Sarah is working to eat more slowly, sustainably, and inconveniently, and it’s a lot of work, rift with bright sparks of joy and some of the most amazing meals of her life, eaten at a dining table in her in-process 1912 home in Portland, Oregon, while her three small boys climb and run around her and her husband slowly learns to celebrate fermented foods and honey-sweetened treats.
She is a freelance financial writer and former professional blogger; she keeps chickens; and she’s a beginning urban farmer. For Sarah, “convenience” is no longer a good thing.
ooh, stinging nettle spaetzle! I must try it. I’ve been eating stinging nettles for the past year and have discovered that they’re a fabulous way to test the mettle of your dinner & lunch guests. my brother-in-law demurred; a friend, nervously, dove in to try my stinging nettle pesto pasta. I do it without basil, but with lots of sour cream or creme fraiche, and it’s wonderful.
Kim asked me to write about a cookbook gift I’d received, and as is my wont, my story came late and long. I have many cookbooks I love and want others to love, too, but few given to me as gifts; and though I’ve received several cookbooks as prizes or review copies (thanks Marisa and Culinate!) lately, those are already on ‘the list.’ So I had to reach back to find good recommendations. When I did, I was surprised how much those gifts now influence my life, given the huge changes that have occurred in my food life since the late 1990s, when I received them. Here is what I wrote:
Two titles stand out among cookbooks I’ve received as gifts; both predated my current fanaticism for local, seasonal foods, but both would turn out to be prescient and far more useful than I’d realize.
The first was A Well-Seasoned Appetite by Molly O’Neill. It came out in 1997, and was in a few ‘best of the year’ lists in 1998. I’d desired it, but a pretty new $20 cookbook seemed a luxury out of the scope of my lifestyle as a newly-minted business school student. Then came our cohort’s holiday party. Our tight group of 60 high-strung MBA candidates had decided to hold a gift exchange. But not just any gift exchange: one perfect for Wharton, where a good percentage of our classmates would end up casually handling millions of dollars every day on trading floors and exchange desks. A ‘White Elephant’ gift swap, where participants bring a wrapped gift valued at $20 and draw numbers to decide who goes first. Number one picks a gift, then number two can either take number one’s gift, or pick a new one. And so on. Imagine this with nearly 60 participants, each one more of a sharp-eyed future business strategist than the one before.
How would I pick the right gift, one that would be desired by my friends and classmates? How would I end up with something that I wanted? Shopping in downtown Philly, I came upon a bookstore and suddenly knew my path was clear: I bought the cookbook. I wrapped it and took it to the party, drawing #23. When my turn came, I picked my own gift, unwrapped it, and sat satisfied while my cohort mates did fierce battle over gift cards to Barnes & Noble and CD Emporium. As I suspected, no other future CEO wanted a quixotic seasonal cookbook.
For years, I didn’t cook much from the cookbook; many of the recipes call for pricey cuts of meat and seafood, and seasonal produce far above my price range as a student. And after graduation, I was far too busy to allow time to forage for wild anything or properly prepare favas. But now it’s both inspiration and market (or garden) shopping list; with the time and budget I now devote to food, it’s ideal for my lifestyle. Her essays on sour cherries and asparagus hunting -- two things that now grow in my own yard and require only the investment of love, compost and time -- along with their recipes are worth the price of the book alone.
The second is the Pepperidge Farm Cookbook by Margaret Rudkin, bought for me by my mother for Christmas around 1999. Yes, the Pepperidge Farm of the stuffing mix and the poppyseed cakes in the grocery store freezer; no, it’s nothing like it would seem. It’s full of farm recipes infused with both American and Irish culture, and every time I open the chock-full book I find a surprise that’s eerily appropriate for what’s in my kitchen right that instant. Today: quince cream, which seems a version of a meringue made with plenty of quince puree, lots of practical instruction on process, and no new-fangled kitchen tools at all. “Rub through a fine sieve, using a wooden spoon,” the recipe says. “Beat egg whites with a rotary beater.” A particular treasure is an enormous chapter on cooking from antique cookbooks, in which she translates recipes like ‘quaking pudding’ and ‘preserved grapes’ into modern language and measurements. In the last chapter, “Ireland,” she gives practical recipes for things like soda bread and Irish country ham, “serve with hot Raisin Sauce (p. 26).” Yum.
