Editor’s Note: One of my favorite articles from Issue 1 of the magazine. To see more of Leela’s articles from past issues, click here- Leela Vera Morales
How much more American can you get than a BLT? Just what would Andy Warhol be without Campbell’s tomato soup? And who would dream of asking Joe the Plumber to give up his inalienable rights to ketchup? Carnivore or vegan, republican or democrat, the tomato is the bipartisan fregetable; clear winner in the produce polls.
Given the unanimous support it receives, you can imagine the awkwardness I felt at telling the gentleman at my table that, in fact, no – he could not have tomato on his burger. It was 2008 and I was a server at the much- celebrated Nopa Restaurant in San Francisco. And although “seasonality” was already a trend word, there were plenty of people left in the city who’d never given it a thought. The look of surprise on this man’s face would have been no greater had I withheld the cream from his coffee. The shocked expression turned into a chuckle over the course of the evening when I also refused him pineapple juice for his cocktail and Patron for his shooter. (“What the hell kind of joint is this??” was the unspoken question of the night).
The fact is, tomatoes, like most fruits and vegetables, have a season. We’ve grown accustomed to having whatever we want, whenever we want it – a fabulous luxury that outshines its own environmental and social costs. As Nopa strove to use local, seasonal, organic ingredients, there were staples that simply weren’t available at certain times of the year. The upside? Man, was it exciting when tomatoes popped back onto the menu! What was taken for granted in most restaurants due to its omnipresence, became Nopa’s ambrosia. This was especially true when those tomatoes were the Early Girls of Dirty Girl Produce.
I first tasted these Early Girls at a Complete the Circle lunch (Nopa’s monthly event where staff sit down for a meal with their farmers and wine makers): tomato granita, and a smokey, chilled tomato soup….oh, dear God!….heaven in my mouth! I have always lamented the downfall of the fruit (vegetable?) in our industrialized world, but never had I dreamt that tomatoes could be so exciting! That night I awoke just before dawn fantasizing about those little, red balls of bliss. Despite my aversion to spending my precious few hours in the kitchen, I later found myself experimenting with an Early Girl parfait: tomatoes layered with a basil-lemon yogurt.
Although you may agree with me that tomatoes are a staple, you’re probably wondering what could make them taste so damn good! As it turns out, Dirty Girl’s Early Girls owe their heart and soul to dry farming – an ancient technique used around the world, and responsible for supporting many great civilizations. Strictly speaking, it is farming without any irrigation. Today’s farmers, however, are happy with a looser interpretation. Usually, seedlings are raised and watered in containers up to a certain height, then transplanted to wet soil, at which point, no water is added.
The flavors of the fruit become concentrated, rather than watered down, as they would be with continuous irrigation.
I found dry farmed tomatoes from Dirty Girl Produce to be particularly mouth-watering. The business originally sprouted as Fan Tan Farms in 1995 by Ali Edwards and Jane Freedman. The two were dubbed the “dirty girl farmers” – the inspiration for the current name. In ’97, Joe Schirmer began working on the farm, and in ’99 he purchased the farm and expanded it from three acres to twelve. Now the farm is spread over about forty acres in La Selva, Watsonville and Santa Cruz. Business runs year round. The fall’s harvest of tomatoes pays the bills, while everything from leeks to cranberry beans fill in the cracks. The ideal soil and climate of the two- and-a-half acre site in Santa Cruz is what makes Dirty Girl’s tomatoes the best of the bay.
I had a rudimentary understanding of dry farming, but I was dying to get down to Santa Cruz and see the plots in person. So one gorgeous Monday afternoon I hopped on my trusty steed (a motorcycle of the vintage breed) and rode down the coast to the land of “live-and-let-live”. After a photographic fly-by in La Selva, where the farm’s winter crops are grown, I met with DG’s manager, Stella Araiza, in Santa Cruz proper.
In the dusking of the western sun, I stepped onto the field. The rows were shrouded with a purple light; the red orbs dangling happily, proudly – like ornaments on a well-endowed Christmas tree. At the center grew a lone pear tree, its fruit holding fast to the black branches. The moon, rising fat and nearly full, hung solemnly overhead. As Stellabatted at the stubborn pears, we talked about all the blessings of organic farming in bay area: the climate, the insatiable demand for organics, the youthful supply of “starry-eyed folk that want to farm” – blessings absent from most other farming communities in the world. Having seen the views from the farm in La Selva – with it’s sloping fields aglow in the afternoon sun, the Pacific expanse opening up beyond, the strawberry pickers bent over quiet rows – I was not surprised to hear that there’s no shortage of young, willing agriculturalists here. There is a silence and a simplicity that pervades these lands. In the absence of urban white noise, of clustered buildings and pavement, with the flavor of unadulterated Early Girls still sweet on my lips, I was reminded of what life really is.
Dirty Girl Produce
111 Rathburn Way
Santa Cruz, California 95062
See website for Farmer’s Market Schedule