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

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