Echoes and Mementos

Thoughts and pictures about cooking, eating, reading, writing, and living.

Tag: food

Strawberry Fields

On the plants were strawberries, and in my hand was a basket. At first, when I crouched in the straw-spread furrow and reached into the leaves, I turned up young strawberries, the sour kind. Lately, food producers have been tugging at our understanding of the berry. My concept of a berry is a tiny, tart fruit. I eat them by the handful. At most supermarkets, the juiced-up strawberries more resemble apples than berries. You eat these fatties in two or three bites. Like peaches, they’re hand fruit.

Strawberries were also on the ground. Friday night’s thunderstorm had scattered them, had pelted my windshield on the ride from New York, and had, I think, caused the farmers at Sussex County Strawberry Farm to spread their strawberry field with hay. When I called the farm from Allie’s, I got a stern message: strawberry-picking season would end today at 2pm. We got in the car.

The city’s concrete and glass receded in my mind as we drove west. On Saturdays, I try to rout the memory of work so that I can relax. But those busy thoughts are firmly entrenched from five days of digging. How can I send them flying? By, on Saturday, making my cubicle the open field, my clock the sun.

I was sweating five minutes into the picking. After seven, my knees ached. It felt good, though I can’t imagine how a catcher crouches for nine innings. Weaving among the rows, I skirted the pickable part of the field, hoping to find a row of perfect strawberries where nobody had searched for a few days. The sun was hot. As a parasol I had the clouds. Busy memories fled to the corners of my consciousness. Better still, many of the sun-warmed berries went into my basket, and the best ones went into my belly.

Artichokes Part One: Food?

Have you ever seen a purple flower and, feeling chancy, eaten it? The first person to ever eat an artichoke did. The artichoke (pictured above) little resembles food. To an unknowing forager, the artichoke’s bulb would as likely contain food as a tree trunk or a cloud. But tap that maple trunk and you have syrup, and stand under that raincloud and you have water.

Then, when the forager was set on eating the inedible flower, he or she has to get past the plant’s natural defenses; its petals taper to a spear tip. When I was harvesting artichokes in Emilia-Romagna, the spear tips often slipped through my gloves and into my skin. A quick prick–no, a puncture–and long after you’ve recoiled the tips stays with you, sending shivers down your arm, as if you’ve been sunburned or taken too much Advil. The shivers keep you up at night. Wine is the cure.

 In June 2010, I was charged with harvesting a crop of artichokes. Unlike the forager, I knew about the choke inside. Here’s how the harvest goes. You walk to the flowers with a bucket and a scissors, along the tips of grape trellises, in the shade of apricot trees, past a few rusty shotgun shells, and to the artichoke field that opens where the vineyard ends. Here, the mountain curves back on itself. You see across the valley: squares of vineyard, crumbling villas on the high ridge, green everywhere, a sun somewhere, a farmer stalking in the nearest vineyard. He waves hello.

I snipped the bulbs from their stems. Mindful of the spear tips, I went from plant to plant, taking the last of the summer’s artichoke crop. I watched the farmer tend his vines across the valley. Shortly, the owner of the farm where I was staying came out and worked on the far artichoke rows. He was shirtless. His toddler son ran screaming among the plants. I worked slowly, drinking in the view, the breeze, and even the jab of a spear tip, a happy reminder of being alive.

Second, when the artichoke has been snipped, the bulb must be reduced to a heart. The unknowing forager must have stumbled here. (Did he or she first try to eat the outer leaves, or to chew and swallow the raw stem?) To get to the edible part, strip away the petals (more spearing) until you reach oily leaves that are mostly yellow. Cut off the yellow tip. Scrape out the choke.

Third, you need to rub the hearts with lemon. Acid prevents them from browning. The forager probably had no lemon (or vinegar), but if he or she ate them raw, as is probable, the first eaten artichokes were likely so fresh they were not yet brown. In parts of Italy, Italians slice artichokes thinly and eat them raw dipped in olive oil. We cooked ours. Here are some of the June 2010 artichokes staying fresh in a lemony bath while we finished prepping the others:

Fourth, cook the artichoke. We cooked ours over a wood fire. Sticks turned to ash in the flames (we used ashes to wash dishes), and embers were still glowing in the pre-dawn the next morning. Early, we drove the cauldron to a small food processor in Brisighella, the nearby town, and churned the artichokes into a coarse paste. For the next three weeks, we put it on toast. But, as he or she lacked a lemon, the unknowing forager was likely also short on a neighborhood food processor. Was that raw, scratchy first artichoke worth the spearing, the wrestling from the stem, and the stripping of leaves? As a knowing harvester in 2010 and a knowing eater in 2012, I hope it was.

Recipe Cards

When you read books of fact someone is telling you about the past. You are mostly passive, a listener. When you read recipes you are actively reconstructing and exploring the past. I once read a few Roman recipes. They were from the empire, and they were translated from Latin. Pasta had not yet evolved. Romans instead ate a polenta made from wheat; corn was stuck in the Americas, and so was a favorite jungle-fruit of mine: the tomato. Cooks seasoned food with garum, a fermented fish sauce, similar to the condiment popular in Southeast Asia today. People and foods change; through old recipes we can imagine how we used to be.

My grandparents recently sent me some recipe cards. Mostly, they come from my great-grandmother, who herself came from Avellino, Italy (near Naples) to New York by way of Albania and Budapest. (Recall: the woman who gave me the idea for eggles gnocchi.) She settled in the West Village. Here is a curious fact, for in the West Village I have idled away some Saturday afternoons, slinking into shops, wandering, buying tea and cheese. I am interested in the recipe cards for the food, yes, but also for the portal to Italian-American New York of a century past.

“Christofer,” my Nanni recently asked, “where do you get your tripe?” I don’t know where I get my intestines for cooking, because I don’t know anyone who will eat them with me, except maybe Shadow, but now that I have a recipe for the spongy organ I will search for a butcher who carries it.

Look for some of these foods in the coming weeks and seasons.

Dragon Fruit