Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Cuppa Joe

"Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.".........Casablanca, 1942
Coffee changed my life.
Without the 10 cent bottomless pot of coffee and the all night hours at the Interstate Pancake House out on Business Loop 70, there might not have been the "beautiful friendship" that evolved into romance, a wedding, and now, nearly forty years of coffee in the morning, coffee on the road, coffee by firelight, coffee on the front porch....well, you get the picture.

The coffee at the Interstate Pancake House had two things going for it: it was hot and it was cheap.  The mugs were truck stop solid with a permanent caffeine ring in the bottom; the coffee was an odd combination of tasteless and bitter, so much so that we poured enough of the soybean gruel they served up for creamer to fill the cup to the brim.
Dating Blake made me a coffee drinker...after a fashion.  As a broke college student,  I bought the Safeway version of instant coffee and boiled water in the kettle. Taster's Choice was a splurge.  Starbucks may have been brewing for half a decade in Seattle, but the coffee at the Union at MU still tasted of styrofoam and the metal urns in which it boiled from 7 a.m. til closing time.
I'm pretty certain we received a Mr. Coffee brewer as a wedding present: Mr. Coffee had been around since 1974.  But the pot must not have been real durable; by the time we were living in the little house in the bottom, I had a real "old school" drip style tin coffeepot sitting on the burner in the morning, gurgling away until we finished the pot or the smell of burnt coffee drove me out of the kitchen.  As a means of coffee prep, it would never pass muster with the connoisseurs whose beverage must be prepared and served at a precise temperature.  The pot lacked the comforting and fragrant bubble and pop of a percolator, a sound and scent indelibly linked in my memory to church kitchens.  But...we had graduated to three pound cans of Folger's at that point, which made the brew smell like real coffee and not something brown reconstituted from space age freeze dried crystals.  We were mainstream; we were solid citizens, bacon and eggs for breakfast and a steaming cup of "the best part of waking up" with the Wall Street Journal on the side.
 "Even bad coffee is better than no coffee at all.” ― David Lynch

So imagine my dismay, years later, when I purchased a blue can of Maxwell House coffee in  Nashville, ("good to the last drop..") in an attempt to serve the local grounds to some writers exploring the many facets of that great city, only to have my pot of coffee greeted with disdain by the East Coast opinion makers and consumers of the group.  What an uneducated naif, a tasteless provincial, a benighted primitive from the dark center of the continent!  After we got over the embarrassment, we succumbed to social pressure the next visit to a Barnes and Noble and waited in line for our first Starbucks coffee.

Anonymous Quote: “A cup of gourmet coffee shared with a friend is happiness tasted and time well spent.”

And thus ensued any number of pleasant hours in a short but golden era of bookstore browsing:  a hardcover for edification, some paperbacks for pleasure, a mocha or cappuccino to sweeten the scalding blackness of the brew and warm the drive home from the city.  Alas!  The bookstores are gone, replaced by browsing for titles at all hours day and night via Amazon and the featherlight medium of coursing photons.  While hard copies are rare, hot beverages have flourished, and we former consumers of Casey's go cups now search for coffee shops, not truck stops, as we travel.

Yes, after our penny pinching origins, Blake and I have joined the coffee aristocracy: a Bunn for full pots on Sunday mornings, a Keurig for late night cups of caf for Blake, and decaf or herb tea for me, a bright red grinder to create the strong brews we are partial to, and to entertain the grandkids while they "help" make a cuppa for their grandpa.  Finally, a SECOND Cardinal Red Keurig at the greenhouse for Blake's birthday: he's not the easiest person to buy for, but this gift is a winner.

Sydney Smith (1771-1845) said, “If you want to improve your understanding, drink coffee; it is the intelligent beverage.”

It was Sir James Mackintosh who said that, “The powers of a man’s mind are directly proportioned to the quantity of coffee he drinks.”
Black for breakfast.... or after supper.  In a combine .....or in a china cup. From contemplation to conversation, relaxation to reflection, coffee has been a thread weaving together the fabric of our life.

