On the plants were strawberries, and in my hand was a basket. At first, when I crouched in the straw-spread furrow and reached into the leaves, I turned up young strawberries, the sour kind. Lately, food producers have been tugging at our understanding of the berry. My concept of a berry is a tiny, tart fruit. I eat them by the handful. At most supermarkets, the juiced-up strawberries more resemble apples than berries. You eat these fatties in two or three bites. Like peaches, they’re hand fruit.
Strawberries were also on the ground. Friday night’s thunderstorm had scattered them, had pelted my windshield on the ride from New York, and had, I think, caused the farmers at Sussex County Strawberry Farm to spread their strawberry field with hay. When I called the farm from Allie’s, I got a stern message: strawberry-picking season would end today at 2pm. We got in the car.
The city’s concrete and glass receded in my mind as we drove west. On Saturdays, I try to rout the memory of work so that I can relax. But those busy thoughts are firmly entrenched from five days of digging. How can I send them flying? By, on Saturday, making my cubicle the open field, my clock the sun.
I was sweating five minutes into the picking. After seven, my knees ached. It felt good, though I can’t imagine how a catcher crouches for nine innings. Weaving among the rows, I skirted the pickable part of the field, hoping to find a row of perfect strawberries where nobody had searched for a few days. The sun was hot. As a parasol I had the clouds. Busy memories fled to the corners of my consciousness. Better still, many of the sun-warmed berries went into my basket, and the best ones went into my belly.
A truck sells tacos on my doorstep at least once a week. My building’s door slides open, I walk out into the world, and there’s the truck broadside to the sidewalk, marigold-orange and grill sizzling. Deftly, the truck has parallel parked. I know because I have seen these food trucks wiggle into car-sized spaces. Deftly he has parked; every twenty minutes, a new boatload of people too tired to cook are coming home from work via the ferry.
In the past few years, Americans have developed a fierce appetite for Mexican food. Californians have long raved about crema and carnitas, and now New Yorkers and Philadelphians can too. Last September, in Philadelphia, I was thrilled when at a Mexican restaurant, Tequilla’s, the waiter whispered to me about an off-the-menu Oaxacan treat: grasshopper tacos. The tacos were grassy and nutty, pleasantly so. The tacos were a door to another culture, the Mexican-American culture, and I enjoyed how it felt and tasted.
But, zoom out. In the US, the general love for Mexican-American food stands in contrast to how in general Mexican-Americans are perceived and treated. Logic and Compassion tell us we’re out of line here, and so does History. From where do Americans come? One hundred years ago, the immigrants were Italians and Irish, the grasshoppers, spaghetti and potatoes.
Walk through Manhattan’s Little Italy, or Philadelphia’s or Boston’s, and you will see. (Less so Boston; the North End is only more slowly eroding.) When I go to Little Italy in New York, it is because Little Italy is in the way of Chinatown.
Little Italy is two streets wide. Its tenants and their descendants have dissolved into the population and dispersed across the land. Evidence of Little Italy’s erosion stands in Chinatown. On Mott Street, you will see a few lone Italian restaurants in the sea of Chinese shops. The impression is, to the new viewer, that the whole neighborhood was once Italian. The old neighbors have slowly moved out.
On a national scale ( for how else could I be eating grasshoppers at a latitude of 40 degrees North?), new neighbors are moving in. They are bringing red cooking and tacos. Sounds to me like a party.
Have you ever seen a purple flower and, feeling chancy, eaten it? The first person to ever eat an artichoke did. The artichoke (pictured above) little resembles food. To an unknowing forager, the artichoke’s bulb would as likely contain food as a tree trunk or a cloud. But tap that maple trunk and you have syrup, and stand under that raincloud and you have water.
Then, when the forager was set on eating the inedible flower, he or she has to get past the plant’s natural defenses; its petals taper to a spear tip. When I was harvesting artichokes in Emilia-Romagna, the spear tips often slipped through my gloves and into my skin. A quick prick–no, a puncture–and long after you’ve recoiled the tips stays with you, sending shivers down your arm, as if you’ve been sunburned or taken too much Advil. The shivers keep you up at night. Wine is the cure.
