On Gleaning

Story and Photos by Cheryl Koehler

glean (glēn), v.t & v.i. [ M.E. glenen; OFr. glener; LL. glennare < Celt.; cf. OIr. dīgleinn, he gleans] 1. to collect (grain left by reapers). 2. to collect the remaining grain (from a field). 3. to collect (facts etc.) gradually or bit by bit. (Webster’s New World Dictionary)

The heat and dust of a Fresno Summer were as thick as the Elberta peaches hanging in David Mas Masumoto’s orchard the morning I arrived with a gang of 20 Berkeley Slow Foodies to harvest. With such a vast force of pickers, we easily stripped 1,600 peaches from our six adopted trees, packing them neatly into 100 standard fruit boxes—all before noon. Nothing else was planned but the long drive home, and no one wanted to get back in the car, so we passed another hour lolling about under the leafy canopy, renewing old friendships and making new acquaintances.

As this socializing mood settled over the orchard, I saw that one individual of our group was still at work. Les Blank, a Berkelean known best among local foodies for his 1981 independent film classic Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers, was bent down picking up peaches that had fallen to the ground. As I walked up, he was stuffing them into a plastic grocery bag, which he had found in my car. “You’re gleaning,” I remarked with some astonishment. His reply was a simple “I know.”

Gleaning is well documented in the Old Testament, I learned from my friend Anya Wayne, a food professional who is well educated in the Torah. She sent me first to Leviticus 23:22: “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field to its very border, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger,” and then to Deuteronomy 25:19: “When you reap your harvest in your field, and you have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow; that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow…”

Deuteronomy 23:24 adds that “When you go into your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in your vessel. When you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain.”

“If we were to follow these laws today, we would have a just society,” Wayne commented as we talked about how gleaning in Biblical times did not have the negative connotation it might be understood to have today. She noted that it can serve as a means for people to socialize, as it did for Ruth in the Book of Ruth (Ruth 2-4, whereby Ruth became acquainted with Bóaz, who would become her husband), and as it did in Masumoto’s peach orchard.

During the four-hour drive home from Fresno, I learned about Les Blank’s passion for fruit, and how quickly those gleaned peaches would be consumed. Most of his haul would end up on top of his homemade granola (see recipe below). He said that when the peaches were gone, he would move on to blackberries, gathered locally, and then to apples and persimmons from the neighborhood. Blank has his own apple trees, but that harvest he shares every year with the squirrels, the Berkeley deer, and the coddling moth (which is pretty much ubiquitous on unsprayed apples in California).

When I asked Blank what else he has gleaned in his day, he told me about gathering coffee beans at the docks in New Orleans during his filming of Always For Pleasure (1978), which is about New Orleans street culture. (The film is quintessential Les Blank, with food and music taking center stage.) At the docks, he found some of his Cajun friends gathering up coffee beans that had spilled out of the sacks as they were unloaded. After roasting in a cast iron skillet, the beans were brewed up into a fine, if rustic, cup of coffee.

Blank asked if I had ever seen French filmmaker Agnès Varda’s award-winning documentary, The Gleaners and I. Indeed, the film had been on my reading/viewing list for several months (along with Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma). With this endorsement, I moved the film to the top of the list, procurring a rented copy from Reel Video in Berkeley a few days later.

The film opens with images of Les Glaneuses (The Gleaners), the painting at left. When François Millet painted this scene in 1857, gleaning was still regarded as a traditional part of the agricultural calendar and a right exercised by the poor. But Varda shows us how gleaning persists into the present day, in spite of laws that society tends to put up against it. We see urban gleaners picking through the chaotic debris of an outdoor market and realize how often we turn a blind eye toward the people on the margins of society who salvage what they need to stay alive.

The film becomes revelatory, however, as it shows gleaning for reasons other than to stave off hunger. Varda interviews a Frenchman who claims to have eaten 100{94d79dd6af1e87a94e700e4c297236468333f22e27ed5757b44711974a9a4b91} salvaged food for 10 to 15 years—an employed man, for whom salvaging is a matter of ethics. The man describes it as activism carried out as protest against a culture of waste. Varda then extends the gleaning metaphor to artists who use found objects as their basic materials. The gleanings become “inspiration,” “a dictionary,” “objects that have a past—that are alive.” Artist Louis Pons tells us that, “the aim of art is to tidy up one’s interior and exterior worlds.”

So it was in the spirit of tidying up that I bent down the day after watching the film to pick up some wayward Romano beans that were lying on the asphalt below the Pinnacle Organics tables of the Temescal Farmers’ Market. I saw that the beans were unblemished, and so, glancing around to assure myself that nobody was watching, I added them to my plastic bag, and quickly handed my purchase over to be weighed. I paid for the full measure and walked away wondering why I had felt even a shred of embarrassment over rescuing downed produce.