Flash Rosenberg wrote that, “I believe humans get a lot done, not because we’re smart, but because we have thumbs so we can make coffee.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Flowers for Mom

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Cake and Kohlrabi

Does anyone eat broccoli anymore?  Or grow cabbage for slaw, or Brussels sprouts?  (OK, so I'm not that worried about the consumption of Brussels sprouts.....not my fave in the vegetable category.)  The reason I ask?  Because flat after flat of perfectly lovely cole crops are growing in the greenhouse, not being hauled from Hurst Greenery to garden centers or grocery stores.
Late Flat Dutch Cabbage heads
 Nope, we've mostly had requests for Late Flat Dutch cabbage...and kohlrabi.  Not kidding!!  Kohlrabi!  Last summer, Millie tried repeatedly to interest anyone dropping by in the kohlrabi she had picked from her garden. No takers.  They may be delicious...someone told me kohlrabi can be used like a potato, but what I've read puts its taste somewhere between cabbage and broccoli stems.  Another source says it is sweet like an apple and yet another puts it on the vegetable spectrum between radishes and young turnips.  My interpretation of all these opinions?  One of two outcomes: 1) Kohlrabi has no taste and therefore is chopped up into chunks and used as a generic "mixed vegetable"whenever a mixed vegetable is called for, or 2) Kohlrabi is NEVER eaten, but grown as a curiosity by gardeners who just like something different in the row.  I do know that most of the orders for kohlrabi come from eastern Nebraska. Perhaps there is a great local kohlrabi cuisine in the ethnic heritage of our neighbors to the west.
Here's a Kohlrabi
At any rate, Charlie came up this afternoon for garden plants and carried off not just broccoli, but also cabbage and cauliflower for their garden.  He told me Thursday that the ground was hard, hard, hard, but he's hoping for some measurable rain Sunday night or Monday to help settle his new transplants.  When I drove home around suppertime, he and Millie were headed out to spend the evening in the garden.

He's not alone in wishing for rain even as the planters roll. Earlier this week, the air was thick and the sunsets wreathed in smoke.  Aaron and Gabe manned their machines to mow around the greenhouses, Gabe in his bucket hat, Aaron on the zero turn John Deere.  Both boys wore masks, but that did nothing to slow the accumulation of dust and grit in their ears. Aaron has mowed what passes for our lawn only twice this dry spring.  He's good enough at math to figure out what consequences a dry summer will have on the sum of his summer income.

Blake has spent an agony of mental anguish on our inability to grow grass over the years.  Neither weed, nor feed, nor benign neglect ( we are really good at that!) seems to make one iota of difference. The curse is unbroken in 2016.  Aaron looks more like Pigpen following an afternoon of mowing at Spruce.

 There's nothing like an outing to the theater after a busy week of work.  The Liberty Theater boasted full houses for both Friday and Saturday for a showcase of energetic and exuberant dance on the stage, applause and smiles and laughter and encouragement for the homegrown talent from the audience.  So many proud picture taking parents and grandparents!  I love being part of the crowd at the kids' events, watching them learn to practice and memorize, developing skill and judgment and confidence and grace whether the arena is sports or dance or a spelling bee or Battle of the Books.

Blake and I enjoyed a delicious and civilized meal on Ann and Matt's patio this Sunday evening: steak and seasoned potatoes and pasta salad with angel food cake and strawberries for dessert.

Speaking of cake, Thursday is Blake's birthday! Even though he's going to be out of town that day, the crew at the greenhouse has generously offered to celebrate with him in absentia ..with his birthday present from his mother, Millie's exquisite angel food cake! Blake does not appreciate our thoughtfulness nor trust our intentions and has already acted to protect his interest by scheduling a different delivery date for the cake..

..when he will be around to get the first piece.....

So wish Blake a happy birthday if you see him this week....

...and come out and buy some broccoli....

