From Seed to Salad

The story of that bunch of carrots you got in your CSA box starts with the seed catalogs that begin arriving in December. If you’re like me, in addition to the stand-bys, you look for the heirlooms and anything that’s purple. This year’s order included Danvers, Napoli, Atomic Red, Yellowstone, White Satin, Dragon, and Scarlet Keeper. All of the varieties that we use have to be organic, per MOFGA certification standards, and we have to keep our seed order receipts as part of the documentation that our inspector will check. After we send in the seed order, we figure out our field rotations and succession schedules (also part of the documentation that we have to have on hand for our inspector). We plant four or five successions of carrots in a season.

 

Fast forward to April: time to plant, whether we like it (or the weather cooperates) or not. Our farm is organized into groups of permanent raised beds that constitute crop families that are rotated every year. Step one is to prep the bed: weed, add compost, broadfork, tilth the top layer of soil, mark the rows. This process is usually pretty challenging in the early season. Often we have to hand seed the first plantings of carrots because the soil is so wet that the seeder gets clogged. However, we prefer the wet soil to last season’s drought, as carrots need consistent moisture in order to germinate. Last year, we and most of our farmer friends lost several plantings of carrots to the dry conditions; sometimes even irrigation is not enough.

 

Carrots take a while to germinate - up to two weeks in the cold wet spring - and usually the dormant weed seeds wake up first. As soon as we can discern the rows of carrots, we cultivate the bed with a stirrup hoe in order to temporarily slow the progression of the weeds. Flame weeding is another option but must be carefully timed so as not to also singe the emerging carrots. We repeat the stirrup hoe weeding several times before the carrots are ready for harvest. Often the carrots need to be thinned before harvest as well.

 

At harvest time, we bunch the carrots in the field with rubber bands, then take them to the washing station for cleaning.  Finally, they go into the walk-in cooler for storage before distribution.

 

Carrots are high in beta carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E, the B vitamins, and a balanced profile of minerals. They are high in natural sugar, so including them and other sweet vegetables (like beets) in your diet can help quell your craving for sweets. According to Chinese Traditional Medicine, carrots benefit the lungs, improve liver function, help with hormone regulation, and can help treat indigestion. Once ingested, carrots are alkaline forming. This characteristic, along with high levels of beta carotene in carrots, make them helpful in the prevention of cancer.

 

Carrots are great raw, grated into salads or as part of a vegetable slaw, as well as braised with a little butter and honey, and roasted and served drizzled with a tahini sauce. Don’t forget to use the carrot tops for pesto: cut off the bottom third or so of the bunch of tops, saving the leafiest parts to use in place of basil in your favorite pesto recipe. The tops have the additional nutritional benefit of vitamin K.

Variety is the spice of life!

 

Does grocery shopping bore you? The same orange carrots and the same three varieties of red apples, stored for heaven knows how long (as well as the ever-exciting GREEN Granny Smith variety), the same plastic box of “salad mix”…. On the one hand, our grocery stores’ shelves are overflowing with so-called “food”, but in my opinion the grocery store produce section is a testament to the impoverishment of the American diet. According to Collective Eye Films’ new movie, “Seed: The Untold Story”, in the last 100 years 94% of seed varieties have been lost. To make matters worse, Monsanto and other large chemical conglomerates now control 60% of the world’s seed market.[1] What does this mean for us as consumers?

 

It means that a combination of government subsidies and the capitalist profit motive, two forces seemingly at odds, have conspired to fill our food supply with processed trash, to dumb down the American palate, and even to push us to the brink of a health care crisis. Our food culture has also been diluted from above by the USDA, an agency whose qualifications to formulate a healthy diet is dubious. I am thinking specifically of the “food pyramid” of my youth, the one that had as its base the oversized chunk of breads, pastas and whole grains meant to comprise the majority of a “healthy” diet. Think about that: government subsidies to mega-farms in the mid-west that grow GRAINS, and a USDA sponsored diet that suggests we stuff a majority of our diet with relatively nutrient-poor grain products. I would suggest that this focus on grains in the diet has been a large factor in the shrinking of the variety of seeds, a shift in our focus away from vegetables that SHOULD comprise the majority of our diet, and the resulting nutrient deficiency in the average American diet.

 

I say this not just because our farm produces mostly vegetables. As you may have intuited from the topic of this blog, I love food and cooking.  I love many kinds of cooking styles, philosophies, and techniques – French, Chinese, Thai, Indian, vegan, raw, macrobiotic, fermented, and the list continues to grow. I am also very interested in nutrition and the power of food to heal. When I first started cooking for my partner Ron, I needed to learn about a whole new world of cooking because he had Crohn’s Disease. Research led me to the Specific Carbohydrate Diet and the GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) diet.  The connections between food, gut flora, and overall health are nothing short of astounding. I will go into more detail about this information in a later blog, but for now I mention this topic because it motivates my focus on vegetables as the basis of a healthy diet and as the means to heal and then maintain a balanced system.

 

So, if vegetables are the basis of your diet, and if you are further restricted by a specific health condition such as Crohn’s (or any of the related conditions such as Celiacs, Colitis, and IBS), you will certainly not be satisfied by the grocery store’s limited variety of produce and very limited variety of ORGANIC produce. I write ORGANIC in all capitals because pesticide residue levels in certain conventionally raised vegetables are unacceptable and are most certainly related to the increasing incidence of intestinal tract imbalances and the resulting immune system dysfunction. [2] Go online and google “dirty dozen” for a list of vegetables that contain the highest levels of pesticide residues. Winter is a particularly difficult time to access a variety of organic produce, though I will put in a plug for the amazingly bountiful Brunswick winter market at Fort Andross on Saturdays, November through April. Spring and summer open up a world of possibilities though, and we are finally approaching that time of year when fresh organic produce is readily available at a wide variety of venues.

