I have learned from contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm that farming is much more than just planting seeds in the ground, harvesting the crops and selling the results in the market (read any of his Farm Bulletins collected here over the years). Here he discusses a crop that appeared accidentally but has become a staple of the farm.
Konrad Lorenz, the founder of ethology (the study of behavioral patterns), recommended bringing home a cur from the pound rather than seeking out a pedigreed dog. He noted that mixed breeds have more genetic rigor, and have more interesting characters, than so-called pure breeds. Several years ago, staff's tomatillos escaped their garden and wound up in our cornfields and pretty much everywhere else. Tomatillos are obligate out-crossers; they typically don't self-pollinate. Freed from genetic bondage, any well-defined varieties soon become a chaotic mix. Tomatillos never interested us until we tasted staff's sauces; they were simply more flavorful, with lots of character and a sweet touch.
Mirroring Lorenz's observation about dogs, Zenón and Abel noted that topsy-turvey genetics of the cornfield tomatillos made their sauces more flavorful than uniformly big green, unripe fruits found at the supermarket, which they treat with distain. As you look at the tomatillos we grow, it is not unlike looking at the mix of dogs in a pound. There are tiny fruit, big fruit, yellow fruit, green fruit, purple fruit, pale white fruit. Some fruit remain demurely enveloped in their husks, while the gibbous fruit have split their shirts open, some of the plants reach almost four feet high while others sprawl barely three inches above the soil. It is a feral mix, and we keep it that way with staff's help.
Desiccated tomatillo husk with seeds.
But flavor is more than simple diversity, they told us, the tomatillo must be harvested when it is ripe and sweet, not immature like a cucumber. The tomatillo must fall off the plant. The ripe fruits are stored on the kitchen counter within their dry husk and never, ever refrigerated. We use a mesh colander which allows for air movement around the fruits. Stored this way, ripe fruit lasts into March or longer. In early August, Zenón brought us a tomatillo harvested last September that had escaped his attention, and it was still good. We will add seeds from that fruit to next year's planting, another genetic bauble to consider and admire.
As we noted in describing our work with the Astiana tomato, every crop needs its own design brief, a list of specifications so the crop does what is desired and remains profitable to grow. For some crops we are veritable genetic martinets, making sure they remain on straight and narrow path with military precision. For dry beans and soy, as well as squash, seed pumpkins and popcorn, this sort of strict attention is essential, any lapse in discipline and we would be out of the business. On the tomatoes and flint corn, our brief is a bit more relaxed, tolerating or even selecting for a smattering more of diversity. We like to have orange ears in the corn because they are pretty and create no commercial liability. Likewise those peculiar horns and creases on the tomatoes are tolerated because they are funny and have no effect on flavor. Then there are the cornfield tomatillos and migration barley where a beautiful anarchy takes shape and we stand on the edges of the genetic scrum as referees. We are simply making sure no deleterious traits get out of hand and some of the best traits defining the population's character are not lost in the scrum, the drunken walk of evolution.