Articles in Gardening
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.
More from Zester Daily:
“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
Let’s take a poll. If I say the word “canning” what comes to mind? From my experience, your mental images would fall into one of three categories: grannies, a skull and cross bones levels of danger, or the sleeve tattoos and multiple piercings of hip DIYers. Canning and other forms of home food preservation have an image problem.
As for my basement? Don’t get me wrong, there’s some neat stuff down there (quarts of tomatoes, some tangy chutneys and pickles, a few fall squashes still hanging on), but “Hoarders” it is not.
Everyone should learn to preserve their own food
Teaching home cooks how to preserve food is often seen as folly, a luxury technique for those who have extra time on their hands. But we eaters are in a cooking crisis right now. There are segments of our population that cannot feed themselves for lack of basic kitchen skills. Expecting people to preserve might seem, initially, like asking the starving not just to eat cake, but to decorate it, too. But preserving foods is a reliable, economical and useful means of preparing seasonal ingredients. It has served the home cook for generations and can do so again.
When I was growing up, my grandmother canned, dried and fermented everything that came out of her garden. She put up her tomatoes, dried her herbs, made tremendous dill pickles and even her own wine. She didn’t do this because she was a gourmand. She did it because she was poor. For her, it was insurance; she was essentially building her own food bank every summer so that when things got tight in the winter, there was not only good food to eat, but some delight to be had as well.
In the early 1900s “Tomato Girl” clubs taught women how to can tomatoes and imparted the business skills needed to turn canned goods into profit-generating enterprises. The women of these clubs grew their own crops and processed, packaged and sold their produce to help support their families. The clubs were often the doorway to business and educational experiences unattainable to most women at the time.
In an era when economic pressures are driving more of our citizens toward food insecurity, and the increasing cost of fuel will limit our ability to ship food as widely as we do currently, preserving our own food could be part of the solution to a more stable, sustainable and equitable
Benefits of preserving your own food
Preserving food is practical. It minimizes waste. Think of how much food is discarded at the farmers market, the grocery store and in our gardens because it went bad before it could be eaten. The famously prolific zucchini doesn’t have to wind up in the compost pile; you can turn it into pickles. Berries that are starting to fade make a terrific sauce when cooked down with a little sugar.
Preserving food at the peak of its season evens out uneven production, providing for eaters when fields are fallow.
Preserving saves energy. Canned, fermented and dried foods can be stored without refrigeration.
Preserved foods provide income. They can be sold as added-value products by farmers and community gardens. If this business model is out of reach, food swaps and barter exchanges transform preserved foods into a kind of currency that helps eaters stock up on great tasting home-crafted foods.
Preserving protects food sovereignty. Just as victory gardens fed our nation in wartime, community and school gardens can help build our individual and our national food independence.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be a deep DIY kind of a guy or gal to preserve your own food. (Though I can’t imagine you would earn your “Portlandia” badge without it.) It’s just a simple thing we can do to feed ourselves.
Photo: Sherri Brooks Vinton. Credit: Chris Bartlett
Along with the return of robins and whirling bees, I count the appearance of dandelions among the first signs that spring has officially arrived. I look forward to seeing their cheery butter-yellow flowers, and admire their tenacity as plants. It takes a survivor’s spirit and dogged determination to thrive in the manner of dandelions, growing everywhere from lush fields to the worst of disturbed ground, even in cracks of sidewalks. As much as I admire dandelions’ perseverance, I also particularly enjoy them as a food. Their edgy bitter green flavor is a welcome addition to mealtime after a long winter filled with dreary grey skies and heavy slow-cooked dishes.
Every part of the dandelion plant is edible. Perhaps you’ve enjoyed a salad of bitter greens served with bacon and a splash of vinegar, or savored a cup of dandelion root coffee. You may even have delighted in dandelion flower fritters or sipped dandelion wine. But have you eaten every part of the dandelion?
