Michael Tsai and Matthew Curtis are the farmers of Three Sacks Full, a sweet ½ acre ‘farmette’ rented from Meredith Molli’s Goose and Gander Farm. This is Kinfood’s second year working with Michael and Matthew. Their care for the land, food, and honoring their roots is truly something special. Michael was previously a chef at the acclaimed Camino restaurant in Oakland, California and now one half of the Three Sacks Full restaurant pop-up. When not on the farm, Matthew is the other half of the Three Sacks Full Pop-up and an accomplished wine director and sommelier. They are both immigrants, cooks, and farmers, bringing a unique perspective to food, kinship, and what ties us all together.
Michael grew up in the countryside of southern Taiwan, surrounded by farms. A lot of his extended family were farmers who had orchards and gardens of their own. Matthew grew up in a little village in the farm country of southern England. His parents kept a huge garden, surrounded by neighboring farms. For both of them, food and agriculture were regular and daily parts of their growing up experience.
After meeting in San Francisco and years of intense restaurant work, they decided to move up to the Pacific Northwest to be closer to family, slow down their lives a bit, and get back in touch with farming. This is where Michael began working with Meredith Molli at Goose and Gander farm. The following season, Michael and Matthew decided to make the Three Sacks Full concept a reality. They would grow the produce they were excited about, heirloom varieties from their travels, and seeds from dear friends to supply food for their restaurant pop-ups. They rented a quarter acre from Molli and began their first growing season.
They started to grow celtuce, piennolo tomatoes from seeds brought back from Campania in southern Italy and shallots from Taiwan. Each of these seeds began with a story. Michael discovered celtuce when working at Camino in Oakland and instantly fell in love with this relatively unknown, obscure, yet beloved Chinese vegetable. Their friend Annabelle grows Italian heirlooms and brought back seeds from Sardinia and other parts of Italy, generously sharing with Michael and Matthew. Another friend, Kristyn, brought them seeds from Korea, including hot chiles such as Lady Choi and Lady Hermit, and pink celtuce from Chengdu, China.
Piennolo tomatoes hanging on the front porch to dry, in the traditional way
On a more personal level, Michael recalls the Taiwanese Shallots his grandmother used to make, a condiment that went on everything. Made in the traditional Hakka tradition (an ethinic minority in Taiwan), they are dried repeatedly in the sun, fried, and packed in lard to hold in the pantry for several months. Driven by a strong memory of his grandmother, they brought these seeds back from a visit to Taiwan to trial in the Pacific Northwest.
For Matthew he remembers discovering Lovage, an old English herb he never knew about until later in life. He recalls, "It [was] like discovering that piece of kinship to my country and history. It came later. It's not always about the things you miss from growing up, but the things you didn't know about that you discover which reinforce the connection you have to your past.”
They are also growing Ping Tung eggplants, long purplish Chinese eggplants, named after the county where Michael grew up in Taiwan. The two are looking forward to using it in less common preparations than the typical western approach. Michael remembers, “My mother has always steamed eggplants and poured sauce over it. You eat it as a starter before the main meal. I'm really looking forward to that.”
They also brought Taiwanese tomato seeds back from their last trip to try out this season. Michael’s grandfather always served these juicy green tomatoes with sweet soy sauce paste with lots of ginger in it; the tomato simply cut up into wedges and served on the side for dipping.
When asked about the varieties they choose to grow, it is not a straight-forward answer. There is a sense of purpose, place, and time in the decisions they make about what to grow and how to bring it to market.
So much of food growing is focused on shelf stability, harvestability, and efficiency of getting food to the market and the table. There are certain varieties no one will grow. Like this loose leafy cabbage, it doesn’t last longer than 2 days. It won't sit on grocery store shelves, but it's delicious. It’s something homesteaders grow, because you grow it and you eat it, there are no storage problems. Or there are labor problems, like a lot of delicious beans are shell beans (or pole beans). Instead, bush beans are often commercially available because machines can just rip up the plants after they dry then they go into a mechanical thresher... But pole beans, because they are on structures, they must be handpicked. Thus no one will grow pole beans on a commercial scale. So things like the traditional cassoulet bean, from Tarbais in France, gets its own AOC, because it is so labor intensive to harvest and no one is willing to grow it outside of that area. But they are delicious, they are super creamy white beans and they are super hard to get your hands on. It is one of the things I am really excited to grow this year. I hate picking beans but they are so delicious that it is worth it.
- Michael Tsai
Michael and Matthew share how food has played an instrumental role in their lives:
It's important to know where your food comes from, it's important to know the story of your food and the story behind your seeds. There is so much history and politics behind what gets preserved and what doesn’t get preserved. Matthew and I are both immigrants. My family moved to the states when I was 9. We speak a bit of mandarin and taiwanese at home. I feel lucky to be more integrated into the culture compared to others in my situation. At the same time, there is no doubt that some things are lost. It doesn't mean that if I had stayed in Taiwan those things wouldn’t still be lost. Modernization and the pace of life and larger farms have been everywhere. Yet, I’ve definitely continued to discover and rediscover some parts of my roots through food and farming.
- Michael Tsai
There lies a common kinship that we all have. In the modern world, we all tend to be more removed from our roots and the way our ancestors lived and grew their own food and hunted or whatever form that may take. Finding the opportunity to come back to that in different ways, there's a kinship there, when you rediscover how your ancestors lived or how other people in this country lived, or even in some other country you may or may not have a connection to. Ultimately you feel this connection as you experience the food from it, and as you learn about it. The more storytelling that happens along the way, the easier it is for people to make those connections and feel good about what they are eating and how they are living.
- Matthew Curtis
In their free time, which isn’t a lot, they like to get outdoors and hike together, ride around on Matthew’s 1969 vespa (if he can successfully convince Michael), or host gatherings on their front porch with homemade infusions and cocktails.
These two are true gems and we can’t wait to share with you what they’re growing this year!