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Wrote another post for the Portland Farmers Market Blog here.

A Planet Made of Fabric Softener

Spring – who needs it? In our industrial era, every day is spring. Spring rolls. Spring greens. Spring onions. Temperature controlled environments. Like Kurt Cobain said, “Nature is a whore.” Just kidding. Those peaches we get from Chile in winter are horrible. Have you had them? They’re scented rocks. I don’t care if I sound like a hippie: there is no replacing the native rhythms of Mother Earth. We need seasons. Seasons make food possible, like fall chestnuts and winter pears. And as much as I appreciate sunny central California for producing berries year-round, I’m looking forward to some fresh spring nettles for tea, rhubarb for pie, and summer melons.

In the meantime, think of all those imposters that are spring in name alone. A few visible offenders:

Spring onions – What are these? They used to be pungent shoots that came up through the soil when specific meteorological conditions rang alarms on their genetic clock. Now they’re a euphemism for scallions. You can get imported bundles of them for less than a dollar year-round.

Spring rolls – Rolled, yes, but not only in spring. The illusion is especially seductive during the dark middle of our long winters. The truth – meaning Wikipedia – is that “In Vietnam spring rolls, sometimes called summer rolls, is a Vietnamese delicacy known as gỏi cuốn. Depending on region, spring rolls were made differently. Spring rolls refer to the freshness of the spring season with all the fresh ingredients, therefore frying takes away that feeling.” See? Summer rolls. What a fraud, like me lazily pasting aggregated text into this post.

Field greens – Not always grown in a field. Same with spring greens. I eat them in December all the time.

“Spring breeze” scented laundry detergent – Maybe this smells like spring if you grew up on a planet made of fabric softener, but where I come from, it smells more like the cosmetic aisle at CVS, as well as the headache I get from trips to certain department stores.

Really though, the foods I crave aren’t ones that are ever in or out of season. I’m a product of refrigeration, globalization and grand-scale delusion, and I’m poorer for it. But I still eat well, because as much I love my warm weather fruits and veggies, the things I crave I can get year-round: phō, bean burritos, tea, chocolate, nakji bokum and doenjang jigae. Though I have to admit: even buried beneath jalapeños and onions, the hot house tomatoes in winter pico de gayo are usually godawful.

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Wrote another post for the Portland Farmers Market Blog here:

Green on Red: Christmas Tamales

December 24, 2011

When I told an old friend that you know it’s Christmas time when the tamales appear by the dozen in your refrigerator, she asked how you know when it’s Hanukkah time. “When there are eight tamales on your plate,” I said. She lives in Georgia now, but we both grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, where tamales are a holiday staple. I moved to Portland in 2000, but I still associate Christmas more closely with tamales than I do chestnuts or eggnog, and my need for the warm corn dish has only increased with time and distance.

Tamale from a cart at the Portland Farmer's Market

Many people in the Southwest know someone who makes Christmas tamales – a coworker’s mother-in-law, a friend’s abuela. I once met a male nurse at an orthopedist who sold homemade salsa and tamales to both staff and patients. I’d broken my elbow skateboarding that winter, and while he checked my damaged bones, I asked how business was. “Business is always good,” he said. “But Christmas is booming.” Those unfortunate souls who don’t have a personal tamale connection usually find a good restaurant that sells them in bulk. Even though he knows people who make homemade tamales, my dad has taken to getting his at a fifty year old family restaurant in downtown Phoenix. He buys five dozen red, one dozen green, freezes half of his haul to ration during the winter, and when I still lived nearby, he and my mom and I would eat the others daily from the fridge while they were fresh. Red contains beef or pork stewed in red chile; green contains a meatless mixture of gooey cheese, diced green chile and corn kernels. Neither he nor I eat the green. Mom eats those. To me, green corn tamales’ masa tastes too sweet, as if spiked with cheap white sugar, and the filling feels like a greased slug in my mouth. Because she’s my mom, I can forgive her culinary inadequacies.

My dad likes to tell this one tamale story. He grew up in Florence, a small farming and prison community in southeastern Arizona. It sits on the Gila River, which runs east to west through town and marks the original boundary between Arizona and Mexico, before the Gadsden Purchase extended the boundary in 1854. Florence is one of the oldest American settlements in the entire state. Dad lived there between 1946 and 1955, and his core social group consisted of his younger brother Eddie and about five friends, mostly Hispanic, like Eddie Espinosa. Every Christmas all of them would walk house to house singing carols. They’d step onto the porch and sing. Residents would peek through the curtains then come out and hand each kid a tamale. “And we’d eat it,” Dad says, “right there on the porch.” Then the group would go to the next house and sing and get a tamale. “And we’d eat that one too.” They went house to house and got so full that, when they couldn’t eat any more, they dropped those hot tamales into their pockets: “Use them as hand-warmers,” Dad says. “It was always so cold out back then, or it felt like it was. So we’d stick our hands in with the tamales and warm them up. Then later,” he says, “we’d eat those too.”

