Archive for May, 2009

Potatoes

Purple potatoes, freshly dugFive Quechua girls followed me down the steep cobbled street at a distance, giggling, until one of them got up the nerve to dash past and confront me. “Would you please come to my house for tea?” she asked.

Her friends crowded around. They were thirteen or fourteen years old, dressed alike in the matching skirts and dark sweaters of their school uniform and their hair was tied back in long black, glossy braids. Having gotten over their shyness, they made the quantum leap to boldness and began pelting me with questions en patota; “Are you German? Why are you here? Do you like our town? Have you been to Miami? Are you married?”

“Shut up,” barked out the boss girl to her companions. “He’ll answer our questions one by one in a proper interview.”

“Why, yes,” I replied. “I would be delighted to come to your house for tea.”

The girls went into a brief huddle, and arrangements were made. One girl wrote out the address on a piece of note paper, another girl drew a map, and a third girl left to get some cookies. “We’re looking forward to visiting with you at 5:30,” they said. “Please don’t stand us up.”

They didn’t need to worry. I’d been traveling alone in Bolivia for a month. It was 1991. I’d been a farm worker for years but my first attempt at managing a business had ended in failure a few months before when a hard frost destroyed all my crops and froze my cash flow. Bolivia seemed like a good place to go and look at my life from a distance. I was just coming back from a walk in the mountains when the girls stopped me. It was late in the day and windy. I was cold and tired. Hot tea and feminine company sounded nice. These bronze faced girls were bright eyed and charming. I was curious to see how they lived.

I scrubbed up at the room where I was staying and found a clean shirt. The town was tiny, so the girl’s street wasn’t hard to find. I made sure to knock on the door precisely at 5:30, and the leader of the pack welcomed me into her home. I entered a small living room with a sofa against one wall. My young hostess motioned for me to sit. Her friends brought in chairs from the rest of the house and sat around the edge of the room with their backs to the walls. Hanging from the walls was a framed image of La Virgen del Socavón, a clock, and a calendar with a shiny picture of the Swiss Alps. The Alps looked like the painted backdrop for a toy train layout compared to the sullen peaks of the Andean Cordillera that loomed up outside. In the middle of the floor and almost filling the room was an immense pile of freshly dug potatoes.

The girls poured cups of mate de coca and passed around the cookies. After they each spilled a ritual drop of tea onto the floor they got down to business. “Are you German? Why are you here? Do you like our town? Have you been to Miami? Are you married?”

“One at a time,” I pleaded. So the girls slowed down and introduced themselves. Their homework was to study a foreign country and I looked foreign. I swung at their questions almost as fast as they pitched; “No, I wasn’t German. Yes, I liked Bolivia. No, I didn’t have children yet, although yes, I was already 32 years old, but no, I hadn’t met the right woman yet, and yes, I’d been to Miami, but no, I don’t live there, and anyway California is nice too.” I even tried to ask the girls a few questions of my own.

“How come you keep the potatoes in the house?” I asked.

“Because they’ll freeze outside or someone will steal them,” the girl said.

“In California I’m a farmer and I grow potatoes,” I said.

“Oh, everyone grows potatoes,” another girl said. I suppose she was right, at least in her world.

Red Potato Plant, ready to dig upHer world was harsh. In the Andes the day may dawn icy, but by mid-morning the sun can be hot on your back. After sundown the temperatures drop again, until your hands and feet are numb. The atmosphere is thin and the air is dry. The sky overhead is deep blue by day, and by night it is jet black and sparkles with majestic drifts of stars. Outer space seems close.

Most people in Bolivia live on the Altiplano, which means “high plains” in Spanish. The Altiplano is high– the altitude ranges from 9,000 feet above sea-level to around 14,000 feet– but the land is nothing close to being as flat as its name implies. The daily extremes of temperatures in the Andes have prompted a number of plants to evolve tuberous growth habits. A tuber is a swollen, underground stem that stores up energy so that if a “killing frost” burns off all the foliage above the ground, the plant still has enough life protected under an insulating mantel of soil to sprout again. The concentrated sugars and starches found in tubers have made a number of them important food crops. The sweet potato, for example, is a tuberous morning glory from Peru that’s now cultivated all over the world. Andeans also cultivate an edible tuberous oxalis, called oca. Potatoes are tuberous nightshades that evolved in the Andes, and they are cultivated there in great profusion.

While we find just few varieties of potatoes on our supermarket shelves, a farmer’s market in Bolivia has potatoes of every imaginable shape and color heaped up for display. Little marble sized potatoes are piled up next to long, skinny ones and big round ones in colors ranging from blues, reds and purples to yellows, whites and browns. The potatoes heaped on the living room floor where I attended the tea party were brown.