Where to look for the best dandelions
I learned from edible wild plants expert Samuel Thayer how to eat two of the less commonly eaten parts of dandelions, the flower stalks and crowns. After a few years experience eating them, I’d say that dandelion crowns are among my favorite spring foods.
More from Zester Daily:
To find the best dandelion flower stalks to use as food, seek out large plants in shady areas. These grow in tall grass, which forces the stalk to grow quite long in order for the flower to not be obscured by grass. Longer stalks mean more food with less picking. Seek out the youngest, most pale green flower stalks, as they will be most tender.
Remove the flower heads from the stalks (and be certain to eat them or make dandelion wine). Boil whole flower stalks in boiling water for 10 minutes, as recommended by Thayer, then drain them. Serve dandelion stalk “noodles” dressed with a little butter and salt, or incorporate them into your favorite dishes as a vegetable.
Harvesting dandelion crowns takes a bit more technique. The crown of the dandelion is the tight knot where the leaves meet the tap root. Even in a large plant, it may not be more than a single bite, but it is a very satisfying one. Seek out young spring dandelion plants that have not yet flowered. Look for plants with a tight nest of new buds at their core.
If you are harvesting an entire dandelion plant, either because you intend to eat it, or because you are, gasp, weeding it, the first step is to wash the plant free of as much dirt as possible. Cut off the root, and peel away the outer leaves, and you will be left with the little nugget that is the crown. Rinse it again as thoroughly as possible under running water because it is likely to be very dirty.
Thayer, however, has come up with a clever method of harvesting dandelion crowns without all of the dirt. He uses a sturdy teaspoon with sharpened edges to selectively harvest crowns from the plants. I’ve found that a grapefruit spoon with serrated edges or a pocketknife also work well. Again, seek out large dandelion plants that have yet to flower. Use your spoon or knife to carve a cone-shaped piece of crown right out of the plant, which is still in the ground. Harvested in this manner, the plants require little additional rinsing to remove any remaining grit and dirt. Even if you intend to later remove the entire plant, if you find that you particularly enjoy dandelion crowns, harvesting them in this manner saves time.
Dandelion crowns have a touch of the same bitterness as dandelion leaves and feel like a solid bite of vegetable in the mouth. Use dandelion crowns as you would asparagus, adding them to any soup, salad, or stir-fry. They can be eaten raw, but I prefer to serve them cooked.
My favorite way to serve “yard artichokes” is similar to how I’d serve real artichokes. Steam prepared dandelion crowns until they can easily be pierced with a knife, usually around 10 minutes. While they are steaming, prepare small ramekins full of melted butter kissed with a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of salt. Dip the steamed dandelion crowns into the butter bath before enjoying the tender morsels like the toast of spring that they are.
Top photo: Dandelions. Credit: Erica Marciniec
A few carrots that didn’t get pulled one summer made their beautiful lacy flowers the next year, and it was easy to see that those blooms looked a lot like Queen Anne’s lace, cilantro blossoms and the diminutive chervil flower. Were they somehow related? More than just a pretty face, I knew there was something behind these flowers and the gorgeous vegetables I loved, something that united them and their forms, flavors and behaviors. But what?
I took those unread botany books off the shelves and found out that yes, these were all members of the umbellifer family and they all make umbel-like flowers, though varying enormously in size. This family includes a lot of wild but familiar plants, including the deadly hemlock, and it turns out that — minus the hemlock — they all happen to be harmonious in our mouths, both the vegetables and the many herbs in that family.
It’s all relative when it comes to vegetables
I started looking more into plant families, who is in them, their stories, their shared characteristics and the way they play in our kitchens. Like people, plant family members are indeed relatives.
ZESTER DAILY LINKS
Check out Deborah Madison's latest book:
By Deborah Madison
Ten Speed Press, 2013, 416 pages
More from Zester Daily:
The daisy (composite) family, a group of ruffians, includes the prickly artichokes and cardoons; salsify and scorzanera all with their habit of oxidizing; the bitter chicories; plus milk thistle, dandelion and burdock — a feisty bunch of plants. Break any of the roots and a thick white sap appears. Taste it and you will recoil from its bitterness. But a lot of these bitter plants are good for the liver, it turns out. Interesting.
