Thursday, August 31, 2006

On Ripeness..

I posted a quick blurb a few days back about eating wild fruit, and got a great response from my cousin Pete, a student of food who works in New York City restaurants. Long time readers (both of you) will remember Pete from stories I wrote during his visit to Hokkaido last fall. Pete is a great guy, his cooking is fantastic and even though he's only a few years older than me, his knowledge of what we eat and why is really impressive. These are Pete's thoughts on ripeness, which he allowed me to share "even though it's basically a paraphrase and endorsement of a book i didn't write."

Here's an excerpt, my favorite thought:

" Unfortunately ripeness has been comercially masked in america with waxes, colors, misters, etc. Americans have been trained to judge ripeness with the eyes. But anyone who knows and cares cares about food will use the sense of smell first, and next the sense of touch. How does the object feel in the hand? Even though the actual weight of a pear never changes, when it is truly ripe it has a certain weight in the hand that is beyond description. It is almost mystical because ounce for ounce it is still the same pear, but when it is ripe there is a certain gravity to it that it did not previously possess. It just feels right."

...and the whole e-mail below.


people are confused (for good reason) about the process of ripening, what actually goes on, what chemical reactions take place, etc, etc, etc. i'm unfortunately unable to get too technical because i still have much to learn on the science end, but for example, pears will never ripen until they are picked. the same with avocados. apples will ripen on the tree but i believe they will get sweeter after a month or two hanging out in a cool dark place. the sugars in corn will begin to turn to starch as soon as the grain is broken. the same with sugar cane. pineapples will soften when picked but will never get any sweeter. grapes will. tomato plants need to be stressed to encourage proper ripening. melons ripen on the vine and should only be picked when the perfume begins to permeate through the skin. once a coconut falls from the tree it's finished, it has to be picked just before it's ready to fall. etc. etc. etc. and you also have to take into serious consideration the terroir, the age
of the plants, the weather, etc. etc. etc.

but unfortunately ripeness has been comercially masked in america with waxes, colors, misters, etc. americans have been trained to judge ripeness with the eyes. but anyone who knows and cares cares about food will use the sense of smell first, and next the sense of touch. how does the object feel in the hand? even though the actual weight of a pear never changes, when it is truly ripe it has a certain weight in the hand that is beyond description. it is almost mystical because ounce for ounce it is still the same pear, but when it is ripe there is a certain gravity to it that it did not previously possess. it just feels right. this comes with experience and time. if you are at all interested in this subject you MUST read "cooking by hand" paul bertoli. if you can;t find a copy i'll lend you mine. the section on ripening is some of the most intelligent food writing
i've ever encountered (not that there's much competition) and his chapter on balsamic vinegar almost brings tears to my eyes. his perspective is based on the way that europeans love and understand food, and i might go so far as to say that it's still the best. europeans have really just had it figured out for a long time. it about the whole cycle of life, birth, maturity,
ripening, and the inevitability of coming to an end. the bitter and the sweet. becoming all that something has ever been and will ever be for better or for worse. this is basically what he's getting at and it really mirrors our existence on this planet, our connection to the earth, and why love makes all the difference.

check it out if you have time

Wednesday, August 30, 2006


I like self-concious books, books that give a sense about what the process of making them was like for the author. "LOG FROM THE SEA OF CORTEZ," by John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts, is a terrific example of this kind of book, one fully infused with the spirit of the events described. Steinbeck and Ricketts' actual trip to Baha, their thoughts and quarrels, the things they observed, the spaghetti they ate and even the landscape itself seems to merge into a single entity captured and preserved, like sea-air in a bottle.

INTO THE HIMALAYAS by Jeremy Bernstein seems like this sort of book. Originally serialized in the New Yorker back in 1968, the (relatively) new edition was extensively revised and features new chapters on Tibet and Bhutan. The new edition also contains a beautiful prologue, in which Berstein describes how he first came to venture into the Himalayas as a young man. Just imagine sitting next to the author, the morning after spending a night sleeping rough in the New Delhi airport, and looking from the window of a plane to see the mountains for the first time...

"The air in Delhi was as steamy as a sauna and large lakes of water covered the fields. There were not many passengers on the plane. Indeed, at one point we filled out landing cards, on which we had to state our purpose for coming to the country. The three of us checked 'trekking.' Some years later I obtained the government statistics on the number of official trekkers - people who had checked 'trekking' on their entry forms - by year. For the year 1967 there were only three - three! - official trekkers. They must have been us. The plane initially flew over flat, emerald, water-laden fields for about an hour. Then there appeared on the horizon what I, at first, took to be clouds. They were at an altitude substantially higher than the plane's. But they did not move. They floated, still as castles, in the sky. It finally dawned on me that these were mountains. I had never seen mountains like this. Despite years and years of reading about the Himalayas, I had had no idea that this was what they really looked like - giant, serrated castles of snow and rock soaring into the sky. To this day, I get goose bumps thinking about that first view."

