Sunday, August 30, 2009

Vegetable Hallucination

Okay, breathe. It was all a dream.

I had a mildly disturbing yet exciting hallucination while lying on the couch swooning in the 90°F heat of San Francisco yesterday. It reminded me of the Italian Renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo's tripped out creations in which people's faces are formed from an ecosystem of other living creatures and plants (above is his rendition of "Summer"). I thought I was coming home to a blissfully cold, foggy San Francisco summer after getting stranded in the heavy heat of Portland, Maine while Hurricane Bill swept over Nova Scotia and effectively foiled my plans for a pilgrimage to poet Elizabeth Bishop's childhood home in the country of fishermen and maple leaves (yes Hurricane Bill was a greater force than Katrina this time).

Having sprouted and grown tall in San Francisco's mild climate, I have not developed the kind of constitution that can withstand extremities of weather and so began to lose my mind in yesterday's heat after having already begun to unravel in muggy New England. I was also becoming saturated in produce after running around at both the Ferry Plaza and Alemany farmers' markets doing research for an article I'm writing that focuses in part on fall fruits and vegetables.

As I lay with my eyes closed in the haze of my living room, I had a sudden vision that my entire body was composed of different kinds of squash--my fingers were round little summer squashes, striped in dark and light greens, my arms and legs were various longer butternuts and delicatas, my head was a gigantic pumpkin, only it was green and so maybe not a pumpkin at all but a kabocha squash. Whether it was the heat, staring at all those vegetables, or the tiny dreamcatcher earrings I was wearing, the moment felt startlingly real. It was exhilarating to have a completely new physical orientation to the world, but I was terrified that my amalgamated squash body would come tumbling down at the first step I took and break into stringy orange shards. I opened my eyes, and the scene fled. But Arcimboldo remains...

Monday, August 24, 2009

Martha's Vineyard Weird Vegetable Spectacle

In these last dog days of summer, WV's New York City squirrel-in-chief, Gabrielle, has been out spying for us on Martha's Vineyard, trying to catch some evidence of President Obama's "unique metabolism" that David Plouffe cited admiringly in the NY Times after calling the president "a chess player in a town with a lot of checker players," and secretly congratulating himself for thinking up that analogy. A few days prior to the first family's photogenic arrival, our correspondent killed some time by wandering through the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Livestock Show & Fair. There, she encountered the above pepper-and-bean angry cat and what looks to be an eggplant-maxixe-carrot LOBSTER, below (wow, impressive).

I haven't seen maxixe, also known as bur cucumber, since being in Brazil last summer. Here's a closer look at the maxixe (mah-SHE-she):

I was hoping for a glimpse of the Woodsmen's Contest, or the Judging of Goats, but this kindly fairytale spinner will suffice for now:

Life on the island, which lies in the Outer Lands region just off of Cape Cod, must get a bit dreamy at times from all that gazing out to sea, as suggested by this islander's mixing of greens and beans into a marine scene, explained by the caption:

"After sailing all summer, I began to see reflections of maritime life in my garden."

Perhaps a similar image flashed across senior adviser David Axelrod's mind as he thought ahead to the president's island respite in the eye of the political storm called Healthcare Reform, then donned his sea captain's cap at a jaunty angle and philosophized:

"What we’ve learned ... is that you have to look to the distant shore. You can’t panic from the choppy waves around you. He’s got his eye on that.”

I'm not sure what the spindly diorama below is meant to represent, but this caption seems fitting:

"There’s something about August going into September, where everybody in Washington gets all wee-weed up.”

--Barack Obama, days before arriving at the Vineyard (in the same article).

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Girl with a Basil Earring

If ever you find yourself in need of auricular attire that is both visually and aromatically pleasing, not to mention good for the taste buds and soft to the touch, take a cue from the lovely Amanda and pick a leaf of fresh basil to thread on some yarn and needle through your lobes with nimble fingers. I didn't have a chance to ask more about her technique, but you can try to track her down at the Blossom Bluff Orchards stand at the S.F. Ferry Plaza farmers' market. Below, a closeup of the perfect summertime ornament:

If this were a magazine, you would be able to peel back the paper basil "leaf" and sniff a sample of the fragrance.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Corn Tea (But First a Mouthful on Corn...)