Members of the nightshade family have been universally resisted wherever they’ve been introduced. Tomatoes were thought to cause stomach cancer. The Russian Orthodox Church believed potatoes were not food because they weren’t mentioned in the Bible, and besides, why eat what a dog didn’t even find interesting? Eggplant was thought to cause leprosy, and the consumption of eggplant (and nightshades in general) stimulates the pain of arthritis, which is why some people avoid it, even today. Belladonna got its name because when ingested, the pupils of the eyes grew large and dark, which was considered a form of beauty in women. The difficulties in this family, presumed or real, are due to alkaloids that can be deadly in large quantities but helpful in smaller ones; we all get our eyes dilated by the optometrist so the doctor can look deeply into our eyes, though not because of their lustrous beauty.
The chenopods, or goosefoots (yes, I looked at a goose’s gnarly foot to confirm the association), include spinach, chard, beets, wild spinach or lamb’s-quarters, and all are related to quinoa and amaranth, whose leaves can be and are eaten as well as the seeds. Speaking broadly, they are interchangeable in the kitchen with respect to flavor. And if you have chard bolting in your garden, might you still be able to eat the leaves as they becomes smaller and further apart on their ever-lengthening stems? Indeed you can. And at this stage they taste more like some of the wild greens they’re related to. This is the kind of stuff that I find fascinating!
Anyone who gardens has opportunities that deepen one’s vegetable literacy and excitement. You’ll find treasures that won’t appear in your supermarket, such as coriander buds that are still green and moist, so surprising in the mouth and so well-paired with lentils. You get to see — and eat — the whole plant, not just the parts and pieces that show up in the store. Broccoli leaves, as well as the crowns and stems, are quite tasty, and the same is true of radish and kohlrabi leaves.
Leeks produce enormous ribbons of leaves, sometimes referred to as flags, and indeed you can wave them back and forth to signal someone, if need be. When left in the garden over winter, the shanks can grow to a few feet in length(!), by which time a firm core has formed, too dense to eat, but a great ingredient for soup stock. When a leek is left in the garden long enough to bloom, its enormous spherical flower mimics that of the pretty chive blossom. And when you finally encounter a mature leek in the garden you can see that it is a mighty and noble vegetable (one variety is named King Richard). Is it surprising that the leek is the national symbol of Wales?
The name knotweed (the family that includes rhubarb, sorrel and buckwheat) refers to jointed stems, but you might see that the blossoms of these plants resemble the kind of embroidery that consists of little knots. Not the botanical definition, but my own, and you may have your own interpretation of names, too. I might add it doesn’t take much imagination to bring these three challenging plants together in a recipe.
Does any of this matter? Yes and no. We can still buy vegetables and cook them without knowing a bit of botany or history. But it is enormously fun to bring the familial nature of vegetables into view, to know that what relates in the garden often does so in the kitchen, which encourages both confidence and daring. And if you garden at all, your eyes will be open to possibilities that just don’t exist elsewhere.
To me, vegetable literacy enriches our world — and our culinary possibilities — by regarding the whole, wonderful plant and its relatives, not just the pieces and parts of a few cultivars.
Top photo: Deborah Madison holds an allium. Credit: Christopher Hirsheimer
Recently, I was at Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa, getting some last images for my new book, “Vegetable Literacy.” Although the late summer days were hot, it was chilly at 6 in the morning. Dew wet our feet and hems while gloves and socks, unthinkable until that moment, were very much desired. But the display garden at dawn mitigated any discomfort, especially the beds of Brassica vegetables — kale, collards, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbages — which had the whole summer to grow and were now displaying their enormous leaves.
