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 a lie.
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
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 planting.
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!”