Thursday, July 29, 2010

Smut is in the eye of the beholder


The identity of the disgusting growths that afflicted my first crop of sweet corn came not from a tome about plant diseases but from a cookbook, Rick Bayless' Mexican Kitchen, which even suggests how to use the stuff in crepes, with fava beans in a soup and in tacos. It turns out that what American gardening books contemptuously call "corn smut" some Mexican chefs refer to as huitlacoche, a delicacy right up there with French truffles.

According to an article in Wikipedia, this disease turns the normal kernels in the corncob into blue-gray, tumor-like growths. In the U.S. infected plants are destroyed, but in Mexico they are prized because huitlacoche sells for more than healthy corn. The Aztecs in fact developed a method of purposely infecting healthy plants to induce the creation of huitlacoche.

The word huitlacoche comes Nahuatl, an indigenous Mexican language, although even in Nahuatl-ese the etymology is not very appetizing. The root huitla or cuitla, could mean either "excrement" or "rear end." Other sources translate huitlacoche as "raven's excrement."

And so on. None of the translations come out as "yummy!"

Still, some American gastronomes have tried to promote huitlacoche as Mexican truffle and persuade Americans to forget references to smut, excrement and such. In 1989 the James Beard Foundation even held a dinner featuring several huitlacoche dishes.

In his book Bayless says a huitlacoche dish is almost always on the menu at his upscale Mexican restaurant Topolobampo in Chicago, where diners clamor for the black fungus. Then again big-city diners, apparently bored by more pedestrian foodstuffs, often ask for sweetbreads, beef tongue, brains and other things that wouldn't come near my mouth.

If I hadn't seen huitlacoche up close, in my own corn plants, I may have tried it. But its appearance, combined with the disappointment of the disastrous corn crop, are not likely to persuade me to add it to my diet.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Midseason agricultural report



After three months of hot, dusty and dry summer days, with noon temperatures often in the low 90s, sometime in June we glided into spring, with cool temperatures, down into the 50s at night, and fairly regular rains. So this year we've gone from a clammy, unusually rainy winter, right into summer and now back to spring.

That confusing seasonal cycle has been but one of the problems--but not the main one--that has afflicted my first attempts at vegetable gardening in San Miguel. The bigger problems have been man-made, with some whoppers that have amused more experienced gardening friends. "You did whaaat?" someone howled last night over dinner, when I told him the problems I'd had with my so-called harvest of sweet corn.

Still, we've had quite a few successes. Various types of lettuce ("Burpee's Mesclun Classic Mix," and "Gourmet Blend"; and Martha Stewart's "Limestone Bibb") have done terrifically and I suspect that with cool weather prevailing until next summer--sometime in February--we could keep a lettuce crop going year-round, perhaps with some overnight protection from occasional frosts in December and January. Missing in action is an iceberg lettuce ("Great Lakes 118) packaged in Mexico that never even poked out of the ground.

(Martha Stewart Patrol: In case anyone is wondering, yes, Martha now sells "100 percent certified organic seeds." We bought ours at a Home Depot in Chicago, but the other day at a local supermarket we also found the Spanish-language Mexican edition of her "Everyday Food" magazine. Not even jalapeños and tortillas are safe from Martha's reach. Keep your eyes open now for the Martha Stewart edition of Caterpillar bulldozers, turbo-charged to clear away anything that gets in their way.)

Spinach has done very well, including the appropriately named "Monstrueux de Viroflay" variety, with 10-inch long leaves, which caterpillars recently discovered, and the daintier "Tetona F1 Hybrid" from Thompson & Morgan seeds. And so have a variety of herbs--cilantro, oregano, two kinds of parsley (frilly and plain-leaf)--in addition to thai and purple basil. The most productive basil though, has been a variety we bought locally and is cryptically described on the packet as just "Grande Verde" or "Big and Green." Look for it at your garden store.

A small, well behaved zucchini (Thompson & Morgan's "Courgette Defender F1 Hybrid") was also delicious and plentiful though now it's yellowing and shriveling, as if saying "hasta la vista baby." A larger variety of summer squash, which should be sold with a complimentary machete, grew beyond anyone's expectations, pushing and shoving in all directions. Now it's covered with mildew, but still flowering away and getting ready to give us more fruit.

Two canteloupe plants (Burpee's "Honey Bun Hybrid") have produced three perfectly formed fruits which are softball-sized and refusing to grow any larger. In the stunted category I should also include carrots (T&M "Sytan F1 Hybrid") which despite their luxuriant green plumage look like stumpy orange plugs, and radishes (T&M "Rudi") that should have grown to the size of golf balls but never got half that big.

