Friday, October 21, 2011

Suburban Harvest

Every year my brother and his family celebrate the harvest festival at Ardenwood Historic Farm in Fremont, CA. You may recall Fremont as the stateside setting for Khaled Hosseini's novel The Kiterunner. Amir settles in this quiet suburban town after his dramatic escape from his native Kabul. With the largest Afghani population outside of Afghanistan, Fremont is known as "little Kabul" and hosts incredible culinary delights such as fluffy bolani and pillowey aushak at its local Afghani restaurants.

My introduction to harvest was through a different but equally exotic culinary experience.

The main bounty at Ardenwood's harvest is the dried corncobs which feed the animals who reside on the farm. Those same cobs go through an amazing transformation in the common kitchen with the addition of a paper bag and a microwave oven. I was introduced to this wonder while watching Finding Nemo at my brother's house. One cob, folded into a plain paper bag, three minutes. I stood with my nieces in delighted anticipation staring at the glowing box (the one in the kitchen) listening to the staccato explosions inside the bag. Opening it revealed the lightest, freshest popcorn in the world. Half popped kernels still clung to the cob like snow on a branch.

It's become a tradition to visit my brother's family at the tail end of October, when I'm in San Francisco for the Fall Antiques Show, and I've selected the raw materials for my jack o' lanterns from the Ardenwood pumpkin patch three years running. This year I visited during the weekend of harvest at the start of the month, so not only did I find my jack o' lantern to be, I had my first chance to pick future popcorn in the Ardenwood cornfields.

Entering the farm you pass neat rows of crops bordered with bright flowers: lettuces, peas, pumpkins, depending on the season. A small stand just inside the main gate sells freshly picked produce. 

Ardenwood is a working turn of the century farm, and the site of a Victorian home and garden built by George Washington Patterson in 1847. Eucalyptus lined pathways guide you through the grounds. You might encounter Tucker, the massive quadruped in charge of the horse drawn railroad. You'll find a smithy banging the fire out of metal to produce workable farm tools and practical art. The kids can muscle the old water pump or crank the handle of the cider press to extract the golden juice from winter's best fruit. You can commune with the animals who eat the corn you're about to pick: cows, pigs, sheep and goats among them. 

During harvest women in bonnets and plain cotton dresses bake cookies in old wood burning stoves and serve them to the guests. Those same women hand out gloves and huge hemp sacks at the edge of the corn rows to all those who come to pick.

Walking down the aisle between fields of indian corn on the south and yellow corn on the north, my feet sank into the dark black dirt. This is not the dirt I'm used to, that pale powder in empty lots in the city. This, in fact, is not dirt at all, but soil, rightly distinguished for its richness. Against the pale color of the dried out stalks the earth was radiant. We took big empty sacks and work gloves (the corn scratches at your skin so even on this hot October day we wore jeans and long sleeves) and parted the stalks to enter the corn. 

The dry stalks rustled, and the closely planted rows hushed the sounds around us. I quickly lost sight of my nieces and sister in law as they pushed through to find the downward hanging husks that indicate unpicked corn inside the tightly bound package. I dropped the scratchy burlap sack from my shoulder and grabbed a husk nearby. I could feel the weight of the hard corn inside, and began to pull back the papery vanilla leaves a handful at a time. I plucked the yellow cob and dropped it into the open sack waiting at my feet. 

There was something soothing about grabbing the stalk, pulling the husk back, plucking the corn, adding it to the growing weight of the sack. Working my way down the line all I really saw was the stalk towering before me, corn filling my vision completely, my hands working purposefully, almost rhythmically. I added cobs to the bag, hoisted it over my shoulder, and moved on to another stalk. 

Looking back down the row, each emptied husk looked like an overblown flower. The tall stalks were covered with the pale flames of them.

With our bags getting heavy we moved to the other field where the indian corn grew. These stalks were more heavily picked, and more thinly planted: the indian corn is, after all, only decorative. The stalks were bent low where people had pulled them low to grab for corn at the top. I began to pull back the husks to reveal the cranberry glow inside, when my nieces stopped me. "We like to play a game where we guess the color inside as we shuck them." So I began to wrest the whole unopened packages off the stalk and plop them in the bag.

When we had picked our load (it was a great lesson in greed - the 4 foot sacks are incredibly heavy even at half capacity so you feel the burden in proportion to your movie treat gluttony). We carried them down to the eucalyptus grove to clean them up and divide them. We did our work on a carpet of discarded husks. The farm takes a third or half of what you pick to fill the cribs for the year, and you get to keep the other portion. This is all on the honor system - no weighing or bag checks, you simply fill your grocery sacks, deposit some and carry some out. 

My nieces began to play their shucking game, one calling out a color of the rainbow as the other pulled back the leaves to reveal the hues hiding inside. The colors of the corn were simply breathtaking. Purple and red and yellow. A single cob could have every color of the spectrum. And each kernel itself was a gem: a close look showed swirls of color on each shiny fat kernel, like someone had streaked red ink through the white, pink or orange. It reminded me of marbles, excellent cookery, those tubes of plastic paste I got as a kid.  It came with a straw and you blew a blop of the paste into a particolored balloon.