In June 2010, I was charged with harvesting a crop of artichokes. Unlike the forager, I knew about the choke inside. Here’s how the harvest goes. You walk to the flowers with a bucket and a scissors, along the tips of grape trellises, in the shade of apricot trees, past a few rusty shotgun shells, and to the artichoke field that opens where the vineyard ends. Here, the mountain curves back on itself. You see across the valley: squares of vineyard, crumbling villas on the high ridge, green everywhere, a sun somewhere, a farmer stalking in the nearest vineyard. He waves hello.
I snipped the bulbs from their stems. Mindful of the spear tips, I went from plant to plant, taking the last of the summer’s artichoke crop. I watched the farmer tend his vines across the valley. Shortly, the owner of the farm where I was staying came out and worked on the far artichoke rows. He was shirtless. His toddler son ran screaming among the plants. I worked slowly, drinking in the view, the breeze, and even the jab of a spear tip, a happy reminder of being alive.
Second, when the artichoke has been snipped, the bulb must be reduced to a heart. The unknowing forager must have stumbled here. (Did he or she first try to eat the outer leaves, or to chew and swallow the raw stem?) To get to the edible part, strip away the petals (more spearing) until you reach oily leaves that are mostly yellow. Cut off the yellow tip. Scrape out the choke.
Third, you need to rub the hearts with lemon. Acid prevents them from browning. The forager probably had no lemon (or vinegar), but if he or she ate them raw, as is probable, the first eaten artichokes were likely so fresh they were not yet brown. In parts of Italy, Italians slice artichokes thinly and eat them raw dipped in olive oil. We cooked ours. Here are some of the June 2010 artichokes staying fresh in a lemony bath while we finished prepping the others:
Fourth, cook the artichoke. We cooked ours over a wood fire. Sticks turned to ash in the flames (we used ashes to wash dishes), and embers were still glowing in the pre-dawn the next morning. Early, we drove the cauldron to a small food processor in Brisighella, the nearby town, and churned the artichokes into a coarse paste. For the next three weeks, we put it on toast. But, as he or she lacked a lemon, the unknowing forager was likely also short on a neighborhood food processor. Was that raw, scratchy first artichoke worth the spearing, the wrestling from the stem, and the stripping of leaves? As a knowing harvester in 2010 and a knowing eater in 2012, I hope it was.
You see through the front window two chefs making dumplings, and, taking this as a good sign, and also taking the recommendation of your girlfriend’s Chinese co-worker, you order them when the waitress comes. Soon you see the dumplings themselves coming. Here they are in their circular steamer:
Stranger to the soup dumpling, you pinch a pouch between your chopsticks. A dip in the dark sauce, an upswing to your mouth. So far a soup dumpling looks like a doughy bag twisted at the top. It smells starchy, feels like slippery plastic chopsticks, tastes sour and spicy from the leftover zing of pickled cabbage, and sounds like the lilting music of the Asiatic languages heard in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Now you pop that starchy sucker into your mouth and bite.
The dough ruptures; the soup gushes out. There is soup in this thing? There is soup. It scalds your tongue. You chew and swallow the molten dumpling as fast as you can. You feel a hot lump falling to your stomach.
Two minutes later you pick up a dumpling with your fingers. A dip in the dark sauce, a plop on the broad spoon, an upswing to your mouth. With a chopstick you puncture the dough and suck out the soup. Then you eat the dough and the pork meatball entombed therein. A soup dumpling feels fluid, gelatinous, and solid. The dumpling sounds like faraway languages. It smells like winter spices, pork, and ginger. To the eye, a soup dumpling looks like a bag of dough, then greasy drops on a flat spoon.
Below, you will see Shadow sulking. He has a tough life. He sleeps for 16 hours a day, he sees no colors, and his underbite scares off the lady dogs. He also wants his dinner. Dogs feel no feeling of fullness, or so I have heard. Ten minutes after he has eaten breakfast, Shadow, now asleep, springs to four legs and runs to the kitchen at the sound of me slicing an apple or twisting open peanut butter. Nine hours later, he sees his next meal: