My mother feels that I’m too hard on my children, so when they visit her she likes to spoil them.
“Would you like a piece of chocolate?” she asked Lena one evening.
Lena was watching Loony Toons. “Is it Sharffenberger?” she asked over her shoulder.
I got a phone call about that. But what could I say? I’m a farmer. Many of my friends are farmers, or they have restaurants, or they take cooking seriously, or they have beautiful gardens. For better or worse, My wife and I are surrounded by great food. By the time Lena was seven she was personally acquainted with three chocolate makers. On the “worse” side of the equation, our children have to eat a lot of weird food-like salad.
“I’m not hungry,” Lena says, stirring her salad with her fork.
If I get flack from the kids because I’ve used a light vinaigrette that brings out the flavors of the lettuces, rather than a ranch dressing that cloaks them, I retaliate by telling a story.
“When I was a kid,” I start. “salad was a wedge of iceberg and a pink tomato.”
My son, Graydon, has learned to lay low in such circumstances, but Lena loves combat. She bugs her eyes out and gasps, “Must…must get…must get air.”
Her cynical riposte demands an escalation of rhetoric on my part. I grew up on the Hastings Reserve, a biological field station in the Santa Lucia Mountains managed by the University Of California in Berkeley, so my “when I was a kid” stories can get scientific.
“When I was a kid,” I continue, “I knew a parasitologist who trapped ground squirrels in order to count and examine any flukes residing in their livers. In order to make his research reach a little farther, he’d stew the squirrels up and eat them, once he’d removed the relevant organs.”
Lena is rendered temporarily speechless. Maybe she’s counting the days until she’s eighteen. When Julia and I struggle to get supper on the table for our kids at the end of a long day, and they reject it, I ask myself how, year after year, my parents cooked for my sister and me.
One way, of course, was convenience-my parents weren’t burdened with the ideology Julia and I have adopted of making home-cooked meals with fresh ingredients from producers we know and trust. We had dinner when I was growing up, not cuisine. The meat loaf was sauced with ketchup, the hamburger got “help” from a packet purchased from Safeway, and the chicken wasn’t an heirloom breed, it wasn’t brined, or free range- it was just baked. My parents didn’t cook with passion, but they cooked every day whether they wanted to or not, and I understand now that they cooked with love.
“Sick!” Lena has found her voice. “You’re just sick!”
“He shared his rodents with me,” I continue, ” and what I remember most, besides the bags of frozen squirrels in his ice box, with manila data tags dangling from their curled toes, recording the dates, times, and locations of capture, was spitting out bones. Bones, bones, and more bones.
“Completely, totally, absolutely gross!”
“The squirrels I ate at the parasitologist’s table were tastier, and tenderer that the rattlesnakes I ate with the herpetologist though.”
“Maybe the rattlers should have been brined.”
Observing with delight his sister’s discomfort with the salad and the conversation, Graydon asks for seconds on both.
“Can I have more salad? And please, tell us another story, Pappa.”
“Well, man cannot live off of meat alone. There was one post-graduate I grew up with, Dr. Michael MacRoberts, who studied the social habits of the California Acorn Woodpecker. The problem with eating acorns is that they’re very tannic when fresh. The Esselen Indians solved this problem by cracking the acorns and putting them in a woven basket in a fast moving creek to leach for a few weeks. Then they’d dry them and make flour. But there was no water in the creek when Michael was hungry and the acorns were ripe. So do you know what he did.?”
“Do we have to know?” Lena asks.
“He filled a plastic mesh bag with acorns and suspended it in the reservoir tank at the back of the toilet. That way, every time the toilet was flushed the tank was drained, and the water that had become infused with tannins was swept away. It wasn’t a babbling brook, but it worked. After several weeks of soaking I helped him grind the acorns, and we made gruel.”
“Maybe this salad should soak in the toilet,” Lena says.
Dinner conversation is going down hill fast, and I can tell I’ve taken my stories to far. I shut up, but I can’t stop remembering.
The field station where we lived was remote, the better for all the wild animals to go about their natural business uninhibited by the public, as scientists peered at them through spotting scopes, made notes about their various manners of sexual congress, or analyzed their feces, their feeding patterns, and their social structures. My father was a botanist, so he had only had to walk out the door of our home and he was at work in the middle of his living laboratory, with the wild hills and fields surrounding him. But my mom was a school teacher, and she had to get up at 5:30 AM and commute to Salinas, where she taught, thirty miles away. When she came home at 5:30 PM, mom had to cook for the family. Myfather deserves credit; as often as not, he cooked the meal.
