Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Xantolo - I knew there was a name for it!

Well, my goal to read my way through some food and farming books this winter is actually being realized! Every winter I reflect on how as a child, I loved going to the library in the summertime and eagerly joined summer reading programs and filled all my days with reading, reading, reading! Now my summers are filled with other passions - and my lists of book titles pile up waiting for the relaxing days on the other side of the calendar that I will hopefully devote to actually plowing through my list.

During the summer, my reading almost consists almost entirely of passages from all my favorite food magazines, which I scour to find new and exciting ways to cook the bounty from my fields. Predictably, my winter reading this year consists of food writing of the lengthier variety. I wanted to share some wonderful passages and general observations from some of the books I have motored through so far, here at winter's middle. Groundhog day is just around the corner (as a complete and only somewhat related digression: if interested, check out for the craziness that abounds in Punxsutawney, PA this Saturday. It's the 122nd annual prognostication this year! Man! That's one old groundhog! You can start arriving at 3am for the festivities)!

Well, we were gifted Kingsolver's popular book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Spencer's Mom, Nancy this last round of birthdays. Spencer used it as a text for his Urban Agriculture class he taught this fall, and I just finished it this afternoon. I have read all of Barbara Kingsolver's books over many summers and similarly enjoyed this one. I really enjoyed her telling of all undertakings agricultural, particularly agricultural things I have yet to undertake - turkey and chicken raising, for instance. I must say, I did learn a thing or two about asparagus as well - something I have yet to grow. But, I think my most favorite passages from her year of eating locally always had to do with her observations about how food, farming and agriculture is the fabric of family and community. In her chapter on holiday meals and celebrations, this erstwhile Arizonan spent some time explaining the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos. Being from Colorado, I am keenly aware of this holiday as a celebration of dead loved ones as an invitation for them to walk with us one night of the year, but she introduced me to a sentiment that our language has no word for - it is called Xantolo. Technically, this is what Oaxacans call their Dia de los Muertos celebrations, but Kingsolver elaborates on its more subtle meaning, the one that is at the heart of Di de los Muertos, "People's sadness was not for the departed, but for themselves, and could be addressed through ritual visiting called Xantolo, an ordinary communion between the dead and the living. Mexican tradition still holds that Xantolo is always present in certain places and activities, including wild marigold fields, the cultivation of corn, the preparation of tamales, and pan de muerto. Interestingly, farmers markets are said to be loaded with Xantolo." In Yucatan, it's also known as "the path of the soul through the essence of food." A lightbulb immediately went off for me when I read this! I feel Xantolo all the time when I am doing certain everyday things - sorting and rinsing pinto beans for soaking (me and grandma doing this above), making tortillas from scratch (above pic with dad and sister), even when I am out in my fields doing certain things like planting seeds or transplants or even weeding with a hoe. What comes to mind is the memory of doing these things with those I love, and feeling like I am doing them with them at that moment. I feel like Xantolo not only extends to those that we've lost to death, but to those we are far away from. My Grandmother is living, but she is in Colorado - still, I feel like I am cooking with her when cooking certain things - like Kingsolver's example of making tamales. Anyway, I am happy that I now have a name for those memories that pop up unexpectedly, but thankfully! From a purely critical point of view, I did tire of Kingsolver's literary "zingers" that she uses to punctuate her observations - she can't just explain something for what it is, she just has to use some incredibly unnecessary metaphor or imagery to complete nearly every paragraph. Oh well, it is a fast read loaded like a harvest-time cornucopia full of beautiful kernels of wisdom from which to gain intellectual nourishment (zinger!).

Another very interesting book that I just finished reading is a great read called The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine. It was loaned to me by my friend Kevin who is a pastry chef. This is about a guy who is gifted Auguste Escoffier's book Le Guide Culinaire, and sets off to re-recreate one of the creator of French haute cuisine's famous banquet dinners. The challenge is reproducing the recipes exactly, and he finds that it will take him an entire year to acquire all of the ingredients, and so he sets out to hunt and scavenge all the ingredients himself. This adventure culminates in a 3-day feast of 45 dishes. I particularly enjoyed his tales of hunting for wild boar, fishing in Alaska, and raising squab (baby pigeons). It also reads like a story in Outside Magazine, which makes it a pretty quick read. This book made me jealous for not having any hunting skills (another by-product of the Outside Magazine feel - not feeling as good or athletic or outdoorsy as the guy who wrote the article...), and inspired me to get some - because what is more localvore than hunting your own food? I decided that hunting is an uberlocalvore activity and I plan on making that happen this year. First I must get my hunting license, so I will be relegated to taking the hunter safety class with Boy Scouts earning their badges. I can hardly wait! I can taste my first braised rabbit already!!

