Thursday, November 12, 2009

Living Seasonally

It seems like cruel and unusual punishment towards fellow gardeners to enthusiastically review an out-of-print book, but I cannot help myself. A kindred spirit with better Internet shopping skills found a used copy of Living Seasonally by Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd. He generously loaned it to me, and I have been enthralled by their writing and their vegetable gardening ideas for the past week.

The two men have a large property in rural Vermont, on which they raise almost everything they eat, including veal and poultry. While this is clearly beyond the reach of a novice urban gardener with an --ahem -- smaller plot of land, so many of their ideas translate well to any edible garden. Most of their growing tips and enthusiastic endorsements of certain plants will be tested in my own garden in the months and years to come. The two men are at once enormously sensible and deliciously romantic: how can I resist Egyptian tree onions or home-forced endive after reading of their experience?

I most enjoyed their discussion of the tension between sustainable living and seasonal eating. Anyone with homesteading ambitions, be they urban fantasies or rural realities, looks forward to "Independence Day": the day when everything that you put in your mouth --from sunrise to sunset-- has been produced from your own land. In the drive towards that goal, there is always the troublesome possibility that seasonal eating will go by the wayside. The two men discuss how one year they cut, blanched, and froze twenty or so heads of cauliflower to stuff their freezer full for the winter. Did that enhance the self-sustainability of their enterprise? Perhaps. But frozen cauliflower is frozen cauliflower. Eating this product in late March is not strictly "seasonal" living. I had the same feeling as I canned my tenth jar of grape jam this fall. We are a family who at most goes through two or three jars of preserves a year. Were my jars of jam an act of living off the grid or just useless overproduction?

The two men eventually decided that there would be no freezing of produce, and that preserves (i.e. oil packed tomatoes) would be made in the reasonable quantity that would be consumed the course of a season. While this might mean a few duller days in late winter, they felt that it enhanced the small moments of celebration when, for example, two perfect weeks of cauliflower were available from the garden. For that time, and only that time, they would feast, and then be sated with their fill of that vegetable.

This whole idea gets back to my concerns about overproduction. I am so used to the idea of a "good" vegetable garden being one in which there is row upon orderly row of heavily producing plants. But we are three people only! We just don't need a whole row of zucchini. If I can mentally break out of the row mentality, I still struggle with the need for multiple specimens. For example, I planted three Brussels sprout plants this year -- what a folly! The plants thrived, and put forth a huge amount of sprouts. We happily ate them for a few meals, yet a few did suffice, since none of us are true aficionados. Then I was stuck with quarts of sprouts in peak form. I gave some away, and pickled others in a spurt of ridiculous thriftiness. One jar of pickled Brussels sprouts is interesting. Five become a bit of a chore to slog through. I am not growing this produce to survive the winter. I can have my sprout feast one weekend and be done with it. I can revel in the luxury of a small celebration, versus the grim mentality of sustenance.

As winter closes in, and visions of 2010 seed catalogs dance in my head, I am meditating on my goal of producing delicious, unique seasonal tastes. I want my family to have fleeting celebrations, all the more poignant for their short duration. The one we have already effectively established is breakfast radishes. I always plant a row as soon as the soil can be worked, and for a brief two week period, we load baguette slices with radishes, butter and salt. It is our harbinger of spring and we devour our treat, but never try to extend the experience with a second planting of radish seed. Eck and Winterrowd have only steeled my resolve in this matter. Note to self: reread in the spring, right before I look at my packet of radish seed and decide, "lets just plant all of it -- I have a pickle recipe, somewhere".

1 comment:

  1. Hi - I really enjoyed your blog - I like to eat as much as I can from what I grow - I made a sourdough starter from my organic grapes. It makes a great bread.