by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch
A memory? My very first! I was five or six. My mother had snipped a few of my curls. I picked one up and held it close to the fire. The hair was burnt up in a fraction of a second. A terrible grief assailed me; I had learnt that I was perishable… What used to grieve me when I was a child? This insecurity of things. And what used I to love? My genie of iron! With a plow hitch I believed myself, at seven years, rich with a treasure incorruptible, everlasting. And then it turned out that what I possessed was just a bit of iron that rusted. At this discovery I threw myself on the lawn and shed the bitterest tears of my existence!
– Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (from The Heart of Matter)
If we are among the fortunate, long ago the big, long-simmering pot on the stove, center of the kitchen, gave us that bubbling merger of slowly maturing flavors which each nose was drawn to, which each anxious stomach was urged to pay homage to; gave us those abiding memories. Lift the lid and draw in that ‘love in the mist.’
Did it start with a recipe or is this one, today, that catch-all monday afternoon stew of tossed together leftovers? In France they call it a cassoulet (or for the Mediterranean fishwife Bouillabaisse). On my mother’s birthplace island of Puerto Rico there were several dishes to fall into such a category but for me it will always be “Arroz con Pollo asopao.”
Nose up, I remember being carried by the pimento and pepper marked, chicken-greased, soupy tomato ooze that coated a thousand swollen rice kernals with easy glorious promise. Those of us fortunate enough to have a family culture punctuated by slow cooking, whatever the dishes, know these odors and flavors are magic carpets which, in an instant, can whisk us to times of lasting comfort. Ah, the smells and tastes do trigger. How they draw us back to what Pierre Teilhard names as a time of richness anchored by a treasured taste and smell we ‘knew’ as incorruptible.
Today, we may together weather the mind-boggling worldwide tragedies of disease, loss, helplessness and confusion – but it will take help. It is a struggle to find some solace, some safe zone, some personal comfort even while we work to find ways to help others. Slow cooking, with the rich memory it creates and then triggers, this is one way.
Yes, we are perishable but so too are we lasting if only in our outreach to others, in our efforts to make someone else’s tomorrow a little less trying. And odd as it may seem, sometimes the best way to do that is to find diversion, to back away from the actual tragedy and offer shared experiences as rest areas from the pressures.
I go back sixty plus years to my childhood watching as my mother, all four foot ten inches of her, chopped onions and garlic and who knows what manner of green herbs. She swept them in handfuls from her cutting board and dumped them in the giant pot, half full of boiling water. Salt, pepper, cumin, rosemary, fennel, coriander, basil, oregano, and bay leaves were added. Then she would lower, into the pot, an entire whole dressed chicken. (Later I would learn that she had a Puerto Rican grocer connection, in Pico Rivera, where she could get cheap, old stewing hens or roosters. Under normal conditions these birds would have been tough and stringy, less than inviting for frying. But for her purposes, these rejects were better than perfect for they brought to the dish deep flavors.
It would be morning of the first day when she lowered the bird into the pot. After a half hour of boiling, she’d turn down the heat and cover, leaving it to simmer for an entire day. Only thing she did was to check it occasionally to see if she needed to add water. All day long we’d be treated to the waft of chicken soup smells. But this was not to be eaten that day, this was step one in a two day marathon of cooking. That evening she would turn it off and gather a couple of us kids to the kitchen table boning party. She would separate the chicken from the liquid, placing it in a big bowl to the side of the cooking pot. Our job was to use our fingers to separate all of the meat from the bones. Bones stayed in bowl, meat went back into the big pot of broth. It wasn’t difficult, after a day of slow cooking the meat would fall from the bones. Once we were done with this job, she’d cover the pot and set it in the fridge for over night.
Next morning she would put the pot of chicken stock back on the stove and bring it to a slow boil, adding whole peeled and chopped tomatoes, a half cup of olive oil, more chopped onions and garlic, more black pepper and a mix of mild chili powders which included achiote paste.  This she would simmer until mid-afternoon.
 Achiote paste: annatto seeds, cumin, pepper, coriander, oregano, cloves, and garlic.
