Eco-Farm Keynote: David ‘Mas’ Masumoto
STORIES: How farmers can help people
connect food with memory

In his own joyous, infectious style, author and peach farmer Mas Masumoto demonstrates how stories and memories turn good food into wonderful food – and how recapturing that connection for people is critical to the success of organic farming.

Posted August 3, 2004

Editor's note:


Photo by Patrick Tregenza

I was in the audience when Mas Masumoto gave this address. For almost all of us in the audience, I think, our own stories started swelling up in us like buds or pregnant bubbles urgent to be born, to flower, to be shared. Mas is right: For all of us, it is the stories, the memories, that bring pleasure, joy and meaning to the hard work of growing and marketing food. If you sell directly to customers, I strongly recommend you find a way to tell those stories.

Late in his talk, Mas invited a lucky few down to savor his peach preserves, then recall any memories associated with that taste. I know I was in the audience, juices flowing into my mouth, and memories bubbling in my brain:

  • My grandmother’s pickled peaches in quart jars, studded with cloves, pungent and heavenly. My 4’9” powerhouse of a grandmother, Iris, always in an apron, with sturdy lace-up half-boots, is long gone, and with it her recipe.
  • The hot, dusty, enduring, hardscrabble peach orchard up the road from my granddad’s farm in far-western Oklahoma, owned by his neighbor, Clay. Picking bulging shirts- and aprons-full of warm, fuzzy, “cling” peaches, full of blemishes and bug-bites. Sneaking a few slimy bites before they made it to the kitchen—the stringy residue clinging to pit as we tossed it in the red sandy, weedy soil.
  • Heavenly fresh peach ice cream made with a hand-cranked creamer. Waiting impatiently for the ice cream to set, under its pile of hand-made quilts.
  • Pealing peaches with my Grandmother. In Oklahoma you peal everything — tomatoes, peaches, apples … grapes, for God’s sake. I remember the two-day collective effort of the women in my extended family as they prepared the “heavenly hash” fruit salad for my brother’s wedding. (In this respect I’m a lapsed Okie—I never peel. It’s a running joke when I return home to Oklahoma, the land of the pealed tomato slice.

See how memories tumble on top of each other? And that’s just for peaches. Don’t get me started on tomatoes. I urge you to do Mas’ peach exercise … or tomato, or corn. Let the memories swell and break. It’s like riding a wave to heaven.

--Chris Hill, Executive Editor

All of us have a story, and maybe the best way to describe my story is to begin to tell a little bit about a peach I grow. Suncrest is one of the last remaining truly juicy peaches. When you wash that treasure under a stream of cooling water, your fingertips distinctively search for that gushy side of the fruit, your mouth waters in anticipation, you lean over the sink to make sure you don’t drip on yourself. Then the juice trickles down your cheeks and dangles on your chin. This is a real bite, a primal act, a magical sensory celebration announcing summer has arrived.

That peach only makes sense if you know what great peaches taste like. My biggest fear is that there is a generation growing up who have never tasted that sort of produce, and if they haven’t tasted it, how will they know if they’re missing something wonderful? I claim that it's all about a sense of memory, a memory all of us in this room know and understand; that’s why you’re here. You understand that sense of difference.

The question then is, of course, what is that greater memory that people share with food—and is there a generation that’s going to grow up that has no such memory? I claim that memories are often wound around stories. They belong to what I call ‘The Memory Economy.’

Let me explain that. My peaches fill the flavor niche industry left behind. Large scale farming operations can’t mimic my methods, in which skill and human management replace huge doses of capital and technology. I want my fruits to manifest the life and spirit of a family farm. Mass produced peaches are designed only to excite the visual sense as consumers trade money for something that resembles a peach. But my peaches begin a journey in taste, texture, and aroma accompanied by stories. People who enjoyed my peaches understand and appreciate flavor, they pay attention to memories.

And that’s why that memory that we hold, I think, is the crucial link to going from just simply having produce that’s farmed organically to something that’s farmed wonderfully. Because it’s memory that fills that gap in between, and as I said, we in this room have that memory, we have that passion to understand and work with nature in the environment. And as the organic market place matures I hope we keep falling in love with that memory over and over and over. It’s like my wife and I. We’ve been married for twenty years, and I sometimes forget to tell her that I love her … and you need to say it over and over and over.

