Generally, pretty extra ordinary.
Never met a potato (or a bread) that I didn’t like.
Belong to a CSA and think it is one of the best things I ever did!
Believe that you should TRY everything -- if you don’t like it, you never have to eat it again (although I do draw the line at bugs and some meats).
person who loves everything about food; wannabe food and travel writer; used-to-be-caterer (it wasn't as much fun as I thought it might be); former teacher of some very popular cooking classes when I lived in Denver
Reading “Ham,” by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough. A very fun cookbook and vastly entertaining read. Highly recommended!
I have been trying to find choi sum in Vancouver ever since I moved here from Hawai`i, where I first learned about it. It’s a wonderful vegetable. I did not know about all of these, though, and am looking forward to trying them all. Thanks for the information!
Over a year after first writing this article, I find that I have taken off another 30 pounds, but, otherwise, am pretty much in the same place I was when I wrote it. I still love the website, all of its contents, its personalities, and all of the wonderful recipes and ideas I see here. I’m in the process of moving further north, where I look forward to a new CSA, new farmers’ markets, and new restaurants to explore. JeanE23, if you’re still reading, I can relate to your comment on how hard it is to achieve five-a-day -- and I thought I was eating a lot of produce until that mandate came out! The whole thing is, indeed, a journey filled with both pitfalls and unimagined pleasures. Enjoy!
MMMMMMMMMMM... you make me sad I have never actually tasted garlic scapes! I must do something about that!
My dad was always a challenging man to be around. For most of my childhood I was terrified of him although I looked up to him and desperately lived for any small sign of his approval. But when we went camping, he was another man. A camping trip was the only time I or my brother ever really felt close to him, or even able to talk to him, at all. Then my dad was approachable, and shared with us his love of Nature, and all the things he knew about the world we lived in. When we went to the mountains or out into the desert with him, we could all breathe easier. We laughed and talked and learned a lot about ourselves, our planet, survival, history, each other, and what it was like to stand in silent awe under a sky with more stars in it than you ever imagined existed.
Now, camping wasn’t a common activity for us. For one thing, Dad worked lots of overtime, and wasn’t around much -- which my brother and I mostly thought was a good thing. Also, it was the only thing Mom never did with us. She was never comfortable in the mountains, or especially not in the desert. Of course, some of her fear was, no doubt, my father’s driving, which was skillful, but often too fast for real safety. And he loved to show off and drive as close as he dared to sheer cliff edges, knowing how Mom and I would be terrified of falling over the edge. Furthermore, it didn’t help that we usually had older cars that my dad repaired himself, sometimes with ingenious materials like, literally, paperclips and baling wire. More than once we got stranded in the middle of nowhere for hours while Dad patiently repaired this or that. We didn’t dare speak or play around for fear of breaking his concentration and getting yelled at like we did at home. One unforgettable time we laid out some old towels alongside the car in the shoulder of a desolate road, then carefully laid out the pieces of our carburetor in order as he took the darned thing apart, and then handed them back to him in reverse order as he cleaned the parts in some siphoned gasoline and rebuilt it. The desert heat shimmered off the ground around us, and not a single car drove by the whole time.
Occasionally, we headed into the mountains with one of my father’s friends from JPL (the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, where he worked for several years). My brother and I found it fun and exciting to hang out with these smart older guys who worked in the space program. Other times it was just my brother, my father and I, loading up the car and schlepping out into the desert for the weekend. We hiked, but never very difficult or challenging hikes, and although we often stayed overnight, we were almost as likely to sleep in the back of the VW Microbus (or occasionally, during bad weather, in a shabby, stuffy little hotel room with a shared bathroom down the hall in some remote little town) as we were to sleep outside under the stars. I don’t remember that we even owned a tent. On these trips, we collected rocks, explored caves and abandoned mines, smushed mosquitoes in the car window with our bare thumbs, walked among ancient trees, and swam in hot springs and icy creeks. It was all a glorious adventure for a little girl who could hardly stand to get her hands dirty or miss bathing for a day.
One of the things I remember most about these camping trips is the food. On camping trips, we might eat green beans straight out of the can without mayonnaise or anything, and it would be one of the most delicious things you could imagine eating. Dad always said food just tasted better when you ate it out in Nature after a long hike, and it seemed like it really did. Never one to enjoy barbecuing, like most of the fathers I knew, he was handy enough around a campfire. Or there were stops in little roadside coffee shops in small mountain towns (one of which was where I first tasted chicken-fried steak), or in the middle of the desert where the local community consisted of a combination gas station/coffee shop/post office, maybe a feed store, and perhaps a dozen little houses scattered within a hundred miles or so. One notable example of that sort was The Owl Café.
