Archive for October, 2008

Daisy Chains and Milkmaids; An Open Letter to Michael Pollan

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not dissing you. But…

Ok. If I ever have the fortune to meet you again, I’ll buy you a drink, or maybe even a whole meal. I owe you. Nobody else, besides Alice Waters, has done so much to promote the sort of small-scale, sustainable farms that people like me are trying to create. Take our CSA program, for instance. CSA stands for community supported agriculture. The basic idea is that a community of people who want local farms to survive put their money where their mouths are and support those local farms by underwriting their production costs. In return for their faith and investment, the farmer pays them back with weekly “share boxes” of the harvest. The consumers get food they can trust and they get to know that they’re doing their part to preserve the vitality of their own local foodshed. And the farmer? Well. Besides having committed customers to count on, CSA means that we can do an end run around the banks, and these days, when a gun in hand isn’t even enough to get a loan from a bank, that is some powerful ju-ju. But, Michael, you know all that.

CSA is a hard sell to consumers used to buying food in a supermarket. My wife and I have run a CSA for eleven years now, and every week since the beginning I’ve written a newsletter to my vegetable subscribers to explain what we’re doing on the farm. Little by little our CSA program grew, mostly because of the vegetables and the service we offered, but partly because I was getting the word out. I was on the radio four times a week in our local area, I wrote for newspapers, I answered every phone call I got from every reporter in a prompt, civil and informative manner. I entertained school groups, and basically worked my ass off to promote local, organic, sustainable agriculture. Over the years I saw measurable, incremental success. Then you published An Omnivore’s Dilemma. Public interest in our CSA surged, and the number of our subscribers doubled. Poof! A wave of your wand and our farm went from being economically marginal to truly sustainable overnight. So no, I’m not dissing you. But still….

Oh, and I shouldn’t forget the impact you’ve had on farmers’ markets. I don’t do the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market anymore, at least in part because our CSA program sustains us now, but if I had a dime for every person I met at market who was turned on to fresh, local, organic, sustainably produced food by you, I could buy myself a bucket of caviar from Tsar Nicoulai inside the building. Which brings me to fancy restaurants. When In Defense of Food came out I noticed a whole new wave of excitement from the public, including professional cooks who were invigorated about rethinking their approach to food and their commitment to helping the small-scale, artisan producers that supply them. About 85% of my income comes from our CSA program, but the other 15% comes from restaurants in San Francisco, and their well-being is important to me. The cooks that support us are happy about what we do, and they count on the patronage of thousands of consumers, some of them who are definitely going out to eat at establishments that they know are pushing a local, organic, sustainable agenda. These are exciting times to be involved in food, and you’ve had a lot to do with building that energy, so what’s not to love about your work?

I’m thinking now about the article you wrote recently for the New York Times titled Farmer in Chief. (Everybody should read this. It’s an open letter to the President Elect on the subject of agricultural policy.)

I read it and was I was amazed. It is the most cogent, comprehensive, wide-ranging essay I’ve ever read about agriculture in a paper, and I have to read all the ag rags. You tie together America’s oil addiction to our health, our diet, the farm environment, our landscape, our national security, world hunger, and global climate change. Your essay is easy to read, but dense in meaning, and almost every single paragraph could easily serve as a jumping off point for a whole article of its own, or even a book. You’re not content to merely bitch and moan, either. You offer concrete suggestions for a comprehensive, holistic cure for the catastrophe that confronts us; the re-solarization of farming and the re-localization of food. You make sense. Plants and animals need only the sun and each other to grow, so why have we invented a system that eats oil and spews CO2? I’ve been waiting for someone to say these things. My attempts to write about oil or food security have attracted no attention. You are a magnificent writer and a great intellect, and you’ve chosen to focus your efforts in an arena where you can create positive change, which is why I was sad to see what you didn’t say in your article.

You write, “Post-oil agriculture will need a lot more people engaged in food production– as farmers and probably also as gardeners.” You say this will create “tens of millions of new green jobs.”

I read that, and paused. So I read your essay again. You never mention farm workers.