Farmers have these kinds of memories, and they’re deeply attached to their land. It stays with you and it teaches you things. I’ll read a short passage from my book Four Seasons in Five Senses, that talks about that connection we have with memory, the land and ultimately generation.

“My old peach orchard tells my family’s stories. In the twisted trunks lay the history of my father who planted these trees more than thirty years ago. I recall helping him as the family lined up trees by sight, holding up a bare root tree, closing one eye and squinting the other, tearing down a quarter mile row trying to keep the row straight. We weren’t perfect nor fast, and for decades I’ve had to swing my tractor wide to avoid the crooked tree I must have planted. But planting five hundred trees by hand and trusting our vision seems to be a wonderfully human way to begin an orchard. We made mistakes and rationalized our efforts. Life in nature is not always straight.”

And I think you know that too. The work that we do, especially in organic farming, is not always straight, nor should it be, and that’s the memory we celebrate. Knowing more about my farm and the story behind it is part of buying and enjoying my peaches. All these stories are engaged to the senses for a type of authenticity, and when I talk about story, I mean the story that you pause and reflect about. Memories are grown slowly; memories are repeated like a good story is told over and over.

The one problem sometimes with these memories, and especially our work in organics, is that at times we forget there are also those light relationships we have. We, and I’ve been guilty of this, sometimes start taking this a little too seriously. Ultimately, the favorite stories that we have, that I have, revolve around those lighter moments in farming.

I’ll share one of my favorite stories from Epitaph for a Peach with you. While weeding I feel something tickle my calf. Without stopping my shovel, I brush the back of my leg and it happens again and again. Finally, I shake my right leg and a thing bolts upward. Immediately I throw down my shovel and stamp my feet and the adrenaline shoots into my system and my heart races. I initiate my lizard dance, shaking my leg, pounding my feet, patting my pants as the poor creature runs wild up my leg. The faster I spin and twirl the more confused the lizard becomes and the more frantically he scrambles up and down the dark caverns of my pants. In the middle of my dance I begin laughing, recalling the familiar feel of a lizard running up my pants through my shirt and down my sleeve. My body dances uncontrollably to the feel of its tiny feet and claws grabbing my skin. I try to slow down, knowing the lizard will too if we both relax, but as the creature scampers higher and higher my imagination runs wild. Vulnerable body parts flash in my mind. If other workers were around they would laugh watching me tug at my belt frantically, trying to drop my pants. With luck, I won’t open a crevice into my shorts inviting the lizard into another dark hiding place, and instead he’ll be attracted to daylight, leap out of my trousers and tumble to the ground dazed for a moment before scampering into the safety of weeds and undergrowth.

I didn’t plan on raising lizards, but they’re part of an organic farm landscape. Besides, their presence reminds me of my childhood. I can’t return to those days but I can try and foster new life on the farm along with laughter and the lizard dance.

I told that story at a farm conference in the Central Valley (my farm, by the way, is near Fresno), and at the conference a woman came up and she said, ‘You know my dad (she’s a farmer’s daughter) had the same experience. A lizard ran up his pants but he captured it right next to his hip pocket. He turned to his ranch foreman and said, ‘Quick! Unzip me!’ I bet you that was one memorable afternoon out in the fields.

In that sense, I think when people enjoy organic produce they never eat alone because they’re sharing the story of all of you in this audience with that meal. And it’s a wonderful act to think about eating socially again, eating with others.

As I said, memorable stories transport us. That’s how stories and memories work. And if my peaches are working in an interesting way at a certain point they’re no longer my peaches. My hope is that a consumer, when they bite into them, will combine their personal memory with that peach. Their understanding of what that peach is about, where it came from in their memory and mine, and understand that’s the whole story about it. In that sense, I think when people enjoy organic produce they never eat alone because they’re sharing the story of all of you in this audience with that meal. And it’s a wonderful act to think about eating socially again, eating with others. The fast food industry wants you to eat alone because you’ll eat faster. It’s all based on speed. I think wonderful produce, organic produce, works in the other way. It’s certainly part of a notion of slow food.

