The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good*

 
 Illustration by  Simone Rein

Illustration by Simone Rein

 

 

*attributed to Voltaire

FireFall

Fall at last.
Heat came too early
and stayed too long.
All summer I dreamed
of fog-shrouded beaches,
walks on thick-leafed paths
under trees bearded with wisdom.

The wind is not spice.
It is heavy with the scent of
charred sycamore and
Home Depot specials.
I spend hours sorting
my belongings in my head.
What would I take?
What leave behind?

And through the days
when fire wraps and cooks
me into a hard brown nut,
I am prepared to start over,
forget the dreams I’ve lived.
Like the earth, I drink
the hard liquor of reality.

Fire, earthquake, flood,
things lose their meaning.
Soggy or turned to ash,
form no longer holds.
Yes, I can see myself wizened
and leak proof, afloat,
memories chittering around me
like so many children.

There are burdens I would not go without.

 

Published on December 20, 2017  in Environment/Wildfires in Poets Reading the News by Beverly Lafontaine

This post has haunted me for months since my most recent visit to Ojai in June. I originally envisioned it as a return to the impact of the Thomas Fire, a “story” that has receded for most of us since its devastation last December. Our attention has more recently been claimed by another fire-news cycle—this time the Carr Fire in Northern California, burning for more than a month and destroying nearly 230,000 acres before containment in August.

Something that I heard in Ojai, from Peter Strauss, actor and citrus farmer, released a cascade of long-held assumptions and redirected this post toward exploring the yin and yang of environmental sustainability and and our need for a reliable food source. 

The wind changed direction from east to west, from the orchards toward the town. Fire fighters believe that the massive fields that had been irrigated saved the town.

Peter Strauss, actor and citrus farmer/gardener

 View through the window at Ojai's Peppertree Retreat.

View through the window at Ojai's Peppertree Retreat.

Beautiful Ojai, a balm that opens my heart whenever I approach from Highway 150, is a community that also poses serious questions about the future of our state's identity as the country’s most valuable farming resource. Any discussion of agriculture begins and ends with water. Scale, heritage, and the wobbly definitions of “organic” add to an already loaded subject. In a wide-ranging conversation, Peter gently—and sometimes forcefully—confronted me with the unexplored implications of what I had considered thoughtful, sustainable consumption. 

Meaning

How we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.

Wendell Berry

Citrus farm in Ojai, June of 2018

Describing himself as an advocate for growing “healthy, tasty, nutritious food,” Peter turned quickly to the potentially devastating impact of growing produce without some form of defense against an increasing range of threats. As a farmer, he said, “I am aware of the fungus, insect, and weed world. Every year, there are new insects in our world. There is a new ‘Bug 273,’ and we rely on UC Davis to tell us how to rid ourselves of this bug. At the moment, our defenses are chemical. In Florida, farmers are faced with the insect borne Greening disease, now decimating the citrus crop. And think of the amazing number of gophers that are no longer kept in check by hawks or coyotes.”

Our conversation suggests that the term “organic” has become an exercise in opportunistic semantics. According to Peter, there are 17 derivations of the word. Other words, natural, farm-fresh, local add to a sense of healthfulness—that has little to do with actual quality. Organic certification, a costly and for many farmers, impossible standard, is monitored by a relatively small number of inspectors as few as 80, Peter told me, for the entire country. 

I felt obliged to reexamine my own notions of “pure” food, of one apple exceeding another in flavor, delight, and health because of the ubiquitous sticker that identifies it as “organic.” 

How do we reconcile the vast abundance of farming communities such as Ojai, the cost differential inherent in organic produce with urban communities whose access to nutrition is described as food deserts?

Desire

Our land use is based on how we eat and how we eat is based on unreasonable behavior.

