Monday, January 24, 2011

The Vegetable/Ceramics Exchange

Bari's ceramic piece traded for veggies.
I met artist Bari Ziperstein when I participated in her "plate project" at LACMA.  I loved the project and stayed in touch with Bari, who recently revealed an interesting bit of personal trivia-- she trades ceramics for vegetables with her friend Vi Thuc Ha.  I was intrigued by this idea, but became even more interested when her friend turned out to be someone that my friend Amy had wanted me to meet for ages.  (I knew her as "the woman who taught Amy to cure bacon".)  We'd tried to arrange a meeting with the mythical Vi for some time, but it hadn't worked out for one reason or another.  This was my chance.  I asked Bari if she could arrange a meeting for me to meet Vi and discuss her bartering system with Bari.
Vi and Bari in front of collard green tree in Vi's garden.
Our meeting took place at Vi's home in Chavez Ravine, which is a unique part of Los Angeles with a complex history.  Before Dodger Stadium was built, Chavez Ravine was a thriving Mexican-American community of single family homes.  Most of the remaining houses in Chavez Ravine have always been owned by members of the same family, which makes Chavez Ravine a close-knit neighborhood.  Because of it's sense of history and community, a number of artists have gravitated to the few houses that aren't still occupied by the families that built them.

Vi's house, like many in the neighborhood, is large and has a great backyard space.  Vi originally started her garden with Michael Parker, an old classmate from Pomona College.  Together they built a free-flowing garden that used a system of trenches around the base of each plant to help conserve water.  The garden is composed mostly of perennials (plants that come back year after year).  This is unusual for a vegetable garden, which is normally planted with annuals (plants that must be replanted each year).  Vi even introduced me to a plant I'd never heard of-- a collard green tree.  I've eaten plenty of collard greens in my day and grown some too, but a collard green tree is an entirely different beast.  It grows on stalks so large that the dead branches can be broken off and used as walking sticks.  It's an amazingly hearty plant and great for a busy (or in my case, lazy) gardener.  Vi also grows lots of herbs including lavender, lemon verbena, and mint.  Another interesting plant in Vi's garden is the cardoon plant, which is a relative of the artichoke.  Vi grows it mostly as an ornamental plant because she loves it's large size, but says it CAN be eaten with a little work.
Cardoon plant, relative of the artichoke, in Vi's garden.
Vi not only supplies Bari with vegetables in exchange for ceramics, she also provides simple recipes and suggestions on how to use the produce she gives her.  I can see why Bari loves their trading sessions so much-- Vi is a wealth of food-related information.  In addition to showing me the first collard green tree I've ever seen, she also gave me the names of two great markets in Chinatown and convinced me to make my own ricotta based on a recipe by Lynne Rossetto Kasper.  (Vi assured me that ricotta is very simple to make and that I can ignore much of the recipe's instruction.  I'll report back after I've tried it.)

On the way out the back door to her garden, Vi showed me her "mothers"for homemade red-wine vinegar and kombucha.  Regular readers of this blog know that I'm wary of "mothers" (also known as "starters") after my experience with Amish Friendship Bread.  But I must admit that kombucha is pretty interesting.  Kombucha is a fermented tea that is said to have numerous health benefits including aiding digestion, preventing cancer and stimulating the immune system.  A bit of online research revealed that it is probably Chinese in origin, although it is also popular in Russia and is gaining a following throughout the world.  To make a batch of kombucha tea, the starter is added to a container of sweetened tea and left to can be sit unrefrigerated for a period of 7 to 14 days.  During this time, the "mother" will produce "babies" that are starters for new batches of kombucha.  I'm certainly not ready to embark on another project that requires taking care of another "mother" and an endless stream of "babies", but I do hope to publish a blog report on a variety of fermentation processes and kombucha will certainly be included.  I don't know if Vi has yet entered into a kombucha exchange, but I do know that the "mother" will keep on giving with a minimum amount of care.  It is very much like a perennial garden in this way.
"Mothers" for kombucha and red wine vinegar on Vi's shelf, January 2011.
Vi's knowledge and generosity contribute to the success of the vegetable/ceramics trade economy.  It is very much an equal exchange, not only of goods, but also of information, creativity and support.  As a gardener, I know it can be overwhelming to suddenly have more produce than I can eat.  It's no fun to think of delicious produce going to waste at the height of the growing season.  Knowing that you can share the fruits of your labor makes the hard work of gardening worthwhile.  (There's only so much kale that any one person can eat after all.)

Bari told me that she also saw their trade system as a way to get to know Vi.  What could be better than creating a friendship through a mutual love of produce?  Sharing a history of ingredients, recipes and stories simply makes food taste better.  And of course, for Vi there's also the benefit of acquiring Bari's art.  Bari makes weirdly beautiful ceramics and Vi now gets to enjoy her work every day.  It's a new kind of economy based on an old model.  And luckily for me, it's one that is open for expansion.  I'm looking forward to making ricotta, exploring the markets of Chinatown, and trying a new recipe for cranberry oatmeal cookies.  As I make use of my newfound knowledge and resources, I will be thinking of Vi, Bari, and the vegetable/ceramics exchange that provides much more than garden produce and affordable art.  And I'm wondering if Vi might be willing to trade some of her delicious fresh collard greens for the Seville oranges that we now have ripening in our backyard.