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Posts Tagged ‘food’

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It’s a bustling summer day, folks jostling for the ripest melons or the freshest flowers, stalls bursting with color, smell, and texture as the crowd flows ever on. My list is long, and I’ve got lots to take in, and lots to buy, before the morning’s old.

A mandolin sings suddenly, gentle yet insistent, then a fiddler adds her strain — and all at once my cheeks are wet, some secret sadness welling up, massive and unknowable. Everyone I miss, or have ever missed, pulls at me like a black hole in the center of the farmers market. Their shades call me, and I dance along the unseen edge as the bluegrass wafts between the berries and the lettuces.

Why does bluegrass make me blue? It’s never been a genre I sought out, or one I really knew till a few years ago. Now it’s everywhere, part of the latest urban farming, homesteading, and crafting craze, and I can tell a hammer dulcimer from an autoharp at fifty paces. There’s something in it, like good old style country music, that grabs the heart and opens it, willing or no, and makes you listen. Why, it makes you wonder, is the world the way it is? Why do we create such madness, and inflict such pain? Why is he, or she, not here with me?

A singer joins in, and I notice others in the crowd sniffling, or wiping an eye as we all mourn our childhoods, our loved ones, the pure and pristine land and ways that might live only in our fantasies. It’s a sad and perfect day, sweet and bitter, and the music calls us all to dance along that narrow precipice. The berries and the lettuces will be waiting when the song comes to a close.

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This piece was aired as part of KQED FM’s Perspectives series on July 3, 2014. Listen here.

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Go beyond the market for a minute. That fruit you’re holding has a story, about work and care, sun and water. It’s also about the harvest, a dance of exploration, partnering, and purpose that changes and delights both parties.

First, as for any dance, you need the proper costume–here, that’s long sleeved shirt, long pants, and sun hat. Gloves are optional; I mostly go without unless I’m picking berries. Also, tools–not many, just a sturdy picking box or bag, and a light but trusted ladder.

Next, survey the scene and plot your choreography: what is the angle of the sun, and the set of the branches? Where is the fruit sparse or heavy, inviting or still green, smooth-skinned or bird-bit? Where will the ladder best be placed to reach this one, and then that? Where will the tree accept embrace, and where will it refuse? Once sure of your partner, set the ladder firmly and begin.

Every sense will guide you–sight for judging blush or hue, smell to catch a sudden waft of nectar, hearing for the creak and rustle of the tree echoing your movement, taste to spot check as the impulse strikes you. And touch–the last, but the most critical. Take the fruit in your hand and hold it, gently. Feel its heft, the firmness or slight give against your grasp, and ask the tree if it is ready. As you tug ever so slightly, she will tell you: ripeness falls to you like water into sand–softly, smoothly, silently. Resistance says perhaps tomorrow, but not now.

When the picking’s done, climb down and thank the tree. Is that her sighing, free now to begin another season’s work? No telling, but perhaps you’ll hear it as you bite into that peach.

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This pieced aired as part of KQED FM’s Perspectives series on 8/4/14. Listen here.

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It’s more than a bit ironic that my mother died, quite unexpectedly, only a few weeks after my last post. As you might imagine, that’s a lot to deal with….and I will address it here in a while. Blogging hasn’t been foremost in my mind the past few months as a result but light is beginning to creep over the horizon. Here’s a piece I wrote yesterday.

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Bambi is relentless. Oh, sure, he’s cuter than just about anything–especially when he’s new and tiny, all decked out in bright white polka dots. Those enormous, outsized ears, the tender inky nose twitching at the slightest hint of danger or excitement, the dark, moist, long-lashed eyes, and endless spindly legs would make anyone smile and coo. Anyone, that is, except a gardener.

Bambi, it turns out, has a voracious appetite–and he’s not alone. Mother, aunts, cousins, and siblings join him on patrol, irregular brigades of Bambis fanning out along the edges of the day in search of anything, and everything, that might be tasty or digestible.

