Patti Bess: A lasting legacy through food, community
If you ever wanted proof of how the world has progressed and improved in our lifetimes, you only have to look at food.
I, for one, remember growing up in the Midwest when dinner consisted of a large portion of beef or pork and mashed potatoes. As an afterthought, canned vegetables were boiled to near mush texture. Salads consisted of iceberg lettuce and a tomato.
It wasn’t that long ago that finding something besides white bread was like a treasure hunt akin to the search for the holy grail. Whole grains, yogurt, local olive oil, balsamic vinegar, raw nuts and so many other foods we take for granted were nowhere to be found. Farmers’ Markets with fresh picked produce were in their infant stages, and naturally fermented foods were lost to a previous generation of farm wives who cooked from scratch. Organically grown vegetables and fruits were only eaten by hippies, radicals and chefs who had traveled the world and saw new flavor and health possibilities for American cuisine/diet.
In the 1970’s changes to our food culture began evolving and expanding in ways no one had dreamed possible. The credit goes to many farmers, visionaries and chefs that had traveled the world. One young man, who grew up in San Francisco, was gaining knowledge and experience that would eventually lead him to become one of the most informed and influential players in the Organic Farming/Food Movement.
Just as his ancestors had been pioneers in California, Amigo Bob Cantisano, was determined to make the world a better place. Some people are born with a fire in their belly. He was impassioned and had the focus to manifest his ideas. We, here in Nevada County, were lucky to have benefited from one such as this. Amigo Bob distinguished himself by being a singular powerhouse in the organic horticulture field for nearly half a century.
I met him through his radio show on KVMR, called Organic Matters. On the radio he lived out one of his primary life goals — that information should be free and accessible to anyone; not hoarded by the few for their own enrichment. In his rich baritone voice and with a great sense of humor, he answered garden questions every month for more than 25 years. I’ve watched at various events in the county where folks surrounded him asking questions about lady bugs, compost or white flies. He always had time for answers. Amigo Bob taught many of us how to eat and grow our own food without toxic chemicals.
Kalita Todd, his ex-wife, recalled that Amigo was blessed with a photographic memory. In his early years, he parked himself in the UC Davis Agricultural library gleaning information from pre-World War II articles before the mass acceptance and use of chemical additives to our soils began; when conventional agriculture was primarily organic.
She recalled a drive through Truckee when Cantisano saw an abandoned store front and made up his mind that it was the perfect place for a Co-op grocery. We the People Food Co-op was born, and many other stores followed in the years to come.
With support from friends and family, Amigo founded Peaceful Valley Farm Supply and the Eco Farm Conference which has been held annually in Monterrey for the past 41 years. Both of which brought supplies and information to the burgeoning organic farm and food movement.
Perhaps one of the most impactful projects that Cantisano undertook, was Organic Ag Advisors. As the first organic agricultural adviser in California, he consulted with more than 600 farmers and 400,000 acres of crops over the last 30 years. Walking into many an orchard or pristine vineyard in the Napa Valley, his dreadlocks and tie-dyed t-shirts drew many skeptical looks. But when he offered an encyclopedic explanation of what their soil and plants needed, minds changed quickly. And the business grew.
In recent years Cantisano and his wife, Jenifer Bliss, along with Adam Nuber, created a nonprofit called Felix Gillet Institute (www.felixgillet.org) dedicated to preserving the legacy of Felix Gillet, a nurseryman in Nevada City in the 1800’s. They combed the Sierra foothills searching for heirloom fruit and nut trees that were planted during and after the Gold Rush. These trees, still surviving in abandoned homesteads and ranches, were propagated to bring back and grow again. Every autumn their catalog of trees for sale sold out quickly and will continue to do so.
Amigo Bob Cantisano passed away on Dec. 26. This pioneering visionary, friend to many helped to bring safer foods to our plates and launch the next generation of farmers and gardeners.
Twenty years ago kale, collard greens, escarole, rainbow chard and gourmet baby lettuce mixes were nowhere to be found. As were heirloom tomatoes, three different kinds of eggplants, and peppers of every color and shape. Food choices have literally expanded.
I finally have erased my mother’s tinny tasting canned spinach from my culinary memories. Our easiest weeknight recipe consists of whatever greens are ready for harvest, perhaps chard and kale, sautéed in olive oil with perhaps some leftover potatoes from the night before, sausage, onion, and balsamic vinegar. Covering with a lid til greens are softened but not mushy.
The following is one of my favorite dishes from Deborah Madison’s “Local Flavors” cookbook.
Fennel and Winter Greens salad with Mushrooms
One head butter lettuce
One small head radicchio
One plump Belgian endive
One fennel bulb, trimmed
Six to eight large mushrooms, sliced
One large shallot, finely diced
One or two tablespoons red wine vinegar or lemon juice
Sea salt and fresh grated pepper
Three to five tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
A chunk of Parmegiano-Reggiano
Gently tear the butter lettuce into bite sized pieces, leaving the smaller heart leaves whole. Tear the radicchio into smaller pieces. Quarter the endive lengthwise, then sliver lengthwise. Wash and dry the greens and put them in a salad bowl.
Slice the fennel paper-thin and add it to the greens along with the mushrooms. Cover with a damp towel and refrigerate until needed.
Combine the shallot, vinegar, and ½ teaspoon salt. Let stand for at least 5 minutes, then whisk in the olive oil. Taste on a lettuce leaf—it can be a little on the tart side. Toss the salad with enough vinaigrette to coat well, then drizzle on the olive oil and toss again. Pile lightly onto plates. Shave some thin curls of cheese over each serving add pepper to taste, and serve.
Patti Bess is a freelance writer and cookbook author. She lives in Grass Valley.
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