Archive for February, 2009

Onions and Ramakrishna

baby goats born this amHi everybody: It’s pouring rain, the fields are a swamp, the goats are starting to kid, one ewe gave triplet lambs today, and I’ve got to start thinking about spring planting. I’m distracted. I look forward to writing a Ladybug Letter every two weeks but I just didn’t have it in me today, so instead I dug back into the digital files and found a letter I wrote back in 2003. I hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. -andy on 2-17-09

E Pluribus Onion

Ramakrishna compared the ego to an onion. Peel away an onion’s rings the way spiritual experiences strip at the ego until finally, after all the layers are gone, there is nothing; no central core with an egoistic structure, and no onion either, just a void with no barrier remaining to a union with Brahma. I wouldn’t know, but it’s not for lack of trying.

I peeled an onion, a saucer-shaped cipollini Bianco di Maggio to be exact. After eight layers I was left with a tiny pearly white, tear drop-shaped piece of lily bulb. I broke it open - layer number nine - and nothing remained but tears in my eyes from the oxidized sulfur compounds released from the onion’s tissue by my violence. Is this a deep and metaphoric experience, I wondered, or have I just wasted an onion?

So I gathered the curled, juicy onion pieces together and tossed them in a bowl of cool water so they couldn’t oxidize any more and turn bitter. As cheap and ubiquitous as they are onions are not easy to grow, at least not organically, so I didn’t want to waste one. I have shed more tears over growing onions than I ever have from eating them.

walla walla onionsTo yield well an onion bed must be kept completely free of weeds. Allium roots are quite shallow and the plants can’t tolerate much competition. Without recourse to herbicides and soil fumigants organic onion culture can entail costly hand-weeding once the plants are too large for mechanical cultivation. Onions grow slowly, too, giving weeds lots of opportunities to sprout, and onions are hungry for fertilizer and thirsty for water. Onions demand full sun and perfect drainage. It is fair to say that onions are among the most self-centered and egoistic of the garden vegetables. Am I what I eat?

There was sourdough bread on the table in front of me and a cube of butter. Feeling a void at my core I spread some butter on the bread. I poured the bowl of onions into a colander and shook it to drain them. “Would Ramakrishna approve?” I asked myself as I cobbled the buttered bread with puzzle pieces of raw onion and sprinkled them with a pinch of salt. Not everyone appreciates onions they way I do. Some religious traditions in Hinduism hold that the Brahmin, Kshatriya, and Vaishya castes, or the priestly, warrior, and professional classes, should avoid “hot” foods like onions that lead to lustful thoughts. Jains supposedly don’t eat onions either, and neither did the priests or royalty of ancient Egypt. The slaves who built the pyramids ate onions, though, raw and cooked, with great frequency. “We can’t all have been Cleopatra in a past life.” I decided, and bit into my sandwich. Some of us are eternal peasants.

The onion I was eating was sweet and mild and hardly bit me back, but its aroma reawakened Ramakrishna to my mind. Funny how the onion Ramakrishna saw as a perfect metaphor for the illusion of individuality and the nothingness of the void should have been seen by ancient Latins as a symbol of wholeness. Our words onion and union share a common Latin root in unio, meaning unity. The successive layers of an onion wrapped up in a single round bulb do suggest unity, especially when compared to their alliaceous cousins, the multi-cloved garlics. And somehow, even if you can never spy the life force at the heart of an onion or see it moving between the layers of an onion as you peel them away when you plant an onion bulb it will give birth to more genetically identical onions, thus wrapping the past, the present, and the future of vegetal individuality into one silky tear-jerking ball.

Momina making dal with lots of onions in 1989Maybe it’s just the onion causing my mouth to water but I say onions are like the spicy, girly, back-up singers whose role on stage is to sway back and forth cooing sweet harmonies that allow some otherwise hunky but mediocre lead singer to sound good. What cuisine hasn’t been sweetened and enhanced by onions? Where would we be if onions didn’t add zest to American potato salad, or sugar to Pakistani dal, or bind together Chinese dumplings? If ancient Egyptian priests, Jains, Brahmins, warriors and Vaisyas can’t share in my onion harvest that just leaves more for the rest of us.

I swallow the last bite of my onion sandwich and feel full for a moment; full of onion, full of thoughts about the onion-eating pyramid builders that came before us. Peeling onions and looking for your ego can get anybody feeling hollow and teary-eyed, but gather up those aromatic scraps into a meal you can share with friends and you can transform the moment; people will be talking, glasses will be clinking, and spicy lilies will be shaking their hips and harmonizing in the background.

