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Sunday, October 30, 2011

War Against Terroir

Mmmm. Cascadian huckleberry.

Americans who want to seem high class sometimes adopt Britishisms, but when they want to seem sophisticated, they often resort to French. Sometimes, as with "laissez faire," it's to hide the ugly truth ("unfettered capitalism" sounds more sinister), but the general idea is to make something ordinary sound fancy--"C'est magnifique" has a flair that "yum" just ain't got. Eventually, the word may become American as apple pie, or at least quiche. 

Food is a realm where these migrations occur regularly, and one of the newer arrivals is "terroir," which refers to the peculiarities of flavor bestowed on a food by its place of origin. There is no obvious Engish word that conveys the same concept, which makes sense when you think of most English cuisine (ah, see? the very word "cuisine" had to be imported--I rest my case). But in wine country the soil, climate, and a host of other influences affect the outcome, sometimes on a scale so minute that a location 100 meters away--but on the wrong side of a ridge--cannot replicate the terroir of a prized place.

Americans cling to some remnants of this concept, and seem to be rediscovering it. When I was a kid, Hanover County tomatoes and Smithfield ham had this kind of aura. But for most of my life, farming has trended toward uniformity and commoditization. The 'market' allegedly wanted not just all wheat to be the same, but all cucumbers, tomatoes, hams,...everything. Micro-breweries (and wineries, for you fancy drinkers) and farmers markets, which continue to sprout in new places and thrive where they gain a root-hold, offer hope that we're turning around as a culture, remembering and reviving local flavors.

However, if you get beyond the surface, you see we have a long way to go. The new locavores rail against the authoritarian uniformity imposed on the food supply by Monsanto, ADM, Con-Agra, and...well, the point is that the list is not very long. A lot of ink (how much of it GMO soy-based?) is devoted to lamenting and opposing the monotony of the produce, the loss of diversity and heritage varieties that occurs when all corn is Silver Queen and all cukes are Marketmore. Being a staunch evolutionist, I'm with them on this. Besides being boring, it is incredibly stupid to put all your eggs (mostly laid by just one breed) in one basket. And as a lover of things old, a conservationist at heart, I hate seeing old varieties disappear.

Fortunately, gardeners and small farmers have done a huge amount of work preserving and spreading old varieties and the genetic diversity. There are breeders selecting their way back to plants and stock that were impossible to get a generation ago, and for that matter, coming up with new varieties that do something other than maximize shipping durability and superficial attractiveness. 

Meanwhile, the war against terroir is still winning on the terre itself. Relentlessly pressured by that 'market,' farmers try to eke out more production with bigger machines, mechanized irrigation, and chemicals that kill the soil and pump up the produce. Now that there are enough buyers for organic produce, industrial production techniques have emerged in that realm as well, from hydroponics and greenhouses to cloistered chickens that never see the sun or drink the rain. Organic or not, most of hat you find in the grocery store could have been grown anywhere; there is no terroir when the earth is a platform for industrial agronomy.

I am fortunate to live in Western Washington, where there are abundant small farmers who take good care of their land. Like just about everything else about me, my palate is not refined, but I still think that food grown in black prairie loam tastes better than the same thing trucked in from a mega-farm in California. (And it's not entirely about locavorism, either, coffee from my friend's farm in Honaunau tastes like the volcano, not chemically assaulted Brazilian dirt.) 

So I guess I am a terroirist. For the time being, it's not illegal. The US may have decided that it's OK to snoop without warrants, to detain bystanders and citizens indefinitely, and launch missiles at people who disagree with its policies, but consumer choice remains sacrosanct, for now. But when Monsanto can sue a farmer for planting seed that, simply because the wind blows, contains some of its patented genes, we are experiencing a level of corporate power that suggests even that freedom may be imperiled. What happens when the industrial producers--too big to fail because they control the food supply, after all--bribe enough politicians to have non-industrial production be labeled dangerous and subversive, outlawed? Maybe this sounds silly to you, but the harmless hippies who sat in old growth trees were transformed into "eco-terrorists" even a generation ago. 

