Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Chestnut Gathering

It was around twenty years ago when I first visited the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. I remember what the weather was like that day—cool and grey—and I wore a sweater and a skirt. For some reason, I remember my car being in the shop and I drove a loaner car, one with a much better sound system than my own, and I rolled into the museum parking lot with the music up really loud. Maybe it was a short day at work that day, because I felt like I was playing hooky. In other words, it was a really good day.

To enter the museum, I walked through a row of larger than life Rodin sculptures. Once inside, I had my choice to go to the left and see European art from the last couple hundred years, or go to the right and see older European and Asian art. I don't remember which section I went to first, but I do know I eventually found myself in the wing of European art from the turn of the 20th Century, stopped still in front of a painting.

The painting is large, about 5 feet by nearly 8 feet. Its colors are saturated: crimson, orange, gold,  brown, and black. Sawtoothed chestnut leaves litter the ground—the older ones red and overlapping, the newer ones gold and horizontal—all in a highly decorative pattern. In the forefront of the painting, three women gather chestnuts while two other women collect more behind them. The first of the three women in front kneels, taking a stone in her large Picasso-esque hand to use as a tool to remove a chestnut from its thorny burr. She drags a burlap sack of nuts she's collected. The second woman is upright. It looks as if she's walking slowly. She carries a tray of perfectly arranged chestnuts, and her disproportionate hands support the tray from above and below, like a gift. Behind her head, a break in the large trees creates a dome of light, framing her face like a gold leaf halo in a medieval illuminated manuscript. The third in the trio walks behind, slightly bent over, carrying a load of chestnuts in her apron. Unlike the other two, her hair isn't free, but covered with a loose scarf. Reminiscent of a religious procession, the trio remind me of the holy connectedness of work and nature and food. Foraging under these trees is a sacred act.

That first day I encountered this painting, I sat down on a bench in front of it and thought about it for a long time. I noticed the smoothness of the women's features and their long legs, the pattern of the ancient trees in rows, and the way the chestnuts on the ground don't succumb to the laws of perspective; they don't shrink in the "distance." I purred with joy in front of this painting, rubbing my soul against it like a friendly cat.

When I finally got up to look at the information plaque next to the painting, I learned its title, "Autumn: The Chestnut Gatherers." I had never heard of its painter, Georges Lacombe, before. The plaque explained that the model for the painting was a young woman, Marthe, who would become Georges's wife, and that the painting was the third in a four part series about the seasons commissioned by Marthe's mother, Gabrielle.

The woman who commissioned the painting and the woman who modeled for it share my not-too-common last name, Wenger.

Nowadays, a canvas-transferred print of that painting hangs, framed, over my sofa as the most prominent piece of art in our living room. I stare at it every day. I sit under it in the morning to drink my coffee and catch up on the news. At night, when we watch television, I relax under it with my feet in Scott's lap. That painting is part of what makes my house home to me, and it lives in a corner of my brain, always.

But, until this weekend, I had never actually performed the act depicted in the painting. I consider myself an aficionada of orchards, but I had never seen a chestnut orchard in person until Sunday, when I went chestnut gathering.

Skyline Chestnut Orchard is tucked away in the Santa Cruz Mountains between Palo Alto and Pescadero, between the bay and the ocean. According to the orchard's website, soon after the purchase of California in 1847, a Spanish settler moved up into the mountains and planted the oldest European chestnut trees. Presently, the property is owned by Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District and managed by a farming family, the Johsens. They open the orchard every fall when the chestnuts begin to drop and run a farm stand where they sell chestnuts and chestnut (and other varieties of) honey.

Sunday, I drove down the peninsula and up the mountains, good music playing and the sunroof open. Scott and the kids were out of town, so I had the day all to myself, with nowhere I had to be other than exactly where I wanted to be. After I found the turnoff for the orchard, I parked and checked in at the farm stand. I followed the path to the trees, but instead of staying on the lower flatter ground, like the many families that were also out collecting nuts, I clambered up the hill under old gnarly trees. I waded through native blackberries, identifiable two ways: they have slender prickly thorns rather than Himalayan blackberries' scimitar-shaped deadly thorns, and their leaves turn wine and maroon in autumn. Under the tree canopies, I sifted aside golden leaves to find shiny loose chestnuts and split burrs about to release their smooth chestnuts. Below me, families speaking many languages laughed and helped each other. But, up by me, the only sounds were birds and chestnuts dropping from the trees. I moved from tree to tree in the gold light.

When I felt like I was done, I had collected three pounds of chestnuts and bought a jar of chestnut honey. That night, I roasted a few chestnuts for dessert and savored the fudgy, earthy sweetness.

