Articles in Gardening
In 2008, Susie Middleton was looking for a quiet place to chill out from her intense 11-year position as editor at Fine Cooking magazine. She visited Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., in the dead of winter, and there discovered her inner pioneer woman, New England-style. She promptly gave up her job in Connecticut, started raising vegetables on the Vineyard and opened a farm stand at the end of a quiet road. She said, “It’s really rewarding to see the food you grow go directly into people’s hands.”
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by Susie Middleton
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What was the major draw for you to leave a top glossy magazine for life on a small island?
I’d been editor at Fine Cooking for all those years, but I gradually had come to realize that I felt disconnected from the source of my food. I liked the idea of helping people get access to local food and learn to cook farm fresh food. Also, the minute I got my first little vegetable garden out here, I realized that it made me very happy. I am totally charmed by vegetables.
What elements of this lifestyle influenced your decision to start a commercial farm?
I was very fortunate to meet a man who became my life partner, Roy, and he had a little girl who is now just like my daughter. Her name is Libby. Together we lucked into renting an old rustic farmhouse that came with a couple acres of land. We liked it so much that we not only increased the size of our garden, we also built a hoop house and started raising more and more chickens. We’re very small but we raise 500 chickens and have another quarter acre of vegetables planted and a farm stand, which is very popular.
Access to land is one of the biggest barriers for small farmers. It sounds like that was your entry point.
It’s huge. I wrote about this on Huffington Post. We did start very, very small. We were able to be profitable without going into debt. So, if you don’t think you have to get a lot of acreage, you may be able to get started. Considering as a farmer you’re probably going to have to be doing something else anyway, it’s not a bad idea to start small so you can see if you like it.
You’ve been immersed in food for a long time, so how does owning a farm influence your cooking life?
If anything, it’s solidified my approach to cooking: Start with really fresh ingredients, learn some techniques and keep a well-stocked pantry. This book really reflects the kind of food we like to eat and what we like to cook. I want people to have fun in the kitchen and then get it out on the picnic table or the farm table — or the tiny oak table we have in our kitchen — and eat it and enjoy it.
I’m crazy about vegetables. Everybody wants to cook more of them, not just vegetarians. So I feel like opening up the world of vegetables to everybody is a good thing.
I’ve always loved high-heat cooking. To me, caramelizing vegetables is a huge way to make them really tasty. I tell people to keep some good olive oil, some good vinegars, plenty of lemons and limes, good Parmigiano-Reggiano, fresh herbs, aromatics — onions, garlic and ginger — and a few condiments from your favorite cuisines, and with that you can make delicious meals.
With 500-plus laying hens, you have to have a good egg recipe or two. So, what’s your favorite?
Gosh, we do a lot of frittatas. We use the eggs in a lot of custards. We make a lot of French toast around here [laughs]. I like to make my Green Island Farm open-faced egg sandwich with some of the early Asian greens, like tatsoi. Greens and eggs are an amazing combination.
How did your first two books lead toward this one?
I started out life as a writer. When I first started doing cookbooks I thought it best to maximize my expertise at the time, which was cooking techniques. I started my blog sixburnersue.com six years ago and it has transformed itself into the story of the farm.
Readers do respond to stories. So, will you do more of this?
I have mixed feelings about food memoirs that have a dozen recipes. I think what I’d like to do is something that does have a lot of writing in it, but also has a fair amount of recipes.
Top photo: Susie Middleton and the cover of “Fresh From the Farm.” Credit: Courtesy of Taunton Press
I’ve been reading with fascination Michael Moss’ often hilarious and deeply thoughtful article in a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine. Moss — his book “Salt Sugar Fat” is a must-read for anyone who wonders how the American diet got to its present parlous state — approached a top ad agency, Victors & Spoils. (I thought it was a joke at first, but no, that really is an agency, renowned for provocative crowd-sourcing campaigns.)
What would happen, Moss proposed, if you created an ad campaign for, let’s say, broccoli, probably one of America’s most hated vegetables. The Times article follows Moss through his research on how a Coca-Cola type of campaign might approach the problem of vegetable dislike. (On the way, he looks at another key link in the chain — how American farmers could produce more vegetables and why they don’t.)
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Because the fact is, if you look at statistics, we hate vegetables. Oh, I know, someone is going to respond by saying, “No, no, we love all vegetables, we eat nothing else.” But you, dear reader, are a sadly diminishing minority. Moss cites a 2010 study by the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services that concluded only 5% of Americans younger than 50 are getting the recommended five servings a day. Most Americans consume daily only half as many vegetables and less than half the fruit they ought to be eating. (And most of that fruit is in the form of juice — the least healthful way to get it.)