Twice now, that passage has brought tears to my eyes. I can't wait...


The other day I walked up to the Common and spent a morning reading at the Sterling College library. Sterling is a small school offering degrees in Conservation Ecology, Sustainable Agriculture and Outdoor Leadership. It's the kind of place I would be thrilled to discover anywhere else, but since it's always been just up the hill from home, I never paid much attention before. Thinking back, the last time I visited the library was in 7th grade, when three of us got ourselves thrown out for using a razor to cut Absolut Vodka ads from the magazines.

Classes haven't quite started yet, so it was just me and the two librarians, a middle-aged woman and a pot-bellied old man with a white beard, thick glasses and suspenders. What a treasure trove! Shelves stacked high with books about everything from mushrooming to Himalayan expeditions to organic farming, piles of National Geographics, Orions, and Outside magazine...I settled into an armchair by the picture window and dug in to some Gary Snyder.

But I hadn't been reading long when I noticed a small drama playing out on the lawn. A sleek and handsome orange cat had brought a small chipmunk into the open and settled down to an afternoon of play, letting the terrified animal make frantic runs almost to the edge of the trees before bringing it back into the middle of the field and waiting, tail twitching, for it to recover enough energy for another futile escape attempt.

A dilemma. Part of me yearned to intervene, to run outside yelling at the cat, chasing it away so that the chipmunk could make it to safety. But that would be sort of silly. This sort of thing plays out constantly in fields and forests around the world; it's only the cat's nature to toy with it's victim and interfering would be a useless gesture. I had my camera with me. Should I go out and photograph the scene? Get a nice closeup of the panting chipmunk with the cat hulking, menacing and out of focus, in the background? And if I did either of these things, what would the librarians think?

I tried to go back to the poems, but couldn't stop looking up every time the chipmunk made a run for cover and every time the cat casually picked it up by the scruff of the neck and brought it back to the center of the lawn. Eventually, I laced up my boots and found the back door, just past the librarians desk.

"I'm going outside," I said brightly. "Just for a minute. There's a cat that's got a chipmunk."

"OK," said the librarian.

It was drizzling a little. The cat was lying down a few steps from where the chipmunk crouched in the grass, sides heaving, fur wet and mussed. I clapped my hands and said "Scat!" but the cat just looked disinterestedly at me and waved a paw at the chipmunk. The librarians were both watching from the window.

The cat was wearing a thin leather collar. "Nice kitty," I said, reaching over to grab it, "Nice kitty." Snatch! I had the collar. The chipmunk stayed put, trembling.

The rain kept falling. I held on to the cat. The chipmunk didn't move. The librarians watched. I felt like a fool. But then, one hop, two hops, the chipmunk started to move, racing for the brush about 30 feet away. Seeing this, the cat started struggling, first as if it was just a little annoyed and then angrily, indignantly, twisting it's neck violently until...the collar slipped off.

The cat lunged for the chipmunk, caught up to it a few feet from the brush and brought it back to where I stood, holding the limp collar.

The librarians were still watching. Maybe one of them owned this cat. It was certainly a fine collar.

Should I pick up the chipmunk? What if it bit me? What if the cat lept up and clawed it from my hands? My shirt was getting soaked. but I couldn't just throw up my hands and go back inside. I had to see this through.

I ran at the cat and grabbed it around the shoulders, holding on tight this time. The chipmunk, exhausted from its efforts, showed no inclination of moving. The minutes ticked by. Finally, the chipmunk began to limp towards safety. The cat writhed and twisted in my grip, but I held on. It was a nice cat. In all its fury, as the chipmunk hopped to freedom, it never clawed me.

There was a thick stand of brush at the edge of the lawn, and this time, the chipmunk made it, vanishing under the leaves. I waited a minute or so, then released the cat and went back inside.

"It's like a mini African savannah out there!" I joked to the librarians.

"Uh huh," one said.

Sitting down in the armchair my boxers clung damply to my skin. The cat emerged from the brush holding the chipmunk by the neck, limp and dead. It dropped the small body in the middle of the lawn and began vigorously licking itself.

Leaving the library I caught the eye of the bearded librarian. "Thank you!" I said. "What did I do?" he replied.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Coming Home

Earlier this year I interviewed an old woman in Cambodia named Grandmother Soch, a dignified village elder who had outlasted war, the murderous Khmer Rouge, famine, occupation and crushing poverty on her family's land in Kompong Cham, on the Mekong River flood plain. We first met while she was hip-deep in paddy water harvesting rice, and later that night talked for hours by candlelight, with her daughter interpreting as best she could.