Peter Strauss

Evolving consumer tastes toward ease of use have changed the way we farm. The Pixie tangerine, a relative newcomer to Ojai, is popular not only for its taste, but because it is easy to peel and a convenient size. Valencia oranges, representing a majority of Ojai’s historic crops, are made for juicing—and surely nothing tastes better than a freshly squeezed glass of orange juice! Yet purchasing a generous bag of oranges, no matter how inexpensive, has been largely supplanted by more efficient forms of consumption. The underwhelming taste of bottled orange juice, requiring pasteurization to extend shelf life, can deflect the uninitiated fresh juice drinker. And on Ojai’s Gifferson Road, which runs parallel to Highway 126 between Santa Clarita and Santa Paula, the citrus trees are covered with white gauze to prevent bee pollination, which produces the flowers that in turn create seeds. The desire for seedless fruit as a convenience means fewer bees, the world’s most important pollinator of food crops. 

Small and Nearly Perfect

In Ojai, as in many other agricultural communities, alternative farming methods are developing. Permaculture designed to channel and reuse irrigation water is an example. Such measures are almost always quite small in scale,  and therefore do not affect a large market of consumers. The small size of these farms means flexibility, with a focus on developing sustainable practices and educating consumers over production quotas. 

Eclectic farm stands along Thatcher Road in Ojai. Payment is on the honor system.

How does the innovation of the small and the individual support whole system change?

“Some efficiencies should be conducted within whole systems; for example, lined channels to conduct water. There are a lot of unlined channels in California’s farmland functioning like streams, but the ground all around them is saturated. These irrigation “streams” do not provide habitat; rather habitat is stripped. Nor do they direct water to crops or help to replenish our ground water. A single farmer concerned with sustainable practice can make adjustments. But for meaningful impact, these practices need to be scaled up and in a collaborative way on all fronts.” Kitty Connolly, executive director of the Theodore Payne Foundation.

 Kitty Connolly at the Theodore Payne Foundation office.

Kitty Connolly at the Theodore Payne Foundation office.

The Golden Mean

Ventura County’s water comes from one source, Lake Casitas, dependent entirely on rainfall to “re-charge.” After years of severe drought, Lake Casitas hovers between 32 and 34% of its capacity. As its future is uncertain, Ventura County is looking at alternative water sources including accessing the California Aqueduct, a long-term project requiring significant political will and financing. Its timeline may exceed the lifespan of its Lake.

What do you say in terms about a state that has this connection to agriculture, a community that is built upon the legacy of family farms?” Question posed to Kitty Connelly.

First of all, I have to say is that I eat food; I do it every day. So, I can’t vilify food production entirely, because I eat food that is grown in California. I even grow my own food. I think there is no way to be pure on this issue. There is no way to be pure on basically any issue.

Kitty Connolly

 

There is a tremendous joy in growing fruit. No farmer I know is making money. They are breaking even at best.

Peter Strauss

 

 A single almond requires a gallon of water to produce; this reliance is evident in the acres and acres of fallow fields and dying trees in California’s drought-stricken Central Valley. Persimmons, pomegranates, and cactus are now emerging as sustainable crops, supplanting the unrealistic water requirements of more traditional farm produce. Fortunately, consumer tastes appear to be bending to availability. Peter farms eight acres of navel and twenty-two of Valencia oranges. He has switched out eight acres of citrus for cactus and is now experimenting with juices and tequila.  He waters at night to prevent evaporation; uses drip irrigation to encourage longer, deeper, more drought-tolerant root structures; and even uses a bucket in the shower. “That’s one rose’s need per shower!”

 

 An example of challenge creating abundance and innovation. Some of Bolivia’s 4,000 native potato varieties cultivated for their ability to withstand extreme elevation (over 12,000 feet) and cold. They are a revelation in taste and are nutritious too.

An example of challenge creating abundance and innovation. Some of Bolivia’s 4,000 native potato varieties cultivated for their ability to withstand extreme elevation (over 12,000 feet) and cold. They are a revelation in taste and are nutritious too.

 A dish from  Restaurant Gustu  in La Paz, Bolivia—builds its tasting menus on Bolivian native food products including potatoes.

A dish from Restaurant Gustu in La Paz, Bolivia—builds its tasting menus on Bolivian native food products including potatoes.