That five servings a day, recommended by no less an authority than the World Health Organization, is itself a bit of wish fulfillment.
No one in fact knows for sure whether fruits and vegetables on their own will have an effect on chronic disease rates. (There is some skepticism about cancer protection, as noted in this BBC report.) But it’s very clear anecdotally at least that a diet high in a variety of fruits and vegetables has a positive impact on health.
So why don’t we eat more?
Probably because it’s too easy not to. Junk food, fast food and the like are all around us, mostly at arm’s reach. If you’re going to eat more vegetables, you have to prepare them — wash ’em, trim ’em, look ’em over for slugs or bugs or worse and then … cook ’em. (Unless you prefer to live on salad.)
What’s a busy guy to do? Reach for the microwavables. Maybe Healthy Choice’s Chicken & Potatoes with Peach BBQ Sauce, which has a whopping 24 grams of sugar and just 5 grams of dietary fiber, plus about a third of the total daily sodium intake recommended for people older than 50. Maybe not such a healthy choice after all?
Kale, leafy greens are worthy additions to your menu
Nonetheless, the selection of greens in most produce markets, even in the most ordinary supermarkets, grows greater every year, and somebody has to be buying, cooking and eating them. Along with the usual spinach, broccoli and Brussels sprouts, we find such offerings as broccoli rabe (aka rapini), collards, turnip greens, kale in many varieties, mustard greens, bok choy, beet greens and dandelion greens. The list goes on and on.
Nutritional powerhouses, these are often, sad to say, the most detested items on any menu, especially for children. But here’s the secret: It’s all in the cooking. No one could possibly love greens if they’re steamed to a limp, gray mash, then dumped on a plate with a blob of cold butter stuck on top. But done the Mediterranean way, they reveal, first of all, flavor. Then texture. Then an overpowering deliciousness. Garlic, oil, a little chili pepper, a scrap of citrus juice — they make all the difference in the world.
I just made the following utterly simple recipe using Tuscan kale, aka lacinato or dinosaur kale, the kind with long, dark green, slightly blistered leaves that is a growing presence in supermarket produce sections. You could do the same with spinach (much more cleaning, much less cooking time), chard, turnip greens (cutting away tough stems, otherwise leaving whole), ordinary kale (de-stemmed), broccoli rabe (trimmed of tough stems) and many other greens you find.
Braised Kale With Oil, Garlic and Chili Pepper
Makes 6 servings
3 pounds fresh Tuscan kale, lacinato kale or dinosaur kale
Sea salt to taste
3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
¼ to ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus a little more for garnish
1 small dried hot red chili pepper or a pinch of chili flakes
1 to 2 teaspoons lemon juice or aged red wine vinegar (not balsamic)
1. Prepare the kale by stripping the leaves away from the stems. (Hold the stem in your right hand; grasp the leafy part in your left hand and simply slide down the stem, releasing the leaves.) Rinse thoroughly in a couple of changes of water.
2. Transfer the rinsed greens to a pot large enough to hold them all. Add a sprinkle of salt and a couple of tablespoons of boiling water. Set over medium heat and cook, covered, until the greens are wilted.
3. Remove and drain, then transfer to a chopping board and chop the greens coarsely in several directions.
4. Set a skillet large enough to hold all the cooked greens over medium heat and add the garlic and olive oil. Cook, stirring, until the garlic starts to soften, then add the chopped greens, stirring and turning them in the aromatic oil until they have completely absorbed it.
5. As soon as the greens start to sizzle in the pan, remove from the heat and taste, adding more salt if necessary. Stir in the chili pepper and lemon juice.
6. Pile the greens on a heated platter and garnish with a dribble more of oil. Or serve the greens atop crostini, toasted slices of Tuscan country-style bread rubbed lightly with a cut clove of garlic and dribbled with a small amount of oil.
Top photo: Baskets of greens for sale at a market in Camucia, Italy. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Horseradish barely registered on my food radar. My only real use for the stuff came once a year when I added heaping tablespoons of horseradish into the spicy sauce served with our shrimp cocktail on Christmas Day.
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But horseradish has recently come back into my life, and now I’m a fan.
