Eating the Profits

Two types of tomatillo in a molcajete.The tomatillo is related to the tomato. Its fruits look like immature green tomatoes wrapped in a papery husk, and they’re used throughout Latin America to make salsa verde, or else fried, baked, used in soups, or sliced thin for salads or
sandwiches. The cultivar of tomatillo I usually grow is called Toma Verde. Of the half-dozen or so garden varieties of tomatillo available, Toma Verde is perhaps the most widely cultivated here in the United States. 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- or because of- Toma Verde’s impressive list of domestic virtues, Ramiro Campos told me it was an insipid excuse for a tomatillo.

Ramiro worked for me as the foreman on my farm. We had a long history together. When I was a foreman at Frogland Farm in Watsonville I hired Ramiro as a harvester. When I got a job with Riverside Farms in Aromas as harvest manager, he went with me. When Riverside Farm grew and I became a co-owner, Ramiro became our head foreman, responsible to oversee production across hundreds of acres. Before I got married I shared my house with Ramiro, his wife Amparo, his baby daughter, and his sister. For me, living with the Campos family was better than a trip to Mexico. I got a chance to learn Spanish in a family setting, and I got to eat home-cooked Mexican food like I’ve never tasted in restaurants.

“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 these Toma Verde again!”

There’s a flat one-acre field with decent soil below my house. Ramiro proposed that we grow a garden on it with the foods he missed from Mexico, like fresh garbanzo beans and tomatillos de milpa. If I donated the field to the project and the tractor to work the soil, he’d do the sowing and cultivating. Ramiro’s brother, Renato, could help with the harvesting, and if I loaned my pick-up to the cause, Renato’s wife, Chupina, would sell the crops in the town of Pajaro. We’d split the profits equally. “Pajaro is full Jaliscanos, right off the ranch,” he said. “They’ll line up for fresh garbanzos and tomatillos de milpa like they’re buying bus tickets.”

I considered Ramiro’s idea carefully. All we had for water was a spring on the hillside that had been dug out by great-grandfather and lined with bricks. A little domestic pump brought the water up to the house, and we barely had enough flow from the spring to wash the dishes, bathe five people, and flush the toilet. “It’s an interesting idea,” I said. “But we don’t have much water. If we raise a crop, but we can’t clean our clothes, and your baby’s dirty, then where’s the profit?”

“Someday you’ll visit us at our ranch in Jalisco, Andres, and you’ll see how much we do without water. We’re thrifty. We can grow garbanzos and tomatillos de milpa without irrigation.”

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 the 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, then the crops will root into damp soil follow the moisture down as the water table recedes in the summer. We’ll keep the field clean, so we don’t lose any moisture to weeds. Without irrigation, a second crop of weeds won’t sprout, and we’ll get a harvest without much labor.”

I didn’t have much to lose.

Ramiro’s uncle came back from a Christmas visit to Jalisco, bringing 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 to garbanzos, and half the beds he left blank to soak up more rain. He planted trays with tomatillo seed in my greenhouse. As 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,” he said, “nothing tastes as much like spring as fresh garbanzos. Shell the beans while they’re still tender and plump, then fry them in a little butter- a moment, no more- until they’re bright green. Wrap them in a tortilla with a little salsita, and maybe some scrambled eggs, or eat them by the bowl.”

“I’m sure glad I didn’t sign on to do the labor in this project,” I said. “Because 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, Andres,” Ramiro said. ” We pick the whole plants, and make huge bunches tied with twine. Then we pile the back of the pick-up high with them. The amas de casa, the housewives- when they walk down the street and see the mountains of fresh garbanzos in the truck, they’ll crowd around, hungry for a taste of home- they buy the bunches. 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? The women don’t have time to shell the 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 in filtered shade. The garbanzo leaves exude a golden liquid, 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 harvested the first garbanzos, and Amparo prepared a meal. 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. I’ll put fresh garbanzos up against English peas in a grudge match any day. And the garbanzo water? On a hot afternoon in the fields, a thermos bottle full of cool garbazo 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 tomatillo plants amidst the rosemary.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.”

“Compared to los tomatillos de milpa, Toma Verde are insipid,” Ramiro promised.

“The proof is in the salsa,” I said.

Ramiro filled the crown of a cowboy hat with tomatillos de milpa. The fruits were smaller than Toma Verde, 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.

“You’ll see,” Ramiro said, holding out the hat for me to inspect. “The small size of the tomatillos de milpa doesn’t come at the cost of flavor. All that’s missing is the taste of muddy irrigation water, so the salsa verde will be rich, just like it is on the ranch.”

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. 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, arms outstretched, hungry for a taste of home. But they didn’t want to pay any more for the garbanzos in the U.S. than they did back in Jalisco. Price affects appetite. Ramiro ended up giving bunches of fresh garbanzo away for free to the workers on our farm. They paid him in praise.

When Ramiro and Renato harvested the tomatillos de milpa, they loaded the pick-up, and drove with Renato’s wife, 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- “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 regular Toma Verde tomatillos down the street at the fruteria in Watsonville. “Un peso! Un peso,” they cried, thrusting single dollar bills in Chupina’s face.

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/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 paid Renato out of pocket to help pick the tomatillos de milpa, but his harvest costs weren’t covered costs by the sales. On top of that, he paid Chupina for the time she spent trying to sell the tomatillos de milpa on the street corner. He was cross, but I was happy. “We’ve profited equally,” I said. Ramiro shot me a questioning glance.

“Now I know how good food on the ranch can be. And now you understand why I calculate 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, and 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. (A local jewelry store) 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, eating like a campesino is a luxury!” I could afford to make light of the situation. Ramiro was eating crow, and I was enjoying home-cooked Mexican food.

Maybe Ramiro gets the last laugh. When their daughter reached school ge, 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. I’ve tried twice, and failed both times, to grow fresh garbanzos, but every spring in the field below my house Ramiro’s wild tomatillos de milpa sprout like weeds among my herb beds, whether we work the soil, or not. It’s my business if I choose to grow Toma Verde, but Ramiro might say it’s my own damn fault if I choose to eat them.

Copyright 2007 Andy Griffin

Tomatillo Recipes

4 Responses to “Eating the Profits”

  1. 1 Kim Williams

    Thank you so much for this beautiful story. What a lucky man you are!
    I look forward to the next regale of words.
    Best regards, Kim

  2. 2 Kate Malsbury

    I stumbled across your wonderful blog whilst looking to see if I could meet up with an old friend (I have known Julia since before I could speak) when I am in San Francisco later this year. Sadly (and as eloquently described here), as you are no longer a part of the farmer’s market there I missed out on that opportunity, but have definitely gained an inspired read. Thank you for your humor and insight!

  3. 3 julia

    Kim: Andy’s next piece is nearly ready. Stay tuned.

    Kate: email my anytime: I find myself in SF now and again: I’d LOVE to see you. I remember the day you were born! (remember we share a birthday, that was a big deal to a 10 year old.)

    julia at mariquita dot com.

    I hope to hear from you soon.


  4. 4 Katie

    I enjoy reading your blog so much! Thanks for sharing. I work with local farmers here in Southern California (Santa Monica Farmers’ market, etc.,) and it’s great to hear about what our friends up north are doing. I’ve encouraged a friend of mine up north to join your CSA… looks awesome!

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