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Part-time peach pusher

Photo love: Fruit Maven

Photo love: Fruit Maven

“How do you retire from doing what you love the most?”

Glenn Austin, a 72-year-old seventh-generation peach farmer, recently posed this rhetorical question as we wrapped up our interview for an Edible Aspen feature. He and his wife of 55 years had just taken their first non-work-related vacation, and while they enjoyed the trip, they were happy to return to their 26 acres of high-altitude paradise on Colorado’s Western Slope.

Peach farming reminded me of the six years I spent slinging stonefruit at Bay Area farmers’ markets– a formative and formidable time when I was trying to find my footing as a cooking teacher and food writer. In 2000, I was four years out of culinary school and living in Berkeley- epicenter of the nation’s sustainable food movement. I was working multiple jobs to get by, while simultaneously launching a home-based cooking school and journalism career. Back then, my energy was boundless, and my back a hell of a lot stronger.

What I most wanted at that time was a job at the farmers market, both for the education and industry contacts. It was difficult to infiltrate the ranks of the vendor community, because the most-coveted farms had little employee turnover. I’d gotten to know some of these folks in between teaching, waiting tables, and working in kitchens, and I yearned to become part of the tight-knit market clan.

Home is where the farm is. Photo love: Jason Dewey Photography

Happy place. Photo love: Jason Dewey Photography

Deliverance came one afternoon when I was getting my weekly dog fix from the puppy at Frog Hollow Farm’s stand. Owner “Farmer Al” Courchesne’s peaches were the stuff of legend in the Bay Area; his luscious stonefruit appeared on the menus of the region’s most influential restaurants of the day, including Chez Panisse, Oliveto, and Zuni Cafe. A peach, Al was fond of saying, “is like sex in a fuzzy skin.”

I’d gotten to know Al’s wife, Becky, as an occasional customer (their stuff ain’t cheap). Perhaps she was just sick of me molesting her dog but rarely purchasing fruit, or maybe she took pity on me. Whatever the case, Becky hired me and thus began my glorious career as a part-time peach and pastry pusher. For over half a decade, I worked three markets a week in Berkeley and San Francisco, year-round.

I gleefully did manual labor, unloading and loading the farm truck, setting up tables and pop-up tents, hefting up to 50 pounds of fruit at a time, and tying down loads. My hands were callused, my nails perpetually dirty, my body bruised, my skin a cancer-cultivating hue. Al was a mercurial taskmaster. But I loved the job. I was also totally ripped, my refrigerator overflowed with peerless product (bartering being the raison d’etre for working low-paying market jobs) and I had a wonderfully diverse group of friends and colleagues who shared my passion for food and family farms.

Death-gripping a pretzel, age two.

Death-gripping a pretzel, age two.

By 2003, I’d transitioned to food and travel writing (Becky, more than anyone, is responsible for encouraging me to do so), and contributed to several Lonely Planet guidebooks. The following is an abridged excerpt from World Food California, for which I wrote an essay on the Berkeley Farmers Market:

If…waiting tables is a challenge in Berkeley, then try selling food products at its farmers’ markets…due to any number of food sensitivities, aversions, allergies, purported allergies, or political statements. When Becky, a gifted pastry chef, started making organic jam and pastries from the farm’s fruit, she was fulfilling a longtime dream of turning the raw ingredients growing right outside her kitchen into edible offerings that reflected the soul of the farm.

I severely underestimated the high-maintenance requirements of Berkeley’s food militia, but despite the occasional verbal assaults from pissed-off vegans and early-adopting gluten-phobes, most of our customers were pretty cool. The people-watching never failed to disappoint. Entertainment came in the form of observing Berkeley’s resident weirdos, busting thieving kids and derelicts (my nickname was “The Enforcer”), and trying to prevent customers from double-dipping when tasting our jams.

The defendants at the SF Ferry Building farm shop. Photo love: Edible Excursions

Becky’s tarts on display. Photo love: Edible Excursions

“Freeloaders and freaks, homeless and housewives, children and chefs…the market is a truly special place to work. To be surrounded by people so connected to the land and so committed to preserving California’s precious resources, growers of exquisite produce, food artisans of a quality equal to any found in Europe; these are the reasons I stay...There’s a camaraderie that exists amongst the market vendors. We’re a family. We support one another. I’ll trade you some first-of-the-season Burlat cherries for some of your haricot verts.

