Articles by Author
As befits the City of the Big Shoulders, the Chicago outpost of the food emporium Eataly, which opened last week, is the largest to date, with two floors totaling 63,000 square feet and containing some 10,000 products, 23 eateries, 21 retail areas devoted to specific products, two espresso bars, two wine bars, a Nutella bar and a fine-dining restaurant.
While Eataly is a huge space with an immense number of offerings, it’s quite the opposite of the alienating experience of mega-grocery stores. Instead of dutifully pushing a cart up and down sterile, fluorescent-lighted aisles, getting your nameless, faceless (and often tasteless) boxed and canned goods, you pleasantly wander past floor-to-ceiling windows and in and out of a maze of small eateries and counters. Each counter is dedicated to a specific item: vegetables, meats, cheeses, fish, olive oil, beer, wine and much more.
Bringing an Old World market experience to modern urban shopping
About halfway through my meander, it occurred to me that Eataly is the perfect marriage of old and new. It’s a place where the Old World 10-stop shopping experience (going to the fishmonger, the sausage maker, the cheese shop, the baker, and a half dozen other small shops), meets the convenience of the New World one-stop shopping experience.
More from Zester Daily:
And there are plenty of eating and drinking opportunities to indulge in while you shop. You can stop at the pizza corner for a true Neapolitan pizza, the fritto stand for fried foods, the rosticceria for roasted meats or the panini shop for a sandwich. For drinks, there’s a beer hall and two cafes, one upstairs and one down. Wines are served in the central piazza area, which is crowned with a Hemingway quote: “Wine is the most civilized thing in the world.”
In fact, the Eataly Chicago is dedicated to Ernest Hemingway. This may seem incongruous, but Eataly’s founder, industrialist Oscar Farinetti, a great fan of Hemingway’s work, explains that the author was born and raised in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park and spent significant parts of his life in Italy. That he was also a man of large appetites is just icing on the cake.
I’ve been making pilgrimages to Eataly ever since the first one opened in 2007 in an old vermouth warehouse in the Lingotto district of Turin, at the far end of the Fiat factory. Farinetti’s brainchild is a paean to food that is “good, clean and fair.” These are the watchwords of Farinetti’s friend, Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini, who champions food that is delicious and untainted by chemicals. He also is devoted to treating farmers and food workers fairly. Farinetti and Petrini want shoppers to stop being passive consumers and instead become active “co-producers” by learning who produced what food, and how, and why that’s important.
In fact, one tenet of the Eataly Manifesto is “Eat. Shop. Learn.” Another tenet explains: “We feel that it’s not just important that we know everything about what we sell and serve, but that you also learn about the products we are so passionate about. We share with you the stories of the people and places behind all that we offer. The more you know the more you enjoy.”
Local sourcing and fresh produce at Eataly Chicago
In keeping with the precepts of Slow Food, Eataly Chicago has paid special attention to local sourcing. There is a whole section of canned and bottled goods made by Chicagoan Lee Greene’s Scrumptious Pantry, a selection of West Loop Salumi’s cured meats, pork from Bensmiller’s Farm in Iowa, Piedmontese beef from Toro Ranch in Nebraska and many more products from other Midwestern producers.
Among the can’t-miss features at Chicago’s Eataly is the vegetable butcher. As soon as you walk in the doors, you are greeted by a beautiful farmstand-like display of seasonal fruits and vegetables. You can then take your selections to the vegetable butcher, who will trim your artichokes, peel your carrots, shred your cabbage or do whatever you need for ease of cooking once you get it home.
The store’s Gelateria Alpina gelato bar offers favorites such as nocciola (hazelnut) and cioccolata (chocolate), as well as seasonal offerings. In addition to hand-scooped gelato, and unique to the Chicago store, are soft-serve gelato spigots!
