Tag Archives: Garden

Squirrel (no recipes)

Growing food in San Francisco is not without challenges. A lot of them: Hardpack Clay soil, snails (Some Frenchman, so goes the story, imported them with an eye to escargot, but he got the wrong kind..thanks a lot, Pierre.), fog (and the resulting early blight every year) long but cold growing seasons, which usually don’t produce enough heat, until there isn’t enough sunlight, fog, mildew, high water prices, Tomatoes are heartbreaking, reaching near perfection then turning brown and wrinkly overnight. This year there are no bees, which means no tomatoes.

I’ve had a garden on this continent or that for 30 odd years. I hated it when it was a necessity. My current plot and I are in love hate relationship. I probably keep doing it because I can’t afford to pave the damn thing over (2.5K ft 2), and it’s already extracted Lord knows how many thousands of dollars and uncountable hours from me, so why stop now?

There are benefits to digging around in mud for food. Shopping in the back yard, even if the back forty is 4 stories down, is pretty neat. Alpine strawberries grow phenomenally well here, as do raspberries. A twenty foot lemon tree and wild mandarin oranges have a certain enchantment. Italians I know say the lemons are Sorrento. The University of California citrus center says there is no such thing as Sorrento lemons. Perhaps the University of California should have a chat with the Italians. Thrilling humming birds now and then alight on my hand when I water or dash back and forth in the spray, nattering constantly, absolutely unimpressed by our size differential of a ratio between me to it of something like five zillion to one.

I have cherries, blueberries and apricots, or at least I would, if it weren’t for the benighted squirrel. I share a lot of my potential crop with the squirrel, who affords me even less respect than the humming birds. Actually, it’s not really sharing. He takes what he wants and occasionally misses something, which is then my share.

He doesn’t stop at the garden. I’ve learned to close the screen door between the deck and the dining room. Having once discovered and destroyed a fruit bowl on the table, he tries to get in again, so he can scatter pieces of skin and flesh all over, and I can spend an hour scraping the bits off the hardwood floor. My presence doesn’t seem to bother him a lot. I can stand at the other side of the door saying, “Go away. You will be stew,, and he still tries.  It’s insulting.

The squirrel prefers fruit. So do I, which is why I (try to) grow a lot of it. The more I desire something, the better the squirrel likes it, but not all of it. My garden is his tasting menu. He plucks each strawberry from the hanging basket on the deck, takes a nibble, then drops it and tries the next, until the deck is littered with slightly gnawed berries. Like your horrible roommate in college, who took a bite out of every piece of See’s candy until she found the one she wanted.

Squirrel does fascinating things with lemons. He never touches the fruit, just the beautiful thick rind, which he delicately removes, leaving the fruit perfectly exposed without a speck of white and not a cut in the flesh. A naked lemon. The lemons have a reprieve in summer, when there’s more to be had, but on a bad productive (destructive?) winter day there may be five or six precisely skinned lemons on the ground. If he isn’t inclined to do the whole thing, he’ll just gnaw off a square inch or less of the peel and leave the rest to rot and drop off the tree.

When the cherries ripen he takes them, too, one by one, tastes then drops them. All of them. This year he left me one. It’s a fifteen foot tree. He has a little more trouble with the raspberries, and, praise be, he either doesn’t like or hasn’t found the alpine strawberries. Possibly he thinks they are too small, so I can have them. Alms.

If you are a PETA member or duped into saying “Awwww”, when  you see one of the little Rodents in Disney cute disguise, stop reading now. This is an anti-non-human-animal post. Squirrel has made me the Elmer Fudd to his Bugs Bunny. “Get da squirrel, get da squirrel, get da squirrellllll!”

The Brits have pronounced grey squirrel the ultimate ethical food, since they are displacing the red squirrels over there. I can’t see it. Aside from the fact that they are louse ridden bleeping rodents, they were dropped from Marion Cunningham’s update of the Joy of cooking out of concern they might contain prions and thus cause mad cow disease, or mad squirrel disease.

I tried bait. I tried putting lit little gas bombs down something  that looks like the beginning of a warren. Since two squirrels still run along the phone wires, it didn’t work.

