At The Crossroads: Morning Star Farm and Southwestern Biodynamics
Melinda Bateman’s jaw was set taut against the backdrop of a deep blue mountain sky. In the background, Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico, sat silently majestic and seemed almost close enough to touch in the yellow sunlight of a summer’s morning. In spite of the grandeur of the scene, however, Melinda is deeply troubled, looking the part of a dust-bowl farmer in overall dungarees and wide-brimmed cotton sun hat, her wraparound sunglasses the only clue to her contemporary setting. In profile I’m watching her as she describes how the day before, a dust devil (a sort of miniature tornado) had ripped through her farm and torn the roof off her large greenhouse – a catastrophe that will set her back considerably. She’s unsure of where the resources for a new roof will come from. “Should she charge it and gamble on making the money back soon?” she ponders aloud, or, “should she shut the farm down and re-group?” She stops speaking for a moment, and while still surveying the torn roof in the distance evenly adds, “I don’t know…I’m tired, Joseph. I don’t know how much longer I can do this.”
It’s been a long year for Melinda and Taos Farmers in general. The Year of the Black Snake has been tempestuous, and most of all, windy, as evidenced by the sight of Melinda’s new “convertible” greenhouse. Despite the recent setbacks, and amidst the uncertainty of the future, the farm plods along. As we speak, squash are planted behind us in orderly rows across an open and richly soiled portion of the small farm in Arroyo Seco, north of Taos. The sun rises in a pale -blue sky as the temperature climbs, and as we’re starting to feel the heat, we quickly duck under the cover of a small open shed into cool shade.
We start talking about her use of Biodynamics at the farm, and Melinda immediately perks up. She’s been captivated by the way it’s improved soil quality, as well as consistently produced delicious vegetables. But more than that, she seems to truly believe in the way Biodynamics sees the farm as an organism – a living entity connected to a larger series of organisms that takes its cues from solar and lunar cycles, as well as all other planetary influences from our solar system. It’s not a popular view. Nor is it well known here in northern New Mexico. It’s a point Melinda’s acutely aware of. Accordingly, she’s begun offering Biodynamic workshops – planting perhaps the most hopeful of all her crops – in order to get consumers thinking about the qualitative value of food.
Here in Taos, only a handful of restaurants know about Melinda’s produce. Despite the area’s long tradition of natural farming, pre-dating Spanish occupation, organic and biodynamic farming is something that’s currently done on a rather small-scale here. Biodynamics comes closer to traditional Southwestern farming than any other style currently employed. Its use of sun, moon, and other astronomical patterns in conjunction with application of the six biodynamic preparations to the compost pile and two horn preparations to crops at specific times echoes a Pueblo viewpoint, where such matters are considered not only relevant, but necessary. Biodynamics has at its core a worldview that takes Earth’s unseen forces at work into consideration, taking into account the “spiritual” component of the equation, much as the ancient farmers of the Southwest did.
Rudolf Steiner’s original lecture, delivered in Poland, 1924 was appropriately entitled “Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture,” and was delivered as a favor to a group of farmers who had come to him concerned about crop yields, seed proliferation and animal disease – all effects of chemical use in the First World War. The lectures were seen as a way to directly combat these problems, but as Steiner passed on about a year after the lectures were delivered, it was up to his inner-circle to develop them to the point they could be introduced to a broader audience. The process took fourteen years, (producing organic farming as an off-shoot in the process) culminating in the publication of Ehrenfried Pfeiffer’s 1938 “Bio-Dynamic Farming and Gardening.”
The biggest boost for Biodynamic Farming came a couple of decades ago when high-end French Winemakers began to espouse the benefits of the method. The American and Global market was intrigued, but as the system runs contradictory to large-scale production and requires unusual practices (such as filling a cow horn with cow dung at a particular time of the year and burying it, then digging it up six months later to make a tea of it to apply to crops,) Biodynamics was deemed “voodoo” by the larger commercial agricultural community. The stigma has stayed, even in the face of gaining empirical evidence that enforces the assertion that Biodynamic practices increase plant and soil health, increases flavor, and can even increase crop yield in some instances.
A couple of days after meeting Melinda at her farm we agree to get together at the Hanuman Temple, (conceived by “Be Here Now” author and 70’s spiritual icon, Ram Dass), in Taos for a cup of Chai and to discuss her current predicament. She seems more relaxed in the late afternoon sun, with a calmness that allows her femininity to emerge. She’s rather forthcoming about her plans to spread Biodynamics across the state and beyond, eager to parlay her years of experience into a holistic understanding of the process.