When I was a vegetarian, I had to refrain from eating the red tamales that I craved. During what I now think of as The Drought Years, I’d order tamales at a restaurant, and the waitress would ask, “Green or red?” Suppressing a sigh I’d answer, “Green, please.” Chewing that rubbery yellow cheese, its lumpy hulk nearly resistant to mastication, I always wished I could conjure the red chile flavor through force of will, just imagine it into being and onto my food by some sort of alimentary projection. The tongue has a memory. It does not have Jedi powers.

I should have invented a tamale-flavored gum by now. They have strawberry, mint-melon, mango sorbet, every imaginable flavor. I mean, companies produce squid chips. Red tamale flavored gum would be good for vegetarians who are trying to stave off their inner carnivore. For years I’ve been joking about making an enchilada-scented air freshener designed to sooth homesick Southwesterners.

The problem with so many vegetarian tamales is that they involve fillings that fail to capture the simple yet essential tamale flavor. I’m all for experimentation. Combine the unexpected, expand our palate, reinvent the wheel, go wild. But in my experience, New Agey flavor combinations involving stewed banana flower and parsnip, or thyme and spiced pumpkin, are not only hard to take seriously, they often taste like nothing more than a bowl of soup shoved into a corn wrapper. One veggie-friendly joint I went to in Northern California spiked theirs with sunflower seeds. Even by the most liberal standards, these were tamales in shape only. That and I’m a picky jerk.

I’ll admit: green is fine in a pinch, it’s edible, it’s just not my preference, and it doesn’t taste like Christmas. When it comes to music and food, I know you can’t argue taste. If you like something, you like something, and if gloppy, green chile-laced cheese bearing the shoddy, heat-lamp churro quality of state fair food is your thing, then who am I to argue with that? But one thing you can’t argue with is history. Consider the record:

14th century to 1521: Aztec culture dominates Meso-America.

1st millennium AD: Corn spreads from what would later become Mexico into the Southwest.

1848: the United States forces Mexico to sell what would later become Arizona, New Mexico, etcetera for $15 million dollars.

1889: The once svelte Germanic god Odin debuts as the remodeled “Santa,” a fat, elf-employing, North Pole resident, and after taking a bite of each of the two tamale varieties his elves brought back from Santa Fe, he bans the color green from his workshop and declares red his holiday’s official color.

A few Christmases ago, I spent the holiday with my folks in Arizona. Mom called Dad that afternoon and asked, “What’d you do for lunch?” I was standing beside him at the kitchen counter.

He said, “Had tamales with Aaron.” Concerned about my father’s health, my mother asked how many he’d eaten. “I had two. Aaron had six.” We’d only had three a piece, but they laughed at his joke, and I could hear her joyful cackle three feet from the ear piece. “Yep,” Dad said, “he needs to be stopped. We’ll have to reduce his inheritance by two tamales.” She said something I couldn’t make out, and with his nose crinkled up and face lit up in a grin, he said, “No, red. We wouldn’t touch your green.”

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Pumpkin Pie Is a Vegetable

Whoever first said “Life is uncertain, eat dessert first” has peered into my soul.

Parents, teachers, nurse-practitioner friends, they often worry about our health. Are we eating enough vegetables? Drinking enough water? Did we take our multivitamin? I do all of the above, and if I want a bowl of stewed cuttlefish tentacles for dinner, then I eat a bowl of stewed cuttlefish tentacles. That’s just my way. I don’t eat garbage – no soda, no fast food, no fried stuff or sugar in my tea – and that’s partially how I’ve justified my decade-long fall habit of eating pumpkin pie for breakfast.

In Japan, many people eat miso- and bonito-based noodle soups for breakfast. In Vietnam, phō is a common breakfast. Many Koreans eat rice porridge. My mom used to stand over the kitchen sink and eat frozen chicken wings that she didn’t even defrost. Eggs and bacon? They feel so 1950 to me, but I have to concede that breakfasts are what you make of them. I didn’t realize that pie had become my seasonal routine until my mom called during the 2002 winter holiday season to ask how I was doing.

“Great,” I told her.

She was raised in Queens, New York, and even though she isn’t your stereotypical Jewish mother, she does occasionally “check in” like one. “Not starving to death?”

I had just taken the pumpkin pie out of my refrigerator and set it on the counter. “No,” I said, “doing great. About to eat some pie.”

She said, “Pie?”

It wasn’t even 10am.

I’d been eating pumpkin pie for breakfast, every fall, for about two years.