My mother called me recently and told me that my father has started growing his own patch of horseradish behind his garden shed. She said that the next time I came to visit their home in Virginia, I needed to “record Dad grinding horseradish for posterity.” When my mom uses this phrase, it’s usually code for something she finds funny and often slightly ridiculous. Naturally, I agreed that this was just the thing to do and thanked her for the hot tip.
I’ve just returned from a trip to Virginia, and my mother was absolutely right. The process of grinding fresh horseradish is fascinating. Funny and ridiculous too. But mostly fascinating.
Horseradish plants will grow pretty much anywhere, at least anywhere with a decent amount of moisture and somewhat loose soil. It’s the ultimate survivor. My dad grows it in a patch behind his garden shed because it is a spot he didn’t need for anything else. He has a friend who grows it in a greenhouse and gave him the starts for his current patch.
Easy to grow
The great thing about horseradish is that you can keep it going year round. It’s best planted in the spring and can be harvested in fall, but you can really grow it, and eat it, any time.
You can harvest horseradish throughout the year, but the roots will be larger and have a stronger flavor the longer you wait. My dad dug up roots that were about eight months old and they were relatively small and mild in flavor. I thought it was delicious and suggested that eight months seemed like an ideal time to harvest. My father reminded me that he was growing his horseradish in poor soil and partial shade. Back on the family farm, my dad’s family grew a large plot of horseradish in their sunny garden bed. Grown in rich soil with plenty of sun, horseradish will grow large and strongly-flavored roots in eight months.
When my father harvested his crop, he cut the root about a half-inch from the green stem. Then he stuck the stem and partial root back in the ground to wait another six months for the next harvest.
He also cut off most of the leaves before replanting because, he says, the leaves will “suck up a lot of energy from the plant.”
After replanting the horseradish stubs, my father and I headed up to the house to clean and grind the roots. My dad washed the dirt off the roots, peeled them with a pocketknife and gave them a second cleaning.
Then he pulled out my grandmother’s old meat grinder and began to turn the fresh roots into the delicious condiment. While cranking the old metal handle, he told me to be careful not to grind it too fine or it will end up as mush.
As my father ground the horseradish he said, “Don’t poke your nose in there” and warned me that a deep breath of freshly ground horseradish would send me reeling. I didn’t risk it, especially because I was holding a camera. From 2 feet away I still got the point.
Beware the volatile oils
It turns out the fibrous roots of horseradish, once ground, immediately emit a volatile oil that irritates the membranes of the eyes and mouth. It’s powerful stuff when fresh — the same compound that gives mustard and wasabi their bite.
Those oils soon dissipate from the root, so traditionally the flavor is fixed in place (and toned down) by the addition of vinegar. My father put the ground root into a half-pint Mason jar and poured just enough white vinegar over it to cover it completely.
My father says the mixture will keep in the refrigerator for up to a month. I couldn’t wait that long. My father and I ate our freshly ground horseradish on steak, which he cooked specifically for this occasion. The steak was rare and the horseradish was sharp and hot — the perfect combination of flavors and texture.
I could now see why the pungent burn of horseradish has been relished since ancient Egypt, why it’s one of the bitter herbs of the Passover Seder, or why a guy named Heinz first made his fortune by bottling the stuff.
I’m now going to find a small patch in my garden, and get a couple of my father’s cut roots. And I hope he’s going to have more roots ready to harvest when it comes time to spike the bottled cocktail sauce on Christmas Day.
Top photo: Grinding fresh horseradish in my grandmother’s meat grinder. Credit: Susan Lutz
My transition from urban-dweller to backyard farmer began with a pickle.
I’d lived in Los Angeles for 10 years before I began to miss the traditional foods I’d left behind in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. So I forced my mother to ship me homemade sweet pickles, grape jelly and the country ham that my dad cured in his basement. And that was more than enough. For a while. After giving birth to two daughters it dawned on me that I couldn’t FedEx the foods of my childhood to California forever. I wanted to discover and share the knowledge, skill and experience of making these beloved foods with my family and friends.
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So I shopped for cucumbers at the local farmers market and persuaded my mother to teach me how to make sweet pickles when she came to visit that summer. It would have been far cheaper to buy a jar of pickles from the grocery store. But that wasn’t really the point. I didn’t want pickles. I wanted my mother’s pickles.
My homesteading campaign continued, as I coaxed my mother to teach me how to make Granny Willie’s grape jelly and Betty Sheetz’s apple butter. My urban farming campaign continued as I earned a Master Food Preserver certificate. But as I studied and cooked and preserved, I realized that the recipes I loved so dearly came from a very specific time and place: the “foodshed” of the Shenandoah Valley.