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Poison, Poems and Prairies

 He's young and slender and dressed all in black.  We're sitting in the 'green room' backstage at the Gem Theater at 18th and Vine in the historic Jazz District of Kansas City.  "This is Alex", the woman with the headset tells us, "And he's going to recite a poem." I don't remember the title of Alex's poem, but it was appropriate to the event being a lusciously descriptive list of the good things cooking in a traditional Southern kitchen.  He exhibits a cultivated intensity, attaching gravity to beans and collards.  We are taking food seriously too, having got to the theater early so Blake can do a sound check; this poem and a couple of chunks of cheese are as close as we are likely to come to supper until this NPR event, Going There, How We Eat, is over and we are invited for a glass of wine and some "curated" food at a reception across the street.

This isn't our first rodeo. The occasion is part of a live-event series for National Public Radio hosted by the weekend host of All Things Considered, Michel Martin. Kansas City is a logical locus for the  focus for this show: “How We Eat” will include both live discussions and a virtual panel of Twitter contributors.  It has been our experience that an invitation to represent the "conventional farmer" viewpoint on a "diverse" agricultural panel is a chance to be the "skunk in the garden party", as Blake represents himself to moderator Michel Martin.  The diverse part is readily apparent in the green room.  Here's the "tomato whisperer", who grows heirloom tomatoes and hosts tomato tastings.  There's a young entrepreneur who went back to her cooking roots after the 2008-9 bust left her jobless. The MacArthur grant genius and grand old man of perennial prairie grasses, Wes Jackson, sits down with us two unrepentant growers of annual crops to talk about the Fall.  No, not Adam and Eve.  The Fall, according to Mr. Jackson, is when one of our hungry ancestors scratched down to bare earth.  From that, 'twas but a wide and slippery slope to the cultivation of  wheat and corn and rice, crops that require the hand of man to plant, to harvest, to thrive, crops that turned humanity not into farmers...but "weeders" in Mr. Jackson's parlance. "I don't know why farmers don't like me,"he says. Yeah.  Perhaps it’s because you consider agriculture a 10,000 year old mistake leading to “soil loss and degradation, ecosystem destruction and high energy use”, while farmers like us tend to believe we marshal limited resources in an economical fashion, utilizing brains and technology to grow maximum food and fiber with minimum “unnatural’ inputs. Blake and I are not unfamiliar with his lifework and enjoy the chance to respectfully spar with someone famous in his field, even though I cannot help but think of the Wizard of Oz as we talk about being  “imprisoned by our technology.”  If there had been a genetic shortcut to a perennial grain, would Mr. Jackson have made that deal with the technological Devil?

 One of the other panelists describes herself as the "farm steward" of the  acreage where she "forages" for sustainably produced fruit, vegetables, herbs and other edibles to sell to her customers.  Nothing value laden in that description, right?  While she insists her intent is not to be confrontational, her description of pesticide use is difficult to construe as anything but antagonistic no matter how mild her manner.  Question: "As I understand it, you're critical of conventional farming. You are all organic...." Answer: "'s just very practical.  If I just say it out loud that we dump poison on our food or use poison to protect our food...." This is a person familiar with chemicals, with modern medicine. Yet she sees no incongruity between confidence in the science of today's medicine and fear of today's technologies in agriculture.  Growing organic and eating organic is certainly a choice. But it is not necessarily better for the land, the farmer, or the people eating any more than relying on homemade herbal poultices is a better remedy for my headache than a chemical medicine like ibuprofen.

No wonder a self proclaimed conventional farmer using every conceivable tool, genetic, mechanical, cloud based, can feel like he's being picked on.  Blake, the poster child for our version of family farming, takes advantage of every inconsistency in the arguments of the anti technology advocates to defend and promote two fundamental ideas:  1) that the ultimate goal is to feed people and take care of the land, and 2) that there will be a farmer willing to produce whatever the market wishes as long as there is freedom to do so.  This is a conciliatory gesture that most of this audience in Kansas City can rally to: that growing food and buying food and eating food for every budget, taste, and philosophy is far too big a challenge for but one set of rules.

