Sunday, July 18, 2010

Cloistered Vegetables

There are times when the vast, debauched machine of the metropolis becomes too much for the mere creature of flesh and blood and even the city-bred must seek refuge from its vertiginous glass-and-steel modernity and subterranean velocities. In the northern reaches of heat-struck Manhattan, I found a garden oasis and the unexpected blooms of a well-known vegetable. Do you recognize it?

A friend's offhand suggestion led me to the Cloisters, a medieval outpost of the Metropolitan Museum of Art built in 1938 as a composite of French monasteries from the twelfth through fifteenth centuries to house their collection from that time period. After picking up another friend's Schwinn cruiser in Harlem, I cycled carefully in the bike lane up Frederick Douglass through Washington Heights to Fort Tryon Park, where I visited the museum and then napped on a park bench overlooking a flower garden and the Hudson River, undisturbed except for the occasional falling leaf or passing jogger (the greenway bike path along the Hudson was a good downhill route for the way back).

Wandering in the mercifully air-conditioned galleries among busts of saints and sculpted ramblers was a balm to my sweltering spirits

and I was soon ready to venture outdoors again for the Cloisters garden tour.

The tour was delightfully laden with vegetable lore, but before that I learned that cloisters are "quadrangles enclosed by a roofed or vaulted passageway, or arcade," common to monasteries, and that a garth (Garth? yes!) is the square or rectangular courtyard that these passageways surround. The tour takes you through the three museum gardens, with a brief visit to the woven plants in the famous unicorn tapestries, which I know from a long-ago furtive and absorbing interlude with Tracy Chevalier's historical romance The Lady and the Unicorn.

The three gardens are the Cuxa Cloister Garden, which is modeled on the medieval pleasure garden (full of flowers and sweet-smelling plants), the Trie Cloister Garden, which is meant to resemble a wilder mix of meadow life and evoke the millefleur pattern (thousand flowers) of medieval tapestries, and finally the Bonnefont Cloister Herb Garden, which is planted according to "a ninth-century edict of emperor Charlemagne, naming 89 species to be grown on his estates," as the brochure tells us. This last garden was where my weird veg antennae starting twangling in all directions, as we admired the white pompoms of the leek blooms pictured at the top (did you guess correctly?) and all sorts of MAGIC PLANTS.

I've always preferred magic to the disenchantments of modern science, except of course for when my health is on the line and the medieval medicine man suggests a dose of herbs followed by bloodletting. This magical patch included mandrake, sweet basil, Italian arum, vervain, the poisonous thornapple, and St. John's wort.

Apparently, witchy activity reaches its peak during the hot summer months, so St. John's wort (left), which blooms around the time of the solstice, and vervain were thought to ward off the nefarious antics of demons, witches, and fairies.

It wasn't surprising to learn that many monks preferred to eat raw vegetables, out of a sense of asceticism, though I hadn't ever pictured monks munching on radishes before. They also preferred their salads more on the bitter side than most present-day Americans, mixing in strong herbs, like sage and rue.

But what did astound me was that the intricate scenes of the 16th-century unicorn tapestries were dyed with colors from only three plants: weld for yellow (left), madder for red, and woad for blue. There was so much more that I learned but I'll let you take the tour for yourself. Or the botanically curious but far from New York can read the very informative blog that the gardeners write called The Medieval Garden Enclosed.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Freshening Up

Eep! Close the dressing room door puh-leaze! Okay, Erin and I have been thinking about freshening up the site for awhile now--you know, painting the walls, getting rid of dingy furniture, musty books, wilted carrots--and I'm experimenting with rearranging some things. But... being a total techno RUBE, I seem to be doing it all live, with no real hidden staging area, so please be patient with us as the site kind of freaks out and throws your google reader for a loop. Then we'll all adjust to the change and feel like we've got a new perspective on the world, an added zing in our daily routine. And I'm working on commissioning or doodling up a new Weird Vegetables title banner (illustrated perhaps? any volunteers?), so that too might be getting all crazy on you in the next couple of weeks. Patience is appreciated in the vegetable universe.

