Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Labor of Fruits

We tend to think heroes are soldiers fearless in the fire of war or pilots with stoic skill that gets a dying plane on safe ground. We give ticker tape parades to guys who stay at bat to win a World Series and gold to those who zoom fastest down a snowy cliff. But what do we give besides a shrug to the farmer who year after year battles the onslaught of killing weather, the plagues of bugs and fungi, and backbreaking labor to get food to our home plate?

I personally think it’s awesome that twice a week at dawn Dick Keough still drives 25 miles to my local farmers’ market to set up a canvas canopy and chat cheerfully with customers who wander in to eye what he can display. For more than two decades, Dick has been the market’s “fruit man,” the go-to guy for whatever in this icy climate grows on trees: cherries, peaches, plums, pears and especially apples. Apples is actually his email name and he’s earned it over the years by showing up between mid August and late October with at least a dozen different kinds of apples you’d never see in a supermarket: Paulired, Tolman, August sweets, old-fashioned Baldwin… . Dick is the one who warned me—and lost a sale doing it—not to buy cider until the apples have been hit by frost. He knows fruit and is so sure of what he produces, he is always giving away samples. The apples he hands over claiming are delicious are not that ubiquitous mushy, tasteless, bumpy- bottom corporate one named Delicious to trick you.

I am a longtime fan of Dick’s plums and peaches as the key to great jam, crisps and tortes, so loyal that I once spent two frantically frustrating hours breaking all the gadgets in the drawer and slicing through my fingers trying to pit a shopping bag overflowing with his first crop of Damson plums (think fancy English preserves in a jar with the royal crown on its label, as I was thinking) because they were olive size. But I forgave him, because that was the year he started showing up with my most favorite apple: the hard to come-by, Mercedes of eating, “winesap.” If Snow White’s wicked witch held one out to me, I’d come hither and bite. I’m that foolish for its tart crunch and sweet juiciness—especially accompanied by a sliver of hard, salty cheese. I am in fact so foolish and they are indeed so hard to find, I once paid Dick to ship a box to me in California. And he took the trouble to do it because he knew how much I loved his fruit and had got used to shipping apples to his daughter after she left for college.

Depending on Dick as I do for my jam, pie and snack fruit makes me blurt at the sight of him back under his canvas canopy at the early May market some really burning questions: “How are my winesaps doing? Will there be lots this year?... And will you have apricots in August so I can make a tart?” Last year there were no winesaps because weather nipped them in the bud. There were no apricots either due to too much rain, and the year before there was only one half full shopping bag, which he gave me as a thank you present for my loyalty.

I cringe waiting for Dick’s answers to my eternal questions, having learned by asking them year after year that his life and livelihood is a crapshoot whose dice are heavily loaded against him. The odds on Maine weather were never all that favorable but climate change has made them hellishly insurmountable. We have no winter snow or a summer of monsoon rain. We have drought compounded by unprecedented heat, which brings new insects that just love new taste sensations. Or there is too much snow and thus too much melt that rots roots or cold that won’t quit until the end of June when it’s too late for trees to set their fruit.

Dick has orchards of lovingly tended trees hostage to circumstances beyond his control. Yet last week he was smiling, optimistically fussing with his display of lettuces when he said: “It’s all over, the apple business. No winesaps, no anything. Last year that surprise May frost killed all the fruit that set in the unnaturally warm April— peaches, apricots and all my apples. This year, I guess they were so weak from being off their clock, they’re all diseased and I don’t have $5,000 to bring them ‘round. I’m over 60 now and told my wife, we’re just too old to borrow money for something like this. There’s just no telling any more.”

“But the plums…those incredible jam plums…”

“Gone, all but the American kinds. Anything with a Japanese strain in it got hit hard by fungus. So, no, no Japanese or Italian plums this year either. …I will have sour cherries but they’re already sold to hotels, so I won’t have any here. No fruit this year, I guess,” he shrugged. “But I’ll be here anyway. Right now I’ve got lettuce, rhubarb and my daughter’s baking,” he added with a proud smile. “I’m gonna get through the season like I always do. I’ll have something. Don’t you worry.”

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Making sunshine

I spent yesterday morning slogging jet-lagged through an unseasonably cold, hard rain to hunt and gather my way home from the airport. Frankly, it was a pain to bundle up and wade through sodden parking lots at three different food markets and a wine store, especially after a night of flying through the air without sleep, but provisioning is my passion so each stop actually made my day brighter. I drove the last miles home buoyed by amazingly sunny thoughts that beat back my weariness with giddy joie de vivre.

From the CD player in my car, Paul Simon was singing: "So beautiful or so what? Life is what you make of it”, and I had just made of mine a feast. I had laid my hands on and thus laid in fruity olive oil, fresh local cheese, crisp and salty nuts, luscious Kalamata olives, freshly plucked sweet Vidalia onions, thick and willowy dill, warmly aromatic bread, densely molten chocolate cookies, simple wines, darkly roasted coffee and, for a $5 splurge, a flashy spring splash of red tulips. As soon as I got home, a dear friend who I hadn’t seen for more than half a year would come to share all this with me. We would sit at the table with red tulips, sipping, sampling, savoring this time to be face to face uninterruptedly catching up. This is the best friend I have for, as they say, chewing the fat, one of the rainy day people to depend on.

