People cop to having spirit animals. No one carves totem poles anymore but I do know a guy who was once so obsessed with lions that he sewed a frilly yellow felt mane along the hood of his favorite sweat-jacket. During that phase, at parties, he’d roar frequently, with the hood up and curled around his head. As for me, I’m not sure. A girlfriend once told me I reminded her of a “big, goofy bird.” A year later, another described me as cat-like. Cats give me violent sneezing fits, and I’m indifferent to any fowl that hasn’t been plucked and braised. In truth, I’ve never been particularly keen on spirit animals. Some folks realize theirs in meditative visions, and others take a Facebook quiz, but either way, the selection process is deeply flawed. I doubt any shamanistic traveler has journeyed through mystic pathways in search of animal power and encountered a yapping Pomeranian at the end of the line. The problem is obvious: we find human traits in animals both wild and domesticated so easily that seeing ourselves in their skins is no great stretch, and the tendency to telegraph our self-associations is in the end too powerful.
What about vegetables? Might we possess vegetable spirits as well as those of animals? Biologically we certainly have much less in common with them. The edible buds, bulbs, seeds, stems, roots, and leaves of plants, vegetables are inanimate and mute. They don’t procreate or eat like us, show emotion, or play. Identifying with them in such a personal sense requires a significant suspension of disbelief. When I interviewed Eggplant Kohlrabi and Kale Daikon of the scintillating blog Weird Vegetables back in June, our conversation touched on the issue. We were discussing the polarizing black radish, a vegetable the two had described on their blog as being very “radish-y,” meaning of course, that it epitomized, in their eyes, the pungent and peppery traits commonly associated with the radish diaspora. Spurred, I think, by the blog’s frequent clever forays into anthropomorphism, I felt suddenly compelled to ask them if people could be “radish-y” too. The resulting dialogue chewed up the rest of the interview.
In an exchange I edited out of the final transcript, I shared with them the story of a friend from college. In college, I knew this guy — a great guy, incidentally — who did a self-help radio show on the student-run station. Ingeniously, the show wasn’t about helping those calling in; it was about helping himself. Slighted friends and spurned lovers would get on the air and give him shit, and he, flustered and mortified, would beseech listeners for advice. Anyway, as I told Daikon and Kohlrabi, this fellow once told a pal of mine in a moment of ill-advised candor that she reminded him of an olive — probably because she’s dark-haired, dark-eyed, and a little bitter-seeming until you get to know her. At the time, my friend hated the taste of olives, and recoiled at the fairly terrifying prospect of resembling and evoking something she despised.
Some vegetables, like potatoes, for example, with their nubs and pits, can sometimes look like people, especially faces. Superficially, people may also take on vaguely vegetal characteristics. With a little imagination and some squinting, the morning commute reveals a lush farm stand of walking, talking veggies: dour wrinkled turnips lugging briefcases, posh little shallots dabbing away with eyeliner, and lanky carrots bopping along to iPods, their plumes of hair flopping delicately back and forth. The possibilities multiply as you dig deeper, drawing arbitrary parallels between human personality traits and properties of vegetables. There is no universal methodology for this kind of cross-kingdom organization, which is naturally part of the fun. When you look at yourself, and then into yourself, and then out again, across the mist-mottled expanse of reds, greens, purples, and browns in a grocery store produce section, or perhaps the big rough bins of a friendly farmer’s market purveyor, what suits you best?
Two weeks ago, curious to this end, I sent an email out to some area food folks, hope to ensnare a full sack of reactions. The email posed the question (“If you were a vegetable, which one would you be?”) and left the criteria open-ended. I gathered responses and took stock of the respondents’ rationales where they were given.
Eric Smillie, proprietor of the excellently briny Oakland-based blog Awesome Pickle, would be a green cabbage, because “they’re versatile, they’re good for you, and they don’t mess around.”
Nancy Gammons of Four Sisters Farms near Monterey would be purslane. “It grows anywhere,” she said: “[It’s] tenacious…very nutritious, and remains humble.”
Farmer Joe Shirmer, owner of Dirty Girl Produce in Santa Cruz, would be red Russian kale. His clod-solid reasoning: “I would fly under the radar as many would think of me as common or mundane or even boring…but in fact I would be the biggest boldest most bountiful four season bad ass around. Nothing would bring me down. Heat, frost, wind, and drought would all pass me buy and I’d thrive. Tomatoes and beans, pomegranates and mandarin oranges, kiwis and peppers would come and go; I’d just kick back and grow — the healthiest dude around.”
Having filled many bowls at his bean-in happy hours, Mark Andrew Gravel, the food activist/artist in charge of Agrarian Art Lab, fittingly leaned legume. “They are thrifty,” he mused. “And very satisfying when made well. They seem like a fairly wise vegetable too. Plus they have two sisters that I’m into,” he added, presumably making a keen historical reference to corn and squash, the crops North American Indian tribes frequently planted in patches as companions to beans.
Jamie Law, Manager of Media Relations and Special Events for Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants, would be corn because it’s “versatile (corn meal, raw, cooked a billion different ways), tough, and great in sweet and savory dishes.”
Nearly half a dozen Cafe Gratitude employees weighed in, including one who just had to drop a little “you are healthy” at the end of his answer. To share one response, the company’s district manager Chandra Gilbert identified with humble Brussels sprouts: “Not everyone loves them although those who do love the heck out of them…and you really need to know how to treat them.”
Finally, Gayle Pirie and John Clark of Foreign Cinema came through with chef-ly perspectives. Pirie would be “the artichoke, for the mild nutty flavor, many green leaves, and a deeply sweet edible heart at the center.” Clark would be “celery for its intense rib cage, strength, magnificent versatility, and tender heart with edible leaves, delicious cooked or raw.”
I have included only a sampling, but even from this, enough is clear: nearly all of the respondents associate themselves with vegetables they prize for eating and cooking. Some, like Smillie and Gilbert, also allude to looking for themselves in the vegetables they adore, perhaps coveting those vegetables’ traits as their own, viewing them as vessels for whatever meanings they might infer. Brussels sprouts, for example, are divisive. They are, as Gilbert suggested, a little hard to love; they’re so often taken in the wrong context, misinterpreted, and abused. We all have stories about them. They are like difficult people who do good work — say, a crotchety old civil rights attorney prone to shouting down his secretary and making bad jokes at the wrong times. You can accept them, respect them, and like them immensely, but you can’t take them wholly as they are. They have to be prepared well — shredded for a salad maybe, or roasted whole. They need to be matched with suitable companions to smooth out their harsher aspects — like bacon, or thyme and mustard. They should be served in the right setting, under the proper circumstances. A lot of vegetables — along with people — take some warming up. Until I was 22 or so, I was weird about parsnips. They always struck me as peculiar ghostly characters, like carrots ravaged by Bunnicula. With their tough skin and fibrous core, parsnips take a little finessing, but they are delightful once melting into a stew or sweetening a tuber puree.
“I think about things I want to eat and they aren’t usually [things] I’d want to be,” Kohlrabi had said towards the end of our interview, petting a cat as it sidled past along the carpet. At the time, stifling a wicked sneeze, I’d suggested being something no one would eat, but now, the more I think about it, my mind has changed. Me, I would like to be eaten, to give sustenance to others. Since we’re speaking metaphorically, consumption would not cut my life short, simply enrich it. In the course of my life, I’d like to help nourish the people I encounter — whether through art, education, or friendship — providing of course they’re willing to try me. After all, life’s too short to be a rhubarb leaf.