Here, have this nice toast with hot pink beet spread to calm your jangly nerves. I got it from the co-op in Ann Arbor back in March. Wouldn't that make a rad lipstick color? Hot Beets! I think Nars should do it.

Addendum 7/17
Inspired by this age of full disclosure and reality TV, twittering facebooks and 24-hour cable news, I thought I would share with you the real story behind this overnight redesign (though it is true that Erin and I have been talking about it for awhile now). Despite the rainbows & sunshine song and dance routine I perform for the world, my kale levels do dip dangerously from time to time, as when I'm traveling alone and poring over papers in archives for many many hours at a stretch and that's when I do things like this. My email to Erin explains:

Hey Erin!

I got obsessed with the new site design tool and did a bunch of sprucing up last night. I hope that's okay! It's like that thing where you're lying in bed staring at the wallpaper staring at the wallpaper staring at the wallpaper and all of a sudden there are terrible little naked figures crawling up and down it and you're starting to lose your mind and you feel like either it goes or you do. So I had to motivate and change it up a bit. Thoughts?

[blah blah, other things I wrote to her, etc.]

I loaf you!


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Miner's Lettuce

In a cavern, in a canyon,
Excavating for a mine
Dwelt a miner forty niner,
And his daughter Clementine.

One day, Clementine looked at her pa, who was lookin' rather run down and pale, and said, "Pa."

"Yes, darlin'?" he replied.

"I been thinkin'..."

"'Bout what hon?"

"'Bout how you been lookin' mighty pale lately, kinda worn out and your teeth've been fallin' out. Kinda scurvy like."

"Well, you might be right about that. I been feelin' right low lately. Thought it was all that fool's gold I been turnin' up near the mill. Nothin's been pannin' out."

"Pa, what I think is, I think you been eatin' too much baked beans and sourdough bread. And not enough greens."

The miner cocked his head and scratched at his dark beard, frowning. Clementine hurried out the back door of the shack and stooped down in the grass to gather what looked like tiny, bright green lily pads hanging off long stems, each one with a sprig of dainty white flowers at its center. Back in the kitchen, she took the bunch from her apron and laid it down on the table in front of her pa.

The miner leaned over to inspect the offering. His scalp was sunburned under his thinning hair and the back of his neck was creased in dirt. "Aw hell, woman," he spat between chapped lips. "This condition o' mine ain't nothin' some whiskey and sardines won't cure. Them greens're for rabbits 'n' little girls." But upon seeing her stricken face, he relented. "All right, darlin', don't you cry, I'll try a few. Just ta please you."

And as he tasted this humble weed he'd looked at without seeing a thousand times on his way past the pines down to the river, his eyes lit up. "Well, I'll be damned, missy. That stuff's like a little burst o' lemon rain. That's real nice, yes indeed."

Clementine beamed and handed him a tin cup of water to wash it down. She knew if he kept eating that funny lettuce, he'd perk up and their salad days as a family might last just a few years longer. She wasn't ready to be married yet to one of the rough young men who came whistling round after dinner to catch a glimpse of her pretty face and tried to make her smile with their crude jokes.

It wasn't too long before the other miners took a liking to this surprise salad that contained the kind of vitamins their bacon didn't (namely "C"), and once again, scurvy belonged solely to the pirates.

Dreadful sorry to Clementine, but the native Americans were onto this green trail munchee long before the miners got credit for it.

Once upon a time it was called Indian lettuce, though also favored in English cookery, as Mary Elizabeth Parsons recounts in her 1897 book The Wild Flowers of California:

The succulent leaves and stems are greedily eaten by the Indians, from which it is called 'Indian Lettuce.' Mr. Powers, of Sheridan, writes that the Placer County Indians have a novel way of preparing their salad. Gathering the stems and leaves, they lay them about the entrances of the nests of certain large red ants. These, swarming out, run all over it. After a time the Indians shake them off, satisfied that the lettuce has a pleasant sour taste equaling that imparted by vinegar. These little plants are said to be excellent when boiled and well seasoned, and they have long been grown in England, where they are highly esteemed for salads.

