November 23, 2004: The first seed catalogue
for 2005 has landed in my mail box. There will be more catalogues,
of course, fluttering in like so many autumn leaves and ending
up in a thick mulch on my bathroom floor. I think of these
colorful, shiny seed catalogues as “farm porn”
since they are cleverly engineered to stimulate agricultural
fantasy. In fact, on page 15 of this first catalogue there’s
even an impossibly white cauliflower called “White Passion”.
I read every catalogue from cover to cover.
I enjoy the manner in which seed catalogues attempt to seduce
customers with glossy pix of voluptuous veggies. What good
is marketing if it fails to arouse an appetite in the potential
consumer? I do object to blatant untruths. Page 31 of this
catalogue that I am about to toss on the floor lists Russian
Tarragon seed for $43.25 per ounce and states that it is used
in vinegars, sauces and salads. The authors of this particular
fantasy neglect to mention that Russian Tarragon is not used
in GOOD sauces, vinegars and salads. As a farmer that does
lots of restaurant business I know that professional cooks
require aromatic French Tarragon. French Tarragon must be
vegetatively propagated from root or stem cuttings. Russian
Tarragon is a scentless, unappealing botanical fraud sold
by sharks to suckers. If I was Supreme Dictator For Life I
would realistically slap this seed company around for propagating
Fantasy plays a big role in the way I shape my planting calendar
for the year to come, though I’ve learned to pay more
attention to my customers’ fantasies than my own. When
a restauranteur has enjoyed a certain vegetable during his
travels overseas and he brings me seeds I’ll try to
it grow for him. Who knows? Maybe his fantasy of authentic
flavor will be a success.
It’s always hard to tell if what the cook likes about
the crop in question was the way it was prepared, the way
it was presented or the fond memory of the company shared
during the meal, but if chefs want to try and recreate that
experience for their patrons I’m willing to help them
try. This year I have wads of obscure chicories brought back
to me from Italy by A-16 Restaurant in San Francisco. I’ve
never seen these varieties in an American seed catalogue.
Have you ever tasted Scarola Cardoncella Barese or Indivia
Romanesca Da Taglio? I’m looking forward to these experimental
plantings because I’m certain that A-16 can use the
In truth, there will be nothing experimental about my chicory
plantings. I know how to grow chicories. The experiment and
the fantasy is all in the selling. One year I listened attentively
to my foreman’s agricultural fantasy about fresh garbanzo
beans. "Why don’t Gringos eat fresh Garbanzos?”,
Ramiro kept asking me.
Back in his home village outside La Barca, Jalisco, spring
garbanzos were much appreciated. Not only did the people look
forward to the mouth watering tenderness of the fresh garbanzo
beans, they also used the foliage to make a wonderfully refreshing
sun tea. If Ramiro could have written his impressions down
in English for an entry in a catalogue, he would have sold
more than a few seeds. As it was, Ramiro’s fantasy of
high yield and happy customers sold me on the idea of an experimental
We formed a partnership to bring his hopes to life. I provided
a tractor, the land, the seeds, the water and a pick-up truck.
Ramiro provided the labor, the growing expertise and the marketing
plan. Our garbanzos were winter planted for an early crop
and they thrived. Soon their lacy foliage greened the field.
In time their tiny pods, each with two nascent beans, swelled
into a crop.
Ramiro was right. The garbanzo plants exuded a flavorful,
acidic dew which made for a wonderful sun tea when the leaves
were steeped in a jar of water. Because garbanzos yield pods
with only two beans per, the custom is to harvest in big bunches
with green pods dangling. It’s the customers' burden
to strip the plants of pods and shell them of their beans.
We filled the pick-up with piles of garbanzos and drove to
town where thousands of garbanzo-eating Jaliscan emigres live
packed into apartment buildings, hungry for a taste of the
rural ranch life they left behind.
Just as Ramiro predicted, Jaliscana women came swarming around
our truck chattering about the fresh garbanzos with glee.
Our bunches of fresh garbanzo were Mexican sized, that is
to say, huge; maybe six inches in girth and tied with twine
just like in the old country. Unfortunately, our prices were
gringo sized, one dollar per bunch, calculated to accommodate
our U.S. wage scales, rent costs, etc. The women objected.
“In Mexico we only pay centavos for such small bunches.”
Ramiro objected. “In California I pay the pickers seven
dollars an hour, not seven dollars a day!”
Ramiro was frustrated with his clientele. To get a good price
he suggested we sell the garbanzos to gringas. Once they tasted
them the gringas would be instant converts to the flavor,
the tenderness, and the utility of the fresh garbanzo. We
went to San Francisco and tried to sell our crop in the farmers
market but the gringas there looked at the monstrous bunches
of beans as if they were bales of alfalfa and wanted to know
if we could please shell the beans.
In the end we sold some bunches of garbanzo on street corners
to the Mexicanas in Watsonville for break-even prices and
had a big garbanzo party with the rest for our crew. Everybody
profited. The crew enjoyed fresh garbanzos and ate them steamed
in much the way that the Japanese eat fresh soy beans. I learned
first hand about garbanzo beans and Mexican culture. Ramiro
came to appreciate the role of sales and the limits of fantasy
in any farming operation. I’m waiting to see a glossy
picture of a spring garbanzo called “Green Romance”
in some seed catalogue with a helpful sales hint, “popular
eaten fresh and used in sun teas. Good for roadside sales!”