Drawing upon my supposed skill in opening hearts with food, I grabbed a carrot from the kitchen. "Soon he will love me," I calculated.
I'm writing from the drylands of northeastern Brazil, a region known as the sertao. I'm here with a group of agriculture students from the University of Montana, teaching a course on ecological agriculture. Here in the sertao, years of slash-and-burn agriculture in soils of almost pure sand have rendered this once semi-arid region something close to desert.
Our first stop was the farm of Marsha Hanzi. When she bought her land, seven hectares of baked sand, she began planting a diverse array of plants-many of them edible-that together will function to retain water, encouraging a stable ecosystem. Her ways seemed strange at first to the locals, including Vava, her right-hand man. But in a few short years she has managed to build up her soil, which now supports a diverse carpet of green-an oasis of life in a sun-dried landscape.
One plant that does extremely well in the sertao is the cashew tree, and Marsha is planting an orchard of cashews. That's why we were riding horses and mules to a sparsely populated valley where there are no roads. We were going to visit Vava's parents, who have a productive cashew orchard.
My horse, whose name is Gimerede, wanted nothing to do with my carrot offering, jerking his head away when I tried to shove it in his mouth. Vava suggested I ride a different horse. Like an idiot, I refused.
On the trail, Gimerede responded no better to the stick than the carrot. He had his own ideas about where we were going, and when he went the right way he wanted to run. When I tried to steer or slow him with the slightest jerk of the reins he got pissed and bucked in circles. Or he would stop suddenly, as if trying to toss me over his head. Gimerede could sense any moment of inattention when I dared to admire the passing scenery, and would drift toward the barbwire fences that lined the trail. When I tried to nudge him, and my legs, away from the barbs, he bucked in circles. Somehow I stayed in the saddle and we arrived in one piece.
Vava's father, Ze, has the hardened hands and earthy wisdom of one who has lived a lifetime of farming. After a homegrown lunch of rice, beans, chicken, pork, eggs and salad, we sat in the hammocks crisscrossing the room and asked Ze about the farming life.
About half of his 13 children live in São Paulo, Brazil's largest-and the world's second largest-city. They went there in search of an alternative to farming, and Ze doesn't blame them. Small farmers like Ze are having a hard time competing with large farms that produce more quantity than quality, which brings prices down. Although Ze's old-school farming methods are easier on the fragile soils than the tractors, plows, and slash-and-burn practices of the larger operations, crops like beans, corn and manioc don't fetch what they used to. What keeps Ze in the game are his cashews, which are attached to the outside of fruits that dangle from branches and look quite strange.
The cashew fruit is sweet and juicy, and popular in the regions where it's grown. But since it rots quickly, you'll never see cashew fruit north of the border. The nut, meanwhile, is surrounded by caustic liquid encased in its shell, which must be roasted off before the meat can be eaten. Every Thursday Ze and his children gather the fallen fruits, tearing off the nuts and feeding the fruits to the pigs and chickens.
I've never been crazy about the fruit myself, but back in the house Ze's wife Theresa served us a fabulous dessert that changed my mind. She cooked cashew fruit down into a watery pulp, to which she added brown sugar. She cooked it slowly over a wood fire until it thickened. As it cooled it thickened more. Que delicia!
Before I mounted up for the ride home, I borrowed Ze's machete and cut a piece of sugar cane for Gimerede. He agreed to eat it, and the ride home was much more pleasurable with our newfound understanding.
Back at the ranch, since I didn't need the carrot anymore, Marsha grated it and cooked it with sautéed onions, garlic and pepper, with a little bit of cumin. We ate the shredded carrot with fresh eggs as the new moon followed the setting sun below the horizon of the sertao.