Amity and Prosperity: Erin Brockovich Meets Hillbilly Elegy In A Ruined Locale

I just finished reading poet (and now investigative journalist) Eliza Griswold’s new book Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America. I seriously hope it becomes a film. I made my way through all 300+ pages in about two days because I simply couldn’t put the book down.

And I also couldn’t keep my blood pressure from rising. And my rage from escalating. And my fears about all the edenic local spaces being despoiled by corporate greed.

The terrible story that this nonfiction page-turner explores could happen to any of us. In fact, in some way or another, we can be certain that this story is playing out again. Which raises the question, how do we know if our own local water is secretly laced with toxins?

Griswold’s book concerns single mother Stacey Haney, a nurse in the tiny town of Amity in western Pennsylvania. Haney is “a Hoopie”–a resident of the Appalachian hills and coal mining regions–who aims at giving something better to her two children. She thinks she might be seizing that chance for a better life when she signs a contract with Range Resources, a large and successful fracking company. Her nightmare starts then–as does the reader’s–spiraling through a decade of tormented and dying animals, sick and arsenic poisoned children, neighbors with leukemia and bleeding facial sores and stinking, blackened and toxic water.

Attachment-1

We know how this story goes. We’ve followed it from Love Canal to Flint, Michigan. Erin Brockovich showed us a version in Hinkley, California where PG&E dripped hexavalent chromium into the local water supply. Stacey Haney who takes on the energy industry is a hero in her own right and I hope Julia Roberts plays her part if Griswold’s excellent book ever becomes a movie. (And it should.)

But right now Haney’s story is not a movie and there’s no fairy tale ending. At the book’s conclusion Haney is in debt, the cute farmhouse where she stenciled the walls is worthless and uninhabitable, terminally contaminated with toxic sludge, water and fetid, poisonous air.  Her family, if not destroyed is hampered with chronic health and related psychological concerns. Fracking, which we already know causes earthquakes, has rendered the once verdant countryside a wasteland. Most of her neighbors regard Ms. Haney as a pariah who doesn’t play with the team. (The team is undoubtedly Range Resources–the source of tainted water and air, but gives to the 4-H kids and enables larger land owners to lease their lands for enormous profit. Many of the community’s citizens wear red Range caps.) Stacey Haney gets a small and undisclosed settlement but Range Resources largely prevails.It’s just sad.

Griswold’s book raises at least two primary points. The first is obvious; corporations and most particularly corporations in the conventional energy field (read coal, gas, natural gas) rape the land and feed its citizens poison without much real public oversight. These companies are aided quite obviously by the political party in charge and the current inhabitant of the White House. But they also have more subtle assistance. Federal agencies, state government and local authorities of all political persuasions who are entrusted with the public safety accept the ruin of Stacey’s family as a kind of necessary if dark compromise. Stacey and her advocates have little authority. It’s nearly impossible for private individuals with very limited finances to fight companies with nearly unlimited access of funds and power. We are all at risk (and ought to pay more attention to the quality of our local water).

But there’s another aspect to Griswold’s account. She writes about what it’s like to live in a small and impoverished region and to feel that anyone with money or power or aspirations pretty much thinks of your locality as unimportant–a “flyover” region. We all love the idea of local living but some local spaces get more respect than others. Stacey Haney and her family feel that for decades they provided, at great personal risk, the coal that powered urban America. Stacey’s father was a Vietnam Vet who only recently has received compensation for his multivalent wounds. He lost his job in the steel mills. Stacey and her neighbors signed on initially with Range because they had more faith in corporations than they did in government and because they thought at last they might get some cash back for the resources they gave so freely to the rest of the world. But by the end of the book Stacey Haney comes to believe that there’s little difference between government entities and corporate consortiums. Neither agency cares much about her and as a result there’s little space for her children to exceed her own experience. In desperation Stacey votes for the Green Party candidate Jill Stein while most of her acquaintances support Trump. There is deep irony in the fact that Stacey’s community opts for the representation of those most opposed to public support. One wants to argue with them. But, Stacey Haney and those like her are transformed from hopeful idealists anxious to engage with the world to bitter cynics. Griswold’s narrative provides the best explanation I’ve yet to read about “country”/”hillbilly” animus and hopelessness.

