Lisa Cassel, left, of Los Angeles watches her daughter Jennifer Cassel, right, also from Los Angeles participate in the Taste of Place interactive art installation at Studio Barndiva in Healdsburg, August 7, 2010.

Interactive display at Healdsburg's Barndiva is all about the dirt

Laura Parker grew up a city girl in Denver. But she remembers her long, hot summer vacations on the family farm in Iowa as wonderfully sensual. It wasn't just the sight of corn fields and grazing dairy cattle and vegetable gardens. She remembers it with all her senses — the smell of it, the sound of it, how it felt on her skin and hands.

"I would be the one that just before dinner or supper they would send out to the garden to pick things because I didn't know how to do anything else," she remembers, still seeing her 8-year-old self in bibbed shorts shimmying in the dirt.

"I remember being belly-down in the garden in the furrows with the warm soil. Your little belly would be just so warm and your backside would be getting the breeze coming in. I would be picking beans. It would be one for the basket. One for me. One for the basket, one for me."

Decades later, those deeply embedded memories inspired Parker, a painter and graphic designer, to make soil her artistic media. Through her "Taste of Place," she leads people back to the farm by poking their noses into a glass of damp soil. Just as winemakers have long maintained that each vintage is infused with the particular terroir in which it was grown, Parker posits that each carrot, bean or radish is equally linked by taste to the soil from which it was pulled.

She sees it as a both performance art and "intervention art" — aimed at getting people to think differently about the food they consume and to make the connection between what they eat and where it came from.

Parker conducts "tastings," pairing fresh-picked produce with its native soil. Tasters who make their way to her "bar" will be presented with a wine glass filled with soil and a plate of vegetables. Their challenge? To taste the just-picked food, catch a whiff of wet dirt and see if they can detect a connection.

The glass, she maintains, is just a whimsical device, a way of "engaging people whether they taste wine or not." The wine glass has a familiarity. People know instinctively to swirl the liquid — in this case a luscious mud of varying shades of brown or red — to lift the glass to the light and catch the colors and poke their noses into it to catch the aroma.

"You know you're going to smell it and look at it and swish it and see what it looks like and make some kind of reference," she says.

Some skeptics approach the bar assuming it's a joke. But once Parker has them engaged in tasting, say, a carrot from the silt loam of Tierra Vegetables in Windsor or a crisp Romano bean from Early Bird's Garden and then smelling the grassy, gravelly loam in which it was grown on Chalk Hill, a lightbulb of recognition frequently turns on.

It's a concept she created four years ago for an exhibit, "Hybrid Fields," at the Sonoma County Museum. Since then she and her mobile tasting bar have taken to the road, doing similar tastings from the International Pinot Noir Festival in Oregon to the Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco. Throughout the month of August, Parker, who divides her time between homes in San Francisco and Camp Meeker, has been conducting soil tastings at Studio Barndiva in Healdsburg on Saturdays, a monthlong engagement that will culminate on Friday with a soil-paired feast in the gallery drawing in foods from farms throughout Sonoma County.

Whether they can actually taste the soil in the bean or smell the bean in the soil is almost beside the point, says Barndiva owner Jil Hales. An owner for some 30 years of her own farm near Philo, Hales is a passionate advocate for local farmers and a leader in a movement to "Eat the View" through such organizations as Fork & Shovel, which brings together farmers and chefs.

Hales says when you take dirt out of "where it lives" it becomes dirty, and that has a negative connotation in the minds of most popple.

"It's so much in our heads that there's no value to dirt," she laments.

Before a tasting, Parker, who also paints large canvases of luscious, sensuous fruits and vegetables, will go out to a farm and select just the right crop. Then she makes a hole in the soil and takes a sampling of dirt from the same furrow. She stores her soil in big glass Ball jars, properly labeled according to government soil maps.

It's a take on the long-held concept of terroir that grapegrowers have long spoken of — how a grape reflects the specific geographic characteristics of the vineyard from which it was grown and harvested.

Longtime Healdsburg grapegrower, farmer and breadmaker Lou Preston said he's never heard of anyone doing anything quite like Parker's dirt-tasting.

"How much more immediate can you get than the dirt that a plant grew in? It's not just the county or this side of the river or that. It's provocative and suggestive and a graphic representation," he says. For the Barndiva soil-paired dinner, Preston is contributing bread he will make from grain he grew in his "Manzanita gravelly silt loam."

Deborah Walton, owner of the Canvas Ranch in Two Rock near Petaluma, is also contributing to the tasting dinner. She said she relates to Parker's passion for soil. It was the book, "The Soul of Soil" by Grace Gershuny and Joseph Smillie, that inspired her to go into farming many years ago.

Her task, she says, is soil-making, something each farmer does in her or her own way.

"That's why a tomato or turnip from one farm can taste so different from one grown on another farm with different soil, different tillage, different amounts of rain and sun, different amendments," she says. "That is the soul of the place."

Displaying soil in a glass is not not just an olfactory experience. It's visual. Each soil has a different look, says Parker, a different consistency. Some are deep chocolate, others heavy with clay that will leave a filmy coat on the glass.

The experience of getting close to the soil can be profoundly moving to some people, sweeping them back to childhood, or even to a more primal connection with the land.

There was the grandmother who came in to Studio Barndiva with multiple generations of her family. She nosed a soil, says Parker, and was drawn back to her garden and her children.

"She would talk about her table and the kind of food she likes to make. And then she looked at my drawings and at one point grabbed my hands and said, &‘This is so profound for me.' She started to cry."

And there was the young man, she recalls, who came to a tasting in San Francisco who had never seen a a radish and wound up waxing on in amazement for 15 minutes about his discovery.

For Parker, it doesn't matter so much how people experience a soil tasting.

"I'm just bringing forward the idea of thinking about these things, wherever the starting place is for you," she says. "This isn't precious. I'm happy if someone just stops and takes five or 10 minutes and has whatever experience they're going to have."

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@ or 521-5204.

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.


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