As Federico Fellini says in a quote gracing a wall in Chicago’s Eataly, “Life is a combination of magic and pasta.” His words could just as well be applied to Eataly Chicago, that is, if you consider “pasta” a metonym for all great food. And great food makes us better. As Sophia Loren is quoted, in yet another Eataly sign, “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.”
Top photo: Pasta for sale at Eataly’s newest location in Chicago. Credit: Terra Brockman
Corn has gotten a bad rap over the past 50 years, especially since it was genetically modified to resist enormous applications of herbicide, and then used primarily for ethanol and animal feed. That No. 2 Yellow Dent corn is a far cry from the delicious and nutritious staple of the Native Americans, who deserve to own the intellectual property of corn genetics for the simple reason that all corn is Indian corn, painstakingly developed by Native Americans from wild teosinte grass.
More from Zester Daily:
Cultivation of maize began more than 8,000 years ago in the Balsas River Valley in what is present-day Mexico, and the plant was considered a sacred gift from the gods. Over the years, thousands of varieties were developed by native peoples throughout Meso-America, and then throughout North and South America, until there were varieties for every altitude and climate, and for every culinary and ceremonial purpose. The Indians categorized their corn by intended use: for flour, for hominy and porridge, for popping, and so on. Of the many edible gifts native peoples have given us, the most important is, arguably, corn.
This Thanksgiving, you can give thanks to Native Americans and recapture some of the rich heritage and rich tastes of corn by seeking out heirloom varieties such as Mandan Bride, and serving them as a side dish or as a gluten-free stuffing for your bird.
My first experience with true polenta was not in Italy, but in my own kitchen using my brother Henry’s freshly ground Mandan Bride cornmeal, water, salt and pepper. Until that silky, creamy, revelatory moment, I thought all cornmeal came in a yellow and blue canister blessed with a smiling Quaker. And I thought it tasted pretty much like the cardboard it came in.
The steaming bowl in front of me was something else entirely — complex, nutty, mildly sweet and altogether comforting. And it got me wondering who and what Mandan Bride was, and why I had lived for 50 years before tasting the earthy essence of corn.
It turns out the Mandan Indians lived in parts of what we now know as Minnesota and North Dakota, and they developed this corn specifically for grinding into meal and making into porridge. They bred it for flavor and nutrition, and quite possibly for beauty as well.
Every ear of Mandan Bride is different, the variegated colors ranging from deep burgundy to hazy purple to smoky white, with some kernels a uniform color and others striped. The ears are so beautiful that you may find it being sold as an ornamental. But after enjoying its beauty, you should do as the Indians intended, and make yourself the most amazing polenta you’ve ever had.
Searching for Mandan Bride
Mandan Bride and other heirloom cornmeals are hard to find from anyone but a small-scale, biodiverse local farmer. The plant’s relatively weak stalks and soft cobs make it nearly impossible to harvest mechanically, so farmers must pick the ears by hand, then hand shuck them, dry them to just the right point and then stone grind them in small batches. Because the whole kernel is ground, heirloom cornmeal is much more flavorful and nutritious than commercial cornmeal for which the outer hulls and inner germ (the protein- and fat-rich center of each kernel) are removed. But freshly ground whole kernels are perishable, and should be kept in the refrigerator or freezer.
If you can’t find Mandan Bride, look for Hopi Blue or Bloody Butcher. Or resolve to grow your own next year. Seeds are available from a number of purveyors who specialize in old varieties, and Mandan Bride is listed as one of RAFT’s (Renewing America’s Food Traditions) “culinary mainstays of the last three millennia.”
Perfect Thanksgiving polenta
Many polenta recipes call for butter, cream or cheese, but if you have freshly ground heirloom cornmeal, there’s no need for anything but water, salt and pepper.
Polenta can be made and served at a loose, custardy consistency using a 5-1 ratio of water to cornmeal, or it can be made with less water (a 4-1 ratio) so that it’s firm and easily shaped into squares or triangles, and then pan-fried or broiled, giving you great crunch on the outside and creaminess on the inside. Either way, polenta pairs perfectly with bold autumn greens like Brussels sprouts or broccoli rabe.
