A delicious and heartbreaking tale
of planting, cooking, and desire
Book review by
Cheryl Angelina Koehler
Gabrielle Myers, a young author who has lived and worked in and around the East Bay for the past 15 years, stands bravely at a weather-beaten intersection of art and life. Wind, rain, insistent sun, weeds and bugs, troublesome irrigation systems, and above all, the anguish of human relationships are at play in her memoir, Hive-Mind.
Published last fall by Lisa Hagen Books, Hive-Mind is rendered in a lush style intermingling journal entries and poetry. It casts key memories from the author’s past against the experience of nine months in 2006, when Myers stepped away from restaurant cooking to work as an intern at a small organic farm in Vacaville. That farm is now gone, but it’s one that some Bay Area farmers’ market shoppers may remember fondly for exceptional veggies like Sungold and black cherry tomatoes, Cow Horn okra, and Rosa Bianca eggplant, or the small deep-purple Italian prune plums the farmer would dry in the hot Solano County sun. It’s a story from here—Oakland and the East Bay foodshed—told in a small but strong voice from the heart of the local food movement.
Myers’ journal entries, the main structure of Hive-Mind, show a writer with her senses wide open as she seeds tomato flats and later harvests tomatoes that are splitting open in the summer heat. We hear the snap of the woody okra pods as she plucks them and suffer with her the itch from those spiny plants. The view is close, dense, and green within the fig tree canopy, where the ripest fruits are always out of reach. We shake with Myers’ frustration while she tries to sense from pressure alone if the finicky irrigation system is sending enough water into a far distant field or if the lines might explode in a torrent. And we grasp her wonder at the violence of the battle between predator and prey as raccoons, raptors, chickens. bees, bats, moles, and moths interact within the farm ecosystem.
A skilled chef, Myers also gives delicious detail to the daily fare the farmers prepare for themselves from just-harvested bounty: torpedo onion marmalade, Persian mint ice cream, or even rattlesnake fritters. She describes their parsley, “usually so common and mundane … [it] tastes more pronounced and sweet, green and minerally, like a mouthful of delicate grass pinched near a clear stream.”
And through the seasons, Myers notes the cycle of the farm’s Italian prune plum trees—from blossom to fruit—as if they were her totem, giving quiet strength through the endless human struggles.
For Myers, who now holds an associate professorship in English at San Joaquin Delta College, the book was born from poetry, a writing form she describes as emerging “from a break, a division, a rupture,” and which was the best way she knew to process the wrenching events of 2006.
“The book was necessary for me to write because I was haunted by what happened on the farm. I had to tell what I witnessed—it allowed me to come to a sort of understanding of what happened and how I reacted. Recounting the days on the farm also allowed me to own the experience whole; the tangled mix of moments of pure ecstasy in the natural rhythm on the farm along with the tragic outcome.”
In the following excerpt from Hive-Mind, the farmer and interns are planning a “Christmas in July” feast at the farm for their friends.
In late June, with the first flush of tomatoes, the eggplants’ bloated bells of flesh, basil leaves tenting out broad, and wild fennel umbrellas turning golden yellow with pollen, we think of a pre-harvest mid-summer eating extravaganza.
We pinch and gather the leafing ends of Egyptian spinach; each tip we place with care into canvas bags.
We plan. What’s in season here; what can we trade for at market? Baker wants ham; Baker and Farmer want lamb tongue; I want pie and ice cream. What can we use? What’s here? I go through lists in my head: what to cook; how to cook it; how to prepare it all in a logical sequence.
As we cull the Egyptian spinach clean of new growth, I learn that between the invited guests and their friends, we can expect a group of twenty. What to cook? With all these possibilities, what to pick?
According to my calculations, in order for brine to penetrate the meat I need the pork in my hands at least five days prior to roasting. When Farmer brings a huge bone-in ham back from the market frozen, I feel like the brine won’t be able to reach the bone in time. I hustle to cook and cool the brine in the outdoor kitchen, andas soon as possible I use my brine injector to infuse the muscle with the sweet and salty aromatic liquid. We have a huge tub, and submerge the ham in the remaining solution and weigh it down with a plate. Four days until roasting.
A few times a day I turn the ham, make sure all flesh gets adequate exposure to the brine. Once a day I take the tub out, feel for any hard still-frozen areas, and inject more brine into the muscles.