But my family and I live in a different foodshed. So I turned to the natural resources growing in our own backyard.
Home preservation traditions
Our suburban Southern California house has trees that produce loquats, oranges, grapefruit, lemons and plums. My husband and I carved out a tiny plot of sunshine amid the trees to plant tomatoes, Swiss chard and a variety of herbs. In spring we make loquat butter and loquat leather, which my youngest daughter eats as fast as I can make it. During the summer months, we can tomato sauce and tomato preserves. When winter rolls around, we make marmalade, my husband’s favorite toast-topper.
All of these treats use the natural resources of our environment, but they aren’t the basis of our day-to-day diet. In fact, my grandparents might think the entire urban homesteading concept is simply silly. They were farmers. Real farmers. They grew most of their food on 80 acres, and they had a lot of kids to feed. Growing food and preserving it at home was the cheapest way to maintain a consistent food supply for a large family throughout the year.
My parents grew up on farms but moved into a small town. Yet they continued to grow their own food. When I was in high school, my parents bought an empty lot down the street and still plant a massive garden on it every year. My father plants most of the vegetables they eat all year long. My mother cans dozens of quarts of green beans and tomatoes each summer. She fills up several freezers with endless pint containers of peas, corn and lima beans that she cleans, shells and blanches with help from my father. My parents do this work by choice. They know they’d still eat if their crops failed and there’s a world of comfort in that thought.
Discovering your foodshed
I don’t have the time, space, or inclination for that type of garden. Our backyard simply isn’t large enough for food production on such a grand scale and luckily for us, it doesn’t need to be. But with the wealth of food options in Los Angeles, I still want to keep a connection to my family’s farm heritage, tenuous as it may be.
Our foodshed is radically different from the one I grew up with, but it is resilient and satisfying in its own way. I’ve connected with folks who see food in similar ways by joining the Los Angeles Bread Bakers and the Master Food Preserver Program of Los Angeles County. My children have their own set of special treats from the garden, like picking ripe strawberries from our tiny strawberry patch and eating sweet cherry tomatoes still warm from the sun. When my husband finds an abandoned grape vine in a hidden corner of a parking lot near his office, we make grape jelly. And if the cucumber patch fails, I’ll grab some from the farmers market and start a batch of vinegar syrup. Because I still love sweet pickles.
I don’t have an urban farm by any stretch of the imagination. And I certainly don’t have the wealth of information and tradition that my parents and grandparents grew up with on their family farms in Virginia. I do have fresh, healthy food and preserves made by hand (and sweat) that reflect the foodshed I find myself in. And that’s a tradition I’m proud to pass on.
The Shenandoah Valley creates some of the world’s best apple butter. Here is a twist from the Southern California foodshed: loquat butter. This recipe is adapted from one I received from Ernest Miller, a talented chef and fellow Master Food Preserver in Los Angeles County.
Yields approximately 6 half-pints
4 pounds ripe loquats (approximately 12 cups)
¾ cup bottled lemon juice
1 cup water
1 organic lemon, cut in half
2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped into three sections
3 cups sugar
1. Wash loquats and cut in half. Remove ends, seeds and white interior membrane from each half. Do not bother to peel the loquats.
2. Place cleaned loquat halves in a heavy, non-reactive saucepan with the lemon juice, cup of water, lemon halves and ginger. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally, and cook over medium heat for approximately 30 minutes. Remove lemon pieces and ginger after 30 minutes and continue cooking until the loquats are very soft.
3. Purée in a food processor or food mill. (Using a food processor will increase the yield, but will result in a more textured, opaque loquat butter. I prefer using a food mill to achieve a more transparent end product, although the yield will be smaller.)
4. Add loquat purée back into the pan. Add sugar and stir to combine. Cook loquat purée and sugar mixture for 15 to 20 minutes over medium heat, stirring occasionally until mixture reaches desired consistency. To test for doneness, remove a spoonful and see if it mounds slightly on the spoon. You can also put a small spoonful of loquat butter onto a plate that has been chilled in the freezer. Watch to see whether a rim of liquid forms around the mound. If it does, continue cooking until a spoonful of loquat butter mounds on the plate without creating a puddle of liquid around it.
