Mike Madison is the author of Blithe Tomato, from which these blog posts are excerpted. He is a farmer in California’s Sacramento Valley.

We eat like peasants

With the passage of time, food tastes better and better

March 31, 2008

We eat like peasants, whatever’s at hand. An hour before dinner, I find myself rummaging in the garden, a few fennels tucked under my arm, my hat full of beans, tugging leeks out of the ground — ought to be able to make something out of that. On our place we grow olives, lemons, and figs; persimmons, mandarins, and apricots; prunes, nectarines, and grapes; tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant; fennel, radicchio, and artichokes; lettuces, carrots, and beets; squash, okra, and pumpkins; and a number of other things which I can’t recall at the moment. Some is intended for commerce, some for the use of the house. A manager with an MBA would be appalled by the seemingly haphazard plan of our farm, and by the unfathomable calendar according to which we operate. But he needn’t worry. It’s more or less under control.

The list of crops, together with the etceteras, suggests a varied diet, and in the course of a year this is so. But in the course of any given week, there is much less variation. The characteristic feature of a peasant diet is that today’s menu is the same as yesterday’s menu is the same as tomorrow’s menu.

Here’s a sample of our lunches from July. Monday: tomatoes with basil, grilled aubergine on toast, apricots. Tuesday: tomatoes with basil, grilled aubergine on toast, apricots. Wednesday: tomatoes with basil, grilled aubergine on toast, apricots. Thursday: tomatoes with basil, grilled aubergine on toast, apricots.

Fennel from the garden.

This changes slowly through the year, so that by October the grilled aubergine has given way to a sardine, and the apricot has been replaced by a persimmon, and maybe there are some new potatoes with mustard seeds alongside.

Here’s the curious thing. Not only is this diet not monotonous, but with the passage of time, it tastes better and better. The Mexican villager who has been eating tortillas and beans and salsa every day for 70 years finds them more satisfying than they were 10 years ago. And the old Malay fisherman relishes his rice and fish with lime more than he did in his youth.

With enough repetitions, a certain perfection creeps into things. The pianist who begins her daily practice by playing some of Bach’s Goldberg Variations finds that after 30 years, she has not become tired of the piece. Indeed, it continues to reveal new depths. This is not just because of the complexity of the relationships between each note and all the other notes. It also has to do with the 10,000 previous performances, some on joyful days, others on grievous ones, which have somehow permeated the score so that every phrase is laden with layers of memory.

And our lunch of tomatoes with basil and grilled aubergine on toast is similarly freighted. It is not just a July lunch, it is also an unconscious echo of all those other Julys, the ones before we had children, when things were simpler, and then when the children were small and their little faces crumpled into dismay and betrayal at their first taste of aubergine. We’re not actively thinking of these things at lunch; but they are an unacknowledged condiment that flavors the experience.

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This is not to disparage novelty, which has its place. Like most peasants, we look forward to our holidays and feast days and gatherings with friends, and enjoy them as much in anticipation as in actuality. And if a new Thai restaurant opens in town, we’re sure to check it out. But these occasions have to be well spaced if they are to maintain the proper counterpoint to our mundane dinners.

It seems to me that an unmuzzled compulsion to seek novelty is a mistake. The food enthusiast who travels to the remotest part of the earth searching for an unheard-of dish with which to jolt his jaded palate is missing something he could have got by staying at home. And that is the subtle and cumulative pleasure of eating like a peasant.

There are 8 comments on this item
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1. by Fasenfest on Mar 31, 2008 at 5:06 PM PDT

I totally love the notion of eating like a peasant but in reality that kind of eating is the work of gods. Who could ask for anything more then the thing just right and in season? Tomato bright and juicy, basil sweet and tender - each a symphony.

I have always felt that any food eaten in it’s prime is best with little adornment and should be enjoyed until it’s moment in the sun is over. Certainly that makes most sense when living the life of the cook and farmer. Frankly, who has the time to fuss?

I think stepping back on to the garden path leads us to all sorts of wisdom with “Eating Like a Peasant” some of its best.

2. by anonymous on Apr 2, 2008 at 12:32 PM PDT

It’s funny how “eating like a peasant” is a luxury for many of us. I would love to pluck seasonal veggies from my own garden, but I don’t have a garden. I live in an apartment. The best I can do is grow a few herbs and greens on my balcony. I also live in an area with cold winters so gardening, and even farmer’s markets, are a summer-only indulgence.

It’s not easy eating well.