The market offers a respite from the urban racket. It’s an oasis of green, earthly things, a refuge from the ever-growing parade of strip malls and tract homes that threaten to engulf our agricultural land. I can think of no other community so deeply dedicated to supporting sustainable agriculture, or of so many chefs and consumers enamored of cooking and eating the fresh, the seasonal, the local.”

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Some Colorado Easter Egg radishes.

As much as I loved the market, I began a slow but inevitable burn-out. I called my conundrum the “velvet handcuffs” because I didn’t know how to a leave a secure job (Becky and Al were nothing if not supportive of my writing career, allowing me to take off as much time as needed for assignments) with decent pay (Al believed in rewarding hard work). I spent nearly two years agonizing, until the combination of a bad breakup and a collapsing housing market made the decision for me. It was time to move on.

Eventually, I ended up back in Colorado, always my longterm goal. I love my rural life in the Rocky Mountains, in a valley nationally renown for its sustainable agriculture. But I’d be lying if I said I don’t miss being part of a market community, and the happy exhaustion that comes at the end of a long, physically demanding work day. I’ll never get used to the short growing season, lack of indigenous citrus, and crappy tomatoes. My fridge is far more anemic, since my freelance budget doesn’t permit splurges on walnut oil, fresh chestnut flour pasta, duck fat, or dry-farmed heirloom produce- bartered items I once took for granted.

Yet, moving here has finally enabled me to earn a living as a writer. True, writing softens you in ways the physical demands of restaurant and farm work don’t- muscle tone and posture are the first to go, followed by the ability to think quickly on your feet and interact with other Homo sapiens. But writing also hardens you. To rejection, setbacks, and living paycheck-to-paycheck. Writing isn’t an occupation for those with weak constitutions, a shitty work ethic, or lack of passion. But then, neither is being a chef. Or a farmer.

“How do you retire from doing what you love the most?”

I don’t know. I hope I’m never able to tell you.

Glenn and Tony Austin. Photo love: Austin Family Farm

Glenn and Tony Austin. Photo love: Austin Family Farm

Nepal, April, '15

Nepal, April, ’15

Backpackers are, as a species, short on money and space. We’re also often short on time, what with needing to make tight bus (see above), train, and janky plane connections, awakening still drunk at check-out time, or urgently needing a toilet (or bush, rock, or roadside) after eating dodgy street food.

Thus, things like showers, laundry, and basic hygiene often fall by the wayside. In my 15 years as a travel writer, I’ve oft found inspiration amongst fellow nomads- as well as come up with a few genius ideas myself- with regard to repurposing items or turning specific-use products into multitasking workhorses.

Presenting my top five travel hacks for dirtbags, tested and approved by yours truly. Happy holiday weekend!

Photo love: Elite Daily

Photo love: Elite Daily

1. Airline-size booze bottles for shampoo and body wash

While it’s shocking I didn’t come up with the idea myself, I recently discovered this hack after several dirtbag chef friends crashed at my apartment. I wasn’t remotely surprised to find a mini bottle of bourbon in my shower; what amazed me is that it was filled with castile soap (perhaps the most epic multitasking product on earth). Brilliant.

Photo love: Amateur Outdoorsman

Photo love: Amateur Outdoorsman

2. Carabiners to carry extra items on your pack

I draw the line at stuffing sweaty, smelly, muddy hiking boots in my pack. That’s why I like to clip ’em to my day pack for transit (because only fools entrust their pricey footwear to the random sketchballs who handle checked baggage). Does it piss off my seatmates, who are forced to huff the fumes (see Hack #5)? Of course. Tough shit. ‘Biners are also ideal for holding wet swimsuits, shopping bags, and other stuff.

Photo love: ToysR'Us

Photo love: ToysR’Us

3. Baby wipes

Not just any brand will do. It’s Pampers Sensitive Baby Wipes or nothing (especially if you have, you know, sensitive skin…or a vagina). It was my tentmate on the Inca Trail who turned me on to this basic travel hack. Not only ideal for an improved version of the so-called Mexican (insert minority slur of your region’s choice) shower, they’re also aces at removing road grime, makeup, sunblock, deodorant marks from the tank top you’ve been wearing almost daily for a month, degreasing hair, and blotting up the gallon of cooking oil (?) that exploded all over your pack while it was in the hold of a clapped-out Cambodian bus. Wiping the backsplash from your ass after using a fetid squat toilet? Priceless. If you travel with nothing else, make it these puppies.

