Monday, October 20, 2008

when life hands you mulberries

I was caught sticky-handed the other morning, a Santa Monica farmer’s market morning. By 9 o’clock the vegetables were sweating and only the vendors stood cool, shaded by their tents and offering samples of pistachios and peaches even though the regulars passing by have had pistachio samples by the dozen and everyone, absolutely everyone, takes more than one piece of peach. It’s nearly Halloween but you’d never know it from the copious heirloom tomatoes still littering the market stalls and the car thermometer reading a defiant 92°.

The Weiser family farm’s stall is the reliable king of root vegetables at the market, with heaps of potatoes and rainbow-colored carrots standing as a testament to Thanksgiving all year long. But that morning the Weisers, too, were peddling summer. Farmer-in-chief Alex called me over from behind the potato table just as I was eying a “Last Chance yellow peaches” sign across the way. “Hey, I’ve got your mulberries! They’re melting!” he shouted. From a jumble of empty boxes he produced a tin tray of mostly frozen oblong maroon berries, like an obvious cross between a raspberry and a blackberry. Back in the spring I mentioned to Alex that I’d never tasted a mulberry and sometime in late June, while I was snapping photos of monkeys in Rwanda, he stashed a bunch in the freezer for me. There must have been ten cups in the tray (I later learn he sold these berries for $25 a pound) and we both let a few dissolve into flavors that are tart, wine-y and woody as he tells me that these Persian mulberries are actually not cousins of the raspberry or blackberry clan. Mulberries grow on trees, famous throughout the Middle East and similarly warm climes for providing shade along the streets. “Wouldn’t it be great if LA had mulberry trees for shade!” he exclaimed. As the deep purple juice stains my fingers and also my tote bag, I try to imagine Angelenos lounging on the sidewalks of Santa Monica, trying to catch falling mulberries in their mouths. Or, more likely, ridding them with their front windshield wipers.

Back at home, I’m lost and confused. My trusted Chez Panisse Fruit cookbook lists only two mulberry recipes, both requiring an ice cream maker, and an search turns up nothing at all. I stare down the tray and wonder if I should eat them all plain, or over yogurt perhaps. Or bake a pie? Or stick them back in the freezer and avoid the whole leaking mess? Nope, into the pot with sugar they went. When confronted w
ith a precious summer fruit and the dwindling autumnal heat there’s only one thing to do: make preserves.

Alex apologized for pushing the flat of mulberries on me the next time I saw him, or rather for the hours I spent mid-week stirring the mulberry pot with a spoon. “I know,” I shook my head, “you think it’d be no time at all, but it always ends up taking the whole day!” I could hardly fault him though--this wasn’t my first preservation project of the past few weeks, nor was it the last. Plum-vanilla bean jam, pickled watermelon rind, roasted red peppers, quince butter… I jarred it all.

It’s been like trying to step simultaneously on a dozen helium balloons, getting all this produce into Bell glass containers while keeping up with graduate school work. Just yesterday I bought eight of the “Last Chance” peaches and with a smudge of
guilt spent a good part of my Sunday afternoon cooking them down to mush and sequestering the peach preserves into sterilized half-pints. I have a rather large stash of summer preserved in my kitchen now, as if to say that Southern California won’t yield fruit for the next eight months (never mind that here in LA we’re just weeks away from the first local citrus harvest). But I’ll be relieved if summer has finally set on the farmer’s markets: I have papers to write and besides, I’ve run out of jars.

Wendell Berry once wrote that “The only thing we have to preserve nature with is culture; the only thing we have to preserve wildness with is domesticity.” Though I can’t say for sure, I like to think he was responding to Thoreau’s earlier declaration: “In wildness is the preservation of the World.” Regardless of whether they were actually in dialogue, wildness has rarely since been captured as wisely in words.

So in domesticity, shall we say, is the preservation of fruit.

Monday, October 13, 2008

fresh start[er]

The last time I sat with intent to contribute to my small reel on the internet, Rooting for Fruit, I was at a borrowed desk in a friend’s rented house on a dirt road in Butare, Rwanda. The house was palatial, well-tended by a rotating cast of caretakers and the comfortably spartan office looked onto a small rose garden. Beyond, a barbed wire-fringed concrete wall stood as a faded war relic. For whatever reason, during that morning back in July as I sat writing about Pimm’s and tree tomato fruits, it felt like home.

Farther from home, in minutes and miles, I couldn’t have been. Between that desk and this one I claim 11 separate boarding passes, six new stamps in my passport, and stays in two other places I also call home: New York and San Francisco. But like it or not, here in Los Angeles, I’ve returned to where I rest my belongings and engrave those cow paths of daily routine. I returned here last month feeling desperate to commit to this place where I reside but have never called home. Short of buying property (a task poorly suited to the times, anyhow), how does one commit to a place and come to call it home?

I suppose the answer to that could be both existential and gravely practical, but I’ve decided on something much more pleasurable: collecting the wild yeasts that inhabit my apartment and turning them into something I can taste. I’ve started a sourdough starter.

By The Cheese Board Collective Works cookbook lent by friends Abigail and Emma, I was inspired. Sourdough starter is little more than flour and water left to the elements, fed regularly with more flour--your garden-variety 4th grade science experiment. Yesterday I stirred lukewarm water into rye flour as suggested, with a stainless steel eating apparatus. Already it’s bubbling and emitting cozy odors. Tomorrow I will feed it with more flour (this time white bread flour), and more flour 48 hours after that, and again after that. I’ve vowed to keep my starter alive in the refrigerator through monthly feedings and most importantly, though use. By folding it into breads of all kinds, I’ll be celebrating wild yeasts, the taste of home. With proper care, my sourdough starter will outlive any pet goldfish and potentially even your pet golden retriever.

In the shadow of a towering parking garage, near the nexus of Wilshire and the 405 freeway and with no soil outside in which to dig a garden of my own, my Los Angeles apartment exists a world away from the wild. And yet. A taste of the wild, this untamed Los Angeles, is arising and being cultivated in (and by) my kitchen.