It was her column on canning that had me spluttering for the first time. Carrie Sturrock, “PDX Green” columnist for the local paper, had gone out and had a little canning class with our own Harriet. She decides that canning isn’t very energy-efficient. Just what is the carbon footprint of that batch of strawberry jam, pray tell? She quotes a professor of agriculture. “It’s better to have big containers when you’re heating things up... I would imagine it’s not more environmentally friendly to do it yourself.” Then she thinks, oh, what about the food? “But what if you take into account where the food is grown and its transit? That matters. If you grow the food yourself in an organic backyard garden using your own homemade compost and then reuse the canning jars each year, you probably have a smaller carbon footprint than if you buy mass-produced canned food at the grocery store... But the equation changes yet again if you drive to a farmers market and buy the food for canning from a farmer who may have trucked in a small batch from a farm 200 miles away. Looking at the carbon footprint alone, that’s likely worse than buying canned food at the grocery store.”
In the end, she decides, she’ll just can a few of her garden tomatoes. The rest is subject to driving.
This infuriated me, because not only did it present the question of canning as purely a comparison of two carbon footprints; the one in the actual canning process, the second in the transport of food to the canner (did she forget about the many different parts of the food that must be separately trucked to the factory? And what about the can itself? It probably won’t be used again. And the pollution to make the can? Or, even if it’s recycled, it will cause plenty of mess when it’s melted down and re-purposed. And hello!!! BPAs!!!), but she ignores the concept of preserving the bounty of garden, tree, polyculture farm; she forgets to mention the very real concern of nutrition and chemical content of our food.
I preserve my own jams, pickles, conserves, relishes, and ketchups because I know every bit of that food, from stem to stern, I have avoided extra high heat and chemicals and sugars, I have mixed and matched and used up every plum I could find. I have washed my hands. I am confident that chemical pesticides never sullied these pears, these peaches; I have faith that the farms on which they were grown are conserving the soil for future generations. These foods are vastly superior to their supermarket counterparts, even if I used twice the energy to put them in their jars.
And, having missed this part of the conversation, she wraps it up so neatly. “Not everyone has the time to can. I don’t have much. But I love to cook and I love the idea of better understanding how food is made and preserved. I plan to can only some backyard tomatoes this year.”
You don’t have time for much sustainability even though it’s your job to write about it.
I was pre-disposed to find her local eating column problematic. Again, she develops eating local into black-and-white problem that obscures the actual issues. “When the Northwest Earth Institute in Portland asked if I wanted to take part in their two-week eco-challenge, I chose to eat only foods grown with in 100 miles of my home... Never have I eaten more healthfully. Never have I craved white flour and sugar more. Never have I spent so much on groceries. Never will I do it again.”
She took the challenge with a wave of the hand, “how hard could that be?” and then proceeded to jump in dizzily, driving all over several counties for her ingredients, not doing any homework beforehand. She had a “vague quixotic feeling” (that describes my reaction perfectly!) “As a busy mom, I didn’t have time to meticulously find every ingredient I wanted ahead of time.”
Again, isn’t this her job? She already uses a CSA (bonus points for that: it’s both local and a smart bargain), and one would have imagined she could have come across a few local producers of grains and other carbohydrates, the things she longs for, in her writing.
Her problem comes down to this: she hasn’t planned ahead, she can’t make time to can so she certainly can’t make time to make bread (let alone the problem of not having flour within 100 miles). And she hasn’t involved her family in the challenge.
Of course you will overspend and overdrive if you’ve decided to cook parallel meals alongside your husband and children, looking at their organic Annie’s mac and cheese and avocado slices with longing (I’m just guessing here). Of course it’s going to be miserable if you set a 100% rule that’s quite restrictive without much advance planning. Of course you’re going to crave sweets and white flour if you’ve suddenly gone teetotal and it’s just for two weeks; not long enough to kick the habit, but just long enough to make you froth at the mouth.
Local eating needs to be approached far more thoughtfully than this. Yes, please do make restrictions on your diet that seem quite challenging; no, don’t decide you must have chicken! and beef! when your local market only has milk, butter, cheese, and pork (really, you can’t live for two weeks without chicken?) and then drive 100 miles to satisfy this “need.” (Much though I love Kookoolan Farms, I just can’t manage to buy their milk as I don’t drive -- instead I get the rare treat of one of their chickens when I go to the Hillsdale Farmer’s Market, a few times a year.)