We made a trip to the pumpkin patch after depositing our corn haul in the van. Standing in the black soil I watched the gourds bask in the deepening afternoon light. Families meandered, each member looking for the perfect shape, the fruit that would best express their vision. Children were dwarfed by some of the largest ones. Others, a deeper red orange, were squat and close to the ground. Those droplets of autumn color, the orange of new beginnings, creativity and joy, glowed on the rich earth. It was warmth, perfection, fullness. I held all that bounty in my heart this harvest.

Ardenwood Historic Farm
Fremont, CA

Salang Pass Restaurant
Fremont, CA

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Eat it or wear it!

In my early twenties I worked for an English firm that specialized in toiletries and fine comestibles. The connection between food and soap was jarring and unnatural to some (the same people who squinch up their noses at my favorite lavender fondant chocolates from Harrod’s of London, or rose saffron ice cream at Mashti Malone’s in Hollywood, or perhaps even the juniper nose out front of a Pliny the Elder from Russian River brewing). But in fact the best soaps and lotions as well as the best lunches come straight from the garden. Nature inside and out.

With the trend toward natural organic products we’ve all seen soaperies alongside berries at our local farmers market, and we've trod the miles of aisles in Whole Foods dedicated to lotions and potions, natural toothpaste and cosmetics. If you’re looking for a local gem from Portland come to Camamu.

Two lovely women named Sarah and Laurie handmake an amazing range of soaps in a converted residential property on Clinton street in a neighborhood full of artisanal breakfast joints. You can stop in to Compote for a spoonful of their signature berry goodness, then hop across the street to gobble up soaps that are totally natural, vegetable and gorgeous.

A table piled high with every variety of soap greets you when you enter the Camamu. I stood transfixed reading the simple ingredient labels and indulgently sniffing each bar. The names of their signtuare blends made me smile. The Lovely la LouLi (rhymes with Patchouli) is a bright orange bar crusted with safflower petals. Atlas Scrubbed, Lucky Lemongrass, Green Goddess, Zen Yen. Also on display are Sarah Love’s handcrafted inspirational works: decks of brightly lettered round cards that remind you to release expectations or enjoy your body with every breath.

When my olfactory glands were finally exhausted from breathing in the soapy goodness, I looked around. The shop, properly speaking, is a workshop. Brightly colored canvases painted by a local artist decorate the walls. The center of the space, though, is a huge worktable in the middle of the old house kitchen. A huge 60 gallon vat of olive oil stands next to the side door. A main ingredient in all of the soaps, the barrel gets refilled about every 6 weeks.

Each Camamu bar is a cornucopia of amazing ingredients that you might pull from the pantry for lunch. When I visited, Sarah was at work on about a 60 pounds of soap. The soap is made in batches in large trays that remind me of brownies in a cake pan.  Once the soap has set, the tray is sliced into bulk slabs with a custom wood and wire cutter, then further down into bars. Each tray weighs twenty pounds, which translates into 80 perfectly sized bars. Leaning in to a calmly speckled blue gray slab I inhaled the slight licorice scent of the neem flower. The mottled leopard print blocks contain coffee, perfect for the kitchen since the coffee naturally neutralizes odor.

I was smitten with the first Camamu bar I tried: Unreprentant Rose. The scent is as fresh and light as the rose blooming in your garden, rather than hyped up and perfumey, and the lather is soft and silky. My skins tends toward dry, and I was amazed at how soft and smooth I felt out of the shower, even on my face: healthy helpings of olive oil, milk, and the essential oils add the right blend of scent and moisture to each bar.

I stocked up on pooch bar shampoos for the sensitive-skinned dogs in my life. And I couldn’t leave without half a dozen yummy bath bars: another Unrepentant Rose for those days where I am feeling girly; sweet and mild Miel Oat; Rosehip Mint; the rich earthy scent and swirled brown and cream color of See The Forest Soap; and Lovely la LouLi.  My mouth watered reading about Hops in the Bath (hops are a natural anti-inflammatory), Chocolate Bliss which contains vanilla bean and cocoa, and the green tea infused Zen Yen. Which are destined for friends and which ones are for myself remains to be seen. 

The only bad thing about visiting the Camamu shop was the dozens of varieties I didn’t take home. Mildly therapeutic or just downright luscious scents like Summer Garden, with palmarosa and sweet orange, Queen Bee, with mallow and calendula, and naturally anti-microbial Turmeric Tonic are next on my list. Luckily, the lovely ladies at Camamu ship, so all the blends I didn’t take home this time are just a few clicks away.

And then, back home in Los Angeles, the quandary of which bar to pop open in the shower first. What a delectable treat.

2021 SE Clinton Street
Portland, OR

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Perpetual Harvest

Sometimes something happens that makes your life feel small. You suddenly know something you didn't know before. Your eyes open to the presence of an entire universe you'd never considered. And all of a sudden, you’re just not sure.

I was cleaning out papers the other day and I came across a newspaper from Oak Glen, where I went apple picking for my birthday last year.

