August 2012

Charlotte Freeman


Find a Garden

In his Jefferson Lecture this spring, Wendell Berry begins by borrowing Wallace Stegner's distinction between "boomers" and "stickers." "Boomers" Stegner defined as those amongst us who "pillage and run" who "want to make a killing" while stickers are "those who settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in." Berry has spent his life speaking the values of the stickers to the power that is the boomers, that is, he's spent a lifetime articulating why the old rural virtues of thrift, and conservation, and husbandry are relevant in a world run by boomers who look only to the bottom line, whose lives are run by quarterly profit reports, and who find quaint those of us who think that long-term sustainability is actually more relevant than short term profit. An old crank like me, raised on the work of Berry, and Wes Jackson, and Gary Snyder, and Aldo Leopold finds it enormously heartening to see how young people are reacting to the collapse of the boomer economy by turning to farming, and crafting, and small business. By trying to become "stickers" -- people interested in building place and community. Although I often lose heart at the sheer number of cookbooks published every year, most of which are junky books that either bear the name of the latest TV food personality or explore the latest fad or promise meals in fewer and fewer minutes, I do continue to take heart in those cookbooks that come across my transom that promise to explore some less transient virtues.

Nigel Slater's Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard is one of those books. This is a gorgeous book -- companion to last year's Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch.Where Tender tells the vegetable side of the story of Slater's transformation of his London row house yard into a dreamy garden, Ripe tells the fruit side of that story. It arrived early this spring and I was so taken by his story of growing lots of fruit in a tiny space that I found myself driving to the nursery, where I came home laden with red currant, gooseberry, and raspberry bushes, as well as a grapevine (and a hop vine for my sweetie, the home brewer). Slater writes cookbooks and a food column for the English newspaper The Observer, and apparently also does some television. He's my favorite kind of cook, someone who wants to start with what's on hand, and figure out some unfussy, improvisational, and comforting thing to do with it. I was one of those girls who read and reread The Secret Garden, along with any other English children's stories I could get my hands on, and these two books are like the most glorious combination of English food and English gardens.

Although my bushes seem to be taking, and I even have a handful of gooseberries ripening out there, it will be a couple of years before I can start deluging my friends with the summer puddings, fools, trifles, and crumbles of which this book overflows. Like any good garden book, Slater is open about his failures -- the "orchard" he originally envisioned would not, of course fit in the space he describes as "small enough in which to park a car" -- and so, the trees had to be moved. I am envious of his brick London garden walls, walls sturdy enough to espalier peach trees, and although climate change does seem to have bumped us up one full zone here on the edge of the Montana plains, I don't think I can possibly sustain a fig tree. Like TenderRipe is organized by ingredient ranging in alphabetical order from apples and apricots, through gooseberries, grapes and hazelnuts, all the way to walnuts and white currants. Each chapter begins with a short essay on the fruit at hand, then a section on varieties and cultivation (just keep in mind the English climate might not match yours). He then discusses how he most often uses the fruit or nut at hand in the kitchen, then comes a selection of recipes illustrated with gorgeous photographs. And it's not just desserts here; there are plenty of recipes for main dishes. I'm longing for cool weather to try the Twice-cooked Ham with Damson Gin Sauce, or the Casserole of Apples and Rabbit (someone down valley is now growing rabbits for our local meat market). And then there are those English desserts that are so seductive to the rest of us. I mean, what could be easier than a fool? Whipped cream into which some stewed fruit is folded? I've been flipping back and forth through this book, while talking to my new gooseberry and currant bushes, asking them nicely to please grow faster, despite our semi-arid climate.

The other book I've been buried in all summer is Vegetables from an Italian Garden, by the editors of Phaidon Press. I'm on year nine of my vegetable garden, and Seeds of Italy has long been my seed source of choice. They carry seeds from the Italian company Franchi Sementi, established in 1783. I love these seeds; they always germinate, and there are a million different interesting and unusual (for the US) greens and tomatoes and peppers, as well as flowers. It would not be summer in my garden without the turnip green Senza Testa, or the lovely tight endive called Sugarloaf. So it was a tiny bit disappointing to discover that Vegetables from an Italian Garden had been thoroughly Americanized and sticks pretty much to vegetables we're all familiar with like favas and zucchini and chestnuts and radicchio. There is a chapter on wild greens, and one on cardoons, and another on mushrooms, so it's not entirely grocery-store produce, but I would have loved some authentic recipes for some of the Italian veggies I've been ordering from seed.

