A Celebration of Craft

Dave Miller at work. Photo by Josey Baker.

Dave Miller at work. Photo by Josey Baker.

The highlight of the National Heirloom Expo, for me, was running into three people who epitomize the value of dedication to a craft.

I’ve found that such craftspersons keep no secrets and are more than happy talk about techniques and tips. They are also, according to Matthew Crawford, an antidote to our culture’s narcissism. Crawford says, in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work,

The moral significance of work that grapples with material things may lie in the simple fact that such things lie outside the self. A washing machine, for example, surely exists to serve our needs, but in contending with one that is broken, you have to ask what it needs. At such a moment, technology is no longer a means by which our mastery of the world is extended, but an affront to our usual self-absorption. Constantly seeking self-affirmation, the narcissist views everything as an extension of his will, and therefore has only a tenuous grasp on the world of objects as something independent. He is prone to magical thinking and delusions of omnipotence. A repairman, on the other hand, puts himself in the service of others, and fixes the things they depend on. His relationship to objects enacts a more solid sort of command, based on real understanding. For this very reason, his work also chastens the easy fantasy of mastery that permeates modern culture. The repairman has to begin each job by getting outside his own head and noticing things; he has to look carefully and listen to the ailing machine.

The trio of craftspersons I ran into at the expo included a baker, a tomato farmer and a nursery owner. They share common qualities: humility, openness and an attention to detail.

The baker is Dave Miller who I helped bring to LA to teach a series of classes. Miller specializes in whole grain breads made from freshly milled local grain. Most “whole grain” loaves baked in this country are actually white flour with food coloring, sugar and a small amount of stale whole grain flour. Miller can turn wet, sticky whole grain lumps into perfectly formed, airy loaves with one deft flick of the wrist. He has the skill to build an empire the size of La Brea Bakery but is happy working at a smaller scale selling loaves at the Chico farmer’s market once a week. I think he’s the most talented baker in the U.S.

I also ran into tomato farmer and breeder Fred Hempel who was a guest on episode 79 of our podcast. Like Miller, Hempel has a humility that goes along with a sincere engagement with the natural world. Like Miller he’s more than happy to discuss his craft.

A third person I met at the festival is Alice Doyle, owner of Log House Plants a wholesale nursery in Eugene Oregon. In her lecture she went alphabetically through a list of edible plants she thought were interesting. By the end of the hour, I think she reached the letter “J.” I wished we could have had a few more hours to get to “Z.” And this is another quality of the craftsperson, a selfless enthusiasm that can turn a list of vegetables into something way more interesting than what passes for entertainment in our culture. I’ll see if I can get Doyle on the podcast.

We are, I think, entering a dangerous new age of extreme narcissism fueled, in part, by Silicon Valley tech bros who have figured out a business model based on self-affirmation. We need more people like Miller, Hempel and Doyle.

Tomato Grafting Fail

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The results are in on the tomato grafting project I last wrote about in July and they aren’t pretty. The plants grew slowly and reluctantly. The tomatoes had blossom end rot and were inedible. I even managed to attract tomato hornworms for the first time ever.

Two early mistakes led to subsequent problems. First, I should have purchased or made a seed starting mix rather than the potting soil I used. I ended up with weak seedlings. Secondly, I did not manage the post-graft period well. Having a greenhouse within which to create a “healing chamber” for the grafted plants would have made the process much easier.

Since I have no space or desire to build a greenhouse I’m, most likely, going to give up on attempting to graft my own tomatoes. I did this project out of a geeky sense of fun but it resulted in a summer with no homegrown tomatoes and that’s a life not worth living.

A better project, for our climate, would be to figure out how to grow tomatoes with little or no supplemental water. The feral tomatoes on the side of my mom’s house prove this is possible. For years, we also used to have volunteer cherry tomatoes along a wall now dominated by a massive Vitus californica vine. Next year I’m going to keep things simple, choose a drought tolerant tomato from Native Seed Search and plant it directly in the ground early in the season.

How did your tomatoes do this year? What kind did you grow?

O79 Growing and Breeding Tomatoes with Fred Hempel

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Want to know how to grow tomatoes? What are the best varieties to plant? Want to learn how to breed your own? Our guest this week is farmer and tomato breeder Fred Hempel. Fred farms and breeds gourmet vegetables in Northern California. His focus is on tomatoes, peppers, squash, herbs and edible flowers. In the podcast we ask if there is such a thing as a heirloom tomato? What does a tomato breeder look for in a tomato? Why do supermarket tomatoes taste so crappy? And what happens when you turn a tomato breeding project over to an eight year old. We also talk about how to water tomatoes and prepare soil. During the podcast Fred mentions:

Dumont #4 tweezers

And two tomatoes bred by Fred that you can get seeds for:

Blush Tomato

Orange Jazz tomato

I’ve had the pleasure of tasting these tomatoes at a lecture Fred does at the Heirloom Expo in Santa Rosa and they are really amazing.

Fred’s website are: Artisan Seeds and Artisan Seeds in Facebook and Baia Nicchia Farm.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

Should I Try Tomato Grafting?

Tomato-grafting
A question for you, our dear readers. Have you ever grown grafted tomatoes? Have you ever tried to graft your own tomatoes?

In case you’re not familiar with the idea, you can graft, for instance, an heirloom tomato on to a more hardy root stock tomato to increase disease resistance and yields. You can also graft tomatoes onto potato plants (two crops in one!) as well as graft tomatoes onto eggplants for plants that are more hardy in soggy soils. In the bad idea department, you can graft tomatoes onto tobacco (for nicotine laden fruit) and jimsonweed (for poisonous fruit–note this strange incindent).

The Illinois Extension service has detailed tomato grafting instructions and notes on root stock selection here.

So what do you think? Intrigued? Comments!

What to do with not-so-good tomatoes

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As we wait eagerly for tomato season to commence, or for our homegrown tomatoes to come in, we might find ourselves buying grocery store tomatoes out of desperation and then–inevitably- being disappointed.

Usually I try to avoid store-bought tomatoes all together, using canned when good fresh tomatoes are not available, but sometimes canned tomatoes just aren’t what you need, so you have to wait for summer… or suffer bad tomatoes. Now there’s a middle way. Grocery store tomatoes can be reformed.

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