For a less stressful Thanksgiving meal, make this polenta a day or two ahead of time, then broil it just before serving.
Broiled Polenta With Heirloom Cornmeal
4 cups water
1 cup Mandan Bride or other heirloom cornmeal (if unavailable, get the best organic cornmeal you can find)
1 teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground pepper
1. Bring salted water to a boil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Turn the heat down to medium, and add the cornmeal gradually in a steady stream, whisking constantly until it’s all incorporated.
2. Turn the heat to low and continue whisking for about 5 minutes to prevent any lumps from forming.
3. Continue stirring often for the next 15 minutes or until the water is absorbed. Reduce heat to low and continue stirring until polenta turns creamy and pulls away from the sides of the pot. Taste and add sea salt and freshly ground pepper if desired.
4. Generously coat a 13-by-9-inch baking pan with olive oil. Pour the polenta into the pan and let cool. Cover and refrigerate.
5. Take out an hour or so before you plan to serve it to let it come to room temperature. Set your broiler on high and grease a rimmed cookie sheet.
6. Slice the firm polenta into diamonds, wedges, or squares — or use your favorite cookie cutter. Place polenta slices on the baking sheet and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place on the top rack of the oven and broil for 8 to 10 minutes, or until polenta is crisp and brown on top.
Top photo: Mandan Bride corn. Credit: Terra Brockman
Nothing says “I love you” like a box of chocolates. And what’s not to like about a sweet, sensual, mood enhancer that also has antioxidants, lowers blood pressure, inhibits “bad” cholesterol, and is chock full of antioxidants and polyphenols. No wonder the scientific name of the plant that chocolate comes from, Theobromo Cacao, translates as “food of the gods cacao.”
More from Zester Daily:
What about that plant, though? Even though I’m a lifelong chocoholic, I’d never given much thought to the small tree that is the source of all chocolate. That sin of omission was remedied on my recent first trip to Hawaii, the only place in the United States where cacao trees grow.
There, I saw the slender tree that thrives under the shade of the tropical forest canopy, admired its brightly colored cacao pods and popped raw beans from that pod, still encased in their softly glowing slick white coating, right into my mouth. And I learned that the chocolate bar or truffle you offer your loved one (or indulge in yourself) is the end result of a long, arduous, delicate process involving many steps and many hands.
Cacao’s difficult cultivation
Cacao is not an easy tree to cultivate. It grows only in the relatively narrow band 20 degrees north or south of the equator, and in that zone, it must be planted next to taller trees whose canopy protects it from direct sun and high winds. After trees are planted, they take five or six years to start producing, and mature trees bear only about 30 usable pods per year. With between 30 to 50 beans in an average pod, a single tree produces about 1,000 beans, enough to make only about 2 pounds of bittersweet chocolate.
The cacao tree is also susceptible to pests and diseases, which many producers seek to counteract by spraying chemical pesticides. In fact, cacao is one of the most heavily sprayed crops, and the chemicals are toxic not only for the intended pests, but also for other insects, birds, animals, plants and workers. When you seek out chocolate from organic cacao growers, you are supporting farmers who work to enhance biodiversity and protect the ecosystem, including the soil, air and water we all depend upon.
It was at the family owned and operated Ono Organic Farms, on the southeastern slope of the Haleakala volcano on Maui, that I witnessed the vegetal source of chocolate. Having never seen a cacao tree, I imagined the pods would be small and would hang from the ends of branches like “normal” fruit. Instead I saw a slender tree with improbably large pods emerging directly from the trunk. Large and pendulous, it seemed as if a gentle touch would send them tumbling earthward. The pods were the size and shape of a rugby ball and Crayola bright. Depending on the subspecies of the tree, and the ripeness of the pod, the color ranges from green through yellow, orange, red, purple and burgundy.
