A chef, on the back of enduring a tumultuous evening shift, is walking towards the end of a poorly lit tunnel that leads up to an elevator to the tracks. He wants to get home, brush off the stress and think about the menu for tomorrow. The moment he reaches the elevator, the door is already wide open and a lanky, tall old man occupies the interior predominantly. He seems to be covered in hay and is standing next to a heavy jute bag, one leg tucked to the side as if it were a bag of gold under immediate threat. He must be a farmer, in all probability, from right across the blue hill, which was the nearest farm town. They have the odd habit of covering themselves up in hay to beat the winters.
The chef enters the elevator, presses the button and the lift closes. Despite a busy day haggling in a small kitchen aerated with a variety of aromas, this one was unmistakable: wheat. The smell is overpowering and in-fact, the chef could not take it but the lift keeps taking too much time; actually, more time than it should take to get up to four floors above.
Chef, pointing to the jute bag: “Can I take a look?”
Farmer, in complete poise and arrogance, gave a sly response in a deep voice: “why?”
Chef, with haggard eyes: “It smells…odd. Don’t get me wrong: I know its wheat but it smells odd.”
Farmer, still unfazed: “Fresh off the blue hill. No body gets better produce anywhere. What do you expect?”
Chef: “Please forgive me,” – now shifting to a diplomatic posture, with his palms elevated and facing the farmer to create an honest impression – “but the blue hill farm is notorious for small sized vegetables and wasted produce. I’m a chef down at Alinea. If I served my hungry diners petite turnips and carrots, devoid of their natural color, It won’t take me long to join you on your farm and -”
Farmer, interjecting: “So why do you seem to care about my jute bag, and the smell of the wheat? If blue hill farm is so terrible why don’t you-“
Chef, interrupting the farmer apologetically but swiftly: “I can see they’re grains. I make bread all the time. In-fact, you could say that I am a bread connoisseur. I trained at Carly’s bakery in South Amsterdam, and I know that I haven’t come across grains whose smell perforates the air to near suffocation. I would have understood if this were a bag of crushed wheat, but it’s not. How is this possible? I must have a look.”
Farmer, now intrigued but clearly enjoying the puzzled look on the chef’s face as the rare smile indicated, bent down without a word and snatched a few grains. He then smelled them himself, grunted a loud satisfied sigh and handed them gently to the chef. The respect for the produce was eminent.
The chef proceeded to smell the grains several times and did so with pauses in between. He looked at them and rolled them in his fingers as if to check if they were really wheat and real. The previously puzzled impression on his face did not assuage, and in-fact, became more intense.
The elevator door now popped open, but there was no sign of the train. The benches nearby were empty, and both gentlemen naturally moved to occupy them, both trotting their feet across the floor in harmony as if they moved by instinct.
The chef, now settled, looked at the farmer, who was now curiously anxious. The silence soon broke;
Farmer: “Well…what do you think?”
Chef: “I wonder how these would taste.”
Farmer, slightly amused by the response: “Oh, you don’t have to wonder. This tastes like wheat. I cannot say much more than that.”
Chef: “Of course, I know that. But not all oranges taste the same. Some are more succulent, more explosive with flavor. The other day, someone handed me a load of potatoes from Ashburn. They were distinctly smaller than what I am normally used to, so I thought, ‘that’s not a good sign; should I use them’? I did, and they turned out fantastic. The taste wasn’t too different, but the texture, it was so smooth. I didn’t even need to put more milk to soften it for a mash. It happened quicker, and if you’re a chef, you would know that those potatoes were not ordinary.”
Farmer, slightly annoyed: “You just berated my farm for small sized produce, and you’ve cooked with potatoes the size of a tomato; whats wrong with you, boy? I don’t get what you’re trying to do. I’m an old farmer, busting my ass day in day out. I don’t have a mind for these things, you know, the cooking stuff, but I ain’t no dumb cow and I can tell you why you’re so surprised.”
Chef, a little startled and now more focused on the conversation itself: “Alright, tell me then.”