We are still free to taste terroir. When we support the Columbia River winery and Yakima hops farmers, we support local roots. When we eat a Quilcene oyster or a Mima camas bulb, we enjoy flavors that exist nowhere else. When we learn to appreciate terroir, we develop senses dulled by our bland modern culture.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


V8, anyone? Disclosure: the 8 includes an earwig and various fungi.

Sunday, as many people prayed to Jesus or for grid-iron victory (usually both, where I grew up), I devoted myself to cleaning the Summer's fading cultivations. Turns out that I was right on time, because that night it frosted hard, but I was blissfully ignorant about meteorology other than it being a great day to be in the garden. As they all are.
The pitiful other row of tomatoes came out last week, but this time round I went after the hoop house (there's a post about that somewhere). Maybe a third of a milk crate of pale fruit, some of which can be coddled to ripeness, but the rest destined to be a fake apple cobbler. Or something.

So now the hoop house is planted in spinach and lettuce and again cocooned in its plastic. Other beds are pretty much cleaned up, too, and in the process I've gotten the last carrots, penultimate beets, the tenacious tribe of coriander still on the stalk, and all the other leftovers that populate the Fall garden. Not the beautiful fine fruits of Summer, some of it so slug and bug-eaten it gets flung, but I try to waste not. 

Slowly working my way down the rows and round the beds, I glean also lessons for next year. Like, I'm the only one who east scarlet runner beans, and all the string beans except for Potomac got tough this year. Or, if I don't cut blackberry soon, it'll reach critical mass and become a monstrous task by Spring. If not Winter.

Harvest time is all about the gathering. Sheaves reaped, families around tables, communities around festivities. Amber waves become tides of food, a pulse of nutrition that will work its way through the populace.

Gleaning is more private. Humbler yields fill the gleaner's bag, and there is an individual acuity required to locating and recovering remnants; patience is a virtue, but sharpness of eye and mind is even better. The very fact that you are approaching a field already harvested means that a few people may each get to go home with a meal, but a big group would go home with a pittance apiece.

Another humbleness hovers like a dusty cloud around gleaning. Some people would never stoop so low. Gleaning puts you with the birds and the rodents, picking up leftovers not even worth the effort of decent society. "Reap" is a word of Anglo-Saxon origin, while "glean" is Celtic; our English speaks of old social orders still. At least neither is Latin. 

So for this year, the gleaning is about over. Only melted molded blackberries hang on the vines. The pondering over lessons gleaned can continue inside by the fire all Winter.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Garden 1 - 11

Garden posts 1 - 11 appear at the blog Mojourner Truth. The numbered posts are all from this year (2011), but there are others that are earlier and have no coherent title strategy.

You can find them here, if you want.

Garden 12: The Harvest Touch

For every fruit and vegetable, there exists lore on when to pick it. For most, there are competing versions. One grandma knows a melon is ripe by the sound of of a thumb-thump. Another by the tendrils of aroma reaching out to her nose. Someone else notices the brown of the stem or a slight give to the flesh around it. 

I collect these nuggets of wisdom, and have found some to be true (others, not), but that's mostly the anthropologist in me, collector of ethnobotanical tidbits. As a gardener, I've come to rely on pretty much one indicator for anything I'm picking: it'll come off easily when the time is right.

For once, I'm not trying to be a smart-ass. Fruits and vegetables really do just let go when they're ready. The blueberry falls off in my hand, the zucchini snaps free with a quick twist. You have to know how to pick it--tug at the zucchini and you're likely to get the whole vine--but as long as you have that trick down, the ripe ones come off easy. Most of the time, the technique has to do with bending the stem backward, which makes it snap without tearing off a section of branch. Thumb pushes on that little elbow of a tomato stem while your hand pulls the fruit in the opposite direction, and the ripe globe falls into the basket of your fingers.

The un-ripe fruit clings. If it is not ready, a gentle touch won't make it come. Forced harvest ends in plants peeled and split, scarred and open to attack by fungi and bugi. The apple lands in your palm with a big spur that could have yielded again next year. The berry loses its grip, but tastes sour, and maybe whips back at you with a thorny cane as drupe comes loose. Plants resist impatient reapers. This is why machine-harvested produce will never be as good as that gathered on an idle amble by a sentient being.