In the end though Haney’s situation offers the warning of a morality tale. All of us who prize and depend upon clean air and drinking water are at risk. All of us who want real tomatoes purchased from real farmers whose names we know, all of us who want to live somehow authentically in some rare corner are under siege. It’s Stacey in Amity and Flint’s water today but tomorrow?

Even as I write this there are rollbacks planned of regulations that protect streams from chemical run-off. Pipes are already installed to carry more natural gas and multinational oil companies prepare to dig more wells off of our coastline. The Central Coast of California, featured in the early days of oil drilling (masterfully portrayed in the film There Will Be Blood), is still pressured to allow more drilling, more underground pipes and a dangerous oil train running from the coast to the inland refineries.

To be a locavore is about more than how many miles our food travels. It’s about protecting what’s local. It’s telling a story that it seems like no one wants to hear. It’s asking questions about local cultures. Stacey Haney is a hero, whether Hollywood makes the movie or not.

Posted in What Does Local Mean? | Leave a comment

I Can Resist Everything But Temptation: The Allure of Fast Food (and an Alternative!)

noodle bowl

Ok. Here’s how it goes at least two nights a week. By the time we leave school it’s close to 8. By the time we get home it’s even later. My partner succumbs to the lure of Mr. Taco, but since I learned that they cook with lard (lard!) my lips are sealed.

Yes, I could eat a bag of pretzels. Or popcorn. or find another fast food establishment (believe me, I know where they are), a place that cooks their beans with vegetable oil.

I know last time I posted about fantasy banquets, but when I arrive home it’s way too late for all that.

But it’s Vegan MoFo. Come on! So here’s the wonderful thing that happened. I ground my teeth all the way home. (That’s not the wonderful part.) I opened the fridge and spied some plain whole wheat pasta left from last night. I saw a sliver of onion. Quick as a flash I threw the onion in a pan, added a can of water chestnuts and then the pasta. I chopped a radish and some cilantro. I found the soy sauce, a small bottle of rice vinegar and an open container of hot sauce. I grabbed some chop sticks.

I five minutes I was eating.

Who needs fast food?

Good bye, Mr. Taco.

Posted in What Does Local Mean? | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Beyond the Age of Innocence: Reading Edith Wharton While Planning Dinner

Books have always made me hungry (which perhaps really says more about me than the literature). When I heard nursery rhymes I demanded hot cross buns. When I could read on my own and discovered the Little House books I requested corn bread (to which my Brazilian mother just shrugged). And when I read Joanne Harris’ Chocolat, well, you guessed it, I went into a chocolate frenzy. Fueled by a literary appetite I sprinkled red pepper on hot chocolate, devoured bars of vegan, rain forest approved of dark candy and meditated on chocolate mousse.

I could go on and on. When I fell in love with The Secret Garden I brewed tea and served it to myself in my tiny china English tea set. (I still have the tea set. But I also have several large sized pots, including a beautiful Wedgewood pot that my brother once gave to me.)

And Melville. Is it even possible to read Moby-Dick without thinking of chowder? (Mrs. Hussey at the Spouter-Inn offered two varieties–“clam or cod.” Fortunately, because I really like chowder, I have a delicious vegan version of corn chowder. (And this truly is fortunate, because one of the many mysterious things I love about Moby-Dick is the way it endows the white whale and all creatures with consciousness. The novel makes a claim against the superiority of humans and painfully depicts the suffering of sentient beings.) But more about chowder later.

 

FullSizeRender

I have to say that  the books that have made me think about food in the most elaborate ways–and that have caused me to spend countless hours plotting (most often imaginary) dinner parties are the (desperately sad) novels of Edith Wharton. And there’s nothing like party food to cheer a soul up.

 

IMG_0688

 

In Edith Wharton they’re always having parties, big parties. Even when the occasion is to separate the (believed to be) adulterous husband from his too Euro style mistress, and his put-upon wife is pregnant, there’s a dinner fete. And even when poor Lily Bart (my favorite heroine of all) is about to kill herself, she still stops by for a cup of good tea. In Wharton dinner parties are the occasion of betrothals and break-ups, of cynical acceptance of one’s fate and of the innocent’s initiation into society. And who could disagree with the concept that a good meal always improves things?  In Wharton the dinners are vast banquets, with multiple soups, canvas-backs (whatever they are–a kind of duck I think), fish courses, meat platters, pastries, cheese courses and ices. (No wonder those people suffered from dyspepsia.) With music! And dancing!