However, a green is a green is a green, so if you can make a recipe with chard or spinach or wild greens, you can make it with mustards or turnip greens or one of the rapes. Substitution is not that difficult. Among recipes for interesting risottos and pies stuffed with greens, there's a spinach and fontina souffle that's topped with pureed potatoes that my beloved, who is not a big veggie person, just loved. The fennel and orange salad absolutely hit the spot on a hot evening when I needed a dish for a potluck. As winter approaches, I'm really looking forward to trying out the soups. I could live on soup. As always with Phaidon's cookbooks, the layout is clean and clear, and the photographs are both illustrative and lovely. I was, in my obsessive way, most intrigued by the photographs of Italian allotment gardens. The sheds, the trellis arrangements, the overgrown bits, the tools, all of these are for me the most interesting parts of seeing other people's gardens. I want to see what how they've used an old bedframe for peas, or the trellis systems they're using for tomatoes, or what flowers they have growing just to make them happy when they come out to tend the veggies. As Americans build more urban and community gardens, these are the kinds of details we need.

The book that's had me most intrigued though is The Permaculture Handbook by Peter Bane. I'm one of those cranks who thinks we've hit peak oil, and that we'd all better have a plan for keeping body and soul together in a world where energy is going to be much more expensive and precious. And while I'm not quite as far gone as some survivalists out here (this is Montana after all), I am really interested in seeing how much of my own needs I can take care of myself. I didn't realize that what I've been sort of trying to do in my own fits-and-starts kind of way is called permaculture until this book came along. All the stuff we've just kind of been doing is in here, gardens, salvage, recycling, sharing tools with the neighbors, and building community. I have a veggie garden and five hens. I put up what I can for the winter (next month I'll review another good batch of home preservation books). I'm trying to get rid of the lawn. I work at home so I don't drive much. My sweetie, the contractor, salvages and recycles whatever he can and laughed when I pointed out that one of the hallmarks of a permaculture system, according to this book, is an area of the yard designated as a "zone of accumulation." He has that one covered.

Joking aside though, there's something for everyone in this book. If you have a yard, there are a ton of good ideas for how to organize your space so you can produce your own food, and, in general, build a more resilient and sustainable home system. One of Bane's long-term projects has been proselytizing for "garden farming" -- small gardens, distributed across the landscape, which can provide much of the fresh produce for individual families and neighborhoods. It's garden farming that has traditionally seen societies through hard times; read any World War II memoir. The first thing city dwellers tried to do was find someone in the country to take them in (likewise, my mother was made as a toddler during the war to memorize the directions from their Chicago apartment to our farm an hour away. If the worst happened, the four of them were to walk west, following the Burlington Northern tracks until they got to the farm. There was a cow on the farm, and a hired man, and a vegetable garden and chickens). As anyone who has ever gardened has learned, gardening is a great way to meet your neighbors, if only to foist zucchinis on them. The central tenets of the permaculture movement are decentralizing production and decoupling from industrialized systems in order to build resilient households and communities. The community part is crucial. Vibrant communities with strong ties survive catastrophe better than individuals in isolation, and if we've seen anything this summer, it's that the storms and droughts and fires of the climate change era are wrecking havoc on our aging infrastructure. Communities where folks are willing to help out (like those over in Roundup, who loaded up their trailers and drove into the fire zone to rescue their neighbors' livestock) are more likely to bounce back from floods or fires or storms that knock out all the electricity. So, if you're interested in farming your yard or an allotment or a space in a community garden, getting to know your neighbors, and building your community, this is a terrific resource.

Although the insidiousness of marketing and the corporatization of private life often fills me with dismay, that there is a movement afoot around the globe to bring back the handmade, the homemade, and the homegrown seems enormously hopeful. People without hope do not plant seeds. Nigel Slater took an ordinary London yard and turned it into a beautiful and productive garden. Most cities have allotments available, or community gardens where anyone can sign up to come help. It's good to grow things. They taste better, and they're better for you, and you'll meet your neighbors. So go forth, and find a garden.