Chuck Boerner, the proprietor of Ono Organic Farms, pried a few cacao beans from a freshly opened pod and handed them to us. He instructed us to suck the thin, sticky flesh from the dark beans. That sweet, lightly acidic flesh is what kicks off the fermentation process, and although it’s not physically part of the end product, it’s where chocolate flavors begin.
Ono Organic Farms, and in fact Hawaii as a whole, have relatively few cacao trees, so we did not see the larger scale production that takes place in Africa, which produces 75% of the world’s chocolate. But regardless of the location or scale, the steps from cacao bean to chocolate bar are the same, and involve a lot of workers doing a lot of hand labor.
Because the cacao pods ripen at varying times, they must be harvested individually with machetes or knives, taking care not to damage nearby pods or buds. Workers cut the pods open, generally with a machete, and then scoop the beans out. The raw, pulp-covered beans are then placed in shallow wooden boxes, or put in piles and covered with banana leaves.
The sweet white coating on the beans gets fermentation going, as the sugar in the pulp is converted into acids that change the chemical composition of the beans. The fermentation process takes from two to eight days, and generates temperatures up to 125 F, activating enzymes that begin to create chocolate’s flavor profile.
To stop fermentation, the beans are uncovered and laid out to dry in the sun, where they stay until nearly all of their moisture has evaporated. Then they are roasted, and the dry husks are removed. This is the point at which beans are generally shipped to chocolate factories around the world to be made into chocolate hearts and bon bons and bars of all descriptions.
A journey to Fair Trade
Because so many human hands are needed to pick and process cacao, child labor is used in many places around the world resulting in mass-produced chocolate with a “dark side,” according to the 2012 CNN report on “Chocolate’s Child Slaves” and also according to John Robbins, author of “No Happy Cows: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Food Revolution.” This makes it important to look for Fair Trade labels on your chocolate, just as many people do for their coffee.
After experiencing the beauty of the cacao tree, and learning about the process that starts with the bright fruit of a tropical tree I found myself enjoying the dark tasty treat of chocolate even more. And I realized that the organic and Fair Trade labels are as important on chocolate as they are on kale and coffee, and are another way to do good while eating well, and perhaps impressing your valentine as well.
Look for the Fair Trade and organic labels to do your part to create a better world and enjoy a guilt-free treat.
Where to find cacao and chocolate in Hawaii (not a definitive listing):
- On Maui, the exotic fruit tour at Ono Organic Farms includes cacao, but they do not process it into chocolate. Bob Dye runs Waimea Chocolate Company on Maui, which uses 100% Hawaiian cacao, with their products available at Sweet Paradise Chocolatier in Wailea and at Wailea Wine.
- On the Big Island, you can visit the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory.
- On Kauai, you may tour Garden Isle Chocolate and Steelgrass Farms.
Pods containing 40-60 cacao beans each hang from a tree in the McBryde Garden, part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden in the Lawa’i Valley on the south shore of Kauai Island in Hawaii. Credit: Terra Brockman
What looks like a cross between a giant thistle and supersized celery, but tastes like artichoke with a trace of truffle? Don’t worry if you don’t have a clue. Cardoons are still a rare find in U.S. stores, although more and more farmers are growing them. If you’ve spent time in Italy or Spain, though, you probably know them as cardi or cardone — a classic winter vegetable that is perfect in a bagna cauda.
Cardoons are among the vegetables that home gardeners have enjoyed and that great painters have lovingly rendered for centuries.
The cardoon in Juan Sánchez Cotán’s bodegón (a still life, usually in a pantry or cellar), is domestic and poetic, mundane and mysterious, secular and sacred. Somehow Sánchez Cotán painted the lowly yet lovely cardoon’s sharp edges in soft colors, making it pulse with hidden life. It’s a humble, ordinary scene, yet the gathering up of the fruits of the earth before they die and return to whence they came hints of the rituals of the altar.
