This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
I think some people mistakenly think lamb, deer, and other similar ruminants are leaner than they actually are because many times their fat is discarded. That is a shame. I think you should at least taste an animal's fat before discarding it. Ruminants do tend to convert things to fat less gracefully than pigs do. Lard is nearly always tasty until a pig has been fed something truly horrible. Tallow and other ruminant fats can be a lot more variable. The lamb I got from B&Y farms a month or so ago had excellent fat. I've eaten lots of the prime cuts and have some neck bones left. I make them into a stock, but I do it in a two part method to salvage the knobs of fat on the neck for myself. I put them in a crock pot on low, half cover with a mixture of wine and water, and cook for a few hours. Then I put in a glass jar in the fridge. I put the white tallow on the surface aside in a jar for cooking things and remove the knobs of fat from the bones. These I put under the broiler for a few minutes until they are crispy. Then I dress them with lime juice, black pepper, chili, garlic, and cumin. I like to call it lamb popcorn. Mmm. The leftover bones go into the stock pot.
All I'm saying is give this kind of fat a chance!
I got the idea from Xi'an Famous Foods, an unusual NYC Chinese chain that euphemistically calls some lamb offal "treasures." They also have a "lamb's face salad." Either way, I love the combo of lamb fat + cumin that is the hallmark of their food.
My next project is adobo, the Filipino dish that got some press in the NYTimes this week. Why didn't I think to make this before? Cooking meat in coconut vinegar is genius. I love the combo of acid and fat. I hope I can get some coconut vinegar. I know it's somewhere in NYC since we do have a Filipino population. I recently bought coconut aminos, which is a bit like soy sauce, and it's REALLY good. Dare I say better than soy sauce? I made some marinated spare ribs with it last night and it was incredible.
My fav meat techniques so far:
- Confit: cooking meat in large amounts of fat. As a bonus it keeps for a really long time. Yes you can use any meat and any fat. I've made salmon confit.
- Wine: antioxidant effects and the stock makes a great sauce. Throw it into your crockpot or your braising pot.
Those of you who are in my Meatshare, a meat buying club, might notice that the latest share is much cheaper than the last one. Farms vary, so I don't mind pricing varying, but lower prices usually mean we can't offer charcuterie, so no sausages. We do have some educational events in the works and maybe even a supper club. Stay tuned!
I was listening to Chris Masterjohn's interview and his meal of raw egg and orange reminded me of this:
Middle of the Way
I wake in the night,
An old ache in the shoulder blades.
I lie amazed under the trees
That creak a little in the dark,
The giant trees of the world.
I lie on earth the way
Flames lie in the woodpile,
Or as an imprint, in sperm or egg, of what is to be.
I love the earth, and always
In its darkness I am a stranger.
6 A.M. Water frozen again. Melted it and made tea. Ate a raw egg and the last orange. Refreshed by a long sleep. the trail practically indistinguishable under 8" of snow. 9:30 A.M. Snow up to my knees in places. Sweat begins freezing under my shirt when I stop to rest. The woods are filled, anyway, with the windy noise of the first streams. 10:30 A.M. the sun at last. The snow starts to melt off the boughs at once, falling with little ticking sounds. Mist clouds are lying in the valleys. 11:45 A.M. Slow, glittering breakers roll in on the beaches ten miles away, very blue and calm. 12 noon. An inexplicable sense of joy, as if some happy news had been transmitted to me directly, by-passing the brain. 2 P.M. From the top of Gauldy I looked back into Hebo valley. Castle Rock sticks into a cloud. A cool breeze comes up from the valley, it is a fresh, earthly wind and tastes of snow and trees. It is not like those transcendental breezes that make the heart ache. It bring happiness. 2:30 P.M. Lost the trail. A woodpecker watches me wade about through the snow trying to locate it. The sun has gone back of the trees. 3:10 P.M. Still hunting for the trail. Getting cold. From an elevation I have an open view to the SE, a world of timberless, white hills, rolling, weirdly wrinkled. Above them a pale half moon. 3:45 P.M. Going on by map and compass. A minute ago a deer fled touching down every fifteen feet or so. 7:30 P.M. Made camp near the heart of Alder Creek. Trampled a bed into the snow and filled it with boughs. Concocted a little fire in the darkness. Ate pork and beans. A slug or two of whiskey burnt my throat. The night very clear. Very cold. That half moon is up there and a lot of stars have come out among the treetops. The fire has fallen to coals.
