Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009: The Year in Vegetables

Considering the fact that making lists is one of my favorite procrastination activities and that I look forward all year to the NY Times Magazine Annual Year in Ideas issue, it is something of a bizzarity that I haven't ever posted a Weird Vegetables year in review. I can only attribute it to lack of ambition and an aversion to making authoritative pronouncements (i.e. "2009 was the year of the squash. Most certainly. Indubitably.") But since I'm stuck in a cabin in Lake Tahoe with nothing better to do besides read Sherlock Holmes stories and howl at the moon while my family eats broccoli and iceberg lettuce, I thought I'd compile a list of notable vegetable moments from the year.

1. Michelle Obama's White House vegetable garden...

...sent the press into shock and awe back at the start of spring (ah, remember pea shoots and artichokes?) and since then, many others have been planting their own edible gardens. Michelle's green thumb must have left its imprint on the Queen of England, who installed a vegetable patch just three months after that infamous "hug," which was more of a hand pat on the back really.

As of the fall harvest, the White House garden team has plucked 1007 pounds of vegetables from their fertile plot (yes, the 7 makes it an auspicious and more random, hence real-seeming, figure). The winter garden is being done up in hoop houses that will keep the carrots, spinach, chard, lettuce, and mustard greens nice 'n' cozy, according to the White House blog. The only complaint I have to file is: Where's the kale?! Photo lifted from here.

2. Acceptance of weird vegetables (and fruit) into the EU

In a victory for weirdly wonderful produce everywhere, legislation repealing the EU's twenty-year ban on certain twisted, dwarfish, wonky, and otherwise "malformed" (how dare they!) vegetables and fruit went into effect this past July. The previous regulations had set standards for "normal" produce, dictating such silly rules as cucumbers must be "practically straight" (No queers! And that means you, Armenians and serpentines). Not only was the sale of these abnormal-looking specimens banned, but they were also prevented from being donated to soup kitchens or food banks, leading to the tossing out of 20% of the British harvest according to the Daily Telegraph.

Anyone who pays the least attention to cooking and eating knows that while freshness matters, looks don't necessarily correlate to taste and nutrition, and that twisty carrots can taste just as good as straight ones, if not better. Think of the pomelo, which reaches its sweetest only after it begins to deflate, and pomegranates that signal their juicy ripeness by cracking all over, thus marring their smooth exteriors. Unfortunately, some harvests are still beholden to these arbitrary standards, such as the non-bendy banana, which must be "the thickness of a transverse section of the fruit between the lateral faces," while "the middle, perpendicular to the longitudinal axis, must be at a minimum of 27mm (1.06ins)." My appetite ends when choosing produce becomes a mathematical word problem.

Read more about it from Nicola Twilley at Edible Geography (my newest food writer heartthrob!) and at the Times of London. Thanks to our occasional Internet mole Leafy Heirloom for dropping these links into the secret underground WV drop box before shuffling back to his tunneling.

3. Young woman diagnosed with lachanophobia...

...which means "fear of vegetables," originating in the Greek root "lachano," or "vegetable" ("lachanopolist" means greengrocer, the Oxford English Dictionary tells me).

In November, the Daily Telegraph reported that one Vicki Larrieux, 22, of Portsmouth, England, suffers from "panic attacks at the merest sight of a sprout or a pea." Her boyfriend is kind enough to help out with the grocery shopping, which is dangerous territory for Larrieux: "It is a bit of an ordeal to go to the supermarket because the veg is usually right by the door." Perhaps reading back issues of the Telegraph can give her some ideas on how to cure this truly tragic phobia. It was hypnotherapy that helped Krissie Palmer-Howarth, 61, a cabaret singer from Newhaven, East Sussex, overcome her lachanophobia back in 2006. Expect another variation on this theme in 2012, when the Telegraph again needs space filler and figures everyone's forgotten all about lachanophobia. Scary Alien vegetable creature found here.

4. The New England Tomato Blight

While traipsing around bucolic New England during my cool, wet, American summer, I became aware of the plight of organic tomato farmers there, whose crops were suffering from the blight, a merciless fungus whose rotten spores love the rain and travel the winds, reaching distances of ten miles in one day. It is the same disease that caused the Irish potato famine in 1845 (or the Great Famine), which brought so many shamrocked immigrants to this side of the world in search of healthy produce, among other things. This summer's outbreak was thought to be spread especially by blighted tomato plants sold to backyard farmers at big box stores (beware the wares of Wal-Mart).

So while we in California were basking in late summer and fall rubied heirloom tomatoes, our comrades to the east had to make due with the remaining fungicide-sprayed tomatoes and assorted substitute nightshades. Interestingly, it was community supported agriculture subscriptions (CSA boxes) that saved some organic farms from taking big income losses, since their customers had already bought into the harvest and accepted alternate produce. Huzzah! The above photo of Lindentree Farm of Lincoln, Massachusetts comes from the Boston Globe, which has more on the story.

