By Steve Sprinkel & Olivia Chase
(the farmer and the cook)
signs of spring in the peaceable kingdom
The snake barely moved when I brushed it with my hand, accidentally, while I was cutting lettuce with Quin a few days ago. It was a big red and gold striped garter snake, Thamnophis sirtalis infernalis, and my, wasn’t February a bit early for a slither? Yes, confirming our El Niño as a source of many phenomena, including night after night without frost, big grasshoppers dropping in early and fresh cold-blooded creatures, wakened too soon and hungry.
The many red boxes on the garter’s flanks seemed like windows on a night train. It was tame. Too tame. Or just in a coma from having eaten whatever rodent was obviously ballooning its belly. I would move a few feet on my knees and do my work and the snake would slide forward just out of reach. We slid down the row together for an hour. The snake sat there with its head on its coil, watching me and in no big hurry to escape from its biblical enemy, sworn to an eternity of enmity. Could it not see the eight inches of cold, hard Chinese steel with which I flayed the vegetation? The scene was an interlude borrowed from Henri Rousseau. Quin suggested that the snake “liked” me. He just did not know me. I am a killer. I kill to save the food. I also prevent like hell, but what I do creates enemies I must turn aside. Otherwise, I would be overrun.
I may battle the beasts nearly every day, but for most of them I still have patience, wonder, reverence. The garter snake is indeed my ally, but I can be cold. The brigades of gophers massing in the high grass by the wall are free to eat there as long as they care to. I have no quarrel with them. But I know they will not be satisfied with foxtail grass and malva. Their huge piles of earth promise tunnels beneath the surface, tunnels heading for my future cucumber field. There, in that chest-high tangle of green, I have observed serpents before—all friendly to our cause. They sleep safely under the rotary mower, and hunt under the pallets where the soybean meal is stored, looking for rats.
I hope for natural equilibrium, for scenarios I do not have to participate in, for a balancing out as profound as lady bugs in profusion everywhere a week before the aphids appear. High overhead, Cooper hawks announce the births of baby ground squirrels and witless gophers, straining just a little too far from the safety of their burrow for one last bite of broccoli. I may lament when I see a hawk hauling a snake back to a tree but I still understand.
The farm is a bowl-like stage, with wildlife drawn to the abundance of food. We fill our boxes surrounded by desperate contests: stalking herons and egrets, ready to lance a reckless rodent; thousands of lady bug larvae devouring aphids on flowering kale; the loud tracks laid nightly by the coyote, crisscrossing the fields as they seek their hard-won feasts.
My night watch is superior to any man. In the morning I find a coyote dig, with beets or lettuce kicked everywhere as the coyotes struggled in vain against a gopher that had long vanished. I praise this work. When I trap some poor beast I lay out the remains for the coyote to snack on in the evening. And in the morning it’s usually gone. The gift works better than any trap, because welcoming these dogs to the farm assures my territory is safe from much larger trouble than a few dead beets. In the field below the prison, I have seen deer droppings, and Francisco once observed raccoon tracks. Large mammals enter here at their peril. John has observed rabbits in his field, but none across the bridge, thanks to the family of coyotes that lives in the oaks not far from us who howl loudly when sheriff’s sirens invade their ears.
Am I the only one who hears the mountain lion? The warning muffled roar is always during daytime, still near the oak mott, near the packinghouse. I walked round the building, nearly expecting to find the cat behind the next turn, staring at me with its tail flicking. Years and years ago I had seen one, on the other side of Chismahoo Mountain, a short pitch from my goose pen. When I found nothing under our oaks here, I wondered: If there are ghosts, and I know there are, can’t there be ghosts of wild animals, perhaps dissatisfied with how they made their exit, angrily roaming my space?
VEGETABLE TARTE TATIN
FOR THE PASTRY:
Combine the flours, anise seed and salt in a small bowl. Grate the cold butter over the flour using the largest holes of your cheese grater. Add the beaten egg to the flour mixture and mix with a fork until the mixture starts to come together. Use your hands to quickly form the mixture into a 4-inch disk, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate 30 minutes.
FOR THE VEGETABLES:
Using a 9- to 10-inch cast iron fry pan, sauté the shallots and garlic in the butter for 10 minutes on a medium-low flame. Salt and pepper as you go. If you do not have a cast iron fry pan, you will need a pan with a handle that can go in the oven.
After 10 minutes add the fennel, carrots, thyme, rosemary and the bay leaf and cook for exactly 7 minutes more. Then add the turnips, mushrooms, lemon zest and honey and cook for an additional 3 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 375°.
While the vegetables are cooking, roll out the pastry on a wellfloured smooth towel into a 12-inch circle. Start rolling from the center of the disk and add more flour to the underside of the pastry periodically to keep the dough from sticking.
Flip the pastry on top of the vegetables, using your towel to make this really simple. Tuck the edges around the vegetables. You can flatten the top of the pastry a little because in the end you will flip this out onto a serving dish and it will become the bottom.
Put the pan in the oven. Bake for 25 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown. Remove from the oven and allow to sit for 5 minutes before inverting onto a plate and serving in wedges.
Steve Sprinkel, a native Los Angeleno, has farmed in Texas, Hawaii and in many localities throughout California including five sites in Ojai, where he also operates The Farmer and The Cook market and restaurant with his wife, Olivia Chase. From 1997 to 2007 he was an associate editor for ACRES, USA, the national alternative agriculture monthly published in Austin, Texas.
Olivia Chase has been making food for others since she sold bread to her neighbors as a teenager in Ventura. She fell in love with Ojai’s beauty and moved back to the area after college.