Red and Green Christmas Tomatoes

Friends:  Stop by Coastal Bend Health Foods this Saturday, December 3rd, and try our freshly picked red and green tomatoes.  Supplies are limited, get them while they last.

This Saturday is the Rockport “Tropical Christmas Celebration”, including a tree lighting ceremony and other events in the downtown Heritage District.  Coastal Bend Health Foods is a sponsor and offers some holiday discounts for you.  Come celebrate your tropical Christmas with garden fresh tomatoes!

Who Would Believe It, Tomatoes in December?

We are thrilled to have this last harvest of tomatoes so late in the year.   Many of our customers will remember the incredible production of tomatoes Four String Farm enjoyed from April through August, until the night-time soil temperature became too hot for tomatoes to set fruit.

We kept all our tomato plants in the ground and continued to water them through the hottest part of summer, to allow us to coax this autumn harvest from the mature plants. The unusually high temperatures in September and October unfortunately delayed the fall harvest, but here we are, finally, with a beautiful crop of December tomatoes.

Our first mild frost, a couple of days ago, ended tomato production for the year.  It is astounding (and ever challenging to your local farmer) how quickly our weather turned from blistering heat to frost this year.  Still, we have had an excellent autumn harvest.  The green tomatoes still on the vine will not have the time, or the heat, to turn red and ripen. So, in addition to ripe red tomatoes, we also have baskets of beautiful green tomatoes.

Why are These Winter Tomatoes So Sweet?

Our poultry and porkers take most of the credit for the wonderful flavor of our vegetables.  We pasture our animals on harvested gardens and allow them to eat down the foliage, add their magnificent fertilizer, cleanse the soil, and till the garden for the next planting.  There is no way to duplicate the flavor (and health properties) of vegetables grown in a pastured program.  We never use any type of chemical pesticide or fertilizer on our gardens–we don’t need to.

Additionally, we conduct carefully controlled wood fire burnings on our gardens (except during burn bans, of course) and work all of that wood ash into the garden.  Wood ash is a natural soil amendment that adds essential minerals to the garden: calcium, potassium, magnesium, manganese, and other trace elements.

The calcium and potassium in wood ash is particularly important to growing tomatoes.  Calcium helps prevent blossom-end rot, a common problem for Rockport gardeners.  Further, the taste, the sweetness of a vegetable, comes from the activation of potassium in the plant.  The potassium in wood ash helps the sugars activate and release in the fruit.  This activation creates incredibly sweet and flavorful tomatoes.

I love to watch my friends try these tomatoes, and see their faces light up.  Each ripe red tomato is a like a concentrated dose of summer, a sweet red taste of the sun on a cold winter day.  The green tomatoes are a tangy mixture of sweet and tart, a unique and interesting flavor.  Our green tomatoes make delicious chutney, and are just as good fried in December as they are in March.

Limited Quantities

I must confess, we have a limited supply of our December tomatoes.  Our season was cut short, due to the weather.  Further, Mrs. Butts and I have been busily picking and canning tomatoes as fast as they ripened this autumn.  When you live on a farmer’s wage, you don’t have a lot of cash for Christmas presents.  However, we have been blessed with a wonderful gift that is very rare in these parts:  garden fresh Christmas tomatoes.

I hope it doesn’t ruin the surprise for some you who are reading this, but at least you will not know if it is salsa, marinara, green tomato chutney, or one of Kayla’s other delicious creations, in your stocking this Christmas.

But for now, we are out of canning jar lids and are generally canned out.  The rest of our tomato harvest is at Coastal Bend Health Foods, waiting for you.  Stop by tomorrow and get your red and green Christmas tomatoes!

Okra is Not a Four-Letter-Word

017_20

I never liked okra, and that’s not my fault.  I had only ever eaten it slimy, deep-fried, and wrapped in a wad of corn meal.

However, my opinion of okra improved greatly when I learned to roast it in the open fire; to sauté it with onions at altitude; to spice the okra with some foreign four-letter-words.

