Sunday, March 14, 2010

Vegetables in exile



Among the environmentally enlightened one of the newer sects is the "locavores," folks who vow to eat food that is not only grown organically but locally too, usually within 100 miles of the consumer.

Proximity to the producers, they believe, reduces the environmental damage caused by diesel trucks and trains schlepping fruits and vegetables over thousands of miles and also ensures the nutritional integrity of the produce and its taste.

By the time a head of lettuce grown near San Miguel wends its way across Mexico to the U.S. border and then on to Chicago or New York, what arrives there--no matter how much it's packaged, refrigerated, humidified or otherwise coddled--is but a faded facsimile of the original article.

Two compelling locavores are Barbara Kingsolver, "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life," and Michael Pollan, "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto," and "The Omnivore's Dilemma: The Natural History of Four Meals."

Locavoring can be challenging, especially if you live in the frozen tundra that half of the U.S. becomes for several months every year. Strawberries in Minneapolis in January? No can do. Cherries in Manhattan? Sorry, pal.

It seems locavores first need to tame their baser, omnivorous urges. Then it helps to be a kitchen alchemist like Kingsolver, who transformed rhubarb into a "fruit" in order to satisfy her kids' early-spring hankering for the real stuff.

By comparison, locavoring in San Miguel is easy. The usually mild winters in the area ensure a continuous supply of produce from the same local farms that supply the U.S. If at your supermarket you spot "Mr. Lucky" brand produce--the one with the horseshoe on the label--it probably came from somewhere in our state of Guanajuato.

And if you stretch the locavore-approved supply radius just a bit, there are oranges, strawberries, watermelons, mangos, canteloupes and avocados to be had from nearby states. Catch these items in season and prices can be absurdly cheap.

Large American-style supermarkets have appeared in the San Miguel area in the past few years, with decidedly non-locavore offerings like asparagus from Peru, grapes from Chile and apples from Washington State.

But one can still get fruits and vegetables, some still covered with farm soil, at the two public markets, souq-like mazes of stalls covered with blue plastic tarps, where the sweet aromas of flower vendors mix with the pungent smells of taco stands. Musicians and organ grinders amble by, keeping the ambiance mellow, even if their music clashes with the boom-boxes of vendors of bootleg CDs and DVDs, also a specialty of these markets. (Why wait for Netflix? Miraculously, we can get DVDs of Hollywood's latest releases before Hollywood even officially releases them, and only for a couple of bucks.)

For those willing to do a little more legwork--Stew and I haven't yet--there are supposed to be small organic farms around San Miguel, even one selling earthworms for the garden. The catch is that here "organic" can be an unregulated, malleable concept, like asking the waiter how hot is that red salsa on the table. It all depends how you define "organic" or "hot."

Yet amid all this cornucopia of locally grown greens, the missing ingredient is variety. There are tomatoes alright, as long as you like the Roma variety or occasionally some mutant-looking kinds that for all their size and luscious appearance are disappointingly insipid. Despite Mexico's wide collection of different types of corn, the one available around here is usually white, starchy and not so tasty. No zucchini of the type we're used to in the States. Regulation lemons are small and green; the bigger, yellow Meyer lemons appear only rarely. Fancy-schmantzy mesclun salad mixes are not available, though some different types of lettuces are now sold. Usually just one or two kinds of potatoes.

Part of the problem is that San Miguel is after all a small town with limited demand for the exotic. Giant public markets in Mexico City and other larger cities offer any produce or foodstuffs imaginable.

Also, the local cuisine of San Miguel or Guanajuato--if there is such a thing--is no match for that of other parts of Mexico, like Oaxaca. Stew is fond of describing Oaxaca as place where you can't have a bad meal. Indeed, moles and other incredibly complex concoctions require a vast array of spices and other ingredients. Your taste buds are exhausted after a week in Oaxaca.

By comparison, "arrachera" steak, a marinated cut of flank steak, seems to be the staple of practically every restaurant menu in San Miguel. It can be very good but after four or five years of it, hmm, it gets boring, along with the green enchiladas and other same-olds, same-olds.

Here's where my garden comes in, to be launched in two raised beds recently completed. It will specialize in vegetables, fruits and produce not available here. Ah, let's be honest: It will feature mostly green oddities like heirloom tomatoes, sweet corn, real zucchini and other American goodies that are not available in Mexico.

Call it the Garden of Nostalgia. A private reserve of American vegetables in exile, with two or three rows of Illini Xtra-Sweet and Peaches & Cream Hybrid corn swaying in the background, behind their shorter cousins.

I don't know if it will work, but in my mind I'm already boiling the water in a pot that will be only 30 seconds away from the corn plants.

I'm even fantasizing about a Tomato Tasting Party, featuring blind sampling of the seven varieties of heirloom plus some other more common varieties that I will plant.

The general idea for the raised beds came from Jo Ann Erickson, a Californian who used to live at a ranch on the other side of San Miguel and is an expert organic grower and cook.

My two beds are L-shaped and about 18 inches deep at one end and about three feet at the other (the ground slopes). Along the long leg of the "L" they measure 13 feet long by 4 feet wide. They are made of the ubiquitous stone freely available on the property.

First we put in about 8 inches of coarse gravel to facilitate drainage through PVC pipes on the side walls. The soil mix is 40 percent local black soil mixed with an equal amount of what Mexicans call "tierra lama", sometimes translated as "loam" but which looks and feels more like sandy soil intended to keep the black soil from congealing into solid mud.

On top of that we mixed in beautiful, three-year-old compost from a nearby horse farm. That friable, odorless compost is other-worldly.

We've also set up our own three-bin compost pile, each compartment about 4 feet square, to handle garden and kitchen waste, though from my experience that process is a slow train to Chihuahua, not the nearly instant gusher of "black gold" advertised in gardening magazines.

To guide my efforts I am using "Square Foot Gardening," the book that probably made Mel Bartholomew a wealthy man. I go back and forth between his book and "Grow Vegetables," by Alan and Jo Whittingham. The latter is not as fact-packed as "Square Foot," but the luscious color photography keeps you inspired.

I'll probably need a lot of that inspiration to keep this project alive through the bug and pest season--this is an organic venture--plus other mishaps that lurk ahead.

Even before I had a chance to plant any seeds, my 60-lb. dog Lucy went in a dug a hole in one of the beds. So out comes a chicken-wire fence to try control Lucy's enthusiasm.

Our friend Fred also asked what I was going to do about rabbits. We have many honey-bunnies hopping across the property.

"What about rabbits,?" I asked cluelessly.

"Rabbits eat lettuce," calmy replied Fred.

"Hmm."

I guess we better get more chicken wire.

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