It’s different to be a farm worker than a farmer or a “green worker.” I know. I was a farm worker for years before I ever became a farmer. I understand “green worker” to be someone employed in the emerging green technologies and practices. To me, “green” sounds “whiter,” than farm labor, almost “white collar.” But even if everyone with a yard ripped it out and put in a garden it would still take millions of farm workers to keep our agriculture going, and right now an overwhelming number of them are from Latin America, and most of those are undocumented. These “aliens” have no legal right to work to feed us, and yet we count on them every day. Farm workers are seemingly invisible, even apparently to you, and whatever exposure they do get is usually when they’re invoked as scapegoats by right-wing talk radio hosts who should know better than to spew invective with their mouths full.

It’s an interesting oversight, but I can’t imagine you left the farm workers out intentionally. The role of the farm worker is simply too much of a symptom of and poetic metaphor for of the chaos of our food system for a man of your learning not to notice. The industrial corn economy and the fuel-centric worldwide distribution system that gives us such cheap grain and meat in the US is an engine of destruction for small-scale farms and semi-communal ejido farms in Mexico. It is precisely because Mexican peasants can’t afford to buy corn and beef in their own country, or compete with multi-national food corporations and sell their produce to their friends and neighbors in Mexico, that they come here to work. Changing our food policy is key to unlocking the dungeon that is our immigration policy.

I keep reading that the US is having an economic crisis right now, and I can hardly believe it, because my own little farm stays busy. People have to eat; they don’t have to subscribe to cable, buy an RV, or go on a vacation, so farms are the last businesses to see the effects of a slowdown. I’ll know this country is in some deep shit when I see people from the suburbs ride out to my farm on their bicycles three or four days running to beg for work. I’ve seen that plenty of times from Mexican farm workers, but in the years I’ve spent in the fields I’ve never seen one native-born citizen come looking for a “stolen job.” In fact, one of the things that make the politics of immigration so toxic is that the screaming and howling comes from a poisoned place in our minds, totally divorced from the facts on the ground.

Let me show you some pictures. I carry my camera with me all the time, and when I see something that interests me I shoot. These are pictures of harvest crews in the Salinas Valley flying the Mexican Flag from their mobile porta-potties. Most of these pictures I took yesterday in the strawberries, but a few are from the lettuce fields, and stored in my computer I’ve got scads more, taken all around the Salinas and Pajaro valleys on various farms over the last several years. I took the pictures, in part, because I always fantasized about putting them on a cd and shipping it off to Rush Limbaugh.

“Look, Rush!” I’ve wanted to say. “Do these people look documented to you? They’re working in the fields farmed by big Republican corporate donors. The guys that pay the guys that pay these farm workers put Reagan signs on the edges of the fields in the 80s, Bush signs in the 90’s and 00s, and now there are McCain signs out there. So stop all the squalling about kicking the aliens out, or stop eating the food they pick! Better yet, go on a politically correct diet and eat only what you can verify yourself has been picked by legal workers! And don’t count on the smooth assurances of compliance to all local, state and federal codes from the corporate farm owners! Does it sound like too much work to verify the political status of your food? It’s actually really easy— just buy only food that’s been shipped here from another country, because when the foreigners that pick the food are in another country they aren’t illegal aliens, are they? You’ll be able to swallow your Argentine steak with pride! That, or you could buy a steak from a cow that was killed in the US and put your considerable rhetorical talents to promoting a comprehensive reform of immigration that takes our dependence on foreign workers into account, starts treating them like guests and stops treating them like shit.”

I’d be happy to confront “El Rushbo,” in a no-holds-barred grudge match, which is why I was sad to see that you didn’t connect the dots between the consequences of our food policy and the distress of our Mexican neighbors to the south and down the street. You’re usually the guy in my corner. Maybe you just want to be heard, and you didn’t want to screw up the impact of your piece by raising up evil spirits. Your essay was framed as a letter to the President, or Farmer in Chief, and you know that nothing sours political discourse in America so much as the mere breath of a word like “dependence.” We Americans are hell on wheels about our independence, but nobody wants to hear about our dependence on millions of Mexican nationals. Even bringing up the subject of our dependence on others is enough for some people to brand you “Un-American.” (I loved how you framed sustainable values in your essay as “true conservative values.” and I dug the stuff about the White House Lawn too.) And speaking of Un-Americans, I’ve got a funny story for you.

