FERN’s Friday Feed: The commute from hell

Welcome to FERN’s Friday Feed (#FFF), where we share the stories from this week that made us stop and think.

For these farmworkers, just getting to work is now a matter of life and death

FERN and The Nation

“It’s 1 a.m. and the stars are out as hundreds of people shuffle slowly along the wall that forms the border with the U.S. in the small Mexican city of San Luis Río Colorado,” writes Esther Honig in FERN’s latest story, published with The Nation. “In heavy boots and wide-brimmed straw hats, most everyone here is headed to work in the vegetable fields of Yuma County, Arizona. Bundled against the frigid November air in puffy coats and fleece blankets, they carry thermoses of hot coffee and mini coolers packed with breakfast and lunch, often small, tightly rolled meat burritos. The wait to get through the small port of entry averages two hours and some days can take as long as four … This year, the pandemic turned this already difficult commute into a hazardous and potentially deadly endeavor.”

L.A.’s overlooked anglers could lose their tenuous way of life

High Country News

“For over 10,000 years, the Los Angeles River … has provided food, water and a way of life to residents of the Los Angeles Basin. Steelhead trout once spawned in its headwaters and helped feed the numerous villages along its course,” writes Miles Griffis. And despite longstanding concerns about water quality, “many unhoused and other low-income Angelenos — over a thousand people a year, according to some experts — supplement their diets with the urban river’s fish and crustaceans. Nearly 9,000 of the estimated 66,000 unhoused people in Los Angeles County live along the river, where they’ve set up camps and shelters — even small gardens with fruit trees, bushes and terraced agriculture.” Now, though, a massive development plan threatens to erase this hardscrabble community.

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How the USDA broke Black farmers in the 20th century

Mother Jones

“Black farmers … have lost more than 90 percent of their land since 1910 — 16 million acres, a landmass roughly the size of West Virginia — in part due to widespread discrimination by USDA bureaucrats who refused them loans, acreage allotments, and other forms of support that white farmers in similar situations easily obtained,” write Kathryn Joyce, Nathan Rosenberg and Bryce Stucki. “Black ownership of farmland peaked in the early 20th century. And while you might assume the New Deal, the civil rights movement, and President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs helped Black families build on that land base,” in fact the opposite happened.

The barnyard origins of the smallpox vaccine—and of the original anti-vaxxers

Public Domain Review

In 1798, a country doctor named Edward Jenner “lanced a sore on milkmaid Sarah Nelmes’ hand and injected the resultant lymph into the arm of his gardener’s son, James Phipps. A week later, Jenner exposed the boy to smallpox to see if he would get sick: as Jenner had hypothesized, the boy remained healthy,” writes Erica X. Eisen. “[T]he odd sores on Nelmes’ hand were symptoms of cowpox, a much less dangerous cousin of the smallpox virus. The two pathogens were similar enough that exposure to cowpox effectively primed the body’s defenses against smallpox … indeed, the name Jenner chose for this therapy, vaccination, derives ultimately from the Latin word for cow (vacca). But “[a]s growing numbers of people embraced the vaccine, opposition began to coalesce. For these skeptics, the very notion of injecting a substance that ultimately derived from a diseased animal into a healthy human seemed not merely absurd but a serious peril to public health.”

As D.C. seeks culinary distinction, mambo sauce moves front and center


“Philadelphia has its cheesesteaks. New York has its bagels, pizza and pastrami. Even nearby Maryland has its famous crab cakes. In the eyes of most, the US capital has never had a nationally or internationally recognisable culinary treasure to call its own,” writes Bernd Debusmann Jr. “But for many true Washingtonians — not transplants in town for the politics — there is one notable exception: mambo sauce, a unique red-orange sweet and tangy condiment often used on everything from fried chicken and wings to shrimp and fried rice.”

What, exactly, is chef Joshua Skenes’s top-secret new adventure?


“Ferociously ambitious chef reaches top of culinary world and realizes he can hit a still higher target only by hunting and killing wild animals and serving them at the source,” writes Daniel Duane. “Stymied by law and regulation, he cobbles together a workaround. He buys and builds a wilderness estate where he can live in rural splendor doing what he loves most: hunting and fishing and foraging. He includes a laboratory element that coincidentally involves support staff and cooking facilities that are the equal of the world’s finest restaurants, then adds gorgeous guest cabins spaced widely over the property and charges some totally bonkers price per night so he can ‘invite’ those guests to his own spectacular manor-home for the greatest ‘free’ dinners ever eaten by human beings.”