The Fallow Season

Two weeks ago Monday, I completed four and a half years as Food Services Manager at Spirit Rock. My recent activity there paralleled a year on the farm: Last spring, my crew and I planted seeds of a kitchen reorganization, which grew wildly throughout the summer and culminated last fall in a frenzied harvest of manifestation. And now, one year later, I’ve entered the fallow season. In traditional agriculture, the fallow time is the interval in which the earth rests between the fall harvest and the spring planting. Farmers plant cover crops, such as clover or vetch, to recapture essential nitrogen and replenish precious topsoil.

And so it is with my own little ecosystem. I easily lost a layer of energetic topsoil in last year’s flurry of perpetual production, so now I’m spending my days sleeping, meditating, walking the hills behind my house, studying cloudscapes and watching rain patterns, tending my neglected grief over my mother’s death last fall, and conjuring what seeds to plant this spring. I’m in the womb of the mother goddess, where life is pregnant with possibilities.

Last week I wandered over to Greenstring Farm here in Petaluma and discovered cardoons among the bins of early spring produce. Cardoons are a forgotten, nearly extinct member of the artichoke family; they look like huge, furry celery stalks with monstrous, bitterly inedible leaves. They are wildly loved by Italians and North Africans and virtually unknown to Americans. Though i cardoni were not part of my Sicilian-American upbringing, meeting them at the farmstand was nonetheless like running into an old family friend who says, “Hey! Where have you been? We’ve been waiting for you to come take us home! Don’t forget about us, va bene? We love you and are still here for you.”

Consulting Elizabeth Schneider’s weighty tome, Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini, I made her Creamy Cardoon and Portobello Gratin. Cardoons need to be pre-boiled to get the bitterness out of them; after that, for this recipe I sliced and mixed them with sliced roasted portobellos, smothered that in a cream/nutmeg/mushroom stock sauce and slathered it with grated gruyere on top, then baked it off in gratin fashion. Like fiddleheads, sorrel, asparagus, and so many spring vegetables, cardoons turn a hopeless gray when cooked, so the dish looked dismal. The taste was another story: the silky sauce, earthy mushrooms, and nutty cardoons sang a perfect comfort-food harmony that belied its homely appearance. If I had been blindfolded, I would have been in heaven.

Were it not for my fallow season, I would have overlooked the forgotten cardoons as too tedious to deal with and so would have lost the chance to meet that old friend, food of my ancestors. Such are the gifts of the downtime intervals in our lives. I wonder if our national epidemic of depression isn’t in fact a desperate cry for our lost psychic topsoil, for the dreamtime kiva from which life draws its deepest nourishment to begin anew.

Time for a walk in the hills. See you soon.