Local eating needs to be considered over a long time, so you can begin to see the real problems with that white flour/sugar craving. It’s a habit that’s not just addictive, but also destructive; you crave it, it messes with your body’s natural balance of metabolism and hunger, you crave more. Tests with little kids discovered that they overate things sweetened with sugar. And can you say “a third of the population will have diabetes in a few dozen years?” That’s sugar (not helped at all by feedlot beef and chicken and pork, but that’s another topic, all of which, incidentally, eating local will help address). You’re going to have to kick that habit. No, it’s not going to be easy.
Local eating needs to be approached with eyes wide open for the trade-offs. Yes, I eat flour and oats grown outside a 100-mile radius. But the stuff I do get is grown within 300 miles, or so, and I know the farmers care for their land. I’ve endlessly read up on bread and flour so I’ve determined that whole grain sourdough is the best thing for us; and I use a little white flour to make it palatable for my kids and husband. Yes, it’s hard to find local olive oil, because our climate really doesn’t work for it; I buy Californian olive oil from a lovely local man who sells it out of a garage-style warehouse where I pull up on my bike, right in front of the door.
I don’t even need to lock it.
There is local vinegar, or you can make your own. I buy my apple cider vinegar in a gallon size. It’s $17 and lasts me half a year, with pickling. Because I’ve been canning and freezing and drying and fermenting, I have enough tomatoes and pizza sauce and jam to last the winter. It’s all local, and much of it I picked myself.
Please, green writer: don’t jump into something blindly and then tell us all you don’t like to swim. It’s more damaging than you know.
Eating locally takes a deep and thoughtful recast of the way you look at food. It takes time. It takes care, and love, and involving your family and friends. It takes a very grey-toned consideration, balance of the trade-offs (I eat pepper that’s “beautifully grown,” organic nutmeg and cinnamon, but I harvest my own onion and dill seeds, for instance), a verdict that’s made after a long trial and then continuously appealed (should I really drink coffee? How about now?).
Eating locally is more than just discovering that walnuts and hazelnuts taste good fresh from the shell. (My walnuts, you'll see, are from the ground outside my back door: I agree.) Eating locally is changing your life.
And, though it’s difficult, you can do it without driving... at all.
note: I reflected on this after publishing, and think it’s possible that much of my struggle with Carrie’s tone could be a result of heavy editing. It’s happened to me more than once. Perhaps Carrie and I could be best of friends, if only she’d come over and bake bread with me. But it’s hard to dismiss the dismissal... her editor didn’t write that.
The best in food writing does not simply instruct a cook, give a list of ingredients and explain how these go together. No: the best in food writing is to slowly peel shards of skin from the fruit, exposing the flesh bit by bit so that at first you see its moist ripe redness, then smell its sweet acid scent, and then touch its supple squish-between-fingers, and finally put a bit to your lips, taste, and know something entirely new that you will never forget. The best in food writing is discovery, inspiration, putting up for the winter. The best in food writing tells a story of love first, food second, and wraps it all up with the brown paper of ingredients lists, methodology, truc.
When I read most about food is in the earliest of spring, when I am pushing my fingers into the dirt and watching anxiously over my baby kales and peas and bounding around the just-opened market at a near run, twirling with delight over cabbages and watercress. And again, as summer wanes, chills, becomes fall, and I am settling into cozy chairs with knitted things wrapped around me to dream of soups and savory pies and slow-cooked pears. It is this second time now, and as brilliant good fortune would have it, this year’s Wordstock festival at the Oregon Convention Center has, as one of its three genre focuses, much writing about food.
The Wordstock guidebook pdf is a little difficult to navigate (I’m a fan, though, its mod design). I know that you, here, wish to eat up all the food events the festival has to offer, so I’ve compiled a guide. I’ll be going to nearly every event I’ve listed here (but for some of the ones running concurrently) and I hope I’ll see some of you in the audience, too. The Portland women's chefs and restaurateurs group will be meeting to picnic Saturday after the sessions and I’d love to have any of you join us!
Tuesday, October 6
- 5 p.m. U-Pick, the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center. Community members are coming together for an event to lay out, edit and print a zine capturing community submissions of food, art and words. You’ll have to pre-register here.
Saturday, October 10
- 3 p.m., Wieden+Kennedy Stage. Bill Thorness and Langdon Cook. Bill is author of Edible Heirlooms, a “beautiful book” about growing heirloom vegetables in the Pacific NW (Bill’s also a biker!). Langdon is author of the sparkling, entertaining story-book Fat of the Land, a series of essays about foraging in the Pacific Northwest. He is the reason I am seriously considering learning how to dig for razor clams (season opens soon!).