I can’t remember where The Owl Café was, for sure. I think it was somewhere in the Mojave Desert, and it seems like one of the closest towns was Hell – which only sticks with me because we could say it without getting smacked because it wasn’t swearing, but the name of a real place (although it probably doesn’t even exist any more). I think we went to The Owl Café when we’d been driving somewhere near Mono Lake. But I can’t reliably recall any of that for certain. It was a stop we made more than once, because they had killer ham sandwiches. Dad loved ham, and although I wasn’t ever a big fan, these sandwiches were something very special even to me. And yet, like the location, after all these years, I am really sketchy on the details, except for one: They were huge sandwiches… humongous… grossly, awesomely, amazingly oversized! I remember thick white homemade bread that nearly covered the plate, and a monstrous slab of ham that hung over the edges of the bread and almost defeated even my dad’s enormous appetite. There wasn’t any cheese on this sandwich. I do remember that very clearly, although I also remember that the sandwich was so good, it didn’t need to have cheese on it. It seems like there was some very green lettuce, and perfectly-ripe slices of tomato and maybe a paper-thin slice of white onion, too, but I’m not sure about any of that. There weren’t any fries or chips or anything else alongside except maybe a slice or two of pickle. The sandwich really filled the plate to overflowing. There simply wasn’t room for anything else, either on the plate, or inside your stomach.
I do remember being all hot and sweaty from the long drive through the desert. We finally arrived at this dusty place with a few pick-up trucks parked out front, and an old wooden floor, paths between the red Formica® tables worn thin by years of scuffling cowboy boots. There were faded red gingham curtains and a single fat, enormous fly lazily buzzing in the window. Framed newspaper clippings decorated the wall, and there was a short bar along one side of the room where some of the locals drank coffee or “the beer that made Milwaukee famous” and talked about the weather. A friendly waitress bustled about, smiling at everyone, calling most of them by name, and pouring coffee from a never-emptying round pot that seemed to grow right out of her arm. Although she wore a pencil over one ear, and had an order pad in her apron pocket, she never wrote down the orders as we placed them. Conversations wove in and around the room including everyone (even us). And in my mind’s eye, almost everyone sat in front of one of those massive ham sandwiches, of which the café’s owner was, no doubt, justifiably proud.
My brother and I would sit and look at our own enormous sandwiches, working out a strategy for how to pick them up without losing everything, then tackle them with gusto, eating as much as we possibly could, and washing each mouthful down with milk and, if we were really lucky, a Coke®. Although we’d start pretty fast, we’d soon realize that we’d never finish the darned thing, and, anyway, it was much cooler and nicer in the café than in our hot car. When we couldn’t eat another bite, the waitress would come over and wrap the rest in a piece of waxed paper “for later,” then offer us a slice of homemade pie – which we weren’t allowed to have, because we hadn’t finished our meal. Eventually, Dad would settle up, leaving a stack of quarters under his plate for the waitress, then send us both off to the restroom to “take care of what we needed to care of” and wash up before we left. When we came back out, Dad would be talking to some old desert rat with a dusty hat and a wizened face, our leftover sandwiches in a brown paper bag, ready to take with us. There would be a few more words for the old prospector or farmer, who’d often chuck us under the chin, calling us both “Red” and making a small old-guy joke that my brother and I never understood. Then we’d all drag ourselves back out to the car for the last leg of our trip home, sated from the incredible meal, and a weekend of “roughing it” with Dad.
Ham Sandwiches, in Memory of The Owl Café
The main ingredients to this are really, really good homemade bread or soft sandwich rolls, and great quality ham with a nice sugar or honey cure, fairly thickly sliced by hand so the edges are a little uneven. Although I distinctly recall that The Owl Café used white bread, I often find that onion rolls or challah are especially good for this. The ham should be what my mom called “frizzled” – that is, fried over high heat with a little butter in a heavy skillet until the uneven edges are browned and ever-so-slightly crisped. While that’s heating, liberally spread your untoasted bread with mayonnaise and your favorite mustard. Add some leaf, butter, or Bibb-type lettuce, and slices of very ripe tomato right out of the garden that morning. Add some very thin slices of onion and maybe some good, crisp pickle slices, if desired. Then pile on the hot ham. My dad usually shook a few drops of Tabasco® onto the ham inside his sandwich, just for good measure. Served with a big glass of ice cold milk or beer, or a steaming cup of good strong coffee, it’s a meal fit to satisfy any prospector, cowboy, or desert rat, and probably you, too!
The menu for this last weekend has me thinking about hot dogs. I must confess, I like hot dogs. And in my life, they have a somewhat odd history, since we were mostly not allowed to have them. Dad didn’t like them. And Dad had a whole list of things that we were not allowed to eat at home because he didn’t like them. Hot dogs was one of them.
Mom, on the other hand, was addicted to chili dogs. So my brother and I were treated to tastes of that delicacy… always on the sly… sometimes in places that amazed our childish eyes. For part of my life, we lived in and around Los Angeles, so I had the pleasure of eating at the original Tail o’ the Pup. It’s a hot dog icon, set in a building shaped like a hot dog. For a time, we lived within walking distance, and ate there many times. When we moved back to the Bay Area, I learned to love Doggie Diner, another icon, now adrift in history. In the East Bay, where I lived and worked for awhile, I had my dogs at Casper’s along with the guys from work. It was a stop we made at least a couple times a week.