Farmer: “I’ve lived all my life on the farm. The grass is pure green, and it soaks water like a sponge. It’s thick. The cows, they love it. They eat the grass and produce top quality shit and milk, and I tell you, the shit keeps piling up, making the grass even better. When my papa died, no one cared for the farm. My brother went off to find work in the town. I went down the other side of the blue hill to be a bartender and soon the cows started to die. For five years, the grass kept its shape, no problem. I thought the sun was great, the winds were gentle and the rains were plenty and may be that’s what keeps it going. But it didn’t. The grass began to wither away, and little patches of dust scoured the field. It was like staring at a big bald head. Not pretty at all. Hell, I didn’t even remember how the farm looked back five years ago! So bad!”
Chef, left eye brow and a finger raised to indicate confusion: “I still don’t get it.”
Farmer: “The cows needed good grass to produce good nutrients, and these good nutrients were good for the grass. Nature’s cycle has never been this easy to understand. So I became more invested in keeping the cows healthy so that they could keep the farm healthy. I bought chickens too, because what the heck, what better way to break up the manure and distribute it all across the farm? So I built myself a small chicken farm and now we had loads of eggs. The other day, I noticed wild weeds growing on the farm and it was hard work weeding them. Hell, it took me three weeks to work two fields and I tell you, I couldn’t take it. So I bought goats, and they pushed the weeds off the farm and now we had more manure, more chickens and better grass for the cows to feed on. The field was ripe for wheat, and I planted it. The farm took care of itself.”
Chef, with a hint of disappointment: “…but that’s like…every other farm!”
Farmer: “You really don’t get it, do you?”
Chef: “Get what? It still doesn’t explain the aroma! Tell me how you make grains with this aroma!”
Farmer: “What’s the most common food element for Americans?”
Farmer: “Exactly. Everyone wants wheat, so its big business. You have to feed all the mouths, and big farms now want to produce more wheat and that’s all that they’re about. If weeds start to disturb the balance on the farm, these big guys don’t pluck ‘em out, they kill ‘em. They use their medicines and that ends up in the water stream, and into the wheat. Do you think the wheat will taste the same? Smell the same?”
Chef: “I gue-“
Farmer, still not done: “Of course it won’t! It doesn’t take a smart young man like you to figure that out! They just want more wheat. The same is true for every other vegetable. They’ve done science on that stuff. They get more color and the winter never bothers them. The seasons are obsolete and we get strawberries all year round. They’re not real. They don’t have flavor. No one cares for the produce. No one respects it anymore. They just want to keep piling bags and bags of fake meals until they can rest on pillows made of money. But at the end of the day, they still eat wheat with no flavor and no aroma. That’s the price. It’s a crime, I tell ya.”
“Its been going on for so long that no one cares now. In-fact, no one even remembers how wheat tastes like, really. I mean, you’re used to the blandness of it. It’s a staple to digest other staples. It’s there because we’re used to it, not because we like it. It’s cheap food. No one gives it respect anymore. But I do. Because I don’t produce my crops for money. I don’t need no money. I got a beautiful farm, a great supply of eggs and meat and I could go off in the sunset a happy old man. I produce my crops for flavor because that’s what good produce is meant for!”
The farmer’s sudden burst of passion fed flavor to the conversation it lacked earlier, and the chef was clearly in trance with it.
Chef: “I never thought of that, and for God’s sake, I’m a chef!”
Farmer: “I don’t blame you. You’ve never seen real wheat before.”
Chef: “Can I please buy some off from your farms? I know you don’t seem like the guy who’d sell, but please, I need to know how it tastes!”
Farmer: “Alright, but I don’t have an awful lot to sell. And I’m not going to put more seeds in my field for you.”
Chef: “I understand.”
As the conversation naturally came to a close, the air of respect between the two men was evident in their loose, comfortable body language. The bag was exchanged, and some money with it. The train now could be heard scurrying across the tracks, racing through to get to the station on time.