Vegan pumpkin pie, that is. I should qualify. My breakfast pick isn’t the usual pumpkin-flavored sugar and cream confection that factories seem to squeeze from machines into pie shells by the millions each year. I’m talking real pumpkin. With vegan pumpkin pies you use silken tofu in place of dairy, and because my recipe aims for flavor and body rather than just sweetness and creaminess, you get more pumpkin, too. In the dietary calculus of my self-serving mind, this means that vegan pumpkin pies deliver more protein and vitamins than standard grocery store ones. Does that sound right to you, too?

Pumpkins are loaded with vitamins A and C and fiber. Granted, the silken tofu may only contribute a negligible amount of protein, if any, but it’s enough to secure the feeling that I’m treating my body like a temple. Really, my pies are probably only healthy by omission: they’re free of the saturated fat and cholesterol of dairy. Add to that the fact that I don’t use much sugar in my recipe, nor do I top my slices with whipped cream, and you have something on the “could be worse” side of the health food spectrum.

Admittedly, I used to smoke right after eating, which negates most if not all of a food’s healthful qualities, but that was years ago. I don’t smoke anymore. (Hear that, Mom?)

But seriously, pie: how did this happen?

Unlike the first time I tasted phō or drank pu-erh, I can’t remember the first time I awoke to a slice, but I can imagine what the scene probably looked like. I was a bachelor in 2000. A person’s sense of decorum unravels when you’re alone and unsupervised in an apartment. I’ve washed dishes in my bathtub and washed my hair with dishwashing soap. Single guys can really be a sad, feral lot. But from this eroded sense of acceptable behavior, new modes of living can arise, a vision of limitless possibility that seems to hold within it the power to alter the entire world. At least it does when you’re in your underwear. I probably bought a pie at the natural foods grocer, didn’t eat all of it at night, opened the fridge one morning while wearing just my boxers and thought, “I want a bite of that.” I’m sure I set the box of pie on the counter, forked out a piece. Then another. Even though there would not have been anyone there to notice other than my two cats, I bet I decided to be civilized and put a slice on a plate. All that scooping bite after bite seems foolish every time I do it, the way I’m always telling myself, “Last bite,” then, “Okay, this is really the last bite,” as I carve off yet another bite. Why do I do this? Militant increments diminish the pleasure of eating. “Just cut yourself a piece and sit down,” I always tell myself. So I’m sure I cut myself a piece and sat down that morning. (On the floor, since I didn’t have a couch or chairs back then.) Once I finished, I was full. I didn’t need to fix myself a supposedly “proper” breakfast of scrambled eggs or tofu or whatever quinoa/flaxseed/almond butter bullshit I was into at the time. I hadn’t planned to feast on pie. As with most of my bachelor decision-making, it was lack of foresight that birthed the habit. I guarantee that when I dumped that dirty plate in the sink, where it sat for a week, I licked my lips and thought, “Well, I’m definitely doing that again.” Now every time the leaves start to change color I think, “Awesome, it’s pie time.”

People I admit this to think it’s weird, but the older you get, the less stuff like that bothers you. It all reminds me of this John Wesley Coleman III song, “Bad Lady Goes to Jail,” whose verse is: “I drink, I smoke, I do what I want. I drink, I smoke, I do what I want.” Some things need no justification, thought if I were forced to offer one, I would borrow a line that a New Seasons cashier recently told me.

I was buying a non-vegan pumpkin pie for a dinner party the other night, and the cashier said, “Oooh, don’t you just love pie season?”

I told her about eating this stuff for breakfast. “I fact,” I said, “I bet I’ll be eating whatever’s left of this one soon.”

“Well hey,” she said, not missing a beat. “It can’t be so bad. Pumpkin is a vegetable, right?”

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Here’s my second post from the Portland Farmers Market blog, from October 17, 2011.

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First Pears, Last Tears

Eternal Summer of the Bosc-less Mind

While picking Italian plums in a friend’s North Portland backyard recently, I angered some yellow jackets, climbed up a light pole, and ingested part of what might have been insect larvae. Besides the rain and increasing cloud cover, the last urban plums provided one more sign that summer was over.

Remember summer?

I don’t have a problem with change. Although the end of things can make me sentimental sometimes – the end of romance, the end of a vacation – I don’t wallow in it. But for some reason, this year the end of summer really hit me hard. Why can’t we Portlanders live the golden dream referenced in that surf movie Endless Summer? I like pants as much as shorts, but do I really have to fish out my beanie already? As many wise people have said in numerous ways over the millennia, the end of one thing is the start of another thing, or something – close a door, open a window, etcetera – so I’m trying to remember that. Example A: the dwindling of peaches means the arrival of pears.

