Carol Ann Sayle
Most customers come to our urban farm for very fresh (much of it harvested during market) USDA certified-organic produce. Invariably however, many are swayed by the jars of preserved produce crowded together on a couple of sagging shelves near the cashiers' checkout tables. The offerings are sort of our version of candy and tell-all magazines in a grocery store, you might say. Tempting, I reckon, as customers stuck in line have a few moments to peruse the labels (mostly computer-generated, as professional labels can't be produced for sudden culinary whims) and usually they can't stand not to try Larry's products.
Years ago, desiring to take our extra produce and create "value-added" products to fluff up our farmstand's selections, Larry, my husband and co-farmer, installed a commercial kitchen at our rural farm, which is six miles down a sand road from the village of Gause, his hometown.
The kitchen, actually an added-on portable building, is as small as a child's bedroom, but, importantly, it contains everything deemed necessary by the state health department. And, as many people know, you can walk yourself to death in a big kitchen. Larry and Pamela, his assistant, do enough walking in the fields, and so appreciate the economy of steps required to turn out jams, tomato juices, pickles, and salsas.
The two most important furnishings in the kitchen, other than the required family of sinks, are the big steam kettle and the window air conditioner. One makes the other necessary, as you folks who love to "put up" stuff know that this need typically strikes you in the high-heat days of summer. The air conditioner can't really keep up with the steam kettle and its roiling, boiling juices and lumps of produce, but a quick detour to put your face in cold air helps a lot.
People at the farmstand often ask me how I make this and that, but I'm always proud, and relieved, to tell them that actually if I made these items they'd be different every week. Larry, possessed of a good sense of "taste," can create a recipe, get Pamela to write it down, and stick to it admirably so that the product has consistency of flavor from batch to batch.
The only problem is that some of the produce doesn't want to be consistent. Take jalapeño peppers for instance. One year they are hotter-than-Helotes (a Texas town), and another year they are not so hot. You just can't count on them to be of the same mind all the time.
The current crop of pickled jalapeño peppers, made from fruit sporting those wicked, crinkly heat wrinkles, is blue-blaze hot. I took one teeny bite off the tip of one which Larry promised wouldn't be "too hot," and my tongue was seared for the rest of the evening. While I love the flavor, I guess I am overly protective of my taste buds.
After my experience, we felt we should warn customers that the pickled jalapeño peppers might take the tops of their heads off—so fair warning. In fact, viewing my discomfort, Larry had me make a sign proclaiming that these peppers are for MEN only.
Naturally Larry finds great glee in this advisory and takes pleasure in conveying the restriction to just about every woman who comes near the sagging shelves. Many of the ladies raise one eyebrow at him, as their hand snakes over to a jar. "Well," he says, "of course if you want to get some for your man, that'd be all right!"
It's amazing how many women buy "Larry's Fire-roasted Jalapeño Peppers." Yes (insult to injury): " fire-roasted." Before he pickles them, he burns the chiles all over with a "pear burner" (a metal tube thing with fire at one end and a propane bottle at the other—used to burn off spines on cactus so cattle can eat the pads when, in a drought, there is nothing left in Texas to eat). The peppers cool, and then he and Pamela rub off most of the charred skin.
And the women (buying perhaps their first and last jar) go for them. Men too, of course. They seem to love seeing a product that is just for them. (They wish that tomatoes also were that way. More for them!)