The coals go out,
The last smoke wavers up
Losing itself in the stars.
This is my first night to lie
In the uncreating dark.
In the human heart
There sleeps a green worm
That has spun the heart about itself,
And that shall dream itself black wings
One day to break free into the black sky.
I leave my eyes open,
I lie here and forget our life,
All I see is that we float out
Into the emptiness, among the great stars,
On this little vessel without lights.
I know that I love the day,
The sun on the mountain, the Pacific
Shiny and accomplishing itself in breakers,
But I know I live half alive in the world,
Half my life belongs to the wild darkness.
John Durant's latest post on Before & Afters reminded me of this pair of photos:
Eating a bagel
It's funny because my skin was pretty clear in the bread photo, but overall I think I looked more bloated or chubby back then. But attached to that picture is memories of all the time I used to spend at the school medical clinic and all the classes I missed because I was sick. I was thinking about what degree I might like to peruse recently and while I'm immensely grateful for my current health, it's hard not to be bitter about what I missed out on. I remember dropping out of some advanced math and stats classes because I was just too sick to keep up. Even though I know they'd take over my life, I am sort of tempted to take them now just to prove I can.
I had a great New Year's. I had a rough year last year, as my regular readers know, which involved an eviction, job loss, and some possible health problems among other unpleasant complications. As I watched the fireworks in the park, I thought for a second "Wow, I feel great and it's wonderful to feel this way considering how the year started out."
Honestly, I have no idea what was going on earlier this year, but one of my main symptoms was very low blood pressure. My doctor told me if I couldn't fix this on my own, he was going to have to put me on medication.
I'm happy to say that my symptoms are gone! I could speculate on what caused them, but honestly I'm not sure. Stress, lack of sleep, and undereating were regular parts of my life back then. These are the things I think might have worked:
The last part was facilitated by my purchase of large quantities of grass-fed lamb in bulk. I pretty much mostly eat that now. It means I don't worry very much about shopping which is nice. Some health complaints that have disappeared since have caused me to question some paleo paradigms. All plants have potentially problematic chemicals in them, no matter where they are from or how much of them your ancestors eat. Chris Masterjohn and I have talked extensively about this and he's writing a series about it.
Choosing plant foods because of their history without taking biochemistry into account is dogma, not science. I strongly believe that switching from yams to white potatoes as a carb source had an immensely positive effect on my health. There is something in yams(Ipomoea) that bothers me, which is absent in white potatoes. Not all domestication is bad. Many crops have been bred to be LESS toxic.
So I won't be avoiding nightshades for the paleo challenge. Avoiding grains mainly to see what happens and because I'm due for a dental checkup in Feb and Stephan's post on Dr. Mellanby intrigued me. I'll also avoid nuts, but I don't eat much of those anyway. I have some leftover grits from a wonderful New Year's brunch at Applewood and then I'll be grain-free for 30 days.
I'm more concerned about exercise this new year. I'm going to try to do that more systematically and get outside more. I also want to learn some new recipes...by actually following them. I think I've reached a plateau in making up recipes and need some wisdom.
My New Years wish for the paleo community is less reduxctivism. I would like to see fewer books saying that some parts of an animal are healthy and others are unhealthy based on fat content. I think the healthiest balance is found is eating ruminants nose to tail. No, drinking butter and eating lard are not paleo (though not paleo doesn't mean bad), they are more traditional nutrition(and can be a great part of a healthy diet), but lamb chops are.
Unrelated, but I'd also like to somehow figure out a way to clear my email backlog...sorry if I owe you an email!
FYI: if you've told your family about the paleo diet, some time this week you are liable to get sent this article Neanderthals may have feasted on meat and two veg diet by your Aunt Maude, who was dismayed last Thanksgiving when you didn't want two helpings of her refried bean casserole.
Since apparently reporters are unable to write the name of the paper or the journal in their lame articles, I went to the trouble of finding this paper, which is from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and is titled Microfossils in calculus demonstrate consumption of plants and cooked foods in Neanderthal diets (Shanidar III, Iraq; Spy I and II, Belgium).
While the method used in this paper represents considerable inguinity, the theory that Neanderthals ate plants has been around for quite some time. This evidence is more convincing than past evidence though, which focused mostly on the environments where neanderthals were thought to live, like this paper The Exploitation of Plant Resources by Neanderthals in Amud Cave (Israel): The Evidence from Phytolith Studies, which was published in 2004.