Living in Denver, I had the pleasure of eating at a dog place the name of which, regrettably, I have forgotten. They had specials on exotic dogs every Tuesday. It might be rattlesnake or some other exotic meat. I must confess that, although I enjoyed eating there, I never was brave enough to try those particular items. I did, once, try their family specialty, which was a dog, slit down the middle, stuffed with a slice of American cheese, wrapped in bacon and then deep fried. I thought it was overkill… They served their fries (real ones, cut each morning) with Cholula® hot sauce, which was a rather tasty choice. And speaking of fries: At Mustard’s Last Stand, behind the radio station I worked at, they had excellent dogs, but my favorite thing on the menu was their fries, which were like nothing I had ever had before then: They left the skins on. Yum!
We did have dogs at home, of course, from time to time, when Dad was out of town, or working a lot of overtime. Mom would fix them in a few different ways. She liked them best fried in butter, which smoked up the kitchen something fierce. I usually boiled them. My brother liked them grilled on the barbecue so they showed grill marks. Sometimes Mom would make up a batch of beanie weenie. Other times, she’d cook them in sauerkraut, and we’d have them without buns, over the kraut. But her piece de resistance was her barbecued dogs. She’d mix a batch of sauce out of minced celery and onion, ketchup or chili sauce, Worchestershire sauce, a little white vinegar, and a scary quantity of brown sugar in an 8” x 8” Pyrex® baking dish. Then she carefully slashed each dog diagonally several times before laying it in the sauce and spooning the sauce over them. She baked them, basting them every so often, until the sauce almost became candy. That was a preparation that could bring tears to one’s eyes.
I lived with, and took care of, my parents at the ends of their lives. After Dad died, for about a month, Mom and I practically lived on all the things Dad never let us eat: cucumbers, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, melons of every variety we could find, and most especially hot dogs and chili dogs. Mom had a favorite brand of chili – no beans for her, thank you very much. And we always used copious amounts of chopped onions on our chili dogs. Some days we had hot dogs or chili dogs for more than one meal. That season of hot dog excess is long past, and now I’m down to once every couple of weeks or so, except around summer holiday weekends, anyway.
Now, let it be said, not all dogs are created equal. And I refuse to get into the debates over skinned or skinless, beef or turkey (or other contents), Kosher or not, favorite brands, which type of relish is best, whether chili for chili dogs should or should not have beans, what other toppings are appropriate, etc. These are largely regional and personal differences. And I do have my preferences, but it’s not important to get into them. Suffice it to say that whatever other healthy dietary choices I generally try to make, deep down at heart, I am a dog lover.
There is an old children’s story about a down-on-his-luck man who comes to a family’s kitchen door and asks if he can come in and borrow a pot and some water to make broth from the nail he carries in his pocket. (This story is also told with a stone taking the place of the nail.) As he goes along, he mentions to the farm wife that if he only had a little of this or a little of that, “this could be a broth fit for a king!” And, of course, she supplies this or that, and sure enough, the resulting concoction feeds the entire family as well as if they were all kings.
Today is a chilly and rainy day, and everything about it says “soup!” So I thought of all the kinds of soup I could make and like making, and for every one of them, I was missing a key ingredient. The supplies in my larder are pathetically short right now of all the things I usually consider staples. But to anyone else looking, it would appear that I have a lot of food in my kitchen. So I thought about it for awhile, and then decided to make Nail Broth out of whatever ingredients I could find that seemed to work.
I start with the leftovers from a roasted chicken. I like roasted chicken when it’s first made, and hot. I like it maybe once or twice cold, as sandwiches, later on. But once that’s over, I really don’t get excited about chicken… Throw it in the soup pot. Whole. I can fish the bones out later.
Onion. Soup always requires onion, doesn’t it? At least I’ve always thought so. I have one on the counter that’s starting to sprout and needs to be used, so I chop that up into a very rough chop and throw everything but the sprouting parts in to my soup pot.
Scrounge through the freezer. Aha! Some lovage from a friend’s garden from last year. That would work! So I tear off several leaves and throw those in the soup pot.
While re-scanning my kitchen counter, I notice a bruised apple (I dropped it when I was unloading groceries the other day and I know I’ll never eat it, although ¾ of it is perfectly okay) and a lemon that looks like it’s seen better days (I use them all the time, so buy them in quantity, and sometimes buy too many). I squeeze the lemon and find it has a surprising amount of juice in it. The apple gets diced and added to the soup along with the lemon juice.
I wander back to the refrigerator, where I find the last bit of cauliflower from one I bought last week on sale. That might work, so it gets chopped up and added to the pot with everything else. A look in one of my cabinets reveals half a bag of barley. I shake out a generous handful and put that in, as well.
Now I add several grinds of fresh pepper and allspice, and a couple of bay leaves for good measure. By this time, the water has come to a boil, and things are already starting to cook. I turn down the heat and think of adding cabbage, but decide to wait until later, so it’ll still be somewhat crisp when I have my soup. I’ll probably serve it with a splash of wine and a dollop of sour cream, once the cabbage is cooked.
I taste the soup as it cooks, and it’s not half bad, so far. The apple and lemon has added a little depth of flavour that’s interesting, and not unpleasant. The cauliflower is definitely in there, but not overpowering. The chicken is melting into little pieces. (The bones will be a pain to fish out, but I’ll worry about that later!) My house smells wonderful. I think this soup might even turn out to be fit for a king!