 Michel Martin, the host, steers the group by asking questions that cut through cliche in a way that is pithy and not judgmental.  For instance, a question for Blake: "Why (would) you even feel the need to say you're unapologetic about it (being a conventional farmer) know, large-scale farming is in part one of the reasons why this country has been the best-fed nation in the history of the world". For Wes Jackson ringing the doomsday bell about  the outlook for an agriculture based on conventional crops: "How many years do we have left?"  About organic food: "How much would it take to switch to organic?" And I cannot imagine an audience anywhere but in the Midwest approving the notion that folks ought to know what their slaughtered beef looks like.  

 In the end, we skipped the line for the curated food across the road in the Jazz Museum, opting instead for a couple of sandwiches at the Love's Truck Stop just south of St. Joseph.  The wind whipped up a cloud of gravel dust ahead of a squall line visible north on I-29.  There were three cars at the gas pumps and two tables of huddled diners inside. Were the sandwiches we ate in the car at 11 pm as delicious as the tasty greens in Kansas City?


I remembered how one of the panelists complained that "food was just allows us to keep working.  We don't think of it as history or culture."  But that is exactly the strength and glory of our food system: It is big enough to do both jobs and carry them off well.  Some of us farmers grow cash crops to feed the makings of a chicken sandwich at a truck stop at midnight.  And some of us grow the chef's herbs for a meal savored and celebrated and memorized.

And a very few, like Alex, call it poetry.....

To hear part of the discussion, listen here:

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Is the Spring Coming? Come to Open House and See!

“Is the spring coming?" he said. "What is it like?"...
"It is the sun shining on the rain and the rain falling on the sunshine...”
When I do not think my own words sufficiently artful in pinpointing the feelings or painting the picture I desire, I do not shy away from adopting some from writers of a more poetic bent. I look up quotes...sometimes to reinforce a phrase half remembered, sometimes to express an essence I can’t quite reach.  What is spring?  It is yin and yang, the turmoil of the winds rushing now north with warmth and moisture, now howling south with the sleet and chill from lands where spring has not yet ventured.
“Spring work is going on with joyful enthusiasm.”
In greenhouse world, spring work has been plodding along for months on the more or less predictable schedule we set out when the plant orders came in: sorting a load of plugs, filling flats with potting mix, matching the cuttings to the customer, counting, always counting. To describe this process as ‘joyful enthusiasm’ is indeed to imbue our daily tasks with both more orderliness and nonchalance than is detectable in anyone’s attitude!  We have productive days and frustrating days, but one week before the equivalent of Hurst Greenery’s Opening Day, the greenhouses are splitting at the seams with a patchwork of texture and color.  We humans may be weary, but the burgeoning of spring will not be denied.
There was only—spring itself; the throb of it, the light restlessness, the vital essence of it everywhere: in the sky, in the swift clouds, in the pale sunshine, and in the warm, high wind—rising suddenly, sinking suddenly, impulsive and playful like a big puppy that pawed you and then lay down to be petted. If I had been tossed down blindfold on that red prairie, I should have known that it was spring.”
Even a mild winter in this hard hearted  Continental climate brings weeks of drear and dark and whining winds. The first hint of warming sun melting a heavy frost changes the scent of the land perceptibly.  The first rain releases the soil from bondage and pockmarks the most compacted winter walkway with the castings of awakening earthworms.
“It always amazes me to look at the little, wrinkled brown seeds and think of the rainbows in 'em," said Captain Jim. "When I ponder on them seeds I don't find it nowise hard to believe that we've got souls that'll live in other worlds. You couldn't hardly believe there was life in them tiny things, some no bigger than grains of dust, let alone colour and scent, if you hadn't seen the miracle, could you?”
“He smelled cold water and cold intrepid green. Those early flowers smelled like cold water. Their fragrance was not the still perfume of high summer; it was the smell of cold, raw green.”
“The point is that the pleasures of spring are available to everybody, and cost nothing.”
Ah! Now we come to the crux of the matter.  Indeed!  The pleasures of visiting our greenhouse this weekend for the annual Open House are available to everyone and are free, free, free!  Come see what we’ve been planting, watering, and caring for since February!  We have potted up almost 7000 planters, a total we cannot even believe. We are fitting each additional flat in jigsaw piece by piece. The earliest tomatoes are just about ready for those who feel lucky.  By Saturday, the greenhouses will be full to overflowing, not an unusual situation for early April, so, bring your camera, your phone...and kids, too.
Whatever the weather on Saturday, we  promise spring inside….