As usual, journalists didn't get the memo and have been portraying neanderthals as top level carnivores (they were in some regions) and have parroted the idea that they died out because they couldn't diversify their diet.
Michael, a commenter, pointed me to that paper and other commenters criticized it because it relied on plant remains in cave sediment, which could have been there for other reasons. True, but this paper is much more convincing because they looked at the actual teeth of neanderthals. Apparently these neanderthals had some dental plaque (it would be intersting to know if more northern populations had this) and in that dental plaque there were some teeny tiny fossils. And in those fossils they found evidence of particular plants consumed, as well as evidence that some of them had been cooked. So there were cooked plants in the mouths of these neanderthals. Which makes it likely that they were eating plants.
Some of the fossils identified were from date palms (tasty), water lily roots, flowering legumes, and grasses. Of course there could be errors in identifying these fossils and we can't know how many of these foods were eaten.
But as more and more of this evidence comes to light, the idea that a diet low in plant antinutrients = a paleo diet is going to be increasingly disputed.
Rough chart of this idea. Comments on additions/subtractions welcome.
The writer of what was formerly Plant Poisons and Other Rotten Stuff has been saying this for some time. I think it's wise to avoid the major neolithic agents of inflammation: gluten, sugar, and high omega-6 vegetable oils, but what you eat beyond that should be targeted towards your own constitution rather than what "Grok" ate.
Chris Kessler had a great post about that today which I suggest reading.
Whenever I get off the train at Bedford Ave., I feel like I'm in Stockholm again. Everyone is super-skinny and wearing the latest fashions. I go into a hip clothing boutique and can only fit into a size medium, when normally I wear an XS petite. Where am I? The domain of the hipsters in Williamsburg.
I can't tell you exactly what a hipster is, but you'll know one when you see one. They like irony, indie bands like Beach House, plaid shirts, American Apparel, skinny jeans, and pretentiousness.
So what's so great about the hipster diet?
BACON (and other animal fats)
Bacon and lard have really made a comeback in Williamsburg. Bacon is literally everywhere, even in places where it might not belong, like in desserts, cocktails, and chocolate bars. This is a major revolution, as the hipster community was once seem as a bastion of veganism. Some vegan outposts remain, but the vast majority of new restaurants are pretty much floating in bacon grease. The vegans aren't happy about it and some well known vegan bloggers have written essays about how awful it is. But honestly, they are pretty much powerless against the power of bacon.
Where to find it: Traif, whole name means "unclean" in Hebrew, is owned by some bacon-loving Jews. Let me say this place is a gem and I have loved everything I've eaten there.
Hipsters really love their butchers and whenever I meet a hipster I'm sure to ask who their favorite butcher is. Is it Tom from Williamsburg butcher outpost The Meat Hook, Bryan from Fleishers? The guys at Marlow & Daughters? Dickson's? These aren't your parent's butcher chops. They make weird bacon beer sausages and stock fridges full of various animal fats like lard and tallow. Of course all the meats are raised by local farmers and grassfed etc. etc. Don't be shocked to see "offal" cuts sold at twice the normal price though. These are prized here.
Where to find it: Any of the above places, but The Meat Hook is probably the capital of hipster butchery right now.
If you haven't eaten something weird, you aren't a good hipster. Any good hipster restaurant has head cheese, sweetbreads, and bone marrow.
Where to find it: Everywhere, but I hear good things about the marrow poppers, gizzard confit, and tallow hot dogs at St Anselm.
Barbeque is a major Williamsburg pastime and boy do they take it seriously. The best places at Fette Sau and Fatty Cue, both of which are very very very very fatty. You can read about my pig's head experience at Fatty Cue here. Hipsters aren't afraid of the truly fatty cuts.
Any good hipster fridge contains kombucha, which is fermented tea, and lacto-fermented real pickles or kimchee.
Where to find these: The New Amsterdam market has a good selection of hipster favorites like Mama O's Kimchee, Ricks Picks, and Kombucha Brooklyn. Through Mombucha, you can have a real hipster come to your apartment and bring you some really great kombucha!
There are lots of hipster chocolatiers, but the kings are The Mast Brothers.
Needless to say, their chocolate is for adults only. It's bitter and very rich. And it comes with a very important pedigree. It's also very expensive and comes with a free stylish hipster patterned wrapper. Hipster chocolate is often consumed plain, but if it's flavored it's usually with expensive tea, biodynamic almonds, sea salt, and hot pepper.