I lived in Hawai`i for six and a half years before moving to southwest Washington state. When people here ask me where I came from, I might mention California (where I was born, and mostly grew up) or Colorado (where I lived for almost 25 years before moving to Hawai`i), but when I tell them I moved here from Hawai`i, the response is always one of total shock. The most commonly-asked question is, “Why?” The answer is complicated, and not really in the scope of this website. Suffice it to say that Hawai`i is a beautiful place, and I am grateful for the opportunity I had to be there for an extended time, and that I am just as happy to be back on the mainland. But, I suspect, I am like a lot of people who have lived in the islands in this respect: Some things I learned there will never leave me. One of those things is the Hawai`ian (by way of Japan) tradition of “omiyage.”
It’s my understanding that “omiyage” means, in a very general way, “souvenir” or “gift.” I’m also told that, as practiced in Japan, it is a highly structured tradition. In the islands, like many things, it’s a lot more casual. At its most basic, the practice is one of making sure to remember those at home when you have been away to another place, as if to share some part of your trip with them. Or, to take a little bit of home to those you visit on another island. Therefore, the gift must be fairly specific to that place, as well as be something the person you’re giving it to would find pleasant to receive. And, in Hawai`i – I don’t know about in Japan – it is almost always a gift of food, and more often than not, something sweet. Great “omiyage” is generally a specific and unique food item from a specific location or vendor on each island. And each island has its things it’s known for. When Krispy Kreme® opened its first – and only – store in the state on Maui, it was common to see people flying back from Maui with a dozen boxes of Krispy Kreme® doughnuts! But more often, it was actual “island kine” things that were specific to each island. On my rock, it was usually Lilikoi (passionfruit) Chiffon Pie from Hamura’s saimin stand in Lihue (not an easy thing to fly with), or maybe some Kaua`i Kookies®, or lilikoi preserves from Auntie Lilikoi, or a little something from the Guava Kai plantation. If anyone went to Hilo, they were expected to come back with armloads of shortbread cookies, diagonally dipped in chocolate, from Big Island Candies. There was a variety of favorite things from Honolulu, my favorites being “cocoa puffs,” a type of cream puff filled with rich chocolate custard from one of a couple of bakeries, and the pork hash (a variety of siu mai) and manapua (basically, a somewhat breadier version of char siu bao) from a specific bakery in Honolulu’s Chinatown. I’m not sure anyone else would count this, but I, especially, liked the pineapple wine available from Maui’s Tedeschi Winery and the many lavender goodies (not all food) from Ali`i Kula Lavender (also on Maui).
Here in the Northwest, I’ve found such a wonderful variety of local foods! Sometimes when I’m thinking about all the tasty treats that abound in this region, I like to stop awhile and imagine what my favorites will be to take as “omiyage.” Because, you can be certain, I will continue this tradition I learned in Hawai`i, at least when visiting the most important people in my life who haven’t the privilege of living here. Will it be an artisan cheese? Maybe some apples, or hazelnuts or dried huckleberries – or, at least, something made with those ingredients? A hearty microbrew? Some Washington Riesling? Maybe some luscious smoked salmon? There are so many fine choices, and I am still far too new to this area to have discovered them all and figured out whose or what’s the best, even after almost three years!
I am writing this as a sort of challenge to all of you. Whether you are in the Northwest, or in any other part of the country, please share 1) where you are; and 2) if you were to begin practicing the tradition of “omiyage,” what would YOU choose?
And then, because it is such a lovely tradition, I would encourage you to begin!
When I pull up this website on my browser, the tab at the top of my screen says, “Culinate – Eat to Your Ideal.” I’ve been thinking a lot about that, because I find that this website speaks to me on a lot of different levels. To be sure, the writing herein is articulate, literate, thoughtful, provocative, at times, absolutely sublime. The recipes are intriguing. The personalities are charming and fascinating. I spend a lot more time here than anywhere else; wanting to read every word, try every recipe, explore every point of view, visit every farmers’ market. But what does this mean to me: Eating to My Ideal?
I’m thinking that each of us has an “ideal” that isn’t quite exactly like anyone else’s. Probably that goes without saying. Still, I’d guess that pretty much all of us are working toward an ideal of eating mostly fresh, whole, sustainably-raised foods, found locally and in season as much as possible, and prepared mostly in our own kitchens in ways that respect the ingredients as well as our bodies. And yet, I’m sitting here at 4 in the morning eating a leftover slice of big chain delivery pizza from last night, and drinking a glass of diet carbonated horror that was delivered with it. And do I feel guilty? Well, a little. But maybe only a little.
My mom was a good cook. But the standards of the 50’s and early 60’s, when I was young, weren’t the same as the standards we have now. She also had to deal with a husband who was a phenomenally picky eater – Mr Meat-and-Potatoes, whose only green vegetable choices were canned asparagus, canned spinach (drowned in white vinegar), canned green beans, and guacamole when we ventured out for our weekly Mexican food fix. Dad liked it, so we ate Spam®. When we ate salads, it was iceberg lettuce, and nothing else. We didn’t eat hot dogs at home because Dad didn’t like them. That was probably a good thing. But we also didn’t eat cucumbers, broccoli, cantaloupe (or any other type of melon), or Brussels sprouts because Dad not only didn’t like them, but wouldn’t allow them in the house! I was in my early 20’s before I ever tasted an artichoke, even though they grew on farms only a few miles away from where I grew up. I’ve only recently learned to appreciate fresh asparagus! And, because we were sorta poor, we ate a lot of beans (which Mom didn’t like, but fixed for the rest of us because Dad, amazingly, did), and “casseroles” that mostly consisted of hamburger, shell noodles, and tomato sauce, topped with cheddar cheese. I still like, and eat, a lot of beans. Thankfully, to this day, I have never once eaten a casserole with hamburger in it since I left home. For about a year, I remember my mom kinda going on strike – and my brother and I ate TV dinners (the old kind, in foil trays), in hog heaven and too youthfully stupid to realize it was supposed to be a sort of punishment for not appreciating her efforts at feeding us.