Some might call it a weed, but this relative of purslane that grows in abundance almost everywhere you look in Northwestern park land is taking gold from fools at the Ferry Plaza Market for $6/lb. The Presidio and Golden Gate Park have great, secluded patches for the discerning eye to find. But if you don't have the inclination to wander among the trees instead of among tourists and/or you have a phobia of dog pee (or ants), then you should try the impeccable "wild-crafted" specimens at the Marin Roots farm stand.

Erin and I found this miner's lettuce growing in a small cemetery in Forestville, near the Russian River. Their souls are lost and gone forever, but the grasses and flowers grow so sweetly over the gravestones and the spiders weave webs between the trees that glisten in the fairy light, so that the mournful mind is made quiet by the scene.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Fort Greene Veggies

This morning I woke up with ambitions of heading down to Prospect Park and the big Brooklyn farmers' market at Grand Army Plaza then hopping over to the Brooklyn Museum of Art to catch my hero Kiki Smith's show but was feeling a bit groggy from yesterday's daytime dissertation-writing bender (overpriced cheap white wine and other low-level toxins were helping me face down my demons--we all need drastic measures sometimes) and a night of hopping around New York that ended in watching the most incredible SPAZZ performance I've ever seen: Khaela Maricich of The Blow and formerly of the Microphones singing solo at Joe's Pub. It was like watching a speed-freak do karaoke while breaking into occasional trip-hop dance moves. And then she sang the sweetest song to her girlfriend who was sitting up in the balcony. And talked about writing a song for Britney Spears to sing before taking off her t-shirt and twirling it around her head while jumping around in a black unitard. She is so amazing.

But back to vegetables--after being dragged out of bed by the potty needs and beseeching eyes of two naughty-cute dachshunds that I'm dog-sitting in Clinton Hill, my weary self decided to stay close and visit the Fort Greene greenmarket, which happens at Fort Greene park and near a big Saturday flea market. After picking up iced coffee at Choice, which is connected to the Choice Greene bougie grocery a block away (think Bi-Rite) where I've already splurged on Point Reyes blue cheese, and then running into a San Francisco acquaintance who has an inspiring design blog that is much prettier and more read than this one, 2 or 3 things i know [insert comment about it being a small world and how Brooklyn=the Mission and you're a fool for thinking you could hide out here and be anonymous], we waddled our way down to the park.

One thing I'm finding about New York is that it just wears me down too much to try to stick to my usual produce principles, as well as those of cooking over eating out. So here I often just buy vegetables and fruit that look good without taking the time to ask as many questions as I normally do. (And it's hard to dawdle when you've got two hotdogs on a leash that anyone could step on or stroller-smash at any moment.) But I'm also finding that information at farmers' markets isn't as accessible as at the markets I usually go to back in San Francisco, so there's less information about certification or growing practices, while the people working the stands seem unused to customers asking these kinds of questions, often responding with vague answers and question-mark faces, though not always. I guess it's more like shopping at the Alemany and Heart of the City Civic Center markets than at the Ferry Plaza or Noe Valley markets. One stand at the Fort Greene market had a sign that said "certified naturally grown" but I wasn't quite sure what that meant--I promise to investigate next time.

The most interesting things I picked up were lemon cucumbers, pea shoots, and garlic scapes, which are a bit tougher with more bulbous tips than the dainty green wands that appear earlier in the season (see top photo; peashoots are above left). Fruitwise, I was quite taken with the gooseberries and with the clever little red hairnet covers the farm had to cap off the pint box. I don't think I've ever seen gooseberries on the west coast. They're like sour grapes with a sweet tinge, and have the most wonderful tiny watermelon stripes running down their translucent spheres. The farmstand man said people often make jam out of them and then wrinkled his nose at me (but in a friendly way) when I suggested popping them had a similar shock-effect as taking shots of kombucha. Today, I write with the power of kombucha--only a low level of alcohol, though still too much for the finger-wagging Puritans at Whole Foods, it seems.

