Mendo Island Journal — Timely. Useful. Sometimes Cranky.

Don Sanderson: Honey from a Weed

In Around the web on December 20, 2010 at 9:32 pm


They [the Tarahumara] know that every step forward, every convenience acquired through the mastery of a purely physical civilization, also implies a loss, a regression. – Antonin Artaud, “The Peyote Dance”

Patience Gray, the author of “Honey from a Weed: Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades, and Apulia”, 1986, writes that Artaud’s saying had graced her workshop for many years. For twenty years, she followed her sculptor companion searching for the next perfect block of marble in wilder regions of the Mediterranean that were yet hardly touched by modern conveniences. The foods and lifestyles about which she reminisces were very conservative, according to the old meaning of that term, hardly changed over hundreds of years but now nearing their last gasp. These people were closely tied to the land, the olive groves, the vineyards, the vegetable gardens, and fruit orchards chopped out of rocky soils yet thriving. Goats, sheep, and pigs were commonly raised and cheese produced. We would think of these peoples as very poor, yet they were nearly self-sufficient and life was often a communal celebration.

Gray characterized foods in each of these areas as being of wondrous complexity that had been developed over generations stretching beyond memory. The recipes she records and meals she describes are quite wonderful. Every aspect was made from scratch with the simplest equipment, especially with no electricity. A typical stove was a grill raised across a wood fire that had originated from gathered brush or chopped branches. Often there was a hook above the fire on which a covered pot could be hung. A domed earthen oven was also usually available for baking bread and various dishes. Water was typically hand carried from a not necessarily nearby cistern. Out of the kitchens came the famous aboriginal Mediterranean diet which typically relied during the cold months on pork – oh, no – and otherwise treasured high saturated fat sheep cheeses. Winter victuals become short in early spring, so the arrival of the Lenten fast justified what would otherwise be seen as want. Many dozens of cookbooks have been written attempting to convert these old ways to the modern kitchen, but nearly always the seasonal freshness and involvement with all aspects of ingredient production have been overlooked. Even their olive oil was pressed from olives they personally had gathered. The Mediterranean area is also graced with a remarkable number of aromatics such wild oregano, thyme, savory, sages, fennel, bay, and rosemary, as well as wondrous weeds, chicory, sorrel, celery, several members of the mallow family, and other similar leafy edibles.

While surely seafood was a major feature of those cuisines, otherwise they had nothing that can’t be recreated here – other than land availability. Oh, there is plenty of land here that hasn’t yet undergone the devastation suffered over the millennia by deforesting and over-planting as in the Mediterranean and we’re at the right latitude. The best land is unfortunately mostly owned by those who have no interest in the community other than a way to make money. Still, I remember Tito’s Yugoslavia where gardens were planted wherever there was an otherwise unused spot of soil. Marlene and I have hacked an amazing garden and orchard, at least we so think, out of rocky adobe that has never, ever likely been cultivated. We also have a high hill immediately to the west and overhanging valley oaks, so the site is far from ideal. Nonetheless, our ideal is to recreate to the extent we can at least a bit of the world Gray describes. I’d like to give you a couple related vignettes – curiously, “vignette” not only denotes a story but also a running ornamentation such as of vine leaves, tendrils, and grapes; this garden couldn’t exist, I confess, without plentiful composted grape pumice.

Much of the garden thrived this year and produced bumper crops, as they say. An exception, the fifty or so tomato plants grew luxuriously, but delivered few fruit until nearly the end of season. When the first frost threatened, Marlene picked several boxes full that were nearly all green. Some few were close enough to ripen that they have done and are still doing so in a cool place – maybe ripe tomatoes for Christmas from our own garden! What to do with the rest? I’ve always enjoyed chili verde, which is typically made with tomatillos. Last year, given the same situation, I had a brainstorm. Why not make green salsa with green tomatoes? A success. My recipe, sort of: We raised a big crop of hot chiles, so a pile of them was the first ingredient followed by onion, both briefly sautéed. The tomatoes were cored, cut into small pieces, and added to the pot with some water – they didn’t have much juice. We began with nearly eight quarts of tomatoes. As they slowly boiled down, we added more and kept stirring. After several hours of cooking, the tomatoes became quite soft. We added oregano and other aromatics and salt and cooked a bit more to combine. I then smoothed the mixture with a hand blender and the flavors were adjusted. Seven and a half quarts of wonderful stuff resulted, seven of which were canned and put in the cupboard. This will be the basis for chili, for cooking beans and grains, for meat sauces, on squash and pasta, combined with steamed greens, and other stuff I can’t think of at the moment. No wasted tomatoes! Yeh, I know, this is too late for you this year, but next fall maybe you’ll remember.

