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Learning to Dig. Why the Way Back Up is Down.

Edible Communities / Erin Wade / July 10, 2020


Sometimes I sit with my elbows on my kitchen counter and stare at the red cabbage sprouts. I look closer until I find new ones that have poked through the soil, wearing their husks like a hat. Their spicy funk—the same compound that makes wasabi hot—tickles my nostrils.


I wonder if my restaurants will be open when they grow up.


My garage is full of discarded junk and paperwork from the six restaurants I’ve opened over the last twelve years. I keep meaning to sort through it, but end up skulking around the edges, pulling out odds and ends I can use in the garden, or to start more of the seeds that are covering my kitchen table.


One morning, I find two jugs, the kind used for growlers of beer. I tote them around with me to water the seeds I’ve tucked in secret spots in the garden so I don’t have to lug a hose. My special talent is tying hoses in knots.


I have to get my face almost to the dirt to see if my sunflowers have germinated. I’m close enough to see a red ant hauling a piece of straw, lilting and swaying over dimples and hillocks; close enough to see a snail, shell speckled like the skin of a rattlesnake. A line of green goosenecks appears—where I swear I had already looked—sunflower stems unfolding through the crusted soil.


For the first time in my career, I don’t know what to do.


I’ve made mistakes before—my garage is full of them—but I made them.


I was the person who could make the decision. I knew how long our lardons should be (three-quarters of an inch), how wide our butcher block tables should be (two feet), the perfect shade of grey for the grout inside our custom green tile (pearl grey) and how much salt and pepper and acid should be in each of our eighteen vinaigrettes.


But I don’t know how our dining rooms can run like hospitals. How they will feel with yawning gaps between tables. I don’t know when to open, how to open, what to do about staff who don’t want to come back.


It’s not just COVID, really, although the fear of its repercussions sits like a lump in my throat.


It’s the feeling that even before COVID we were becoming a food factory.


Like our food, my restaurant and I are trapped in a box we never intended to be in. We are farther from our purpose, farther from our people, glued to our screens.


But this is not where the story starts.


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When all my restaurants closed, I overused the word “unprecedented,” trying to convey the obvious point that we had no map for this.


I kept saying “scrappy” to remind us how good we are at finding a way to make things work that wanted to quit—like the spice grinder we rig with a toothpick and a mayonnaise lid.


I was worried but also relieved. I was tired of being scrappy.


Something had changed, in the last five or six years, splitting my career in half like the avocados we cut by the hundreds for lunch. Everything had gotten just a little bit harder and a little less profitable. But it was hard to notice. In environmental science this is called the shifting baseline theory, the way our current normal tends to erase our accurate memory of the past so we don’t notice how bad things are getting.


For the first time since 2008, when I opened Vinaigrette Santa Fe, I had time to look at things that had been in constant motion. I could see things that had been unclear, like a blurry snapshot from a speeding train. But I had been the train. I was moving too fast. I had too many restaurants, too many projects.


The farm—home—had become a bunch of things to check off on a to-do list, a place I was passing through on the way to put out some fire.


Things I hadn’t noticed were suddenly staring me in the face.


The soil in the beds I had dug and smugly thought we had been improving with our restaurant-scrap compost and cover crop was overworked. It had lost its oomph.


A good quarter of the beds were infested with bindweed, the white whale of noxious weeds that tests every organic farmer’s commitment. Bindweed grows so fast and covers so completely, it strangles everything you’ve planted. It suckers when you pull it, and ten more shoots sprout from the injury. (It has me considering a nine-hundred-dollar blow-torch weeder set with a backpack propane tank and a rolling flame wand.)


I could see, too, that the world of food I loved was facing the same predicament as my garden beds.


Restaurants were battling opportunistic outsiders that were making it hard to survive.


The obvious ones were Grubhub, DoorDash, UberEats—all the third-party delivery apps I’d been railing about for years.


The less obvious ones were Facebook, Instagram, YouTube—slick technologies we had rushed to populate with pretty pictures and videos of our interiors and food. But they were eating up our customers’ time and attention. And we were ponying up our best ideas to the wide-open internet where big companies who paid people to scan for trends could gobble them up.


The demand to stay fresh and relevant was relentless and the hunger for digital “content” and “stories” was voracious.


Meanwhile, the need for old-fashioned experience and the gentler stimulation of food and fellowship—what we were made for—dwindled.


When had the things I loved to do—farming in tune with nature, designing spaces that delight people, making delicious food that nourishes them—begun to feel peripheral? Why did everything feel like an uphill battle? Was this the invisible hand of capitalism, eighty-sixing us?


When it all ground to a halt, I decided to do something different. And, I pledged to do it all by myself with my hands—literally—back in the dirt.


I had read about the Zuni tradition of waffle gardens in a book called Lo-tek: Design by Radical Indigenism.


In a Zuni waffle, you dig below grade and plant into the cool earth and make walls around your plants, instead of mounding the soil up, which is what we at the farm and about every farmer in America does with our rows or raised beds.


The plot is a grid of walled squares, each one for a family of corn, bean, and squash. A waffle.


You can start the walls of your waffle with a shovel and a hoe, roughing the squares in, but there is no good way to form the walls without using your hands, like making sandcastles at the beach.


One morning I was busy working on my waffles when the sun came up over the cottonwoods and started cooking my back under an ill-chosen black t-shirt. The cool morning evaporated. All around me, the ground was already bone dry, but the soil inside my crude waffles stayed wet with dew.


I realized, right there, sitting in the dirt, covered in dirt, I had been doing everything backwards. I had gone up when I should have gone down.


I thought I knew that in the desert water is life.


But I hadn’t understood what that meant.


Zunis know that it doesn’t matter how high you’ve fluffed your dirt or how much biodynamic compost you add, the water is always going to run down into the low places and take the good stuff with it.


Digging those waffles shook something loose in me.


I care about sustainability and I worry all the time about climate change and water waste, but it was being up close to the soil and the sun and the worms that cracked me open.


I wanted to heal for the joy of it, not out of some lingering guilt, or some abstract sense of obligation.


Javi, who works and lives at the farm full time, and Jeff, my fiancé, and I started building sandcastle walls around all our beds so the water would stay inside.


I found a broken carafe in the garage, filled it with molasses and compost, and made a microorganism tea to pour over struggling soil.


I started mulching everything, not because I knew I should, but because it was there in my fingertips—an understanding of how much the soil likes to be shaded.


The fat worms, I realized, were under the sunken pathways in our garden, under the bark where we had been walking, not in the beds.


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Because we don’t need as many people or shifts at the restaurants, a bunch of Santa Fe cooks have been working at the farm instead.


I look out and see Esperanza, kneeling beside a bed where we’ve just transplanted tomatoes.


She started at Vinaigrette in 2008, as a dishwasher, and now is one of our best cooks. I’ve watched her make thousands of salads over the years. I’ve asked her if there is avocado inside and on top of the Omega Salad probably a hundred times. She has somehow managed to respond, every time, with a perfectly gentle seasoning of irony tucked inside two words: “Si, Jefa.”


Now she is sitting in a narrow triangle of light, and it’s shining on her funny pink hat.


She is thinning out the spears of grass that have seeded into the basil sprouts. Her hands are moving up and down as if she were typing—fast. She is completely focused, lost in the task, bathed in her pool of light, so she won’t accidentally pull up a baby basil plant.


She is giving them a bit more room to grow. I didn’t ask her to do this. She just knows they need it.


Across the garden, Javi is cutting lettuces into a tub to be washed three times, spun dry, and delivered to Vinaigrette.


Fidel, a cook at Modern General, is watering and whistling along with the awkward crow of a young rooster and the two-note query of a variegated thrush.


For a moment, I have that crazy feeling I sometimes get in the restaurant, on a really great shift. It’s a glow that starts in my belly and radiates out, like the light bouncing off Esperanza’s floppy hat.


Sometimes when the music is thrumming and the candles are out, and the buzz of people talking and eating fills the room, some swirling sense of well-being just creeps up on you.


But you can’t force it.


You can only make a vessel for it, a place where people take care of one another, with good food and tables we’ve straightened fourteen times that day, and hope it fills up.


Life has a surface tension. Like water, it beads up, and we are skating over the surface like water bugs, but we just can’t seem to get wet.


In those moments in restaurants when it all comes together, balanced there on a pinpoint—the food and the faces and the company and the conversation and the bustling servers and the clinking glasses and the glowing lights—the moment opens and lets you in.


And then you realize—we only get in together.


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Wendell Berry said that “eating is an agricultural act.”


His essay, “On the Pleasures of Eating,” called for eaters to “eat responsibly,” and to think of themselves as “participants in agriculture” that had “an active and responsible part in the economy of food.”


In other words, he wanted eaters to draw closer to the sources of their food—to have empathy for the land and people that grew it.


Years later, in 2006, this idea inspired Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and the food movement, that loosely knit coalition fighting for alternatives to industrial agriculture.


Being a responsible eater in those early days of the movement wasn’t easy.


Farmers markets were scattered and rare; organic food wasn’t monopolized by a glittering colossus owned by Amazon.


But as the movement gained traction, demand for organic and sustainably grown food increased, and so did supply. It became easier to feel blissfully responsible.


Over time, the vocabulary of the food movement, especially “farm to table,” became marketing terms, rather than literal, economic realities.


And somewhere in there, the eater was led astray.


The eater now thinks that her “responsibility” is in choosing restaurant A on a blue screen over restaurant B, because restaurant A has been designated “healthy and organic” or “farm to table.” She does not realize that the $12-billion app she is using to have her meal delivered will take that “farm to table” restaurant’s profit, decreasing the money it can pay farmers.


The food movement started as a celebration of what I call friction—for doing things the slow way, the one that encourages life—on farms, in the soil, in local communities.


Powerful companies made us believe that friction is bad because it stymies our ability to eat a burger out of a box while binge-watching Netflix.


The burger is local, the ketchup is house-made, but are we, in Wendell Berry’s words, “imagining the connections between eating and the land”? Are we imagining anything?


The digital platforms we spend more and more of our time on are designed to eliminate friction. But friction rubbed the bedrock of the earth into soil that plants could root in. Without friction, there would be no dirt. Without friction, water keeps rolling downhill. It doesn’t stop to make life.


As we’re rolling along—skimming over things, swiping fast and faster, with barely a glance and only a whisper of feeling—there is no time for life to sink in, for those moments of meaning, those moments of happiness that come out of nowhere and everywhere.


Restaurants have been places for those moments. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they began and flourished with the rise of democracy, or that they are suffering as it declines.


We are vessels—an invitation—like the Zuni waffles I learned to dig.


Every morning for hours, I’m growing flowers for dining rooms that might never be full again.


I’m growing warty, curved, crazy gourds to pile by front doors in the fall, when we may be shut down all over again.


And I’m waiting for something to sprout.