My tomato crop--which I expected to dazzle visitors with its cornucopia of unique shapes, colors and flavors--has instead turned into a nondescript, small jungle. At first I worried that no fruits were forming despite the flurry of flowers. Now we have about a dozen tomatoes of various types that have yet to ripen. So there's hope, though I'd like to make it official: This year's Stew & Al's Tomato Tasting Gala has been cancelled.

On the fruit category, the three olive trees (two "arbiquín" and one "Mission") have produced exactly one olive apiece (one pictured above). A friend this weekend asked me if had recipes for brining and canning olives. Eh, I think that's a little premature, no?

By far the biggest catastrophe, and disappointment, has been the sweet corn. The Burpee "Illini Xtra Sweet" first was attacked by batallions of earwigs, which lodged themselves inside the young ears and prevented them from setting kernels. Félix, our ever-patient and resolutely organic gardener, doused the ears with a hose to flush out the invaders, which he drowned in water, one by one. He then applied an organic pesticide I obtained at a new garden store in town. But the damage was done. In addition, some ears developed a grotesque grey fungus. A week ago Félix finally took all the plants to the compost pile.

Undaunted, Stew boiled three fungus-free ears which were about eight inches long, with a smattering of about two or three dozen kernels each. They were actually delicious, sweet and juicy. "If we only had more of these," he observed dryly.

The other patch of corn (Burpee "Peaches and Cream") is still standing on the other raised bed, though looking stunted. I've picked a few ears and they appear to have a fuller line-up of kernels and could still yield some sweet corn.

Despite all the zig-zags and missteps of my gardening efforts, we're generally happy with the results. I've never liked vegetables and refused to eat them when I was little, with the tacit support of my meat-and-potatoes dad. I also used to roll my eyes when I heard gardeners rhapsodize about the wonders of eating fresh vegetables. However, after this initial exposure to fresh produce--two minutes from the ground to the kitchen--Stew and I may be converts to the cause, a couple of late-blooming Bugs Bunnies.

My agricultural techniques need quite a bit of refining, though.

The timing for sprouting seeds here is much earlier than in the U.S. Tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and other greens could be started indoors under lights--or perhaps in the raised beds themselves if I cover them with plastic to create temporary greenhouses--as early as January. They could then be hardened in early February and planted out in March to take advantage of San Miguel's early summertime heat.

No offense to Mel Bartholomew and his "Square Foot Gardening" strategy, but planting that many things so close together led to chaos and waste rather than efficiency in my garden. Radishes gasped for sunlight under the unwelcome shade of the monster spinach growing in the next square-foot square. Perhaps because too much watering, the carrot seeds got washed away and mixed up with the chives. Right now beets and bibb lettuce are nudging each other for extra elbow room. Next year these guys will get room to roam; no more sibling rivalries.

And talking about room, next year the corn, zucchini, beans, cucumbers and other ground hogs will be relocated to a ten-by-ten-foot patch we just dug in a far corner of the ranch, where they can flex their roots, tendrils and leaves without bumping into one another. I will not suffer any more ridicule by people asking me, "You did whaaat?" when I tell them that I planted corn in a raised bed, the plants barely six inches apart from each other--and then scratched my head because they didn't pollinate or grow properly.

How many zucchini fritters can a human being eat? Or green peppers? Pasta pesto for dinner, again? These are existential questions that have tormented home gardeners ever since toiling in a garden somehow became an enjoyable pastime. There are no final answers but I know for sure that 12 green pepper plants are way too many and just one cucumber bush is enough to satisfy our needs.

But for now, on to the next planting of Mesclun lettuce.

Monday, July 5, 2010

A "milpa" grows in Santa Clara



The gardening profession in San Miguel suffers from the scourge of low expectations. Most trades bring to mind a set of skills along with the anticipation of a certain finished product. Masons and bricklayers are supposed to know how to mix cement and stack bricks in an orderly manner, so the finished wall is solid and plumb. Carpenters are presumed to know joinery and measurements so the chairs they create don't wobble, limp or fall apart.

Of gardeners, however, most homeowners don't expect much. They are thought of instead in terms of "hole diggers," "weeders," "waterers," or some other function scarcely a millimeter above that of a peon, rather than someone with any kind of special expertise, let alone burning interest, in plant life. Only a select few people can practice carpentry. Practically anyone can claim to be, or be designated, a "gardener" in San Miguel.

The low expectations (and minimal pay) have bred a legion of generally low-wattage gardeners with a tendency to water plants into a stupor or prune a bush or a tree, machete in hand, as if it were an intruder rather than a valued part of the garden.

When we first moved to San Miguel we rented a house that included the services of a gardener twice weekly. His name was José, a sluggardly sort who watered plants right on schedule even if it had rained the night before. Later we discovered that José's true passion was pyrotechnics: We spotted him walking proudly in a religious procession, cradling a large bundle of firecrackers on his left arm, and with his right hand pulling out and setting them off one by one using a lit cigarette dangling from his mouth.