There’s always that moment when a garden starts to sigh and sink and say, in so many plant expressions, “Enough. We’re done.” It looks so exhausted that you can’t imagine there’s much left to harvest. Probably all our gardens are looking this way about now. Yet if you dig around you often discover there are still a few more tomatoes yet to ripen, the Jerusalem artichokes are coming on strong, and tiny cabbages are starting to emerge on the stems of the Brussels sprouts. The garden is far from finished, despite the strain it shows from a summer of growth, and what’s really looking big and strong, albeit somewhat tired, are cabbages and collards and those other big Brassicas.
The cabbages were especially impressive. They always are because they take up so much more room than their harvested heads would lead you to imagine. The enormous old grandmother-grandfather leaves that had been there since the start of the plants’ growth showed their scars. Though weathered, punctured by hail and nibbled upon by insects, they were still gathering sunlight and feeding the edible head. They’re hard-working plants. My respect for them, already considerable, grew even more.
The broccoli’s larger heads had long been picked, but smaller sprouts were ready for the taking — had this not been a demonstration garden, that is. The kales seemed energized by the cooler days and looked as if they were ready to sprint along for the next several months. Nothing looks as if it would be better for you to eat than kale — it is just so robust. If it were a person, I might add tightly wound.
Collards? Also huge. Brussels sprouts? What an architectural plant with the branches jutting out from the stalk leaving a window that you can peer in and see the sprouts starting to take shape.
Garden color arrives with vibrant hues of Brassica vegetables
But among all this vigor what really stood out was the extraordinary range of garden color these plants exhibited. We think of cabbages of red and green, but the leaves themselves are more of a dusky plum or a muted grayish blue-green. Pull away the leaf that just covers a head of red cabbage and beneath it is shiny purple, nothing like the smoky purple outer leaves. The broccoli and the Tuscan kale leaves are a surprising shade of blue-green-gray that escapes you until you see them en masse, not just in a bunch. The stems of the Brussels sprout leaves radiate a suggestion of violet, while the little sprouts are that calm slate green of the leaves. Taken together, the effect of all these shades and hues is breathtaking and utterly surprising. What we think of as green is actually a wide range of hues that embraces purple on the one side, green-blacks on the other, with shades of slate, blue-green, gray-green and every other shade in between. It’s another good reason for having a garden, or for visiting one like that at Heritage Farm. The goodness of plants is nothing if not layered — taste, nourishment and beauty all at once.
(Heritage Farm is the headquarters for the Seed Savers Exchange. Visiting hours and events are posted on its website at www.seedsavers.org.)
Top photo: A Mammoth Red Rock cabbage at Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa. Credit: Deborah Madison
A parking lot in a tiny Michigan village seems like an unlikely place to go shopping for gourmet goods, but it was harvest time and a black SUV was awaiting customers. Piled high in the trunk, gathered in bunches ready for drying and labeled with an odd assortment of names like Georgian Red Crystal, Asian Tempest and Broadleaf Czech, this was no illegal booty awaiting drive-by customers. It was a treasure trove of heirloom varieties of hard-neck garlic, delighting the lucky few who were able to procure their annual supply of handpicked bulbs.
Seed Sources and Information
Why all the hubbub? Garlic is a staple in kitchens worldwide, but it is rare to experience garlic at its peak of freshness, when heirloom varieties really show off their nuanced differences. Taste and texture are remarkably vibrant, far from the dry, dense, almost chewy structure of the commercially produced garlic found on display in large, dry bins at grocery stores.
Garlic is used as much for its ability to transform otherwise ho-hum dishes into sharply flavorful meals as for its antibiotic, antioxidant and potentially aphrodisiac qualities. With the average American consuming 2.3 pounds of the heady stuff each year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture figures that on any given day, 18% of the population is consuming garlic in some form. But the majority of that garlic is a dehydrated component in processed food from a form of softneck garlic called “common garlic.”