Natural predators are useless. The hawk that settles on the neighbor’s towering Monterey pine, a potential solution, couldn’t care less. “Go, Hawk, get the bleeping critter.” Hawk yawns, takes a turn and resettles on his tree top. Come to think of it, I’ve never seen Hawk catch anything.

On Saturday the critter committed strawberry mayhem, littering the deck with perhaps a dozen nibbled fruit. Too much being enough, I grabbed my keys and took off for Pappenhausen Hardware, where they have just about everything and people you can talk to.

“I’ve got a squirrel”, I said to the kid whose college fund I actively support. “What do you want?” he asked. “Got any bb guns or squirrel guns?” I asked. He missed a beat. “You’re kidding.” I wasn’t. Hardware stores used to carry air rifles.

“What about a trap,” he brightened. So did I. This is better. There are traps for squirrels. I put down my plastic for a Havahart (get it. “Have a Heart”?) trap which cost $32 including California’s recently imperceptibly reduced sales tax. If he’d told me they cost a couple of hundred, I probably would not have balked. For one thing, I’m squeamish, so not dealing with anything dead or killing it myself is a definite plus. For another, the Havahart squirrel trap is absolutely guaranteed to work.

The food goes on a platform attached to a spring door. When the rodent takes the food, the trip wire supposedly slips from it’s holding place, allowing the spring loaded door to snap shut, and the rodent is ready for transportation to a distant location (illegal, but who’s asking?) or skinning for Peking squirrel pancakes. I’d chose relocation to the Presidio. Or maybe Canada. Someplace far away.

The trap is a huge success. The squirrel loves it. He keeps coming back for more. The biggest hit was a Saturn peach. He ate all of the little trail of Cheerio’s I laid out to get him into the trap, except for two runts (discriminating), but he doesn’t like watermelon. Apricots seem to be OK, but not on the top of his list. I’m trying cherries tomorrow, and I understand they like almond butter. Rainbow grocery carries that.

Consumer support with a deep southern accent tells me to hide the food in a tube. If he works for it, he will put more weight on the trip door and set the trigger off. Shows what she knows, and she’s in squirrel country. Why should he work? He lives on the top of the Big Rock Candy Mountain. If I make it hard, he’s just go back to decimating my crop. Guaranteed, my eye. I bought a squirrel restaurant, and now I am feeding him just like the crazy little old lady who used to live next door, but a lot better.

For the moment there’s a truce. If he gets something he likes a lot, like $5/lb Saturn peaches, he ignores the strawberries. Where can I buy an air gun?

Squirrel restaurant

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Farming as Spectator Sport

Time was people couldn’t wait to get off the farm. My father’s family put up everything they had to leave their Oneida truck farm and head out to own and run a small transient hotel in considerably more urban Sterling Colorado. The hotel still had a garden patch – it was the depression and growing food meant having it – where my father picked potato bugs until he was able to escape to college and the eminently more luxurious life of a printer’s devil, who slept under the printing press of the Boulder newspaper. I never once heard him speak wistfully of the experience.

To a generation forced to read travails of the Job family in the Grapes of wrath,  farming sounded less than romantic, until the Hippies resurrected and altered the concept in a back to the land rush of families and co-ops, living in buses and communes across the country and raising equal crops of corn and pot . I missed that bullet, but fate and hormones (call it love if you will)  moved me to a town on a plateau in the Jura mountains with twice as many cows as people and a mish mash of cross hatched fields and orchards, farm gardens and eventually our own plot. In the second season our plot took on truck farm proportions thanks to a borrowed tractor,  and I was, like it or not, farming, at least by todays altered criteria.  I thought it was gardening at the time, but the concept has been adjusted to meet our romantic nostalgia for what you probably didn’t know, so that any meridian or sidewalk cutout with a stray carrot now counts as a farm.

I escaped the Alp in ’85 to a city house with too much land behind it and found myself caught up again in the world of digging forks and slugs and soil amendments, aiding my newly divorced budget to feed a twelve year old. It was my lonely love hate cross to bear 2008 created a gardening explosion.