5. While loquat butter is cooking, sterilize half-pint jars.
6. When loquat butter is done, pour it into hot half-pint jars, leaving ¼-inch headspace. Wipe the rims of the jars and put on lids and screw rings. Process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath following USDA recommendations.
Top photo: Loquat butter ready to eat. Credit: Susan Lutz
At a reading a few weeks ago in Portland, Ore., I finally blurted it out for the first time: “I hate the word veggies!” There was a stirring in the audience. I expected trouble, but instead, there was a solid murmur of agreement. One chef, Cathy Whims of Nostrana, said she couldn’t stand the word either, but was sometimes horrified to hear herself using it on occasion because it’s just around so much. Like using “like.” Can we make it go away?
And why would I bother to have and squander any emotion at all about the word veggies? I’ve wondered myself about why I don’t like it and won’t use it. I think it’s this: The word veggie is infantile. Like puppies. Or Cuties. It reduces vegetables to something fluffy and insubstantial. Think about it: We don’t say “fruities,” or “meaties” “or “wheaties” — unless it’s the cereal. We don’t say “eggies” or “beefies.” We don’t have a Thanksgiving birdy; we have the bird. But we don’t seem to be able to say vegetable. Certainly it’s no longer than saying “Grass-fed beef” or “I’ll have a latte.”
Veggie turns vegetables into something kind of sweet but dumb, and in turn, one who eats a lot of vegetables might be construed as something of a lightweight, but one who can somehow excused. “It’s just veggies, after all. They’ll snap out of it.”
‘Vegetables’ speaks to their many strong traits
But the word isn’t used just by errant omnivores. Vegetarians are very fond of the word too, and they use it all the time. Plant foods, especially vegetables, are the backbone of vegetarian magazines, yet even there they’re reduced to veggies. I think vegetable is a more dignifying name by far. Just think of what plants do and what they’ve gone through to be on our plates.
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They’ve been moved all around the world and gone rather willingly to where we humans have wanted them.
They’ve been altered to be pleasing to human palates.
They have adapted to all kinds of circumstances and survive against all odds and at extremes ranges of heat and cold, wetness and aridity.
The tiniest sprouts can move concrete. Eventually.
They can be dangerous and deadly, or they can be tender and sweet. And some come close to being both in the same plant. Like potatoes and tomatoes.
They can cure ills, for example, aspirin comes from willow; liver remedies are derived from members of the aster family, which include artichokes, burdock, chicories, milk thistle and lettuce among others; brassicas may prevent cancer. There’s the whole pharmaceutical stance one can take regarding vegetables given the truly amazing nutrition they offer.
Vegetables have serious means of protecting themselves — with spines and thorns, or by emitting subtle odors or substances. They can keep other plants at a distance so they alone can make use of limited amounts of water and nutrients; they can find ways to use other plants to climb on. Seed pods are cleverly designed to attach a ride to a jacket, a hat, a dog’s fur to be carried elsewhere to grow. (The burdock burr was the model for Velcro.) And they can defend themselves against predators; pinions discharge a sap that keeps bark beetles from boring in. (The food part is the pine nut).
Plants also keep other forms of life going by attracting bees and hummingbirds, moths and insects, which they feed. They can sometimes cajole birds into carrying away their seeds to plant elsewhere. Plus they give us flowers and fruits in abundance. We love honey of all varietals — especially that derived from thyme, a member of the mint family, and flowers, too. We even use flowers in the kitchen.
Their seeds can sometimes last for hundreds of years or more. Some sprout only in fires, which is one reason burned forests can recover some kind of growth soon after a fire.
They don’t complain when we waste them by using only the most tender parts and ignoring rough-looking leaves and stems and cores. Chickens are grateful of them.
In short, plants are generally quite amazing, strong and clever beings that evolve with time. Whether you are an omnivore or a vegetarian (or a chicken), we all benefit by eating plants. Plant foods. Vegetables. Fruits. Seeds. Stalks. Heads. Crowns. Skins. Cores.
I hadn’t thought about it when I was working on “Vegetable Literacy,” but I think — I hope — that the book, among other things, offers a way to go beyond the “veggie” concept of vegetables by introducing them as the eccentric and powerful personalities they are.
Top photo: Rainbow chard. Credit: Deborah Madison
Eating a local diet, one where consumers subsist on food grown locally — often within 100 miles from the source — is no longer edgy or revolutionary. It’s common to find restaurants across the United States touting goods from local farms, proving that it is not difficult to eat abundantly but with a small carbon footprint.