The artichoke’s cousin
Like artichokes, cardoons are in the thistle family. Their wild ancestor grew all over the Mediterranean and was gradually domesticated. Some, bred for their big buds, became the artichokes we know today, while others, bred for a large and meaty petiole (leaf stalk), became the cardoon.
The cardoon plant resembles its forebears, with long stalks and velvety, deeply lobed, heavily spined, gray-green leaves with a felt-like surface. The pale green stalks are about an inch wide, and 18 to 22 inches long. Some cardoon stems are straight, but in Italy the most sought after are curved, a feature that results in their being nicknamed gobbi, or hunchbacks.
My brother, Henry, plants the Gobbo di Nizza (Hunchback of Nice) cardoons, as well as the Porto Spineless variety on his farm in Illinois. Both have the look and the crunch of celery, but the flavor is absolutely nothing like celery.
Cardoons are not normally eaten raw, but when my brother had me go chop one down (slicing through the 6-inch base is more akin to chopping a tree than cutting a vegetable), we inhaled the earthy truffle aroma, and decided to sample it on the spot. Raw, it has an immediate bitter bite on your tongue, but as you chew it, it develops complex and pleasant flavors. By the time you swallow it, you can’t help but take another bite, and soon the bitter flavor becomes addictive.
Worth the trouble
When cardoons are cooked, their membership in the artichoke family becomes apparent. But they are better than the best artichoke hearts, in that they seem to have been dusted with rich white truffle. A quick look through my Italian cookbooks suggests a variety of cooking methods, from braising to frying to making them into a risotto or gratin.
The cookbooks also make it clear that cardoons need some prep time. Chef Jason Hammel of Chicago’s Lula Café and Nightwood Restaurant, once said, “Good food is trouble.” And I say cardoons are a case in point. But anything worthwhile requires a bit of work, right?
In the case of cardoons, you trim the spines, peel the fibers and boil them for in water with the juice of a lemon before doing anything else with them. And honestly, that’s not so much trouble. Rest assured — what comes later makes it all worthwhile.
Try substituting this cardoon gratin for that tired old potato or squash gratin at your Thanksgiving dinner. Give an extra helping to whoever can identify the vegetable.
1 large cardoon (3 to 4 pounds)
¼ cup flour
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup coarsely grated provolone
½ cup finely grated pecorino
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Bring a large kettle of salted water to a boil. While the oven and the water are heating, prep the cardoons.
2. Use a paring knife or your fingers (I prefer fingers) to zip off the strings on the ribs of the cardoon stalks. (Some recipes say to peel the stalks with a vegetable peeler, but that just got my peeler all gummed up. Besides, you don’t have to get all the strings out for the cardoons to come out soft and luscious.)
3. Squeeze the lemon’s juice into a large bowl of cold water. Cut the cardoon stalks into 2- to 3-inch lengths, and put them into the lemon water to keep them from discoloring.
4. Put the squeezed-out lemon pieces into the boiling water and then whisk in the flour. According to some, this lemon-flour combination removes some of the bitterness from the cardoons, and keeps their pretty green color. Let the flour and lemon boil together for few minutes, and then toss in all the cardoon sticks, and boil about 30 minutes, or until the flesh is soft and silky. Drain.
5. Liberally smear olive oil (or bacon fat) all over the inside of a casserole dish that is large enough to hold all the cardoons. Arrange the cardoons in one layer, and then sprinkle with the provolone, and then with the pecorino. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the cheese begins to brown. Serve immediately or at room temperature. This dish is even better as leftovers, reheated in the microwave or toaster oven.
Photo: Cardoons at farmers market. Credit: blowbackphoto / iStockphoto.com
Thanksgiving is the easiest and best time of year to “eat local.” I know, because the count of local items on our Thanksgiving table in central Illinois is up to 36. Of course that’s counting a dozen or so of the many herbs and fruits my sister raises, which find their way into everything from the stuffing, to the sides, to the dessert. Plus dozens of vegetables that my brother raises. Plus meat items from our father and grains from our neighboring farmers.
