I knew I’d seen this exact shape before (the dark one on the left) – the distinct, lopsided bowl, the pronounced “beak” and the pastry-like layers of shell growth. I was shucking my way through a sack of Hog Island oysters, freshly harvested from Tomales Bay in Northern California, and hustling to get an order of 12 off the raw bar and out to some hungry customers. I set the provocative little bivalve aside on the ice, and forgot about it until clean up later that evening. Then the connection came clearly – this odd-shaped oyster looked just like one I had seen last summer (the grey one on the right), an oyster from a very different time and place…. a fossil from an outcropping of Mancos Shale in central Utah (photo below), preserved in stone from the mid-Cretaceous – around 100 million years ago!
The similarities between the two shells are stunning. What is even more stunning is the obvious question underlying the “sisters from a different mister” – why? Why are these shells so similar, given all that has changed on planet Earth in 100 million years? How many animals living today look unchanged from their ancestors of the Cretaceous? Not many. So what is it about oysters, and the design of oysters, that makes this possible? The answer may lie in the nature of the intertidal habitat that oysters call (and many other marine invertebrates) call home.
to be continued……
Each year we have a holiday tradition (adopted from Gwen’s Santa Fe family heritage) of preparing posole rojo – the classic Mexican (and New Mexican) stew of “nixtamalized” corn cooked in bone broth with chili and other spices. With the exception of the pork (brought by the Spanish), this is a dish that might have been enjoyed all the way back to Mayan (and pre-Incan in the Andes) times. The word “nixtamalizado” (Spanish) or “nixtamalized” is derived from the Aztec language and refers to soaking corn in an alkali solution to remove the pericarp (outer covering). In addition to aiding the speed of cooking, this process also has the happy effect of dramatically increasing the availability of niacin and boosting corn flavor. This is also the process for making masa for tortillas and tamales (nixTAMALi).
Typically I buy the posole corn “prepared” – meaning that it has been nixtamalized somewhere else and then re-dried for sale. Gwen’s grandparents bought theirs from Casados Farms – a northern New Mexico institution and home of the distinct El Guique chili pepper. I can still get products from Casados Farms (a phone call to the Portrero Trading Post) but this year I wanted to try the nixtalization process from scratch. So I ordered up a 20# bag of organic yellow corn from Great River Organic Milling in Wisconsin. (A bit out of my foodshed, but organic field corn is surprisingly rare in the pinot-saturated Russian River Valley…). You can get the basic idea about the nixtamal process from a CIA instructional vid here. The corn turns a vibrant golden color in the calcium hydroxide (I used “mrs.wages” pickling lime) – which looks very cool.
Once the corn was cooling in its alkali soup (I soaked mine all night) I turned to the pork stock. Nearly all posole recipes seem to utilize trotters (pigs feet). Fortunately we have a great butcher shop – Sonoma County Meat Co. – that sells locally raised, pastured pork. (The more I learn about CAFO-based meat production the more I want to know where my meats actually come from.) Trotters are cheap and create a stock that is rich and full of body. I also added some pork shoulder for shredding into the finished posole. Some folks add LOTS of pork, but I like to let the corn be the star. After simmering my freshly made posole in the strained stock I added lots of garlic, onion, Mexican oregano (a member of the verbena family), the shredded pork and of course – red chili. There are many ways of getting the chili into to stew but I had some incredible heirloom red chili from Chimayo, New Mexico, so that’s what I used. Posole takes plenty of salt – and I found that my homemade posole corn had a touch of sweetness. One of the best parts about posole is the fresh garnishes – cabbage, radish, cilantro, a squeeze of fresh lime – all are great. Plus, there should be a dish of good ground red chili to sprinkle in for extra chili flavor and kick. Buen Provecho!
When we arrived at the Pier near Richmond Point the only suggestion of herring were the hopeful women and men fishers lined up along the railing. The gulls and cormorants were bobbing in the slow ebb and flow of a mid-tide, giving no indication of the wild feeding that was reported in the area on the day before. Not much was happening.
There was a time when winter herring fishing in the San Francisco Bay was an annual bonanza – but after some serious overfishing for the export market (herring roe are a prized food in Japan) the stocks were pretty depleted. The commercial fishery was closed for a time and last year the herring were back in abundance. Each winter the herring come in waves from the open Pacific, pass under the Golden Gate Bridge, and seek out shallow eel grass beds to spread their milt and eggs. Some days are thick (like yesterday) and some are not (like today). Still, as we unloaded our gear (cast nets and fishing rods) we could tell that folks of the pier were catching a few. And a few would probably be enough for a boy and his dad looking to capture a bit of the bounty. Cast nets are the traditional harvest tool of choice for the thick days but today was going to be about a slower method: five small, hooked psuedo-bugs daisy-chained together. Called a sabiki rig (a Japanese invention), these ganged hooks are mostly used to catch bait. Herring might be bait or dinner, depending on your perspective and your willingness to try out different parts of the food chain. After an hour we had 30 or 40 in the cooler and Sage was getting cold from the wind. We picked up and we called it a morning.
In truth though, fishing is never just about the catching. Much of the work still lies ahead – cleaning and preparing the fish for the next steps in the dance. In the case of herring (and other oily fish like salmon and sardines) this next step must happen almost immediately. All that delicious and nutritious oil starts to go bad in matter of hours – certainly within a day or so. And gutting and filleting small fish is pretty laborious. Still, like so many things I whine about, once you get into a rhythm it goes along smoothly. Now longer in the the tooth myself, I find a certain meditation in the repetitious work of the kitchen – the chopping, slicing, and cleaning. Somehow knowing that the repetition leads to sustenance – a daily repeating need for self and family – makes it quietly heroic as well. With herring there is scaling, gutting, and filleting (for the pickles). I had chosen two recipes – one for smoked “kippered” herring and another for pickled herring. I also made a quick lunch following Hank Shaw’s rendition of Scottish-style fried herring – brushed with mustard, coated in oats and fried till crisp. I didn’t even get a picture!
I have eaten a lot of fish – in all shapes and sizes and in many parts of the planet. And I like a can of good sardines or kippers as much as anyone – fishy though they may be. But it must be stated clearly that even the oiliest little fish, if handled carefully and processed quickly, can be deliciously delicate in flavor. And these herring have been just that – delicate and delicious. I love them as pickles with a bit of creme fraiche and chopped dill on dark rye. I’ve never been to Scandinavia, bit this must be pretty close to the real deal.
Check out this wonderful Story Map from ESRI – the gold standard of Geographic Information Systems:
Every meal has a backstory. The ingredients were grown/produced by someone, somewhere. They may have been processed by others, elsewhere. The styles of preparation also have a place of origin – Italian, Chinese, South Asian, etc. And each food we eat also has a wild backstory – a place where wild plant or animal ancestors were selected and tamed for the sustenance and enjoyment of human communities living nearby. Despite the seeming instant availability of just about everything, we lack context – a sense of place – for our meals.
The Geographer’s Kitchen is a place to explore the rich intersections of food, people and landscape. A place to put the meal on the map and celebrate the incredible backstories that link our everyday eating to the farthest reaches of the planet – often in ways we can scarcely imagine. Perhaps by understanding these linkages better we may also learn to eat in ways that support and sustain our wealth of food diversity – a wealth we have inherited from countless generations of farmers and food producers.