A Vegetarian Trek

My distaste for okra surfaced on a mountain climbing trip in the Himalayas.  In a small village on the Beas River of India, I hired a guide and porters and horses for an expedition through the Rohtang pass to Ladakh.

As the crew prepared for the trip, I drank tea on a balcony facing the immense wave of mountains we were about to ascend.  The weather shifted on the crest of peaks from sunny white clouds to mist to black storm.

I had long dreamed of exploring those forbidding mountains.  I had a burning curiosity to know how food is grown in such impossibly harsh conditions.  It was difficult to imagine that humans could survive, much less cultivate, the brutal terrain rising in front of me into the clouds.

Our plan was to pack a few days of food and re-supply at farms along the way.  It was to be, out of cultural necessity, a vegetarian trek.  The porters loaded our supplies into burlap bags and metal chests and balanced the loads on two small black horses and tied it all down.  The guide waved to me and I followed them out of the village into a steep vertical climb.

Because We Have Much, My Friend!

On the first evening, when the porter opened a chest to prepare dinner, I saw a lot of okra.  There were onions and peppers and spices in the kit, but mainly there was okra.

The guide was soft-spoken and articulate.  He carried the novel Le Morte d’Arthur in his pack and sat to read every moment his work allowed.  I held an okra pod in the air and asked him why there was so much.  He looked up from his book and said, “Because we have much, my friend!”

The Local Food Movement

This answer is the expression of a good harvest in a farming culture.  In this remote land, all food is local.  When a crop ripens, there is suddenly very much of it.  Okra ripens with a vengeance.   We had chests full of okra in our camp because the green fields along the river far below were full of okra.

In America, there is an increasingly popular “local food” movement–people who strive to eat seasonal produce from sustainable local farms.  They are called locavores.

In the farming cultures of developing countries, and especially in the villages of the upper Himalayas, folks are locavores of necessity.  They don’t have continual access to a perpetually ripe and unlimited diversity of vegetables from around the world.  The menu is the daily harvest as each crop comes ripe.

A High-Level Cooking Class

At dinner, I received my first lesson in cooking okra.  Our camp cook was a culinary phenomenon.  His only tools were a small knife, a brace of spices, tin plates, and a diesel camp stove.  As a fierce wind howled around the tent, he prepared a dish of sautéed okra and onions and peppers and spices so good that I nearly wept into my tin plate.

After climbing all day in the wind and storm and sun, clinging to the footholds of some perilous cliff-face, shuffling awkwardly along a narrow path at the edge of an abyss, struggling to the top of a vertical rise only to find yet another ragged peak looming above, straining every muscle of man and horse over rocky impediments of the thrilling landscape, standing awestruck at the views from the tallest ladder of land in the world, lungs burning and body slowly numbing with weariness and cold; we were all very hungry.

The cook prepared okra in a different way at each meal.  A trick to keeping the harvest interesting is to employ multiple unique recipes for each crop.

One night the cook brushed the okra with oil and spices and threw it into the camp fire.  When he carefully pulled it back out, it was a vegetable masterpiece.  I leaned into the glow of the fire and ate one of the best meals of my life, roasted okra of all things, under the brilliant flickering Himalayan stars.

Teaching “Okra”

The Hindi word for okra is bhindi, which translates to ‘lady fingers’.  The guide would say, “Eat the delicious lady fingers!”  They loved okra.

I taught the porters to say “okra”.  They had never heard the English word okra.  They thought it was hysterical and practiced the word with much laughter.  When something unlucky happened, or a dark cloud rolled across the mountain, or a horse lost his footing, they would point and say, “Okra!”

Go Left! and Go Right!

One of the porters wore his pants tucked into rubber boots twice the size of his feet.  He weighed about 90 pounds, but could probably carry both horses fully loaded up the mountain.  All day he talked to the horses in Hindi.

I began to recognize several of his expressions from repetition and a certain sharp tone of voice.  I asked the guide what the porter was saying.  He hesitated and then said, “He is telling the horse where to go…such as, ‘go left’ and ‘go right’.”  The guide said something to the porters in Hindi, and they all laughed.