But you don’t have to come from a farm family or live in a rural area to eat local for Thanksgiving. It can be as simple as buying one item — a locally-raised turkey, duck, or ham, or local potatoes for the gratin, or a local pumpkin for the pie.
Even if you’re not a regular farmers market person, it’s easy to find local farmers and their products. Most places now have local food organizations (check out your local Slow Food chapter, for example), or you can go to websites like eatwild.org or localharvest.orgthat make it very easy to find items near you simply by entering your ZIP code and the desired item.
The first Thanksgiving
was a local affair
Most of what you find on a traditional Thanksgiving menu has its roots in local, seasonal foods. After all, the Native Americans were “locavores” back when “fresh and local” were not marketing terms, but just the way it was.
Yet too often we feel obliged to follow more recent traditions. We fill a Thanksgiving menu with an industrially raised turkey that’s been injected with saline to make it seem juicy, or Jell-O salad with canned fruit cocktail, or green bean casserole with canned mushroom soup, or sweet potatoes from a can, baked with butter and brown sugar with marshmallows on top. That’s what my Grandma made, anyway.
There’s nothing wrong with family traditions, but it’s easy and fun to give those old favorites new, healthy, tasty life with fresh, locally raised foods. Thanksgiving is the perfect time to choose from autumn’s bountiful cornucopia of locally grown foods.
Another reason to eat local for Thanksgiving
And there’s even more to be thankful for, because local foods, when grown without synthetic chemicals, enhance our personal health, the health of our farmers, their farms, and our communities. And the virtuous circle expands as local organic foods benefit the soil, air, and water upon which life depends.
There is just no better way to express gratitude for good food, local farmers, and their active stewardship of the land than to buy one or more local items for the big meal on the day we join together and give thanks. And it’s easy. Try tweaking your favorite family recipes. You’ll have the tastiest Thanksgiving ever, and you’ll help keep local, sustainable farms thriving now, and for many Thanksgivings to come.
Black Walnut Lemon Pound Cake
Some aromas are so unique and replete with memory they immediately transport you to a specific time or place. This one takes me into my grandmother’s kitchen on a dark winter day some 40 years ago, when she had baked a black walnut lemon pound cake, and it was just about ready to come out of the oven. My mouth was watering then, as it is watering now at the memory.
The black walnuts, notoriously difficult to crack in their concrete shells that break into sharp shards, if they break at all, had been somehow cracked by my grandfather in his secret way in the basement, where he would sit at his workbench and steadily crack one after another, filling up mason jars with the aromatic and oily nuts.
For the cake:
3 cups flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2½ cups sugar
7 large eggs
1 cup sour cream (or ¾ cup buttermilk)
1 teaspoon vanilla
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon (about 1 tablespoon)
Juice from 2 lemons (about ⅓ cup)
1⅓ cups chopped black walnuts
For the lemon glaze:
1¼ cups powdered sugar (sift if lumpy)
1½ tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1½ tablespoons hot water, plus more if needed
¼ teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
For the cake:
1. Heat oven to 350 F. Grease 10 x 4¼ tube pan and dust with flour, shaking out any excess.
2. Sift the dry ingredients into a bowl.
3. In another large bowl, beat the butter and sugar at medium speed until the mixture becomes light and fluffy, approximately 2 minutes.
4. Reduce speed to low and gradually beat in flour mixture and the sour cream or buttermilk.
5. Add eggs one at a time, beating 10 seconds after each addition.
6. Add vanilla, lemon zest and juice, and walnuts. Beat on low speed until blended.
7. Turn batter into pan, smoothing surface.
8. Bake on middle rack or oven for 1¼ to 1½ hours, or until surface is nicely browned and springs back when lightly pressed and a toothpick inserted in thickest part comes out with just a few crumbs. Transfer pan to wire rack and let cool completely, about 1 hour. Run a table knife around the tube and edges of pan until cake is loosened. Turn onto cake plate.