The only reason I can head to the hills and collect chestnuts is because I live in the West, not a native home to chestnuts, but a safe haven when the rest of the chestnut population in the United States fell victim to two diseases, "ink disease" and "chestnut blight." Prior to the 20th Century, every fourth tree in Appalachia was an American chestnut, and it was a foundation tree in most other eastern forests. Now, all the established trees are gone, and what's left are sprouts coming from the living roots, trying again and again to grow before being inevitably felled by blight. Many, not all, non-native chestnut varieties are also susceptible to both diseases. Yet, mountain ranges and climate have protected the few chestnut trees planted in the West. I'm lucky to have seen old trees up close, to rake around under their leaves, to find their satin-robed fruit.

Here at home, sitting under the golden-haloed chestnut gatherer, a distant relative, I am three pounds richer in miracles. What should I do with them all?

For more information about American chestnuts:

Saturday, September 14, 2019


Last week, I read an article on The Bitter Southerner, after which I was really, really excited about soldier flies. I kept interrupting Scott to read him passages. The article examined a farmer, his ingenuity, and a shared goal among a community who worked on a large farm. It didn't sound like every other article—and there are a lot of them—on the subject. I couldn't stop thinking about those amazing flies and the way a farmer and a farm are restoring both a town and its soil.
More than once as we roam the pastures of White Oak, Harris makes it clear he believes chemical fertilizers are to a farmer as heroin is to a junkie. 
“When I first gave up chemical fertilizers, my pastures looked like shit.” 
But he persisted, and two or three years later, the farm’s bottom line turned black again. So did the soil in his pastures. The percentage of organic matter in his farm’s soil today, Harris says, is about 10 times higher than the soil of nearby conventional farms. Two years after that, he introduced sheep, heeding what farmers have known for centuries: that raising different species on a single farm benefits both the land and the animals.

Last week, walking over the coastal grasslands south of Half Moon Bay at Markegard Family Farm, nuzzling up against a six month old Appaloosa foal, learning about a careful return of ruminants to the perennial grassland, and how that return has restored soil health all felt exciting and hopeful. Belted Galloway cattle dotted the hills. We watched a pig and its piglets poke around among native shrubs; two piglets had found their way past the fence and darted through our legs to run back to mama.
Doniga [Markegard's] deep observation experience aids in her ability to monitor grassland health, biodiversity and to manage land based on the principles and patterns found in nature. Doniga is passionate about large-scale restoration of Western Rangelands through cattle grazing. The Markegard Family has forged partnerships with some of the largest land trust groups in California, private landowners, as well as regional open space parks. Each ranch has a grazing plan and conservation management plan developed in conjunction with landowners and the Natural Resource Conservation Service. She is dedicated to finding ways to regenerate lands and community through ranching practices that build soil, sequester carbon, capture and purify water and enhance habitat.

If you look really hard at this photo, just to the right of center, you can see the chicken shelters for the pastured Freedom Ranger chickens.


My friend and I toured Davero Farms and Winery earlier this summer. We expected to learn about farming, but we didn't realize we'd have our minds blown. Everything the farm needed came from the farm itself. After exploring the farm, we sat in a cave built from living willow trees, woven together to be a green cupola above us. The wine we tasted came from small vineyards that grew on soil that pond algae, chicken, sheep, and pigs had worked together to feed and tend.
Grow what belongs here. Be patient.

Markegard and Davero are not cost-effective places to buy meat and wine. They are impractical for most people and are not a world-wide solution to our problems of pollution and animal welfare that plague our farming system. Even the much more extensive production at Harris's White Oak Pastures isn't large enough to make prices reasonable (or products available) to an average consumer. Instead, they're hints at what may not be probable but might just be possible.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Growing Space, Growing Community

Last month, Scott and I finished a huge project in the backyard. We turned our poorly designed main garden path, a wonky, sloping mess of torn up landscape cloth (come on, it's never a good idea) and decomposed granite (an even worse idea on a slope) that pre-existed my purchase of the property into a sturdy stone and gravel staircase.

It was hard work. We have no way to push a wheelbarrow through the house and into the backyard, so we hand carried all the stones and gravel through the garage, through the downstairs bedroom, and out the back up the hill. We sketched out the stair case, then built each step one at a time, tested it, tore it out if we needed to, and rebuilt it. We paid attention to how our feet landed along the path and the purposeful curve. When stones we had set with morter didn't stick, we pulled them out and set them again.