Except, of course, if you live in Alaska. The unavailability of fresh produce during the long winters as well as the presumed unavailability of grains makes eating local in Alaska seemingly impossible.
But one small group of people set out to prove that was a myth and spent one year eating better than they ever had.
Planning and canning
Headed by Anchorage couple Saskia Esslinger and Matt Oster, the Alaska Food Challenge was a loose collection of Anchorage residents who committed to eating only Alaskan food for one year. Each set up their own parameters. Oster, for example, allowed himself beer from local breweries even though the hops and other ingredients were not local. Esslinger accepted gifts of chocolate and butter on her birthday, and the couple took a vacation to Italy shortly after their first child was born.
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As expected, the Alaska Food Challenge came with some surprises and, fittingly, challenges. The first surprise was the sheer abundance of food available. Esslinger notes that that year was the healthiest she’d ever eaten. Alaska has excellent seafood, including salmon, halibut, crab and scallops, as well as game such as moose and caribou. The couple has a large urban garden, where they grew berries, salad greens, kale, turnips, tomatoes and more.
Chickens, for eggs and butchering, supplied more protein options, and the difficulty of butchering them surprised the couple. “It’s so much work,” Esslinger said. “The industrial system must cut so many corners to process so many.”
The local-eating year was full of discoveries such as that one — certain foods require large amounts of work. The couple realized that even though they had eaten mostly Alaskan before the food challenge, they were still out of touch with many of their food sources.
Other challenges included discovering the amount of planning required to eat locally for a year, as well as planning for a winter of eating. It is almost impossible to grow produce year-round in Alaska because of temperatures and severely limited daylight, and so the Esslinger-Osters harvested more than 1,600 pounds of produce from their garden. In turn, they had to process and preserve all those vegetables. They built a root cellar in their garage, experimented with fermenting and purchased a full-size freezer.
Part of the challenge was simply knowing how much food to put away. “Once you do it and you know how much you need, it’s much easier,” Esslinger said. “Harvest season was exhausting. Not only were we learning new skills like making butter, but we were also trying to put away everything for the wintertime.” Harvest season was a flurry of canning, drying and smoking, but once winter set in, they were able to “take a break and just cook and enjoy it all,” Esslinger said. They were surprised to find that they actually harvested too much food, including garbage bags full of kale.
Barley and wheat came from Delta Junction, about 300 miles north of Anchorage. They bought a mill for grinding the grains, and were able to bake bread all winter. A local creamery provided cream for butter, made in a Cuisinart, and a goat-milk share supplied milk.
The lack of fresh produce over the winter was difficult, Esslinger admits, but when they allowed themselves a salad on Oster’s birthday, they were disappointed by the limp, faded lettuce that had traveled thousands of miles to reach Alaska. Their diet remained varied, though they admit (somewhat guiltily) of tiring of salmon.
The lasting effects of eating local
Esslinger and Oster live in a suburban home on a corner lot, which they have converted into a massive garden. A partially-sunken greenhouse doubles as a chicken coop, and a beehive perches on their roof. They teach classes on urban chicken raising, soil maintenance and permaculture.
Though the food challenge is over, the couple still eats mostly local and organic. They have found that the food tastes better and that in all, the Alaska Food Challenge wasn’t as massive a challenge as even they believed.
However, Esslinger does admit to appreciating being able to buy organic butter at the store.
The garden at Saskia Esslinger and Matt Oster’s Alaska home. Credit: Saskia Esslinger
Imagine a group of volunteers that has shown up each Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., April through October, since 1957 to plant, weed, harvest, dry, store and cook. At the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Mass., these volunteer Herb Associates are devoted to the dual mission of sustaining their local botanical garden by selling a wide range of in-house produced herb products, and educating the public about herbs.
"No excuse is needed for stressing the greater use of herbs and cooking. It is not a fad, it is nothing new. ... It is we in America who have forgotten our heritage of the art of flavoring and seasoning, of the art of wholesome and delicious cooking brought to this country by our ancestors." -- "The Book of Herb Cookery," by Irene Botsford Hoffmann, 1940
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Volunteerism, passion, curiosity and generosity define the Herb Associates of the BBG. They claim they are the only group in the country that grows and sells “on site.” Inspired by the BBG’s founder, Irene Botsford Hoffmann’s cookbook, “The Book of Herb Cookery,” published in 1940, the Herb Associates essentially created a bake sale with herbs. The herb products are the result of this dedicated group’s efforts to preserve and maintain the “show” and “working” herb gardens.
