Farm Fresh Thoughts: Water, Wealth, Weird Meat & Watsonville

When I started The Pantry Raid, I didn’t know much about food and I didn’t have a pantry. As I travelled from kitchen to kitchen, I picked up recipes and stories, sharing them here along the way. In a what-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg fashion, I’ve grown to love food in a manner I hardly expected. Food has become my lifestyle, and with it, I have gained a constant thirst to learn more.

One day, a couple of months ago, I was sitting on my butt, as I had become accustomed to doing, when I realized that I didn’t much like sitting on my butt. I decided it was time to take a stand – literally – for what I cared about. I’d heard about this program called WWOOF (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) where volunteers work on organic farms in exchange for food and shelter. I decided I’d go to France, where culinary expression was at its finest. I found a farm and was about to buy a plane ticket when I realized how ridiculous it all was. I was going to travel 30 hours and thousands of miles to spend two weeks on a farm when I was living – LIVING – in California! Sure, France is the stuff of dreams, but if I really wanted to explore my relationship with food, it had to happen at home, or at least close by.

So here I am, about to embark on this fairly non-traditional post-grad move. Leaving my blow dryer and leather boots in my wake, I’m taking to the land to figure out what the heck is up with food, anyway.

Moments from setting sail (or rather, Volkswagen Golf) for Watsonville, here’s what’s on my mind:

  1. The Drought

Unbeknownst to many, California is suffering a major drought. For those of us who live in big fun cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, it can be difficult to remember what’s actually going on. Water comes out of our sinks and showers and the parks are as green as ever. But as I drove from Los Angeles to Silicon Valley a week ago, and from Silicon Valley to Napa a couple of days ago, I became painfully aware that this is one dry state. So I’m wondering, how are farmers addressing this?

In Napa, where I visited my cousins Deborah, Bradley, and their daughter Amira, I learned that water is being shipped in from other places, which opens up a whole other can of worms about the effects that has on the environment. How long will we be able to maintain our lifestyles and the diets we’ve become accustomed to? California is home to thousands of farms. There are 285 organic ones registered on the WWOOF website alone! This map shows that between 2007 and 2012, the US has lost 90,000 farms. That’s a lot of produce, people! And since this silly silly country doesn’t require GMO labeling, it makes you wonder what your produce is really made of.

  1. Meat

Speaking of getting the creeps about the food we eat, I’ve recently been thinking a lot about meat. I’ve always been a meat eater, but ever since my traumatic experience with a roast chicken, I’ve been skeptical about the stuff I buy at the grocery store and order at restaurants. I realized that I have little to no association between the boneless skinless chicken breast I buy at TJs and an actual clucking chicken, feathers and all. I don’t think about cows when I eat a burger, and I’m starting to think that’s not great news.

Not only am I naïve when picking up my groceries, but I’m even more in the dark when I go out to eat. We all laughed last weekend when Elizabeth asked our waitress where the salmon came from and if it was farmed or wild. Our unsuspecting server didn’t have a clue, which seemed normal enough. But think about it – you’re putting what was once a living breathing thing inside your living breathing self. Don’t you want to know what it’s made of? Don’t you want to know if the bloody patty on your plate came from one cow or ten, and if those cows grew up sharing a room with a thousand other cows or with no room at all? In the wise words of Anthony Bourdain, "I believe I should be able to treat my hamburger like food, not like infectious fucking medical waste."

Obviously, we can’t expect our waitresses to know all this stuff, but as I started thinking about all this, I thought twice before ordering animal protein at restaurants. I had pretty much stopped all together, when I arrived in Napa to learn that Deborah and Bradley practice a mostly Paleo diet. This means lots of protein, plenty of veggies, and no bread or sugar.

Having avoided meat for the past week in Woodside, I was hesitant, but one bite of Fatted Calf charcuterie and I was a changed woman. At this point, I’m thinking less is more, some is good, and good is great. That said, my Watsonville hosts are vegetarians. Can this omnivore survive without meat? I’ll keep you posted.

  1. The 1%

On the subject of “good is great,” meaning that if I’m going to eat meat it had better be the high quality stuff, I’m also thinking about the “1%.” I’m starting to wrap my head around this idea that there are two 1%s – the wealthiest class that can afford to shop at Whole Foods and dine exclusively at farm to table restaurants. These people can consume consciously because they have the resources to afford it. But the other 1% isn’t based on money – it’s about availability. In Napa, for example, fruit and veggies are abundant because the climate is ideal for that kind of thing. I went all googly eyed looking at the tomato plants dragged down by bright bursting fruit. The vineyard fields were littered with purple grapes from the vines that couldn’t afford to keep them.

These people of Napa, I decided, are one lucky bunch. Crops thrive where they live, so with or without loads of money, they can eat what they grow and they can grow a heck of a lot.

In contrast, there’s only one 99%. It’s the people who can’t afford either lifestyle. They need to live in crowded cities to work multiple jobs or there’s not enough time to nurture a garden. In his most recent book, Medium Raw, Anthony Bourdain complains about Alice Waters’ school garden initiative. The Edible Schoolyard Project seeks to bring an “edible education curriculum” into schools. Bourdain explains, eloquently as ever,

I, for one, would be very satisfied if Timmy gets a relatively balanced slab of fresh but nonorganic meatloaf with a side of competently frozen broccoli - along with reading skills and a chance at a future. Once literate, well read, and equipped with the tools to actually make his way in this world, he'll be far better prepared to afford Chez Panisse."

At first I agreed, but now I’m not so sure. Our world’s population is growing so rapidly that there isn’t enough land, jobs, meat, you-name-it to sustain us all. At some point I believe we’re going to revert back to the old ways, so I’m hoping that Alice really is teaching these kids a thing or two about a thing or two.

  1. The Future!

Lastly, I’m wondering what the heck I’m going to be doing for the next month! Farming, though rustic, is a bit romanticized in my brain. I can’t even imagine what I’ll learn or how I’ll change over the course of the next four weeks. I do know that I’ll be foraging for stories along the way though, and you can bet I’ll be sharing them here. Next stop, BobCat Ridge Avocado Farm.

thoughtsSienna Mintz