When we finished, we ended up with something that looks like it's on purpose. It winds up to the brick patio we also rebuilt to the evenness of a dance floor. On the patio perch at the top of our property, we can sit in our comfy blue adirondak chairs and admire the view of downtown or huddle around the fire pit. Our very livable backyard makes the inside of the home feel ten times bigger. I've already taken two naps in the chairs, reading until I fall asleep. Scott's started talking about adding a hot tub close to the house. My stepdaughter uses the patio to practice her back walkovers and handstands. Both kids have played ping pong and have chosen to be outside more than ever.

While the backyard has made my home feel larger, the community has made my backyard bigger.

In April of 2018, I started a group that meets up once a month to share produce, plants, seeds, and other garden materials and that asks each other questions, sharing our knowledge and experience. When I first started the group, we met in the local park. But, soon, I figured it out would be better to meet up in various members' yards, so we all could learn by the experience of seeing each other's spaces. Members starting drumming up a name for ourselves; Seedheads stuck. Since then, we've met in yards that are immaculately kept, in yards that are wild and ridiculously productive, in yards that are mostly concrete but have been turned into garden spaces through containers, hale bales, and other creative means. We've met at a special open-to-all community garden, and we've met in several gardens with unique chicken coops. We've shared seedlings and flowers and jams, wild-harvested mussels and seeds and fruit, bread and cuttings and lots and lots of ideas.

The Seedheads mailing list now includes over 80 members scattered across the southeast corner of San Francisco. The group crosses lines of gender, age, ethnicity, and socio-economics. Yet, we all love to grow and build, so together, we do.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

2019 Garlic Harvest


You know what doesn't grow well in San Francisco's Garden District, or at least has not yet grown well for me? 


You know I love growing garlic. In previous gardens, I've grown more garlic than I could use in a year. I shared it with neighbors and grew out many different heirloom varieties. But here, there are challenges galore for my allium friends.

The garlic I planted in October started so well in the fall and grew steadily through winter. Christmas came and a gopher (or two) stole about a tenth of the crop. I cursed gophers. One variety, Belarus, a previous favorite in other gardens, broomed. The plants divided early into cloves which then tried to grow as individual plants, so when I pulled them up, they were just clusters of tiny cloves and stems rather than a single heads of regular sized cloves. I cursed brooming. As late winter hit, so did the rust, and some plants gave up entirely while others struggled along. I cursed rust.

A few weeks ago, I pulled my runted garlic from the bed. The plants were covered with rust and they had already bulbed up as much as they would. I shook the dirt off the plants, bundled them to dry under the eaves where they wouldn't get any drizzle—if there were to be any—and planted a cover crop of red-blossomed buckwheat and cowpeas in their former bed. Yesterday, I pulled the cured garlic bunches down to clean up for storage. Ugliness awaited: all the artichoke varieties (eg Red Toch and Kettle River Giant) had rotted. Instead of drying out in the breeze and shade, they turned into mushy stink bombs. So, I cursed rot.

Gophers, rust, brooming, rot. The garlic has not had a good year.

What broomed garlic looks like.

My complete measly harvest. 

I'm going to try one more time this fall, planting out only the three varieties that seemed to be able to survive the onslaught a little better than others. The hardneck varieties appeared to fare better against the rust and weren't at all affected by rot. One hardneck, Belarus, broomed, so that one is out. Another, Early Portuguese, didn't do much of anything. So that leaves three I'll try again next year: Basque, Rose du Lautrec, and Burgundy. I'll gopher wire the allium bed when I dig in the cover crop, and I'll plant the cloves really far apart, leaving plenty of room for wind to dry humidity off the plants. But, if I can't get a good crop next year, I'll stop trying with garlic and use the space for other winter crops. It will be more room in which to experiment.

Basque, one of the few varieties I'll try again next year.

Are you listening to me, little bulbs? If you don't shape up, your space will go to somebody else.

Monday, July 01, 2019

The 29th

A few days ago, I ran into my ex-husband at the grocery store. I hadn't seen him in over three years. When I first saw him, I had to search my brain for a second. Then I couldn't believe it. I could see the same processes going through his face. We smiled at each other, greeted each other with a hug, and chatted for a few minutes.

It was strange to see him, but in no way sad or discomforting. I left our conversation very happy.

I no longer know him in the way I once did, his daily breath and movement, frustrations and hopes, but I am still deeply familiar with him. I could tell he was nervous seeing me. He has a telltale mouth twitch that happens when he's anxious. The same mouth twitch I saw on our first date a decade and a half ago twitched powerfully as we talked the other day. Within our few minutes of conversation, I heard refrains that were so familiar to me, they could have been lifted from a script I might have written about a conversation with him.