There is a point to this photo. Keep reading.

There is a point to this photo. Keep reading.

4. Sarong

For a few bucks, you have a lightweight, non-bulky souvenir/beach towel/bath towel/blanket for over-AC’ed buses/sunshade/pillow/sling/tourniquet/face mask for choking developing nation pollution/on-the-fly changing room/padding for the hematoma on your tailbone from an ill-fitting pack. Bonus: It will last forfuckingever.

Your average Bolivian toilet

Your average Bolivian toilet

5. Free sample sizes of perfume/cologne

Beyond handy for travel hook-ups (carry in your pocket!) and destinking clothes, stanky hostel rooms, befouled restrooms, sweaty shoes, midewy backpack interiors, your hair and bod after one too many days on the road, and to use in place of deodorant when you run out, mid-trek.

Catching water taxi, Cambodia; May 9, 2015

Catching water taxi, Cambodia; May 9, 2015. Photo love: Ania Kolarska

Don’t tell anyone, but I’m not a Millennial (breathes sigh of relief). Despite my advanced age, Refinery29 let’s me write for them. Check out my first piece for them, “10 Reasons Why Women Should Travel Solo.”

P.S. Dudes, you should probably go get your solo on, too.

This can be you. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.

This can be you. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.

Signage at Angkor Wat

Signage at Angkor Wat

I didn’t plan to come to Cambodia. Not that I hadn’t dreamed about it. It’s simply that Laos won the mental coin toss when I was planning my post-Nepal travel. But then I woke up one morning, two weeks ago, and hopped a flight to Siem Reap. Five days spent lazing about indulging in the charms of Luang Prabang (in my case, street food, banana shakes, and $5 massages- sans happy endings- rather than hookers and opium) had left me feeling too much the douchey Western tourist.

I craved action, adventure, perhaps a touch of almost-danger. Cambodia beckoned. Upon landing, I bought a bootleg copy of Lonely Planet Cambodia (yes, I realize many of my fellow travelers see that as a douchey Western tourist thing to do; to them I say, “I like to know where the fuck I am.”).

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I gave the Siem Reap section a quick look before hitting the streets. I noted with interest that the city’s most notorious con is the “milk scam,” in which a child or woman with an infant begs a tourist to buy them formula. Unsuspecting mark goes to store with grifter, and is talked into purchasing the most expensive brand. The proceeds are then split between the con and the shopkeeper. Seemed pretty harmless, as far as these things go.

Yes, Pub St. is douchey and touristy. Photo love: Massageprices

Yes, Pub St. is douchey, Western, touristy. But still kind of fun. Photo love: Massageprices

Not five minutes later, I was accosted by a filthy street urchin in the midst of bustling Pub Street. He couldn’t have been more than eight. He tugged my arm as I passed.

Kid: “Please, I hungry. Milk. I need milk. Buy me milk.”
Dazed from sweating out a week’s worth of electrolytes after just one hour in Siem Reap heat, I agreed. Then, logic kicked in and I realized I was being scammed. The following is a verbatim and completely unembellished account of what happened next:

Me: Um, no, no milk. Fruit. Fruit healthy, I buy you fruit.
Kid (raising voice in angry manner): No! Milk. I need milk! Milk!
Me: No. Fruit. I buy you fruit, yes? What kind you want?
Kid (pretending to weep loudly, yet obviously incredibly pissed off): You said you buy milk. I so hungry. I need MILK! MILK! YOU BUY ME! YOU PROMISE!
Me (uncertain what to do, casting nervous glance around and notice entire patio of adjacent tourist restaurant is watching this little melodrama with interest): I know what I said, but I change mind. No milk. Fruit. Yes or no?
Kid (morphing into miniature version of Pol Pot): NO NO NO! MILK. I.WANT.MILK! MILK! YOU BUY ME MILK NOW! NOW!
Me (totally over this and trying to edge away): Nope. No milk. Only fruit.
Kid (screaming at top of lungs to attract maximum attention to evil round-eye lady who hates Cambodian children of the street): YOU LIE! YOU LIE! YOU PROMISE ME MILK!
He then lowers his voice so only I can hear, and says, “You fucking bitch.” Then he punches me. Hard. On my ass.
I reacted without thinking, grabbing his shoulder and shaking it. “NO! YOU CANNOT DO THAT. IT IS NOT OKAY! YOU GET NOTHING!” [good thing I decided not to have kids, no?]
Kid (attempting to vaporize me with his demonic eyes): Fuck you, fucking bitch.