EXPENSIVE TEA AND COFFEE
Every good hipster bodega (it's our convenience stores in NYC) carries several types of coconut water and usually coconut milk and flour too.
The truth is that hipster food is so expensive that you can't eat very much and most hipsters have low-paying jobs at art galleries or whatnot. Expect to pay $15 for three bacon-wrapped scallops. Hipsters nurse their hunger with some tea until their parents send some money.
As you can see, the hipster culture is unique and there are many great things about the traditional hipster diet: animal fat, tea, coconut stuff, fasting, dark chocolate, and fermented foods. But hipsters also tend to drink crappy beer and many people despite them for being annoying and pretentious. Being despised can be very stressful, but since hipsters live in isolated enclaves, they are largely immune to it. Also, hipsters sometimes eat lots of trendy cupcakes and doughnuts imported from Manhattan, which has led to a notable trend of potbellies on hipster men. This is clearly a culture in transition, with a negative Manhattan influence causing loss of traditions and the influx of diseases of civilization ;)
I will share with you some traditional hipster songs.
Next up: New Victorians of Park Slope?
PS: My roommate says I'm a hipster, but personally I think I'm too conservative and square for that.
Guess what I had for dinner last night at a super secret supper club? Hint, "I'm so hungry I could eat a _____."
Yes, this is horse heart with truffles. Oh, I can just hear the gasps of horror right now. This was from Quebec, where it is legal. In most of Europe it's still eaten.
In California, if you are arrested for serving this, the minimum sentence is 2 years. To contrast, you could torture this animal and have sex with it and get less than a year.
Yes, I know horses are pretty and sparkly and we owe them something. But that's not logic- that's no better than basing a law on religious beliefs. And in fact such laws do have roots in religion. Horse meat has a long association with paganism and back when that was a major threat to Catholicism, the pope outlawed it.
Don't get me wrong. I like horses and I've ridden them since I was very young. When I was 14 I gave an impassioned speech in debate club about the horrors of horse slaughter. But a horse is no smarter than a pig. And if it were legal, I would eat my own horses. Many horses go lame or break their legs quite young. Instead of eating them, we often euthanize them and cremate them.That's too bad, because the meat is quite good. No gaminess, so it was a little like lean beef. Also, draft horses are much more practical if you are allowed to eat them sometimes. That's why some draft breeds are still thriving in Europe while they are mostly seen on museum farms here.
Back when I was 15
I like cows and pigs too...and I eat them.
During the dinner, a woman from Kazakhstan who grew up as a nomad said she was so happy to be eating this, since she hadn't had it for 15 years. She talked about her culture's complete reliance on the horse, which involves use for riding, blood, milk, and meat. There they treasure horse meat and offer up prayers to thank the horses for their gifts to humans.
The chefs at the dinner paired horse with another unjustly illegal ingredient, Tonka Beans. No, I wasn't going unpaleo here :) Tonka beans are not eaten like real beans, but like vanilla beans. Shavings of them are used as a flavoring that many describe as being close to vanilla. I found it otherworldly, but bizarrely reminecant of buttercream iced birthday cakes. These beans are illegal because they have an ingredient that's kind of like a blood thinner, but scientists generally agree that they are safe and they are used in Britain and France.
< sarcasm > Since there are no factory farms that are producing digusting and unsafe food whatsoever, the FDA has plenty of time to raid Michelin-starred restaurants like Alinea, which used to make desserts with Tonka. < /sarcasm >This is stupid. Tonka beans aren't even remotely unsafe. Sadly, Tonka beans don't have a lobby that would help get the stupid law repealed.
Have you seen Chris Masterjohn's latest post? Since his last posts have been rather serious, I thought he was seriously going to write a paleo book. ANd I thought...well that's quite a bit unlike the Chris I know and a little odd to boot. But seriously, it reminds me of all the reasons I'm not writing a book any time soon.
First, my unabashed love of many neolithic things. It brings to mind this comment I saw on a Meghan McArdle blog post about Nestle selling in the Amazon:
Makes me think of an account I read, I can't remember where, of some travelers or explorers in a very remote area on some island I think in Indonesia or somewhere like that. Anyway, the travelers met a local hunter gatherer and shared their dinner of white rice with him. They wrote that he cried because he had never tasted anything so delicious before. Imagine living on roots and leaves and then having people complain if you get something tastier.