I asked him to teach me these commands.  Since I taught them “okra”, they agreed to teach me some good words in their language.  As we ate supper by the fire each night, I learned a small vocabulary of Hindi.

Unfortunately, the words they taught me did not mean “go left” and “go right” and so on.  They were the filthiest curse words in the Hindi language.  Later, when I got down from the mountains and practiced my “go left” and “go right” on the rickshaw drivers of India, I found out just how foul these commands were.

The porters must have thought okra was a four-letter-word.  So they taught me some Hindi four-letter-words as a practical joke.

As we climbed to the roof of the world, we depleted our store of food.  It was too cold for okra in the terraced gardens of our new altitude.  We were a band of roving locavores, so we purchased new and rare and wonderful vegetables from the farms we passed on the cloudy cold heights of India.  But I must tell about those vegetables another time.

Lady Fingers in Rockport

Now is the time for okra at your local farm.  We have much okra, my friend.

Prepared correctly, okra is a tasty dish—and very healthy.  Okra is rich in vitamin A and C, folic acid, and dietary fiber, as well as iron, calcium, and magnesium.  These vitamins and minerals are essential to the body in the heat of summer, when okra is in season.  Nature gives us exactly what we need, when we need it.  Local food works.

You can find cooking gems to grace your lady fingers under “Recipes” at fourstringfarm.com.  Look for bhindi with onions and peppers and spices, fire roasted okra, and frittata featuring okra.  If these recipes are not incredibly delicious, call me and we’ll figure out what went wrong.

Or, I will teach you to say “go left” and “go right” in Hindi.  When you serve okra, add that touch of spice to the dish.  But remember, okra is not a four-letter-word.

The Tomato Curve

Have you ever wondered why Rockport gets so many tourists in August, but so few good tomatoes?  The reason is:  “night-time soil temperature”.   

Tourists love to dig their toes into the hot sand of a Rockport sunset.  They want to sway in the warm night breeze as they bar-hop down Fulton Beach Road.   

However, tomatoes don’t like sand, especially salty beach sand.  That’s why they are virtually impossible to grow in this town.  And tomatoes simply won’t tolerate hot sand and a warm night breeze.   

Tomatoes are able to set fruit only when the night-time soil temperature is between 55 and 70 degrees.  This window of opportunity is the “tomato curve”.  Below 55 degrees, no flowers will form.  Over 70 degrees, the little yellow flowers turn brown and have no chance to bloom into tomatoes.    

In temperate climates, where a soft spring warms to a gentle summer, there is a long season for tomatoes.  The curve is rather flat.  However, in Rockport, the tomato curve is extremely steep.  The number of days between winter and swelter are few.        

Usually, by late July, there is not a garden tomato within 100 miles of Rockport.  Sometimes, however, we are lucky.  These last few days of rain and cool nights helped coax another batch of beautiful tomatoes from our garden.   

Heirloom Tomatoes, Four String Farm

So, finally, we can have our tourists and our tomatoes too.  But call now to place your order–they will go fast. 

And if you miss this last wave of summer tomatoes, don’t worry.  Our fall tomato plants are already in the ground.  But you will have to wait until September to enjoy them, when the nights cool down enough for the little yellow flowers to bloom.   

We are approaching the dog days of summer and the top of the curve.  Get your tomatoes while you can.  The autumn window for good tomatoes will open in about 50 days, 49, 48, 47… 

To place an order, go to fourstringfarm.com.

A Tax on the Love Apple

The tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable.  But we are taught from childhood to call it a vegetable.  Why?  Because it’s the law!  Don’t believe it?  Read on.

A Tomato among Chests of Gold

The tomato is native to the mountains of Peru.  The Incas were the first society to cultivate tomatoes, more than a thousand years ago.  They had it to themselves, because for most of human history tomatoes did not exist outside of South America.

The Incas traded their tomatoes with tribes to the north.  Eventually, tomatoes reached the mighty Aztecs of Central Mexico.  The Aztecs eagerly adopted the tomato and pushed it further north.