The markets have tons of pears right now. There are the bright, flavorful Starkrimson, and the tiny, super sweet Seckel. There’s the bodacious, curvy Comice, the variety which pairs so well with soft cheeses and that I always imagined would wear booty short were it bipedal (you’ve heard the term “apple bottom?”). There’s the aromatic red Anjou, so juicy and crisp and nice on a salad that I’ve actually woken up some mornings thinking of their taste. And there’s the boring old Bosc which I think of as a tree potato.

Despite my disdain for Boscs, I will eat any pear, but my love is not equal. (Will that make me a bad parent?) Starkrimson is one of my favorites. They have a floral aroma, and their smooth flesh contrasts nicely with their firm skin. They also just look gorgeous. That luscious red exterior is beautiful. Another favorite is the Forelle.

Not to try to be eccentric or feel superior to the uninitiated (my teenage self: “What? You haven’t heard this obscure 7-inch from this obscure band?”), but a few of the varieties that I think have the best flavors also aren’t the most widely available. Forelles are sort of the Northwest’s “secret” pear, which is unfortunate because they’re so good they should be dangling off trees in the middle of every American city. (Seriously, why is the Bosc the ubiquitous pear? Then again, why is white bread so popular?) For whatever reason – probably narrow growing requirements, poor insect or frost resistance, tendency to bruise in transport, and so on – their production is one of the most limited in the Northwest. Thankfully, you can find them around town between October and March.

Forelles are an old variety from Germany. Their name translates as trout, referring, mostly likely, to the way the pear’s freckled skin resembles that of a Rainbow trout’s. Forelles are tiny. They don’t have the Bartlett’s classic pear shape; they’re more of a bell. And their flavor is just what the pear snob in me wants in a pear: elegance, fragrance and texture without being too sweet. Maybe all I’m saying is is that there’s life beyond Bartletts. Just as I have to remind myself that there is life after summer and fruit

after peaches.

After an hour of picking in my friend’s backyard, I filled two plastic grocery bags with Italian plums. I considered turning them into jam, but I’m currently dedicated to marionberry jam, so I just ate them fresh. Also, it was obvious what I really wanted: to preserve the fruit in jars in order to prolong the season that produced them, the season I always tell myself that I love best. Then fall arrives and I remember, oh yeah, around here, every season’s good. Sunlight’s overrated.

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In the spirit of literary composting, I thought I’d gather the posts I’ve so far written for the Portland Farmers Market blog, here in my blog. As the inconsistent blogger says: why let material go to waste? Here’s my first post, from way back in October 3, 2011:

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Squashing

My favorite fall food, you ask? Hands down, the delicata squash. Admittedly, I love pears. I can eat pumpkin pie all day (and I do), and I look forward to fresh chestnuts with such intensity that summer can feel like a form of gastronomic tantra. Still, few things taste more like fall to me than this simple squash.

Named, I assume, for its delicate flavor, and given the –ata suffix to sound sexy yet sophisticated, this slender heirloom bears the green-on-yellow stripe pattern of a classic, 1960s Hang Ten shirt, the firm shell of a pumpkin, and the flavor of corn and sweet

potato. On the spectrum of popular squashes, it might have a lower profile than the ubiquitous butternut and meatier acorn, and sure, its name might not be as cute as the adorable sugar loaf, but the subtle flavor and creamy texture is what earns it devotees.

Some people seem to treat all squashes like spaghetti squash, carving out the meat and tossing the skin. Not me. I bake my delicatas whole, at 350 °F for about forty-five minutes. Then I slice them in quarters and serve the wedges hot, on a plate, like some sort of glowing orange, raw food pie. Delicatas do contain some seeds and fibers to be scooped, but there’s no need to ditch the skin; these aren’t prickly pear cactus pads. Once baked, the skin turns tender, offering those of us in the “skin-on set” a perfect firmness that yields to each bite with the softest snap. It’s a nice counterpoint to the velvety sweet meat which, when I’m feeling hyperbolic, I like to call “Nature’s mousse.”

Meat and skin, smooth and firm – the delicata’s combination of textures is as scintillating as its flavor, a mix far more interesting than ordinary old butternut. Sure, you can go the typical American track and slather it with butter, drizzle it with maple syrup, or sprinkle on cinnamon and brown sugar. Or you can season it with salt and pepper, herbs or olive oil. I don’t. Not because I’m so healthy (I ate a whole bag of dark Guittard chocolate chips over the last three days), but because it’s unnecessary. When you

get a good one, adulteration only hides the delicate(ata) flavor. To my mouth, this is one of those cases where less is more and the best approach is a hands-off one. (Though you should eat it with your hands rather than a fork.) It’s also one of those cases where, when I’m chewing, I realize that another sign that you’re getting older is when the flavor of a single, perfectly ripe fruit or vegetable can momentarily relieve the ache of being persistently single. Momentarily. I said the same thing about Maryhill, Washington peaches last month.

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