Between 1975 and 2005, Los Angeles County’s water usage has not increased despite a growth in population of more than a million people. An investment in water conservation began in the mid 90's with a suit brought against the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power District to restore and protect Mono Lake by a coalition of local, state, and national organizations. The Aqueduct's design diverted all water from the Mono Lake Basin.  The strategy has moved from confrontation to monitoring, education, and access, including the distribution of more than 40,000 low-flow toilets. The Rush and Lee Vining Creeks are now flowing again into the Lake, reviving and restoring its ecology. 

The original goal of the Theodore Payne Foundation was to encourage Los Angeles County residents to return to native plants as a way of supporting natural habitats and reducing pests. Drought has shifted its conversation to both incremental and larger scale changes that can affect water conservation practice and policy. 

I am left searching for balance, avoiding what Confucius and Aristotle described as extremism. In its place, is “the golden mean,” or the middle way. There are no simple answers to the question of need, desire, and reality. Practices that have seemed reasonable turn out to have unintended consequences. There is a case to be made for the small and the incremental; its impact is built by individuals working in common for long-term change. There is likewise a case to be made for beginning with confrontation when there is no time for evolution. There is sadness in the prospect of losing California’s traditional farm heritage and excitement in the possibility of evolving both acreage and consumer taste toward water-wise crops. There is a case to be made for sustainable farm practices that avoid the overuse of pesticides but do not rule out their judicious use. Quality and sufficient food for all, no matter what a person’s income, should be a right. 

To conclude this overly long post, I suggest a number of activities along with a recipe for Nopal Salad courtesy of Mario Rodriguez, friend and consummate cook.

Visit Theodore Payne Foundation. Wander among the plants, close your eyes, sniff the beautiful fragrance, and notice the butterflies, bees, and the absence of pests.

Follow our water situation by clicking on Kitty’s favorite link, The United States Drought Monitor

Buy a bag of Valencia oranges and squeeze a few to make yourself a glass of juice. Close your eyes and taste.

 Breakfast from foraging Ojai’s farm stands. A boiled egg and fresh orange juice.

Breakfast from foraging Ojai’s farm stands. A boiled egg and fresh orange juice.

Till next time.

Summer on Steroids

The Urban Forager Returns...

 Writer Octavia Butler’s calendar notations from the 2017 exhibition  Octavia E. Butler: Telling My Stories,  at the Huntington Library. I love the internal exhortations to keep going.

Writer Octavia Butler’s calendar notations from the 2017 exhibition Octavia E. Butler: Telling My Stories, at the Huntington Library. I love the internal exhortations to keep going.

Summertime used to be slo-mo time. School was out; some lucky folk experienced a real vacation time.  But now, I find myself working around the temperature rather than the clock; vacations are staggered; school schedules are no longer three months based on the “agrarian calendar.” Walking begins in the early dawn, racing against the waves of heat that begin well before noon. I squeeze in productive activity as all bets are off in the late afternoon. At some point, usually well after the sun goes down, I re-awaken to catch the cool.  Has summertime lost its unspooling quality? When was the last time you sat outside for a good part of the day, feeling warm rather than blast-furnace air? Did you, like me, sit under a generously spreading tree, reading a book until overtaken by sleep?

Spun silk of mercy,

long-limbed afternoon,

sun urging purple blossoms from baked stems.   

What better blessing than to move without hurry   

under trees?

Last August Hours Before the Year 2000

Naomi Shihab Nye

 

Since my last post honoring Mother’s Day well back in May, my summer ritual all but disappeared, overtaken by a publishing deadline for The Urban Forager: Culinary Exploring & Cooking on L.A.'s Eastside. Writing a cookbook, with its exacting requirements, is not for the faint of heart. Its gestation is longer than the carrying time for a baby elephant, and the finished product evinces none of the intensity of the process. As a bridge between pre-cookbook Urban Forager and post-cookbook Urban Forager, I cannot help but share some of its in-process content, as the back story to creation so often includes unseen commitment and labor. 