There are no ducks at my table (for obvious reasons). The desire to eat one’s self into a seventeen course stupor has dimmed a bit in the past decades.  Yet, I remain attached to the idea formal dining. Of course my meat eating friends insist that the limitations of vegan cuisine make this difficult (and they relegate us to the corner with a badly made bean burger or a hodgepodge salad). Mais non!

I entertain myself by composing menus that would satisfy both the hungry vegan and the stately Wharton aficionado.

 

Menu #1

Deep Fried (I use an air fryer) Polenta Rounds with Brandied Mushrooms

Hearts of Palm Salad (I’m from California. We do salad early in the meal. Duh.)

Whole Wheat Phyllo (Egg and Butter Free Please) Purses filled with Burgundy White Beans and Wild Rice

Sauteed Spinach With Nuggets of Yam

Vegan Coconut Ice Cream (Either make your own or buy it.) with Seasonal Fruit Compote

Menu #2

Empanadas (I use egg-free wonton skins) filled with Soft Vegan Cheese and Olives (I use Kite Hill. I also use an air fryer for these but traditionally they are deep fried.)

Vegan Caesar Salad (Oh She Glows has a great recipe.)

Hot Peanut Butter Noddles with Water Chestnuts, Scallions and Greens

Pineapple Sorbet with Fried Plantains (again, the air fryer)

I imagine dancing and a soundtrack by James Brown, Cold Play and Scarlatti.

It’s time to eat. (Right now I just have a peanut butter sandwich.)

FullSizeRender

 

Posted in What Does Local Mean? | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Because Nothing Says “Road Trip” Like a Date Shake

bowl of datesbox of dates

 

We went on road trips when I was kid. Sometimes it was all of us. I was there, upright in my booster seat. My parents both were there occasionally and my mother clutched my brother as we road along. (Sorry. It was even longer ago than The Land Before Time. We Traveled in the Land Before Seat Belts.) Often it was just my father and I, rolling along the highway in his baby blue Dash-Rambler wagon.

A single repetitive sign kept appearing to us on the side of the road. Stop for a Hadley’s Date Shake!

I remember the unabating, un-air conditioned heat, shifting mirage =like across the desert. I could feel the cool sweetness of a shake. I wanted to stop and sometimes we did.

The other day at a farm stand the proprietors were living out sample dates and they were spectacular with a taste of brown sugar and vanilla–with the remembered taste of a long almost forgotten shake, reminding me of my father and the Mojave Desert just outside the little town of Indio. I went to the Date Festival there once with my father. I was a little girl and we’d had some sort of argument back at the campsite so I arrived at the Festival tearful and bulky. We watched the camel races first and I was wide-eyed at the beautiful ladies in purple velvet boleros who rode the sad and slightly flea-bitten animals. And then my father bought me a shake.

bowl of dates

My father’s been dead for seventeen years but that date shake is still with me.

Of course today I’m not amused at the plight of the camels. The conventional date shake requires both milk and ice cream (not to mention sugar which made, as I recall, the drink almost too intensely sweet).

But today I whipped up a date shake to rival Hadley’s any day. I sipped it and like Proust was washed away into the remembrance of things passed.

Unrivaled Vegan Date Shake

 

date shake

Serves Two

Ingredients:

6 plump, pitted loosely chopped dates

12 oz. almond milk (unsweetened by maybe vanilla flavored)

3/4 frozen banana

1 scoop vegan vanilla flavored protein powder (I use Vega greens & pea protein)

1 + teaspoon good vanilla

3-4 ice cubes

Place ingredients into a powerful blender and whip at high speed.

Childhood and the past await.