We had a huge, for us, crop of squash, a good one of beans, the spring potatoes did well, a promising trial crop of sweet potatoes, some promising and beautiful seed amaranth, and lots of leafy greens of various kinds. Several leafy greens have gone wild in the garden: chicory, bok choy, mustard, sorrel, amaranth, and chard grow and reseed here and there. The various mallows, hollyhock, forest mallow, and lavatera, that are scattered around and reseeding, are also quite edible as are the wild dock and miner’s lettuce. One marvelous crop we had this year was corn, not as sweet corn but for grain – we also had sweet corn elsewhere. This time, I was looking for large multicolored ears, which meant tall varieties. I planted eight promising varieties. Since there is no way I can keep them separate and preserve pure strains, I’m working for a land race resulting from crossing the best varieties adapted to this place. Success! Every color of the rainbow. Wonderful cornbread! Even better, follow the advice of Bert Green, add a few cups of greens, which have been steamed, chopped, and pressed free of excess moisture, to the batter.

The Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog has arrived. We’re rather fussy with our seed sources and primarily only buy from Baker Creek, Seed Savers Exchange, Sand Hill Preservation Center, and Bountiful Gardens. Baker Creek is the only source of which I know that guarantees their corn seeds are GMO-free. Organic seeds and foods are required to be GMO-free, but tests are expensive and seldom performed. Corn pollen spreads widely in the wind and almost all corn in the U.S. and Mexico has been found to have been corrupted. This is not just true for corn, but for many other vegetable crops as well. The claim that Mendocino County is GMO-free would be laughable if it weren’t so sad. Paul Mooney of the ETC Group in Canada was the keynote speaker at Seed Savers annual conference – ETC Group is one of the leaders in the anti-GMO drive. He reported that only a handful of companies now nearly control the world’s seed market, which happens to be the same handful that control the world’s pesticide market, all of which are involved in genetic modification technologies. For instance, DuPont is presently moving to create genetically modified plants that will withstand a weed killer that destroys everything else.

The big discussion now is about synthetic biology. Rather than haphazardly inserting genes into plant and animal genomes, the move is to create complete DNAs to order in the laboratory. DNA synthesizers look something like photocopiers. How about chicken, pork, and beef meat manufactured to order without the bother of raising animals. Mooney also reports that the big oil and chemical corporations are concerned that so much of the terrestrial biomass, all those bacteria, plants, and animals you see outside your window, is going to waste rather than being converted into energy and plastics. The U.S. Energy Department is heavily involved is funding research in these areas.

As yet another aspect, some companies are exploring genomes to isolate gene sequences they can patent, not because they find them to be useful, but because these sequences are common and they can charge or sue anyone who is selling or using any of the organisms that contain them. The story goes on and on. Some good news: many farmers in the U.S. and around the world are refusing to plant GMO crops, which is hurting poor Monsanto as an example, and one million Europeans recently signed a petition to ban such crops in Europe. Unfortunately, this may all be a matter of closing the barn door after the horse has escaped. If you must know more, ETC Group has free detailed reports available on their web site.