In spite of this, my brother grew up to become a chef, and worked in some very nice restaurants all over the Bay Area, including one that had a four star Michelin rating. And I haven’t done so badly, myself, although I’ve never reached – or reached for – the heights that he did.
Perhaps not surprisingly, we were all fat. And, as we aged, we all came into the kinds of health problems that can be expected. Mom and Dad are both gone, now, as is my brother. And my legacy, such as it is, has brought me here.
I love food. I love everything about it, from planning meals and shopping for the raw ingredients of what I cook, to cooking and eating – everything. I read cook books for fun. I also enjoy reading books about food, food history, and food policy. These subjects all fascinate me. The way that food appeals to all my senses ignites my passions like nothing else. I’m a decent enough cook. I remember a friend once saying he wished, just once, he’d have a “just mediocre” meal at my house. Truth to tell, I eat my share of mediocre meals, but I’m careful never to have them happen when I’m feeding anyone else! But largely, I look at food as one of the great pleasures of my life, and a celebration, even when I am celebrating it alone.
I do try to eat a better diet than I used to – and mostly succeed. Oh, yes, I still succumb to the big chain delivery pizza from time to time. And I do still crave things from my childhood that I know are not really healthy to my aging adult self. But, on the whole, I eat a lot more fresh produce and a lot more whole grains, and a lot less red meat than I used to. Actually, I just plain eat a lot less than I used to! And I generally eschew things I know I won’t enjoy, or might find disappointing (like, for instance, desserts – which, in my experience, are almost never are as good as they sound on a menu!). I buy organic more often than not, have subscribed to a CSA for the last few years, shop farmers’ markets when I can, and try to eat only seasonal produce even when shopping at the super-mega-mart. I haven’t totally cut out packaged, processed foods, but usually only have them when I’m feeling needy and craving “comfort foods” from my childhood. Some of those things (like packaged potatoes au gratin) are things I hated when I was growing up, but now that I’m alone, sometimes they lurk in my memory like a pain that will not be ignored, but to which I must surrender and succumb. Having them the way they tasted when I was young feels like a hug from my mom. I haven’t learned how to make them from real ingredients because I know they wouldn’t be the same, and although they would probably be better – and almost certainly better for me – they wouldn’t have the emotional impact that I crave. Food does sometimes have emotional content as well as nutritional.
For my efforts, I’ve taken off a lot of weight (but am still a big woman). I’ve become a mildly-activist supporter of CSA, sustainable agriculture, organics, and a locavore diet. Many of my health problems have somewhat improved, but certainly not gone away.
For me, I think eating to my ideal is not an end-point, but a journey. I may never reach someone else’s ideal, and that’s okay with me. As I become more conscious – more conscientious – I am improving, little by little, all the time. And maybe that’s the best I can ask of myself. Life, in all its sloppy elegance, is a process. It doesn’t demand perfection of us, even when we unreasonably demand it of ourselves.
So eat. Eat well. Eat to your ideal!
I am an aging hippie. There. I’ve said it, and I sure am not going to apologize for it. It is as much a fact of my life as having red hair. Like many people in my demographic, the appeal of the ‘60’s back-to-the-land movement is just as strong now as it was back in the 60’s, notwithstanding the fact that my immediate family were never farmers, we pretty much always lived in cities and suburbs, and the closest my brother and I ever got to a plot of farmland when we were kids was a roughly 5’ x 5’ patch of barely-producing adobe clay that we managed to grow a few carrots and radishes in one year. It didn’t help any that I grew up (and still have some issues with being) almost obsessively terrified of having dirty hands, and that I’m not noted for my patience. On the other hand, there was my brother’s kindergarten project of growing chives in half an eggshell. My father worked in aerospace, which was akin to being a white-collar itinerant worker. We moved at least 35 times when we were growing up, and every time we moved, the chives got dug up from the yard at the old house and replanted at the new one – and they always thrived. The chives weren’t allowed to make my parents’ final move to Hawai`i, but they were a family institution until then.
Of course, in today’s economy, and given what we know now about the health and environmental benefits of eating locally-grown food, the idea of growing one’s own food isn’t just fashionable but makes good sense. Will we see a return of something like the wartime Victory Gardens? Certainly there are worse things. And wouldn’t it set a great example if our new President dug up some of the White House lawn to plant a few vegetables for his family’s table?