It would likely take a psychologist to figure it out, but I am certain that these slow cooking episodes enflamed my otherwise uninformed desire to someday be a farmer. Was it watching all of the plant based ingredients being added gradually towards what was always a triumph of flavor? Was it a little later understanding that the old bird was key, that this dish just wasn’t the same with a young broiler or fryer in the mix; that somehow someone had to actually raise this bird and care for it? Why was it that I, a young boy, was so intent on understanding every little component and procedure for this recipe? Now I know how lucky I was to be subjected to ‘helping’ with the boning of the chicken four or five times a year for a dozen years. Each time I sat down and tasted this magnificent dish I could smile and know I helped, I was a part, I understood some of the mysteries of the flavors.
The next step in the cooking was for my mother to estimate the total liquid portion of the soup pot and add in, on a 3 to 1 ratio, long grained white rice. Too much rice and the dish didn’t work, you wanted it to end up soupy, ‘asopao.’ She covered the pot and left it to simmer for forty five minutes. Meanwhile she gathered up pimentos, which she sliced thin, and a can or two of sweet peas, and two whole avocados. She cut the avocados long and thin. These ingredients she put in the fridge until she was ready for them. Next she dug out of storage her beautiful red clay, covered, casserole dish. It was elongated and at least two gallons large with a pretty Mexican floral design painted on the lid. Into this dish she poured hot water, then covered. After she had pre-heated the clay interior, she poured out the water and rubbed it with olive oil.
The final step was to carefully spoon the soupy chicken rice from the big pot into the casserole dish. Then she folded into this the sweet peas. Almost done, she now placed the pimentos and avocados in flower shaped designs on the top of the rice and lightly dusted with black pepper. Covering the casserole, she placed it in the warm oven as we set the table and gathered the family for supper.
Thinking about all of this, and in particular us sitting at the table waiting for the lid to be lifted from the Arroz con Pollo Asopao, I am filled with gratitude for the safe carriage these sorts of ‘comfort’ memories have given me through a long life of hard work, poverty, triumph, and loss.
I feel a strong urge to share those feelings at this time. With the pandemic news, the “social distancing,” the most prevalent emotion I have is one of consuming empathy. I try to imagine what it might feel like to live in a city on lockdown, other families other people just past that back wall of your apartment kitchen. I try to imagine being separated from loved ones, frightened, in grief, angry, trapped. I can’t. I can’t imagine. What I can do is conjure up complex sensorial memories, like my mother’s casserole from many years ago, and feel them hold me safe.
“Social distancing” for us is pretty much standard operating procedure. We live a half hour from town and have no neighbors for five miles in any direction. On this farm acreage we can be as much as a quarter mile from each other doing our work. Coming from garden, field, stockpen, repair shop, the first thing we customarily do is wash our hands.
We aren’t in lock down, not until we go to town, that is. We are sequestered, if you will, on our farm. That’s is why I say I try to understand, to imagine, what it might be like for other sociable people, who by choice live in tight and dense communities and who must avoid contact.
This afternoon I went out to the field’s edge to service some tillage equipment before I would use it tomorrow. Mostly taking inventory, adjusting and greasing. Tedious preparations, but I enjoy them. And while I did I thought about my next work on this essay. About the subject, the dynamic of slow cooking – yes it is dynamic in an ambling along, aggragating, chelating sort of way.
Looking up from the grease gun I noticed, in my adjoining planting, the emerging spring growth. This was that land which I had planted last year to a nurse crop of annual forage wheat which was to shelter the perenial grass and sanfoin I had included in the drill hoppper. I had been disappointed when the sanfoin had not shown itself. But now, here it is, jumping up and ready for its first year of real growth. It dawned on me, this was slow farming. I had made the choice to gamble on at least a three to five year cycle. The Sanfoin should do quite well this year and then next it should really take off. I had made a wager with and an investment in a process that could run anywhere from five to seven or even eight years.
Now that’s slow, slow and deliberate. And – it’s intimate. It’s right here for us, and right now. And with its possible success it is an addition to the culture of this immediate farm experience.
Intimate: that sure goes a long way to explain some of the comforting strength of slow cooking. And though that intimacy speaks to its defining of a time and a place, that comforting strength is also capable of long distance travel in our collected and collective sensorial memories. It paints our cultures in long sweeping strokes.
