Saturday, August 30, 2008

Seed-swapping with some lovage

I wasn't looking for lovage. It found me—at the hardware store. The drawing of a bloody mary on the seed package was what caught my eye. Before that, I'd only known Lovage as an album by Dan the Automator. Suddenly the world seemed new again as I discovered that lovage could be something even more biodynamic and fragrant, a sweet herb that "Adds warmth to soups, stews, and salads." With the right kind of lovage, I could just kick back and be silly, using its hollow stalk instead of crazy straws in my favorite cocktail.

I spent days dreaming of how I would plant seeds of lovage in my window box and watch them grow. But along came the Pirate Seed Swap at the Bull Moose Hunting Society warehouse on Thursday night, and just like that, I decided to spread the lovage, laying my envelope on a long, thin table along with the offerings of seed enthusiasts, young farmers, and food-minded friends wandering about the room. We ate wild boar that the hunting society had, um, hunted, along with bruschetta and sprinkles of fennel pollen. Severine of The Greenhorns and Gordon of Slow Food Nation gave some nice speeches and thank you's and I met many happy, sunburned people who had traveled here from other states to join in the Slow Food festivities. Saveur magazine wrote up the event on their site.

Now I have an unmarked envelope filled with just a pinch of lovage, but also seeds of shiso, cucumber, lettuce, peas, parsley, beans, and a whole bunch of things whose names I've forgotten. I'm going to plant them in the window box, add water, and hope that a magic salad sprouts up to feed me one day.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Slow Food Nation

Slow Food Nation '08, the super-sized, super-expensive foodie fair, or "first-ever American collaborative gathering to catalyze the growing sustainable food movement and to celebrate food that is good clean and fair" in the words of the event website, is coming to San Francisco tomorrow through Sunday, with Labor Day dedicated to slow food picnics across America. The Bay Area's own vegetable fairy god-mother, Alice Waters, is spearheading the first stateside incarnation of Terra Madre, the Slow Food gathering orchestrated by Carlo Petrini, the Italian godfather of the organization that began in Italy in 1989 and now has over 80,000 members in 100 countries. You can find more information on slow food (think opposite of fast food) at In its mini-guide to SFN that came out yesterday, the SF Chronicle says that 50,000 people are expected to participate in this weekend's event.

Coincidentally, that's roughly the same number of protesters who showed up to stall the World Trade Organization globalization talks in Seattle back in 1999. The politics have a similar anti-industrialization, anti-unchecked-globalization feel, and even some of the players are the same, such as Vandana Shiva, the physicist, environmentalist, and author scheduled to speak on the global food crisis during the sold-out opening session of SFN's "Food for Thought" lecture series. In an essay published in The Guardian shortly after the protests, Shiva wrote, "The WTO has earned itself names such as World Tyranny Organisation because it enforces anti-people, anti-nature decisions to enable corporations to steal the world's harvests through secretive, undemocratic structures and processes. It institutionalises forced trade, not free trade."

The key difference this time around, however, is that the revolution may retain a certain grassroots grubbiness, but it is one smoothed over with white tablecloths and topped by designer produce. At the heart of the event is a commitment to food education that will hopefully lead to more widespread sustainable and heathful food production, preparation, and eating practices, but the very visible flipside of this movement is the economic exclusion of many from the ethically superior supper table.

There are plenty of free events throughout the weekend, such as the "soap box" speaker series happening at the Civic Center victory vegetable garden, the hand-picked farmers and artesanal food market also at the Civic Center (but whose edible offerings are guaranteed to come at a high price), plus all kinds of fringe art and food events and a free film series. Still, it feels as if the main action of SFN will be taking place behind closed doors. At Fort Mason, $65 gets you into the Taste Pavilion, where top design and architecture firms have paired with high-end food and beverage producers to create information exhibits and stage demonstrations and tastings of wine, cheese, coffee, and other assorted gourmet fetishes. Another $69-99 will get you in to the Slow Food Rocks concert nearby at Great Meadow. Even more serious food consumption is to be had at the $50-$200/plate dinners cooked by top chefs at different high-end restaurants around the city, though each dinner will benefit a local non-profit.

The speaker series is a bit more affordable at $20 per lecture, with student prices, but it feels strange not to have some kind of larger-scale public speech (besides today's Food Bill petition reading) or even a simultaneous broadcast of the talks on an outdoor screen that would give more widespread access to what such influential people as Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, Vandana Shiva, and Carlo Petrini, will be saying to a select group of people inside Herbst Theater.

This to me is the most serious limitation of the event, keeping the big names in food education cordoned off to a small group of ticket-holders. One highlight of the free soap box series that I want to mention is writer and farmer David Mas Masumoto who will be speaking on Friday at 12pm. He writes beautifully about farming and the landscape of the San Joaquin Valley in his book Epitaph for a Peach.

Of course, the left is always griping and complaining about itself, even when we're relatively happy, so with that said, of course I'm thrilled that Slow Food Nation is happening here in my own city. I just had to rant like a proper blogger before I could go frolic through the victory garden and farmers market, and perhaps see a film screening and a talk or two. Click here for a guide to the free events this weekend.