I know this, of course, having shared my forest home with Bambi and his crew for years now. I’ve got deer fencing around my garden beds, and the fruit trees are in their own secure enclave. Other plants are deer-resistant, or ample enough to share. The yellow plum, for one, bears way more fruit than we can use, and Bambi’s welcome to the windfalls and whatever’s hanging out beyond the fence. I’m thankful that I have this wild and lovely space, and glad for our (mostly) peaceful coexistence.

Recently, however, I transported a young Meyer lemon tree and left it–overnight–outside the fence. After breakfast, I found it barely recognizable–every leaf, bar none, nibbled to oblivion, branches utterly denuded and forlorn. It was my own fault, to be sure, but every single leaf? Talk about a low blow!

Fortunately, the tree–which I immediately moved into the enclosure–recovered, and actually looks better now than before its run-in with the Bambis. And I’ve relearned a lesson about being a good neighbor–sometimes, it really is about good fences.

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In any language

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copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

One of the world’s oldest beverages, beer is mentioned in ancient Sumerian poetry, Egyptian texts, and Norse mythology. First brewed as early as 9500 BC, it remains beloved: after water and tea, it’s the third most popular drink worldwide. Though brewed primarily at home for millennia, these days most beer is commercially produced–a change that isn’t always an improvement.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

Like any devotee, I love to try new beers, especially when traveling. This often creates disappointment, but every now and then lightning strikes and I find a new treasure. On a recent trip to Brazil, I followed my custom and tried some of the local beers–produced by large national breweries–and found them devoid of character and charm.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

A quick internet search turned up a possible antidote, and a handful of us agreed to give it a whirl. The congested streets of Sao Paulo, a massive sprawl that covers over 750 square miles, hold many unlikely gems tucked between suco stands and airless shops crammed with cheap T shirts and bootleg DVDs. One such prize, in the center of Pinheiros, is Cervejaria Nacional–a small brew-pub that offers unpasteurized, preservative-free artisanal brews that are a welcome counter to the undistinguished ‘yellow beers’ found elsewhere.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

The entry level showcases gleaming steel fermentation tanks behind plate-glass, an enticing promise that draws visitors upstairs to the bar or restaurant. In the bar, we read the legends of Brazilian spirits Y-iara, Mula, Kurupira, and Sa’Si, as well as the Domina Weiss (the ‘woman in white’ of folklore the world over), and tried to choose among their namesake brews. Chalkboards on the wall displayed SRM (Standard Reference Measure, a scale of color density), IBU (International Bitterness Units–pretty much just what it sounds like, and a reflection of a beer’s ‘hoppiness’ ), and alcohol content for the current batch of all five house-produced beers on tap.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

The sampler, generous glasses of the whole quintet, sparked lively debate about our favorites, and of course required deeper exploration. Accompanied by spicy linguica, delicate farofa, light and crispy batatas frita da casa, tender cubes of polenta frita, and smoky vegetais grelhados, the weiss beer, IPA, and stout were savored by all as we discussed their flavor, color, and complexity. But for the melodic Portuguese being spoken all around us, and the fragrant remnants of the meal, we could have been in any bar, in any country, where beer is loved and celebrated.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

Beer, it seems, is a lot like love. True believers speak a universal language, understood the world over. Malt or malte, cor or color, bouquet or aroma, it’s all about the mystery, experience, and exploration. What happy combination of soil and sunlight, hops and yeast, malt and time, shines in your glass like jewels bright on velvet, and how will it compare to others that have gone before? You never know until you taste, and that anticipation is a sweet intoxicant….near as sweet, and timeless, as the beer itself.