Alice Waters and Slow Food, with vast funds, installed a “Victory Garden”  (what were we trying to vanquish, actually?) in  the City Hall Plaza. The “plots” were made of straw bumpers filled with luxury soil and planted with pre grown flowering and fruiting “crops” by a few hundred eager volunteers – there was a waiting list – while Alice stood on the steps with her hands folded and took a lot of credit but no dirt under her nails. His Honor Gavin Newsom, on the other hand, was down on his knees planted pre grows heritage beans and nearly grown kohlrabi and romaine with the disciples, Godblessem.. Waters claimed the plot was producing 200lb of food a week for the homeless,  (I’d guess more like fifteen).

Of course this was not really farming. Nor, for that matter, was it extreme gardening. It was container planting. Someone described it more precisely as agro decorating – placing fully grown plants in a tastefully created pattern of improvised containers. Real farming involves seeds and weeds and fungus and worrying that grubs and funghi don’t get it before it’s big enough to resist. It’s all muddy boots and washing off the leeks so as not to stuff up the drain with mud. Containers are not farms.  Nor does farming involve around the clock guards  (more volunteers) to keep the bums from snatching the tomatoes and relieving themselves among the squash.

The “Victory Garden” was an immediate success. San Franciscans marched reverently through the paths separating the snap peas from the corn in awe, few remarking that the VG’s tomatoes were free from the early blight and powdery mildew which afflicts our own coastal vines. Waters, aided by an adoring and unquestioning food press,  urged America to go out, rip out their lawns and plant corn and tomatoes, and rip they did. Local stores ran short of Burpee’s seed and Home Depot hired new garden sales people.

With the Slow Food spin the construct of d.i.y. food production eventually morphed from garden  to “Urban Farm” – a term conveniently offered up without contest by the Urban  Farmer drip watering supply store near the zoo. It inspired thousands of urbanites to plant something – most of them to plant way too much and too many. My neighbors dug up their heavy clay and asbestos containing serpentine soil and started a plot, but gave up when reality set in, leaving the weeds to blow seed into my own 26 year old vegetable garden, where my version of vegetable gardening (It really isn’t farming) involves swearing a lot of blue streaks and plenty of Advil.

Organizations like Slow and the Commonwealth Club tossed fuel on the smoldering farm romanticism through panel discussions with Farmer Al from Frog Hollow Farms. Tours were organized to familiarize the city folk with the new organic farm practices.

It was probably Farmer Al,  a mountain of a man with a mind to match, who thought first of the entertainment value of farming. Frog Hollow has some of the best stone fruit in the state and a full kitchen, where Al’s  pastry chef wife creates jams and pastries available at the Ferry Plaza Market. Big Al figured his packing shed  could house a long table and the kitchen could provide food.  For a hefty fee  he could bring us city slickers out there, run us around the back forty on a tractor bed and feed us an organic banquet under the corrugated tin roof. He started something.

Farming has become a spectator sport. You take your kids to the zoo to see the monkeys, you go  to the farm to see the rutabagas. There’s something enchantingly Victorian about the public’s urge for self-betterment through the investigation of the source of things.

Of course farm tours as marketing tools for seed and produce salesmen have been around for years. I have been on a few, and I enjoyed them terrifically, but I considered them part of my job. I could never resist the temptation to make a quick bend and  yank out some miners lettuce or grab a handful of soil and play with it, deciding if it is loam or clay or envy it’s damp black coastal crumbs.  It was fun because most of the people who were there know about the product or the process – we smelled leaves and tasted tomatoes and wondered what the market price would be.

I got an invitation today from Les Dames de Escoffier for a farm tour – $48 to visit the farms at the University of California at Santa Cruz with lunch made by a graduate. It’s one of at least five such invitations I have received so far this year to do something I considered work people who have never had the opportunity, it’s probably great fun, but I keep hearing the distant echo of Tom Sawyer and the fence in the new identity of Farming as Entertainment.

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Fire vs Raw

Culinary Hysteria: Anatomy of a food fad

The inspiration for Culinary Promiscuity came through a book tour presentation by  Richard Wrangham,  primatologist and author of “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human“.  Wrangham theorizes that fire was the pivotal event for human evolution, catapulting our  species from tree dwelling, leaf chewing primates to doctors, lawyers and casino magnates.

