender black variety, much smaller than the typical eggplants sold in the supermarkets.

Eggplants are in the Solanaceae (the Nightshade family). The eggplant (Solanum melongena) is related to tomatoes, peppers, and tobacco. The odd name comes from the resemblance of early European varieties to a chicken’s egg; little white round eggplants. I’d like to see one someday!

I use many of the eggplants I’ve been picking for a Levantine dip or spread called Baba Ganouch.

Here’s a cluster of eggplants hanging from a plant rejoicing at the absence of flea-beetles this year — oh, hell, none of my eggplant photos are good enough! I’ll take some more tomorrow — come back tomorrow afternoon and I’ll have some good ones!

It’s a beautiful Sunday morning and I just bicycled over to the garden. This time I used an upended five-gallon bucket as an improvised tripod. The eggplants were nicely illuminated by the slanting rays of morning sunlight:

Aren’t the clasping calyxes extravagant?

In this next shot notice how the sunlight highlights the stems near the top of the frame:

I’ve had the hardest time getting good photos of eggplant flowers. A cruel world, isn’t it? The problem is that the blossoms face downward and it’s difficult to position the camera. I decided to pick one and lay it upon a fuzzy gray-green eggplant leaf:

The lighting was so nice that I cropped a closer view. Look at the arrangement of stamens and pistil — and the delicate pink of the petals just charmed my socks off:

It was a fruitful morning bike-ride!


A Tale Of Garlic Endurance

Readers of this blog might remember the plight I was in early last December, when I was illegally living hand-to-mouth in an unheated building, cozied up to a wood fire in a bucket. My father rescued me and I lived with my folks for several months.

I needed some things from that building early last spring, so I borrowed my mother’s car and drove to Hannibal to fetch them. I was looking around the apartment and I noticed several bulbs of garlic sitting on the kitchen windowsill. They had been there all winter — surely they had died during the sub-zero periods. It was a cold winter.

I examined the bulbs and I was amazed to see that they were sprouting! Tiny green spears were emerging. They were still alive after being cruelly abandoned; I couldn’t believe it.

I slipped the bulbs into my coat pocket, gathered up what I needed, and headed back to my folks’ place in Quincy.

A week or too later my friend Jeff and I decided to collaborate on a garden. One April day I teased the garlic bulbs apart and planted the cloves in a square patch. It was the least I could do after what they had been through. I didn’t know how they would do, as garlic is best planted in the fall.

Last week I dug them up; the bulbs were small but they have a back-story which I will think of as I eat them this fall. Yesterday I washed them and set them out on the porch to dry and cure. Here’s a photo of these alliums:


A Native American Pesto?

I first became aware of pesto back in the early nineties. I don’t remember how I heard about it — probably a magazine or web article. It’s a simple food which originated in Italy; a lot of sweet basil leaves (I prefer the Genovese variety) chopped or even pureed with a smaller quantity of parsley, parmesan cheese, olive oil, pine nuts, and optionally garlic. It’s a greenish spreadable food which doesn’t look particularly appetizing when first encountered. There are many variations. Either a food processor or a blender is the pulverizing agent.

I could eat pesto every day; I just love the stuff.

Betsy and I planted a big patch of basil one spring and made pesto all that summer and many summers to follow. Pine nuts were too expensive so we substituted unsalted sunflower seeds or walnuts. Betsy discovered that basil and parsley leaves could be frozen spread out on cookie sheets, bagged up, and put back in the freezer. Winter pesto!

This summer has been rainy and my basil and parsley are thriving. I just finished making a batch of pesto; it takes about ten minutes. I used cashews rather than pine nuts.

Pesto is versatile; traditionally it is served with pasta, but it also makes a fine sandwich spread. Freshly-made tortilla fragments can be dipped in pesto. I enjoy mixing up food cultures.

As I sampled the new batch I got to thinking. Could a pesto analog be made with plants native to this continent?

Basil is in the mint family but its strong odor is pungent and not minty at all. My favorite native mint-family plant is the Mountain Mint, Pycnanthemum pilosum. The species is an upland tallgrass prairie plant and it has a heavenly odor. Let’s see… walnut oil could be substituted for olive oil, and hickory nuts could take the place of those expensive pine nuts. Let’s toss in some ramps or other wild onions rather than garlic. There are several umbelliferous plants which could take the place of parsley, and the salt could come from salt licks.

I’ll bet nobody has ever tried this!

My friend Jeff and I are collaborating on a garden this year. Here are the thriving basil plants:

And here’s my old friend, the Hairy Mountain Mint:

Sometimes I’m envious of old cultures such as those in Europe and Asia. They’ve had thousands of years to develop techniques for using native vegetation and fauna as food, while we’ve just had a couple of hundred years. Most of our cuisine and many of the foods we eat are imports from the Old World. Of course Americans were and are compensated by vast areas of virgin fertile soil, so I guess it’s a wash.


Flourishing Green Beans

My friend Jeff, who lives up the street from me, and I have been collaborating on a garden a mile or so from here in another friend’s yard. Rains have been plentiful this summer and almost every planting has been doing well.

Jeff and I met at the garden to see how things were growing. We’ve had some problems with over-abundant rabbits and Jeff has killed two so far with a hoe.

I was very impressed with the green bean patch this year; I don’t think I ever have seen such leguminous abundance:

I have some cow-peas, or crowder-peas, which are up and waiting for tropical weather. A native of Africa, they will soon be vining vigorously.