- 4 p.m., Columbia Sportswear Stage. Seasons of Change Panel with Tom Malterre, Shannon Borg, and Piper Davis: ‘How much should people be encouraged to eat seasonal food? Hear three authors discuss the challenges of providing a seasonal menu, the impacts of rising demand on farmers and others aspects of eating seasonally.’ Tom is a certified nutritionist and co-author of the Whole Life Nutrition Cookbook. Piper is the daughter of Grand Central Bakery founder and now is co-owner and cuisine manager of the bakery operation, as well as having co-written the upcoming (October 6th!) and, for me, hugely anticipated Grand Central Baking Book. Shannon is a food writer and Slow Food Seattle member whose book’s quixotic and delightful nature is obvious just in reading its title, Chefs on the Farm: Recipes and Inspiration from the Quillisascut Farm School of the Domestic Arts.
- 5 p.m., Columbia Sportswear Stage. Ellen Jackson, Piper Davis and Julie Richardson. Ellen is co-author of the Grand Central Baking Book, and has a very Portland history as pastry chef and chef de cuisine at Park Kitchen. Julie is co-owner of Baker & Spice, and gets cred for developing her career with a booth at the Portland Farmer’s Market. She’s the co-author of the dessert cookbook on the top of my wishlist, Rustic Fruit Desserts.
- 5 p.m., University of Oregon Nonfiction Stage. Lisa Weasel and Lisa M. Hamilton. Weasel is the vastly well-educated writer of Food Fray: Inside the Controversy Over Genetic Food. She earned her PhD in Molecular Biology from the University of Cambridge and she now teaches at Portland State. Some of her recent work on sugar beets is discussed in the latest issue of Oregon Humanities Magazine. Lisa Hamilton’s book Deeply Rooted tells of several farmers who till against the tide of conventional agriculture. Hamilton also wrote a book on a Japanese form of natural agriculture, Farming to Create Heaven on Earth.
Sunday, October 11
- 11 a.m., McMenamins Stage. Kate Hopkins. Kate is known online as the popular blogger Accidental Hedonist, and her book is 99 Drams of Whiskey.
- 1 p.m., McMenamins Stage. Shannon Borg and Ivy Manning. Shannon returns to talk more about eating with the seasons along with Portland-based frequent Culinate contributor, writer and food-lover-with-abandon Ivy, whose books include The Farm to Table Cookbook and The Adaptable Feast, in which she explains how to alter seasonal recipes to please both the meat-eaters and vegetarians in your life.
- 4 p.m., Wieden+Kennedy Stage. Isa Chandra Moskowitz, Tom Malterre, and Alissa Sergerston. Alissa, a cooking instructor in the Puget Sound, co-wrote Whole Life Nutrition Cookbook with Tom. Isa writes “The Post Punk Kitchen,” a public access vegan cooking show, and has written a number of vegan cookbooks, most recently, Vegan Brunch.
Yesterday, I finished writing a long and wonky argument against the practice of killing baby boy chicks via grinder. The practice is accepted by the USDA and by many veterinarians and scientists, who say, basically, “this is as good as it gets.” I ran through the economics of the poultry industry (much of which I learned from Kookoolan Farms’ excellent email newsletters); because only one breed is raised for meat in the U.S., and that breed is unsuitable for commercial egg laying, the industry has become severed. Sixty or 70 years ago, chickens would be raised together until the roosters started to crow. At that time, most of the roosters would become dinner and the hens would be kept for eggs and to raise future flocks. The male chicks in non-Cornish Cross breeds aren’t raised for meat because, due to their slower growth rate and smallish size, the American consumer is unwilling to pay a price high enough to make feeding and housing them for 16 weeks tenable.
At the end, I make the analysis that the only way to fix this problem is to change the industry back to the way it once was. And in order to do this, we’ll have to pay way more for our food. I used $4 or $5 per dozen for eggs and $5 or $6 per pound for chicken as an example. This may actually be more at first, but would likely become a little less as time went on.
The piece I wrote was promoted on AOL’s welcome screen today and by the end of the afternoon had received thousands of “forwards” (people sending the link on to their friends via email) and many hundreds of comments.
