Monday, June 8, 2009

When it Rains it Pours

When I was a child I used to pass by strawberry fields on my way to school. From the cool comfort of my mom's luxury sedan I would watch Hispanic families climb from the back of pick up trucks and join others crouched over the endless rows of berries. On the far end of the field stood the living quarters for the workers. The one story cinder block building did not have any windows or doors. I asked my mom why this was and she said, "There is no good reason why they do not have windows and doors. It is wrong. They should have them just like our house does."

As a kid, I used to think about what it would be like to live there. When we drove home from school there was always a good chance that we would get caught in an afternoon thunderstorm. I would look across the empty fields to the migrant workers quarters and wonder if the rain blew in to their homes. I would imagine the families all gathered on the windowless side of the room, trying to stay dry.

My life was so far removed from the migrant worker's reality. As a child, I witnessed how they spent their mornings five days a week and it really opened my eyes to a hidden culture of people living in my area, a culture built around food. Chef and I are members of the Slow Food Movement, which is an international movement that originated in Italy in an effort to celebrate and preserve the heritage and culture of food. A few weeks ago, a friend of mine and I went to our local chapter's meeting in St. Augustine to hear a panel discussion on food justice.

It was a rainy night, in fact the entire week before had been one continual thunderstorm. While Lil' Bit and I enjoyed this weather snuggled down at home taking naps and reading books, the farmers in our region had an entirely different experience. This once in a generation weather system caused floods throughout Florida. At the 29 South garden we lost a few squash and zucchini seedlings, but that was just a drop in the bucket compared to the farming communities across the state. I always think about how rain makes everything spring up out of the ground. For example, much to Chef's dismay, one good rain can seemingly double the height of freshly mowed grass in our yard. The reality is though, rain can actually be pretty detrimental to farming vegetables.

The rain can make or break a crop. In healthy amounts it nourishes the plants and allows for a great grow season. But too much rain is a bad thing. If the soil gets sopping wet, a farmer has to wait for it to dry out a bit before seeding his fields. This delay can throw off an entire season's crop plan. If the plants are already in the ground too much water can cause them to rot. Imagine what it would be like to look over thousands of acres of drowned plants that you and your work crew tended and nurtured for over half a year. No matter how hard you shake your fists at the sky, the weather answers to no one. Farmers are at the mercy of Mother Nature.

In our region, potatoes are a huge crop in the late spring, early summer. In fact, so many potatoes are grown during this period that for one month every year most all potatoes served in the USA east of the Mississippi are grown in Florida. These root veggies are planted and nurtured all year long for harvest. This year a freak weather system left a bath of destruction. Thousands of acres of land were swamped and the farmers in our area lost about $45 million dollars worth of potatoes.

Now usually I would just hear about this disaster on the news and equate it to a price bump in potatoes, but the Slow Food meeting put this event into a totally different context. Bill Hamilton, one of the founders of Slow Food First Coast said that thousands of migrant workers hired for harvest had no work because of the floods, and the farmers that support them with shelter and food were trying their best to meet their needs. This was hard for the farmers, because many had taken out loans to get through the grow season with the plan to make the monies back after harvest.

I was listening to Mr. Hamilton talk about the plight of migrant workers in this state, when suddenly the saturated taters brought me back to memories of my childhood. I thought about the migrant workers in my community in Southwest Florida. They had so little, but yet worked so hard. What would these people do if they lost the opportunity to work? It is not like they can apply for unemployment, or easily go get a part time job somewhere to make ends meet.

I began thinking about ways for the damaged potatoes to be put to use, so the farmers would be able to sell them. What if the school board bought them all at half price for all the 1st grade classrooms in the state to make potato stamps? Or they could use them as an intro to woodcarving for middle school shop class. What could I do as a consumer to support our local potato farms? The first thought that came to mind was to make a mess of potato salad from fresh local spuds. It is a small gesture, but a delicious one at that.

Good Life Recipe # 4: French Potato Salad / Ina Garten
*Ina Garten, aka The Barefoot Contessa, has incredible recipes. Chef always recommends her cookbooks to people looking for simply prepared, delicious food. This recipe came from her book, The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook.

Serves 4 to 6

Bulleted List
  • 1 pound of small white boiling potatoes
  • 1 pound of small red boiling potatoes
  • 2 tablespoons of good dry white wine
  • 2 tablespoons of champagne vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon of Dijon mustard
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 3/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 10 tablespoons good olive oil
  • 1/4 cup of minced scallions
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh dill
  • 2 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 tablespoons chiffonade of fresh basil leaves (roll the leaves like a cigar and slice thin, chiffonade means shred)
  • Drop the white and red potatoes into a large pot of boiling salt water and cook for 20 to 30 minutes until they are just cooked through
  • Drain in colander and place a towel over the potatoes to allow them to steam for 10 more minutes
  • As soon as you can handle them, cut in half (quarters of the potatoes if they are larger) and place in a medium bowl. Toss gently with wine and chicken stock. Allow the liquids to soak into the warm potatoes before proceeding.
  • Combine the vinegar, mustard, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper and slowly whisk in the olive oil to make an emulsion.
  • Add the scallions, dill parsley, basil, 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper and toss.
  • Serve warm or at room temperature.

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