Guinda, California: Full Belly Farm

County Road 43, Guinda, California. Website:

Sitting in the shade at a lovely, unpretentiously decorated picnic table, I looked out to a field in the distance to rows of blue, purple, red, and orange flowers. In the sunlight, the colors blurred together like an impressionist’s canvas. I sipped a lemon verbena tisane. People chatted on either side of me as we waited for our hosts to bring us our lunch. This scene, this lunch, this farm, aroused in me a nostalgia for something I’ve been missing. Now, here on this farm, I surrendered to the seduction of food, not Food.

Capay Valley’s Full Belly Farm, one of California’s oldest certified organic farms, reminded me that I do need to think about what I eat, where it comes from, and how it’s grown no matter how sick and tired I am of the subject of food. For the past year, I’ve been in search of simplicity: eating less, cooking less, cooking more simply. I eat more vegetables, simply cooked and have eliminated processed foods almost completely. More recently, I’ve given up my beloved refined grains. Sugar was never an issue: gone long ago. I am heartily fed up with the esoterica of gastronomy.

When the food writer Elaine Corn invited me to tag along to a lunch organized by the food group, Les Dames d’Escoffier, at Full Belly Farm, I had to work up the enthusiasm. Within an hour of arriving there, I was very happy I went. We were a group of about twenty that day.

One of the farm’s founders, Dru Rivers, met us in the parking area. The blue of her eyes pops out from her sun-beaten face. Her hands are working hands. She has a sense of joy about her that convinces you she loves this back-breaking life. She took us on a tour of the farm — 350 acres in total, of which ten to twenty are under cultivation at one time. The rest of the land is covered by fruit and nut orchards. One quarter of their farm goes to individual subscribers, one quarter goes to farmer’s markets and the other half supplies co-ops and organic grocery stores. They grow and mill wheat. They raise sheep for wool and meat. (Knitters, Dru makes beautiful, un-dyed wool available on the website.) There are over sixty people on the payroll. One of the people who helped devise the certification standards for organic farms in California, Dru says she now is looking for a way to describe another level of “organic,” a term that has become debased over the years. Her ideal new certification would comprehend labor relations, quality of workplace, as well as make clear where the boundary between mechanization and organic hand farming lies.

Back at the lunch tables, we sat down to wait for our food. Dru’s son, Amon, and his wife said a few words about our meal before they brought out platters. He trained as a chef in restaurants in San Francisco, where he met his wife. A year ago, they moved back to the Capay Valley. His mother was a tyrant, he said with a big smile on his face. Dru and her husband, Paul Muller, made all four of her kids work on the farm, and they hated it. Now that three of the four have finished college, they’ve embraced the life. The fourth child wants to return when she graduates. I think this testimony impressed me even more than the food. And the food was good! Little Gem lettuce salad dressed with balsamic, pomegranate syrup, and their own olive oil; egg tagliatelle with fresh cream and freshly-picked peas; herbed lamb roasted with baby Russian fingerling potatoes; honey lavender ice cream. Simple, simply prepared, and utterly delicious.

When I left, I felt reaffirmed in the approach to food that I have been evolving over the past year but I found again the joy in food. I want not to be mindful of how I eat without treating food and cooking like an expensive hobby. Food is life, food is friends, food is nourishing. But it’s not all there is to life.

Full Belly Farm welcomes people to reserve lunches for groups, weddings, parties.

Urban Farming: May

We take our gardening seriously in northern California (god knows what they do down south). My friend Spring Warren has her Quarter Acre Farm nearby. My friends out in Sloughouse will undoubtedly set the record again for the number of tomato plants one family can sustain. Sherry and Dan operate at a higher elevation in Amador County and so are only now, in late May, putting in their vegetables. And look at the difference less than fifty miles makes! My tomatoes will soon establish a diplomatic relations with the other vegetables in my garden to discuss terms of surrender.

Already a portion of every dinner I eat at home comes from my garden. Pretty soon most of it will. Eggplants, sweet red and green peppers, Italian peppers, red potatoes, corn, romanesco broccoli (only if it doesn’t suddenly get very hot), French haricot beans, rhubarb, artichokes (already two!), Kadota figs, Brown turkey figs, still lots of lettuce, Swiss chard, collard greens, butternet squash, watermelon, and herbs galore will figure prominently in my cooking for the next five to six months. I’ve got about six or seven varieties of tomatoes across fifteen plants.

The challenge will not be how I will consume it all. I will have a hard time melding the mission of Shadowcook with all the stuff in my garden. But I love a challenge.

Gardening: Starting Over

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The summer of 2009 marks a turning point in my occupation of this house. My beloved high-maintenance Long-haired German Shepherd, Django, has passed on at the age of eleven and a half, leaving me and my pug, Sophia Loren, with a lot of space and time to fill. Now retired caterers to Django’s every need and want, we are both quietly traumatized, sad, and disoriented. It is a good moment to embark on a new project that will keep at least one of us very busy and give both of us a feeling of a new life beginning here.

The lasagna beds have also gone. So has the lawn. Although I’ve kept the organic material that I used to make  my lasagna garden, I have embarked on a project to transform my garden into a vegetable garden, or potager, a term I learned from Joy Larkcom’s Creative Vegetable Gardening. The idea is to create a vegetable garden that is pleasing to the eye as well as the stomach. I have hired a contractor, Jeff von Rötz, to put into action my plans.

He first had his crew removed the lawn and all the shrubbery along the fence. The next phase will involve digging and installing a large water-reclamation sump that will both collect rain water over the year and take from the city water system for the drip irrigation that will nourish my garden. A sump pump will channel excess water out to the sewer. Then Jeff’s crew will grade the yard and bring in soil to supplement the mulched lasagna garden organic material.

While all that excitement is taking place, I will be in London, where Ann, Jonathan, and I will sketch the arrangement of the raised beds that Jeff will build when I return in mid-July. Sophia the pug will remain in charge while I’m gone. I have in mind reserving the deck for sitting, creating a dining and grill area on the ground at the foot of the deck, and creating two crescent herb beds with a trellis portal between them to separate the dining area from the potager. I will have the raised beds arrayed in an attractive fashion and make the paths between them consist of some kind of golden straw-colored mulch. Larkcom’s book has given me lots of ideas.

The timing does not work for a harvest this summer, but when I return from the UK, I anticipate germinating seeds for my winter potager. In the meantime, my garden grows.

Updated, 6/11/09: Jeff’s crew have dug the pit for the reclamation tank. Why did I expect it to be circular?