One of my dearest and oldest friends from all they way back when I was 14 is Porn Queen, sex educator, activist, dancer, writer, and general feminist loud-mouth, Nina Hartley. (She had a part in Boogie Nights, if you’re a Hollywood film buff) Anyway, Nina has always encouraged me to write and she laughs at my stories. So one time, when I wrote an account of a young couple that had slipped across the border illegally she wrote me to tell me the story had moved her, and she asked to feature it on her web site.

“Of course,” I replied.

As kids, Nina and I used to sit together on the school bus and talk about all the great things we would someday do. Today, she has a much wider forum than I, (She’s like the Michael Pollan of swingers with books, videos, and lectures on college campuses.) so I was pleased she liked the piece I’d written. I was happy she wanted to share her spotlight with me. I see myself as a frontline missionary/fighter in Alice’s Slow Food Jihad, and I relished the opportunity to witness to the sex crowd. Later, when Nina told me that she’d received hate mail when she posted my story I was charmed. My piece was matter-of-fact about the ongoing reality of illegal immigration and I’d chosen to present the young couple in a human, not an alien, light. Just this once I’d shown up my Porn Queen to be a little naïve. In Nina’s line of work, hate mail comes with the territory.

“But organic farmer-writers?” she said. “You guys are loved, aren’t you?”

“Sure we are,” I told Nina, “as long as we stick to the established narrative.”

It’s true.You wanna talk dirty? Golden showers, daisy chains and milkmaids are triple x, but if we start talking about who picked or slaughtered your food and we’re going to be taken as truly obscene. Maybe that’s why you didn’t include the farm workers, Mr. Pollan, out of decency. Next time? The drink offer stands.

copyright 2008 Andy Griffin

Michael Pollan’s article that Andy is writing about

Andy’s article about spinach archived on Chez Pim (thanks to Pim for archiving this!)

Andy’s account of a border crossing

Andy’s oil article that got hate mail

Flags photo essay with 4 photos of various fields

Michael Pollan’s website

Chez Panisse Foundation

Tomatillo de Milpa

The tomatillo is related to the tomato in the same way that you and I are related to Baboons; we share certain physiological and behavioral traits with our primate cousins, but we can’t cross. Tomatillo fruits look like immature green tomatoes but they’re wrapped in a papery husk. Both plant species are in the Solanaceae, and like tomatoes, tomatillos are used throughout Latin America to make salsa, and they’re fried, baked, used in soups, or sliced thin for salads or sandwiches. The cultivar of tomatillo I usually grow is called Toma Verde. The seed is easy to get, the plants are vigorous, the harvest is generous, and the plump fruits have a pleasant sweet / tart flavor. Yet in spite of Toma Verde’s impressive list of domestic virtues, Ramiro Campos told me it was an insipid excuse for a tomatillo.  “Wait until you taste salsa verde made with the tomatillos de milpa that grow wild on our ranch in Jalisco,” Ramiro said. “You’ll never grow Toma Verde again!”Ramiro worked with me when I was a partner in Riverside Farms, and he and his family lived with me. There’s a flat one-acre field with decent soil below my house. Ramiro proposed that we go in as partners and grow a garden on it with the foods he missed from Mexico.  If I donated the field to the project and the tractor to work the soil, he offered to do the sowing and cultivating. We’d split the profits equally.


I considered Ramiro’s idea carefully. All I have had for water at my home ranch is a spring that was dug out by great-grandfather and lined with bricks a hundred years ago. A little domestic pump brings the water up to the house, and there’s barely enough flow to wash the dishes, bathe, and flush the toilet.

“We don’t have much water,” I said. “If we raise a crop, but we can’t clean our clothes, then where’s the profit?”

“Someday you’ll visit us at our ranch in Jalisco, Andrés,” Ramiro said, “and you’ll see how much we can do without water.”

We walked to the fence and looked out across into the field that spread beneath us. “See how the field is slightly dished?” Ramiro said, pointing. “This field catches rain. A foot down the topsoil turns to adobe, and adobe holds the moisture for a long time. If we’re careful when we sow, the crops will root into damp soil and follow the moisture down as the water table recedes in the summer. I’ll keep the field clean, so we don’t lose any moisture to weeds.”

I didn’t have much to lose.

Ramiro’s uncle came back from a Christmas visit to Jalisco, and he brought tomatillo de milpa seeds from plants he found growing wild in the huerta and a sack of garbanzo beans. Ramiro plowed the field in the second week of February, and hilled it up in rows. Half the rows he sowed with garbanzo beans and half the beds he left blank to soak up more rain. He planted trays with tomatillo seed in my greenhouse. When the weather permitted, he cultivated the field with the tractor, destroying the weeds that had sprouted between the rows of emerging garbanzos and loosening the soil.