With more calories available through cooking, says Wrangham, our treed ancestors no longer needed to spend the entire day chewing to fuel their oversized bellies, could climb down from their branches, develop a brain in place of their enormous chewing apparatus, walk upright and begin hunter gathering. All that in turn permitted the development of a voice box followed language, society, tools, the wheel, the written word, the printing press, hors d’oeuvres and eventually Julia Child and Jacques Pepin teaching us how to make puff pastry and employ a Cuisinart the right way. Cooking made us human.

Once published Wrangham’s initially contested theory gained instant popularity among the food crowd. Endorsed by sustainable food guru Michael Pollan, the idea took hold in at least some of the food fixated community.  Others, however, didn’t get the memo.

During Wrangham’s book tour presentation a member of the audience mentioned the burgeoning Raw movement, whose adherents eat nothing cooked, maintaining that food in its “natural state”, i.e. raw, was healthier to the point of possessing nearly magical powers. Wrangham gave it short shrift, stating that he had “heard of them” and that they were “always very thin, and very hungry,”  suggesting the question : If you’ve come a long way baby, why ever would you want to go back?

The raw food movement, with little regard for Wrangham’s insights or for that matter, any empirical scientific data  was gaining momentum and soon topped the foodie topic chart, it’s disciples eschewing their Wolf ranges and promoting the value of all things not only raw but vegan with a truly missionary ignorance.

The first time I heard about the Raw Movement was perhaps ten years earlier, when a restaurant asked me to find him a “special chef. As it happened,  Nick Petti , a pretty special guy, dropped by that afternoon. “Have I got a job for you,”   I probably said to Nick who undoubtedly raised one eyebrow under his signature jester cap, mumbled the likes of “We’ll see about that,”  and took off to have a look. In a couple of hours he was back. I’m pretty sure he slammed his fist on my desk. “Don’t you ever…” he sputtered, then gave me a review of his interview. “He puts pizzas out to dry on the roof in the sun. Do you have any idea how dangerous that is? There are flies!”

I backed off the deal and dismissed the idea as one more visionary loony’s fantasy,  but the idea was out of the barn and about to explode. It’s odd how easy it is for outrageous ideas to find followers. Sometime later the raw restaurateur’s  book appeared, spawning an initial rush of highly vocal disciples, then suddenly “raw food” was the trend, gathering foodies as it rolled on like a cartoon snowball.  Charlie Trotter adopted the philosophy, offering all raw prix fixe menues at this Chicago restaurant, and published a blockbuster book with beautiful pictures in collaboration with  Roxanne Klein, who opened a raw cuisine, or “living food” as she put it, restaurant in Marin, claiming credentials from Stars, Square One and Chez Panisse – enough heavy ammunition to awaken the herding instincts of  the food mad restaurant followers of the Bay Area. She apparently actually did work at Chez Panisse.

Chefs, on the other hand, scoffed: “The whole thing about being a chef, said one,”  is cooking. “That’s what I have been working to learn for ten years, that’s what I went to culinary school for. You gotta  have fire.”  Wrangham’s point, entirely. The cooking community concurred: the reason you cook things was that a) it made food safer and b) food tastes better. Klein had asked me to find a “chef” for the restaurant, although she, herself, was generally accredited with the food. My searches led nowhere. “You don’t need a chef. That’s a pantry cook,”  said potential candidate.  The others noted things like, “Hey, man. I gotta do meat.”

The trio of arguments against raw food  –  safety, flavor and nutritional value – are convincing. The whole raw food philosophy rejects temperatures above 118F, keeping the procuts in the sweet spot for microbe growth for extended periods of time. (The Microbial danger zone is between 40F and 140F).  The PH of the vegetable proteins used, for instance to make “dough” of sprouts, is perfect for dangerous critters.  As for flavor, the combination of vegan dictates rejecting eggs, milk products and honey plus the processing limitations exclude hot baked biscuits. Eggs Benedict, grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, oven baked asparagus, chevre and Waygu sliders. Why would otherwise seemingly intelligent people turn their back on Toast in favor of a Neolithic diet of nuts, soy and berries, skillfully combined in an expensive, high visibility restaurant? Why the lemming rush to the past?