I was sad, though, to see that many of the comments both in emails and on the blog post were a variation on a few themes. One was “I’m never eating chicken or eggs again!” One woman even wrote into the general Daily Finance email to say I’d made her a vegan. Certainly, I’m pleased that my call to action was heard -- but this isn’t my goal. Another was “who cares, animals are for eating and they’re going to die anyway! Give me some chicken.” (This is essentially verbatim from dozens of comments, I left out the crude language and the spelling idiosyncrasies.) A few commenters said they’d only buy organic from now on; a few more said they’d choose free range (neither of these actions would address the problem at all).
Then there were, of course, the substantial set of commenters who accused me of being a liberal with a PETA bias. (Actually, I disagree with PETA’s methodologies and message, but that’s an argument for another day.) And those who were angry we didn’t care more about aborted human fetuses. And the rants spiraled out from there.
But the future of food can’t be about liberal vs. conservative, virtuous vegan vs. ignorant-blissful omnivore. The future of food must be much more nuanced... and much more simple and rational than that.
The future of food must be more expensive than it is today.
I don’t believe, however, that we can’t get there; that this must be elitist; that it’s a choice between human and animal welfare (or, as in many arguments, between limitations on population and covering our eyes with our hands and using up the earth, full fossil fuel-powered speed ahead); that I have to hitch my wagon to either PETA or the NRA. That my refusal to eat supermarket chicken and eggs shows my bias.
It will be hard and lots of us are going to have to demand it and (as they say) vote with our dollar. I have very few dollars with which to vote; that’s why I’m not eating chicken. But in the coming year, I’ll be spending what little money I have to buy a few chickens from friends and small farmers who are raising other breeds slowly and sensibly. I’ll be making alterations on my chicken coop to raise a continuous stream of young layers and, if I can figure out a way, buy my baby chicks from local farmers, not hatcheries. My goal is to one day have enough eggs so I can share with neighbors who agree that this must be changed.
My point was missed by many of the AOL readers. But you understand, don’t you? Yes, we’ll have to eat less chicken. The days of $2 pieces of fried chicken at KFC and Popeye’s may be numbered. (The days of KFC and Popeye’s may be numbered. I wouldn’t mourn.) We’ll have to use more parts of the chicken. We’ll have to learn to cut one up, if we don’t already know; more of us will have to know how to cook. Not everyone; oddly, the elite will still be able to afford to have chefs remove the skin and bones and serve them just the breasts. Ooh la la!
What most of us are missing is that this -- the skinless, boneless chicken part wrapped in plastic doubly and sold singly -- should be the elite thing. Not the whole chicken raised on food scraps and worms and dandelion greens in someone’s small farm, that you have to roast yourself, and of course you’ll save the bones for broth because only rich people can waste food like that.
I’m not -- I don’t want to be -- elite. I’m not biased on behalf of PETA (that’s the other Sara Gilbert). I don’t believe veganism is a healthier alternative.
But I believe we can change the future of food, vegans and bacon-lovers, liberals and conservatives, those who believe in a mother’s right to choose an abortion and those who find the death of a fetus abhorrent. I shouldn’t have to choose sides to believe in humane and sustainable chicken and eggs. I shouldn’t have to kill hundreds of millions of baby boy birds to eat a soft-boiled egg.
And I won’t. Here is my call to action: eat with your eyes wide open. Know where your chicken came from, know how it was raised and what sacrifices were made to get your breakfast to your plate. Don’t rationalize this. Don’t accept it. Don’t mix it up with other issues.
Eat inconveniently. It will cost a lot. Money. Time. Knowledge-seeking. Brutal honesty with your internal ethical self.
It will be worth it.
Diamonds may be some other girls' best friend, but the jewels I clasp to my heart and beg, plead and scheme to obtain are far softer and, I’d argue, more Continental than a kiss on the hand; able symbols of both platonic and liaisonic affairs; eminently better bets than baguettes.
One night I am running through the Buckman neighborhood, down a curving street where I rarely venture, though it is only blocks from the high school where my husband and I were almost-sweethearts in the late 80s and early 90s. It is in this nostalgic quiet back avenue that I see them, in the very corner of the front yard of a pretty, dark Victorian house. It could be the witch’s cottage in Hansel and Gretel, so taken am I by the sweet-tart berries veritably dripping, drop drop drop, from a vine there. Currants. Each one redder and plumper than the last, glowing in the early evening sun, sparkling even, far more artful than any princess-cut diamond.
I knock on the door, almost terrified, somehow the welcoming cackle of a witch would not surprise me. But there is no one, magical or otherwise, no answer to the door. I take a currant, just to taste, they are perfect: not too ripe, scented with heat and acid. I long to pick, but I continue on my run, my tongue already tinged with the verboten juice. I am in its sway.