The last book I'm going to talk about is Heat : an amateur's adventures as kitchen slave, line cook, pasta maker, and apprentice to a Dante-quoting butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford. This book is exactly what the title describes. I enter kitchens nearly daily all summer making produce deliveries, and have often wondered what it would be like being on the receiving end of my produce boxes. This book perfectly describes, I think, what that life is like in such great detail that I am convinced of what it is like and have decided that I don't need to work in a kitchen! Admirably, the author decides to take his tutelage in Mario Batali's Babbo kitchen in NYC so seriously, that he decides to fly to Tuscany and apprentice with those that Mario also apprenticed with. This reminded me of how wonderful Italy can be, and made me promise to myself that next time we go to Italy (very likely this October for the next Terra Madre conference), that we stay longer and eat more food directly from farms.

So, there you have it, my not-so-concise report on my recent readings. I have next up on my plate: a full serving of 3 Marion Nestle books: What to Eat, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, and Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism. Michael Pollan's new book - In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, and a re-reading of his The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, and Michael Ableman's book from last year: Fields of Plenty: A Farmer's Journey In Search of Real Food and the People Who Grow It. Better get to it; only 2 and a half more months until the first tilling!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Haygrove Hurdle #1

This is our field on Tuesday, January 8th. We walked down to see if the ground was soggy or frozen to determine if it could support the weight of an 18 wheel tractor trailer and a 40 foot shipping container. The delivery of our much anticipated Haygrove hightunnel was scheduled for Thursday, January 10th, and we needed to get together a 6-man team, a place where we could unload a ton of pipes, and allow enough room for a tractor trailer to turn around! We decided that the field was not the place, as forecast for Wednesday was rain all day, which would melt the snow as well as create a muddy mess. So, we gathered some friends, devised a plan, and got up early on Thursday to receive our shipment! I must say, it was a really exciting day that went smoothly, and we had better weather than we could have asked for! So, with that, on to the pictures!

We got down to the Intervale at 8:30 am to get ready for the 10 am delivery. We decided that we'd unload all the pipes onto the hayricks so that we could move them down to our field at our convenience. We got an extra wagon ready just in case we needed more space.

The trucker arrived at 10:30 am - delayed at the border (our container arrived in Quebec) - he was masterful at tight turns and backing up, and was able to pull into our unloading place just fine.

Great place to unload a container!

We opened the container with bolt cutters, and the contents were revealed! It was quite a relief to see that it wasn't packed floor to ceiling with pipes! At this point, the clock starts ticking - we get two hours free for unloading the container, then it's $250 for each extra hour the driver has to wait!

So, we backed up the first hayrick, undid a bundle of pipes, and started loading!

This actually worked really well, and in no time, we had unloaded all the pipes!

This is one heavy hayrick!

The next batch of pipes and fittings is revealed, and loaded onto the other hayrick.

Then, the most unwieldy piece of the hoophouse is revealed - the 2500# roll of poly plastic that will make the house a house. The adept guys at Intervale Compost gracefully came over with their Bobcat and moved it with relative ease!

This was perhaps the most stress-inducing part of the project to think about beforehand. We honestly couldn't really picture how this roll of plastic was going to come out of the container, but all it takes is having the proper tool to do the job! Now, we'll have to get him to take it all the way down to the field!

We swept out the container, posed for the camera, and helped our trucker maneuver his way out. We did this part in record time! This part of the process just took us 1 hour and 30 minutes! We took a break for a few minutes to have some coffee and donuts, and then we were approached by a local guy that had gotten his truck stuck in a farm field while "muddin" aka 4-wheelin', and could we please help to tow him out? While this guy shouldn't have been back in farm fields in his truck anyway, Spencer's good nature got the better of him, and we went and pulled his truck out of a cover-cropped field belonging to Intervale Community Farm.

I can't believe we helped this guy!

We hauled him out of the mud, and in the process got quite dirty.

Kevin points out the appropriate bumper sticker that reads, "There's no such thing as too much ammo." Our sentiments exactly!

We decide to see if we can get down to our field since the snow is gone, and it doesn't seem too soggy on the roads.

Once down there, we decide to save unloading time, and pull the pipes off halfway, then Spencer drove forward and all the pipes came tumbling out! A great plan!

All the pipes waiting for bending in a neat-ish pile.

We decide to go ahead and unload the other hayrick, too, and just be done with the day.

Our friend Kevin sticks with us until we're completely unloaded.

Spencer is happy and ready to be done for this phase of the project!

Our field on Thursday, January 10th, 2008. How can there be no snow? It was around 40 degrees with the sun shining all day! We couldn't have asked for a more perfect weather day, for a project like this. Now, if only we get similarly nice days for the hoopbending, house erecting and plastic stretching days!

Here's a photo from another farm that purchased the same Haygrove hightunnel that we did. This is to give you a sense of how huge this thing is going to be. Ours is 3 bays (not 6 like in this photo), also 300' long. Each bay is 24'. This will cover a little over a half acre of our farm, and we expect it to revolutionize the way we do many things, not to mention getting a jump on the early season!

The unloading of the shipping container took us 4 hours total. We are now awaiting final approval from all sorts of powers that be to allow us to actually erect the structure. We are anticipating getting it up in late February or early March (depending on thaw), and skinning it with the plastic before April. Now, because of the great help we had from all our friends, we have successfully gotten over the first hurdle of this major project at Half Pint Farm! Many thanks to Kevin, Josh, Eric, Becky and Dave. We really appreciate your help!