I have a little book written by an actual archaeologist on prehistoric cookery. Needless to say, I have not made any of the bland and miserable-sounding recipes in that book.
I have no desire for asceticism for the sake of asceticism. Yes, I like to eat with evolution in mind, but unless someone comes up with a study that shows that my lovely neolithic goose rilettes are culpable for ruining health, I am unlikely to trade them for soggy sea weed and unseasoned muskrat stew.
It's been quite some time since I read this book, but it has the most honest title: Evolution of the Human Diet: The Known, The Unknown, and The Unknowable. Yes, there is much not known and even more that is unknowable. We know very basic things about the paleolithic diet, enough for a very basic framework. But not much more. We know their diets were high in protein from isotope studies, we know they ate nose to tail from butchery marks, we know they ate some plants from coprolites (though these studies have the worst methodology), and yeah...
There is SO much pop anthropology floating out there right now. Like the idea that cultures like the Inuit or the Kitavans are paleolithic relics. It shows just how far this movement has gone away from actual anthropology, which recognizes that the paleolithic is an era that is OVER. There are no more paleolithic cultures. There are some foragers left, but ALL of these groups have had significant contact with agriculturalists and many have also been agriculturalists at some point in history. This is called agricultural regression and its well-known in anthropology, but apparently has not taken hold of pop culture, though the Boston Globe had an article on SE Asia that featured it recently. So most modern foragers are NOT living fossils. Laughably, many of these cultures mistakenly held up as examples of the Stone Age are not even foragers. The Kitavans, for example, are horticulturalists. Horticulture is a form of agriculture, which differs in some very significant social, cultural, and environmental ways from agrarianism. It's shifting vs. settled, communalism vs. private property, hoe vs. plough, agrobiodiversity vs. monoculture. It's different from the agriculture we know and it's almost always accompanied by foraging, but some foraging does not a forager make.
I wish mainly in this post to demolish the arrogance that is pervading the "paleo" movement. It's rather extraordinary since in many ways the movement is a reaction to the arrogance of mainstream health authorities.
The whole Paleo approach has become very fashionable with various camps arguing over a number of things that we really can’t know about for sure. How do you answer the critics who say this approach romanticises a brutish existence?
Let me be a bit provocative here, purposely: I do not care about my ancestors. They’re all dead!
An evolutionary approach is only interesting if it helps us, people of today, people that are still alive. In that sense, I am not interested in a so called “truth”, but in what we can experience today, and how understanding our past may help us improve our present lives. I am not living a caveman lifestyle, I’m sorry. I am a man of today, I’m in the here and now. I am not “sprinting and lifting heavy things” thinking that I am mimicking a caveman lifestyle. That is BULLSHIT. I am sprinting and lifting heavy things (among many other things I train) in order to be ready to do so in today’s world when the need arises. It’s about real-life preparedness and not role playing. MovNat is about connecting to reality, not to a reality that does not exist anymore.
And now I shall answer a reader question
Hey Melissa, I love your blog! I saw this question on Paleohacks about whether or not crab is paleo and I thought your answer was very insightful! I have wondered for a very long time about crab, since it is so weird looking that it must be of extraterrestrial origin. I don't think aliens visited Earth until after the neolithic era and I wonder about the effects of such extraterrestrial foods. So I have a question: my roommate is a raw vegan and he likes to add exotic microorganisms to his morning smoothies. Now that NASA has announced the discovery of arsenic-based bacteria, he is interested in obtaining some and is wondering what the effects might be.
- Phil from Des Moines.
Thanks for the question Phil! In his new ebook, Tales of Abject Paleo Disclusion, Robb Wolf talks about the negative effects of consuming beings from other dimensions. I am convinced most crabs originate on this planet, but be careful not to mistake beings like Mi-Go for crustaceans. Eating beings from other dimensions might cause pan-dimensional leaky gut syndrome, which is waaaay worse than normal leaky gut syndrome as it results in microscopic black holes in your intestines that transport all the nutritious food you eat to the 8th dimension. It's not very good for you and can lead to malnutrition, as well as the growth of tentacles on your forehead. If you already are afflicted by this grotesque condition, Loren Cordain has written the excellent The Dietary Cure for Tentacle Growth, which describes how a low-glycemic diet can reduce tentacle outbreaks!