Bolivian farmers have turned the extreme climatic conditions they must contend with to their advantage, and they use Mother Nature’s mood swings to preserve their harvests for the hard times they know lie ahead. Potatoes are cut into pieces and laid out on rocks under the sun to dry, while the farm dogs prowl and bark any marauding crows away. At night, any residual surface moisture that sweats out from the potato chunks is frozen into a spiky beard of ice crystals, which evaporate in the morning sun. After a few days of this treatment, the potato slices are essentially freeze-dried. These black leathery potato chips are called chuño, and can be kept without spoiling almost indefinitely. Chuño is an acquired taste, but when you get used to it, it’s earthy and satisfying in stews and broths.

Life isn’t easy in the Andes. Half the people I met in Bolivia talked of making their way to Miami. But among traditional people, it is still considered polite to thank the earth goddess, Pachamama, for the blessing of food. Even as the Virgin of the Mines looks down from the wall, the people will spill a drop of their beverage or let a crumb of their food fall to the ground before taking a drink or swallowing a bite. “A taste for Pachamama,” they’ll murmur, “a taste for me.” I heard this phrase so often in Bolivia that I began to notice the people who didn’t give thanks for what they had. Spilling drinks and food makes for sticky floors on buses and in public places but in the absence of any SPCA, giving “tastes” to Pachamama also keeps skinny, stray Bolivian dogs alive. Bolivia can be a tough place, but the habit everyday people there have of giving “thanks” lends a hard and austere country a grace that even affluent countries can aspire

When the tea party was over my mob of hostesses hopped up from their chairs and thanked me profusely for helping them with their homework.

Encantado,” I said. “The pleasure was mine.”

——

Text and Photos, copyright 2009 Andy Griffin

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Corn

sweet corn on the grillOn Saturday we planted corn. I hope the crop is a success because the seed was expensive. My friend, John Bauer, is a seed salesman and he brought me a sweet corn variety he swears by. John used to farm in Massachusetts and he grew a lot of corn. Out here in California among us coastal growers more accustomed to planting broccoli, lettuce, or strawberries, he’s something of a “Johnny Corn Seed,” tramping the country and promoting the merits of Zea mays. John hauled a fifty pound sack of corn seed out of the bed of his pick-up truck by its ears and flopped it onto the barn floor. “There,” he said. “When your crew gets a taste of this sweet corn they’re going to think they’ve died and gone to heaven.

I looked at the bag of gold that lay between us. “I don’t know about that,” I said.

“Are you kidding?” he said. “This corn is like candy!”

The sun had already set and there was food on the stove in the kitchen and a bottle of wine on the table so I said, “come on in.” John and I sat down to dinner and talked about corn.

“This corn isn’t cheap,” he said, “but every seed will germinate, even in cold soil. You’re going to want to drop seed in a single row on forty inch centers with a six-inch spacing.”

That sounded easy. The way I farm, all my planting beds are forty inches wide. The axel on my tractor is set at eighty inches, so it can straddle two beds at once, and all my sowing and cultivating implements are set to accommodate those dimensions.

“Do you have a corn planter?” John asked.

John’s got that whole “Yankee ingenuity thing” going on. He thrives on building seed sleds, mechanical cultivators and other labor saving devices. I’m all thumbs. I don’t have much equipment on my farm, and since I’ve never grown a lot of corn, it’s never made sense for me to buy a special seeder. Besides, there’s my crew to think of.

“You know that ten acre piece on the south side of San Miguel Canyon Road,” I asked,” where the road leaves the valley and heads up into the hills?

Seed dealers get around. “Sure,” John said. “It’s in strawberries.”

“I farmed that ground in 1990,” I said. “Ofelio and his brother Juan worked with me then and they asked if they could grow a patch of corn at the edge of the field. Every time we irrigated the rows in that part of the field they’d put on an extra length of pipe and water their corn too.”

John could see where I was heading. “Did they grow field corn?” he asked.

Mexican Corn“Well, Mexican corn” I said. Corn has been in cultivation a long time– between 7000 to 12,000 years according to some estimates– and archeobotanists trace its origins to the Rio Balsas in Mexico, not far from Jacona, where Ofelio and Juan grew up.

“Those two were old school,” I said. “Ofelio had a face like a toad. Juan looked like the Indian on the nickel, except that he always wore a cowboy hat, and he had a cast over his left eye, so he was half blind. They didn’t buy their corn from a catalogue. When it came time for seed they went to De La Colmena Market and bought a ten pound bag of the same purple Michoacano corn Ofelio’s wife used for pozole.”