A team effort to preserve tradition
One of the oldest members, who refuses to say how long she’s been a member, prides herself on the fact that the herb garden is a show garden.
“We work in it so you don’t know we’ve worked in it.” There is no hierarchy within the group. Members naturally gravitate to the tasks that intrigue them or need doing. A volunteer who joined three years ago began working in the show garden, but when it was clear that help was needed in the kitchen, she embraced the jelly and jam making.
The members emphasize that even for them, participating in the Herb Associates is all about learning and camaraderie. Many members had never gardened before. They use the volunteer experience to learn. Another member, Iris Bass, relishes the social aspects of the group. While Iris has gleaned much garden wisdom from her six years as a member, she has also put her book-editing skills to work. She edited and designed the BBG’s “The Garden Cookbook, Celebrating 75 years of Growing and Cooking With Herbs.” The herb display garden, also known as the “show garden” exists to attract and to teach visitors. All the stonework is in its original layout and the plantings were redesigned four years ago to be more thematic and infused with pops of color. So much so, the color, come mid-August, takes your breath away.
The Herb Associates are charged with dead-heading, weeding, trimming and keeping the garden in tip-top shape. There is a Hogwarts garden that is designed with a magical mystical theme. Other plants in the garden include monkswood, the spectacular clary sage, nasturtium, fluffy poppies, lavender, allium, heliotrope, potpourri roses, tansy and much much more.
When a volunteer was seen wearing a sprig of tansy in her cap, a BBG visitor proclaimed, “I haven’t seen that since my mom used to do that.” Tansy is known for its insect repelling qualities. It is also quite pretty, resembling miniature curly kale with yellow flowers and makes great dry flowers.
The keepers of the secret recipes
The working garden is a combination of annuals and perennials. The plants are all chosen for their use in either drying or cooking. The lavender plants are a hardy species that date back to the original garden. Other perennials include lovage, also known as celery herb, which is a secret ingredient in many of the recipes. The perennials collection includes mint and, of course, chives, to name a few. The annuals include basil that is grown in large pots and nasturtium, which makes gorgeous vinegars.
While the gardening begins in April with digging, edging and preparing the soil, the kitchen gears up too. Mint that was infused and frozen over the winter is made into mint jelly. All season long, however, the kitchen relies on what the garden is producing and, in perfect harmony, creates products with those herbs.
Meanwhile the drying team gets busy as well. Great baskets full of herbs are washed with water, spun dry in a salad spinner, then placed on wonderful shelf-like racks with screens to air dry, and then finished in a dehydrator. It’s an ongoing and fluid process. Once the herbs are dried, they are made into a variety of dried herb mixes such as herbs de Provence, Chilean seasoning and salt-free herbed pepper.
To become a volunteer means you become a trustee of the “secret” recipes. Currently only one person knows the recipe for the herb mustard. The recipe book is off-limits to the public. Volunteers have fun tweaking the recipes, however. After all, no one really wants lime green mint jelly. They have eliminated the food coloring and have found that patrons welcome the more natural product. Like most things in the culinary world, recipes evolve to reflect the tastes of the times. And these times are ripe for the Herb Associates’ products as they are organic, and, of course, locally grown and produced.
This wonderful group of approximately 22 volunteers produces a plethora of jellies, vinegars, dressings, mustards, sauces, marinades and dried herb mixes, all with the purpose of funding the Berkshire Botanical Garden. In exchange, they preserve a way of life, fuel a passion and mostly tend a garden.
Top photo: A volunteer in the gardens at Berkshire Botanical Gardens. Credit: Courtesy of Berkshire Botanical Gardens.
Daniel Nguyen is not your average farmer, and VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative in eastern New Orleans is not your average farm. At a time when urban agriculture seems stuck between taking flight as a scalable and real solution to urban food supply and being written off as another harebrained and all-too-precious scheme of flannel-clad hipsters, an inspiring story of scrappy success couldn’t be more welcome.
VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative’s current agricultural operation, previously known as Viet Village Urban Farm, is sandwiched between an old playing field, rows of tidy brick ranch-style homes and a ditch filled with debris leftover from Hurricane Katrina’s 2005 ambush on the neighborhood. In mid-March, its 3 acres accented with neat stripes of green — early signs of newly planted crops ready and waiting to take off in New Orleans’ early summer — seemed misplaced, or perhaps like peace offerings to some unruly god.