The first European ever to taste a tomato was Cortes, in 1519, while he was destroying the Aztec Empire.  Cortez was delighted with the tomato and sent a plant back to the king of Spain.

That hardy little plant introduced the tomato to the Old World.  Of all the Aztec gold in the bottom of Spanish ships, the tomato was the most enduring treasure.

Wolf Peach or Love Apple?

The tomato quickly grew in popularity.  It was carried along the Spice Route to the Middle East and Asia.  By the late 1700’s, tomatoes were used in cooking throughout the world; everywhere, that is, except America.

Ironically, back in the English Colonies of North America, tomatoes were thought to be highly poisonous.  Thanks to Indian farmers, tomato plants literally grew wild.  However, colonists cleared the dreaded tomato from their fields before they planted crops.  They believed a tomato, if consumed, would bring rapid agonizing death.  This fear inspired colonists to call the tomato a wolf peach.   

We think of Italians as the early innovators of tomato sauce; not so.  The Incas and Aztecs brewed tomato sauce (with peppers and spices) some 500 years before the Italians.  Italy received tomatoes from Spain, thanks to Cortez.

The French also took the tomato from Spain.  The French believed tomatoes were a red juicy aphrodisiac.  They called them “love apples” and instantly fused the tomato into their cooking.  The French, who need no excuse, will use any excuse.

A French Breakfast

The French served tomatoes for breakfast, to set a tone of passion for the day.  That is why, to this day, a French breakfast is bacon, croissant, and tomato. 

This amorous linkage caused the British to suppress the tomato.  The perennially uptight British would not take any excuse for passion, especially at breakfast.  Besides, England and France had been at war too long for the British to take a love apple.

Jefferson in Paris

In the 1780’s, Thomas Jefferson was the American Ambassador to France.  He was amazed to discover in Paris that tomatoes were not poisonous at all.

Jefferson loved France and all things French.  And he absolutely hated the British.  What better way to honor the French, snub the British, and serve the American people, than to bring home the tomato?  So, he re-introduced the tomato to America.

Jefferson was a statesman, philosopher, and scientist.  He was also one of the great farmers in American history.  He planted tomatoes in his Monticello garden and mailed seeds to leading farmers across the United States.  He promoted the tomato in America for the rest of his life.

What Cortez took away, Jefferson brought home.

The President offers a Love Apple

When Jefferson became president, he routinely served tomatoes in the White House.  Americans at the table would marvel as the president consumed huge quantities of wolf peaches, and lived.

Jefferson loved to tweak the British Ambassador; his rudeness to the ambassador was legendary.  At the first state dinner for the British Ambassador, Jefferson answered the door in his pajamas!

At dinner, Jefferson offered the ambassador’s wife a big, delicious love apple.  And when she refused, he spoke at length about the sumptuous, voluptuous import from France!

The ambassador wrote bitter complaining letters to King George about Jefferson.  He simply couldn’t get over the bathrobe and the love apple.  The outrage!  The scandal!  The Ambassador was eventually recalled.  How can a simple farmer not appreciate Thomas Jefferson?

The Tomato on Trial!

Thanks largely to Jefferson’s private marketing campaign, tomatoes became very popular in the US.   By the 1880’s, demand far outpaced US production, and tomato imports steadily increased.  Ketchup and tomato soup (new foods to America) were becoming popular.  Tomato sales soared.

In the Tariff Act of 1883, Congress dramatically increased taxes on imported vegetables.  President Chester Arthur supported these taxes to protect American business from foreign competition.  However, due to special interest lobbyists, fruit was not taxed at all.

Roma Grape Tomatoes, Four String Farm

A tomato importer named John Nix classified his tomatoes as “fruit”, the appropriate botanical classification, to avoid the tax.  The government insisted on collecting the tax anyway.  Nix sued.  The case went all the way to the Supreme Court.

Believe it or not, the Court ruled that even though the tomato is in fact a fruit, for purposes of the tax it should be considered a vegetable!  Goodbye love apple, hello tomato tax.