I get the feeling that the tone of this post is veering toward the spastic, with even more run-ons than usual. The heat and intense bouts of writing about poetry and trying to do too much in general is melting my brain I think. Oops!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Eastern Veggie Kin

More on this greeeeen soup to come, but first: I'm out in New York for a July soujourn and trying to stay cool in this record sweltering heat (it broke 100 degrees yesterday and no Italian ice could console me). Of course the thing I always miss most from the West is the produce, though I've been able to find some nice greens and peaches at the Union Square farmers' market and will investigate the Grand Army Plaza market just north of Prospect Park in Brooklyn on the weekend.

Touching down in New York always seems to generate a certain amount of bumpkin confusion on my part, mainly in the areas of housing, transportation, and feeding myself. On this last area, I realize I've become a special-needs eater almost by accident, just from becoming so used to having ready access to perfectly ripened, organic, mostly locally grown produce year-round and also being able to glean lots of information about where most things I eat come from or how they were raised and produced. At this point my eating restrictions (tending toward fresh and unprocessed, mostly vegetables, grains, and fruit) are less a matter of weight or ideas of healthful eating as the even more urgent fact that my body begins to rebel (getting into bouts of cranky sluggishness) after ingesting too much airport food and last-minute greasy goodies because I got too tired and hungry to wait for the local co-op or natural foods store to present itself.

After some initial question marks about subletting, I felt very lucky to have landed in a Harlem house-sit (sweet friends of friends) for my first thrilling week in the sticky gray capital of pigeons and highrises, where there was not only homemade purple cabbage sauerkraut and home-brewed kombucha (two mothers, bless their souls!) but also food composting. The intrepid couple who so graciously opened their home to me had taken it upon themselves to start a compost bin in their backyard, cleverly stowing the kitchen scraps in the freezer until ready for transfer. My hosts-in-absentia also tipped me off to Strictly Roots, a West Indian vegan soul food eatery a couple blocks away, where the motto painted on the wall mural declares, "We serve nothing that crawls, walks, swims or flies." They had run out of food by the time I got there, just before 9pm, but were jolly enough to flirt like mad and dish me up a to-go box of random, delicious scraps (sauteed veggies with curry sauce and yuba strips), plus a slice of strawberry cake, on the house.

Adding to the wholesome glow of kindred vegetable spirits was another encounter I had at the Westside Market over by Columbia University to the west of where I was staying. Lingering in the prepared soups section, I fell into conversation with a white-haired, bespectacled man about the merits of the cucumber-spinach versus the cucumber-avocado chilled soups. In a leisurely manner, we discussed the potential heaviness of the spinach, wishing that it was dill instead, and wondered about the yellow-tinged color of the pricier avocado blend. I settled on the darker green, shown above with dollops of the tangy homemade sauerkraut and some thick plain yogurt. Surprisingly, the spinach taste seemed to have vanished under the more dominant cucumber tone, adding mainly its thick texture. The coolness of the soup was a balmy noontime break in the throbbing heat.

Of course, by the time I finished shopping, another older man had shouted at me to "Move!" out of his way, which shook me up a bit, though perhaps it wasn't so different from a similar soul at Berkeley Bowl who might grumble even worse things at me into his or her groceries in lieu of shouting into my face.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Dropping Veggie Knowledge

So, the other day, during a routine procrastination check of the site meter, I had to do a double take when I noticed our daily hit count for June 21 was listed at an eye-popping 588 (it's usually around 70-80 per day). Conducting some basic cyber sleuthing, I tracked the sudden spike back to the online intellectual gymnasium known as Mental Floss (also in print!). Turns out that the topic of Monday's fun fact quiz was Obscure Veggies, and the final question borrows a mysterious veg photo from our very own WV Quiz the Third. I freely admit that I only answered 7 of 9 questions correctly, but that I did at least get that last one right. If I had known it all, I might have been forced to question the need for further weird vegetable research via this self-educational vehicle (aka blog).

Take a shot at flossing your mind and check out how many green bits you can get from between your folds of gray matter.

And here are our own WV quizzes I and II.