The Kindness of Dangers
I hold few certainties, but one self-evident truth that won’t let go is how food here in Maine tastes better than food back in California. This probably sounds like madness or heresy because California food is so glamorously famous—as golden as the state itself is hyped to be. And who thinks “food!” when they think of the frozen north that is wintery, stony Maine? Frankly, not even people who live here. When I told my doctor this past weekend that good eating was a big reason I was so glad to come home, she told me I was obviously blinded by emotion, or maybe just blindsided by wishful thinking.
As I have done many times, I explained that although my taste buds believe food grown in the alluvial soils of the Kennebec River outshines all other produce in the world, I could never explain why. Then my old friend Sam Hayward, Maine’s renowned five star chef, got invited to a vaunted culinary cook-off at a northern California winery chosen because it featured picture perfect vegetable gardens. Sam was told to help himself to whatever he needed to create a signature meal. As he reported when he returned, he kept running from the kitchen to pick more and more from the garden because no matter how many zucchini or beans or whatever he harvested, he just couldn’t get the intense flavor he was used to. “That produce looked gorgeous,” he said, “but I couldn’t coax taste from it.”
Sam was so perplexed, when he got home he went straight to his local farmer to get exactly the amount of produce he’d picked on the initial round in California. Then he made the same recipes. Flavor flooded back.
Discussing this with his farmer, Sam figured out that those annoying boulders the spring thaw shatters and tosses to the topsoil every spring from the depths of the deep freeze continually enrich the soil with minerals, and help to aerate it. Melting snow, cresting rivers and spring rains organically irrigate it. Best of all, the short, tense growing season that follows, infamously marked by erratic weather, makes growing an adventure race in which extremes of hot or cold, dry or wet breed an ever-changing array of temperatures and insects the plants have to work furiously to defend against.
In other words, the difficulties are actually blessings. In order to survive in perilous conditions, vegetables have to rev up their energy to quickly produce extraordinary amounts of the chemical hormones that translate as flavor. So, while they may appear small, blemished and/or stubby, Maine carrots, strawberries and tomatoes are likely to be tasty.
This unexpected truth of suffering was dittoed a few years later at a northern California winery famous for producing incomparable zinfandel and infamous for not producing enough to satisfy the hunger for it. The sign on its unmarked gate said: “One bottle per group.” Since it was a chilly, damp February day with no grapes growing and nobody else in sight, the proprietor himself came out to let me in and I got to brazenly ask how he managed to make such unique wine in the midst of so many neighboring competitors. “Because,” he said, “I’m the only one who doesn’t irrigate the grapes. I make them fight to survive. That makes them rev up all the chemical compounds they’ve got. I believe the hard time they have makes them flavorful.” When I told him Sam’s theory of Maine vegetables, he gave me two bottles of his wine.
Yesterday I made jam from two quarts of Kennebec River strawberries, pretty much the way I have for the last 35 years. My body can’t tolerate sugar so I have always ignored the recipes that come with the canning jars, telling you to put in seven cups of sugar, and put in a little more than one, the vital minimum required for preservation. This produces jam that won’t last forever in the refrigerator but I can eat it and everybody seems to love because, as they keep saying when they ask for more, they can actually taste the fruit.
For the last three years, as a kind of experiment, I have made strawberry jam in California from fruit produced by a vaunted organic strawberry farm. All of it is consistently photogenic and also so consistently gigantic, I could use any berry for a badminton shuttlecock. Even though I put in the same amount of sugar for the same measure of berries I use in Maine, the result is always mawkishly sweet with few chunks of berry remaining in the jar. The California berries collapse into bland sugar that nobody compliments and I can’t eat.
This morning the goat cheese lady who wins awards for everything she can produce told me the secret was in the forage. "I've been out to Point Reyes to see the famous dairy herds. Our goats here eat fresher forage because it dies back in wintertime and gets born fresh every spring. That's what people are tasting in my cheese."
So good looks aren’t everything, convenient climate isn't a head start, and big isn’t necessarily better. There is reason to rejoice in at least this truth of suffering. It hardens us up to withstand the elements by developing do or die all the coping skills we’ve got. It brings out the best in us. Maybe that’s why everybody wants to have at hand what the late Gordon Lightfoot called “rainy day people.” Substance is always delicious.
"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"
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