Every once in a while my father’s boss, Dr. Frank Pitelka, would visit the reserve to inspect the work going on, and while he was there he would stay at our home. Dr. Pitelka was an erudite gentleman and when he was “at table” he liked to talk about food. It was the early seventies. Dr. Pitelka would sit down for dinner, look at the salad my mom had prepared, and begin to wax misty-eyed about this “charming little place on upper Shattuck called Chez Panisse, where they serve the most delicious mesclun salads.”
I know now that the word mesclun, the name of Dr. Pitelka’s favorite salad, comes from the Vulgar Latin verb misculare, meaning to mix thoroughly. I didn’t learn that at table. In between bites of shredded iceberg Dr. Pitelka only said that mesclun salad was a perfectly balanced mix of tastes, textures, and colors. In distant Berkeley, within the confines of what journalists would one day come to call the “Gourmet Ghetto” these perfect little salads were causing quite a stir. Mesclun salad remained an abstract notion for me until I was in college myself, at the University Of California in Davis.
I got a summer job on a farm on Garden Highway, north of Sacramento, owned by a fellow named John Hudspeth who worked at Chez Panisse restaurant.
On John’s farm I learned first hand about a world of lettuces I’d never heard of before like Merveille de Quatre Saissons, Rouge d’Hiver and Lollo Rossa. We even grew a lettuce named La Reins de Glace, from the French for “Ice Queen”, which can fairly be described as an iceberg lettuce that speaks French. But exotic salad greens weren’t the only crops John introduced me to. We grew an atlas of crops for Chez Panisse, from Sicilian purple artichokes, Black Spanish radish and French Breakfast radishes to Florentine Fennel, Lebanese squash and Hamburg parsley. I’m a horse that was led to water and drank. I’m still growing these crops thirty years later.
I was still working at John’s farm on Garden Highway when I visited my parents one Labor Day weekend. Dr. Pitelka was “at table.” Mom had prepared spaghetti and meat balls, with cantaloupe wedges for desert. Frank started in about “this perfect little French restaurant on upper Shattuck where the very ripest, most flawless Charentais melons are paired with prosciutto.” I cut him off.
“Chez Panisse doesn’t get the very best Charentais melons,” I said.
“Have you ever eaten at Chez Panisse, young man?” he asked.
“No, I haven’t,” I replied, “but I work on a garden that supplies them, and when I see the very best Charentais melon, a melon that is beyond compare in the beauty of its form and the succulence and scent of its flesh, since I’m only a farm worker and I can’t afford to eat at Chez, I cut that melon open, and I pop the slices in my mouth until the juice runs down my chin.”
Years later, my mother thanked me for those comments.
copyright 2007 Andy Griffin
Salad Dressing Recipes: Since Andy wrote about salad, I thought I’d pass on two of my favorite salad dressing recipes from two of my friends. -julia
Honey Mustard Cilantro Dressing
recipe by Chef Andrew Cohen
1C cilantro stems
1/4 C water
1/4 lime juice(or lime/lemon or lemon)
1/4 C honey
1/4 dijon mustard
salt and pepper to taste
1 small clove of garlic peeled(optional)
Puree in blender til smooth, then through opening in top add olive oil slowly until the hole at the center of the dressing disappears. This is usually the proper amount of oil for a properly emulsified vinaigrette.
Options: use some cayenne powder to heat it up. Use 3:1 basil to flat leaf parsley instead of cilantro and use red wine vinegar instead of citrus juice.
Creamy Salad Dressing
from Full Moon Feast by Jessica Prentice
you can make this a blue cheese dressing by adding 1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese to it before tossing the salad
1/4 cup creme fraiche
1 egg yolk (optional)
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon vinegar (white wine or apple)
generous pinch of salt
fresh ground pepper to taste
In a large bowl, whisk the creme fraiche into the egg yolk, and then whisk in the olive oil. Add them vinegar, salt and pepper. Put the cleaned lettuce leaves directly into the bowl and toss before serving.