5. "Junk" the Eggplant, a Canadian Idol is born

While tomatoes were decaying in the U.S. northeast, Canadian WV readers Paul and Carmen proved the agricultural pooh-poohers and garden plot naysayers to be FOOLS when they brought a velvet eggplant plant to successful fruition in Vancouver's cold and foggy climate this past August. Paul writes, "I hope these photos bring a laugh and inspire fellow gardeners to keep on digging." They sent in several photos of the eggplant they nicknamed "Junk," including the one above of their prized pet nestled lovingly in the crotch of an unidentified admirer.

Despite the connotations of his name, which stunted the early development of his self-esteem by making him feel the very opposite of precious and that he was interesting only in the cheapest of ways, Junk eventually made his way on the hardscrabble streets of Vancouver. A talent scout spotted his charisma, got him blingee'd out, and he's been on the upswing ever since, winning the hearts of Canadians from Toronto to Nova Scotia with his magnetic dance moves and sustainable lyrics. His fall Organic Hip-Hop Rainbow Funk Fest tour sold out in a matter of minutes, and he has plans to follow up his solo album Another Shade of Purple with a collaboration with American Idol's dreamy & dreadlocked runner up Jason Castro. All our congratulations go out to Paul, Carmen, and their Lil' Junk.


Happy New Year! And remember this in 2010: Eat vegetables. Weird ones. Lots of them.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Chapter 4: A Carnival of Squash

AND then Little Salt Bear and Red Pepper Bear emerged from the potted fern forest to find three kinds of winter squash lying on the dining room table. They had been laughing and singing songs about rabbits and field mice but now they stood hushed, their eyes big and round in surprise. For these were the very vegetables they had been looking for since leaving the cupboard in the middle of the night.

"Are these the--?" Little Salt Bear breathed, unable to continue, for fear and excitement mingled strangely in his hollow tummy.

"Yes, I think so." answered Red Pepper Bear quietly.

"They're so big," said Little Salt Bear with a quake in his little salt voice. "Maybe we should go back. What if mama wakes up and sees that we're not hibernating? We're gonna be in so much trouble."

"Shut up, stupid," said Red Pepper Bear. She sneezed violently. "You're such a 'fraidy cat. Be a bear. I've always wanted to meet a winter squash, but mama always makes us go to sleep before they get a chance to get harvested. Summer squashes are so pale and mushy. These ones look much less sentimental; they've got such thick skins."

"I don't know, Peppy," Little Salt Bear whimpered, backing away.

"C'mon, let's see what they're like," Red Pepper Bear insisted. "Besides, how are we supposed to be called omnivores if we don't eat everything?"

The pair of bears scooted forward in unison on their ceramic feet. The trio of squash were making merry amongst themselves, telling jokes like the one about what you get when you cross an earthworm with an aphid and guffawing over embarrassing moments from their immature days of vines and blossoms.

Red Pepper Bear, who was the bolder of the two as you by now have guessed, slid over to the one that looked the most familiar, almost like a summer squash, for its rind was bright like the sun and seemed somewhat softer than the others.

"Excuse me, are you a winter squash?" she piped up at the oblong vegetable.

"I'm a de-li-ca-ta winter squash!" it sang to the tune of "I'm a Little Teapot," and continued:

"Here are my stripes and here is my stem.
If you want to know how sweet I am,
Split me open and scoop me out!"

The little bears blinked in wonder. They didn't know what to ask next, but it was okay because the delicata was the talkative type:

"You see, people like to separate us squash into 'summer' and 'winter' varieties, but the only difference is that we 'winter' ones are allowed to grow for longer until our skins harden and we aren't so nice to eat unless we've been roasted. We also tend to keep longer, which makes us more valued during the winter season. Me 'n' acorn squash are in the same family as the summer squashes, Cucurbita pepo, but I have the softest rind of all the winter varieties. Some people even eat it! I'm so dainty, they call me 'delicata,' though some call me 'sweet potato squash' on account of my almost sweet potato taste. I'm so delicate and tasty, it makes me feel more special than all these coarser squashes, kind of like Smurfette in the middle of all those common little male smurfs."

"Oh, is that so?" interrupted the butternut. "To my eyes (if I had eyes), you look just like an everyday delicata squash, nothing special. I, on the other hand," the curvaceous gourd continued, turning toward the bear siblings, "am not only the most popular and sweetest winter squash, by many accounts--just think of all the times you've seen butternut squash soup, butternut squash puree, butternut squash gratin, etcetera, on the menu--but--BUT! Also. I am even more special because I am a kind of marbled butternut, an heirloom variation on the common beige butternut, grown at Balakian Farm." The squash leaned back and gave a little spin to show off its unusual striation. "Ta dum!" The two bears giggled at each other and clapped in delight.