That Supreme Court ruling is the reason we call the tomato a vegetable.  It is the law of the land!

Rockport Love Apples

The good news is that Chester Arthur’s tomato tax is history.  However, Jefferson’s tomato is not.

You may call them love apples.  You may even call them wolf peaches.  You only need to call Four String Farm to have them delivered.  Honor your tomato tax freedom and order a tomato today!

Go to fourstringfarm.com to make an order.

The Three Sisters

Tres Hermanas means “the three sisters”.  The sisters are corn, beans, and squash.

Three sisters gardening is a method of companion planting developed by Native American Indians more than 1,000 years ago.  The method was once, and is now again, a secret.  But the secret should be told, because the sisters are a beautiful gift.

Three Sisters in the Garden:

Three Sisters, early growth

Long ago, Indians learned to clear a patch of ground and mound the dirt into rows.  They planted seeds of corn, beans, and squash in the center of each mound.

As they grew, the beans climbed up the corn stalk while the squash covered the soil as living green mulch.   The beauty of the garden is the simplicity, the density, the ease of maintenance.  Primitive farmers must have such a garden.

Three Sisters as an Organic Method:

Tres Hermanas is an ingenious method of planting.  Beans are a nitrogen fixer; they convert CO2 to nitrogen in the soil.  Simply by growing, the beans fertilize the corn and squash.  The corn provides a trellis for the beans and the squash prevents weeds and regulates soil temperature and moisture.

The root structures do not compete and the plants do not crowd one other.  They strengthen and support each other.

Their compatibility maximizes the impact of organic farming methods.  Native Americans grew a tremendous amount of food on these small patches of ground without any synthetic pesticides or fertilizers for more than 1,000 years.  The Indians survived on these gardens.

Three Sisters in the Body:

Corn is rich in carbohydrates; beans are packed with protein; squash contains large doses of vitamin A and other nutrients.  The three together provide a balanced and nutritious meal.

What’s more, corn, beans, and squash are intended by nature to be eaten together.  Certain vitamin, mineral, and amino compounds in these vegetables are unlocked or enhanced only when eaten together.  The sisters continue to give their gifts, even in the body.

Three Sisters in American History:

Native Americans invented, or innovated, this method of companion planting while Europeans were still in the Dark Age.  Much Indian lore and mythology rose around the sisters.  But I am not so interested in lore.  I care about growing delicious food.

The European settlers in early America cared a great deal about growing food.  The autumn harvest could offer another season of life; or a slow painful death of starvation in the wilds.

Each Thanksgiving, we celebrate the story of Indians providing food to the Pilgrims to nourish them through the winter.  The food the Indians gave was corn, beans, and squash.

However, the real gift, the profound life-saving gift, that Indians shared with the settlers was the secret of the three sisters.  Companion planting enabled pioneer settlements, from Jamestown to Plymouth Rock, to vastly increase their food production.  Tres Hermanas is the untold story of Thanksgiving.

Three Sisters Lost in America:

Four String Wasp, killing caterpillar

Pioneers brought companion planting west (where it had actually existed for a millennium) as they settled the land.  Tres Hermanas was cultivated in America well into the 1900’s.  However, we lost the three sisters when agriculture became ‘agribusiness’.

Why did we lose it?  Machine harvesting is impossible with companion planting.  No combine was ever invented that can separate the sisters.  Also, the sisters ripen over a long period.  While this deliberate ripening process was essential to the survival of Indians and pioneers, it is a cardinal sin in modern agriculture.  In agribusiness, a crop must be efficiently reaped in hours, or minutes.

Further, the sisters must be planted among trees.  Grasshoppers and caterpillars can quickly devastate the harvest.  The birds and wasps that naturally control these pests must have a sanctuary of trees from which to hunt.  Try to find a tree on a conventional farm.

Your Four String farmer has more than 30 popular books on organic farming stacked on the bookshelf.  However, not one book provides any of the details around Tres Hermanas companion planting that you have just read.  The secret of the sisters has been lost.