As for consuming arsenic-based bacteria, I would consult Firewalkers, an excellent episode of the X-Files, which demonstrates very accurately how contact with abnormal organisms can lead to strange behavior and eventually of spores growing in your chest cavity! I can imagine that the long term effects of this would be negative. Many tribal cultures throw infected people in volcanoes.
***Sorry about this post everyone. I'm just so inspired by absurd paleo questions and I admit that rather than reading books about health diets, I've been reading HP Lovecraft, Dune, and watching old X-Files episodes :) It's how I deal with stress. Either way, stop stressing about this diet and start eating some good food!
For your trouble, here is an absurd picture of me.
Next Post: Soy Oil in a TV Dinner I thought was kind of paleo and other tales of macabre horror
I hate to beat a dead horse with this "paleo bread" news blather, but I don't know why this didn't occur to me before. So these archaeologists think that people laboriously dug up these roots and ground them up. And they assume they made bread for them, bread that they admit was "not very tasty." Hmm, maybe these researchers aren't exactly the life of the party, but I can't imagine people doing all these work for shitty pita bread.
And then I was reading this freakin epic NY Diet of the Bronx's "food baron" and he mentions chicha. Aha! A few months back I had some chicha at a Peruvian place. Peruvian chicha is usually made with corn, but you can make it with a vareity of other fermentable starches and sugars. The ancient method for making it is very simple and might be how our ancestors first got wasted. As this NYtimes article describes, you just have your women chew up some ground starch and spit it into a bucket. They you let it ferment...and pArTy!!!!!
“You need to convert the starches in the corn into fermentable sugars,” the always entertaining Mr. Calagione said by phone from his headquarters in Rehoboth Beach. “One way is through the malting process. But another way — there are natural enzymes in human saliva and by chewing on corn, whether they understood the science of it, ancient brewers through trial and error learned that the natural enzymes in saliva would convert the starch in corn into sugar, so it would ferment. It may sound a little unsavory. ...”
So what were those hunter-gatherers really doing with all those starches? I'm voting for alcohol. Which would you rather have? Even if it's made with spit, it's still better than fail!bread.
Modern chicha, not made with spit, is one of my favorite alcoholic drinks. At 3-5% of alcohol it's just enough to enjoy without getting wasted. Perhaps vodka and other distilled spirits are an example of neolithic hyper-palatibility. Alcohol occurs in nature and plenty of wild animals have been seen imbibing on fermented fruit, but distilled spirits represent alcohol at a level not seen in nature. Hunter-gatherer cultures are devastated by the introduction of bread and sugar, but the introduction of alcohol is certainly just as devastating. Diabetes AND alcoholism and the two major problems on Native American reservations.
However, there are some known neolithic genetic adaptations to alcohol. If you are able to drink vodka, it's certainly a better choice than beer. I'm one of the unlucky ones with bad genes, so I have to be very careful when imbibing.
So what were those paleolithic people doing with that starch?
- Making low-fat pita bread so they could follow the USDA food pyramid recommendations
- Making a gruel because they were starving, despite the fact that numerous herds of reindeer were all about them.
- Makin some beer for their next party!!!!!
There was stirring all around me there. Little sqeaking and whirs, as if the heavy brush and golden dry grasses were a flammable machine. I couldn't believe how dry it was there. It seemed incredible that with all the potential sparks in the old barn full of rusted farm machinery, that this wasn't a place of eternal fire.
I felt stupid for having worn sandals and a dress, which little white "plant lice" burrs clung to. They were at first endearingly fuzzy, then infuriatingly tedious to remove. The gate at the bottom of the hill refused to close and every time I tried to fix the mechanism, a long whip of wild blackberry thorns sprung against me. They had seemed tasty at first, but a taste revealed them to be tannic and tough.
All the sudden, the brush exploded. A furry hare ran out and over the hill. It was startled all the sudden by the idea of being an animal like that with nothing but the fur on my back. I wouldn't even miss the strap of my purse on my shoulder, which I left at home and can feel with each little step the fear of passports and cellphones lost. The weight of having seems to be a human invention. Flies moan around a tree trunk, the smell of dead animals not wasted by nature. Something beyond the ravine is putting up a fight for life. The rustling grows ever louder, becomes a ruckus, a madness, a tumbling of brown fur.