Food, friends, flowers…how much better can life get?

I was putting my provisions in place when my friend showed up in her boxy red Scion. “I’ve been to the market,” she hollered as she got out, “even in the rain. I had to get good stuff because it’s you.” In she came with an overflowing tote and out came a container of freshly picked Maine crabmeat, handmade pepperoni, soft and dazzling white herb marinated cheese “from a new creamery you need to know about”, and a large bag of lettuce “which I made Dick cut right off the plants he was selling in pots. He did that when I said it was for you.”

My little house had magically become a treasure chest of great riches. I fussed with coffee and poured mineral water into wine glasses while my friend fixed a meal of fresh crabmeat with dill and chives, miraculously renewed in my yard, on a bed of just picked lettuce, that melt-in-the mouth dazzlingly white fresh cheese spread on hunks of the just baked baguette, salty olives and soft chocolate cookies. I sat down at my table with utter happiness, not wanting to be anywhere else or have one thing more. My heart and my mind were that full. On a planet awash in a downpour of horror, hate and heartache, I had before me the freshest food won from Maine land and sea, a dear friend, a faithful farmer, and red tulips popping out of a black ceramic pitcher.

My friend swore I had never looked so good. Well...yes... I was glowing with ecstatic joy, eating and yakking and drinking coffee so I could stay awake to savor this rain of enormous blessings. I wish the same sunshine to everyone.

P.s. That dazzlingly white fresh cheese came from a new micro-creamery in Durham, Maine: Spring Day Creamery and the intrepid farmer who picked the lettuce off his plants was Dick Keough of Keough Family Farms.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Jam Session

I am the only person I know--or probably anybody knows--who can look at her calendar and realize with a devastating shock, she's arranged the next two months in such a way that she is going to miss strawberry season. All four fresh-from-the-farm strawberry weeks, for the first time in 38 years. This means a whole year without strawberry jam. Who can live like that?

I am the only person I know--or anybody would want to know--who can get so distressed about this, she stops everything, and I mean a heaping amount of everything: 1 job, 2 books and charity-- and runs to the next available San Francisco farmers' market to buy 6 pints of strawberries so she can make jam. I spent Mother's Day deliberating resting by doing only what I wanted to do, and that included spending an hour making strawberry jam. Frankly, there is something very old-fashioned and wholesomely mothery about stirring those berries into delight. I felt so much better with six nicely labeled jars good to go. (Thirty eight years have taught me that 1 pint makes 1 pint jar of unadulterated jam.)

The big whew! is that everybody's favorite jam seems to be strawberry. I suspect that's why my friends expect me to hand or send them a jar and my house guests wait anxiously at breakfast. This has been going on for three decades now, so their expectations are well trained. One childhood friend actually bought a bread machine to make toast worthy of it, or so she said.

People always say they like my jam because the freshness of the fruit comes as a delectable surprise. They can really taste it. This is because commercial processing requires mega mega doses of sugar and my body cannot tolerate sugar. Since I started by making jam for myself, I had to do it avoiding sugar if possible, so by experimentation I learned to get by with the least I could get away with and still have its preserving effect. I started adding fresh lime juice whose acid not only kills whatever bacteria hinders the preserving, but also, or at least I think, brightens and thus heightens the zing in fruit. Of course, once opened my homemade jam doesn't last as eternally the chemically botoxed commercial stuff does, but then people don't care because they seem to gobble it up pretty fast.

It makes people happy to not worry about high fructose corn syrup, mysterious natural flavors, or chemical pectin, which the canning jar people recommend because they profit from selling it. So I am a good Buddhist who offers a little less mental suffering by offering nothing but farm fresh strawberries, fresh lime juice, a touch of sugars white and brown, a splash of rose water sometimes and pinches of cinnamon and nutmeg. I let the jam thicken naturally as it cooks. This takes a little longer but...so? We're talking 15 minutes. People who've watched me make a batch can't get over how easy it really is. I think I've taught a half dozen eager children by now, hoping the tradition lingers.

What a great gift a neatly labeled jar of homemade jam makes. I hand somebody one and they trip all over themselves thanking me. It seems so special. I give it to make people feel special. The woman who works on my hair says it's her favorite tip because she gets to share it with her three-year-old daughter. This kind of honest, handmade food sends a message that you care, and aren't afraid to show it. The message stirred into jam is old fashioned unabashed love.

So how could someone who just wrote two food books encouraging people to relearn the beautiful basics of food because their bodies and the minds depend on it, not stop everything to make strawberry jam? How could she let a year go by without it? Especially when people seem to love me very much for offering it to them-- even a small 1/2 pint jar. It's actually been my experience that in our overly manufactured, manicured and manipulated society, a jar of strawberry jam brings more joy to the world, more peace, and more good will back at you than all the travels and travails of my contemporary Hillary Clinton who once rather infamously snapped: "Do you really expect me to stay home and bake cookies?"