It’s been a long road for Melinda and her farm. The latter being certified Organic in 1992 – the fifth farm in New Mexico to achieve said status. However, in 2005 the Federal Government usurped the state certifying agencies, a move she perceived as purely economic, with big corporations as architect of the move in order to garner the lion’s share of profit from the fastest growing sector of the food industry: Organics. Correspondingly, she applied her first batch of the aforementioned cow-horn preparation (Biodynamic Preparation #500) and built her first compost pile in 2000. The move immediately paid dividends in the form of improved soil tilth, less pest pressure and plant disease, as well as reducing water usage by half. Melinda says her customers consistently remark on how tasty the produce is, how well it stores, and how much more energetic they feel when ingesting Biodynamic produce.
In spite of the accolades Melinda receives for her work, she still wears a forlorn look as we sit in the shade and she sips her Chai. She seems daunted by the enormity of the endeavor; seeming both determined and tentative, caught between the uncertainty of the project and her hopes and aspirations. Farming isn’t just a way of living for Melinda; it’s a way of doing her part to help make the world a better place: a civic and spiritual duty that she passionately pursues, oftentimes barely getting by.
As she speaks, I’m reminded of Neem Karoli Baba’s words to Harvard Professor and LSD guru, Dr. Richard Alpert, aka Ram Dass, the former being the root guru, the latter the aspiring student, when Alpert was travelling throughout India in the sixties on a journey of self-discovery.
After studying with Neem Karoli for a short time, Alpert is unexpectedly summoned for a private audience with him. He goes in and sits, facing the Guru, who silently regards him for a few moments before quietly asking,
“You make many people laugh in America?”
“Yes, I like to do that,” Alpert sheepishly replies.
“Good…You like to feed children?” “
“Good.” Guru replies.
He asks a few more innocuous questions, which Alpert patiently answers. And then, suddenly, Guru reaches forward and lightly taps him on the forehead three times. What happened next is unclear, as Alpert himself says he truly can’t remember. What is known is that the experience leaves him a weeping mass of raw nerves balled up on the floor in semi-fetal position. He is picked up by several attendees who gently carry him out. Witnesses claim that as he emerged from the Chalet a few moments later, he appeared to be in a very high state with tears silently streaming down his face: Dr. Richard Alpert had become Ram Dass. After a break in the conversation, I remind Melinda of Neem Karoli’s words to Ram Dass as we sit in the shade of the temple he helped build. She sits back for a moment, perhaps ruminating on the thought, as we both silently look out at the lengthening shadows as they slowly creep across the lawn.
All Along the Watchtower: Fred Muller’s El Meze & the Sephardic Roots of New Mexican Cuisine
“The imagination has been so debased that imagination – being imaginative – rather than being the lynch pin of our existence now stands as a synonym for something outside ourselves like Science Fiction or some new use for tangerine slices on raw pork chops – what an imaginative summer recipe – and Star Wars! So imaginative and Star Trek – so imaginative! And Lord of the Rings – all those dwarves – so imaginative! The Imagination has moved out of the realm of being our link, our most personal link, with our inner lives and the world outside that world – this world that we share.”
The Character of “Paul”, from John Guare’s Play Six Degrees of Separation
As Fred Muller, owner and chef of El Meze restaurant and I were enthusiastically discussing New Mexican History out on the patio of his Taos Restaurant one recent blustery mid-summer’s day, Pueblo Peak looming large and stonily-silent in the background, I suddenly realized our view of the subject would be considered unique by some, not so much for a re-writing of history, as for changing the focus on the players involved. Strangely enough, we we’re discussing how recent scholarship has uncovered the crypto-Judaic roots of a portion of the original New Mexican Hispano settlers; immigrants from Spain who arrived in Mexico City fleeing the severe persecution of the Inquisition prior to joining settlement parties moving north into New Mexico.