Scene.

As I stood in the street in a state of shock, the male half of a sympathetic British couple sitting on the patio told me, “We ran into him yesterday. He’s very aggressive.”
Me: He’s a monster.
Woman: “I refused to buy him milk. He stuck his hand down his pants, grabbed his penis, and wiped his hand on my face.”
Me: (rare moment of being rendered speechless)

I highly recommend visiting Cambodia, as it’s an incredible country, with warm, gracious people. Just watch out for the little bastard working the corner of Pub and Street 8.

Just add milk. Photo love: Crave Online

Just add milk. Photo love: Crave Online

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A. So a truck could run it over, enabling a guy with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth to scoop it up 30 seconds later and cook it for breakfast.

True story.

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Yes, this was necessary.

As a former cheesemonger, marketing director for a cheese company, trade show ho and educator, I’ve done my share of schlepping dairy products. While packing cheese into a cooler requires some organizational skills, it’s not exactly rocket science. This, of course, excludes the time I accidentally left an empty box from a shipment of washed rinds (read: stinky cheeses) in my car overnight during a heat wave. I spent nearly 15 minutes the following morning crawling underneath my car and peering into the fan belt and engine block trying to find the dead animal causing the unholy stench, before I clued in to my error.

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to sit sort-of shotgun on a cheese delivery in the Kathmandu Valley. I was working on a Nepal cheese feature for culture: the word on cheese, and was on my way to the Himalayan French Cheese (owned by entrepreneurial genius Frenchman Francois Driard). It’s located eight kilometers north of Kathmandu, epicenter of the quake. Accompanying me was Francois’ Nepali business partner and a driver, who was later going to drop me at Francois’s sister’s farmstay on the other side of Kathmandu.

How many wheels of cheese does it take to fill a Suzuki Maruti?

How many wheels of cheese does it take to fill a Maruti Suzuki?

Let me explain something about driving in Nepal (beside the fact it’s done on the left). It’s motherfucking terrifying. I had just come off of a 17-hour ride in a clapped-out Indian bus (I suspect Uttar Pradesh traded it to Nepal for a plate of dal bhat), returning to Kathmandu across the Terai (Eastern Plains) after a 12-day trek/whitewater trip on the Tamur River. Tip: Xanax is also essential for developing nation long-haul bus rides, especially in cultures where the main objective is to drive as fast as possible whilst playing chicken with oncoming semi’s and other buses on high-mountain passes with blind curves. Good times.

These were our bus seats. No worries, we also had 500 lbs of rice on the floor which made for good sleeping.

These were our bus seats. No worries, we also had 500 lbs of bagged rice on the floor which made for comfy sleeping.

I digress. The point is, when you have a car the size of a Maruti Suzuki- essentially a SPAM can on wheels- there’s not much room to spare. With three passengers, my 40-pound backpack,  a loaded daypack, and what turned out to be over 300 pounds of cheese (hefty wheels of lusty Belkot- Francois’ signature creation- as well as dozens of tommes, Reblochon, camembert, St. Marcellin, some trial bries, and buckets of yogurt, cream cheese, and ricotta- there wasn’t much room to spare). It was also hellishly hot and humid.

After the cranky driver tied my backpack to the roof of the car with a piece of twine, I folded myself and my daypack into the back seat (which was broken, so it flipped forward at every application of the brakes, which in Nepal, like the use of the horn, is constant). Behind me were two loaded coolers and boxes; beside me was a cooler and a weathered cardboard box of tommes that split at the corner seam the first time our driver slammed on the brakes to avoid an oncoming suicidal motocyclist.

Francois' lovely cheeses at rest

Francois’ lovely cheeses at rest

Thus, I spent the next 90 minutes with my left arm awkwardly bracing the torn box to prevent the pristine tommes from flying through the windshield, and having 175 pounds or so of Bellecotes slamming into my back and effectively bending me in half every time we braked. Because Kathmandu’s pollution (hello, inversion layer) is so epic, most locals wear face masks; I developed what I affectionately called KTM black lung on day two of my arrival. Thus, I was forced to wear a scarf around my nose and mouth to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning whilst holding down the dairy fort, so to speak.

Eventually, after bumping (shock absorbers? Hells no!) through back alleys and potholes big enough to swallow a water buffalo, we made it to the Kathmandu office of the cheese company, from which our precious cargo would be distributed to nearby restaurants and hotels.