It is Turkish Delight from the White Witch; Pandora’s box; forbidden fruit. I cannot get the currants out of my mind. It is not just that I desire them; it is also that I feel they desire me. Surely no one else could love them, care for them as I. Another afternoon, on my bike, I detour down that street, berries beckoning, and dare to knock again. Still, no answer. Still, no one has picked a single currant.
Every day or two I wander through my back yard, checking on my own currant bushes, sadly naked of brilliant baubles. They were only planted last spring, and transplanted to a spot near the chicken coop in March; I am never surprised by a magical fruit. And the next day, my sister-in-law stops by.
“Do you want currants?” she asks. The garden of the house where she rents a room has gone, sadly neglected due to the owner’s ill health. There are currants. They are bounteous.
I bike to her house, and she and I spend 30 minutes plucking the clusters off, filling pint basket after pint basket. Two pounds in all. She can’t stop exclaiming about how luminous they are, “they look like Christmas.” Christmas but better: jubilant, brilliant ornaments of June, July. That night, I lovingly pluck the berries, one by one, from their stems, plunging them in water, anointing them with raw Sauvie’s Island honey, simmering, steeping, straining, making currant juice. It needs nothing but itself. It glows in the pint jars, I cannot look at it without that feeling, that rush, infatuation, craving, desire.
I must have more. I buy two pints from Amy Benson at the farmer’s market, and later that week I am once again flush with lusty joy. This time I pour some of my treasure into a pot with four pints of fat raspberries, and in the end it is a loose, licentious raspberry currant basil jam.
But still, I need more, more, a girl can never have enough currants in July. My thoughts repeatedly return to that Victorian witch’s house a half-run away. I am salacious. I am wanton. When it comes to currants, this is a material world, and I am a material girl.
First comes love...
I have been falling in love with a great frequency and indiscrimination matched only by my freshman year in high school (oh, 1987!). Thankfully for my husband (with whom I first fell in love when we were freshman, so I guess it can mean something after all), my current romantic interests are all of the vegetable variety.
But oh, such vegetables. I blush to own up to my ingenue. Surely, I had eaten turnips and cabbages and arugula before, but I’d decided they were no, not for me, better suited for the pages of Beatrix Potter and the contents of a 17th-century soup pot than for my kitchen (or my garden).
Each one floors me, stuns me with its possibilities. Last spring it was green garlic; in the summer came kohlrabi. The fall and winter saw me fall in swoon, cuckoo for celeriac and cabbage.
Today, it’s turnips, and though I never before thought turnips were romantic -- except as the Brer Patch and head scarves and Peter Rabbit are romantic, in a sweet Old English peasant way -- we two are inseparable, cozying up for late-night dinners in a dark dining room, or picnicking on the front porch on a lazy afternoon. I have turnips sliced in bagel sandwiches with cream cheese, lettuce and snap peas; turnips turned into matchsticks and sprinkled through salads, dressed with chickpea miso and tahini; turnips in a lovely Asian braise with bok choy and grass-fed beef stew meat (oh, did I mention the bok choy? faint).
. Then comes marriage...
What’s problematic is the commitment. As a gardener in the throes of springly passion, and possessed with a larger-than-the-average-girl’s space in which to grow things, it’s hard not to fall in love and immediately go out and pick up a couple of seed packets. Is it too late to plant turnips? Will bok choy end up as food for the aphids? Are my celeriac seeds ever going to sprout? Is a crop of cabbages just one brassica too many?
The fava beans are the worst of it, a story for another day because oh, I am so deeply, madly, truly in love and it seems folly to buy them at the market when they supposedly grow so beautifully here (and did you know they fix 200 pounds of nitrogen per, umm, some unit of measure? Yeah! I know!)
Marriage and the baby, complete with her carriage, are all wrapped up in the garden. It’s true what they say about love being blind, and how, if we knew how hard marriage and parenting would be, we wouldn’t ever consummate anything.
Growing things is hard, but, like spouses and children, if you’re willing to put in the hard work you’ll create magic (and deliciousness), and the industry now will pay off for years to come.
Perhaps there are days I regret how easily I fall in love. But at a dinner table, eating a little of what I’ve sown and daydreaming over a seed catalog and my sketched map of the garden (a mud-splattered and well-loved copy of Steve Solomon’s Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades at my elbow, of course), there are no regrets, only possibilities.
