Category Archives: Gardening

It’s the Great Pumpkin!

Apparently celebrity farmers are the Next Big Thing.  And while a humble Sonoma County vegetable grower probably isn’t going to achieve the cult status of say, Joel Salatin (who was popularized in The Omnivore’s dilemma), Leonardo Urena was a Rock Star (captial R, capital S) at the Harvest Fair yesterday.

About a dozen people surrounded him as he told the tale of his 1110 pound pumpkin which took first place in the annual pumpkin weigh-off.  He grew it organically, kept it shaded and watered, and even cut chunk out of it to prevent mold from spreading and destroying his prized pumpkin.

Watching him answer questions made me realize that for every celebrity farmer, there are hundreds- if not thousands- of others who will live their lives in relative obscurity, and it makes me glad there are competitions like this at state and county fairs because it gives these quiet people a chance to shine before they come back down to the earth to which they’re so connected.

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No more flavorless tomatoes

It’s tomato season and I should be happy about that, right? Certainly I am, but tomato season brings with it the disturbing reminder that most people don’t have a clue that tomatoes even have a season, a fact that was reinforced for me twice yesterday in a most ironic way.

First, I read this great piece about workers who pay the ultimate price for our insatiable desire for tomatoes and what one woman is doing to change that.  Then, I went to dinner last night at a nice restaurant that claims to use “the freshest possible local ingredients”, and while it served me grass-fed beef, it also served a firm, flavorless tomato that was barely pink -all the hallmarks of an industrially produced tomato-with a salad.  Why on earth, when tomatoes are everywhere right now, would a chef serve this abomination to local food?  Perhaps he chooses to cut that corner because he thinks that since most people are willing to eat that kind of tomato in winter, they’re willing to settle for it at any time of year.

How is this possible? Every summer I hear the same thing: people oohing and ahhing over fresh homegrown tomatoes and how wonderful they are and how much better they taste than tomatoes they eat in the winter.  You’d think people would get a clue and quit wasting their money on tomatoes in the winter.

I finally clued in a few years ago during my gastronomy course when our professor used the term “esculence”, which technically means suitable for eating, but her usage implied not only suitability, but perfection or a peak ripeness.  Learning that word was a game changer for me and I gradually quit buying fresh tomatoes during the winter.  And you know what? It was liberating, culinarily speaking, especially when it came to making salads.  In place of fresh tomatoes I used pears, dried cranberries, sweet mandarin slices, and-yes- even sundried tomatoes that were preserved when tomatoes were at their peak.  All of these fruits helped make the salads a wonderful change of pace from the run-of-the-mill garden salad with lettuce, tomato and cucumber that is ubiquitous because it requires so little thought.

But the best part about my wintertime tomato ban is looking forward to this time of year when we’re inundated with tomatoes of all different colors, shapes and flavors.  This summer, because Iwasn’t lulled into complacency by insipid winter tomatoes, I was one of the first people in line at the farmer’s market to buy the first homegrown tomatoes of the season.  I can honestly say I’ve savored every bite knowing that I’ll never eat a flavorless tomato again.

Your own backyard garden. Can you dig it?

Its winter down here, so heres a photo of my Aunts garden in Missouri

It's winter in Australia, so here's a photo of my Aunt's garden in Missouri

The latest trend in local eating is getting the food straight from your own backyard.  Who knew that so many folks in flyover country were on the cutting edge all this time, summer after summer.  Oh.  But wait.  For it to really be trendy, you’ve got to hire somebody else come in and do all the dirty work for you, according to this article and this blog from the NY Times.

Of course, a lot of people were quick to attack this as elitist (which it kind of is) or to say that it’s nothing new since people have been eating fresh produce off their own land since the beginning of agriculture.  What really kills me is the arguments that others have offered in rebuttal to these criticisms.  The most absurd argument I’ve seen is that outsourcing a veggie patch to someone else saves fuel because it cuts down on trips to the farmer’s market.  I’m guessing that the gardener has to use fuel for his weekly trips to clients’ homes, so really it’s a wash in terms of fuel consumption.  It just shifts the burden of the gas bill to the gardener.

The main thing that rankles me about this new “trend” is the continued disconnect from how our food gets from the ground to our plates.  First, there’s the disconnect from the earth because someone else is doing the “dirty work”.  When you plant seeds or put in bedding plants and get dirt underneath your fingernails you physically connect with the earth. From that moment, not only have you planted seeds for food that will eventually spring forth, you’ve planted the seeds of anticipation.  It’s exhililarating to see the first tender sprouts pushing their way through the topsoil.  I’ll usually check on my seedlings morning and night just for the wonder of watching them grow.  When it’s time to harvest, I do so with mixed emotions.  There’s some regret, because I know when I snap off the leaves or pluck the fruit, that it’s the end of the amazing cycle of life I’ve spent weeks witnessing.  At the same time, there’s pure joy in knowing that I get to carry the food into my kitchen and eat something that I grew, in partnership with the earth and sun, and consume it at its freshest.

Another disconnect in this trend is the loss of human interaction with those who grow our food.  Sure, there’s a gardener who comes to the house and tend the garden, harvest its bounty then leave the box at the backdoor, but this presumably happens when the clients are away at work.  Some clients may only see the grower when they first meet to discuss the exchange of service for money.

At The Food Section blog, Josh Friedland wonders what the fuss is about and contends there’s little difference between these outsourced backyard gardens and CSA boxes or farmer’s markets.  I think there’s a huge difference.  With a CSA and the farmer’s market, there are typically built-in connections between growers and consumers.   At a farmer’s market, you often have face to face interaction with the person who did the growing.  Likewise, CSA members meet the farmer who grew their weekly box of goodies when they go to pick it up, and many CSA members put in sweat equity at the farm where they have their membership.

Of course, consuming produce grown in your own backyard is certainly better than buying it at your local supermarket even if someone else is doing all the work.  Unfortunately, the trend in hiring someone to do the gardening is fueled by people who feel they are too busy to do it themselves, which sort of flies in the face  of the Slow Food movement.  Slow Food isn’t just about fighting back against fast food.  It’s about fighting back against our ever-quickening way of life.  It’s about unplugging from laptops and mobile phones and Ipods and Blackberrys and taking some of the time we normally spend with technology and use it to grow and make our own food and enjoy it with others.  In other words, we need to spend less time connected to the digital world, and more time connected to the diggable one.