July 21, 2011

Getting My Hands Dirty. ~ Emily Alex

Photo: cabbit

So much Boulder

When I arrived in Boulder for the summer, I was determined to experience everything my sister Katie had told me (read: bragged) about: the euphoria-inducing climate and Flatirons panorama; fourteeners; altitude sickness; prairie dog colonies; mosquito-free camping; dogs in grocery stores; dogs wearing hiking packs; hikers packing babies; toddlers in Gore-Tex; toned mothers who sit around in Sukasana.

Also on my mental checklist: organic farming.

By week three I had secured a job — my first retail job — and soon began spending the majority of my days inside the hyper-ACed store, asking customers whether they need, really need, a plastic bag for that.

Luckily though, somewhere in the two-week period before I sold my days to (let’s call it) Discount City – during which I had purchased a somewhat squeaky Schwinn, eaten a Sun Deli ficken parm sub, learned how “quinoa” is actually pronounced by people who actually eat it (ie: not kwin-oh-ah) and nearly frozen my toes off on the Fourth of July Trail – I also had several opportunities to earn my own arugula at Black Cat Farm. Last week I also had the opportunity to chat with the man behind Boulder’s Black Cat Farm to Table Bistro: chef and farmer Eric Skokan.

Photo: Jacklyn DeCoster

Every once in awhile, as I gaze out through Discount City’s enormous storefront panes, attempting to admire the view of the Flatirons around the oversized SAVE 50% TODAY! (and tomorrow and the next day) signage and wishing I could block out the sound of every single noise-making toy and unsupervised minor in the store competing for sonic predominance, I contemplate the merits of earning one’s own greensorry: greens.


When I started working at Discount City there was an extensive training process, involving six hours of computer modules plus some supervised practice runs, before anyone so much as let me near a barcode scanner.  Granted I had written “reliable” and “strong supporter of secondhand shopping” in the “Describe any relevant prior work experience” box on my application and had not even the slightest inkling of how one went about opening a cash register drawer.

Likewise, an inordinate appetite for vegetables was pretty much the extent of my agricultural knowledge base when I first set foot on Eric’s ten-acre farm in Niwot.  Still, my training at Black Cat was entirely hands-on, and no one — besides me, of course — seemed particularly worried about the possibility of my screwing up.

I strolled up to the farm on a Friday morning in late May, accompanied by my sister. The farm’s manager, a pint-sized 20-something named Leah, approached us. She said “Yeah? Cool” to my “I’d like to help out, if that’s al—” then told me to grab a harvesting knife and meet her by the mizuna.

I followed my sister into the farm’s small shed, where I saw a few Nalgene bottles, a Mountain Sun growler and a bin containing countless trapezoidal, orange-handled blades. I selected one and turned it over in my hands, wondering which was the sharp side.

Out in the field, my instruction as a Black Cat trainee began and ended with sister saying, “So… like this” as she detached a handful of leaves from their stems with an oblique jab of her harvesting knife.

Photo: Jacklyn DeCoster

That first morning the three of us spent an hour or so straddling the veggie beds. Hacking the leaves from their stems, then standing to deposit them in the large, plastic bin placed between the rows, we must have looked like oil derricks at work. Before long my hands had adapted to the rhythm, and I was easily able to distinguish mizuna, spinach and kale from bind weed, thistle and — most importantly, considering my lack of gloves — from prickly lettuce.  Mesmerized and somewhat dizzy, I barely heard Leah and Katie as they enthusiastically traded recipes for arugula pesto and braised greens.

While shop talk at Discount City tends to hover around such topics as, “How many layers of merchandise would you say that man is wearing right now?” or “Guess what I found in the dressing room last night” and “Is that urine in the Furniture aisle? Again?” the Black Cats tend to talk crops: growing, buying, selling, preparing, preserving, and – of course – eating them. Without much culinary sense myself, my contributions to these conversations basically consisted of awed and stoner-esque statements such as: “This lettuce is so green.  And so pretty!”

Where the Five Second Rule Doesn’t Apply

Just yesterday, at Discount City, I observed a mother hotly scolding her four-year-old after he had fished several Mike & Ikes and a grubby gumball out from behind the candy dispenser in the entranceway.  She and I had shared the same gut-level reaction of total horror, seeing the kid lift his sugary treasures up to his little mouth.  Ohmygod— don’t, I thought, and the woman shrieked.

Photo: Sam Sanford

It made me think of pea shoots.

One of my Black Cat days found my sister and I picking our way through the rows of English peas on massively mud-coated sneaker-hooves.  We were to harvest a half bin of the light green shoots for use at the restaurant. I noted the way Katie snipped the tendrils, one at a time, just below their uppermost leaves.

“People eat these? They’re good just like this — raw?” I asked.

“Well, taste it” she responded, in a duh tone.

Having grown up in a household where cursory produce rinsing lead to fuming fatherly diatribes, the idea that this crop was perfectly edible, and immediately so, had not yet even occurred to me. (For the record, it tasted just like a pea and it’s great in salad.)

The Cream of the Croppers

It may seem like a strange comparison to draw, but after spending three days as a farmhand, I had a sensation similar to the one I’d had after finishing Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide back in high school. My revelation back then had been: Sweet: if need be, I now know how to kill or evade a zombie (with a machete and by bicycle, by the way).  Now it was: if water shortages and soil erosion cause food prices to skyrocket, I know how to grow my own eats. Sort of.

Photo: Jacklyn DeCoster

In the end, getting my hands dirty had earned me more than a farmer tan and a pound of salad mix. While I may not have gained agricultural expertise per se from my three day stint, I’d certainly developed an awareness, which I felt compelled to pass on to others: the delights of working out-of-doors and pulling your food right from the ground.

Employed at Black Cat for two years now, Leah Biber can relate. She says that this is a large part of why she got into farming, after years of studying music. “What matters most is getting the community involved; it’s important that people see what it’s all about” and added, with classic Boulder-bubble superciliousness, “instead of, you know, just shopping the farmers’ market once a week.”

Photo: Scorpio Christo

If you’re a Boulderite and thinking it’s time you became more conscious of the process — lengthy, labor-intensive, fallible and beautiful — by which your food arrives at your table, you’re in luck: volunteers are always welcome on Black Cat Farm.  If interested, get in touch with Leah; you can find her bagging veggies at Black Cat’s Saturday farm stand or reach her by email at [email protected].

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