Will Work for Food

by Marianne Rogoff

That year, I was paid in food.

After a long day of grafting, weeding, and transplanting seedlings in the sun or the fog, I came home from work with a big box of fresh-picked fruits and vegetables. The man I worked for, Jesse, was known far and wide as a modern-day Johnny Appleseed; he had made it his mission in life to save ancient varieties of apples that would otherwise go extinct due to big agriculture market forces that sold only Red Delicious, Granny Smith, and Macintosh; in more upscale markets, you might find Fuji and Pink Ladys, but five kinds of apples is a far cry from the hundreds that have existed through the centuries, some best for eating out of hand, others for cooking; some more tart, small, and dry; others sweet, pink, and juicy. 

Farmers from all over the United States and other parts of the world mailed branches from heirloom apple trees in padded envelopes to Jesse, which he taught me how to graft onto the hardy root stock trees in his orchard. The land was out at the end of a dirt road, off Horseshoe Hill Road, on the California coast, close enough to hear ocean waves and squawking seagulls.

Besides many rows of apple trees, Jesse also cultivated Jerusalem artichokes, a highly nutritious root vegetable, kind of like a potato but more bitter and knobby so not well beloved, red and green kale in the years before it was fashionable, and exotic melons that were so much more tasty than the cardboard cantaloupes and honeydews sold at the grocery store.

When a new apple branch for an old apple variety arrived in the mail, from British Columbia, New Hampshire, the Netherlands, or elsewhere, I went to work with it. I learned how to cut into the root stock, or base tree, with a small, sharp knife at the exact point where a branch belonged, slice open the root end of the branch, and slip it in, lapping the root-stock bark over the new addition so the branch would merge with the tree. Over time it would bear new fruit: Baldwin apples, originally from Massachusetts in the 1700s, Duchess of Oldenburg from Russia, introduced to the U.S. in the 1800s, or Holsteins, a German apple from the early 1900s, could all be grown on a single tree. 

Those were the days when my soulmate and I scavenged old driftwood on the beach and carried it up the cliffside in backpacks, then went at the wood with an ax or a saw to create logs that would fit in our little woodstove; we grew our own tomatoes and basil; white calla lilies and purple iris sprouted wild from fertile landscape; and we dreamed we might never need money again.

I went to work for Jesse each morning and came home with food that we ate that night, a straight-up exchange. My guy drove a truck for another farmer in town who specialized in rare lettuces, just becoming popular in high-end San Francisco eateries: green arugula, red radicchio, rocket lettuce. He got up early, harvested, boxed, loaded the truck, and drove across the Golden Gate Bridge as the sun was rising. After maneuvering the hills, traffic, and parking challenges, he delivered fresh food to the back doors of kitchens in the most famous restaurants in the city.

I’ll never forget the first time he returned the next day to those same restaurants and came home indignant at the trash cans he found heaped with the very same leafy greens he’d so carefully gathered and brought to them at dawn the day before. He learned that most of those greens had been used by the chefs as garnish; nobody eats garnish. But that was the way of the wasteful world. We chose a more noble lifestyle; no money for us, we worked for food. What was left in the field at the end of the day driving that delivery truck for Weber Farm, my lover gleaned and brought home to me.

We ate with great hunger and felt rich.