Sorting out heirloom garlic
The common garlic of supermarkets is typified by having small cloves, tough outer skins and being well past its “best by” date. But it is ubiquitous because it’s easy to grow, easier still to process, inexpensive to produce and mostly imported from China. It also bears no resemblance to any of the roughly 500 heirloom varieties that continue to be cherished by real garlic aficionados. And don’t mistake “elephant garlic” for one of them. This plant, belonging to the leek family, may impress the eye with oversized cloves, but its size is a trade-off for milquetoast flavor.
The other family of garlic is hardneck, with as many varieties and personality profiles as my best friend’s large extended family from Sicily. With horticultural references such as Bavarian, Rocombole, Serpent, Porcelain and Purple Stripe, hardnecks are noted for their thick center neck, with 4 to 12 large cloves of pure flavor arranged around it. Cultivars like the aptly named Music from the Porcelain family are tender and creamy white, a mixture of spice and floral fragrance. The fresh cloves yield under the slightest pressure from the knife, creating a juicy and smooth paste in one quick smear. Heirloom varieties range from bulbs that are immediately super hot and spicy like Bogatyr of the Purple Stripe family to others like Chesnok Red with a mellow sweetness that reveals itself only when roasted into caramelized nuggets and makes it a popular choice for baking.
Garlic fans lucky enough to live in areas with perfect garlic-growing conditions (any mild climate with enough cold to “set” the bulb before overwintering) can successfully harvest heirloom varieties. The best seed producers release their cloves in September, in time to plant about six weeks before the ground freezes, and it’s often a race to order the best varieties before they run out.
Best of all, growing your own or knowing a farmer who does affords an extra garlic treat. The scapes, or wildly curvaceous flowering stems that sprout in the early spring, can be harvested and used in any salad or stir-fry in May and becomes a harbinger of good things to follow in July, when the full plant bulbs are ready to pull from the ground, start enjoying or hang to dry.
Roasted Garlic Aïoli
My biggest regret about a recipe like aïoli is that the two core ingredients, extra virgin olive oil and garlic, are at their freshest at opposite ends of the calendar. But sourcing a Southern hemisphere olio nuovo in a Northern hemisphere summer can solve that problem pretty simply. Incorporating a little mashed potato into the dip adds a creamy structure. I have Deenie Yudell, design manager of the J. Paul Getty Trust, to thank for this trick she shared with me over 30 years ago.
6 cloves fresh garlic
1 Yukon gold potato
2 tablespoons good white wine vinegar
2 egg yolks
1½ – 2 cups extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
1. Roast 5 cloves of the fresh garlic in a skillet over a low-medium flame until the paper sheathing is browned and the cloves feel soft and pliable to the touch.
2. Boil the potato in boiling salted water along with the other clove of garlic. When it is tender, drain and mash.
3. Using an open whisk, combine the mashed garlic cloves and mashed potato with the white wine vinegar until well mixed. Add the egg yolks, unbeaten, and whisk vigorously while slowly adding olive oil in a thin stream until reaching your desired consistency. Finish with salt and pepper to taste.
Top photo: Georgian Crystal garlic. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
David C. Driskell’s approach to cooking and gardening is no different from that of creating art. “Cooking and gardening are like assembling a collage. It is a conversation and a continual improvisation, never the same, always dynamic and always so very good.” An international artist, a dedicated educator and a fine scholar, Driskell’s legacy is celebrated in the form of The David C. Driskell Center for the Study of Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and African Diaspora at the University of Maryland.
Born to sharecropper parents from Georgia more than eight decades ago, Driskell embodies a life of hard work, creativity, exploration and a profound appreciation of his dynamic African and African-American cultural heritage. In the field of black American art, Driskell is a pioneer. He continues to produce paintings, prints, woodcuts and collages. Read Driskell’s biography for a summary of his numerous awards and distinctions.