The autumn is the time of golden grasses from those who have given up the gift of chorophyll. Decay comes not just with flies, but with heaps of brown soggy apples fermenting on the ground. There is little gleaning here, the fence is high enough that the deer don't bother. Though I hear the cooings of flocks of quail as they sneak away hearing my footsteps. Animals don't bother the citrus fruits much. Animals don't really like chocolate either. Except dogs, who eat it mainly to frighten their owners. My childhood dog, a great dane mix named Conan, ate several chocolate advent calendars. He suffered no ill effects, much to my mother's chagrin. He had thoughened his stomach with numerous expensive handmade Amish chair legs.
A squeaking here and there, a rush of wind and feathers, comes a little green hummingbird searching for the last flowers. Luckily the meyer lemon, with its grand life-pleasing perfection, blooms all year here.
There are citrus fruits for all things here. A woman who loves to eat the peel of lemons gave my cousin a tree that yields exactly the right kind of peel that you don't even have to sugar because there is no bitterness. I am cutting one here as a write, remembering as a child when my father would take me to the Godiva at the mall at buy me candied orange peel dipped in dark chocolate. I thought this was the height of worldly luxury. My father, after all, had seen the world and I had never even left the South.
But now those taste cloying to me and I shudder when I see Godiva in drugstores. There are very few things that are exactly as I remember them. They are chiefly the honeysuckle, which I can locate from miles away. In Brooklyn I found some growing on a fence and was instantly transported to summers that were hot to the point of sleeplessness, but idle enough that you could spend hours just slipping the stamens from the ends of the flowers and sipping the sweet small gifts of nectar. The Meyer lemon is a trick that transmutes into honeysuckle. Someone else says they are more like sweet orange blossoms. Others say that they are quite ordinary, but I suspect they have just had some shipped in a bin in the back of a cross-country truck truck.
And here are the kumquats…and lemonquats, I had no idea there was such a thing. I love these tiny berry-like round orbs called Marumi. I eat dozens of them, rind and all, like a voracious giant. I eat so many that the corners of my mouth start to ache as if I have brushed my mouth with pine needles. I have a weakness for small orange orbs, like the sea buckthorn I became enamored with in Sweden, sacrificing many cold afternoons to tenderly pluck the delicate orbs before the winter frost. When I plucked them wrong they fell apart in my fingers and I licked the opaque unearthly bright and embracingly bittersweet juice from my fingers.
There are trees for all purposes and unpurposes. Limes that taste of onions. Sour green mandarins with yellow stripes. Lemons that lack any element of sourness and instead taste hopelessly bland, but I'm told that the farm workers love to quench their thirst on them.
Buddha's hand citrus
Cavier-like interior of the Australian finger lime
I suppose these inexplicable obsessions might run in the family, however distant they might be. This citrus grove belongs to my distant cousin, who has generously invited my father and I out to stay and eat good food. My grandfather, who never talks much and never has, surprised us all and told my father about this cousin. We got in touch and here we are. We all are eccentric world travelers, with a taste for classical music, though there is some disagreement with regards to Shostakovich.
There are many farm workers on the surrounding lands past the forested valley, bent over in the bleak fog. The labor over barren lands drenched with methyl iodide that obliterates all things in the name of strawberries whose main merit is their pornographic largeness and ability to travel for thousands of miles without turning into a red mush. Mainly because they are never ripe. I haven't bought such strawberries for a long time, not because I'm some virtuous locavore, but because once I tasted the perfect ruby wild strawberries in Sweden that compact all that can be good into one thumbnail, it seems a bit like a waste of time to even bother buying them.
But this barrenness here gives me pause. I think of the red wood forest on my cousin's land. Its lushness is overwhelming. That would be here in these fields if it weren't for our taste for mediocre produce. I think of pigs my farmer friends in New York raise in deep forest. A pork loin seems much more virtuous than a salad from a plastic box, but I'd already had the bias for a while now.
The sunrise and sunsets are more about fog comings and burnings here. It would creep over the hills at night and linger under the sun's rays would burn it away. I missed the stars, but didn't mind when it framed the pine trees with mist in the morning. My father rose before me and said he saw rainbows. He showed them to me on his Iphone, scintillating in the sweet morning fog. I was asleep in the warm wooden house my cousin built.