Later in the afternoon, I drove my nine-year-old stepdaughter home from summer camp and she told me all about what she had done that day. She asked me about my day and I told her that I had run into my ex-husband. She asked, "How did you divorce?" I told her an honest and abbreviated story of our marriage and divorce.

A little over a year after the marriage with my ex-husband dissolved, I met Scott. We fell in love, married, and I became stepmother to my stepdaughter and stepson. I gained an instafam. When one joins a pre-existent family, one learns quickly that the family has formed habits and roles that have none of the new member's influence. I'm learning how to be a stopmom and what my role is here, and I probably will be learning this for the rest of my life.

Despite my lack of experience in a parenting role, there are at least traditions and experiences I feel confident offering this family of mine. I can share with them my mom's Saturday morning crepes and Christmastime cardamom bread. I can teach them the weird little miracles of the plant world and how to identify California wildflowers. I can geek out over the details of the Narnia Chronicles with them and take them for really long walks full of stopping to look at things. These are things that come from me, my parents, and my brother. But there are things I collected from being married to my ex-husband that I want to share with my newish family too.

One of those things is ñoquis on the 29th.

My ex-husband told me briefly, early in our relationship, in Argentina gnocchi—or ñoquis in Spanish—was a lucky meal when eaten on the 29th of a month, and people placed money under their plate during the meal for financial luck in the following month. Soon after he told me this, a good friend and I stopped in for lunch at an Argentine place. It happened to be the 29th, and we happened to order a large plate of ñoquis to share. The waiter delivered our plate and walked a few steps away, then turned to watch us. When neither my friend nor I picked up our plate to place a bill under it, he came back to the table.

"Stop. Stop. I can't let you keep eating right now." He was adamant. "I'm too superstitious." He pulled out his own wallet and placed a dollar bill under our plate. "You must have money under your plate when you eat ñoquis." So we ate our meal over his money. I don't know if that meant we were to be lucky the following month or if he was. Either way, it made the ñoquis more fun to eat.

Later in my relationship with my ex-husband, my ex-mother-in-law, a woman I still count as very dear to me, sent me an article from the Houston Chronicle about the Argentine tradition. Ñoquis are the food of poverty and, historically, by the end of the month, sometimes not much was left in the larder but potatoes. This dish became the meal to eat towards the end of the month while hoping for a less difficult month ahead. People place money under their plates in the hope that somehow doing so will bring wealth the following month.

This past week, Scott, the kids, and I weren't able to eat together on the 29th, so we cheated and ate ñoquis on the 28th. I had hoped that we'd have fun family time making ñoquis together, but the kids were a combination of both wired and tired, and making dinner as a team didn't happen. We sat down to eat later than I had hoped. Scott placed a bill under each of our plates. Each of us enjoyed the little potato pillows, so much so that I brought the pot of water to boil again to make seconds for each of us from the reserved pile of dumplings.

I don't think eating ñoquis over money will make us luckier. I do think that luck is partly attitude. I appreciate (but see the limits within) my colleague's grandmother's famous refrain, "Luck is in the backbone, not the wishbone." But, I want to eat ñoquis with my stepkiddos whenever I can on the 29th. It's a small way I model to my stepkids that when life twists in ways that hurt, when it surprises you with its jabs and taunts, those hurts don't have to be endings but can be beginnings.

My hurts led me to my stepkids. I'm incredibly grateful.

Making and Eating Ñoquis 
I really like the Serious Eats resource on gnocchi. My ex-mother-in-law used to encourage me to bake potatoes rather than boil them for lighter dumplings, and this Serious Eats recipe follows that approach.

My family loves Hazan's famous tomato-butter sauce on our ñoquis.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Tejocote, A New-to-me Fruit

Tejocote, Mexican Hawthorne (Crataegus mexicana), trees aren't a common sight in northern California, even though they seem to grow so well here. But, my friend's next door neighbor has a tree that right now is raining golden fruit, and it is impossible for me to see all this fruit sitting there, not getting used, without experimenting with it.

My friend's neighbor gave us a bag he had picked, and my friend and I picked up even more fallen fruit. Curious, I bit into one. It was bitter and pithy. It didn't taste like something I wanted to eat. But, I had read that they didn't taste great fresh, and it was really how they were used as an ingredient that made them special. They are necessary for the Mexican holiday drink ponche, and some people also make a sweet tamale filling with them or add them to atole. I also read in various sources that they're used for candies and jellies, and that they were rich in pectin, so jelly sounded like the perfect place to start experimenting.

*I rinsed off the fruits, put them in a big pot, covered them with water, and boiled them until they were soft. Then I mashed them with a potato masher and boiled them for a few more minutes. Finally, I poured the contents of the pot in a couple jelly bags in order to strain the liquid from the solids. This is standard practice when making "juice" for jelly with quince, berries, or other fruit.