A garden club of American expats recently launched a series of workshops to teach gardeners about pest controls, organic gardening, pruning and other basic skills. The workshops have been a hit among homeowners, who pay the modest tuition fee, and also among the gardeners. The series could have been titled "Gardening Beyond Watering."

When we moved to the seven and a half acres of Rancho Santa Clara six months ago I brought a stack of books about desert gardening and a myriad mental doodlings of where plants and trees were supposed to go, along with the vegetable gardens and drip irrigation systems. The fantasies rapidly shriveled under the hot sun, and the need for a gardener became more urgent: Not just any gardener, but one who'd be young, strong and able to wrestle with the rocky, hostile terrain.

Two weeks after our move, we found a young guy waiting by the gate who very forwardly asked me, "Hey, Alfredo , I want to work for you," using the informal "tú" Spanish construction. I recognized him as one of a half-dozen laborers who had worked on the construction and been laid off at the end. Good timing on his part. I said, "Come over next Monday and we'll try you out three days a week."

Other than being hardworking, Félix, 24, met none of the requirements I had in mind. He's about five-foot-seven and no more than 120 pounds--hardly a Mexican Schwarzenegger. He has a dark cinnamon complexion that many pale-faced gringo women would kill for, along with jet-black hair and mellow eyes. He's not much for idle chatter though he has an uncanny memory for anything I say, sometimes even after I forgot I said it. As of late, Félix has been showing up at work with his dog "Chupito" who faithfully follows him around the ranch.

Since we hired him six months ago, his interest in gardening has blossomed from the lackadaisical to the nearly obsessive, and turned him into a gusher of ideas and suggestions for projects, from rooting cuttings, planting seeds, and even grafting different types trees, the latter something which I know nothing about. But evidently he got that idea, and several others, from "Making More Plants," a coffee table book by Kenneth Druse that I lent him. Félix can't read English, but the lavish, four-color illustrations apparently were enough to sprout all sorts of ideas in his mind. My formerly neat front garden now is filled with dozens of cut-off plastic milk and soda bottles filled with a variety of cuttings.

And questions, questions, questions.

His intellectual curiosity and voracious reading--I keep giving him books and printouts of Internet articles both in English and Spanish--are all the more surprising because he has only a sixth-grade education, and reading and writing take some visible effort on his part. Lately Félix has been matching the pictures and the words on the Burpee Seeds packets, and casually pointing to different spots on the raised beds and mumbling: "radish," "carrot" or "cucumber."

A couple of months ago I gave Félix an Internet article about the Native American practice of planting squash, beans and corn together. Known as the Three Sisters, the beans are supposed to climb up the corn stalks and the squash cover the soil as a living mulch. Beans, which are known as "nitrogen fixers," enrich the soil, while the leafy, spiny squash is supposed to deter weeds and small animals from attacking its two sisters.

Some of the indigenous people in Mexico developed an eerily similar cultivation system known as "milpa," an Indian word that can also refer to a small food garden or corn patch. In the traditional milpa, Mexicans add lima beans to the mix. How did essentially the same cultivation system develop among indigenous people thousands of miles away?

So after our disastrous attempt to grow sweet corn ended a week ago--ears turned up with few kernels or covered with a cancerous-looking fungus--Félix and I had a strategy meeting. I suggested that we had planted our corn too closely, which had prevented proper pollination and possibly encouraged the growth of the fungus. I gave him an Internet printout in Spanish explaining pollination.

In his mind Félix put together the pollination problem with the articles I had given him weeks ago about the Three Sisters and the milpas and came up with a solution: A four-meter-square milpa at one corner of the land where the corn would have enough space, and we could put squash, cucumbers and beans in the mix. He assures me we still have enough time and that the ongoing rains are a good omen. A backhoe already dug the patch on Friday. This week we'll start to break up the clods of black soil, so perhaps we can plant the seeds by the end of the week.

The odd thing is that I can't answer half this guy's questions so I keep running back to my computer and gardening books. In fact, it's turning into a two-way learning session, because not only does he force me to get answers but he is also teaching me the names of the local fauna and flora and passing on gardening hints from his family (plus all sorts of gossip about the towns nearby).

Stew is looking for a textbook to teach Félix English but meanwhile some language hurdles remain. When I asked Félix to make labels for some seeds he was planting, he laboriously copied the descriptions on the seed packets, but in some cases not the actual names of the plants.

So some labels now say "A wonderful container plant" or "Ideal for sunny spots" but we don't know what's coming up.

One of them looks like thyme.