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copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

Every gardener knows it, the special sadness that lurks in every season. It starts out small, so tiny you can easily discount it: no, it couldn’t be, I didn’t really feel that, that’s just crazy! But while you’re busy thinning out the seedlings, or hardening them off, or turning compost into beds with the new fork that fits your hand so perfectly, it’s there—waiting for you to look up, turn your head, let down your guard the slightest little sliver. That moment may not come for weeks, but one day you’ll be in the garden, in mid-summer, say–overwhelmed by squash and wishing it would just stop–when suddenly you’ll feel the wave wash and toss you like a bit of sea glass. Soon enough, you will know in that instant, and not be able to deny, it will stop, and the bounty you’re enjoying will be one more shade adrift in memory’s vast hall.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

That end, the familiar turn of seasons so rooted in us all, is certainly no mystery. We know it’s coming, it’s natural and inevitable, part of life’s cycles and all that. All things, and all seasons, must indeed pass. The knowing isn’t what hurts, though–it’s the feeling, and the letting go. The trick is to hold back the wave as long as you can, in whatever way you can.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

In late summer and early fall, that’s usually simple enough–there’s just too much doing to fret about the coming winter. Canning, drying, freezing, saucing, and pickling can fill a weekend faster than a wish, a thought, or a whisper. A long string of weekends can vanish into water baths, brine crocks, and slow cookers before you look up and realize it’s practically the holidays…again. And in any season, there are seeds to contemplate for the next: those tantalizing names and photos in the catalogues, with descriptions that lure and entice you, the eyes that are always bigger than your garden beds.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

Once the seeds arrive, there’s lots more to keep you occupied–readying the flats and warming trays, nestling each seed in its new home, tending the trays like a broody hen till the tender shoots are up and sparkling. Not long after, it’s time for thinning, then repotting up a size or two, and before long they’re ready to be snugged into the soil you’ve prepared so carefully. This takes a lot of planning, and serves as a natural transition between seasons when done skillfully.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

This year, though, I have no soft landing on the other side of summer. I’ve been traveling much more than usual, and perforce have found myself with less time for the garden–and for the succession plan that ushers fall out one door while winter steals in through the other. This isn’t a bad thing–quite the contrary–but it’s a definite departure (more on that as the time seems right), and sharpens the sadness I feel as the redwoods coat my deck with brittle castoffs and the days grow noticeably shorter. The air is crisp now, no longer languid with the lazy bliss of August or September, and the zucchini have indeed stopped: I ripped the vines out this very afternoon, after filling one final basket with bright, small jewels. As is their due, I will savor them, perhaps stir-fried with hot and sweet peppers, garlic, lemongrass, and Thai basil from the garden, and raise a glass to summer. The new season will find me hopeful, looking forward to the new life and challenges it will surely bring.

copyright 2008 Peggy Hansen

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copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

It’s easy sometimes to get caught up in the weaving and lose track of all the separate strands. Before beginning, each component was deliberately selected, and the pattern chosen thoughtfully. Hours have been devoted to creation of the tapestry–yet here you are, suddenly, amazed and speechless. How did you get here, and what on earth is going on?

I looked around my garden recently and had that very thought. What is this web, and who exactly is the weaver? It is I, of course; I readily admit it. The nature of the web, it must be said, is somewhat murkier. How have these elements been chosen, and to what purpose? They seem at best haphazard, testaments to impulse and my inability to resist a plant tag or seed packet promising interesting and delicious bounty. It started with a love of food, interest in self-sufficiency, and curiosity about what might be possible. From there, it’s expanded well beyond my first intentions. Plans have been cast out in favor of what sounds good to eat, or what’s at the farmers market–on the theory that what they grow here, I can grow here.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