Posted in What Does Local Mean? | Tagged , | Leave a comment

What the Gods Really Ate: Enchiladas for Dinner

 

green enchiladas

 

I know I should be happy–and I am happy, I am–that restaurants are increasingly offering alternative vegetarian and even vegan meals. I am grateful, I am. But I just have to begin by asking, as I dig into still another microwaved slightly cardboard-like garden burger (served on a whole wheat bun! with salad and even rice on the side if you ask) would it be so hard to do a bit more? And as I am once again served a dish of pasta (probably white) that’s been doused with a handful of tomatoes and onions and perhaps an olive slice or two, I can’t resist wondering can’t we move vegan cuisine a bit beyond this?

I’ve had well meaning friends smile with pleasure as they present me with a just decanted block of warmed up tofu (which I dutifully consume with gusto). And my own sweet husband (who is not vegan but trying to eschew meat) has asked me do we really have to eat rice with vegetables yet again?

There are days when everything seems the same, when I am over (even my beloved) avocado sandwiches, when PB & J just seems silly, when salad makes me yawn and vegetables appear punitive. Pasta, really? Again?

What I mean is that vegan food, like all culinary genres runs the risk of becoming repetitive, uninspired and even–sadly–dull.

When I hit these moments when no burger, or soup or noodle dish is going to do the trick, when life seems dull, I whisper the magic word: enchiladas.

Can you hear the magic and smell the spice?

My son who gobbles meat, upon hearing the enchilada chorus changes course and embraces veganism. My spouse’s mood spikes upward. The dinner hour now hovers luminous on the gustatory  horizon.

I always make two types–green sauce (my personal favorite) and spicy red. Add a green salad, and maybe some Spanish rice and the most demanding bon vivant will be satisfied.

Enchiladas Two Ways

green enchiladas

 

A perfectly acceptable way to begin is to purchase two large cans of green sauce and a similarly sized can of red. But, if you’re a purist, you can begin by making your own.

Green Sauce

1 onion

2 Tablespoons whole wheat flour

1/2-1 teaspoon cumin

1 1/2 cups vegetarian broth

3 cans chopped green chilis

1 small can jalapeños–use to taste

2 roasted & chopped poblano chilis

salt, pepper and red pepper to taste

  1.    Chop and brown the onion. (Use a tablespoon of olive oil, or spray the pan or just use a bit of broth.)
  2. Add cumin and seasonings, and then stir n flour. Continue to saute lightly.
  3. Slowly add broth and stir to avoid lumps. (Or, put a bit of the broth with the flour in a small jar. Shake. Then slowly add to mixture.)
  4. Add all the peppers. Check taste. Cook until appropriately thickened.
  5. Briefly blend–with an immersion blender, a Vitamin, with whatever. But be careful. Check consistency and taste. Your sauce is ready.

Red Sauce

 

red enchilada

 

1 onion

4 Tablespoons of chili powder

1/2 teaspoon of cumin

Red pepper, black pepper and salt, to taste

1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar

2 cups vegetable broth

1/4 cup tomato paste

1 canned chipotle chili chopped and a little of the juice (according to taste. These peppers are hot!)

2 Tablespoons whole wheat flour

  1.  Chop and brown the onion
  2. Add seasoning and flour. Mix well and saute.
  3. Add broth and stir well to prevent lumps. (Or, again, place some of broth with flour in jar and then shake. Add it to the pan.) Cook for a few minutes.
  4. Add chipotle and vinegar. Cook until thickened. Check flavor and adjust seasoning.
  5. Use a blender of any type create a smooth consistency.

Enchiladas (!)

12-16 corn tortillas

1 cup vegetable broth

4 cups browned shredded potatoes. (Pre-shredded frozen potatoes work just fine. And I use an air fryer for extra crispness. Just putting the potatoes in the oven works fine too.)

2 1/2 cups greens–spinach or kale

1 1/2 cups corn kernels

3/4 cups sliced black olives

2 small cans chopped green chilis. Add chopped jalapeño if you like the added spice.