But this realm of slow cooking isn’t limited to the past, it isn’t necessarily tied to strict notions of heritage. Sometimes it is simply born of the success of improvisations, efforts to make something from what is on hand. On our farm we have our own name for our variation, “Irrigator’s Stew.” Years ago Kristi found herself, late summer, with a lot of brussel sprouts and left-over ham. In a big skillet, with a very specific blend of vegetables, spices and herbs she allowed the cut up brussel sprouts and ham chunks to slow simmer. Her crew were out dealing with some irrigation repairs and she wasn’t sure when they’d be in to eat.
Later that afternoon, “Honey, we’re starved what’s to eat?” I asked as I washed my hands. She impulsively said, “Irrigator’s stew,” as though we would know it by its name. It was a big hit, so much so we talked about what she put into it, and asked if we could have it again. It has become a regular feature on our menu. I can smell it sometimes from outside. On a frustrating day of dealing with irrigation issues I can find myself hankering for it.
One family or one culture’s enticing stew aromas may not pull in people of another culture, not through sensorial conjuring least ways. There is the undeniable ages old power of the traditional. In Spain it might be “cazoleja” or “cazoleta” or Catalonian “estabousir” in Portugal it may be “Rojões.” (The minho-style rojões which often includes roasted chestnuts, blood, flour cakes called belouras or bolachos, tripe, pork’s liver, and boiled blood.) And in Indonesia there is the goat stew of Java called Tengkleng (made by the poor people who had meat specked goat bones to work with. It features a thin coconut milk based broth flavored by tumeric, galangal, lemongrass, cumin, coriander, garlic and onions). In Basque communities you might get lucky and find Marmitako, known also as Marmita, Sorropotún, or Caldeirada. It’s a thick tuna stew made with potatoes, tomatoes, chili, and onions. Then there is the finger food, Bunny chow, of South Africa and Britain, made with a half or a quarter loaf of bread that is hollowed out and stuffed with curry that has been cooked with kidney beans or meats such as mutton, chicken, and lamb: a dish with east Indian origins.
I like to imagine that families restricted to home-life will reconnect with slow cooking in transformative ways. In my youth the permeating smells of simmering Arroz con pollo asopao or cassoulet or roast meats or Adzuki beans with pimentos or home baked pies and breads gave my younger self comfort to my very bones.
If we do see such experiences evolve what does that suggest to those of us farmers who might still enjoy connections with our customers that allow we ask. “If we can do it, what would you like us to grow for you?” I know, that seems to go against the grain of farming as a business because such targeting breaks us down to micro managing and how do you run a farm that way? If you’re selling a small quantity of a unique item to a few people that’s a big investment of time and resources for a small return. But hold with me for a few minutes. What if such imagined evolutions are cultural in nature? What if you as a farmer are in some fashion connected with a pocket or community which has a rich culinary history. Creole? Arab? Jamaican? Bolivian, Norwegian, Sudanese, French, Japanese, German, Moroccan, Greek? Each of those ethnic origins are steeped in flavors and smells which offer their own comforts. And what we need now are comforts. Achiote paste and Jerusalem artichokes and black-eyed peas and cilantro and cattail roots. Unless you are a serious cook or have ethnic ties, herbs and spices such as mace, anise, fenugreek, sesame seeds, dill, juniper berries, cardamon, borage, chervil, mint, sumac. liqorice root, tamarind, garam marsala, may have escaped your attention. Depending on where you farm, these may pose opportunities to satisfy some of those ethnic diets I referenced. There are many others which may prove difficult or impossible but offer wild adventures in cultivation and cooking, others such as Quilquiña of Bolivia, Cassia of Jamaica, Amomum Tsaoko and Chenpi of China and Asafoetida, Ajwain and Kokum of India. Then there are more common but no less obscure beauties that offer to extend the stories of the long simmers. One of my new favorites is “Love-in-a mist” with edible flowers and seeds which when roasted and ground can be used to add that unusal “what is that?’ touch to your adventures at the stove.
But for this telling, each of these have been ingredients in those slow cookings which have comforted a wide variety of cultures for eons. And we as farmers should think about those we might grow to diversify and intensify our garden offerings.
In North America at least, for decades industrial food systems have pushed family food experiences to a narrowing spectrum of homogenized convenience. It is possible that the crisis we are entering may force an opportunity on us to reconnect with food preparations and ingredients. Think about what it might mean to the unfolding of your farm to have fifty families in a nearby community learn that you grow and offer a couple of their treasured heritage ingredients.
