Monday, November 15, 2010

Guitars and tomatoes

My apologies for being delinquent on the blog updates. It's been a busy summer and things are just now starting to calm down.

My family and I spend our summers gardening and enjoying the outdoors. One of our goals has been to put up as much food as possible for the long winter. We kept three gardens this year one in the backyard, behind the shop, one at a community garden, and a large one out at a friends farm, intended for low maintenance storage crops like potatoes, onions and squash. We put up about 150 lbs of potatoes, 300 heads of garlic, 50 squash, a dozen pumpkins, 15lbs. of sauerkraut, gallons of tomato sauce, applebutter and jam. Next weekend we get a pig from a friend and I'll make salami, bacon and prosciutto with one of my brothers. That is when the fun will really begin. All of this hard work has given my mind ample time to wonder, or wander.

When I was a kid, my folks raised a lot of our food, which partly explains why I have the desire to do the same with my family. I also grew up next door to an apple orchard, and some of my earliest food memories are of going out and picking apples in the orchard. I always loved the apples from that orchard the best. They weren't always the prettiest things, some of them were downright gnarly, but their flavor could not be matched. They were three dimensional. An extravaganza of flavor. I remember at Christmastime, my uncle Frank, who was a fruit wholesaler in Chicago, would always bring a fruit basket that was full of the shiniest, most gigantic fruit that could be had anywhere in the world. I'd immediately set my eyes on the apples, a perfect candy apple red softball sized fruit with a high polish like they had been under a buffing wheel. I'd sink my teeth into them and be immediately struck with disappointment. Their texture was mushy and their flavor was nonexistent. They paled in comparison to the apples that we'd pick at our neighbor's orchard.

I planted my first vegetable garden in my early 20's when I worked as a gardener on an estate, in exchange for rent. I had a surplus of tomatoes that year and I wanted to learn how to make sauce from fresh tomatoes. I went to a family reunion and figured I'd ask a bunch of old Italians how. Everyone gave me the same answer, "Why would you want to do that?" They all said that I should make my sauce from canned tomatoes. It would take me too long to make it from fresh ones and I wouldn't be able to get the consistency that I'd get from a canned tomato (I should add that many of these folks made gnocchi, a potato pasta, from instant potatoes, rather than the real deal, but, I digress). Being a respectful young person, I didn't question their logic. I made my sauce from a can and my few attempts at using fresh tomatoes fell short. Years later I learned how to make sauce from a fresh tomato, and I realized how wrong they all were. I can't say that my sauce is better than my grandmothers or any of my aunt's or uncles, that would be sacrilege, and if the Lord didn't strike me down, one of my siblings or cousins would. All I can say is that canned sauce lacks the same depth and intensity as the highly polished apple. With the fresh sauce, you can taste the sunlight and the earth. It is a transcendental experience.

These days I'm a tomato fanatic. I put in about 40 plants each year, hoping to beat any disease or bad weather that may jeopardize the crop. There is no such thing as too many tomatoes, so it is better to be safe than sorry. Our home becomes a tomato processing station during the late summer. When we have the time we oven roast the tomatoes with olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper and spices and then pass them through a food mill to get some of the best tomato sauce that can be had. When they are really coming in, we simply stew them and then can them, and when they are really really coming in, we freeze them whole to use them later for stews, soups or sauces. We'll use up every last one before next year's start to come in.

I have found that I can't bring myself to buy a "fresh" tomato from the grocery store. If I did I'd face the same disappointment as I did with the apples when I was a boy. The grocery store tomato is not bred for flavor, it is bred primarily for shape, color and shelf life. It is nothing to celebrate. I'll wait it out, until I can pick my gnarly fruit from the vine and use it as I see fit.

What does any of this have to do with guitars? Well, that's a good question. People have gotten hip to good food and it is a good subject to draw parallels with. The best chefs realize that you have to start with fresh, good quality ingredients to make a good dish, and people are gaining a new appreciation for fresh local foods, supporting local farms and farmers markets. But, there is a learning curve to working with all this stuff. It's not as simple as going to the farmer's market, buying some fresh produce, bringing it home and everybody's happy. You have to learn to work with it, and your taste buds have to get used to the real flavors. Once that's accomplished, there's no going back.

Often times people stray away from traditional methods because they seem cumbersome, take too much time, and don't always get consistent results etc. Maybe that's true sometimes, maybe at times they lack patience. Certainly not all traditions are good. But the further we stray, we lose a lot of good stuff in the process. You have to first learn the traditional methods before you can say that they are a waste of time.

The more I dig into traditional methods of instrument construction, the more I learn. The more practiced my hands and mind get at working together, the better and quicker my work becomes. I learn about ingredients and methods from people who have kept these traditions alive, I find out which ones work for what I am doing and incorporate them into my practice. I've found that once you have these methods down, they are as quick and efficient as "modern" methods, and often produce better results. As an exercise into how quickly I could build a guitar using traditional methods, I recently made one in four days. From joining the plates to stringing it up. I cut no corners. I used all hide glue, hand cut the inlays and French polished the finish (which was a combination of bug excretions and tree sap dissolved in vodka). It is a great guitar.

In short, if you can learn to judge an apple or tomato using your taste buds more than your eyes, your whole self will thank you. If you can learn to judge an instrument with your ears rather than your eyes, you will reap the same reward. Presentation is important, but it is not the key.