Now it was time for the third winter squash to introduce itself. It had been watching the other two with a blank expression on its speckled face.

"And you?" asked Little Salt Bear in a voice that was just above a whisper. He was still a little afraid of the big squashes, but his curiosity made him go on. "What is your special quality?"

"Well," began the mysterious squash in an equally hushed voice. "People always ask what I am, but my farmers at Eatwell say I 'just grew.' You see, I wasn't really planned. My mama's an acorn squash and my pa's kind of, well, he's one of those 'festival' guys. I never really got to know him much."

"The others say behind my back that I'm not 'true to type,'" it continued, "that I'm a mutt squash because my parents didn't come from the same variety. You see, squash are what's called open-pollinated, so that their genes swap between plants on the wind, or with the birds and the bees, instead of being self-pollinated. Farmers don't always think highly of cross-pollination between varieties, especially when growing heirlooms, because they want their produce to have predictable qualities, so they keep the different squash segregated. But once my pa caught wind of my mama's blossom, she said, 'Send that pollen on over, darlin'!' and they didn't let no farmer come between them.

"Sometimes us hybrids come out all right, you know, like more resilient. We just can't pass down our line in the same predictable way that the purebreds can unless we've been cultivated for a long time. So I'm not really sure what I am. Maybe some kind of carnival squash. Or a love squash? But to answer your question, lil' bear, I guess you could say my special quality is biodiversity."

"Mm. Biodiversity," Little Salt Bear echoed. "Sounds lovely." Peppy nodded her agreement dreamily. Their shiny little hearts stood out warmly on their shiny little bear chests. They decided that they liked this carnival love squash best of all.

Red Pepper Bear was the first to break out of their vegetable reverie. "We'd better get back to the cupboard before Mama wakes up. Besides, I'm feeling sleeeeeepy," she yawned, then rubbed her little pepper eye hole.

Little Salt Bear agreed, as usual, and they waved their goodbyes to the squash trio and thanked them all for being so delightfully informative.

"But wait!" chirped the delicata squash. "Aren't you going to eat us first? After being cut from the vine, we're just suspended in this undead state--still vibrating with the residues of our former life force but not yet reintegrated into the great chain of being."

"Yes, please do indulge in the cozy delights of our orange-hued flesh before you go!" called the butternut.

"And put us to rest, dear little bears," added the carnival love squash.

The brother and sister bear looked at the squash trio solemnly, then at each other, and, as their little stomachs rumbled with hunger, knew it was a good idea.

They took a sharp knife and sliced open the three squashes.

The insides were certainly a sight to behold, especially the creamsicle flesh of the butternut squash. The bear pair busied themselves with scooping out the seeds and dropping them into the green compost bin (for they were going into hibernation and wouldn't have time to roast the seeds much less save and replant them). But it suddenly seemed so quiet and lonely without those jolly three chatting away. Little Salt Bear and Red Pepper Bear felt heavy, and their eye holes welled up. Little salt tears and little pepper tears rained down on the scooped out squash bodies.

Then, the bears put them skin side down onto a baking sheet, filled their cavities with fragrant garlic cloves and crushed sage leaves, poured a shallow layer of water onto the sheet so the skins wouldn't burn, and put them into the oven to roast at 400°F. After 45 minutes, they pulled the crisp, smoldering squash halves from the oven, scooped them into a saucepan that had been heating a generous slice of butter and mashed the squash together with 3/4 cup of milk and more butter. Each one cried a few more salt and pepper tears into the mixture, but the smell of it was so delicious, they forgot their sorrow and began to lick up the puree until they felt as though their bellies would pop and an orange-yellow flood would burst out of their eye holes.

"All gone!" said Red Pepper Bear when they had licked the pot clean. Little Salt Bear answered with a contented hiccup. Then they linked arms and climbed back up to the cupboard, opened the door slowly so it wouldn't squeak, and tucked themselves up next to Mama's warm furry belly, nestled between the soy sauce and the agave nectar. And they had the most wonderful squash dreams all winter long. Zzzzzzzz.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Bea My Eggplant

After all the excitement of being a newsy (for approximately 20 glorious minutes before my stack of S.F. Panorama's disappeared into eager hands; all 1,500 of the $5 street copies sold out in a heartbeat on Tuesday) and of admiring a whole page of the most lovely weird vegetables, I needed to find something else to keep up the high. Enter Bea, the scrumptious offspring of my friends Kathy and Drew. Here, she merges an overwhelming number of my favorite things: anthropomorphic vegetables, velour, crafts (mama made the costume! Oops! Correction: mommie didn't make the eggplant, but she did craft the other two below), the color purple, the color green, funny jester hats, epaulettes, pantaloons, cuteness with an attitude à la Yoshitomo Nara's fierce kiddies.