Supply and demand? Social distancing? This is a whole new age of uncertainty, global in scope. All of us are searching for ways forward. But for those of us landed small farmers the realities seem awkwardly spread in front of us, an assortment of jumbled piles of loss and retreat, of challenge and of opportunity?
Society and the human experience has changed. We will soon find out how much and for how long. For far too many, tragedy and immediate needs will decide the shape of each waking moment. There are some of us farmers, spread all round and somewhat self isolated, who understand or suspect that business will not return to ‘usual’ for quite some time, if at all. For us it is a time to re-concentrate on what needs doing, on how perceived changes ahead may alter what needs doing, and how to protect and support family near and far. Lot’s of whiplash thinking after observations. For example: How long will quarantines last and what restrictive forms will it take? Will there be a way to sell and deliver what we grow this coming season? What may happen to public farmer’s markets? Road side stands? Creameries? Cheese factories? Local markets? Meat cutters? Canneries? Processors of all sorts? Will the obvious lessons be learned and held?
And do all of the possible social changes point towards a change in what our customers will need and want? Will there be a dramatic uptick in demand for dried beans, potatoes, root crops, anything which may enjoy a longer shelf or storage life? Or will our customers want quicker and easier access to fresh dressed poultry, eggs, fruit, dairy, salad greens, and herbs?
In the terrible, taut but long weeks of lockdown and sheltering, opportunity and the new weavings of relevance have shown us the resolve and creativity that may come from such moments. Recent news comes of how stalwarts in many cities have braved contamination to tweak and tend community gardens, organizing tight schedules of pairings of people at different times all during each day, accessing the phenomenal comfort and affirmation of weeding, watering, thinning, and tending to small patches of fruits and vegetables.
And membership or CSA farms have taken to customizing delivery of regular food boxes to include a few other sundries. Imagine what it might mean to an elderly couple, locked away in apartment or house, to get a box of vegetables which includes a pound of coffee, or a gallon of milk, or a bottle of wine along with a note asking if there is anything else you might bring next time? In many places it is already happening, an obvious growth of consideration and empathy. A brilliant show of the smallest bits of best humanity.
Slow Cooking conjours up other things for me also. Like forge work, thar’s a case of slow work over heat. Or the decades long work with generations of livestock. Or the grand empathies we know come with working animals. Or like field work, slow work in anticipation of heat, growing heat. “Slow” and “Cooking” pretty much sums up good farming, good living, the pleasance of salving time.
It was a piece of a radio show: the Zuni native elder spoke in soft phrases, each a layer of its own. He spoke of 63 years of planting seeds. He told carefully of his elders speaking to him in the beginnings, of how all living things shared their nature, shared nature. And there it was, simply put. How it is that the best farming is slow cooking, is slow to cook. This man’s farming goes back before him in the handoff, in the tradition. And it will go beyond him now. All of it wrapped in the working knowledge that we are, each of us, parts of the wider nature.
Ah yes, Love-in-a-mist. LRM
Love-in-a-Mist is adapted to full sun areas and cultivated soils. It is also referred to as Devilin- a-Bush. This flower works great as a cut and dried flower. Love-in-a-Mist produces seed pods that can be dried and presented in flower arrangements. It will thrive during mild summers, but will not come into full bloom in hotter climates. Nigella flowers belong to the Ranunculaceae family and are related to Anemones, Clematis, Aquilegia and Buttercup. Make sure Love-in-a-Mist flowers receive at least 6 hours of sunlight daily. Seed should be sown on top of well-drained soils in the spring months, if your region experiences harsh winters. For temperate regions, the seed can be planted during the fall planting season. This flower does not transplant well. Blooming can be prolonged if the flowers are pinched back or if the seed is spread every 2-3 weeks during the planting season. The predominant colors in this mix are typically blue and white. Occasionally Love-in-a-Mist is available in separate colors. Both the flowers and unusual seed head look wonderful in flower arrangements, and the flower is edible. The original form of this flower N. sativa, also known as black cumin, has flowers that are not as showy, and is grown for its black, peppery, aromatic seeds that are used as a spice.