  1.    Mix the potato, corn, chilis and 2/3 of the black olives.
  2.    Chop the greens well and cook them for a minute or two. Drain well.
  3.   Add the greens to the mix.
  4.   Dip the tortillas briefly in the broth and microwave them for a minute or until just pliable. Don’t overcook! And don’t worry too much if the tortillas break. All will be covered by the sauce.
  5. Divide the mixture in half. Add approximately 1/2 cup of green sauce to one bowl and 1/2 cup of red sauce to the other. Don’t add too much. You want the mixture to adhere and to be tasty but not runny.
  6. Pour 1/2 cup of green sauce into a 9 ” pan. Pour 1/2 cup of red sauce into another similar pan.
  7. Fill half the tortillas with the green sauce mixture and place in the pan with green sauce. Fill the other half with the red sauce mixture and place in the other prepared pan.
  8. Top each pan with the remaining matching sauce. Green on green sauce, red on red!
  9. Sprinkle the remaining olives on to of each pain. Splash the green pan with chili powder. Bake at 350′ for about 40 minutes, until some of the tortilla points stick out and roast crisply.
  10. Toss a salad. Maybe cook some rice. (More about that later.) Put on your bibs! Blah is over. Enchiladas are here!

And just one final jubilant note: here in California or nearly anywhere in the Southwest, these enchiladas can be locally sourced (except for maybe the flour. Although I’ve found two sources of local whole wheat flour.)

Posted in What Does Local Mean? | Tagged | Leave a comment

Local? Or, Maybe Just a Tad Too Provincial?


lettuceherbsSo what’s the difference?

I’ve been mulling over the distinction between celebrating the local and being gripped by naive xenophobia, especially in the wake of Brexis and recent American elections. (In the same way I’ve been painfully pondering my love of postmodern linguistic play and trying to separate it from “alternate truths.”) So I’ve had to ask myself how insisting upon local tree-ripened apples is different somehow from both nationalism and the untutored, if charming, desire to believe that wherever we live right now is the best of all possible worlds.

In the wake of the election I almost gave up localism.

Almost.

rosesBut I changed my mind.

Localism values the unique, the particular and the different. Rather than eliminating the diverse, the localist finds and delights in the singular. It’s localism that frees us from only knowing Delicious Apples, delicious indeed as they might be. If we value the local we can seek out (in So Cal) the Pettingill Apple grown almost exclusively in Long Beach, the Gordon Apple that was developed in Whittier and the tiny red Beverly Hills Apple that requires only a few days of chill to become red-cheeked and sweet.The localist, rather than seeking some monolithic whole opts to experience the delicate fragments offered by individual communities. More than 3000 types of chili peppers exist and hundreds of them can be found here in Southern California. The local eater gets the thrill.

Living local means, I think, living in the present with all of its complex specifics. It means interacting with the independent shop keeper and tasting their samples of jalapeño jam. I means walking your city block and really seeing it. It means trading uniformity for flavor, talking to a person rather than merely texting, feeling the tomatoes instead of ordering them online. It means Be Here Now.

This is the very opposite of a nationalism that constantly seeks a mythic past, or a provincialism that judges all things by one measure

But enough of this. Be Here Now.

I went for a walk in the Botanical Gardens. I practiced yoga. And yes, getting ready for a month of vegan blogging and cooking I made vegan albondigas soup. I found the world’s best seedless, organic local watermelon and–get this–12 pounds of plump, mahogany tasting medjool dates that greew just 35 miles away. I have to go eat.

More later–and pictures.

 

Posted in What Does Local Mean? | Leave a comment

A Month of Vegan Eating–Inconsistently Yours

close-up-pumpkinsDSC_2254I’m in the midst of an anxiety attack (did you hear the speech at the U.N.?). I admit much of my concern is global but, in the end, just like politics all anxiety is local. So here goes.

I’m worried about the planet and the news and people perched on tiny islands in the middle of an angry sea. And what I like to do when I’m worried is to think about–and cook–food. And what I like to do when I’m angry (which sad to say is every day since last November) is walk away from the increasing incorporation of everything and to re-connect with the actual local world. I meet a friend at a little family owned and operated business (yay! Jammin’ Bread), and eat a sandwich built on bread baked on the premises. I walk in the park that’s two blocks from my house. I go to the Farmers’ Market.

blue squash

It’s not that everyone agrees with me at these places. It’s just that they’re real. When I make a meal that is appealing and healthy, with onions grown near by and chopped with my own little hands I feel like I’ve regained just a little bit of my power.

