The joint endeavor of Mission District housemates Kale Daikon and Eggplant Kohlrabi (a.k.a. Katrina Dodson and Erin Klenow), Weird Vegetables sprouts a cut above most local food blogs. Do not, for starters, confuse it with a younger, much less weird San Francisco-based rival going by the same name, a site dedicated, seemingly quite seriously, to “celebrating diversity throughout the plant kingdom.” In contrast, the one of which I write inhabits a special dimension of biological whimsy, where the crisper spills forth a menagerie of anthropomorphic leaves, roots, and legumes, and a trip to the farmer’s market feels like a twisted safari through unfamiliar lands. Stuffed into the blog’s strange sieve of language and thought, vegetables are not merely waxed, sticker-tagged produce; they are characters. Identities, needs, wants, and feelings squirm within their husks and peels as well as flavors and nutrients. For Dodson and Klenow, they are ripe springboards for gleeful leaps into philosophy, linguistics, and general poetic absurdity as well as cookery.
Each entry often starts with a vegetable one of them has picked up at the store or market. From there, the specimen is assessed, first as object, then as food, an introduction irrigated with historical context and preparation suggestions, and subsequently sacrificed at the altar of their imagination. Take, for example, the August 2008 post on the lemon cucumber, in which Dodson sums up the chosen veggie as “a piece of produce that boasts the vaguely exotic yet familiar allure of the hybrid, the indeterminate, the mestizo…this fruit masquerading as a vegetable disguised as a fruit (a kind of double drag, F to V to F).” In the April 2009 treatise on farro (“Long Ago, a Farro Way”), a lisp-kissed summary of The Princess Bride acts as preamble to a discussion of the ancient grain’s venerability and value, “farro” being, after all, a word perhaps best spoken with “a faraway look” in one’s eyes. Clearly, vegetables are weird, often much weirder than we think, and the ways in which people treat these things they plant and eat says something about people too: namely, that they are weird as well. In early June, I visited the bloggers at their house. We skipped through the magic mustard greens garden, scouted scapes, and talked turnips.
Andrew Simmons: I like how your blog shares practical advice about actually cooking vegetables but also presents them as vibrant players in a somewhat goofy bio-cultural drama. What got you into vegetables? Did the blog evolve organically?
Katrina Dodson: I go to farmers’ markets all the time and I spend a lot of time around food people, so I’ve learned something about vegetables from them as well.
AS: Why are vegetables weird?
KD: Certain types of vegetables can be weird because people don’t normally eat them or aren’t used to them, or they can be more common individual vegetables, like carrots and potatoes, that just look weird. I’m also really interested in the weirdness of language and how strange the naming of vegetables can be. I’m working on a Ph.D. in comparative literature right now so I think about metaphors all the time. That’s the latest level of weirdness on the blog, the newest terrain.
Erin Klenow: I like how the name of a vegetable can freak someone out. The fact that something is called a blood orange is enough to get people to avoid eating it. And nipple fruit? It’s pretty funny.
KD: Also known as titty fruit.
EK: It’s often noted that people have aversions to eating gross parts of animals but when I mention a certain vegetable to some people, they just go ew ew ew.
KD: There’s also the misguided idea that vegetarianism is boring, like you run out of things to eat because you just eat vegetables and nothing else. We’re not vegetarians, by the way.
EK: When people ask me if I’m a vegetarian, I just say I only eat expensive meat.
KD: I taught a class at Berkeley on food called “Eating and Being Eaten.” It was all about how food is always more than just food. Having that dialogue in my head really affected the blog.
AS: What did the class read?
KD: A lot of different things. There was a food politics section. We read some of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and talked about My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki and Kafka’s A Hunger Artist. There was a whole meat theme. We talked about cannibalism too, because that’s a topic I’m really interested in.
AS: You have to bring that up at some point when you’re talking about the idea of eating meat.
KD: There’s a necessary violence that happens in the mere act of survival. You have to acknowledge it. Even vegetarians consume living things.
AS: When you write about vegetables, they sound like animals or aliens, bizarre creatures that might scuttle off the table. It’s carnivorous, in a sense. Why don’t you write about fruit?
EK: We do sometimes.
KD: They’re technically a subset of vegetables. Vegetables are weirder than fruit though. People are more okay with weird fruit. They’re sugary, luscious, and voluptuous. Fruit is meant to seduce. That’s its biological function. Vegetables are gross. They have weird outgrowths. They’re all like take it or leave it. In the lemon cucumber post, we talked about how “vegetable” is a cultural determination whereas “fruit” is biological. A fruit is any plant with an enclosed seed that comes from a flower. That’s scientifically established, but vegetables are really undefined. They’re just the edible parts of plants. Technically, anything goes.
AS: Erin, do you work in the food world?
EK: I was a waitress for a long time. Three years ago, I worked as an expeditor at Quince. I had to learn everything on the menu. I read a lot of food writing too. I grew up in Sonoma so I was always close to people who produced food, though I wasn’t very conscious of it until later.
KD: I’m from San Francisco. We went to Berkeley together.
AS: I liked how, in the black radish entry, you compiled a list of black foods to see, in part, what they have in common. They’re all polarizing. I’ve eaten black radish before so I think I know what you’re talking about when you describe it as being “very radish-y.” How would you describe a “radish-y” person?
KD: Kind of abrasive. Kind of funny. Acerbic. Sometimes goes a little too far.
EK: A little refreshing but also overwhelming.
AS: If you were a vegetable, which would you be?
KD: I’m clearly Kale Daikon — my initials. I said onion once when someone asked me that but it’s not, you know, because I have so many layers and you have to peel them off…
AS: But the onion is so common, the cheapest vegetable in the store…
KD: I was feeling like one at the time.
EK: I’ve always identified with eggplant — for Erin, I guess. Eggplant are a little inconsistent. They can be delicious and creamy or bitter.
AS: I don’t want to read too much into that, but you might be the kind of person that, given proper attention and care, can be a very pleasant cohort in friendship…
EK: I like that it’s purple.
KD: I have to say that now I’ve picked up more of an affinity to the carrot. They’re unexpectedly weird.
EK: I could be a turnip too now that I think about it. Roasted, they’re so good. I like them but I think about things I want to eat and they aren’t usually something I’d want to be.
AS: Maybe be something no one would eat.