What I want to focus on is his passion for gardening and cooking. David and his wife, Thelma, fell in love with Maine in his early days as a student and later as a teacher at the renowned Skowhegan painting school in Skowhegan, Maine. So much so that they bought a house and land in Falmouth, Maine, more than 30 years ago.
In the past five years, I have visited David at his summer home in Maine on several occasions. I have wandered his annual garden in full bloom (it is situated in a unique microclimate, where he is able to grow collards) and listened to his stories of growing up with sharecropping parents and how he would make brilliant purple pokeberry paint as a child. During one stroll, David pointed out the pokeberries’ young leaves that they would collect and eat (though older leaves are considered toxic), mullein used for coughs, tansy for stomach disorders, nutritious purslane and stinging nettles to reduce inflammation. All the while he revealed that much of his food and healing knowledge he learned from his mother, Mary Lou Cloud Driskell, who was of Native American and African heritage. She possessed a vast store of ethnobotanical knowledge of the Carolinas, where he grew up.
Yearly, David journeys to Falmouth in the early spring and prepares the garden and then returns for the long summer, splitting his time between Maryland and Falmouth. In Falmouth, he slips into a slower pace, an unhurried rhythm that allows him to work in his studio, cultivate his annual summer garden, cook and host family and friends. When I visited, he exhibited his local knowledge about some Maine foodways and made a visitor like me some Maine-inspired fish chowder laced with his homegrown garden herbs on a perfectly lazy and breezy July afternoon.
David Driskell’s Seafood Chowder
1 to 2 tablespoons cooking oil (olive or safflower)
½ to 1 cup chopped onion
½ to 1 cup chopped celery
¾ pounds any type of white fish (haddock, pollock or cod), cut into small chunks
2 pounds Quahog clams (optional)
6 small potatoes peeled, lightly boiled and diced. Save the potato stock to thicken the chowder later.
2 cups fish head broth with bay leaf (optional), vegetable broth or water
2 cups light cream
¼ cup of flour for thickening
Pinch of sugar
Red pepper, salt and black pepper for seasoning
A sprinkle of finely chopped fresh parsley, tarragon or thyme
1. Add oil to a pan on medium heat.
2. Sauté onions until translucent, then add chopped celery and saute for another 1-2 minutes.
3. Add fish, clams, potatoes, broth, light cream and flour. Bring to a boil and simmer for 20-30 minutes.
4. Add a pinch of sugar and then season with red pepper, salt and black pepper.
5. Plate and sprinkle freshly chopped herbs of your choice.
Top photo: Artist and scholar David Driskell in the garden at his home in Falmouth, Maine. Credit: Sarah Khan
Cloudberries are shy little plants. They grow so low to the ground you might not even notice the juicy golden fruits balanced on delicate stalks half hidden in the spagnum moss when making your way, as I did, round the edge of a peat-stained lake rimmed with feathery silver birch just below the snowline of a Norwegian fjord. And even if you know what they are and where they grow, you’d have to be there in August when they’re ripe.
So valuable is the cloudberry crop of the Scandinavian uplands that laws are in place to protect it from unlicensed gatherers. Freedom of access is usual in northern lands where the population is sparse, and while lesser berries — blueberries, raspberries, rowanberries, lingonberries, cranberries, even the exquisite little Arctic bramble — are plentiful and free, cloudberry rights are bought and sold with the land.
The berry harvests of Scandinavia were — and remain — an important resource for self-sufficient farming communities, adding variety to the diet through the nine months of the year when the ground is frozen and nothing grows. Their value and variety was noted by Ethel B. Tweedie, intrepid lady traveler in the land of the midnight sun at the end of the 19th century. “Berries are quite a speciality,” she wrote in “Through Finland in Carts” (London, 1898). “They greet the traveller daily in soup — sweet soups being very general — or they are made into delicious syrups, or are served as compote with meat, or transformed into puddings.” She counted 10 varieties of berry fruits gathered by those on whose hospitality she depended. “Of all these,” she continues, “The most esteemed is the suomuurain or cloudberry: in appearance like a yellow raspberry, it grows in the extreme north in the morasses during August. It is a most delicious fruit with a pine tree flavour.”
