Thursday, May 22, 2008

Weeding and Weeping

"Dirt" is simply matter out of place, notes anthropologist Mary Douglas in her (highly recommended) ethnographic study Purity and Danger. By that, Douglas means that the things we consider dirty are not innately unclean, but rather become impure to us due to their position in either space or time. As she moves from the dietary laws of the Israelites to the death rituals of the Dinka, Douglas notes that what is dirty to one group of people under one set of circumstances can become integral to the most sacred rites in another place or time.

Applying Douglas's logic to farming, weeds are simply plants out of place. Anything that is not slotted for our beds, no matter how pretty, tasty, or unusual, becomes a weed to us as soon as it begins to compete with our harvest for soil and sun. Thus the sunflowers that have "volunteered" in the potato patch, the random tomato plant that cropped up in the herbs, and the great drooping squash plants that are sending out creepers in several beds are all weeds to us and slotted for destruction. We've almost finished the seasonal transition from beginning to maintaining; if the emblem of my first few months here was the hose with which we watered the greenhouse, my new emblem is the weeding tool, or possibly the stirrup hoe. We have a lot of "plants out of place." Or we did, until the past few days.

This week we descended on the beds with a fury and a fine tooth comb, uprooting everything that did not belong. Whereas a conventional grower might chose to apply herbicides to knock out the interlopers, we weed by hand, wheel-hoe, and weedwacker. When I consider herbicides from the Purity and Danger perspective, weed control via Roundup (a chemical cocktail that many conventional growers use to keep down the unwanted plants) doesn't make much sense to me. Consider: many growers have turned in recent years to patented Roundup Ready seed varieties, seeds that have been bred to resist the chemical onslaught of Roundup so that the harvest crop remains standing when all other plants have succumbed. But if weeds are simply plants out of place, Roundup Ready seed grows plants that assume they can never be weeds. How arrogant! On a less philosophical level, Roundup has also been accused of creating super-weeds (by killing off the weak plants so that only the hardiest weeds remain), of contributing to cycles of farmer debt (through ever increasing input costs for new, patented seed with matching, patented herb- and pesticides), and of generally being toxic.

So at Serenbe, we use our dirty, cracked farmer hands and pick the weeds out with all possible speed and efficiency. Shortly after a rainstorm is the best time for weeding, as the moist soil relinquishes weed roots with little resistance. We weedwack around the perimeter to keep our electric fence from grounding out on grasses; we wheelhoe the paths where nothing green can stay; we maneuver the stirrup hoe between the plants, carefully avoiding the tender shoots and leaves; then we get down on a hands and knees and massage the soil around the plants until we are satisfied with our beds. Our before and after shots would put Trading Spaces to shame.

Perched as we are on the cusp of the real harvest season, summer, we are still gathering a gracious plenty. Today we brought in about half of our onion crop and laid them out to cure in the shed. The harvested onion beds are the first that we have emptied this year, and it felt more than a little strange to walk down the middle of a bed as we carred our 40 lb onion bins to the truck. We couldn't cure any onions that we dropped (they would rot), so I carried home a small pail of rejected Spanish Yellows, Stockton Yellows, and Big Boys. Looking like a distraught Ray Charles in my sunglasses and oniony tears, I sliced them into an onion pie for a dinner I'll host tomorrow. One of my dear friends is gluten intolerant, so I decided to make a crust with ground peanuts and pecans instead of flour.

Cheddar Cheese and Onion Pie with Nut Pie Crust

For the crust:
2 cups ground nuts (peanuts, pecans, almonds, walnuts--whatever you prefer)
3 Tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt

For the filling:
1 medium boiling potato (5 oz)
2-3 cups sliced onion (I used two small and one large)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large eggs
1/4 cup heavy cream or whole milk
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme or 1/2 cup finely chopped fresh parsley or 1 teaspoon fresh rosemary (my choice)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
9 oz good-quality sharp Cheddar, coarsely grated (2 1/2 cups)

Combine the ground nuts, butter and sugar. Press the mixture evenly into the bottom and sides of a 9-inch pie plate.

Bake at 350°F for 10 to 12 minutes. While the crust is baking, make the filling.

Peel potato and cut into 1/4-inch dice (3/4 cup). Steam potato in a steamer set over boiling water, covered, until just cooked through, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a plate to cool.

Cook onions in butter in a 10-inch heavy skillet over moderately low heat, stirring, until softened, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to plate to cool.

Whisk together 2 eggs, cream, thyme, salt, and pepper in a large bowl until combined well. Stir in potato, onion, and cheese.

Pour the filling into the prepared, baked crust and bake at 425 for 35-40 minutes until aromatic and golden.

1 comment:

wendy said...

this might be my favorite post so far. definately my favorite recipe. nuts? cheese? onions? HEAVY CREAM. dear lord, mkw. dear. lord.

miss, love, highfives.