What did those ancient Latins used to say? E Pluribus Onion?

copyright 2009 Andy Griffin
Onion Recipes, including Chinese Dumplings & Pakistani Dal: recipes Julia gathered in travels

Baby Goat Photos we took today

A few Mystery Veggie Boxes at Incanto in San Francisco available for this Thursday, 2-19-09. Read More….

Know Your Weeds: Malva neglecta

Once upon a time marshmallows were made of the sticky juices squeezed from the pulverized roots of marsh mallow, or Althaea officinalis. Nowadays marshmallows are made from a viscous protein solution, like gelatin, that’s been whipped full of air and sugar, but the old name still sticks. The marsh mallow is a weedy relative of Gossypium hirsutum, the cotton plant, Althaea rosea, the hollyhock, and Abelmoshus esculentus, or okra. I don’t grow cotton, hollyhocks, or okra, but my farm is plagued with another mallow, Malva neglecta, or cheeseweed. If you try to pull a cheeseweed up it’s likely to break off above the ground, leaving the roots behind to re-sprout and leaving your hands slimy. The roots of most mallows are typically mucilaginous when you crush them. There’s even a mallow species that scientists have given the name Bastardia viscosa var. sanctae-crucis, or “the viscous Bastardia from Santa Cruz,” in vulgar English.

malvaI know now that a number of different Mallow species have medicinal properties and are said to be good for soothing coughs and healing wounds. In fact, today’s confectionery marshmallow was originally conceived as a palatable delivery system for bitter medicine. One time, when I was traveling in Bolivia, I stayed with a farm family in a lovely hacienda far out in the back country of Tarija Province. When she learned that I was a farmer, the ama de casa was delighted to show me her lovely kitchen garden that took up the entire central courtyard. After lunch, she and her husband took a siesta, but I was restless, so after lying around for a while I decided to do my hostess a favor by pulling up the cheeseweeds I’d seen growing amongst her peppers. How was I to know that they were actually “yerbas curativas,” and very difficult to grow in Bolivia? When she woke up from her nap the good woman was dismayed– she said something about a bicho malo that always ate the malva seedlings before the plants could grow. I felt sad. We certainly don’t have that problem here. American bugs won’t eat Malva neglecta and neither will we. Meanwhile the drug companies get rich selling cough syrup and I pay farm workers to kill malva. It’s too bad I can’t make artisanal, medicinal “field mallows” for you all to roast at home, but the FDA would probably frown on that.

So why, you ask, is Malva neglecta called “cheeseweed” if it’s slimy, fibrous and tough?

MalvaCheeseweed has a schizocarp shaped like a cheese wheel. “Schizocarp” is fancy botanical talk for a fruit that splits up into pieces. The ten seeds that make up each cheeseweed fruit fall to the ground like rain when the plant matures and they remain vital in the soil for years. On bad days I think I can remember hearing a story on National Public Radio where some scientists discovered a ceramic jar full of seeds in an undisturbed Anasazi cave dwelling that was five thousand years old. Hoping to discover new facts about ancient agriculture, the scientists planted the ancient seeds. But only the Malva neglecta sprouted. This tale could just be my paranoia talking, though. So what can a farmer like me do to rid a plot of ground of mallow without resorting to powerful toxic chemicals that also defy the ages?

First, before planting, we pre-irrigate the field we’re going to plant. Mallow seeds sprout almost overnight once they’ve been refreshed with a drink of water. Then we plant our crop. Carrots take fourteen days to germinate, and onions can take ten. The first two leaves, or cotyledons, of a nascent malva plant look like a pair of tiny green valentines. After the mallow seeds have sprouted but before the crop we’ve sown has germinated, we pass over the weedy bed with a hand held gas torch. The mallow seedlings are tender and wilt to death at the merest touch of flame. There is no need to stand over the seedlings and incinerate them. Bigger organic farms use tractor mounted torches and speed down the field. You can think of this organic flame weeding technique as “roasting field mallows” if you want. Burning mallows down the rows is never as fun as roasting marshmallows over the coals, but one thing’s for sure; no matter how much Malva neglecta we’re able to kill there are always “smore” where they came from!

copyright 2009 Andy Griffin

lamb photos from new ones born this week: these have nothing to do with the article above, but they sure are cute!  video of the same lamb batch (I’m just starting my video career, stay tuned for better footage in the future! -julia)

white lamb born this week   ||  funny faced lamb

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