So now I’m doing, maybe, something extra empowering and crazy. I’ve signed up to cook and photograph and eat and write about food for a month. Inconsistently, of course. I’m hooked up here courtesy of Vegan MoFo (Vegan Month of Food) 2017. The food will be vegan and hopefully tempt all of you to eat your beautiful locally sourced (or not–we’re inconsistent, right?) greens.

I told you I’m anxious.

More tomorrow.

Posted in What Does Local Mean? | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Not Everything Local is Good: Plains All American Pipeline Befouls California’s Backyard

Let me begin by saying there are no pictures for this post. You can find photos in the newspapers.

For me, driving northward along the coast, Santa Barbara is where everything dark or negative starts to fall away. The ocean dotted with boats, the small sandy coves and beaches, the clarity of the air and the scent of salt move me indescribably.

Until yesterday.

Just north of El Capitan I smelled something acrid and closed the car windows. Out on the water a number of vessels, of various sizes, seemed to all be headed for the same spot just outside the surf. “Good fishing?” I wondered out loud.

And then we saw it: the sea turned dark and turgid, a clear line of demarcation appearing well of the coast, marking a boundary between water and oil. We turned off at the El Refugio exit and stood on the bluff.

Below us, gaseous, strangely smooth and vast was the El Refugio oil spill, caused evidently by a broken pipe operated by Plains All American Pipeline.

This beach is marked by California history. The Chumash camped here. In fact, there were so many Native American dwellings and middens in the region that when Plains All American  initially proposed its pipeline, archeologists opposed it because of the many sites that were compromised or ruined.

The beach at El Refugio provided a refuge to Hippolyte de Bouchard, sometimes referred to as California’s only pirate. He was a bandit who liked to terrorize the coastline and made the safe harbor a place for his crew to regroup and hang out.

Supposedly Joaquin Murrieta–the erstwhile model for Zorro, the Mexican Robin Hood, the hero of the poor and the scourge of the establishment, and the subject of multiple ballads and corridas–escaped the authorities in the twisting and hidden spaces of El Refugio Canyon, hiding in the ravine above the water.

Smugglers were also fond of El Refugio, stashing their loot and hiding in the cove’s caves or in the ravine.

But these old time pirates and bandits were small potatoes. Today the ravine is occupied by Plains All American and their pipeline that moves crude oil to ExxonMobil facilities. The bottom of the canyon, the entire beach–in fact the slick now stretches more than nine miles, closing the beaches at El Refugio and El Capitan and moving inexorably eastward–is blackened.  The news reported a few hours ago that we are at 109,000 gallons of oil in the ocean and counting. A website now depicts oil coated marine life.

Plains All American Pipeline had so many leaks associated with their company that in 2010 they were forced to make a large settlement with the E.P.A., who contended that Plains All American had done significant damage in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Kansas and California (not to mention Canada), leaking more than 273,000 collective gallons of oil. The settlement has apparently not slowed down the Texas firm though (somebody, tell me, why is it always Texas?). They have been cited in connection with several other large leaks, and just last year they were responsible for the oil geyser and leak in Los Angeles’ Atwater Village.

Constructed in 1998, the pipeline is not–oddly–under any Santa Barbara county supervision, unlike all other energy infrastructure in that county. (Since undergoing the catastrophic oil spills of 1969, Santa Barbara is justifiably nervous in regard to energy infrastructure.) Plains All American went to court, successfully suing to have their structures reviewed only by the much more remote office the State Fire Marshall. So no one is really watching.

When I see the enormous oil platforms that stand in the Santa Barbara Channel between the coast and the Channel Islands, I can’t help wondering. Aren’t these our natural resources that fouled with petroleum? I never gave any permission to wreck or mark the California coast, nor have I ever received any payment for the depletion of our own resources. We do not profit from what goes on in our own back yard.

The offices of Plains All American released a statement saying that “Plains regrets this release…” Notice the passive language; Plains “regrets,” but they’re not expressing specific guilt. Mistakes were made.

You know what? I really regret it too. It doesn’t get any more local for me than the Central Coast. I’m sickened by this example of careless exploitation.