As I passed through Iowa and Illinois on Amtrak's California Zephyr train two weeks ago, my bemused eyes awash in blurred green seas of corn that seemed hypnotically monotonous after the dramatic peaks and passes of the Colorado Rockies, I thought about how corn has taken on a troublesome stature in the growing U.S. food politics movement. The Ethicurean website, which reports on a heaping of matters at the intersection of food and ethics, even has a label called "The Cornification of America" that pulls up almost too many posts to click through, the most recent being that chef Daniel Patterson of San Francisco's Coi restaurant has banished corn from his menu for having reached an unforgivably oversweetened hybrid state.

It's easy to ask--and difficult to answer--the question, "What's so wrong with corn?," and the Corn Refiners Association has fought back against negative publicity with a disturbingly corny and empty-headed ad campaign called Sweet Surprise, in which gleaming-toothed people refuse popsicles or brightly-colored drinks for having high fructose corn syrup but then accept sheepishly after being unable to explain why they find this ingredient suspicious. You can see the commercials and read responses here.

I do find it dizzying to navigate the corn maze (couldn't pass up the pun), but I will say that, like most other ethical food issues, it goes beyond a mere question of taste to extend into larger-scale problems of corn subsidies that disproportionately prop up the processed food industry and industrial agriculture in a way that leads to widespread environmental and health problems, like soil erosion and loss of biodiversity on one end, and obesity and diabetes on another. An additional concern is the increasing domination of genetically modified corn that enables the agribusiness giant Monsanto to ridiculously "patent" species that are easily spread by the everyday blowing of the wind and then sue those who cannot prevent the wind's effects for patent infringement, and also to exploit farmers and promote waste by forcing them to keep re-buying seeds instead of just saving and replanting existing seeds, as the documentary Food, Inc. partially highlights. The World According to Monsanto, which I haven't yet seen, takes an even more in-depth look at Monsanto's death-grip on the U.S. agricultural industry.

Another source of information on corn is Michael Pollan, who saturated readers with everything we ever wanted to know about corn production and reproduction in the dense first chapter of The Omnivore's Dilemma, perhaps purposely making us experience in text form the sickening glut of corn-based foodstuffs that are forced on American consumers, mainly as high fructose corn syrup and the meat of corn-fed animals. The documentary King Corn, which is also on my movies-to-watch list, focuses exclusively on this many-headed corn hydra by following 1 acre of corn from seed-sowing to the end consumers.

That mealy mouthful said, corn is still my favorite basic staple, and while I try to avoid processed foods and too much corn syrup, I can't cut whole corn entirely out of my diet. And so it surprised me that in all my corn ventures, both culinary and intellectual, appetizing and anxiety-producing, I had never heard of corn tea. My friend Son, whose guest bed I stayed on in Chicago during a blissful one-night reprieve from the reclining train seat, introduced me to this simple pleasure common at the Korean table. I had brewed barley tea before but hadn't tried the roasted corn version, which is slightly sweeter and lighter--at least not knowingly, though I have been served golden-colored tea at many a Korean restaurant.

Son and her husband Jimmy keep their fridge well-stocked with iced corn tea during the sweltering Midwestern summer months and filled a bottle of the refreshing brew to help me survive the 19-hour Chicago-New York train ride, which was much more crowded and less scenic than the 52-hour San Francisco (Emeryville)-Chicago route. To make a batch, Son throws a handful of the roasted kernels into a strainer that fits into her kettle and brings the water just to a boil before turning the flame off and then discarding the corn. In case I wander into a Korean market when I'm back in the S.F. Bay Area, she wrote out the Korean spelling and pronunciation for me, below. I've also seen it transliterated as "oksusu cha," but Son's way is cuter:

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Dirty Tomatoes in the Bay

Meanwhile... back in California, Dirty Girl Produce has been unearthing some pretty suggestive Early Girl tomatoes from the fecund soil of the Santa Cruz "banana belt"--perhaps the perfect mates for Windfall's sensual carrots? Local WV correspondent Leafy Heirloom passed along this photo, making me suddenly homesick for the Bay Area's first cherry-red wave of my favorite tomatoes. Luckily, they'll still be going strong through September, so I won't miss them completely.