“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Seeing Red

 The red pickup is taking us north for the last time.  No invoice in the console, no trailer full of Hurst Greenery plants bumping behind us. Just Blake and me lurching across the ruts on I-29, fighting the loosey-goosey front end of this 15 yr. old warhorse and looking for its replacement on the Woodhouse Dodge website.

If I sound regretful and more than a little sentimental, you'll just have to excuse me.  When we bought this candy apple red three quarter ton four wheel drive quad cab six speed back in 2001, it was Blake's pride and joy.  We took it for a test drive to lunch and pondered the cost of new and red over our Runzas and onion rings.  Red came out the winner, and the old '94 Dodge retired from plant deliveries to a pampered future as Ben's main ride in high school.
The red pickup got the full treatment: the ball for the fifth wheel, a set of running boards, and a heavy duty grill guard which came in handy earlier than anticipated when Ben's practice session with the gear shift somehow left the truck in neutral.  The first object in its path happened to be a 1000 gallon propane tank.  While this incident has become legend in our family,  it would surely have gone viral had it occurred during the age of iphones.  Instead, the next owner of the red pickup will never know that the concave bow to the grill guard is the result of something less humdrum than your average deer/truck collision………. and way more flammable.

Who can account for all those miles? Thousands of them accumulated between Westboro and Lincoln or Westboro and Omaha with a trailer full of flowers behind it.  While I don't remember when the tire blew the rear fender apart, I can tell you with confidence where it happened: west of Lincoln and east of North Platte.  A map of the blown tires Hurst Greenery trucks have experienced would show a concentration of disasters along I-80 somewhere west of the 97th parallel.  Historians say the frontier began on the other side of the 100th parallel: truck drivers know the Wild West starts just a little farther east.   Blake and I tested that hypothesis one long summer day, loading our trailer with hardy hibiscus and deliveries scheduled from Denison, Iowa to Kearney, Nebraska.  I rode shotgun lo those many miles with my shoes off and my feet up on the dash.   It was a grand adventure…... driving historic two lane highways like U.S. 20, U.S. 30, and U.S. 6....for the first six hours or so.  Then, we began to get nervous, counting the miles and the hours til closing time....and blew out a tire.
That was long ago and far away.  Before the monster hail storm that shattered the windshield and cratered the brittle dash.  Before Blake replaced one befogged headlight lens with three or four self tapping screws (Hurst Greenery was built with cordless DeWalt drills and stays together with 5/16" screws.) Before the right rear view mirror collided with....something.  But after I broke off the switch for the driver's side door light with my tennis shoe one harvest day while I was watching trucks dump with the door open. After the fan began to scream like a banshee. After several election cycles worth of losing bumper stickers.  Whilte trip by trip the steering wheel lost all but the most tenuous of connections with the front end of the vehicle. The final insult was the salesman asking if we were bringing our rumbling old red Dodge to market on a salvage title.....this travesty about the vehicle Blake published a paean to called "My Cherry Red".  
Now there's a big brown Longhorn in our driveway.  It has all the electronic gewgaws required to keep my husband hitched to the outside world of phone calls and emails and podcasts.  It has heated seats and vented seats and lord only knows how many cup holders.  The grandkids are already in love because what kids love are new things. Levi tells us he doesn't like cars, he likes trucks and has a truck in his garage; Kenzie moved his car seat to the Longhorn for the short drive to church Easter Sunday.  Gabe and Abbie joined him for the ride back to Spruce for Easter egg hunting.

Live it up, Longhorn. Now you're sitting pretty in the driveway.  But in a week or so you'll go to work.  And the coffee will spill and the bugs will splat and the dust will pile up on all that fancy trim. The odometer will whirl like a windmill and the interior will be redolent of cold fast food, not ArmorAll.

Welcome home.