Winter Reading

baby romaine lettuceWinter Reading I’m a farmer, so when the fields are muddy and the tractors are parked I like to snuggle up on the couch with my most recent copy of Vogue Magazine. Sure, I get the agricultural trade journals, like the Ag Alert and the CAFF newsletter, but Jeffery Steingarten only writes for Vogue. Food is the lens through which I look at the world, and Mr. Steingarten is one of my favorite food writers. He must take evil glee in writing about food for a magazine that caters to size one women. For those of you who don’t read Vogue, The Man Who Ate Everything is great collection of his essays. To further my professional development I read all kinds of books about food and cooking, but sometimes the best food writing shows up in books that aren’t about food at all. 

Right now I’m working my way through The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle. This is a “no-food” book. If it had been written now, instead of in 1833, the chapter I’m reading now might have been titled “The Women Who Had Nothing to Eat,” or “French Women Can’t Get Fat.” As Carlyle relates, generations of appalling Royal French agricultural policy combined with a freak August hailstorm that destroyed the nation’s grain crop to bring France to the brink of famine. Meanwhile, a Popular Assembly convenes at the Palace to create a new constitution for the nation. Day by day, legislators discuss the Rights of Man. Month by month the nation’s remaining grain reserves of are drawn down. To remind their leaders that “those with food have many problems, but those without it have only one,” the women of Paris rise up and storm Versaille. When they encounter bodyguards at the gates the women are turned back, but not before wounding two soldiers and killing one warhorse. They cook the horse. A day later, they penetrate to the Assembly as it debates criminal law. “What is the use of Penal Code?” the women shout. “The thing we want is Bread.”

But women don’t want to live off of bread alone. Culture evolves when there’s enough food available that people can chew their meals slowly and ruminate on what life means. Charles Darwin is so famous for his speculations concerning the origins of species that his food writing came as a surprise to me. In The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin recounts stumbling over fossilized mastodon skulls on the Pampas and he ruminates on the implications of the shark’s teeth he finds imbedded in rocks high up in the Andes, but he also focuses his considerable forensic powers on his dinner plate. One night Darwin finds himself eating a jaguar. Jeffery Steingarten has yet to eat a jaguar. Another night, in the Falkland Islands, Darwin watches a gaucho catch a wild cow with a lariat and roast chunks of fresh beef over coals in a platter of it’s own skin. “If any worthy alderman had supped with us that evening,” Darwin writes, “’carne con cuero,’” without doubt, would soon have been celebrated in London!”

Jeffery Steingarten might try to test Darwin’s theory by hiring gauchos to capture a wild cow and prepare carne con cuero at a sophisticated supper club before discovering that there are no wild cows in London. Mr. Steingarten frequently makes fun of his skyscraping, cosmopolitan urbanity. But prior to reading The Voyage of the Beagle I‘d always thought of Darwin purely as an explorer of remote wilderness worlds. It turns out that even by 1836, when Darwin sailed on the Beagle, South America had already been profoundly changed by agriculture. In the Parana River delta Darwin describes vast, thorny thickets of wild peach and orange trees resulting from colonial orchards gone to seed. On the Pampas Darwin encounters thickets of feral cardoon over five hundred square miles in extension, and he reflects on the role that careless livestock husbandry has played in the degradation of the environment. It’s interesting to see articles in the food press these days that challenge the choices we consumers make when we feed ourselves, but Darwin was there first. In 1836, the environmental ethics of food production was true terra incognita.

Then there’s Beatrix Potter, the gentle storyteller of ordered English landscapes. In The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, Beatrix Potter uses the soporific effects of lettuce as the dramatic device by which Farmer McGregor catches six bunnies. Before I flipped the third page I knew things wouldn’t go well for Farmer McGregor, but as a lettuce grower he had my sympathy. I put the Potter book down and turned to my copy of The Oxford Companion to Food, to learn more about the pharmacological properties of lettuce.

I learned that in the beginning there was Lactuca serriola, or wild lettuce, which grew on rocky or disturbed ground across Asia, North Africa, and Europe. In the spring wild lettuces are tender, with a bitter flavor that isn’t unpalatable if you’re starving. The plant earned a reputation as a somniferous herb. One variety of wild lettuce worked well enough as a relaxant to pick up the common name “wild opium.” The garden varieties of lettuce we know now as Lactuca sativa are cultivars improved from Lactuca serriola ruthless selection and assiduous cultivation on the part of farmers. It’s only in senescence that our lush, full-headed garden lettuces begin to look like their wild lettuce cousins, with long, tough, bitter leaves. And it’s only as it nears the bitter end of its life that Lactuca sativa retains any somniferous qualities. Sure enough, on page 23 of The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies there’s a picture of the bunnies nibbling on the lettuces, and Beatrix Potter shows the plants very far gone to seed. No wonder the Flopsy Bunnies got stoned. Don’t worry about the lettuces we’re sowing for you. When we harvest them, they’ll be young and tender. It’s a mark of how much lettuce has been changed that an herb once valued for inducing a dream-state can now be extolled as an invigorating salad green.

In the end, the Flopsy Bunnies are saved by a mouse. Beatrix Potter is no Steingarten, Carlyle, or Darwin. By lulling young readers with a drowsy tale of lettuce and bunnies, she makes the night comfy. But even for farmers like me, who might resent the fictional breaks she gives to varmints, there are reasons to admire Beatrix Potter. Carlyle and Darwin drew their readers’ attention to the dire consequences of shortsighted agricultural policy, but Beatrix Potter did something about it. She invested her earnings from her animal tales in farmland. She knew the best way to preserve the countryside is by protecting working farms, so that consumers can eat fresh, local food, farmers and farm workers remain gainfully employed, and the landscape is well husbanded. When Beatrix Potter passed away she passed her properties on to the National Trust, and today the land the Flopsy Bunnies paid for lies at the heart of England’s Lake Country National Park. I’m looking forward to a day when it’s in vogue for everyone who eats to take farming as seriously as Beatrix Potter did, and I see Community Supported Agriculture programs like the Two Small Farms CSA, and other farmers’s efforts at direct marketing as a step in that direction. Thank you for your support.

 copyright 2008 Andy Griffin

2 Responses to “Winter Reading”

  1. 1 Tom Willey

    What a Feb. food rap! I need to lay up on the couch more in the winter as I can only read one book at a time under present circumstances. I need to put more levity in my writing. You always inspire me in that direction.Masterful!

  2. 2 Leilani

    Obviously I need to expand my reading list this winter! (I really enjoy your blog, btw…)

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