Titillation certainly counts for some of the fad’s and the restaurant’s popularity. The food was reportedly tasty.  The usual promotional tricks surely worked;  Roxanne’s claimed connections to prestigious kitchens in  her press releases, and that kind of provenance – fact based or not – brings in the public.   The Klein’s social connections – they included some of the most glamorous figures in San Francisco and Marin, surely did no damage to the project.

One restaurant, however, does not a movement make, and a movement raw became. The press went wild. The SF Chronicle Food section all but pronounced Roxanne’s the second coming and writers around the  country followed suit in the usual food press elephant walk, passing the  new and outrageously edgy story about in the usual self-fulfilling  prophecy mode. Other restaurants, gurus and books were created. Bloggers went bloggy. Raw web sites and “living food” communities were established.

The language was an extra plus. For the same reason “prunes” were re names “dried plums”, using the term “living food” suggests mythical powers, at least if your food is vegan. It would not work as well for omnivorous menus.

Once the herd was in motion, logic was doomed.  At the height of the “living food” revolution,  any protest against it became advertisement for it. In the food world, printers ink and pixels turn isolated incidents into widespread phenomena. Wealthy women began looking for private chefs who could juice.

Some of us scratched our heads.

The raw public’s unquestioning acceptance of the trend  is further  puzzling in light of the amount of raw food from orange juice and salad to sushi and carpaccio we were already consuming in our more or less balanced conventional diets.  Nobody, at least in California, was deprived of raw food. Reason (and science) would suggest that they were getting enough fiber or vitamins already, but the diehard believers rejected all cooked foods. Why?

Like other food fads,  the raw philosophy promotes the “natural” character of the foods, uncompromised by fire. We were intended, they reason, to eat raw and did so exclusively until about 10,000 years ago. (they’re off by only a little more than three million, but precision was never a prerequisite of nutritional fashion.) Raw Foods, proclaim the advocates, are healthy, insinuating that cooked foods are not. It addressed our obsession with unadulterated and real foods as opposed to the poisons we somehow feel we are subjected to. By some twist of logic, “raw” came to equal “pure”, while cooked foods took on the suggestion of toxicity.  We Americans are all fools for healthy; our health grounded gullibility enjoys a fine history in this country beginning with travelling snake oil salesmen. It’s good for what ails ya’.

A claim was that cooked foods fostered  allergies and food sensitivities, which various raw advocates stated were due to the destruction of natural elements in food. One chef I asked recently noted he had heard that eating foods raw kept the enzymes intact. It’s quite surprising, in fact, how many food professionals don’t discount the vital enzyme theory and it’s dual fallacy: they are not human enzymes but effective for chlorophyll producing organisms – not us – and second your own digestive enzymes destroy them.

As for the fuzzy concept that raw food is more nutritional, Wrangham and a number of nutritional scientists in the fact based side of the debate avow that cooking foods actually makes many vitamins and enzymes available.

The trend has settled as the foodists rush on to the next thing, be it cupcakes or food trucks. There are plenty to choose from.  As trends will, raw food occasionally still stubbornly bubbles up in some food section article now and then, but they are fortunately no longer ubiquitous.  It turned out that at least in San Francisco and Marin there were not enough raw devotees to support a large, expensive “live food” raw and vegan restaurant. Their money ran out.  The principal investor, Michael Klein, withdrew his support. Perhaps those who tried the regime were disappointed when the wellness they expected from natural and uncompromised product did not materialize. My guess is that, as Wrangham said, they all just got “really, really hungry”, chucked it all in and went out for a pork chop with mashed potatoes.

The Kleins divorced it was rumored that Michael Klein was planning to invest in an Argentine steakhouse with George Morrone. For every action……..

So, how did something as silly as “live food” get so much press and how does misinformation linger on so long? A professor of mine once said that “People attach great importance to what ever comes into and exits their body.” He didn’t add that reason did not apply. When it comes to nutrition, health and food, we are frequently irrational. Give us enough semi scientific evidence and tell us that something is natural and healthy and not contaminated, regardless of the facts, and we’ll all our logical garments and follow the nearest buck naked emperor down any road he decides to lead us.

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