 
 

The most inspiring part of this work was searching for and connecting with some of the eastside’s great cooks. Of the five profiled—Sumi Chang, Minh Phan, Rumi Mahmood, Mario Rodriguez, and Jack Aghoian—three are home cooks whose journey towards expertise is both inspiring and feasible. All have been extraordinarily welcoming and supportive; their generosity contributing as well to an unexpected side effect of this project: a fifteen-pound weight gain.

Sumi Chang, Jack Aghoian with his parents Mary and Abraham, Minh Phan, Rumi Mahmood, and Mario Rodriguez. Photos by Ann Cutting.

Their stories are enriched by family members, mentors, and in the case of Rumi and Minh, links between their home countries' food cultures with their adopted country’s possibilities. Of the five, I knew only Sumi and Mario personally. The other three received an email from me out of the blue, asking them to participate in a cookbook that until recently was without a publisher. Each gave me liberal amounts of their personal time, so necessary for a cookbook that depends upon understanding of origin and authentic cooking style. I treasured sitting down with each of these cooks, interviewing them, hearing about their early experiences with food, and then working with a gifted young illustrator, Simone Rein, on visualizing these influences through the metaphor of a personalized table overflowing with delights. 

  Onil Chibas , left, inspirational chef and friend, who suggested Rumi as a cook to be profiled in  The Urban Forager.

Onil Chibas, left, inspirational chef and friend, who suggested Rumi as a cook to be profiled in The Urban Forager.

I stood side by side with each of these cooks, watching them work, tracking each step as they made one beautiful dish after another. In all cases, photographer Ann Cutting and I ate what was made, meaning we were treated to pozole, lemon bars, saag, shrimp dopiaza, jahl ghost curry, vegan rice porridge, guacamole, cabbage rolls, yogurt, negi oil, nut cookies, salsa, and frittata. In some cases, the recipes were reverse engineered at every step for dishes that had never been recorded. In others, a recipe was more than ingredients and steps, but a way into understanding the qualities of a great cook.

In documenting Rumi's recipes, we managed to combine our work with a four-course, elegantly presented meal. Between each course, Ann and I ran outside where the light was better to capture a newly plated dish.

A sampling of Rumi's gorgeous food, including his Jhal Gohst Beef Curry (left). Photos by Ann Cutting.

Simone's first sketch of Rumi's Table of Influences and the final drawing. Each table went through a number of revisions as the cooks considered how their food history made visual sense. 

The words of each cook reveal a conviction that cooking is a form of energizing, creative delight rather than a chore.

One thing I decided is that people who love to cook do so because they are all aesthetic.

Rumi

The markets in New Mexico were so physically beautiful. They had these corn kernels that were almost blue. They have this sensual quality of food that you either get or you don’t. My jaw kept falling!

Sumi 

 Bags of chile powder at the Sucre Central Market in Bolivia.

Bags of chile powder at the Sucre Central Market in Bolivia.

The reason I am a cook is that my greatest creativity came out when I made something from whatever I could find in the refrigerator. This began in my childhood and continues today. 

Minh

Cooking is like breathing. I pride myself on making something from nothing and don’t use a recipe.

Jack 

 Minh foraging for ingredients at the late, great Muir Ranch. Photo by  Ann Cutting.

Minh foraging for ingredients at the late, great Muir Ranch. Photo by Ann Cutting.

I have a starter for bread. I tell my daughter Paloma it is her big sister because when Monica was pregnant, I decided to start my first starter dough with my own wild yeast trap and it’s fine. It's almost nine years old.

Mario

 

  Twenty-One Hour Boule , one of the simplest recipes for so much deliciousness. Photo by  Ann Cutting.

Twenty-One Hour Boule, one of the simplest recipes for so much deliciousness. Photo by Ann Cutting.

Writing the cookbook has felt seamless: a natural expression of my belief in community's variations on the common table. Watch for more stories as the journey to its publication continues. And in the meantime, may you find a quiet moment within our overheated days and enjoy a cooling dish of Rumi's Saag, More to come!