When I hear debates over the Keystone Pipeline, and (more locally) when I hear about the “need” to have new rail tracks built for the express purpose of carrying oil to the refinery at Santa Maria, when I hear about fracking, and more drilling off the coast of Alaska, I’m enraged. These people are not even responsible for the infrastructure they already possess. I look at the nearly abandoned Morro Bay power plant and at the black welling oil at El Refugio, and want to say “No more.”

This is our backyard.

It makes me miss the old fashioned pirates and Joaquin Murrieta.

 

Posted in What Does Local Mean? | Comments Off on Not Everything Local is Good: Plains All American Pipeline Befouls California’s Backyard

Spring Fever–Anticipating Yet Again Those 91 Days of Summer

Right now I occupy that luminous and liminal space that defines the days between late spring and early summer, between finals’ week and vacation, between work and a kind of joyful slothfulness, and maybe even between ordinary domestic life and the wild.

 

roadrunner

My backyard in Southern California, sloping downward from the house toward the now parched riverbed, is also liminal. Inside we are at least mildly civilized–we eat meals, do the laundry, occasionally vacuum. Outside it’s the wilderness. Yesterday a large road runner perched just outside one of the sliding doors, unafraid and much more lordly that I might have thought. (He was nothing like the road runner of the cartoons.) Just after dawn this morning I awakened to a kind of rustling. I looked outside and saw (I was very sleepy) what I thought might be bobcat kittens (there is a bobcat who also lives in the yard). Then I looked closer. “I think they’re baby coyotes,” I said doubtfully. And then, a few yards away, I saw the mother. She nosed her babies into a hollow under a shed near the property line and then loped away. I have never seen coyote pups before. Unlike puppies, who look quite different from the dogs they will eventually grow to be–bigger heads and feet and bellies, wrinkled faced, funny floppy ears, young coyotes evidently just look like small and slightly plumper versions of their eventual adult selves.

My backyard is inhabited by tricksters.

They are neither here nor there.

And that’s sort of like me–right? I’ve sort of not been here. Although I have been thinking about being here. I’ve been questioning again the idea of localism and what it might mean now with California’s drought. Is it better to buy products made with someone else’s water?

Inconsistency has a bad rap these days. If the online comments recorded on hundreds of blogs are any indication,  a lot of people are hating on the frivolously unfocused. Vegans complain that some vegans aren’t consistent enough to be real vegans. Members of the LGBT community contend that some people aren’t quite LGBT enough. Are we liberal enough, frugal enough, sensitive enough?

Inconsistent as I am I like the idea a number of towns are implementing to deal with water shortages and the drought. Rather than making rules about what days and times one can water, and the consistent kinds of showers people ought to be taking, some towns are simply allocating an amount of water to each household. You can pour it all on your plants, or even on your car and just be dirty if you like. You can drink it all one month and the next month use it on a game of slip and slide (although actually I don’t think you can buy those games anymore because of their inherent risk).

I’m beginning the countdown toward an inconsistent 91 days of local summer.

I went to the Riverside Farmers’ Market today. (It was sort of slim pickings–mostly just root vegetables, celery, berries and a few really too early tomatoes.) But I’m hopeful. I made stock today from all the odd and ends of vegetables–the things I would have normally thrown away: onion skins, the tops of carrots and fennel bunches, celery hearts and bits of aging greens. I’ve kept it all frozen in a bag, just as I was instructed to in an excellent book about food called An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler. I bought flowers at the market.

I’m going to try and do better–write more, cook more.

Sometimes the liminal spaces, the spaces in between, when we’re waiting for something else, when our very lives are inconsistent but filled with anticipation, are the best places.

91 days.

Posted in What Does Local Mean? | Comments Off on Spring Fever–Anticipating Yet Again Those 91 Days of Summer

About Global Warming and Innovative Tomatoes

O.K.  It’s 111 degrees in California’s Central Valley, the so-called nation’s bread basket mostly brown and pretty barren. Someone down at Morro Bay’s Embarcadero told me the water clocked in at 68 degrees (and that’s about 10 degrees more than normal). There are fires in the Sierras, so many fires that we have to cancel our planned hike up the back of Half Dome because the trail itself is on fire. The whales that generally migrate past the Central Coast on their way to the balmy climes of Costa Rica and southern Mexico seem to have taken up permanent residence, just hanging out between Big Sur and Point Conception. Why go anywhere when the water’s this warm and, as a result, there are plenty of bait fish?