The hills hold the remains of an apple orchard. Some of them are mealy, but there is one particularly wonderful apple, a pink-fleshed gem that I remember from Sweden. I would go apple picking after class in the agricultural genetics garden, fill the front basket of my bike with apples. There were so many wonderful trees thriving there where in Viking times were rushing rivers. Last night I had a dream about the plums that grew outside my house. They tree had doubled in size and the plums had hang from impossibly tall branches. I asked the sea king to fetch me some.
Upon a Viking boat grave by my house grew wild raspberries and in the spring, rhubarb for pies. I had nothing much to do but pick these things.
I remember the bags of Chanterelles I would buy for next to nothing at the Uppsala market. I would bike home with them through the pure green forest, surrounded by trees that could fill me up to the brim with pulms, pears, and sweet ruddy apples. But all I thought about then was booking my next flight. And like everyone else there, I filled the crystal clear polar nights full of crystal clear vodka. I frightened by Swedish boyfriend with my rancor against the winter we had in April. I suppose storming angrily at the sight of the weather report is never a good idea.
And some days ago someone asked me something frightening. He asked me what I would do if I could do anything. I had no answer. Not because I haven't thought about it. I think perhaps I've always known, but not wanted to say for being trivial.
I've been reading Big Sur and The Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. I ended up in Big Sur while in California quite accidentally I suppose. I had read about it once in National Geographic. When I was sick and bored in high school during Christmastime I once went through our whole collection of National Geographics. I made a list of places I wanted to go, which I have since lost, but I remembered a few. Iceland, The Faroe Islands, The Hebrides, Nova Scotia, Madre Del Dios, Patagonia, and Big Sur are some I recall. I suppose I have a calling towards windy desolation. Or perhaps to places that humans cling to tenuously.
And I've been very happy in those places. When I first moved to New York City I was miserable for many reasons and one thing that would make me cry was Icelandair ads in the subway, though some Delta ads for mountains in Japan also had the same miserable effect. I was infected by wanderlust I suppose, and still am. Not a day goes by where I don't dream of wandering.
And I'm not sure why. Even when I was in Sweden I often thought "wouldn't it be nice to be somewhere else?" Reading Miller he talks about those who don't have the courage for paradise "surely every one realizes, at some point along the way, that he is capable of living a far better life than the one he has chosen. What stays him, usually, is the fear of the sacrifices involved. (Even to relinquish his chains seems like a sacrifice.)" Miller says that "few have the courage—imagination would be nearer the mark— to make the necessary break".
When I came back to the city my taxi driver to the airport had a golden straw ring hanging from his rear-view mirror and a round ruddy face. I knew he was from Mongolia. Soon were were talking of the warmth of horse meat, the rich flavor of camel grazed on steppe grasses, and the incomparably thick milk of his country. Someday, I thought, I will buy a ticket to Ulaan Bataar. But I have the unsettling premonition that this is not going to abate my longings, though it is still important.
Miller describes "a man of keen intelligence, well educated, sensitive, of excellent character, and capable not only with his hands but with brain and heart. In making a life for himself he has apparently chosen to do nothing more than raise a family, provide its members with what he can, and enjoy the life of day to day. He does everything single-handed, from erecting buildings to raising crops, making wines and so on. At intervals he hunts or fishes, or just takes off into the wilderness to commune with nature. To the average man he would appear to be just another good citizen, except that he is of better physique than most, enjoys better health, has no vices and no trace of the usual neuroses. His library is an excellent one, and he is at home in it; he enjoys good music and listens to it frequently…but what he knows and does, and what the average citizen can not or will not do, is to enjoy solitude, to live simply, to crave nothing, and to share what he has when called upon."
And thus his book starts out in Arcadia, Miller having fled the city and a life of wage slavery. He describes the man with the good life and promises that good things come of his advice, but his story defeats him. In the midst of serenity are glimpses of other tyrannies he has traded in the conventional pantheon for: a miserable marriage to a nagging wife, difficult children, religious quackery, hauntings of unanswered letters, and one unforgettable chapter devoted to the houseguest from hell.
Strangely, it's a story I know very well already. Many characters have passed though my life who have devoted themselves to being good old fashioned self-made men. And amongst some of the most perfect places in the world they live with all they need to eat and drink, with quiet, with fulfilling livelihoods. Is it boredom that has caused them to surround themselves with self-made tyrannies? They care enough to strive and to seek, but they yield to very petty fights at the dining room table. How much happier are they than those of us who toil in the cities?
I sometimes think they could have picked a good wife and lived in quiet through the rest of their days, but perhaps the disquiet is their own.