The Inimitable Flavors of Talon de Gato
By Lesley S. King
“I’ve always been interested in the extended repertoire of what’s edible,” says Adam Mackie as we walk through his fields near Dixon. We pass Padron and shishito peppers, rhubarb, garlic chives, Egyptian onions and wild chicory, to name a few. Even the corn we stop to examine is unique.
“I got the seed from a farmer at Acoma,” he says, opening up a young ear. “They’ve been growing corn there ever since the Corn Maiden came up through the sipapu—a long time,” he adds with a smile, referring to Acoma Pueblo’s creation story.
“The guy who brought me this also brought me blue corn. When I’ve known him for 20 years, maybe he’ll give me red corn—you have to have the four directions,” he adds, referencing another Native American belief in which the four colors—yellow, white, red and blue—symbolize the cosmos.
Adam has a wealth of such history and lore, and he shares it freely with his customers at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market, explaining how red amaranth was one of the crops of the Inca of Peru, how Padron peppers came from Galicia, shishito from Japan, and Jerusalem artichokes originated in this country.
“They’re the roots of sunflowers,” he says. “They were likely a survival food for the Pilgrims.”
We leave the fields and hike up to a century-old adobe farmhouse that Adam and his partner, Steve Jenison, are restoring. As we walk, Adam explains that he started farming as a young boy in England. Years later, he tended a plot in a community garden in Seattle. “I’ve been growing food for myself for a long time,” he says. But his move into being a commercial farmer came as an accident.
When they purchased this house, they suddenly had three acres. “We got the land and then had to decide what to do with it,” Adam says. At the time, the farm was called Uña de Gato, after the thorny locust thickets that shelter it. Adam and Steve changed the name to Talon de Gato—Cat Claw—because it’s easier to understand. Then they began planting vegetables.
It seems to be Adam’s calling. When he talks about growing the rare Babbington leek, his eyes light up with a kind of explorer’s fervor. “It’s a very old variety, indeed,” he says with his British accent. “It originated in the Middle East, and early missionaries likely took it to Europe.”
This fervor has led him on a journey in search of interesting crops. In a dilapidated part of the farmhouse, we come upon bins of seed—melons, sorghum, fava beans, chile, tomatoes and eggplant—that Adam is holding for the annual Dixon Seed Exchange. The sight of them once again ignites that sparkle in his eyes. “Every year someone comes to the exchange with something remarkable,” he says. Such finds come to him from many sources, including a directory called Seed Savers Exchange, a list of names and contact information of people who, as he says, “offer their rare and exceptional crops.”
“We have a new garlic this year,” he says. “An Italian friend smuggled it into the country. It’s called Rosso di Proceno. It even has its own festival.” He gazes down toward the fields. “We planted it this spring and it looks like it’s doing really well.”
This passion for the food’s extended repertoire has gained Talon de Gato a niche at the market, but it comes with a price. In order to encourage customers to buy their food, Adam and Steve have to do a bit of hard selling. “It’s just remarkable how narrow the scope of commercial vegetable growing is today and how narrow people’s tastes are. We are creatures of habit,” Adam says.
“At the Market, people have gotten used to lettuce mix and arugula,” he adds. “Escarole makes them scared.” And, so, often when I pass their booth, I hear Adam giving snippets of history and passing out recipes. He and Steve occasionally dress in chef’s smocks and cook shishito peppers, handing out samples so customers can try the mild, sweet flavor.
Talon de Gato’s produce continues to gain popularity as people come to experiment and understand. I favor their wild asparagus, garlic scapes, and white cornmeal, excellent for making corn bread, for which they supply a recipe. But some seek out their wild crops such as purslane or quelites—a type of spinach also known as lambs quarters.
In Dixon, we step out onto the farmhouse’s portal and look down through the thorny thicket to Adam’s neat rows. “It seems idyllic,” I say, smelling the scent of old adobe and watching early morning mist lift from the valley.
“Actually, we have a little cold pocket here,” he says. “Just five hundred feet down the road, Matt Romero has two weeks more growing time on either end of the season.”
“Isn’t that northern New Mexico,” I say.
“Yes. We can’t grow eggplant or Brandywine tomatoes and some varieties of squash.”
“How perfect, I think to myself—instead they grow other crops, such as Rosso di Proceno garlic, wild chicory and Acoma corn.