The garbanzos grew green and lush and set the first flowers. Ramiro called on his brother, Renato, to come and help him weed the rows. Then the two of them transplanted out the young tomatillo de milpa plants. By the middle of spring the garbanzos began to set seed, two beans per pod. Ramiro could hardly wait for the harvest. “Nothing tastes as much like spring as fresh garbanzos,” he said. “Shell the beans while they’re still tender and plump and fry them in a little butter until they’re bright green. Wrap them in a tortilla with a little salsita and some scrambled eggs, and you’ve got lonche.”

“I’m sure glad I didn’t sign on to do the labor for this project,” I said. “With only two garbanzo beans per pod, and only ten pods per plant, it’s going to take you and Renato all month to pick dinner.”

“We don’t pick the beans, Andrés,” Ramiro said. “We harvest whole plants, and make huge bunches. Then we pile the back of the pick-up high with them. When the housewives walk down the street and see the mountains of fresh garbanzos in the truck, they’ll crowd around. You watch! They buy the bunches, and they pick the beans.”

I admired Ramiro’s campesino logic, but I needed to know more about the Mexicana ama de casa.

“What kind of a value is that? Women don’t have time to shell beans. How many beans are there per bunch, anyway?”

“When you come to Jalisco, you’ll understand,” Ramiro said. “It’s hot during the spring at the ranch. And after they pick the garbanzo beans out of the bunch, the women take the leaves and put them in large clay jars. They fill the jar with spring water and set it outside.”

“We call that ‘sun tea,’” I said.

“No,” Ramiro said. “The sun’s to hot. You want to put it in the shade. The garbanzo leaves exude an acidic nectar that infuses the water with a most delicious tang. When we come back to the house after a day in the sun— don’t talk about cerveza— there’s nothing healthier or more refreshing than cool garbanzo water!”

Ramiro picked the first garbanzos and his wife, Amparo, prepared a meal to show off the harvest. Part of me will always be disappointed when I eat in a Mexican restaurant because the meal, heavy as it is may be with meat and beans and corn, never floats through my memory the way Amparo’s fresh guiso de garbanzo does. It’s true, too, what Ramiro said about garbanzo water. On a hot afternoon in the fields, a thermos bottle full of cool garbanzo water beats a six pack of cerveza any day, because you can drink long and deep, and you’re left satisfied, with a clear head. But what about the tomatillos de milpa?

Ramiro’s tomatillos grew like weeds throughout the spring, even though our last rain fell on the first of April. By June, the field was a galaxy of yellow stars, as the tomatillos showed off their five-petaled blossoms. The green papery husks appeared next, and slowly, through June and into July, tiny, nascent tomatillos gradually swelled within them into round green fruits. One day Ramiro finally filled the crown of his cowboy hat with tomatillos de milpa. He held out the hat for me to inspect. The fruits were much smaller than tomatillos I was familiar with, hardly larger than a marble, and firm. Each tiny tomatillo was wrapped in a sticky, papery husk. Some of the fruits were purple, others green or yellow.

“It looks like a lot of work to prepare them,” I said.

“The small size of the tomatillos de milpa doesn’t come at the cost of flavor,” Ramiro said. “All that’s missing is the muddy taste of irrigation water. You’ll see.”

We built a fire in the yard and laid a comal on the coals. When the comal was hot, we peeled away their papery wrappers and spread the tiny tomatillos de milpa across it. We toasted them until the skins split with the heat. Amparo laid cebollas de rabo verde, or “green-tailed onions” around the edge of the fire to roast. She threw a handful of serrano peppers on the comal. When everything was ready she got out her mano y molcajete, or mortar and pestle. She mashed the roasted onions and tomatillos together with salt and a little flame blistered serrano chile, and served up an autentico salsita verde del rancho to complement the beans and potatoes in a brace of perfect taquitos.

Riquissimo!” I said. “The tastiest! And the profit?”

That was a sore point. From a financial point of view our partnership hadn’t been much of a success. After Ramiro and Renato had harvested the garbanzos, they’d gone to town with a pick-up load of huge, leafy-green bunches. The Jaliscana amas de casa crowded around the pick-up with their arms outstretched, hungry for a taste of home. But they balked at his prices.