But, what good does it do you to know about these things or any other of the political and economic garbage that is being spewed? How does it change your personal life? Indeed, what is happening here is arguably only a symptom as is much of the stuff being hashed over in the blogs. If you have studied history at all, you surely must be aware that the mass of little people have seldom had any impact on the course of events and then, as in the cases of French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutions and the Spanish anarchist Republic, only for a short time – the American Revolution was a tax revolt by the wealthy and doesn’t count. Self serving hierarchies who wish to dictate to the rest of us seemingly naturally emerge in societies of almost any size regardless of the political or economic system. Examples are scattered all over Mendocino County both in business and government. Let me describe the dynamics.

In the late nineteen century, the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto noted that nearly every country’s wealth distribution followed a specific pattern. The usual way this is explained is by the so-called 80-20 rule: 20 percent of the population own 80 percent of the wealth; 20 percent of this 20 percent own 80 percent of that 80 percent or, i.e., 4 percent own 64 percent of the wealth; indeed, this pattern continues in ever finer detail, with 0.8 percent owning 51.2 percent and so on, with much of the wealth held by very few. The example ratio 80/20 differs for different countries at different times. In 2001, the American ratio was 84.4/20. Thanks to the Republicans’ tax cut, subsidize, and bale out policies, the ratio has surely become even steeper in the past nine years. 50 percent or more of this growth in wealth accumulation has been the result of investment in interest bearing accounts. According to recent statistics, 85 percent if the financial assets held by the very wealthy, which comprise about 50 percent of their assets, are interest bearing; the remainder are mostly in stock investments – additional non-financial assets include real estate, personal business equity, and collectibles. The technical description of this situation is that the wealthy have become rentiers, rather than entrepreneurs, and have little motivation to restrict debt growth – for others. Thanks to their immense salaries and bonuses, corporate CEOs are largely members of this class.

Two Frenchmen recently discovered a curious little algorithm. Suppose one is given some advantage over others by some whim of fortune, such as birth. Since such a person has less to lose, he is likely to risk more in an attempt to gain advantage, such as power or wealth. Of all of such that do, many will lose, but a few will win the roll of the dice and end up with more of an advantage, say 20 percent of the players. Those who have won now have an even larger advantage and are willing to risk more. Again, only 20 percent of these, say, win and go on to play the game again. Let us assume Lady Fortune is playing no favorites, regardless of how much or little talent the players may have. If this game is played many times, 20 percent will end up with 80 percent of the power or wealth. Further, of those 20 percent, 20 percent will gain 80 percent of that percentage. This Pareto Curve pattern will continue until a very few will have won the bank. What this percentage may be depends on the game. Of course this is grossly simplified, but the pattern seems clear. As long as we humans feel insecure, we will be attempting to grab more and more and a very few will win.

In my attempts to understand our situation, I’ve particularly been impressed by John Daly’s and John Cobb’s “For the Common Good,  Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future” and “Valuing the Earth, Economics, Ecology, Ethics”, a collection of articles edited by Daly and Kenneth Townsend, both of which I highly recommend. It was with this background and a hobby of reading histories that I happened upon Kevin Phillips’ fascinating “Wealth and Democracy,  A Political History of the American Rich”. Phillips documents how increasing wealth concentration and growth in a country’s debt led to the crashes of the earlier Spanish, Dutch, and English economic empires, in each case the sequel of failed colonial wars. Pareto curves get steeper and steeper, poverty grows and grows, and at some point the wealth peak collapses because its foundation, the sources of interest and rent payments, has been impoverished. Since wealth is sought wherever it is to be found, the impoverishment of the environment also goes hand in hand and is frequently implicated in the crashes – cf. “A New Green History of the World: the Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations” by Clive Ponting for fall by fall descriptions.

So, of what value is such information. Well, for one, if we personally insist on playing this game, we’re almost bound to lose. There is an alternative, maybe. Patience Gray’s peasants, who were certainly very poor by our standards and cut off from world affairs, lived quite well. Their land was also poor, so that the economic and political powers of the world had little interest. Gray describes them as being quite anarchic, which I found was usual for old-time dirt farmers of my acquaintance. Alas, the lure of the modern lifestyle was beginning to capture their young people as it has around the world. The fact is that such lives aren’t nearly as exciting, boring most would now say. How you going to keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree, as was sung about soldier boys returning from the WWI service, is not simple. It requires a mind revolution.