I’d appreciate a little relationship counseling, however. Has anyone grown turnips?
I’ve never been one to pooh-pooh the concept of cake for breakfast, especially when I re-cast the concept of “cake” and “good fat” for the way I eat now; that is, I believe in the health benefits of maple syrup and honey, animal fats, and eggs from my sweet chickens. I’ve also been trying to go all-whole grain, all the time, whenever possible.
Lately, Everett’s been asking for our family to develop a food routine. He wants the same thing for breakfast every Monday, and the same thing for dinner every Wednesday. This presents a bit of a challenge for a mama committed to local, seasonal eating, and possessed with a strong proclivity toward chaos. Shall we be nice and say “spontaneity”?
So when we had some lemon cake at the farmer’s market a few weeks ago, and I said to Everett that we couldn’t buy a whole one, because I could make it way cheaper, and also, without sugar, he brightly put ‘homemade lemon cake’ and ‘routine’ together and suggested we have lemon cake for breakfast one day a week.
Perhaps Sunday will be cake day. Today I altered my standard maple syrup cake recipe (which in turn is altered from Rose Levy Berenbaum’s ‘All-Occasion Downy Yellow Butter Cake’ recipe from The Cake Bible) to make a super-whole-grain-y, sweet and crumbly maple-syrup lemon cake. I glazed it with a mixture of melted butter, maple syrup, lemon juice and a little powdered sugar, which next time I’ll craft more finely. I figured the finished product cost about $8 or $9 and was enough for breakfast for three hungry boys, lunch for a couple of cake freaks (I had mine with lots of cream but I’d serve with strawberries in a few weeks when they’re ripe for a “balanced” “meal”), a late-night dessert I have planned, and still some left for before-school breakfast tomorrow.
Not a bargain, but not a luxury, either. Because I’m obstinate, I’ll end up serving it every other Sunday, a schedule plus chaos equals cake twice a month. A routine lemon cake for (every other) Sunday breakfast. Perfect.
For seven years now (seriously? seven years?) my husband and I have made our dining room our bedroom, as we ...very... .....slowly..... renovate the top floor of our house, where the bedrooms should be. The boys’ bedroom was one of the first things we finished, and then, we stalled. In mornings in the summer, I’d wake up and look at the branches of the cherry tree outside our dining/bedroom window and long to be seeing them at mealtimes, instead.
I’ve been begging my husband to make a change for the past few years, immediately if not sooner, and life has gotten in the way. Somehow, life’s signal got set to “all clear” these past few weeks and a dining room table arrived in our life, an unused table that the friend I call our “garden whisperer” paid $100 to reclaim from a dark garage.
For a week, the table sat on our front porch while my husband sanded, stained and varnished. He moved our bed upstairs to the still-unfinished future master bedroom (I professed my thrill, no complaints about the empty studs that make up two of the walls here). And on Mother’s Day, he struggled and grunted and sweat and, with the help of our eldest son, deposited it in the center of our dining room.
It’s a beautiful thing, a thick farmhouse trestle-style table with plenty of room for the five of us, and guests too. It’s really just the way I’d always dreamed my dining room would look (ok, I hadn’t dreamed about the clothes dressers and the big cabinet of my shoes, but we’re working on that). When I set a plate down, a mug, it’s a still-life painting, there, a bit of art in each day.
Since its installation, I’ve been making rules to honor the change in our lives. No eating anywhere but the dining room table, even snacks I’d previously eaten at my computer in the kitchen (where a breakfast nook would go, if we’d ever get to the kitchen in our achingly leisurely home remodel). No computers or toys at the table. No standing on the table (ok, that mostly applies to my 22-month-old). When one of the kids is eating, even if it’s not technically meal time, I try to sit and eat with them, too -- or even, just grab a cup of coffee and chat for a moment or two.
Last night Everett decided to help out in the garden, digging and transplanting past bedtime, and came in starving. I fixed him fried eggs and washed an apple while I made myself arugula & mustard raab with the free kale I’d been given for Mother’s Day at People’s Co-op (I know!). As an afterthought, I poured in a measure of cream after I’d braised the greens with garlic and butter.
It was delicious, and as I sat with him, Everett told me he’d decided to start harvesting lemon balm for tea. “I like tea,” he said, finishing up his apple and starting in on his eggs.
I sat there quiet for a minute, windows dark with night, surrounded by drawers of clothes and shoeboxes, savoring the summer evenings of my early-daydreams, a family, a bowl of cherries from my tree, a pot of lemon balm tea, a dining room table, my life as depicted by the artist of my imagination.
