She slid on her muck boots with avidity, emerging from the frame of the ratty front barn door; trapped in a a waft of post-rain earthiness. A potent yet ethereal scent that seemed to rise from the very roots of the drenched grasses to the very tops of the somber clouds that drifted away ever so slightly. And as she meandered through the muddy aisles of her not so picturesque garden, there was no mistaking her eyes had fell upon, what was to her, a beauty that words fail.
That's the thing about farming. Not everything is perfect. Not even close. Its always raining yet its always hot. The weeds reach your waist yet the plants grow like savages. The bugs are a pest, all while you call on them to eat another. In the end, you're left with sores and curses and a mighty delicious harvest. 'Will work for food' has become the very essence of who I am. I sought out to penetrate a venerable food system, to experience one of the most laborious American jobs, not knowing what I would find or leave behind. Here now, at the halfway point, its all too bittersweet. As I sit here now on this peace laden patio, watching those rain clouds drift away, I only half consciously notice they must be hovering over the neighboring farms who have closed down. Farmers who lost everything. Farmers with food no one cares to eat.
As a former spelling bee champion, the idea of an heirloom anything was so unfathomable to me that I most likely could not spell it, much less place its importance on food history. But it makes you wonder, does the heirloom tomato, or eggplant, or lettuce mean more to our past or our future?
I never shared a zest for tomatoes the way many people did as I was growing up. What was the big deal, I would wonder, curiously eyeing a couple devouring tomato sandwiches in the park. Its just a red ball with water in it. My only lust for the fruit was when my parents forced me to eat salads before dinner- the tomato of course mediating the situation by acting as the only bit of sufferable sweetness in a plate of what tasted like moist paper. Oh, but when there was ranch dressing, the tomato was kicked to the curb. Iceberg doused in fatty goodness was a palatable delight.
These days, I play witness to the harvesting of heirloom tomatoes and delectable crunchy buttercrisp lettuce at the peak of summer, and its as if everything beforehand was a brainwash experiment. Why did my mother not buy this superbly ugly tomato and unimaginably large head of purple lettuce? Marketing. Fossil fuels. Profits. And let us not forget genetically modified plants. Yum. Poor mom. It wasn't her fault. She fed us cardboard, void of nutritional content, and thought we would grow up to be big and strong and do whatever we want. Funny thing is, I grew up with a litany of ailments, everything from chemical imabalances (hello depression) to holes in my teeth (oh, hey cavities) and decided what I wanted to do was see what the big freaking deal was with finding decent food. Why are we so indulgently overfed yet severely malnutritioned? As much as I love them, why are farmer's markets the only place to get a tomato that tastes like, well, a tomato? Why is corn a commodity and not just a great piece of flesh to slab butter on? For all these answers I don't yet have, I will keep farming. I'll keep farming until I can realize how we can all answer this together, or until I breakdown in defeat and live a life where each man is on their own. For now, I pay homage to the fallen farmers. The ones whom, like me, woke up before the sun was even a dot in the sky, slid on their muck boots, jumped on their tractor, (well, I don't ride the tractors mmmkay) cultivated their soils, killed off those measly pests one by one, hand weeded their overgrown sweet potatoes, tediously tied up their climbing tomato plants, and watched their ears of corn come to with zeal. For them, and for you, this is a Sunday meal worth sharing. Make it like you're feeding an army. I did a few weeks ago by tripling the recipe, and it works wonders.
Its funny you know, how ignorance and bliss are like brother and sister. I won't ever shake off my fond memories of processed foods. The way my grandma makes her banana bread, or my dad makes his infamous banana pancakes (by adding bananas to Bisquick...ughh) because they inspired me to adapt them to my own lifestyle. I make pancakes from scratch now, and I buy bananas fair-trade so that someone, somewhere far away, will go home with an honorable paycheck. But it all comes full circle. One day I will be a mom, and I'll be proud that my little repertoire of tried and true recipes will be that of dishes with a conscience. My family will know that calling for tomatoes doesn't mean from the tin can on a mass market shelf shipped from Timbuktu, but a bubbling pot of slowly simmered tomatoes perfectly ripened on the vine, bought from the farmer who grew it, and cooked in a manner worth owning it. After all, there's always just seasoning some notebook paper with salt and pepper and calling it a day. Let's be better than that, shall we?
Heirloom Tomato, Corn & Sausage Risotto
- 2 1/2 cups ripe heirloom tomatoes (skins on or off)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 4 links of hot Italian sausage, casings removed
- 1 small organic onion, finely chopped
- 1 cup organic Arborio rice
- 1/2 cup organic dry white wine
- 2 cups organic spinach, washed and chopped (or a handful of fresh basil, sometimes I do both)
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving (optional)
- 2 tbs organic butter
- coarse salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
- In a small saucepan, combine tomatoes with all their juices, the corn, and 3 cups water or stock. Bring just to a simmer and then minimize to low heat to keep warm. In a medium saucepan, heat oil over medium, add sausage and onion, season with salt and pepper. Cook, breaking up sausage as you go, until sausage is almost all the way cooked through and onion has softened, 5 to 7 minutes.
- Add rice and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, stirring to evenly coat. Add wine and cook, stirring until absorbed, about 1 minute.
- Add about 2 cups of the hot tomato mixture to rice, simmer over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until absorbed, about 4 to 5 minutes. Continue adding tomato mixture, 1 cup at a time, wait until the cup is fully absorbed before adding the next, stirring occasionally, until rice is creamy and just tender, about 25 minutes total (you may not have to use all the liquid, but I did). Remove pan from the heat. Stir in spinach, Parmesan, and butter; season with salt and pepper. Don't be shy with the butter. Add more, as well as more cheese, as you see fit. Serve immediately (risotto will thicken as it cools), and sprinkle with additional Parmesan, if desired.