news from up the creek
Adventures in taste, rooted in place.
WRITTEN BY MIKE MADISON
ILLUSTRATION BY KATE O’HARA
I was watching my grandson taste his first apricot. He turned it this way and that, studied it, then took a bite. His eyes lit up, and he pounded the table with his little hands in an expression of approval and delight. When you’re young, life is full of magnificent novelties — first apricot, first kiss, first view of Yosemite Valley.
Inevitably, as we get older, the pace of novelty slows down quite a bit. Luckily we’re not cows, who get only one shot: First taste of grass? Okay, that’s it. Novelty window is closed. From here on out, it’s grass all the way. We’re omnivores, and there are so many items that we can eat that there always is the possibility of something new. Nothing in the supermarket strike your fancy? Then off to Penang to eat mangosteens and rambutans and, if you can get it past your nose, a durian.
I have a friend who is obsessed with unique taste adventures. He has been to Lapland to eat a special dish of reindeer and lingonberries; he has travelled to a remote island in the Pacific where the natives eat a kind of shellfish unknown elsewhere; and he has been to the Hunza Valley, in the Himalayas, on a mission to taste the rare white apricot that grows there. It seems slightly crazy to me. In his mania for novelty, he’s missing out on the excellent alternative: the comfort of familiarity.
I haven’t counted the cookbooks in our house, but they take up a good 15 feet of shelf space and must include more than 10,000 recipes. We could eat something new for dinner every night for 30 years. And yet, there are just a few dishes that we eat day after day: black beans with yellow rice, scallions, and vinegar; pasta with sun-dried tomatoes and olive oil; romaine with chickpeas, cucumbers, lemon, and, once in a while, anchovies. And, after all these years, they taste even better than they did the first time we ate them. One might expect boredom, but instead you get increasing pleasure from these familiar dishes. Perhaps, in the long run, fidelity to the familiar may be a more satisfactory path than the relentless search for novelty. (That also could be taken as an argument for monogamy.)
I don’t remember my first taste of an apricot (it was during the Truman Administration), but I remember, as a boy, my impatience for the apricots to ripen in late spring. I would bite into green apricots without a hint of color to them, not even at pit-hardening stage, in search of that elusive flavor. And now that I’m a grandfather with a little orchard of 60 apricot trees in one corner of the farm, I still take bites of the unripened fruit. I pretend to myself that I’m being a good farmer, checking for quality and maturity, but, really, it’s just impatience for that old, familiar flavor.
Recently, I was poking around in a wholesale nursery where I sometimes buy trees, and off in one corner I found an overlooked, pot-bound, solitary white apricot plant. The variety name is Shaa-kar pareh. I purchased it, brought it to the farm, and planted it. It has established well, and I expect that in the summer of 2019 I will be able to eat a white apricot, without the arduous journey to the Hunza Valley. So even at this late inning, I can look forward to the first taste of an apricot.
Mike Madison operates a family farm near Winters, Calif., producing olives (Yolo Press Olive Oil), figs, apricots, melons, and cut flowers. His books about Sacramento Valley agriculture include Walking the Flatlands, Blithe Tomato, and the recently released Fruitful Labor.