On a routine after-work drive, deep in the country I spotted an unattended shack with a sign that read "yasai (vegetables), 100 yen". Nestled among the daikon and shiitake mushrooms was a mesh bag containing two choice clusters of garlic. For some reason, the garlic caught my eye, and so I dropped my 100 yen coin into the rusted steel tea cannister (tink!) and drove away satisfied with my transaction.
This is the setup I'm talking about. These daikon (giant Japanese radish) are not only ridiculously cheap, but are also fresher than anything you will ever find in Jusco.
Where else in the world can you find high quality produce by the side of the road and buy it based on the honor system? If this was Orange County, or even Kumamoto City, the cash box would be stolen at the very least and the vegetables would be thrown at the passing traffic! When theft does occur out here it is a big deal like it should be, and the cops come out and spend much time and effort trying to do everything they can to help. Out here is one place where I don't harbor negative feelings about the police. It is in their best interest, as part of a tightly woven community of country folk, to do their best job and to be friendly. I understand why cops back home can be (and sometimes have to be) such assholes, but as a result I tend not to like them. It still makes me laugh when I remember going to Baja Fresh with Justin, hearing the worker ask the police officer "would you like beef or pig?" tacos.
Enough on cops, lets get back to garlic. This garlic that I bought was special. It was about the same price as garlic in the supermarket, but it was much superior. One thing that you can count on about country grown produce is that the farmers plant very good varieties because they are eating what they produce. Producing one's own food is such a foreign concept for many people living in places like the U.S. or in big cities, as we are all disconnected from where it comes from and how it is made. My neighbors grow all of their own rice, vegetables, and in some cases chicken, eggs, and meat that they need, and surplus. It is this surplus that they give to their friends, barter, or sell in the booths. So the garlic that I bought from the stall is the same variety that some country family is enjoying as well.
What strikes me about this garlic is that it is so powerful. When I chop up onions nowadays, it is rare for my eyes to water from the fumes. However, when I mince my garlic up into tiny cubes, my eyes sting and well up, despite me wearing glasses. It hurts, but I know that the pain is worth it. The flavor of the garlic is rich and strong and full bodied, but not in an overpoweringly stinky way. Maybe it's just a placebo, but I feel more healthy after consuming it. One more special thing about this garlic is that the skin peels away from the cloves without any fuss. Whoever developed this particular cultivar of garlic knew what they were doing, and did it well.
Talking about cultivars and heirloom species reminds me of listening to Professor David A. Cleveland from U.C.S.B. lecture about the effect of cultivated plants on society and the environment. Professor Cleveland regularly went all over the world deep into the countryside, where people had developed intimate relationships with the crops that they harvested, from Oaxaca, Mexico to Syria. He was quite passionate about the importance of preserving these cherished species not because he anthropomorphisized them in any way, but because these specific cultivars have very useful traits that have been engineered over thousands of years by farmers, specific to their locations and needs. Companies like Monsanto and other biotech firms go into the countryside and get samples of these plants, often giving nothing back to the farmers in return and exploiting this resource, making a huge profit. Why is this a big deal? Because the farmers in these areas are getting doubly screwed. It is because of the farmers and their ancestors that these strains exist, and it has taken them great time and effort to develop and maintain these. The cultivars and their DNA are rightfully the intelectual property of the farmers who developed them. In addition, these big companies sell the bioengineered strains to these farmers, driving many to develop a dependence on them. This leads many farmers to abandon the very crops that the engineered strains might have been developed from, since they tend to be high yield varieties that in the short term out perform the local crops.
The local cultivars are there for a good reason. They are ideally suited to that specific environment and that specific microclimate, and have allowed farmers to produce the maximum yield sustanably over an indefinite period of time. The strain of corn in one village might be completely different from the strain used the next village over due to subtle, yet important differences in hydrology, geology, temperature, or any number of variables.
With the adoption of commercial, all purpose seed, these cultivars are being lost. Unique, valuable genetic sequences that took countless generations to create vanish, all for the pursuit of maximizing profits in the short term (and creating a dependence based on petro-chemicals, depleting the soil, and creating other environmental and socioeconomic problems in the long run). One of the most tragic things about monoculture using the same seed is that it takes away the variety from food. Instead of countless choices, it all becomes the same. I find this loss of flavor, texture, and uniqueness to be truly disturbing.
Luckily, the fields in my neck of the woods are small, ununiform, and terraced. The farmers grow an assortment of different crops, and the people value their favorite strains of vegetables, fruits, and mushrooms. I mean, the farmers do depend on petro-chemicals to raise their crops and produce rice and other products for the mass market, but they also grow the old strains for their personal consumption. I am pretty sure that the future of the wonderful garlic that I ate will be safe in the hands of these country farmers, deep in the heart of Kyushu.