Yesterday, I wrote a list of what I’m growing now, and it doesn’t seem entirely plausible–even to me–but here it is:

melons
sugar baby watermelon
hearts of gold canteloupe
early silver line honeydew

strawberries
Alpine
Seascape

beans
Roc d’or
Maxibel
Royal Burgundy

purple mizuna
rainbow chard
red Russian kale
Bordeaux spinach
carrots
peppers

red bell
yellow bell
thai bird pepper
habanero

mints
chocolate mint
spearmint
catnip

lemongrass
fingerling potatoes

Russian banana
La Ratte

onions
Walla Walla
California red
European long red

lemon cucumber
zucchini
garlic
tomatoes

Love Apple
Paul Robeson
Caspian pink
black Ethiopian
Jaune Flamme
green zebra

herbs
rosemary
thyme
sage
lavender
oregano
marjoram
parsley

chives
basil

Genovese
thai

blueberries

On top of this, add several young fruit trees that aren’t yet bearing, including:

Meyer lemon
fig
peach
pomegranate
persimmon

copyright 2010 Peggy Hansen

Admittedly, I have small amounts of each of these crops–and I’m still working at the concept of succession planting to ensure a steady yield throughout a given season. I’m testing the limits of available space, sun, and time…and my own energy. I know exactly how many bags of compost can be crammed into my Prius, and I’ve given up worrying about the cargo area being dirty. I’ve just ordered a movable electric fence, to surround the beds and keep out hungry critters. This summer, I’m envisioning a spacious greenhouse, maybe up by the garage, where I can get an early start on things and keep my seedlings safe and happy. And I’m pondering sites for a small chicken coop and run…but that’s a project for another year, maybe next year. Right now I’ve got my hands full, adding to the weaving at one end while keeping the other from unraveling. But my stomach’s full too, and I’m not going anywhere.

copyright 2010 Peggy Hansen

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copyright 2010 Peggy Hansen

Some have called farmers markets the ‘theater of the affluent’ but I beg to differ. Farmers markets, like most things, come in many shapes and sizes–as do their patrons. My local market, which just opened for the season this week after a winter we all feared would never cede the field, attracts a wide range of folk: old and young, well-heeled and food-stamp recipients, artists and laborers, who seem to have in common only their concern for food. Some fear the pesticides and synthetic fertilizers used in conventional agriculture. Some are foodies, seeking rare or heirloom varieties that simply can’t be found in supermarkets. For others, supporting local farmers is paramount. For others still, it’s an afternoon out in the fresh air, sun on their face and cares temporarily forgotten. For all, it’s about community. Like any community, it has some rules–and a few lessons to be learned. Herewith, my top 10.

10. Get there early. That young asparagus or crusty bread your heart is set on may sell out.

9.Bigger isn’t always better. This is never truer than for strawberries–who hasn’t been disappointed by the giant ones that look amazing but have little taste and dry, mealy texture? Next time, try their tiny cousins–unassuming and shy, but packed with aromatic ecstasy.

8. Enjoy the scene–and the scenery. Many farmers markets have live music, activities for kids, and booths with boatloads of fantastic flowers. Stroll around a bit, and take it in.

7. Get your business done, but allow yourself a treat. Maybe it’s shave ice, kettle corn, or an olallieberry turnover–whatever it is, buy yourself one thing that isn’t on your list. I guarantee it’ll make you smile.

6. Sometimes a trend is just a fad….and sometimes it’s a find. Last year’s darling, green garlic, has become a springtime favorite for many. The jury’s still out for me on this year’s craze, fava greens.

5. Scope out all the options–several vendors may be selling the same thing, but they’re not all created equal. Plant varieties, growing conditions, and other variables can make a huge difference in flavor.

4. Don’t be afraid to try new things. I’d never heard of red Russian kale till a few years ago, but now it’s one of my staples. And beet greens–they’re delicious, but who knew?

3. Talk to farmers. They appreciate your interest, and have great cooking and growing tips. Often they’ll remember you, and maybe even set aside a few choice favorites.

2. Don’t judge by looks alone–sure, scan for rot and bruises, but use your other senses too, especially smell. If you can’t smell a peach, you won’t taste it either. If in doubt, ask for a taste.

1. Be open to the moment. The seasons will speak, if you will listen.

copyright 2010 Peggy Hansen

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