The juice was the color of fresh apple juice, but goopy, already almost syrupy. I have never worked with a fruit so rich in pectin, not even quinces or limes. When I tasted the juice, it still was a little bitter, not very acidic. It tasted incredibly earthy, not like dirt but like dark clouds and parched corn and winter. It really needed brightening. So I reached for the blood oranges that Scott and I have been getting at our farmers' market. It still needed a little more something special, so I added some sweet vermouth. The juice is so rich in pectin it could handle the addition of alcohol without resulting in a too-loose jelly. The three flavors, tejocote and blood orange and vermouth, came together beautifully. And the jelly turned out not just delicious, but a lovely warm pink color.

Tejocote Jelly with Blood Orange and Vermouth
Makes 3 pints

You will need:
4 cups tecojote juice (see above*)
4 cups sugar
1/2 cup strained blood orange juice
peels of two small very dark red blood oranges, cut off in wide strips with a vegetable peeler
the strained juice of one lemon
3 oz sweet vermouth

To make the jelly:
Pour all the ingredients into a preserving pan or large pot and stir. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring frequently. The juice will clarify when cooked but, since it is so rich in pectin, it will also form clumps of pectin. Cook until the mixture is boiling vigorously and the bubbles look like fish eyes. Since this fruit is so pectin-y, this will happen much faster than with other jams or jellies.

Once the mixture has reached the jelly stage, carefully pour it through a strainer to collect the rind and any extra clumps of pectin. When I made this, I poured it through a strainer into a large pitcher, which I then used to fill my jars.

Pour into six prepared half-pint jars and sterilize according to the USDA's guidelines on home food preserving safety.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Sweet King

I had NPR on in the morning as I was getting reading for work on September 11th, 2001, and I was listening in tears about the first crash. Then I heard the second crash happen and I wailed with fear and horror. Reggie came running to me. He wove his way around and through my legs, pushing against me, and I reached down and pet him until I stopped crying. I was 26, umarried, alone in the first home I owned. Reggie was 6 months old.

In the beginning of June that same year, I first met Reggie in the kitten room at the Pasadena Humane Society. He had been discovered alone and didn't have litter mates. Tiny, near black with darker spots and stripes when you looked hard enough at his fur, he was round-bellied, big-eared, and ridiculous-looking as a kitten. When I walked into the room, I looked at him, he looked at me, and he yelled and climbed his cage wall to get as close to me as possible. Our connection was instantaneous. We knew each other.

In the condo in Pasadena, Reggie came running downstairs every day when he heard the garage door open upon my arrival home from work, and he would be waiting by the door when I entered. He talked all the time. It felt like he was telling me about his day and asking me about mine. He grew up to be beautiful, solid black with golden eyes. He always wanted to be stroked, and would stand in front of me then and for the rest of his life, stopping me from wherever I was headed to pause for a moment and give him some love. In that same house, I fell in love with E, and E fell in love with me and Reggie and Rose, Reggie's long deceased former companion.

Within a few years, we all moved to our home on the canyon in Altadena. There, Reggie found new windows from which to observe the world, new sunrays in which to sit. Sometimes he would come to the backyard with me, but most of the time he spent inside, enjoying the view and the leisure. When Indiana-the-dog came to live with us, it was fearless Reggie who taught him how to be near cats. And when Rose died, Reggie and Indiana became more tolerant of each other, eventually becoming companions rather than just housemates.

Then there was the other move, years later, the life altering move that ended the marriage between E and me but offered me a new life in a new place. But it wasn't all new, because Reggie, the creature that comforted me whenever I cried, the creature that has since the moment he entered my life, saught a way to be as close to me as possible, moved with me, first to the rental house then to our San Francisco home. He purred me along through the divorce, sometimes pushing his rolling chest up against mine, heart to heart, while he purred and loved and I was able to just keep going.

When Scott and the kids entered my life, he was content to have another lap or two to sit on. He still slept on my shoulder every night, curled tight against me. Sometimes, he'd roll over and ask for a belly rub. But, he kept slowing down. In the past few months, he'd been sick with a host of age related maladies. Last night, he didn't come to bed to be with me, and today, his back legs no longer worked correctly. He hardly talked at all today. He hurt. It was time.

Tonight at the vet, I got to hold him in my lap as he fell asleep for the last time against me. I was able to pet him until he no longer moved, to thank him for every comfort he has given me, for being the consistent king of my lap while the rest of the world had rearranged itself completely around us.

Oh, Reggie, thank you for your almost 18 years. I am so sad. I already miss you.