I watch the probably illegal Latinos pruning the vines and picking grapes in adjoining vineyards. Back and forth up and down the rows for several days they trudge with bent backs before moving to the next vineyard. No citizens or even legal aliens apply for these jobs because they don’t pay well and they are so repetitive, laborious, and boring; it is better to be homeless. I recall similar jobs back on my parents’ farm in simpler times and they don’t bother me much. For instance, our garden is hand cultivated, dug one fork full at a time, compost is spread one handcart load at a time, and so forth. Gray’s farmers did all the work on their not necessarily small farms and gardens by hand or, maybe, with the aid of a mule or ox. No mechanical tillers for them.

I usually assume the job of preparing fruit, which includes tomatoes, for canning. Given a chopping board, a knife, and a couple of bowls, pick up the next fruit, remove the core, stem, and any bad spots, cut in pieces, put the waste in one bowl, and what is to be canned in the other; one after another, box after box, for several hours. Each full bowl of good stuff is dumped into the cooker, which must be stirred every ten or fifteen minutes or so for several additional hours to avoid burning on the bottom. You may think based on your experiences in the markets that each fruit is identical to the preceding one, but real fruits picked from real plants are quite individual and attention is required. I can’t imagine most Americans tolerating such projects today, certainly not most of the younger ones. Here is the hard part: I don’t listen to music or think of much of anything but the project at hand – when the mind drifts, so does the knife. It could be said that I’m just being mindful of the moment. I find such projects relaxing and invigorating. I suspect that my experiences are not dissimilar to those of Gray’s neighbors or her sculptor companion. This is the mind revolution of which I speak.

Let me try to illustrate what this may mean. I’m an old nuts-and-bolts duffer chef who has greatly enjoyed attempted to understand the sources, methods of preparation, tastes, and combinations of possible foods from around the world – Marlene, my other, who is an excellent cook, mostly now treats us. The chef’s ideal is that, given a random pile of ingredients, one can create a gourmet meal. My first attempts began in the early seventies with the purchase of Edward Espe Brown’s “The Tassajara Bread Book”, soon to be followed with his “Tassajara Cooking.” Tassajara is a Zen monastery in Northern California and he is now a Zen priest, but still cooking. His surely wonderful “The Complete Tassajara Cookbook: Recipes, Techniques, and Reflections from the Famed Zen Kitchen” has just been released. There are probably thousands of books that have been published, with more constantly added, describing how to be mindful. Yet, his short essay in the March, 2010 Shambhala Sun entitled “Let Your Passion Cook” captured the practice more succinctly than I’ve ever seen. He describes his teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi teaching him to practice Zen in only a few words: “Zen is feeling your way along in the dark. If you do it with spirit, it will be perfectly okay. The most important point is to find out what is the most important point.”

Brown was having difficulty keeping his fellow workers working and took his complaints to Suzuki, who told him to “first look for virtue. What you look for you get more of.” Brown writes,

“Seeing virtue encompasses two aspects: the relative and the absolute. When you taste what you put in your mouth, you may notice sweet or sour, earthy or sunny, and along with these relative characteristics you can sense something essential, something from beyond. This something is not a thing. Go ahead and taste it – the virtue inherent in your careful, attentive, receptive experiencing of the moment. When your awareness is ‘in the dark’ and you are opening your perception, you can also taste your inherent goodness and the virtue of others working with you. You may meet sincerity, kindness, wholeheartedness, vulnerability, grief, anxiety, determination, stubbornness. And you may meet mind itself: vast and spacious. Awesome.”

But, as Brown notes, you won’t have this experience if you are busily attempting to be mindful while you’re chopping the carrots – instead, you simply chop carrots. Dogen, Suzuki’s and his great thirteenth century predecessor wrote many wise thoughts, one of which:

Coming, going, the waterfowl

Leaves not a trace.

Not does it need a guide.


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