And tonight, I'll be attending this SFN-related seed-swap and farm education event co-hosted by the filmmaker of The Greenhorns, a soon-to-be-released documentary about young urbanites moving to the countryside to pursue the dream of organic farming (you may have seen the NY Times article). Her name, Severine von Tscharner Fleming, is like a mouthful of mesclun salad mix. Erin knows more about the movie, but unfortunately she's working her butt off right now at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado under the codename TUNA and driving around a vehicle identified as the "Angelweeper." I promise that I haven't eaten her and that she purportedly has a giant backlog of Weird Veg posts that's gonna clog the hell out of your bandwith once she gets back.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

lemon cucumber

I'm back in San Francisco and have a new late-summer obsession: the lemon cucumber. In the current climate of multiculturalism and fusion, it may seem a little trendy to be enamored of a piece of produce that boasts the vaguely exotic yet familiar allure of the hybrid, the indeterminate, the mestizo, but this fruit masquerading as a vegetable disguised as a fruit (a kind of double drag, F to V to F) has been lurking about farmers markets since 1894. I found these little guys at the Noe Valley Farmers market and also saw them at the Ferry Building. My friend Zoe first suggested them to me after she saw them in Israel this summer.

Unlike the pluot or aprium, which are true cross-bred composites of separate fruits, this apple-cheeked salad stuffer is indeed a cucumber that merely resembles a brightly sour lemon and is actually slightly sweeter than other cucumbers. Like its relatives, the gourd and the squash, the cucumber is classified as a fruit for having enclosed seeds and developing from a flower but is associated with vegetables for its more neutral flavor and use in savory dishes (thanks Wikipedia!).

A question that has come up often since we started this blog is, "What exactly is a vegetable?" and I was reluctant to investigate the answer for fear that it would limit the specimens I could honestly post on the site without feeling self-indulgent. But the doors have been thrown wide open thanks again to my favorite unofficial Wiki-research site (our backroom team of Weird Vegetable fact-checkers are falling off their swivel chairs in horror), which informs us that "the term 'vegetable' generally means the edible parts of plants" and that the "definition of the word is traditional rather than scientific," based more on cultural associations, culinary uses, and food retailing, making its usage "somewhat arbitrary and subjective." So there. Anything edible from a plant goes. Viva la Vegetable!

Monday, August 18, 2008

creepy carrots

The creepy carrots crawled out from a crag
To clutch at the children's candy bags.

Don't get caught munching on candy corn when the creepy carrots root you out with their clingy claws.

Despite their sinister appearance, these conical creatures came to me via Leif [Life] and Hope.

They were housed at the Hilton Hotel with Hope Hilton's art and Leif Hedendal's help.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Arugula Apology (or Watercress Confession)

It was to my astonishment and utter horror that I realized that I mis-identified watercress as arugula in the last post (the giddy fried potato is indeed lounging on watercress and not arugula). Once again, we are reminded of who on this blog is the real evil vegetable genius (Erin) and who the mere leafy-green Sideshow Bob, a lowly sulfurous onion to Erin's majestic broccoli romanesco. The two, arugula and watercress, often appear side-by-side in the Brazilian por kilo buffet restaurants I like to frequent and so I must have just tossed a tongful of each one on my plate and obtusely lost sight of the fine distinctions between these leafy cousins.

In an attempt to alleviate my vegetable abjection, I conducted an in-depth leaf-to-leaf comparison of arugula and watercress and also constructed a sufficiently apologetic food face while lunching alone at Zabor, a brightly-lit por quilo buffet in Rio de Janeiro's Centro neighborhood. I took care not to make eye contact with any of the good people in suits on their lunch breaks who were making polite conversation around me and decorously not playing with their food.

In the above photo, watercress is on the left and has smaller, rounder leaves in a bow-tie formation. On the right is arugula, which has larger leaves that poke out a bit more, like floppy ears with some jagged edging at the stem (though this particular specimen is chopped up almost beyond recognition). Both have a spicyish, peppery, and slightly bitter taste, though I would say watercress is lighter and sweeter than the more aggressive arugula. While arugula grows in the ground like most other leafy greens, watercress grows in streams or under hydroponic cultivation. Watercress also wields great influence on the global stage as a distinguished member of the V8 consortium of vegetables.

Adding to my green-tinged chagrin is the fact that before the potato post I had been discussing the very difference between arugula and watercress with my newfound Brazilian veggie mates, Emilio Fraia and Vanessa Barbara, whose incandescently original and charming novel (O Verão do Chibo or The Summer of Chibo) we hope to bring to you in English one day soon. Vanessa, who has a heart of golden manioc (aipim in Portuguese), also edits and writes for an online literary smorgasbord called "A Hortaliça," which translates roughly as "The Vegetables" or "Greens," though it touches upon a variety of topics beyond the garden. Issue #72 is dedicated to our dear friends watercress and arugula (o agrião e a rúcula), and addresses such pressing quandaries as, "What ever happened to watercress? Why did these greens become dethroned by arugula? What are the controversies behind the substitution of such popular leaves, and what are the forces that dictate the supremacy of salads?" Vanessa and Emilio were both very gracious about my egregious error, and I promise to raise the vegetable bar higher and fresher next time.

[Credits: In the top photo, cameo appearances were made by Polenta Sticks as Eyebrows and Cheesy-Potato-Balls as Eyeballs. Sad Mouth was played by Mango Slice.]