Scientists have just announced that for certain Australia’s extreme temperatures are a result of global climate change and that they’re pretty certain California’s heat and drought are caused by the same phenomenon. But you don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows (thanks, Bob).

As we drive across the Valley, making our way toward Sequoia since Yosemite is out of the question, I watch a crop duster (sounds so benign) fly lie over the land and bless the land with its cargo hold of chemicals. A little later I see a truck making its way over the dry pasture pouring something vaguely greenish out of the hose that attaches to its tank. I know it might be psychosomatic, but I start to sneeze. That’s why I buy organic, I announce.

I could be over reacting. I mean I know I have that Latin propensity for the dramatic.

About two-thirds of the way across the Valley, somewhere not too far away from Hanford, the highway is closed and everyone (that’s like two cars) is re-directed on to a small, twisting road. After a couple of turns a vast and complex structure looms ahead of us, complete with walls and towers. The place is huge, dwarfing the container cars that are parked within the barbed wire establishment. There are locked gates and fences with razor wire running along the top. When I stop to take pictures people yell at me.

I’m not a fantasy buff but this place wouldn’t be amiss in the darkly industrialized and ruined lands that Frodo Baggins has to travel to save the world from the dark lord. So I can’t help but be curious. Out in front there’s a sign that reads “Global Tomato Innovation.”

photo-59

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never expected my tomatoes (or any of my vegetables for that matter) to innovate and I can’t even really imagine what that might look like. So I have to assume that even though the subject of the phrase isn’t clear that someone else will be doing the innovative things with tomatoes.

photo-60

And given the scary look of this place, and the fact that there’s what appears to be a gigantic chemical factory on the other side of the road, I’m not sure I want to know what’s happening to those tomatoes.

I get in the car and just say “Drive.”

But you know, I can’t help myself. So when I eventually get home I look up Global Tomato Innovation.

When the plant (or whatever it is) opened in 2011 the event was celebrated in the local newspapers in Lemore, Hanford and Fresno. The accounts said the center “isn’t doing research on a supertomato,” but was instead working on tomato paste. Reporters praised the “state of the art” kitchen where researchers worked on how to better make and transport tasty tomato paste.

Wow. That was one big kitchen. What’s the razor wire for?

So I did a little more research. (I do these things sometimes, and always feel like the crazy paranoid in some bad movie. What’s the famous line used by disparate personalities from Golda Meir to William Gibson–“even paranoid schizophrenics have enemies”?) It seems the Innovative Tomatoes are owned by Olam, a now multi-national corporation that began in Nigeria and eventually moved to Singapore, where its major stock holders are investment firms. They also partner with the food magnate Cargill.

I’m not saying this is bad. But I’m not certain their innovation techniques are working very effectively because most of the supermarket tomatoes I have had taste like water. These are the kinds of places that are the delivery system for most of our food and they could not possibly make our produce feel any more remote, even when I’m standing in the heart of the Central Valley, the region that produces much of the country’s fruits and vegetables.

And delivery system says it all, doesn’t it? Words like farmer and cook are replaced with the terminology of the factory. Even the word innovation, now applied widely to business, education and medicine, comes from the culture of the factory. It sounds laudatory, like innovative individuals (or tomatoes)  are doing something creative. But if you look at the word’s actual application, it usually means someone’s doing something “efficient” and money making.

I recently started canning myself, making some tomato sauce and paste out of the tomatoes my daughter and her husband grew in their own garden. (More about that later in another post.) You can buy that at the store my (very sweet and loving) mother-in-law tells me. But in fact, I don’t think we can anymore.

You know those tomatoes at the farmers’ market? I don’t think they’re doing anything very innovative. They’re just sitting in their bins, passive, lazy and sweet and full of flavor. Heirloom fruit. And that’s just fine with me.

photo-62

Posted in What Does Local Mean? | Comments Off on About Global Warming and Innovative Tomatoes