No other plant that has been fiddled with by humans as much as corn. Probably working from Teosinte, a wild grass that is the most likely proto corn, Native American farmers evolved varieties that were adapted to many different environments, from cold mountain highlands to humid tropical lowlands.  The culture of corn spread across the Americas like a shock wave, reaching south-eastern Canada to the north and Chile to the south. There were thousands of varieties of corn just in ancient Mexico. The kind of corn Ofelio and Juan liked had big, fat, starchy lavender kernels with a dent in the tip

“They planted it by hand?” John asked.

“Well, first they soaked the corn seed in a bucket of water,” I said. “Then they sharpened a couple of willow sticks. When the corn swelled up they dumped it into feed bags, and threw the bags over their shoulders. They poked holes in the soil with their sticks, let five or six seeds drop from the bags into each hole, scuffed a little dirt with their feet to cover it all, and took another step; poke, poke, drop, drop, scuff, scuff, step, step, over and over until the whole patch was planted.” Ofelio and Juan had come north during the Bracero program in the 50s. Since then, they’d been paid to do every kind of farm work in the US except plant corn by hand, but the rhythm of corn sowing they’d learned as kids stayed with them their whole lives.

“If you don’t have to plant a lot of seed, sowing corn by hand works just fine,” John said.

“Then on Sunday,” I said, “Ofelio’s wife and daughter would get dressed up and go to mass down at the Church of the Assumption in Pajaro, but Ofelio and Juan would worship the corn god.”

“They’d do what?” John asked.

“They’d throw a couple of folding in chairs and an ice chest into the back of Ofelio’s Datsun pick-up and head out to their milpa.”

A milpa is an ingenious agricultural system the ancient Mexicans developed. They planted corn in little hills, and at the foot of the corn stalks they planted beans. The beans grow with the corn, trailing up the stalks. In between the hills of corn they planted squash. The milpa is an example of the potential felicitous harmony between the earth and the human body; the corn supports the beans, the beans, being legumes, fix atmospheric nitrogen and enrich the soil for the corn, and the big, broad squash leaves shade out the weeds. Corn, squash and beans, eaten together, also make for a balanced human diet. Milpa agriculture doesn’t work in a production economy where labor costs are high, but as a form of subsistence agriculture, it is genius.

young purple corn plants“Juan and Ofelio would poke around in their garden for an hour or two, weeding or watching out for gophers, and by noon they’d retire to the shade of an oak tree nearby, and open up their folding chairs and a couple of beers. They’d tune their radio to the oldies station that spun Ranchera hits by singers like Vicente Fernandez, or Rocío Dúrcal, and they’d hang out. They could make twelve ounces of Budweiser last for hours.”

“How did their corn taste?” John wanted to know. In the US, some dent corn varieties are used to make hominy grits, but many are grown for livestock feed.

“Well, it depends,” I said. “Sweet corn gets right to the point– small plant, big ears, fast growth. But their corn grew, and grew, and grew. When the ears were finally starting to fill out, and the kernels were in the milk, they picked some and Ofelio’s wife made special tamales, not out of masa from dried corn, but from the fresh corn she scraped off the cob with a knife. And instead of wrapping the tamales in dried corn husks, she used green corn husks. Those tamales were sweet, and just about the best Mexican food I’ve ever had.

“And then when they found some ears infected with corn fungus, so that the kernels were all swollen and black and distorted, they picked them and took them home as cuitlacoche.
Cuitlacoche looks gross, but it has kind of an earthy, smoky flavor when it’s cooked that’s real good, like mushrooms.

“When the kernels were still fresh, but turning lavender, they’d roast them in their husks over the barbecue and bring them to work to eat cold. I thought their corn on the cob was pretty chewy, but they said it had authentic corn flavor. Who am I to argue? And in the end, when the corn was dried, they took all they had left to Ofelio’s wife for pozole, so I guess you could say their corn tasted like home.”

So maybe Ofelio or Juan wouldn’t be entirely happy with my sweet corn, but my daughter and my wife will be, so I’m looking forward to our harvest. Last Friday I hauled the seed out to the field. I took the big sack by its ears and hauled it off the truck. José opened the bag and reached for a handful of the yellow kernels. He’s from Oaxaca, not too far to the south from Rio Balsas. José looked skeptical. “These seeds sure are small,” he said, “but before we plant them we’ll soak them in water. They’ll swell right up.”

copyright 2009 Andy Griffin

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