Saturday, November 16, 2013

Skip to the Link at the Bottom of this Post, as You Would Go to the Bottom of an Onion to Eat It

Sometimes I drive around the region where I live and talk with farmers. I've never had a bad conversation with a farmer. One Texan rancher I interviewed for a magazine article eighteen years ago was a racist and mentioned it, but otherwise no. Farmers tend to be really interesting.

So when one offered me a bag of onions last weekend because I pleased him via Twitter, I threw a couple of digital devices into the back of the car as bait for the kids, then begged a supportive and onion-friendly woman who lives with me to go driving. Our path led south, into the Black Dirt region. Once we piled out of the car near Pine Island, NY, onion farmer Chris Pawelski informed me that I was standing on the largest patch of U.S. muck outside of the Everglades.

Good ol' muck.

The Black Dirt region was formerly known as the Drowned Lands. Chris's family has been farming onions in that muck—the incredibly rich soil of the Walkill River floodplain, deposited over eons when what's now the Walkill was the Hudson's route to the sea—for four generations. He's good at it. The bag he gave us has yielded one tasty soup so far. The remaining 49.5 pounds will take us deep into next year.

Back to the muck real quick: Chris told me that some of the topsoil in the Black Dirt is 18 feet deep. (That's a lot.)

He also told me a few other things. In fact, what happened when I met Chris was that he engaged me in fascinating conversation about onion farming, about the region, about its soil, about the way political realities impact the people who farm it, about the history of his house and family, about the time he tried to sell a bag of onions on eBay for $150,000, and about this one time when some guys came prowling around looking to steal scrap metal. Although we only visited for a half hour, he covered a lot—and he didn't seem to talk fast. He even asked questions and got our story.

There's something about the way Chris talks. He's an incredibly engaging storyteller. Clearly (he's going to read this but I'll say anyway) he's honed a lot of his stories over time. He commutes to Washington and Albany only somewhat less than he commutes out to his Black Dirt fields. When he enters the corridors of power, he demands (and attracts) audience with his representatives, and works with them to help farmers. His messages are tight.

Now we come down to the flavorful bulb of this entry. Chris has written a memoir focused on his pro-farms public policy work. He's the first to admit it's a little raw right now. Cracking it open, you might find it a little rough-flavored, and strong, like an onion freshly pulled from the soil. However, he's found an editor who has promised to julienne it—maybe sauté it in a little butter, put it on low and stir for 40 minutes (or a few weeks) to get it caramelized perfectly.

But a good chef don't work for free.

...Which brings me to the very root: a request. What do I ask? I ask that you help unlock the rich dark flavors of Chris Pawelski's "Muckville" memoir with a donation to his Kickstarter campaign, which will finance a professional edit.

Chris's Kickstarter.

If you need more convincing, dice an onion (you have one) and throw it in a pan with some butter over a medium-low heat. Wait two minutes. Inhale.

1 comment:

Chris Pawelski said...

Thank you Bill so much! It was great meeting your entire family at the farm and let me just add you are a damn good writer yourself!!!!!!!

For your blog reader here is a link of a NY Times story a few years ago about the black dirt:

And for anyone interested, here is a link to my blog,

I've been posting some excerpts from the memoir, plus just general wacky farm stuff. You will laugh!