 

In the early part of the season here in Maine, the first varieties of vegetables available are greens.  Here is a list of greens that we either have already planted or will be planting throughout the season: arugula, mizuna, tatsoi, Mizspoona, Pink Lettucy Mustard, Golden Purslane, chervil, claytonia, frissee endive, Totem Belgian Endive, vit mache, Leonardo Radicchio, Wrinkled Crinkled Crumpled Cress, mesclun mix, Pirat head lettuce, Nancy head lettuce, Flashy Green Butteroak lettuce, Lollo di Vino lettuce, Les Oreilles du Diable lettuce, Salad Bowl lettuce, and four different kinds of kale. Not only is there a huge variety in color, texture, and flavor in that list, but also the nutritional variety is significant, not to mention the culinary possibilities. Admittedly, I like to experiment with different varieties, and growing so many different varieties is probably not a formula for efficiency or profit maximization. However, variety is really at the core of our growing philosophy. And lest you think I didn’t restrain myself on my seed order, the Fedco seed catalog has 15 pages of greens varieties, including 83 varieties of lettuce alone. Fedco, based in Clinton, Maine, is an amazing resource for a staggering eclectic variety of vegetable seeds; the catalog is a combination of encyclopedia, horticultural history, cultivation guide, satirical humor, and inspiration. This catalog is an education not only in the practical aspects of growing vegetables, but also in the character and deep history of farming in New England.

 

Variety is the leitmotif of spring, and it is an indispensible element in a healthy diet. I also believe that reintroducing variety into our diet is a key to rebuilding our food culture as well as our local food economy. So as we progress toward the warmer months, I will be adding recipes to our website that encourage more adventurous eating and inclusion of a wider variety of greens. I encourage everyone to ask questions at farmers’ markets and to google varieties with which you are unfamiliar.  After all, as the cliché goes: “Variety is the spice of life.” [3]


[1] See URL for Seed

[2] For more information on the connection between gut flora, the immune system, and brain function, a good place to start is Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride’s Gut and Psychology Syndrome.

[3] This cliché actually has an author: William Cowper, from his poem “The Task”, first published in 1785.

Food and Philosophy

By Cindy

The theme of this blog is food and how we nourish ourselves. We call it, “The Compost Pile” because that’s where the process of growing food starts. There is a kind of alchemy involved in the process of microbes turning waste of all sorts into soil nourishing black gold. In the same way, good food – whole, organic, and unprocessed, can work magic in our bodies, souls, and communities. In this world of fast food, processed food, genetically altered food, and just plain junk, I am interested in real food and how we can rebuild our culinary culture and eating habits.

We started our farm primarily to feed ourselves, but also to make a living by selling our food in the community. Feeding ourselves is pretty easy, but making a living by farming is not. Here in Maine, we are lucky to have a relatively strong local food culture. However, we are not immune to the American nightmares of drive-through meals and large homogenized grocery chains and the ingrained assumptions they have created. The most obvious assumption, created by a combination of clever marketing and government subsidies to “big ag” is that food should be cheap and fast. This assumption is making us a very fat and a very sick country. This assumption is also the reason why it is so hard for small local farms to succeed financially. When people breeze through the drive-up window and don’t think twice about spending $4 on their super-sized, super-syrupy bucket of caffeine, yet wince at the prospect of paying $4 for a dozen pasture raised eggs, we have a problem.

So when I talk about “real food” and rebuilding our culinary culture and eating habits, I am talking about addressing these kinds of assumptions that have taken over our national consciousness. Rather than launching into a political rant about the evils of American mass culture, I would like to get back to the basics of food.

To this end, it seems appropriate to turn to the French, and specifically to an internationally acclaimed gastronomic and philosophical masterpiece. After more than 30 years of research, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin published The Physiology of Taste in 1825. The text I am reading from was translated by an American gastronomic legend of our own time, M.F.K. Fisher. Brillat-Savarin prefaces the main text with twenty “Aphorisms of the Professor”.  These witty and opinionated statements cover a lot of gastronomic ground but begin with the basics:

1. The Universe is nothing without the things that live in it, and everything that lives, eats.

2. Animals feed themselves; men eat; but only wise men know the art of eating.

3. The destiny of nations depends on how they nourish themselves.

The first aphorism establishes the interconnectedness of everything on Earth. Little did he know that the very soil we depend on to grow our food is full of microscopic organisms that also “eat”. For someone in an age without the benefit of the scientific research to which we are privy, Brillat-Savarin had a magnificent grasp on the way the world works.

The second aphorism establishes the difference between feeding and eating, and then further between eating and the “art of eating”.  According to Brillat-Savarin, men who simply eat are not much better than animals that feed themselves. By contrast, “only wise men know the art of eating.” Hence the contrast between eating to survive and eating as something more refined.

In the third aphorism, just what does he mean by “nourish”? The Oxford English Dictionary begins with an obsolete definition of nourish as a noun, meaning nurse. Other obsolete definitions include: bring up, rear, nurture, cherish, and promote the growth of. During the time of Brillat-Savarin, food was actually connected with a more holistic and mindful approach to health as well as being of aesthetic concern. Eating was for actual nourishment and enjoyment rather than for simply filling the belly. These definitions are more satisfying than the modern, “to sustain with proper food or nutriment; to supply with whatever is necessary to promote growth or formation”.

Yes, food is practical and literally sustains us. However, as Brillat-Savarin’s second and third aphorisms imply, food goes beyond biological function as an essential part of customs and rituals that maintain the fabric of society. This blog will explore food in all of its variety and functional dimensions. For now, I will end with my favorite of Brillat-Savarin’s 20 Aphorisms:  #14 “A dinner which ends without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.” The French certainly have a way with food….and words.