Oak Glen is an adorable if hoakey apple farm area on the way out to Palm Springs. You drive a short winding road off the main highway that takes you up out of the desert. All of sudden you're amidst fruit orchards, rows and rows of trees tucked into the contours of the hills. There are people in somewhat periodesque dress (bonnets and aprons, hats and suspenders), but there are also piles of apples, pears, melons. There are roadside turnoffs where you can taste freshly made cider or local apple blossom honey. And you can get your apple picker and comb the orchard aisles when the fall harvest is on.

The local paper and most of the orchards list the apples they're harvesting that year, and at what time. One of the larger farms had a market where you could try slivers of at least a dozen different varieties. (Sadly, the cider doughnuts seemed to be the bigger draw.) It was here in Oak Glen that I met members of my favorite fruit family that’d I’d never known: Red Astrakhan, Mutsu, and heirloom varieties like Winesap, too, which weren’t yet ready for picking.

How wonderful! As I wandered the orchard aisles and spied the ribbons fluttering from the branches where a scribbled name proclaimed the variety fruiting from the limbs I wondered why I’d never seen these at my local store. I mean, there were hundreds of apples here, surely enough for a few bins at a local grocer!

Leafing through last year’s harvest list in the Oak Glen paper I got to wondering what other apples I might find that I‘d never tasted. Or seen. The short list from just one of the local orchards included: Arkansas Black, Courtland, Double Red Delicious (double red? double delicious!) Starkey Delicious, Staymen Winesap and Virginia Winesap.

Growing up I picked a thousand apple stickers off my Washington apples, and knew that this is where all apples, certainly the best apples, come from.


When I googled apples I was taken by a suspicion that was quickly confirmed: there are distinct regional varieties of apples. There are common west coast and east coast apples. Northeast and southern apples. Apples I had never even heard of. Oh my god! It’s like someone gave me a nibble of forbidden fruit, and the dozen varieties I'd savored and loved for years, suddenly, were not enough. There was even more forbidden, or at least geographically inconvenient, fruit to be had. Get me outside this garden gate!

Stayman, Criterion, York Imperial. Devonshire Quarrenden, Ellison’s Orange. The Northern Spy. Northern Spy?! I must try this apple, which is described as: sprightly, acidic, moderately sweet, very crisp and juicy. (Wait, are they describing me?)

I pictured a drive down minor roads in the northeast amongst dense trees in the softer seasons between summer and fall, winter and spring. Much in the manner of wine tasting, stopping off for a nible of this variety, a taste of that hybrid. Just to see the waxy bloom and red blush of a Paula Red. Such a lyrical name, such a character.

As it turns out, there are 2,500 varieties of apples grown in the US, a mere 100 of which are grown commercially. There are 7,500 varietes grown worldwide. Imagine it: That is a different apple a day for over 20 years!

As Michael Pollan writes in Botany of Desire, "high in the hills of Kazakhstan, you can find an astounding variety of examples of what the apple could have been, from large purplish softballs to knobby green clusters." I for one am happy to have our current varieties as they are, "portable, durable conduits for sweetness." I just want more of them. 

Back at Oak Glen, the Fujis and Galas were quickly picked over, testament to the fond familiarity that our local grocers create by what they stock. And truly there was twinge of disappointment that I would miss the opportunity to pick some of my familiar favorites here in the orchard amidst the excitement of a half dozen unknown varieties.

And the apples I know, I love. Red Delicious, Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, Pink Lady or Jazz or Honeycrisp, depending on the year, the crop, the culinary trend. They are the perfect fruit in my eye: they've been found in my salad and my spicy sun dahl; grilled along with Jarlsberg in my sandwich; sliced with a sprinkling of bee pollen, a dash or cinnamon or a luscious dollop of peanut butter.

Below is a list of about seventy common table apples, aka dessert and dual purpose apples, that comes up on Wikipedia. And this doesn't include cooking or cider apples!

Adams Pearmain
Arkansas Black*
Ashmead's Kernel
Aurora Golden Gala
Ben Davis
Blenheim Orange
Beauty of Bath
Belle de Boskoop
Cornish Gilliflower
Cox's Orange Pippin
Cripps Pink (Pink Lady)*
Delbarestivale® delcorf
Delbardivine® delfloga
Egremont Russet
Esopus Spitzenburg
Ginger Gold
Golden Orange
Golden Delicious* 
Granny Smith*
Grimes Golden
James Grieve
Jersey Black 
Karmijn de Sonnaville 
Knobbed Russet 
Newtown Pippin
Paula Red
Pink Pearl
Ralls Genet
Red Delicious*
Rhode Island Greening
Ribston Pippin
Roxbury Russet
Rubens (Civni)
Sekai Ichi
Sturmer Pippin
York Imperial

I starred the apples in the list I know I’ve had. Back at home, even in the blossoming foodie culture of Los Angeles, I’ll probably never see some of these in my store. We all know the monoculture monopoly of the local grocery store: an apple a day means one of a limited few varieties. Even if I never meet a Taliaferro at my neighborhood Whole Foods, I'll still pick apples, wherever they're from.