01/14/2013 02:43 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Highway Farm: A Lost Foodtale From Jordan

Sometimes when I go exploring for food tales, I discover stories that are just dying to be told but find themselves without a teller. They are the hardest subjects to write about, because they tell you nothing. An unmarked food cart, a cookie served in meeting, a fruit cocktail handed to you at a wedding. These "lost food tales" are the wily cousins of traditional food stories, outlaws in a land of research and documentation, elusive and shrouded in mystery. Not coincidentally, it is precisely these tales that are most unforgettable.

Last week, driving back from a visit to the southern city of Tafileh, I stumbled upon a lost food tale. What is written from this point on is little more than speculation.

There it was, on the side of a long stretch of highway. The "desert way" is what people call it here -- an unofficial name for an unofficial place. But anyhow, there it was, comfortably unofficial: the highway farm.
The highway farm was unmanned except for one lone scarecrow who, perched upon his post, seemed utterly despondent. And who could blame him? His agricultural kingdom was kharban, broken, destitute, ruined. For amidst the rows and rows of green-leafed tomato vines were completely unusable tomatoes.
It was the nematodes. Those parasitic roundworms, latching onto the poor tomatoes' roots and silently bringing their hosts to a premature death. They had been there before, evading pesticidal deterrents and lavishing in the precious moisture that ironically both sustained and, ultimately, led to the downfall of the scarecrow's tomato kingdom.
And so the scarecrow wept, surrounded by his useless tomatoes, to which he had fed precious drops of water that the land could hardly spare. His only solace was a young flower. A blossom, in fact. The zucchini blossom had evaded capture by the nematode invaders and so it bloomed, golden yellow. It was the scarecrow's own earthly sun, beaming up at him from the ground below.
Meanwhile, several miles down the road: Prosperity.
The scarecrow's neighbors, renegade tomato sellers, were drowning in a sea of orange, green and red orbs. Proudly displayed in makeshift wooden cartons, these plump tomatoes practically shouted to every passerby: "We survived! Eat us!" The nematodes would have been furious, had they not already been stuffing themselves at the scarecrow's expense.
Now I can't tell you what the scarecrow thought of the renegade tomato sellers and their bandora (tomato) riches. And that's not because scarecrows can't talk (haven't you seen Wizard of Oz?). It's because this is a lost food tale. It can't be verified through interviews, studied through primary and secondary research, or analyzed with a rigorous statistical model. It refuses scrutiny and turns inquirers away. In short: it cannot be known.
But still: it just has to be told.
For more of Sarah's writing, visit her website.