Stories of nature are always anchored in real places. We don’t virtually farm organically. We farm at real places that involve real people. And even on the farm, these places have meaning. Sacred meaning. But also meaning because they have what I call history. Sometimes the history ends up in a lighter way too, and I’ll share a story with you.

All good farms have a junk pile. It stays with the land in a succession of owners who contribute to the collection of odd machine parts, old equipment, and discarded but never forgotten stories. Since I have a forklift, my first major contribution to the pile is to restack most of it on wooden pallets. I now have a portable junk pile. I can move stuff from place to place sort of like a modern archaeologist using machinery doing his rummage through history. I use junk to fix things and glean new ideas and inspiration.

When a sculptor friend and I probed through the pile, he was enthralled by the variety of odd shapes and angles. We pulled out a bright orange steel tooth from some kind of harvester, sat it upright and then on its side, walked around it and made comments. He buried part of it in the dirt and called it modern art. I left it in place for a few months then dug it out when I needed to cultivate that area, tossing it back onto the pile … calling it post-modern art.

In my junk, treasures lay hidden. Old pieces from equipment tell me the history of a farm. It’s as if time has left behind these relics, but not as fossils or memorials to the past; the remains are to be used by future farmers. So when you farm with your memories you’re actually farming in the future, too, because there’s the intention that what you leave behind is to be used by future farmers, too. At least that’s what I tell my wife as the pile gets larger and larger. And it has a way of actually creeping towards our back door too, and she’s actually worried about that.

I was at a farm conference in the Midwest and I shared that story and one farmer came up to me in overalls and he leaned over and he said, ‘You know, out here we don’t call them junk piles,’ and I thought he was going to use the term bone piles which some farmers do. Then he said ‘No, out here we call it inventory.’ Think of the memory he has to have to call that inventory. And farmers do know those layers and layers of junk that are part of those piles. They’re important. It’s a sacred pile in one sense on our farm because it captures that sense of memory and story.

If twenty percent of the nation ate from their memories, with that memory satisfied by the wonderful taste and flavor, it would save all family farms.

Memory can become a tool of social action, because the more that people commit to memory, the greater the value that’s achieved. Memory is my greatest marketing tool, and when it’s working you begin to save family farms. If twenty percent of the nation ate from their memories, with that memory satisfied by the wonderful taste and flavor, it would save all family farms. Just think of the revolution in organics if people started eating with that memory, and understanding the depth of that memory.

Our job is to keep that memory alive, to get the public to think in stories. A simple example that I have about thinking in story has to do with my shovel -- and I brought it with me today. [Mas holds up a spade that once had a pointed blade. Now, instead of the point, there are two round humps separated by a trough, like a camel’s hump.]

This is a wonderful shovel. This shovel was handed down from my grandparents to my parents to myself. This shovel works in the sandy loam around Fresno, where the rain falls about nine to ten inches a year. Most weeds are very shallow-rooted, so this shovel only needs to glide just below the surface. It probably won’t work well in a heavy clay soil. It may not work in your soil. It has a story that’s native to a place. And that place happens to be our farm.

This shovel, of course, began as a point. And it took years to hone it down to this. It took years of my grandparents and parents gliding beneath the surface, the loam and the sand of our fields, abrading it as if with a natural wet stone.

I tell this story to my children, telling them that I will make my contribution to this shovel by wearing it down another inch or two. And then I stop and actually realize I don’t probably work quite that hard. So I’d actually be pretty proud to just work down another inch. But it’s an example of a simple tool that farmers have that’s also part of their story and part of that memory of the land, and it represents my farm just as much as peaches represent my farm.

Shovels, the tools that we use, the products that we raise are all part of that memory economy that we all thrive within. One wonderful thing about stories about tools like a shovel is that you understand it works in real soils, it’s a reality check, but it also assumes you have more to shovel, so there’s this wonderful timeline that’s captured in this memory of a shovel; the story of a shovel.