“A dollar fifty a bunch? Why, I never paid that much in that much for garbanzo in the tianguis at home!”

Ramiro ended up giving half the bunches of fresh garbanzos away to the workers on our farm.

When the tomatillo harvest came Ramiro put Renato’s wife Chupina in charge of sales. He and Renato loaded my pick-up with crates of tomatillo de milpa and drove Chupina, down to the corner of Porter Drive and San Juan Road in Pajaro. An excited crowd of amas de casa crowded around the pick-up truck and admired the baskets of tiny tomatillos— “¡Ay, que lindo! Just like the tomatillos from mi tierra!”
But the housewives didn’t want to pay any more for tomatillos de milpa than they’d pay for big, fat regular Toma Verde tomatillos down the street at the frutería. “Un peso,” they cried, “Un peso,” thrusting single dollar bills in Chupina’s face, and ignoring the sign that read “dos dolares por libra.

It’s one thing to sell tomatillos for a dollar a basket if you can fill the basket with five plump, sweet/tart Toma Verde fruits, but it’s entirely different if it takes fifty tiny, sweeter and tarter tomatillos de milpa. The cost per hour for labor to harvest remains the same, no matter the size of the fruit. For tomatillo de milpa to be as profitable as Toma Verde, they’d have to cost ten dollars a basket. Ramiro had paid Renato out of pocket to help pick the tomatillos de milpa, and on top of that, he paid Chupina for the time she spent trying to sell the tomatillos de milpa on the street corner. Ramiro was cross, but I was smiling. “We’ve profited equally,” I said.

Ramiro scowled.

“Hey, we’ve both profited,” I said. “Now I know how good food on the ranch can be, and now you understand why I worry about the cost of labor all the time. Not because I want to— but because I have to! Amas de casa are the center of our universe, but they’re thrifty.”

“Amparo isn’t thrifty enough,” he said.

That was true. One of the problems between Ramiro and Amparo was her credit account at Joyeria Don Roberto. I changed the subject. “On the ranch in Jalisco, where money is scarce, picking wild tomatillos de milpa in the huerta is a necessity born of poverty, but up here, where there’s more money, it’s time that’s scarce, and eating like a campesino is a luxury!”

Ramiro got the last laugh. When their daughter, Jesica,  reached school age, Ramiro and Amparo returned to Jalisco so she could get a proper Mexican education. Ramiro bought a ranch with the money he earned in California, and now he raises goats and makes cheese. His offer to host me when I travel to Jalisco still stands, and one day I’ll make the trip. But no matter how novel Jalisco will seem to me, some things will be familiar— like the tomatillos. Every spring in the field below my house where we once planted out our Jaliscano garden, Ramiro’s wild tomatillos de milpa sprout like weeds among my herb beds. It’s my business descision to grow Toma Verde, but Ramiro might say it’s my own damn fault if I choose to eat them.

copyright 2008 Andy Griffin

Tomatillo Photo Essay

Tomatillo Recipes

photos above taken by Andy in 2008  photo legend: #1: our home ranch that Andy refers to: with a fall tomatillo weed lovingly cared for by Manny.   #2: a molcajete with toma verde on the left, and the heirloom, smaller ‘de milpa’ tomatillos on the right. #3 a spring tomatillo weed that’s carefully not weeded by Manny and crew.

The comal link was my google work: and the first photo that came up was ours:  a homemade comal with tortillas and cebollas de rabo verde, or spring onions. This comal is made from an old tractor disk. It’s great for parties in the yard!

Tomatillo Salsa

2 pounds Fresh tomatillos
1 cup Onion — chopped
1 Or 2 hot peppers, cored Seeded and chopped. (you can also use dried chiles, leave seeds in either dried or fresh for more heat)
1 cup Fresh cilantro — minced
1/4 cup Fresh lime juice
1-2 cloves garlic
salt to taste

Remove husks from tomatillos, wash throughly, dry and halve or quarter. Combine tomatillos, onions, chiles, and garlic in a non-reactive pan. Over med-high heat bring to boil, stirring frequently. Reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 20 mins. Cool a little or a lot then put into blender with cilantro and lime juice, blend away, salt to taste, and you have some GREAT salsa verde Mexicano.

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