Nguyen, too, seems anomalous in the neighborhood. A tireless worker in the fields, he’s also a provocative thinker helping drive the farm’s cooperative organizing and marketing strategies as well as its agricultural inventiveness.
Young, toned, tanned and with a mane of dark hair that stretches most of the way down his back, Nguyen recently greeted a group of students and me to the farm. Clearly unaccustomed to speaking in front of crowds, he spoke quietly and waited to be prompted with questions, zigzagging and veering as he recounted the story of the farm.
“NOLA East is home to nearly 60% of the metro area’s population,” Nguyen explained, glancing down at his rubber boots. “But we’ve got only one supermarket.”
I let this sink in for a minute. After years of working with food-security measures, I couldn’t recall another area so underserved by retail food outlets.
As a result, VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative operates with an eye toward production and efficiency. And they’ve gotten there remarkably quickly.
Urban farm a bright spot in struggling community
When the farm took hold, the community had been looking for innovative strategies to bolster economic resilience. At the time, things were looking bleak, even for a community that had been living on the fringes for years. Katrina struck in 2005, and when British Petroleum’s rig started leaking into the Gulf in 2010, the community’s strongest resource — both in terms of food and income — became off limits almost overnight.
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“Before the spill, 1 in 3 people in the community were involved in the fishing industry,” Nguyen explained. The pressure was on. The cooperative needed a poverty-alleviation strategy, ideally one that would supply calories as well, and they needed it fast.
“We began in 2011 with funding from [the charity] Oxfam,” Nguyen continued. “And in 2011, we officially formed a co-op.” Meaning each of the farmer-members working the land — who range in age from their mid-20s to their late 70s, and half of whom are women — has partial ownership in the business. Nguyen, whose parents are Vietnamese immigrants who settled in San Diego, arrived in New Orleans after Katrina with verve, a green thumb honed in childhood and a head full of ideals inspired by union-organizing.
He worked as a bus boy in some of the city’s finest restaurants for a stretch, interested in the world of food, but itching to do something with a long-term impact. He began working to organize Vietnamese fishermen, and as he grew close to members of the community, he saw that many gardened at home. Some were even selling off surplus to neighbors. His first thought was to create a cooperative of backyard gardeners, but he quickly realized production would be too disparate to make marketing efficient. So the community began the search for land.
Today, VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative is growing on the kind of acreage rarely seen in urban America. For what’s known as a “dollar lease,” the group has secured long-term use of the land for a minuscule fee, just enough so the land isn’t officially “gifted” to them in the eyes of the law. The plot we visited is 3 acres, plus another 1 to 2 acres in brambly wetlands, where the group has plans to raise ducks, expand its composting operations and experiment with aquaponics. Another 7 acres are in the works.
The farm doesn’t come without challenges. Space is a limiting factor, and even with sophisticated techniques like closed-system aquaponics, companion planting and heavy mulching, VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative is, like any outdoor food operation, subject to weather, ever wary of another dramatic climatic (or man-made) event. Even more complex are the neighborhood politics: Many are wary of cooperatives, Nguyen explained, because of the economic devastation communism wrought in Vietnam.
Still, the farm has garnered a lot of attention. Today, there’s a wait list that includes African-Americans, Latinos and young adults. A youth training program is in the pipes, as are expansions into farmers markets, local gas stations and quick marts, a strategic way to intercept the stream of junk food locals consume based almost entirely on convenience.
For now, the farm regularly sells out of traditionally Vietnamese crops and more common vegetables. Nguyen’s connections in the restaurant industry have proved invaluable. Relationships between chefs and farmers can be tough to navigate, but cooperative members show up at approximately 15 restaurants several times a week with a van full of produce, making it easy for chefs to pick and choose what they want. Close to 70% of the farm’s produce goes to restaurants; a small percentage is sold at the local Vietnamese Saturday morning market, while the other 20% goes to member-owners.
When pressed about measures of success, Nguyen said a survey showed some members have used the farm to increase their income more than 100% since before the BP spill. Nguyen said the goal is to hold steady or increase that statistic for all member-owners.
But Nguyen, like most farmers, is still scraping by on what he makes from the farm. Still, he shows up every day, doggedly committed. “I have no social life,” he laughed. “But most days I get to drink a beer with these guys,” he said, gesturing to a slender older man bent over a newly tilled row, leveling out the soil with a piece of worn plank.
Top photo: VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative founder Daniel Nguyen in fields at the farm. Credit: Sara Franklin