When I talk about stories, it involves memory in different ways and I thought maybe I could invoke something from you, so I want to try something a little different here. Can I have five people volunteer for something? It’ll be, actually, fairly pleasant I think. If you come up to the stage, just come up five people, stand up here. Great! Wonderful. Three will be fine too if you just want to do three. Three, four, okay we’ll take six. Six will be good. Here’s what you do. We’re going to have a little lesson on how to eat organically.

I can’t bring my peaches now because they ripen in July, but I brought some peach jam. Each of you can take a jar, and I have spoons for all of you too. Now, don’t you wish you volunteered. Do you all have a jar? Now we’re each going to take a spoon and we’re going to go through this together. Face the audience if you would, and this is a lesson in terms of looking at memory and how to enjoy things slowly. First, you hold the jar up into the light and look at the color. As you’re doing that I want you to slip into the slow rhythm as far as thinking of what you’re seeing. You see color, you see amber. I did this with my son’s sixth grade class and one of the students said, ‘I see summer’. The idea is you’re already starting to fuse it so it’s not just a glass jar, it has other types of memories.

Alright, open the jar and get your spoon and take a big scoop out of it. Take a big scoop out of it. Now, don’t eat it. Don’t eat it yet. Bring it up to your nose and smell it. The sense of smell is powerful, and I hope it’s starting to take you back into other memories. You’re suddenly maybe not in a seminar anymore. You may be at some other place … I think we’ve lost them, which is great.

...this is a lesson in terms of looking at memory and how to enjoy things slowly...And if it’s working, it’s no longer my jam. It should be, and hopefully I would like you to be thinking of a story that you have with jams, with fruit.

OK now – slowly insert in mouth, and the jam should slide across your tongue, your taste buds are at the back of your tongue, and it should be slowly absorbed. This jam is not made with a lot of sugar. You should be tasting the fruit in it. And if it’s working, it’s no longer my jam. It should be, and hopefully I would like you to be thinking of a story that you have with jams, with fruit. Is it working? Good. The trick now is to think of those memories and translate it into words. And the reason why I want you to do that is because when memories are committed to words, you’re also committing something to memory. So it’s not just good; it has a memory of something, of some place. Can you think of anything you want to share? What do you think of when….

“All the jelly bread I ate when I was a kid.”

Ah, alright, the jelly bread you ate. How much jelly he could put on this little itty piece of bread. That’s wonderful, wonderful. The memory that you have? [He faces another volunteer.]

“I used to go with my family when I was a young boy to eastern Washington peach orchards.” OK, great, a memory of going to eastern Washington and the peach orchards there, and picking the peaches and bringing them home. Any other quick stories?

“This reminds me of being by a river that I used to go to with my family.”

Okay.

“Being in the hot sun and eating fruit.”

Good. Going to visit a river when she was with her family in the hot sun and eating fruit. Can you see how this is working? This is how you eat organically. It involves memory, it involves story, it involves place, it involves the notion of fusing things together. These are not my peaches, these are yours. Thank you very much for helping me out on this. Thank you.

This is how you eat organically. It involves memory, it involves story, it involves place, it involves the notion of fusing things together. These are not my peaches, these are yours.

For one last story, I want to share with you my perfect peach memory, and I think you’ll find that eating is a social act as well as a political act. It involves others, usually—often family and friends. For me, the perfect peach was with my grandmother, and let me close with this. My grandmother taught me how to eat a peach. She’d sit on a small wooden stool, slice peaches, and occasionally she’d stop like an innocent child and steal the taste from the golden flesh and quickly sneak a piece into her mouth. I watched her close her eyes and they seemed to tremble, the muscles of an eighty-year-old involuntarily twitchy and danciness that’s lost in a dream. Bauchon’s savored flavor, a satisfying glow gently spread across her face. Not a smile or even a grin, just the look of comfort, relaxed, soothing in content. I thought of that image even after she died, wanting to believe that would be the look on her face forever. Bauchon grandmother and I shared that perfect moment, and I’ve spent years trying to re-enact that scene, closing my eyes, smacking my lips. I smile and gradually too lose myself in a flavor of a perfect peach memory.

Good memories to you. Thank you very much.