All in a day’s work for an immgrant cheesemaker in Nepal, and a terrifically entertaining cultural experience for me. My thoughts are with all of my new Nepali friends and cheesemakers; thank you for an incredible trip and for showing me, in the words of churppi maker Mitra Kala Khanal, that, “In Nepal, cheese is life.”

Yak in the mist

Yak in the mist

Crooked Stave's divine Surete Provision Saison

Crooked Stave’s divine Surete Provision Saison

Today kicks off Denver’s Great American Beer Festival (GABF), so what better way to get all y’all inspired than to give you some guidelines for pairing beer and cheese? Few folks realize that  cheese is easier to match with beer than wine. The tannins, acids, and oak (when used for aging) in wine can be problematic when pairing with cheese, whereas beer and cheese have similar production methods (they’re both grass-based, fermented products, and tend to have similar flavor profiles- toasty, malty, yeasty, nutty, etc.).

Despite being a long-time Colorado resident, I confess I only got into beer fairly recently (my aversion being due to the usual generalized chick reasons: bloating, sleepiness, emotional scarring from too many warm, shitty, skunky brewskis at college keggers, and a still-rampant dislike of turbo-hopped beers). Fortunately, being in the cheese industry and living in a state home to some of the nation’s top craft brewers has set me straight.

While there are some key tips to follow with regard to pairing, there are exceptions to every rule. I say, eat and drink what you enjoy, dissenters and haters be damned. The cheese police are not going to come kick down your door. Still, a good match is, in the words of my lovely Cheese for Dummies co-author Lassa Skinner, like a good marriage. Both parties should have their own, distinct, positive qualities, but when combined, magic happens. Here are some tips to bear in mind when you’re shopping for a pairing:

  • Match intensities. A chocolatey Stout will completely overpower many cheeses. Conversely, a soft, delicate varietal will be lost when paired with a super funky or sharp cheese.
  • Bear terroir in mind. Don’t just assume “this beer style will go with this cheese,” because variations in climate, geography, vintage, and production method vary greatly. The same is true of cheese. Ultimately, tasting before you buy or serve is the best way to determine if you have a match; barring that, talk to your cheesemonger (or buy my book!).
  • Aim for similarities or contrasts. A rich, buttery cheese such as a triple crème or brie will go well with a beer with similar qualities. That said, too much butteriness is overkill. You want your palate to be refreshed and cleansed by the beverage.
  • Strive for balance; when in doubt, I’d go for something light and effervescent, be it a cheap Mexican brew or a killer lambic or saison.
  • Think about what you’re trying to achieve. If you have a super bomb, special cheese, talk to your local wine shop about what to serve with it. Conversely, if you have a limited edition import, make sure you find a cheese that does it justice.
Hello, Cantillon Kriek.

Hello, Cantillon Kriek.

I’ve compiled a little cheatsheet for you, to help you wrap your head around some basic beer and cheese love matches. Give these a try:

  • Fresh cheeses like burrata, mozzarella, or chevre: Lager or Pils.
  • Camembert or othery earthy, mushroomy bloomy-rinds: A fruit or vegetable beer, like Rumpkin barrel-aged pumpkin ale, from Avery Brewing Co.
  • Floral, grassy, or ash-coated bloomy rinds, like La Tur and St. Marcellin: Lambics, Saisons, or a Trappist Ales.
  • Blues: Try a fruity, non-assertive variety like Rogue River Blue (which is washed in brandy-soaked Syrah leaves) with a Kriek (cherry lambic) like Crooked Stave Mama Bear’s Sour Cherry Pie.
  • Nutty alpine styles or hard, aged cheeses like Cheddar, Gouda, or Pleasant Ridge Reserve, from Uplands Cheese Company: Go for a Porter or Stout; the deep, rich, complex flavors will play well of the buttery rich, umami notes in the cheese.
  • Washed rinds like Epoisses, Livorot, Pont l’Eveque, or funky domestics like Grayson, by Meadow Creek Dairy: Trappist ales, hard ciders, lambic, or floral IPA’s, baby.
  • Semi-soft, mild cheeses like Jack or Havarti: Lager, Pilsner, or a Mexican cerveza.
  • Aged cheeses like Beemster XO Gouda, robusto, or an alpine style like Gruyere will do right by a Porter or Stout.
Photo love: Murray's Cheese

Photo love: Murray’s Cheese