The italics are hers, and she’s right.
Cloudberries at first glance on a fjord
I first encountered the cloudberry in its natural habitat (rather than as an unripe berry on the moors of northern Britain) when visiting friends, smallholders on a Norwegian fjord some 200 miles inside the Arctic Circle. Their land, as with all the farms on the steep slopes of the fjords, ran vertically from the high tops to the shore. Dairy farming and fishing provided a modest source of revenue in the old days, though the family met its needs from a single cow. The upper pastures above the snowline in winter provided summer grazing while the lower slopes were cropped for hay. Ownership of the shore included the rights for inshore fishing and to set traps for lobster and prawn. Potatoes were planted in a small patch of arable land alongside the sprawling wooden farmhouse and tall barns. But it was the uplands, the moorland just below the snowline, that provided the wild gatherings that made life in these frozen uplands pleasurable as well as possible.
On the day of my visit, my hostess left a hand-drawn map on the kitchen table so I could follow the path uphill behind the house and join the family at the setor, a log cabin where, in the old days, butter and cheese were made. Sure enough the whole family — two children, parents and a pair of older cousins — were spread out across the moorland, baskets in hand. “You bring us good fortune,” called my hostess, straightening to greet me. “The cloudberries are plentiful this year. You can help us pick.”
It was hot work in the sunshine, though the berries were indeed plentiful and our baskets quickly filled. Rubus chamaemorus is, as its botanical name suggests, a member of the rose family. The blossom is white, five-petaled and rose-like. The leaves, flat and palmate, grow in pairs, making them easily visible in grass or moss. When first formed, the state it rarely moves beyond elsewhere, the cloudberry looks like a hard orange ball streaked with scarlet where the sepals have parted to expose the flesh to the sun. It becomes paler as it ripens. When perfectly ripe, the little globules that make up each berry swell with juice and turn gold. At this point, the flavor is neither sharp nor overly sweet but honeyed and a little medicinal. The juices are thick and almost jellied, a texture which lingers in the mouth and stays in the memory long after the fragrance has faded.
This recipe skips the sugar
For supper that evening, we ate small brown trout fried with chanterelles in home-churned butter and little almond-shaped potatoes cooked with dill-flowerheads. To follow, there were little birch bowls filled with the beautiful golden cloudberries folded with soured cream — thick and a little acidic and perfect with the slippery juices.
“No sugar,” said my hostess firmly. “Or the flavor will be spoiled.”
Cloudberries, she continued, are not only super-rich in vitamin C but are provided by nature with a preservative to keep them from spoiling. “My mother-in-law kept them fresh right through the winter under spring water in a big china bowl in the stabur.” This, a wooden storehouse on stilts with a turf roof, was visible through the window at some distance from the house. “As a child I hated the cold and being sent out in the snow to fetch whatever my mother needed. Which is why all the farmhouses are centrally heated and we all need fridges and freezers and keep our stores in the cellar where it’s warmer. Which is why we all put sugar in our preserves — even the cloudberries, though my mother would never approve. But I always pop some in the freezer to eat with the Christmas ham or for special days with cookies and cream. The cloudberries remind us of summer: There are times when we need to remember the sun will return.”
Cloudberry jam and liqueur
Anyone who can’t make it to Scandinavia’s Arctic uplands in August this year — maybe next? — might like to know that Ikea, the Swedish furniture-maker, stocks a cloudberry jam that has the proper jellied texture and tastes as it should. And for those who enjoy a digestif, Finland’s official distiller, Lapponia, produces a cloudberry liqueur, very sweet, in which the pine-needle flavor is still discernible. While both are no more than an echo of the real thing, you’ll get the general idea. Once tasted, never forgotten.
Top photo: Cloudberries. Credit: iStockPhoto