For the lemon glaze:
1. To make the lemon glaze, in a medium bowl, stir all ingredients together until well blended. Let stand for 2 minutes. If mixture stiffens too much, thin with a little more hot water.
2. Smooth glaze over the cake with a table knife or pastry brush.
Top photo: A selection of squash for a local Thanksgiving feast. Credit: Terra Brockman
At my brother Henry’s farm in central Illinois, the garlic harvest is one of the annual events that requires all hands on deck. The massive undertaking took on even more urgency this year as drought hastened the drying process, leading to yellow leaf tips by mid-June, indicating it was time to dig the garlic.
In the 20 years that Henry has been farming, this is the first year the garlic harvest has happened in June. This is also the first year when we had more than 25 helpers in the field, a veritable “crop mob,” thanks to some Evanston, Ill., farmers market volunteers and about 20 Illinois State University students.
Our Grandma Henrietta always said, “Many hands make light work,” and there was plenty of evidence of the truth of that aphorism. As the sun was setting after the first day of the garlic harvest, Henry calculated that 7,300 soft neck garlic plants (mainly the New York White variety) had been pulled, plus a few hundred small ones, plus about 1,200 large ones to be saved back as seed and planted in October. In addition, more than 1,000 of the hard-neck German Extra Hardy were pulled, adding up to about 10,000 plants out of the ground, which was roughly two-thirds of the total harvested this year.
The sheer number of plants to be pulled required everyone to work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a two-hour siesta during the hottest part of the day. Henry was driven by twin engines of urgency. First, he needed to get the garlic out of the ground before it dried down too much and the tight bulbs began to open. An exploding bulb is less marketable and harder to rub clean of its flaky, outer skins. Plus, dirt gets in the center of an opening bulb, providing a perfect habitat for microbes that cause dry rot. Second, Henry was painfully aware that each hour devoted to the garlic harvest was an hour when people weren’t available to attack the weeds that were growing unmolested by hands or hoes.
Thanks to all the helping hands, instead of spending the entire week harvesting garlic, as we often do, we needed only two days and were then able to go back to the planting, trellising, mulching and myriad other pressing tasks.
In addition to the many helping hands, the work went swiftly because of the improved implement Henry had the local machine shop fabricate for him last year. Instead of the old implement consisting of four arrow-shaped sweeps, which was used along with pitch forks and strong backs, Henry now has a single broad blade that the tractor pulls beneath all the heads of garlic in the three rows that make up a bed. The blade cuts through the tight mop of roots, allowing the harvesters to easily pull up the dislodged garlic plants, shake off the dirt and stack them in neat pyramids, which are then brought to the hay rack.
When the rack is piled high, Henry hitches it to the pickup and drives it up to the barn where he and the interns, volunteers and family members work sorting and bunching it until, or even after, dark.
Each year we set aside the largest bulbs, about 10% of the total. The individual cloves from these bulbs will be planted in late October or early November. Until then, they hang in a separate section of the barn so that we will not inadvertently cut them down to sell. This selecting of the biggest and the best for the next year’s crop has been done since the dawn of agriculture, long before Gregor Mendel, the Augustinian monk, scientist and gardener, figured out the laws of inheritance. Mendel elucidated the mechanism behind what early farmers knew intuitively: saving the seed from the best plants capitalizes on random genetic variation. In this way, our garlic gets bigger and healthier and better tasting year by year as we select those plants best suited to our soil and our climate.
During this year’s drought, we had worried about the garlic and whether the bulbs would fill out. But garlic is an impressive scavenger of water — a single bulb can have roots that reach 30 inches down with a lateral spread of 18 inches in every direction — and so our garlic managed to get the water it needed, and the bulbs we have just harvested are quite magnificent.
Top photo: Harvested garlic. Credit: Terra Brockman