It’s nothing new, oftentimes Authors, Anthropologists or Historians have detailed traces of the now vanished high culture of Moorish and Sephardic Spain evident in New Mexican architecture, jewelry and design, as well as its acequia system. While researching for his 1995 book La Comida: The Foods, Cooking and Traditions of the upper Rio Grande, Fred discovered uncanny parallels between Middle Eastern and Upper Rio Grande food. He began to incorporate some of those themes into his cooking, deftly combining, for example…Moroccan preserved lemon and spices to local Trout, in the process bringing the past together with the present on one plate. On his Menu he refers to his food as “La Comida de las Sierras,” the food of the mountains. His regionally inspired and uniquely American cuisine draws on fresh, local products; trout, corn, chilies, foraged mushrooms and biodynamic and organic produce. The quality of these products is paramount – the crux of a culinary vision that spans decades and continents, giving substance to a complex thought process whose underlying element is perhaps the single-most important factor for any Chef’s success: imagination.
Born in the South, but raised in Switzerland, Fred’s a born traveler. Ironically, our mutual paths have crossed one another’s since the 80’s between Europe, Colorado, California and New Mexico… and back. This cultural map allowed us to share anecdotes about restaurants we dined and worked in, establishing landmarks with one another. He’s a brilliant conversationalist and has more than a little of the cultural anthropologist in him. He’s seen a lot and as a restaurant veteran does things mostly on his own terms. Having spent time in California’s Bay Area, he was introduced to the Farm To Table concept as it was developing, and he still cooks according to those principles, even adding to them and making them more uniquely his.
Uncannily, I had made plans to meet Morning Star Farm of Taos’ Melinda Bateman the day after I met with Fred, but to my surprise as Fred and I were in the kitchen of El Meze talking, Melinda walked in carrying produce for him. Fred introduced us and we all got carried away discussing Biodynamic farming. At first I thought it peculiar, running into Melinda there, but as I thought about it and watched them talk, it was evident they had a longtime working relationship, and it just seemed serendipitous. In the cool, sterile environment of Fred’s kitchen, gleaming silver and organized prior to the evening’s service, I felt oddly at home, hanging out with him and Melinda. There’s a real and honest communication between them, which is refreshing to see between Restaurateur and Producer. It comes down to the care they take in their respective jobs. Melinda knows her produce will make it to the plate, so she wants to put her best foot forward. Fred knows she’s done so, sweated and struggled in the process, so he in turn does his best to bring out the best in the produce. Unfortunately, “fresh and local” generally equate to more expensive, and in economically challenged Taos, that means taking a risk. Fred’s taken that into account however, and has a variety of items one might piece together “tapas” style, all at $8 a plate, still a little steep, but when you take into consideration the quality of the merchandise and the focus on nutrition, and in turn that effect on your health, it all seems worth it.
On a recent visit there, I had the Andalusian style Chicharrones at that price and was happy to do so. Crispy and simultaneously tender, they paired equally well with a glass of the scrumptious Northern Italian white Friulano, as well as a Sparkling Rosé Cava. There’s a cosmopolitan and timeless quality to the rustically presented plates at El Meze. The trick being that the process has been deconstructed and put back together, over and over again by Fred through several decades. He’s had time to organically find what works from his vast imagination to the plate. Nothing seems contrived; everything makes sense. Perhaps it’s these qualities that led to a James Beard Award – the Academy Awards of Food – “Best Chef of the Southwest” nomination. The kudos is well deserved. On a recent visit Service was impeccable, the pacing perfect. It became evident to me during the course of my dinner, that I could trust the Chef to provide whatever I desired, in the fashion of the Japanese omakase, to entrust the Chef with sending what he felt were his best dishes, and I would have been satisfied.
The Restaurant is part of an old Hacienda and Fortress built by the Cardenas family in 1840. The main feature of the complex is the Torreon, or watchtower – a necessary spot to sight and subdue Comanche, Apache, and Navajo raiding parties. The view of Pueblo Peak and the rustic courtyard combined with the food rival any fine dining experience in any city, on any continent. The Menu’s not so much extensive as concise. Everything is there in its rustic simplicity, showing the depth of flavor that comes from natural ingredients and processes. And at the same time, it’s a pastiche of exotic elements: lavender, cardamom, Moroccan mint tea…a Buffalo Tamale in Chile Verde with an excellent organically produced Feta from Tucumcari, New Mexico… If you’re in Taos and you find its suppertime, head on over to El Meze and do yourself a favor. It would behoove one to phone ahead.
1017 Paseo del Pueblo Norte
El Prado, NM 87529
Mon. – Sat. 5:30 – 9:30