One of my grandfathers owned a triple lot. Almost smack dab in the middle was the small house in which he and his wife lived. The rest of the land was turned into gardens, and he spent his retirement growing flowers and vegetables there. Whatever small amount I know about growing things was learned at his side. What I remember most is the tomatoes that would “volunteer” all over the place – along with the massive quantities of (also volunteering) sweet peas that lent their heady aroma to that house on many summer evenings.
One year, I lived in a place with a wall of windows getting plenty of sun for most of the day. I planted a line of pots all along that side of my apartment. I tried a variety of salad greens, green onions, cherry tomatoes, strawberries and corn. It wasn’t one of my more successful ventures – but hand-pollinating did render a few cherry tomatoes, and the tiniest buds of what might have turned into corn. The strawberries sent out runners that nearly took over my apartment and flowered, but never bore fruit. The onions spread leggy greens across my table, but never really became onions. I don’t recall that the salad greens ever even sprouted. Apparently, full light through windows doesn’t have all the components that full sunlight outside has to fulfill the nutritional needs of your average garden plant. That same year, I did a lot of sprouting – and then pretty much never ate sprouts again after that!
These days, I live in an apartment with no land, and only a tiny balcony with less-than-ideal sun exposure. I do have a few flower pots to grow things in, and the dream of growing my own still lodges itself in my heart with a longing that can scarcely be contained. Each spring, I look forward to the coming of seed packets at my local stores and garden centers with wild anticipation and optimistic hope. Yesterday, I spent almost $30 on seeds, most of which will go entirely to waste, although I nearly always wind up planting twice – once, too early, when the sprouts will die from a late-season cold spell; and then again when – if I’m lucky – I can harvest something before I go away on a trip and everything dies from lack of water in a critical period. I also bought one of those “topsy-turvy” tomato planters, hoping to make another ambitious attempt.
I know the benefits of fresh, ripe produce. For most of that need, I happily shop farmer’s markets and belong to a CSA. But the need to try to make things grow means that I do still experiment. Last year, my balcony garden had several types of herbs, several varieties of mixed wildflowers – and a surprising quantity of grain from birdseed spilled out of the little feeder overhead. My biggest success last year came from burying an overly “growy” old potato. At the end of the season, I dug it up, expecting to find nothing. Instead, I harvested three small, but beautiful, and absolutely perfect, red potatoes. I’m sure my friends all thought I was acting like I’d invented fire or something, but I was so excited over those little potatoes! So this year, I’m sorta looking forward to potatoes going bad under my kitchen sink so I can plant more.
In the meantime, I’ve ordered some canning equipment to make better use of the bounty that comes from my CSA this year. Maybe we didn’t farm, but back in the 50’s and 60’s, we did still bake our own bread and do a lot of canning, and I still remember how. I look forward to spending more time doing these things again. Now if I just had room for a few chickens and goats…
When I was a kid, there was a restaurant in Los Angeles called Margarita’s. Although it was a good 50 miles or more each way, we drove there to eat almost every weekend. Their meals included albóndigas soup. Once, Mom and Dad asked Margarita how it was made and she very graciously told us. In those days, you couldn’t find cilantro just anywhere. It was a big celebration in our house when the super-mega-mart started carrying cilantro! (We learned you could substitute crushed coriander seeds, but it wasn’t the same.) Mom continued to make albóndigas long after we moved away from southern California, and then I began to make it, as well. It’s one of my favorite comfort foods. I usually make this soup pretty spicy, because that’s the way I like it. I’ve served this soup to several of my friends and they often ask how it’s made. It’s really easy. The hardest thing is the meatballs, themselves, which are just messy, but not hard to make. My brother, a professional chef, really loved meatballs, and this soup was also one of his favorites.
Beef stock, broth, or bouillon
2 cans stewed tomatoes
the better part of a jar of salsa (any salsa you like
1 – 2 lbs ground beef
oatmeal, rice, or bread crumbs (holds the meat mixture together)
1 bunch fresh cilantro
up to 1 whole white or yellow onion
Corn tortilla pieces
In a large pot, heat the stock to boiling. Add tomatoes, and salsa to taste. Clip the cilantro leaves into the cooking stock, reserving stems. Chop the cilantro stems for later. Slice most of the onion and add to pot. Chop the remaining onion into small chop. In a large bowl, combine meat, about 2 Tbsp salsa, chopped cilantro stems, chopped onion, eggs, and grain or bread crumbs. Mix very well. Form meatballs and drop carefully into the hot stock. Cook until meatballs are cooked through. (This soup can be ready in an hour or two, but the meatballs can be tough if not cooked long enough). Like most soups, it’s better the next day than on the day you make it.
To serve, tear up a few corn tortillas, and drop tortilla bits into the bottoms of each bowl. Ladle meatballs and soup over the tortilla bits, and serve. (Note: The tortillas really add to the soup, but if you put them directly into the soup pot, they always mush up, stick to the bottom, and burn.) (Another option is to use your favorite corn chips which is good, and gives a little different dimension to the soup) (I prefer tortillas.)