For the second time tonight, I stopped by a garden on my milk route -- my weekly bike ride to pick up the raw milk a cooperative of Portlanders buys from the more permissive Washington -- and picked several kinds of raab, a few spring onions and garlic, some collard greens and mustard. The owner, I’ve been told, is planning to rent the home and hasn’t worked in the garden for months; I’ve been given permission to pick a little, and I’ve been as respectful as possible. Though I long to eat every blossom, worried the tenant-to-be won’t know what to do with all of this.
Emboldened by my one successful bout of volunteer harvesting (well, there were a few apple and fig trees last summer, too), I’m determined to do more of it. So many kale plants are gone to seed around southeast Portland (I can’t help but notice), and I’ve been marking the fig and cherry trees, raspberry bushes and grape vines in my memory. I can’t let one more season go by without helping use some of this abundance.
What’s more, the rhubarb! So many plants all over the city, so many enormous leaves, can anyone possibly make that much pie? I have a recipe for rhubarb clove cardamom sauce that would make a fabulous jam (I’ve had it on toast, trust me), and I’m not at all shy about trading produce for jam. If you’ve got the inclination, I’ll even teach you how to make your own.
I have a bike, and I’ll happily come to you and harvest your unwanted vegetables and fruits. Leeks shoulder to shoulder? Grapes galore? Kale gone to seed? Let me know. I’ll be there in a jiffy.
The pretty, dainty yellow violets, it turns out, are edible. As are the newly flowering red huckleberries, showy salmonberries, the sweet pink currants, and the blowsy bells of the Oregon grape.
Here is what I learned in three hours in a quarter-mile walk into Forest Park: you CAN eat your flowers. And neither the Oregon grape, nor the sumac, are poisonous, despite what your mother may have told you. According to John Kallas of Wild Food Adventures: it’s because of the mothers that these myths are perpetuated. “She’s walking with her kids in the forest, and the kids are putting everything in their mouths, so she says, ‘That’s poisonous!’ and they grow up and tell their kids,” he says.
We are eating the flowers. The first Oregon grape blossom (shown in photo) I taste is both beautiful and delicious, lemony and sharply sour, bright. I can imagine a jam made of the flowers. The yellow violets taste barely sweet, pleasant, and remind me of tender herb salads. Salmonberries are sour and unremarkable, although one of my classmates (a kindergarten teacher who I immediately like) loves them and continues to nibble as we walk. It is the red huckleberry flower that tastes most of what it will become, bright, very sour, full of huckleberry flavor.
John Kallas has never thought or heard of making jam from Oregon grape flowers, though he loves the jam made of the fruits (it took three pieces of toast spread with the strongly-flavored stuff for him to develop a liking for it, he says) and he loves the idea. He likes most of these flowers tossed on your salad and says that nearly everything edible in the forest this time of year is right for salad. He describes how tender leafy plants suck up the water and sunlight between the budding branches, flourishing and bountiful, and then die away in the summer as blossoms turn to berry. And another thing: the parts you want to eat are the rapidly-growing ones, tender, full of life, not fibrous or woody yet. He shows how to cut large, new shoots of salmonberry leaves, peeling off the outer layer for an asparagus-like treat.
This is the idea, too, behind the ladyfern fiddleheads (you know they’re edible because they actually look like a perfect fiddle, curled concentrically): they’re just shooting up, they’re tender, delicious. We discover more things to eat along the trail, the flower clusters of the big leaf oak (they taste like watercress to me); fairy bells; sweet cicely; water leaf; wild ginger; licorice fern; solomon’s seal. It seems plucked from a child’s imagination, not forest, but fable.
According to Kallas, in the city parks we must not pack out food but we can eat as much as we like while we’re here. As runners carefully pound by on the muddy trails, I look at them and wonder, do you realize how much food you’re missing? And we walk slowly, eating our flowers, thrilled with new knowledge.
On the bike ride home, I see Oregon grapes lining both sides of the Eastbank Esplanade, and I think I’ll take a few bunches of flowers home for the kids to taste. Near the opera building, I stop and pinch some off. They are bitter and astringent, nothing like the ones I remember in the forest. I couldn’t decide if it was the mood of the walk, dreamy and full of possibility, or the realities of the dirt. Either way, I’ll go to the forest again, to eat, to see the world populated with wild and fantastical tastes.
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