The day preceding Christmas, Farmer and I excavatea large hole she dug two years ago for a fish cookout. Apparently, she threw hot coals into the pit, placed a whole fish on a plank, lowered it down into the hole, and covered it in twigs and leaves. Now Farmer insists that the pit needs to be deepened another three feet to stop fire from spreading out of the hole, but I also need the meat to get enough heat to cook at a certain pace. We shovel out dirt, and cross and fix two rebars on either end of the pit. The spitfire at Oliveto had a flame rise in the back of a grill, and the meat would spin close to the heat and away, in a cyclical motion, until it reached temp. I’m skeptical about how our contraption will work, but I hammer the rebars into the sodden earth.
After harvesting Sungolds, eggplant, zucchini, and the first batch of San Marzanos for market the next day, we begin preparations for our party. Last night, I cooked and peeled the lamb tongue and beets; today I make thin slices and layer them on a platter, tangle peppercress against the slices, and drizzle mustard cream in broad swirls. Last night, I slow roasted some Early Girl tomatoes with sea salt and olive oil; today I grill eggplant and zucchini, cool and toss all the vegetables together with fresh basil, Greek oregano, and olive oil. Last night I made a plum mostarda with the plums Farmer preserved last year and some balsamic we traded for at market; today I mix in fresh fennel pollen I’ve harvested from the corner of Cherry Glen and Pleasants Valley roads. Today I cut potatoes Farmer picked up at market, lather them in a basil slather, and slow roast them.
But the ham won’t cook with the crossed rebars we set up, so I take the bar we skewered through the meat and set it directly over the pit, hand turn the roast every five to ten minutes to maintain the caramelized crust without too much char. Heat rises from our pit fire, rises from the drying earth as the sun hits past noon; I can see greenness evaporate and give way to summer.
At http://gabriellemyers.com find more information on the book and Gabrielle’s blog. Her gluten- and dairy-free recipes reflect her training at Oliveto and Boulettes Larder as well as her work at various catering companies.
Italian Prune Plum and Fennel Pollen Mostarda
In the dense heat of late summer, these sun-kissed sugar drops hang low from the plum tree’s limbs. At farmers’ markets, the Italian prune plums, milky with yeast, wait in baskets to be baked, dried, or eaten within minutes of purchase. If you cannot find the prune plums already sundried by the farmer, simply wash, cut in half, remove the pits (which are easily pulled from the flesh), and place the plums on a screen to dry in the summer sun.
Traditional mostarda takes several days to prepare and contains a significant amount of sugar. This version is quick and uses the natural sweetness of plums and balsamic vinegar as a base. Place a dollop of mostarda over roasted pork or ham, slather it over drunken goat cheese or Pecorino, or spread it over a slice of grilled sourdough. —GM
Yields: 1 cup
1 cup dried Italian prune plums, diced into 1-inch pieces
½ cup balsamic vinegar
½ cup chenin blanc wine
½ teaspoon crushed garlic (about 1 clove)
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1½ teaspoons yellow mustard seed
1 tablespoon fennel pollen, to finish
Salt to taste (about ¼ teaspoon kosher salt)
Place all of the ingredients except the fennel pollen in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Slowly bring the mixture to a low simmer and cook, stirring frequently, for 15 minutes. Then remove the pan from the heat, place the mostarda in a nonreactive bowl, and let it sit at room temperature for 30 minutes to cool. If there is any excess liquid in the mostarda, pour the liquid off, place it in a saucepan, let it simmer until reduced to a tablespoon of liquid, and then mix the tablespoon with the mostarda. Once the mostarda has cooled to room temperature, mix in the tablespoon of fennel pollen, and serve.
You can prepare the mostarda a day or two ahead of time, but be sure to store it in the refrigerator, bring it up to room temperature before serving, and wait to add the fennel pollen until you are ready to serve it. If excess liquid forms in the mixture as it is stored, simply repeat the fifth step and proceed from there to serve the mostarda.
Editor’s note: Tony Inzana, a “far–East Bay” farmer of Italian extraction, grows many types of fruits at his Inzana Ranch and Produce in Hughson, including a couple of Italian prune varieties. Find his stand at Oakland’s Grand Lake, Montclair, or Temescal farmers’ markets. inzanaranch.com