The sweetest tastes come from the softest touch. A single finger caress. A gentle twist. Maybe growing the crop took hours of digging and seeding, waiting and weeding, but the best pick lasts an instant, and the fruit of your labor sites in your hand, ready to be eaten and enjoyed, prepared or shared. 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

In the Pantry

This year, I stepped up efforts to preserve food myself, even if I didn't grow it all. This may be the most contemporarily boring but historically interesting post about food, an inventory of what's on hand now:
7 quarts - tomato sauce
16 quarts - tomato
9 pints - spiced apple rings
4 pints - pepper relish
2 pints - apple butter
4 pints - serviceberry
8 half-pints - serviceberry
4 half-pints - rose-hip syrup
4 pints - peach butter
1 pint - strawberry jam
1 pint - pickled cherry peppers
4 pints - ripeberry jam (salal-serviceberry-currant)
4 pints - Cara Cara orange marmelade
4 pints - Blood orange and cranberry marmelade
2 quarts - sweet pickles
18 quarts - dill pickles
1 quart - dill pickled beans
1 quart - dill pickled cabbage
1 quart - cinnamon syrup
1 quart - apple butter

Frozen, there is:
8 pounds salmon
1 quart - currants
1 liter - serviceberry
2 quarts - rhubarb
1 quart - spaghetti sauce
2 pints - nettle leaf
2 pints - lomatium root
2 quarts - green beans
3 quarts - corn chowder

So, I can survive on pickles, tomatoes, and salmon for a little while. Not exactly set through the winter, though. Next year, I'd like to can more, and have more of what I canned be stuff I grew. There are still maybe 20 pounds of tomatoes that I may manage to ripen, or use somehow in green form. Various greens have begin their Autumnal volunteering. The farmers market is open for a couple of months yet, and I may manage to add some kraut and pickled something-or-other to this year's list. Divestiture from the corporate food supply continues...

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What's Mocavore?

Sounds like locavore, and maybe that is part of the picture, but I am not religiously so. I eat things from my garden, from the local woods and weeds, from the Olympia Farmers Market, and yeah, from grocery stores too. I take comfort in supporting local growers and putting as little money as possible into the coffers of corporations with no allegiance to place. But then again, I think I had Italian pasta for dinner the other night, and have no idea where those canned black beans came from.

Sounds like Mo, too, and I'll cop to that. I am egoistic. Why else would I be writing a blog? (OK, several blogs.) I like to think I am unique, while recognizing that I am a product of my time and culture. (And also, I like to relentlessly mock my time and culture.)

My vory varies too much to fit a proper niche in the food blogosphere. I like foods that are wild, that indigenous cultures have appreciated for millennia, and that some people think are weeds, but there are already a bunch of bloggers covering that nicely, and what would the rewilders and foragers think when I started to write about my occasional mix-all-the-brown-drinks soda fountain binge? All that high fructose corn syrup!!

I'm omnivorous, but don't feel any dilemma.

My favorites may fade, and if this blog lasts long enough, I'll contradict myself. I like trying new things, but not all of them, and despite what I said earlier about wild food cannot be counted on to try all things. Like that time on Moloka`i, but I'll post about that later. Believe me, I'll write about that.

I aspire to healthy eating, but sausage tastes too damn good to foreswear, and some of the stuff that's supposed to be healthy tastes like crap.

Fine food's fine, but I define that category widely. I am not a foodie, gourmand, epicure, or snob. Well, maybe a snob. I turn up my nose at Coors, Kraft, and deep-fried fair fads.

I'm a descendant of decent cooks, none of whom were formally trained. My entire experience in the food industry consists of delivering low-end pizzas and making high-end ones for a total of maybe 8 months in the 1980s. I learned what I know from my parents, a few TV chefs, that red and white cookbook, and asking questions about whatever tasted good. Mostly, though, I just played around and experimented. Eventually, I learned how glean some useful info from the web.

Mocavore will have a new post now and then on everything from food archaeology to rants about food's future. Maybe you'll read something new (or very old), pick up a tasty recipe, or write me to tell me just how little I know. Grab a snack and enjoy.