Lil' Bea can claim both Japanese and Korean before the hyphen to American, and so for the past three years, her parents have amused themselves and their child's fawning public by dressing her up for Halloween as variations on a theme in Bea that traverses the borders of language and food. Most recently, above, we have NasuBea, or nasubi, which is Japanese for eggplant.

Last year, she sizzled as E-Bea Furai, or ebi furai (Japanese fried shrimp):

And she was just a wee giggling bay-Bea when she made mouths water as Gal-Bea, better known as galbee (or galbi or kalbi), a marinated Korean short rib.

I know I'm supposed to be a vegetable person, but I must admit that Bea's getup makes me nostalgic for walking out of Brothers BBQ (officially Brothers Restaurant, and Brothers II) on Geary Boulevard with my hair smelling like smoke and my belly stretched tight. Still, I hope that her mother will consider sticking with the vegetable theme next year, perhaps spicing it up with Wasa-Bea?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Paper delay!

Hello brave vegetable lovers! If anyone is running around the frozen streets of San Francisco looking for the McSweeney's newspaper, the SF Panorama, it's been delayed a few hours (you can't rush wildly ambitious 3-lb. "newspapers"). So my shift on the corner at 24th St. and Sanchez is looking more like early afternoon. In the meantime, amuse yourself with this primly festive piece on decorative gourds from McSweeney's Internet Tendency.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Extra Extra: McSweeney's Vegetables

Next Tuesday, December 8, will be a very special day for San Francisco and for newspapers, and for San Francisco newspapers, as it marks the triumphant debut of the San Francisco Panorama. This one-time newspaper is an homage to the possibilities of print journalism (hurrah!) orchestrated by writer Dave Eggers's publishing force McSweeney's and appears as the fall issue of the McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, which usually takes shape as a more strictly literary journal.

This paper's going to blow your mind, with pieces from writers such as William Vollman, Robert Hass, Miranda July, Michael Chabon, Junot Diaz, and comics from Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, and Alison Bechdel (she's one dyke to watch out for!). It's going to weigh three pounds (like a healthy blue hubbard squash) and have a gigantic book section and magazine, but will also run more traditional news, including an expose of the Bay Bridge rebuild by Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Bob Porterfield. The SF Chronicle and NY Times have both been covering it in anticipation, and the Chronicle plans to reprint some of the pieces. To get a taste of the beautiful design and thrilling content of the Panorama, check out this preview.

I also invite you to grab a copy (more on how below) and open it to the spectacular food section, masterminded by Chris Ying of McSweeney's and meatpaper. The section will have eye-popping, brain-twisting, and mouth-watering (or appetite mauling depending on your preferences) pieces on weird and scary meats (pork belly butchering, cooking your road kill), a ramen how-to by Momofuku's David Chang, but also a taste of Weird Vegetables in print--an article I contributed that highlights unusual fall produce then digs a little more deeply into the roots of farmers' markets and alternative, organic markets in San Francisco. It will be lushly complemented by some unusual vegetable art sprung from the hand of my fellow vegetable enthusiast, graphic artist Aron Bothman (you should see the terraced garden he planted in his Noe Valley backyard--appearing soon on WV!).

You can pre-order a single issue for delivery for $16 either through the Chronicle here or directly from the McSweeney's store.

BUT WAIT! If you're super cheap like me and also prefer to put your feet to the pavement and actually walk somewhere to purchase something, and you live in the Bay Area... then you can buy your copy on Tuesday for just $5 (which really is a steal considering all the full color pages) either on a street corner or at a bookstore. McSweeney's has set up an elaborate google map listing and allegedly will provide twitter updates (where on twitter? don't ask me, facebook is the most I can manage) that will inform you of where you can buy your Panorama from either a volunteer newsy or bookstore.

AND! AND! sorry to keep shouting at you in all caps, but I'm really too excited about this bit--Aron and I are joining forces to occupy our very own corner of Noe Valley to hawk newspapers dressed in our most valiant newsy rain gear (there's a storm a-brewin', say my bum knee and the meteorologists). Find us on the early morning side of the day until around noon at 24th St. and Sanchez (the corner with the liquor store on one side and that fancy chocolate shop and Astrid's Rabat Shoes For Men across the street). My beloved Phoenix Books (where I used to work and get the best books and have lots of satisfying conversations) will also be selling the paper just down the street at 3957 24th St.