Three Sisters in Rockport:

Four String Farm, pick of the day

The three sisters still exist, however, here in town, on a patch of ground cleared among the trees.  The sisters provide nourishment to my family every day.

Tres Hermanas can nourish your family as well.  The gifts of the sisters are meant to be shared.

We deliver farm fresh food to your door in Rockport (minimum $20 order).  Or, look for us at the Rockport Farmer’s Market.  Or come out to the farm and feel the sun and stand in the soil where the sisters offer their gift.

Who Wants to be a Square Tomato?

Cluster of Roma Grape Tomatoes at Four String Farm, almost ripe

What do you want to be when you grow up?  This is a great question, especially if you are a tomato.  

I ask my tomatoes this question from the time they are seeds.  Even before, when I am preparing the soil for the tiny little seed, I think of this question:  what do you want to be?    

My tomatoes always answer the same way:  “I want to be DELICIOUS!”    

But unfortunately, not all tomatoes think this way.  Take the tomatoes you see on the grocery shelf.  These tomatoes, raised by agribusiness, have other priorities.    

Conventionally grown tomatoes are designed to ripen simultaneously and at the same size, for ease of machine harvesting.  They are bred to have a tough skin, to survive rough handling and a long transport.        

They are engineered to withstand the harsh chemical fertilizers and pesticides applied to them.  They are picked early to make the average 1,500 mile trip from Mexico or South America all the way to the grocery shelf in Rockport, TX.    

And yes, conventional tomatoes are designed to be roughly square-shaped, to fit more tomatoes in the shipping crate!     

What kind of tomato grows up wanting to be square?  Where does “delicious” even rank on the agribusiness list of priorities?    

Our tomatoes only want to be delicious.  They also happen to be very fresh and very healthy, but they can’t help it—nature made them that way.    

We deliver our farm fresh food to your door in Rockport (minimum $20 order).  Or, look for the Four String Farm booth at the Rockport Farmer’s Market.  Or come out to the farm and pick the tomatoes yourself.  They are red, beautiful, delicious, and round!

A Love Letter to the Onion Man

The tops of our 1015 sweet onions are beginning to lean over.  They are ready to harvest.  These onions are very special.

When I told a chef friend of mine that we have 1015 onions in the garden, she became very excited and demanded exclusive rights to all our 1015 forever.  Then she told me about her love letter to the onion man. 

Commercial onion production in Texas began around 1900.  In those days, the onion seeds were imported from Teneriffe in the Canary Islands.  Soon, Texans began to develop and improve their own onion varieties.  The Grano, known as “the mother of all onions”, was developed by Texans and became the world-class standard for onions.  Today, onions are Texas’ leading agricultural export. 

In the 1960’s, an agricultural scientist from Texas A&M developed his own unique variety of onion.  He named the variety 1015 to remind farmers to plant them on October 15, so they would be ready to harvest in June of the following year.   His name was Dr. Leonard Pike, the onion man.  Dr. Pike created possibly the best onion in the world.

Back to my friend, the chef:  She discovered 1015 onions when she owned a restaurant in Manhattan.  She absolutely loved the 1015–the layers of flavor and sweetness that come alive when these onions are grilled or sautéed.  The sweet onions from Texas were very popular with the sophisticated diners in her New York restaurant.  

The chef loved the onions so much that she sent the professor a love letter!  I didn’t see the letter, but knowing my friend it was a little bit racy (probably very racy).  Sadly, the professor never replied to the beautiful young chef in New York City.  He retired from A&M years ago and is now a part of Texas history.

I’m not sure how much fan mail the professor received, but I suspect he kept the love letter for his 1015.

We planted our 1015 right on time and have nourished them in the Rockport sun and soil for seven long months.  These onions are very special, and they will go fast.  Come try the onions that inspired a love letter!

We deliver our farm fresh food to your door in Rockport (minimum $20 order).  Or, look for the Four String Farm booth at the Rockport Farmer’s Market.  Or come out to the farm and pick the onions yourself!

%d bloggers like this: