Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

An enhanced status for the farmers' market

By Dick Hirsch

When we started making regular visits to the farmers’ market there was plenty of parking space. Not anymore. Now the narrow streets adjacent to the market are crowded and finding a convenient spot to park is based on both cunning and luck.

In the old days---that would be just a year or two ago---the market itself was comfortably patronized by an interesting conglomeration of people: some yokels, a few restaurant owners from high profile places, and the largest group, men and women who obviously believed it was worthwhile to get up early and buy whatever seasonal produce was available directly from the men and women who grew it and harvested it.

Were their tomatoes firmer? Usually. Were their cabbages larger? Mostly. Were the peaches, plums, berries, cherries, peppers, potatoes, squash, beans, corn, cucumbers, carrots, zucchini, Brussels sprouts, parsnips and the others fresher and less expensive than the supermarket? Fresher? For sure. Cheaper? Not necessarily.

I look at it this way: If I can deal with a guy who was busy the day before harvesting his potatoes or his beets or his cauliflower so he could load up his truck and get to the market by 5:30 the next morning, I’ll pay his price, whatever it is. We used to buy potatoes from Dan, miniature potatoes, the size of marbles or ping-pong balls, and he educated me about the effort and the pain involved in digging potatoes, especially the small ones. That is hands and knees work, dusty, backbreaking and exhausting. I don’t see Dan anymore and I hope he is well, sleeping late on market days.

Then there was Cary. His beans, cabbage and tomatoes earned our respect. He didn’t spend time lettering price signs; he just charged a dollar for a quart of beans, a head of cabbage or a small basket of tomatoes. When he wasn’t at his usual spot, we missed him. We asked around and found that he had died unexpectedly one evening while watching TV.

Another farmer who changed my life is Don, from whom we bought the beets and Swiss chard he lovingly nurtured. I hadn’t touched a beet in years; it was the only vegetable with which I had no relationship. Don gently proffered his bunches of beets, small beets, which he insisted were tasty and tender. He converted me; thanks to Don, beets are now on my approved list.

I mention this as background because the farmers’ markets have had a remarkable growth in popularity. At the height of the season it was not only difficult to park, it was extremely crowded in the aisles. Most people were being much more patient than they would be at a supermarket. They were happy to be there, inspecting the produce and realizing the satisfaction of buying from the grower. It’s part of the greening of the US, the urge to buy from local growers. It’s a happy and busy time at the market, great for the shoppers and even better for the farmers.

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned apples. From my vantage point, the arrival of apple time in the fall is the climax of the growing season. Apples grow in virtually every state, but New York has an especially large number of growers and an abundant and diversified crop.

To walk down the aisles and see those displays of exquisite apples is a joyous experience. This year, with the damp and cool weather, the crop was somewhat smaller than normal, but the apples themselves are as tantalizing as ever. People argue about which variety is the best for what purpose, eating, baking or making sauce. McIntosh continues to be very popular, as are Cortland, Crispin, Jonagold, Fuji, Gala or Delicious, among others.

My own two favorites for eating are Empire, a popular cross between Red Delicious and McIntosh, developed in New York, and Braeburn, a crisp, tart late-blooming species that migrated here from New Zealand.

Over the years I’ve become friendly with some apple farmers. It’s a difficult business, impacted by the economy and the weather. In addition to all the typical business concerns, there are diseases and critters to be contended with and hailstorms to worry about.

We took a bold step early in the spring. We planted two semi-dwarf apple trees in the yard, one Empire and one Braeburn. The diameter of the trunks is smaller than a broomstick, but I hope one day to pick an apple from those trees. Meanwhile, you’ll see me at the market, whenever I can find a parking space.

Friday, November 20, 2009

It's not easy being an authority

By Dick Hirsch

Drinkwater is one of those friends who likes to keep in touch by calling whenever he has a problem of some kind. He may or may not realize it, but when confronted with a situation that he finds somewhat baffling he makes contact, immediately making his problem your problem.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind the calls. Drinkwater has always been an engaging guy, good-natured, generous and well-informed, so it’s good to hear from him. My only wish is that he would someday call for no obvious reason. I have a pretty reliable memory, and I can’t recall ever having a telephone call or a meeting with him that didn’t involve some matter that was bothering him.

Fortunately, he doesn’t call that often. It just seems often. Drinkwater has a fairly wide and diversified circle of friends and acquaintances and has developed an accurate assessment of those areas in which he believes each of them possesses some special skill or expertise. That enables him to make a specific judgment, deciding which of the group might be the best source for a wise answer. On the one hand, it’s flattering to be considered well-informed on a particular topic, any topic.

“What hotel would you recommend in Billings?” he asked me one evening several years ago.

“Billings?” I said. What’s Billings?”

He explained that he was contemplating a trip to Montana, possibly involving an overnight stay in Billings. I had never been to Billings, I told him.

“Oh, sorry” he said. “I remember hearing you talk about Montana so I was sure you would have gone to Billings.” I suggested he do an Internet search for hotels and he immediately responded by asking which travel agency sites on the web I had found to be most helpful in placing reservations.

“I understand you can get a better price for hotel rooms if you call the hotel direct rather than calling the national toll-free number,” Drinkwater added. “Do you agree?”

On various occasions he has asked for recommendations on a place that repairs sewing machines, the best source for advice on the purchase of a digital camera or a new dining room set. (He was seeking something contemporary in walnut and I had no suggestion for him. He said he was shocked that I was uninformed since my late father-in-law had been in the furniture business.)

Whenever possible, I try to be of some assistance, but often I am stumped; my slate is as blank as his and I have no special knowledge or inside information. Drinkwater must realize that, but the intermittent calls and questions keep coming. What variety of apple is best for baking? When higher octane gasoline is recommended for certain cars, does it damage the engine to use regular? Is there a special restaurant for seafood in Boston? Is it worthwhile to replace the hard drive or should he buy a new computer?

Just the other day Drinkwater called “just to say hello,” and to report that he was buying a new car and picking it up later in the week. He had been driving his old car for several years and was selling it privately to a neighbor. As he spoke, I wondered whether he would eventually describe a problem of some sort. If not, it would have been a rare conversation with Drinkwater. He didn't disappoint; he sounded exasperated as he finally got to the point and recounted his problem.

“I can’t budge the damn screws holding the license plates,” he said. “They have been there for years and they’re all rusted. Any suggestions?”

I told him to squirt a few drops of oil on each and try to loosen them the following day.

As I later reflected on that question I decided it was probably the simplest question Drinkwater had ever posed. In the past he has asked about 401-K investments and withdrawals, the relative merits of cable versus fiber optic for TV reception, the life span of the batteries in hybrid cars, causes leading to the fall of the Roman Empire and any number of other issues of varying complexity. But how to remove rusted screws from a license plate holder? I concluded that either Drinkwater is a seriously troubled personality or else he has downgraded my areas of supposed expertise. He did call again a couple of days later with a related question:

“Do you have a hacksaw I can borrow?”


Saturday, November 07, 2009

Will daily exercise help?

By Dick Hirsch

After ignoring them as time wasters for most of my life, I have started doing crossword puzzles. Yes, I’m still busy with other things, but I am trying to find the time each day to work on a puzzle. Why the change? That’s a silly question. You know the reason for the sudden interest.

Exercising the brain.

I’ve been told that it often doesn't make any difference but I’m willing to adjust my schedule and make time for this new activity. I’ve been told each individual’s supply of brain cells begins diminishing by around the age of 40. With people living longer there are many examples of older adults who have quietly slipped into a netherworld where confusion reigns. It’s a status that is almost universally considered and feared.

I understand there are some people who take a daily dose of vitamins or dietary supplements to prevent that condition from eventually afflicting them. The so-called “brain” pills have never intrigued me because, as a remedy, it sounds too easy to be effective. Just pop a few pills on a regular basis and you will fortify yourself against dementia in the future. It’s just too simple; my belief is that anything worth achieving requires striving and effort, either mental or physical.

I have no information on the current condition of my synapses and cranial interconnections, nor do I believe I’ve detected any telltale symptoms that any are frayed or unraveled. I’m discounting the occasional instances when, however briefly, I can’t think of the proper word to include in a certain sentence. I remember it eventually and I’ve been told to ignore them because such episodes are common.

A year or so ago I began these limited brain calisthenics with the crossword puzzles. They are now a part of my personal fitness program, along with my routine of jogging---some might describe it as schlepping---and a few gym exercises. I’ve discovered that the crosswords can be engaging and fun.

I’m still involved at what is considered a rather elementary level, the daily crossword in the paper. Occasionally I’ll steal a glance at the puzzle in the Sunday Magazine of The New York Times; I admire those friends who work on that puzzle and who seem to solve it without too much difficulty. I am not yet ready for that league but my hopes are high and my intentions are good, so all I need is more practice and confidence. I was introduced to crosswords at a young age by a neighbor lady, Mrs. Mackey, who explained the process and then told me that regular puzzle-doers learn certain words that recur repeatedly, not because they are so difficult, but because they are useful to fit in certain situations.

The example she gave me I still remember: “Egyptian sun god.” I have not seen that definition in any puzzle I’ve tried in this latest campaign, but it was a regular 50 years ago. The answer “Ra.” I tried the puzzles for a short time but gave them up in favor of baseball, bicycles and girls. Over the years I’ve known and admired many puzzle aficionados but never was motivated to emulate them until recently.

One of the first trends I noticed was repetition, especially among short words. I’m not talking about the four letter Anglo-Saxon expletives that are often muttered and occasionally shouted. Here is a partial list of words that keep reappearing: err, tee, cab, asp, eel, rue, roe, saga, epic, item, apse, abet, adit, Esau, ruse, rage, asea, ooze, seep, sari, sob, Reno, aura, taxi, tern, erne, boar, ecru, erode, erase, egret, Etna and, finally, ness (as in Loch not Eliot.) I’m sure there are many others, but those come immediately to mind.

If working on the puzzles is a learning process, I can report some progress; from that list, I learned three new words. They are tern, erne and adit; tern and erne are both marine birds or sea eagles, and an adit is a passage in a mine. Yes, this marks the first, and probably last time I’ll ever use those words in a sentence, but their compact nature makes them ideal for the puzzles.

As I plan the eventual conquest of more complex puzzles I just noticed a few words used in this column that I hope to encounter in a future crossword. They are: netherworld, synapses, frayed, episodes, calisthenics, aficionados, motivated, emulate and conquest. Those are all decent words and since I know them I’d welcome them in a future puzzle.