The old lady spoke frankly about horrific things, like seeing people shot in the throat against the wall of her home, but the last question I asked made her angry, angry and sad.

"You've experienced so much history," I said after one of her stories, picking my words as carefully as I could. "What do you see for Cambodia in the future?"

"Khmer? Our nation? It'll be gone soon. It's almost gone now."

Her daughter began to interpret but the old lady kept talking.

"When I was young this was a rich place. All the food we could want. Now, just look. Dust everywhere. Forests cut down, rivers are full of mud, hardly any fish. No tigers. Cambodia is finished. There's no future in this land."

I couldn't stop thinking about this woman when I went back to my apartment in the smallest city in all of Japan, a place deep in the mountains of Hokkaido where the first Japanese pioneers arrived only 150 years ago. Utashinai, a name that means 'Swamp of Much Sand' in the aboriginal Ainu language, was once a boom town, but its population has fallen from 50,000 to 5,000 in the ten years since the coal mines closed. In the two years I lived there, the only baby strollers I saw were being pushed down the sidewalk by bent-backed old women too poor or too proud to use a cane. Here too, in one of the richest countries on the planet, a place and a culture were slowly dying.

It's been almost a month since I left Asia and returned to Vermont, and since then, I've looked at home with new eyes. Sometimes I feel like a tourist. Last week, my friend asked me why I was so excited to be in Morrisville. But leaving for a while and then coming back has made me appreciate some things about our humble corner of the earth. Vermont is a beautiful place, and the people who make their homes here hold values that are all the more important for their present scarcity. Vermonters value our close-knit communities, and nearly everyone I know in these hills demonstrates a deep-rooted respect and appreciation for the land. The fields and forests and ridgelines and rivers aren't wild, or even pristine, but they aren't manicured parks either. Centuries of sugaring and haying, hunting and skidooing, have worn and civilized the landscape, but not conquered it entirely. We've reached a nice equilibrium, a point where Vermont fits Vermonters like a worn leather pair of hiking boots. It's a good place to live.

There are a lot of people in these parts who think along the same lines. I've just read books by two of them, Bill McKibben, who wrote "THE END OF NATURE" and John Elder, whose book "READING THE MOUNTAINS OF HOME," which I finished today, is built on this acute observation:

"We have come to a moment," Elder writes, "as the conservation movement searches for a more inclusive vision, when the land and history of Vermont have a crucial word to say to the rest of our nation."

Right on, Mr. Elder. And to the whole world too.

Monday, August 28, 2006

How to eat Wild Fruit

One thing I've learned in the past week while visiting friends and walking the back-roads of Vermont is how to find and eat the best wild fruits. It's simple: Don't pick, pick up. Look on the ground underneath the tree. The ripest apples, pears and peaches are the ones that have already fallen, while the fruit higher up, at eye level, is probably still too hard and tart to enjoy. The "5 second rule" doesn't apply here. The fruit on the ground isn't dirty, and if there are a few blotches, just eat around them or wipe the skin clean on your shirt. Common sense.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Back to Blogging...

おひさしぶり。 Long time no write. I'm a world away from where I was, back in Vermont, watching the rain come down and getting up now and then to put another log on the fire. There are still mountains in Hokkaido to climb, rivers to wade and fish to catch, but it will be a few years until I'm there again. Two years on a relatively small island was barely enough time to get to know the landscape, let alone explore it to my heart's content. This is a great big world, and there are so many places to go and see. It can be frustrating to realize that I'll never get everywhere I want to go, but I'm going to give it my best shot. If one really could see it all, well, life would be a lot less interesting now, wouldn't it.

Home with family is always a good place to be. My dog is still alive, 16 years old now, deaf and blind, I carry her up to bed at night. My parents are too busy, but happy and healthy. Dad and I go on morning bike rides that end with a swim at the pond and yoga on the dock. Mom walks up to the post office to get the mail, training for our treks in Bhutan.

Vermont is a wonderful corner of the earth. This is an intimate landscape, villages folded into valleys under worn down peaks, forests grown out of old sheep farms with crumbling stone walls. The Green Mountain state is not an untouched wilderness, but it's a natural place nonetheless, not yet overwhelmed, where people are part of the ecology and appreciate the land. I find it so refreshing to live amongst individuals who take the time to understand the world we live in, and whose values reflect a welcome sense of intelligent proportion. People like Pete Johnson, the farmer down the road who started selling salad greens from his garden after graduating from college and now employs 15 like minded souls who run a community supported agriculture program, delivering locally grown organic vegetables, fresh loaves of bread and artisanal cheeses to families every week. I think that's just awesome.

Thanks to the folks who commented and e-mailed while I was MIA over the last few months. I'm lazy. I usually quit when the going gets tough. I won't write all the time and what I write won't always be interesting. But check in from time to time if you feel like it. There might be something worth reading.