Early Girls are the very opposite of the sad, ambivalently red-orange, mealy, watery tomatoes that made me repeatedly push the offensive mess to the side of my plate as a child. Bright red, compact, and vibrantly flavored, almost sweet, these girls are the perfect weapon for converting tomato-haters. I am also intrigued by the way these in particular are grown through dry-farming, a pre-industrial technique of cultivating crops through strategic, limited water use instead of comprehensive irrigation. If you want to go agro on tomatoes and dry-farming, check out the ongoing Tomato Watch feature on the Oakland resturant Oliveto's Community Journal blog, in particular the interview on dry-farming with Dirty Girl's head Dirty Boy, Joe Shirmer.

My favorite part of the video is near the end when Joe describes how the increasingly parched tomato plants react in the wake of a heat wave that makes them bear fruit. He starts getting really excited and says, "They just kind of get stressed and hot and kind of go "uh!," throwing both hands up in a gesture that punctuates the "uh!" sound of the weary tomato plants blowing their last life force into these glorious ruby fruits. In case you missed it, I also had an intense tomato moment last September, during the first bloom of my crush on Early Girls...

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Sensual Carrots in the Big Apple

I'm still a bit shell-shocked from my recent train travels and from being led around New York City like a confused goat by my beer-drinking friends, so I can't really claim a full-on WV: New York City Edition at this point.

However, I did want to share with you what looks to be the prime candidate for Weird Vegetables' favorite New York farm stand: Windfall Farms at the Union Square Greenmarket near NYU. After slurping on some plums and doughnut peaches that were not quite as sweet as the offerings of Blossom Bluff and others back home and quietly grumbling over high prices for medium quality produce (but what do I know about what goes into New York produce? I'm just a West Coast bumpkin), my eye was caught by the strange vegetable denizens lying nonchalantly on the Windfall tables. The marker-drawn "sensual carrots" sign, plus their tagline "Unconventionally Grown Specialty Produce" further confirmed my sense that for these kindred spirits, weird is a good thing.

I learned from the Windfall man that sensual carrots like these are a result of rocky soil, as at their Montgomery, NY farm (in upstate New York's fertile Hudson Valley), so that each one contorts itself into these formations to accommodate its mineral companions. Kind of romantic, no?

Apparently the majority of New Yorkers haven't caught on that weird carrots are creatures to be highly coveted, so that Windfall feels the need to market the non-sensual orange-and-yellow Quasimodos at a discount (right), dropping them from $6/lb to $4/lb to $3/lb, which is what I'm used to paying for normal farmers' market carrots anyway.

The farm also has some very interesting sprout offerings, including sugary corn shoots grown from popcorn kernels...

...and purple radish sango sprouts, whose color comes from anthocyanin, the same antioxidant found in blueberries.

I also sampled the world's cutest baby cucumbers, these eye-poppingly tart Mexican sour gherkins, about the size of my thumbnail.

The "Try Me!" sign for the purple peppers below seemed suspiciously eager, especially since they were decidedly not sample size, though I did consider taking a bite out of one. I refrained for fear that "Try Me!" really meant, "Take me home for $6/lb!".

Not to be outdone by the outdoor market's weird vegetables, the Manhattan Fruit Exchange in the Chelsea Market hall was hawking Ugli Fruit for $0.99/lb, eagerly snatched up into the greedy squirrel clutches of my friend Gabrielle:

Satiated with food for the time being, we scurried out of there onto the recently renovated High Line promenade, a former elevated railway passage where graceful, weedy wild flowers and grasses now fill in the gaps between railroad ties, and stained-glass renderings of the Hudson River's hues give an ethereal feel to the brick factory buildings that the park walk runs through.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Weird Vegetables: Nevada City Edition

Composed on the train from San Francisco to Chicago, then to New York but posted in New York a couple days later...