3. by anonymous on Apr 2, 2008 at 3:08 PM PDT

that’s right, #2. ‘eating like a peasant’ is something that could only be written by an...if not well off, at least “OK-off” person. likely caucasian. i also live in an apartment and i was mortified to pay $1.68 recently for a small, overripe tomato. there are some indications that people in the projects (read: in poverty) tend to be more obese as a direct result of not having access to fresh (read: more expensive...but to rich white author, ‘peasant’ foods) but rather being driven by cost only. i can tell you from experience that when $1.68 gets you a tomato vs. almost two items from the dollar menu at mcdonald’s or burger king, you go with the full meal and not the tomato.

4. by Fasenfest on Apr 3, 2008 at 5:01 PM PDT

Having grown up in the Bronx and only recently getting a backyard big enough to grow any food on, I totally understand the reality of apartment living. But having also grown up the child of a very working class family I will say great and nutritious meals were cooked if only with those foods bought on the cheap. My mother was a maven and it was also a time when most folks knew how to make a dollar stretch by cooking meals at home. It might not have been a garden fresh tomato but it was from good, inexpensive, fresh (nary a packaged item to be found - god forbid the cost!!!) cooked smart.
So I challange the either/or position you are taking. Still I do understand the luxury of having some space to grow food. Funny though, even folks who do have space don’t wanna put the time in - it is a lot of hard work.

I know space is limited but there are community gardens in most cities - you might check it out.

Finally, I think it has been sometime since any of us have had a Victory Garden or, more importantly, since the ethic of being frugal and growing food was ever encouraged or enabled by an administration. To give as many folks as might like the chance to grow food would require a values shift in urban policy. Could it be done? I think so but not quickly. So while I think all is not lost when it comes to eating healthy, I do think it is important to both challange what we can (in ourselves and others) and not deamonize the folks with their hands in the dirt and their back to the hot sun. They, in reality, are working hard and trying to restore the soil to some kinda health. And I assure you, many live like peasants or, to be sure, on a budget.

5. by anonymous on Apr 3, 2008 at 6:31 PM PDT

I agree with the third poster. And I think Fasenfester’s heart is in the right place and that may have been his/her reality growing up.

But the truth is, there isn’t even an opportunity for ‘victory gardens’ and the like in projects. I do volunteer work and live in New York City and you’d be amazed at the conditions otherwise dignified folks live in (e.g., multiple high rise buildings, no greenery in sight). I work with one family on a high floor with nine children. They have no garden...likely never will.

And the reality is these are mostly people of color.

Fasenfester, there are community gardens in NYC. But a lot of people don’t have access to them. Try to have some empathy for people who are growing up with different challenges than you did. I didn’t grow up with your challenges but I respect them just the same.

6. by anonymous on Apr 4, 2008 at 5:59 AM PDT

#2 Back again...

I’ve heard many complaints from poor city folks who want to eat better, but the quality of produce availalbe in inner city markets is crap. Maybe it wasn’t like that 20 years ago, but it’s the reality now. When the wholesalers sell their produce, the high-end markets like Whole Foods get first pick. Smaller operations that cater to lower-income people often end up with stuff that’s on the brink of rotting.

Let me clarify that I don’t live in the city. I live in the suburbs. My apartment is a condo. We have a big (paved over) plaza in back of the building, and I’ve suggested at tenants’ meetings that we put it to use for a garden, but the idea gets shot down every time (fear of vermin and vandalism, etc.) Maybe it’s different in the big city where people are more open to this kind of thing?

7. by Fasenfest on Apr 4, 2008 at 10:57 AM PDT

I am not saying the challenges are not there - I understand deeply the issues facing the disenfranchised. In fact, they fuel my interest, writings and efforts to grow food in the city and work with others attempting to do the same. How I got to that point was anything but a cake walk but I believe in the opportunities inherent in self determination. I guess I can be more specific but I won’t. I’ll just leave this debate by saying generalizations (no matter what side of the fence you are on) tend to hinder opportunity and, worse, empathy. Peace Out

8. by anonymous on Apr 4, 2008 at 5:48 PM PDT

i hear you anonymous #6. the facefests of the world don’t understand that even suburban condos like yours aren’t always open to gardens.

when you hear people say something to you like, “I know space is limited but there are community gardens in most cities - you might check it out.”...well, let’s put it the way my dad would: if it feels like someone is condescending to you, they probably are.

so peace to you facefest - enjoy your lily white community and gardens! or to put it in language you like: there are people of color in your neighborhood - you might want to check them out.

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