Today, when I went to make my albóndigas soup, I realized I was out of oatmeal (a non-traditional ingredient, but I like the texture of meatballs made with oatmeal). Everything else was on hand, and I wasn’t in the mood to head out to the store for nothing but oatmeal. So I scrounged a bit, and came up with some cornmeal, some wheat germ, a leftover biscuit, and a sample-sized box of multi-grain Cheerios. I decided what the heck, and threw them all in, only slightly afraid of what the result might be. As it turns out, the meatballs came out just fine. I could taste the wheat germ a little bit, but everything else melded in just like always. And it brought to mind another part of my childhood: making do with whatever you had on hand, because we were sorta poor, and that’s just what you did back then.
These days, more and more of us are tightening our belts and re-learning the habit of making do. I think that’s probably a good thing.
And my soup was delicious!
Having a share in a CSA farm isn’t like shopping at the super-mega-mart. Many of us have shopped there for so long that we’ve forgotten – or maybe never even knew – that produce has seasons, and that not every product can truly be available locally every single day of the year. Real farm produce is affected by a number of things, including (but not limited to) location, seasons, weather, soil conditions, farming methods, and the availability of people to pick produce on a given day or at a given time. Even with everything else being equal, sometimes a farm on one side of the county may have totally different results this week from another farm on the other side of the county.
Before you sign up to become a shareholder, ask a lot of questions. What farming methods does your farmer use? If it’s important to you, does your farmer have certified organic fields? Do you really know what that means? If you’re not sure, ASK! Find out what crops your farmer grows – and if he or she gives you any flexibility as to what crops you particularly want. Find a farmer that offers the variety – or lack of variety – that you want for your produce share. If you only want greens and herbs, then a farm that specializes in a wide variety of vegetables probably isn’t going to be a good match. Do you like a wide variety of produce, but not a huge quantity of any particular thing? Then find a farmer that grows a lot of things, but maybe not a lot of any particular thing. Ask, ask, ask! Ask how hard it is to trade out produce that you don’t especially like for something you might like better. Ask if your farmer has agreements with other area farmers to sell their products. Sometimes this will allow you to get a wider variety of produce or value-added products (homemade jams, or soaps, for instance) than you might otherwise find. This can save you money, gas and time from having to shop around for these things. Consider the value of that. If you talk to a farmer that doesn’t seem to have what you want, then maybe he or she knows another farm that would be a better match for you!
Get to know your farmer! Find out who they are and why they do what they do. You might find them very interesting people – and isn’t that part of why you want to do CSA shares in the first place? If there’s something you really like – or don’t like – then let your farmer know. Part of being a shareholder – at least if you buy in early enough in the season – can be having some say in what gets planted in a season. If you aren’t sure about how something works, then make sure you find out! If you find that you can’t communicate with your farmer, then maybe you need to consider a different farm! Attend “meet-the-farmer” events which are publicized in the paper near the beginning of the growing season here in Clark County. Attend open houses at your farm. It’s a chance to see the farm where your food is grown, and get to know not only your farmer, but other people who have shares in the same farm. As we get to know the people who grow our food, and the other people who share our commitment, our community becomes stronger and healthier. YOU can make that happen! How cool is that?
Understand that, unlike the super-mega-mart, you won’t get the same produce from week to week. A lot of weeks, you won’t have a clue what you’re picking up until you pick it up! Take the attitude that this is part of the adventure. Great cooks don’t plan out a whole week’s menu on paper and then go out and buy what they need. Great cooks see what “looks good” at the market and then plan their menus around what’s best. Learn to go with the proverbial flow, and be willing to experiment. Invest in a cookbook (or several!) that you really feel comfortable with, and try new things out of it when you get something you may not have had much of – or ever – in the past.
Also understand that, unlike the super-mega-mart, sometimes your produce won’t look as flashy as it does all neatly stacked under pin-spot lights that make every curve look juicy and perfect. Remember that a lot of that produce has been grown using massive quantities of chemicals, enhanced to grow to abnormal size, picked before it was fully ripe, washed, treated, and usually waxed to gaudy brilliance, then shipped to you from miles – or half a world – away. Sometimes that produce looks great because it was picked, processed, and shipped when it was still hard as a rock! Produce grown on a local small farm by people who don’t use a lot of machines and chemicals isn’t always as big, and doesn’t always look as “pretty.” But your share produce has generally been picked the same day you pick it up, by hand, so it’s perfectly in season and fully ripe, so it tastes its very best, and generally lasts much, much better than store-bought.
Of course, when you have a CSA share, there’s one sort of “elephant in the room.” Maybe you don’t do – or like or want to do – a lot of cooking. If that’s an issue – and it is for a lot of people – find someone who can teach you what you need to know, or find someone who is willing to trade off cooking duties with you, if you can. Or just find a CSA that specializes in the easy stuff that you like and know how to do. They’re out there. There are options. You just have to look for them!