As I “moved through the fair” (to use a phrase from English folk song), I came upon the cheerful world of the Happy Girl Kitchen. Its radiant displays of jars, filled with canned beets, beans, carrots, squash, pickles, basil pesto, tomato salsa, and strawberry lemonade were stacked among handmade pricing signs, which were painted on weathered scraps of wood. Behind the displays were several still life and landscape paintings (of a “naïve” genre) with Happy Girl Kitchens messages painted upon them. The proprietor was busy explaining to a customer that the bucolic scene in one painting was not, in fact, a representation of his family’s rural homestead—it was just an old painting picked up at a flea market, over which they had lettered their company name.
“Most of what we sell is made from produce gleaned from farmers’ markets—like this one,” Todd Champagne explained, as I hungrily eyed the pickled vegetables aligned neatly inside the bottles. “It’s all about saving food from the compost pile—compost should be the end of the line—our kitchen is part of the line—a diversion from the compost pile.”

Somehow, this statement came as a relief. Happy Girl Kitchen was restoring dignity to gleaning, and apparently making a profit at it. As I pried my way into the story, I found that Todd and Jordan Champagne had lived in a teepee for several years before starting the company. At that time they were managing the farmers’ market sales operation for Happy Boy farm in Watsonville.

“Those compost piles could feed a small village,” Champagne said, as he described their efforts to find homes for all the perfectly good but un-saleable “seconds” that farms produce. The seconds sometimes include whole crops that are in excess of market demand and produce that’s been harvested too late. Realizing that they had plenty of knowledge and experience that could be put to use in preserving the food, the Champagnes began production of their signature Happy Girl wares. They moved the operation into Watsonville’s old Grange Hall, a building “steeped in lore,” as Todd Champagne puts it, where they set about running the “smallest licensed canning operation in the state.”

It didn’t take long before the Champagnes were getting calls from growers who would rather see their post-market beets in Happy Girl jars or their woody, overgrown basil turned into Happy Girl pesto. But of course, success has a way of taking off into unanticipated terrain…

This Summer, Happy Girl Kitchen negotiated a contract with Whole Foods for three varieties of pickles—a contract that will be impossible to fill with gleaned produce. In fact, demand for their pickles had already grown so great that they were forced into “pre-emptive gleaning” of the cucumber harvest, as Todd Champagne puts it. Another odd artifact of success for these nonconformists is that they found that they might have to abandon the traditional canning jar if they want to market their certified organic ketchup. “Unless it’s in a jar that looks like a ketchup jar, people won’t believe that it’s really ketchup,” Todd Champagne explained.

As I visited with Jordan Champagne one Sunday morning at the farmers’ market, I mentioned that I could imagine Happy Girl Kitchen’s beautifully jarred gleanings being exchanged as gifts in the coming season. To this she replied that she hopes the jars don’t stay in the cupboard. “They are meant to add a splash of summer and zing to your dishes.” Here are just a few of her ideas on how to make that happen:

  • Cook toasted wild rice and, on the side, add a stir-fry of beautiful red and yellow peppers, eggplant, and mint. Sauté until tender and then top with pickled summer squash and goat cheese.
  • Try spicy carrots as an exotic accompaniment to lentil soup.
  • Cumin green beans can add some culture to your next potato salad.
  • Try arugula salad, toasted walnuts, goat cheese and pickled beets to delight your senses.
  • And of course, there’s the all-around classic: grilled cheese on rye with a Happy Girl dill pickle on the side.

Look for Happy Girl Kitchen at the Saturday Berkeley, Oakland Grand Lake, and SF Ferry Plaza markets, and at the Sunday Oakland Temescal and Montclair markets .


Les Blank’s Granola

Inspired by the recipe from Diet for a Small Planet, 1st Ed.

7-8 cups organic rolled oats
1 cup organic rolled wheat or rye

Place in a large roasting pan and toast at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes, until golden, stirring often and watching to make sure the grains do not start to burn.

½ – 1 cup organic wheat germ
½ – 1 cup organic bran
½ – 1 cup shredded coconut (optional)
¼ cup nutritional yeast
⅓ cup dried milk powder

Stir these ingredients into the toasted grains and return to oven for 5 minutes.

½ cup honey
½ cup olive oil
2-3 tablespoons vanilla (Les makes his own vanilla by letting a vanilla bean macerate in rum for a year or two.)

Stir into grain mixture and return to oven for another 5 minutes.

2 cups nuts (use local walnuts or almonds) and/or seeds (such as sunflower, pumpkin, or sesame.)

Toast the nuts and/or seeds in the oven, keeping each type of nut or seed separate. Each requires a different toasting time. Keep a close watch so as not to burn them. Add to granola and allow it to cool.

2 cups bee pollen
1 cup ground flax seed

Stir bee pollen and flax seeds into granola, and pack into recycled yogurt containers for storage.

Serve with yogurt and lots of cut up gleaned fruit.