As I chug eastward on the Amtrak rails, in search of New England weird vegetables, fireflies, and culture shock, my mind skips back toward the western frontier to linger for a moment over the July fourth weekend I spent in Nevada City for my friends' wedding (but it's in California! what?). My always-companion Erin came along and shared what was most likely a haunted room at the National Hotel, which toots its horn as the oldest continuously running hotel in California, open since the Gold Rush days of 1852. The whole town feels a bit like a Universal Studios Wild West set, with its Mine Shaft saloon, quiet, almost too-pristine streets, and brick building fronts dating from California's first glittering burst of urban concentration.
On Saturday morning, while I snoozed away in the saggy old iron-framed bed surrounded by flowered wallpaper and ancestral portraits, Erin was up and exploring the town. From our balcony she had spotted the tell-tale tents of a farmers' market and came back to rouse me for a vegetable adventure.

Our hopes were not high for a one-block market in a wilting-hot small town of 2,800, but as we strolled past a guitar strummer and various farm stands, I was struck by how meticulously arranged the produce displays were, with their carefully drawn up chalkboard signs and beautiful, well-selected produce.

It was all so... so... good-looking, so functional, so normal but in that TV normal way that makes you think everyone and everything is always supposed to look so fresh and clean and healthy. Even the farm people fit the ideal of my imagination: hippie-happy, earthy in a rosy-cheeked, sun-kissed way, not a farmster in sight (what I call the vaguely artsy urban farm stand worker whose aloof manner emphasizes your inferiority for having a less direct connection to the land's natural treasures).

The Four Frog Farm crew

Heaven and Earth Farm

The lovely ladies of Living Lands Agrarian Network

Not only did the Living Lands Agrarian Network have the most good-natured workers and very tempting produce, they also ran a stand across the way where we picked up some sourdough buckwheat pancakes topped with peaches and different kinds of mint. I was beginning to think we would have to make a special guest post for Cute 'n' Perfect Vegetables, when we happened upon this elongated creature lounging with the wee gherkins:

It touched a chord in my memory, and when I asked the farm stand worker for an i.d. check on this pale, ribbed growth, she confirmed that it was an Armenian cucumber, which I had formerly associated with a curved shape. Our excitement and my camera frenzy over the cucumber, as well as the nearby sunflower sprouts or sun sprouts, caused the young woman at the Heaven and Earth stand to ask, "So you guys just like weird vegetables?"

And BLAM!--our cover was blown. We introduced ourselves and our blog to Jess, and it later turned out that everyone else whose name we learned at the market was also Jess, or Jessie, or had a J name. I haven't pieced together the meaning of it yet, but it may yet come to me in a dream one day.

Offering further proof that strange and beautiful are not mutually exclusive qualities was a pile of gigantic Jabba the Hut romaine lettuce heads at Olala Farms (though originally grown at You Bet Farms). This Willie Nelson of a man, below, whose polo shirt's embroidered message read, "Older than dirt," was swaddling these heads in brown paper like flower bouquets for awe-struck customers and eagerly invited me to lift a plump specimen so I could experience its heft firsthand.

At Mountain Bounty Farm we talked a little berry shop (red berries ripen earlier in the season, April-May, whereas darker berries get sweet in the late summer months, we learned). They were so friendly and cheerful that I decided they would be receptive to a farewell pun, and said, "Have a berry nice day!" Turns out Jess of Mountain Bounty not only shares my love of weird, twisty carrots but is also a produce pun connoisseur and shared with us a joke she had learned that morning from an elderly man.

The customer shambles up to the stand and announces:
"I need the ingredients for a Honeymoon Salad."

"What's in that?" Jess asks.

Pregnant pause.

"Lettuce alone!" he shouts, then falls into hearty laughter, I imagine.

It seemed an appropriate prelude to the wedding we would attend later that day in a shady grove but not before taking a quick dip in a secluded swimming hole on the South Yuba River.