Find new recipes. Yes, I already said invest in a cookbook. But even if you love to cook and have a huge stockpile of things you know how to make, being a CSA member can stretch you thin at times. So, invest in not just one, but maybe several cookbooks. Vegetarian will be helpful; ethnic may also give you more options. Look at lots of them, and decide which ones interest you the most. Look for new recipes in the newspaper you take, the magazines you read, websites that you may become aware of, and ask everyone you know. If you smell something tasty in the lunchroom at work, ask your co-workers what they’re having – and find out how to make it, if it’s something homemade. You might make a new friend AND find a new recipe! If you find a recipe that you really like, then share it with everyone you know. You may discover that veggies you thought you hated have become new favorites. I learned to like pattypan squash from having it at a friends’ house in a preparation I’d never had before. Those same friends showed me a way to like sweet potatoes – and that helped me learn to like winter squash! Now I love all those things in dozens of ways. My approach is this: If I try it and like it, then it becomes a new favorite – or at least something new in my repertoire; if I try it and hate it, I never have to eat it again! Be adventurous! You might only find out that you still don’t like something. But you might also find out that you DO like it – and contribute to your health at the same time! The broader variety of foods we eat (especially truly fresh, locally-grown fruits and vegetables), the better chance we have of living a long and healthy life! And it’s said that as we continue to try new things, we also help ward off some of the sadder things that can happen to us as we grow older, like confusion and forgetfulness.
And don’t worry if you “need” to supplement your produce with stuff you buy from the super-mega-mart. For instance, I love pineapple and avocados – two things that don’t happen to grow locally. I love them enough I’m not willing to give them up to become a total locavore. So they’ve become treats that I buy from time-to-time in addition to what I get from my CSA farm – and instead of things I can get locally at my CSA farm, like berries, which are so much better than the store-bought ones that I hardly miss store berries, even in the dead of winter! I don’t eat pineapple or avocado as much as I did when I lived in places where I could get them locally. But I sorta figure if God, or the Universe, or whatever, didn’t want me to eat them, then He/She/Whatever wouldn’t ever have let me live in places where I learned to love them! I could be wrong about that, of course, but I guess by the time I find that out, it’ll be much too late…
Belonging to a CSA farm is a commitment to family farming, local agriculture, community, health, and good value. It’s probably a good deal more than that! But whatever reason you chose to try it, remember that you have a lot to do with whether or not it succeeds for you and the farm you buy into. So be pro-active, be happy, be healthy, and EAT YOUR VEGGIES!
We live in a time when running a family farm is a difficult and risky venture. This is unfortunate, because there are undeniable benefits to eating locally-produced fruits and vegetables. As a confirmed “foodie,” I can attest to the fact that fresh-from-the-farm beats bought-at-the-big-chain-store hands down! Once you’ve eaten farm eggs from free-range chickens, or fresh strawberries hand-picked this morning, you’ll wonder if it what they have at the store is even the same thing! And I truly believe that supporting small, local, family farms is good for our community and for the country!
My farmer uses organic growing methods, and I get a variety of fresh, healthy produce from her at a good price for the entire growing season. Because of my participation, I am able to purchase a wider variety of produce than I might otherwise be able to afford – and to try things I might otherwise not try. Because of the participation of all of the shareholders in this farm, my farmer is able to help cover the costs of planting, to know what items to plant, and that she will have a guaranteed market for her produce.
One of the things I like about doing this is that it helps me understand more fully what it takes to get produce on my table. When my farmer has to deal with weird weather fluctuations that affect her growing season, we all share in that frustration with her. But I think we all learn from that, too. Most of us don’t think about the cost of growing produce, or the work involved. And really, for most people, there’s no reason to. Those blueberries in the store that came from who-knows-where are beautiful – and beautifully packaged. But there’s something about eating blueberries grown on land just minutes away from my home and picked by hand when fully ripe (that very day) by a woman who I know by name... well, they taste SO much better!
To be sure, CSA participation isn’t for everyone. It can be challenging when you pick up your share and it’s full of stuff you maybe aren’t familiar with – or don’t especially like. It can be challenging to figure out new ways to use things that you get more of than you might normally choose for yourself. But it’s also an adventure, and should be viewed that way. It’s fun to try new things, or to try old things in new ways. It’s exciting to see what each week brings – to know in a very concrete way that different produce items really do have different seasons, and you get to enjoy each of them in its own time.
It saddens me to know that my farmer works sometimes 60 or more hours a week and earns less than minimum wage. I know that, ultimately, that’s part of why many small farms fail, and I would sure hate to see that happen to someone I know! So I am committed to the idea of CSA, and to supporting local family farms.
When I became a shareholder in CSA, I made a personal investment on several levels:
•In my own health and enjoyment.
•In the success of one local family farm.
•In the ability of my community to feed its members in a sustainable manner.
•In the values that helped build this nation before it became so corporate and greedy.
•In the health of our planet.
When viewed in this manner, it seems incredible to me that more people don’t get involved in CSA. This has been a great experience for me, and I’ve told several of my friends, all of whom thought it sounded great. In some ways, for me personally, it’s been a better experience than I had hoped.
So far, my participation in CSA has helped me learn that I wasn’t eating as many vegetables as I thought I was; that I like kohlrabi; I don’t especially like collards; it is possible to eat too many salads; it’s not possible to have too many berries, shallots or onions; and that I really need to be buying more fresh flowers and herbs!
I intend to continue participating in my CSA as long as my farmer will have me! I am grateful for her hard work and dedication. And I am hopeful that the community will recognize the enormous contribution made by all of the small, local farmers to the overall well-being of Clark County.
Change in our kitchens
Reflections on cooking — and a career that’s based largely at the stove.
Flatbreads from around the continent
Beyond a supporting role
The great Sicilian-Neapolitan kitchen rivalry
Five ideas each month for eating better