I’ve written about my mom quite a bit on this blog, largely because she’s a pretty amazing person overall. I’m blessed with two bad-ass parents, who have always encouraged me to cook, write, and generally follow my dreams, so long as I keep my head out of the clouds. It’s absolutely accurate to say I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am today without them.
This summer, my mom upped her awesomeness quotient even further with this:
A garden!! At first, I was a bit surprised when she told me that her birthday present this year would be a stone garden built on the sunniest patch of our backyard. My mom’s father is Sicilian and has one hell of a green thumb – he coaxed a twenty-five foot fig tree born of a single grubby branch from the gravelly soil of Brooklyn, and grew some of the most delicious tomatoes I’ve ever tasted in ten gallon buckets in his backyard, which got minimal sunlight. But my mom never expressed an interest in growing anything we could eat, instead turning her gardening intentions toward rearing beautiful flowers and plants that always made our house feel beautiful.
Until this spring. Once she decided to go forth and grow veggies, there was no looking back. She quickly decided that the garden would be self-sustaining and completely organic. She lined the perimeter with marigolds, a natural pesticide, just inside the red brick walls that set the garden nine inches above the ground. The garden had a modest start; just a few lettuce plants and some herbs. For some of the varieties she sought to grow, she bought actual plants that were deposited straight into the soil; for others, the old-fashioned method of placing seeds in small mounds of dirt did the trick. Everything had begun to blossom and flourish, with the help of a homemade irrigation system of soaker hoses that lined the plant beds, but at the end of June, few veggies were ready to be eaten, save the lettuce.
Then my parents headed off to France for a two-week vacation, leaving the garden under the care of my twenty year old brother. I love my brother dearly, but none of us had high hopes that he’d become an avid gardener in my parents’ absence. The soaker hoses were set on timer, with no telling what would be waiting for my parents when they arrived home.
Nobody expected this:
The garden had exploded with growth while they were gone! Between the extremely hot, sunny days and frequent downpours, with the homemade irrigation system making up the difference, everything in the garden was thriving, even the oregano plants that had a good deal of trouble taking. I, for one, never knew that lettuce plants could grow five feet tall! Sort of makes you wonder why a small container of leaves costs five bucks at the grocery store… hmmmm…
Among the most beautiful of plants in my mother’s garden are the beets. With their defiant, skin-staining purple juice and sweet tender flesh, beets are sort of the “Butterball turkey” of gardening; they grow under ground, but as soon as they’re fully grown and ripe for the picking, they pop up – just like the instant timer in a Butterball – as a signal to harvest them. Despite this being the completely natural and normal way beets grow, I couldn’t help but find this adorable. I also couldn’t help fantisizing about picking these, scrubbing them down, cubing them and roasting them til tender. Topped with fresh chevre, a sprinkle of sea salt and a drizzle of green olive oil, there are few better summer suppers.
And then there was this baby eggplant! Just starting to grow, it already has all the telltale signs of one of my favorite vegetables – the deep purple skin, a thick husky stem, and a taut exterior. It felt like a mystery waiting to be uncovered, hiding beneath those thick, purple-veined leaves, still just a few inches long.
Other garden varietals: celery, which grows over a foot high. I’m actually very curious to try this once it’s ready to be picked – I’ve always found the bitter, almost medicinal flavor of celery slightly off-putting, but as I’ve already learned from this garden, there’s a world of difference in how freshly picked vegetables taste compared to those you get at the supermarket, and I bet you can guess which comes out on top. I wouldn’t be surprised if freshly picked celery tastes downright wonderful.
Mom also planted a bunch of yellow squash and zucchini plants, which are easy to grow and smart choices for beginning gardeners. Add an unbeknownst green thumb, and you can wind up with gargantuan crops:
Beyond the obvious ripe, tender, mildly sweet fruit that zucchini and squash plants bear, they lay way to another gift, one that has gotten little attention in the U.S. until recently when it, like many other locally grown, little known veggies, found a showcase in the “Eat Local” trend. That’s right, I’m talking about zucchini blossoms.
These blossoms are absolutely gorgeous, with soft, fuzzy, super delicate petals of the warmest, freshest buttery golden yellows. When I was a child, my gardening grandfather would pick these from zucchini plants grown in plastic tubs on the back patio, rinse them well, and flatten them out. Then he would drench them in flour, egg, and breadcrumb, and fry them until golden brown in a skillet of olive oil. Eaten hot out of the oil-spitting pan, these fried flower pancakes, known to us only as ”gah-gootz,” were beyond delicious, simply because they held a mysterious allure to my childhood self; food that came from the great outdoors, rather than the refrigerator.
This weekend, I hightailed it back into the city, where my means of growing anything organic on my own stretched only as far as the six-inch pot of Lemon Verbana on my windowsill. Perhaps this whole green thumb thing is hereditary, though, since the green citrus leaves bake every day in a slat of brutal summer sun that filters through my window but the plant stubbornly refusing to wilt and die.
Lacking the space or soil to grow much more, I returned with a bounty from my thirty minute tussle through mom’s garden – a large shopping bag full of all types of lettuce: green leaf, red leaf, arugula, mesclun mix – as well as green and purple sage, and basil which had instantaneously wilted, but remained incredibly fragrant.
All this made dinner a joyous no-brainer.
Mixed greens salad with cherry tomatoes (from the refrigerator, sadly), garlic-infused olive oil and aged balsamic. Never has a salad tasted so fresh; the greens were peppery and carried through them everything earthy and sweet of the soil. Alongside it, a sage-turkey burger with caramelized onions and sautéed mushrooms. As I’ve said before, sage makes nearly everything better.
So a thousand words later, I should probably get to my point (yes, I have one). There’s been a heck of a lot of hype the past couple years about “Farm to Table” and “Eating Local.” While nearly all of us can agree that in a perfect world, this is the ideal way to eat, there are several sides to this argument: consumers who like the message, but are outraged at the prices; massive corporate grocery chains who likely had a hand in starting this whole “trend” in order to up vegetable sales; the chefs and owners of four star, fine-dining restaurants across America who feel endless frustration in how less practiced restaurants are capitalizing on what these guys have been doing for years, albiet without a slogan.
But at the end of the day, as individuals, it’s hard to deny the benefit of eating something you’ve taken the time to grow yourself. The rewards range from nutritional and physical to emotional and intellectual – think of all you can learn in undertaking a “growth” project, the dedication required to keep something alive, or the pride you can feel in physically satisfying your hunger with something you were responsible for growing. There really is nothing more human.
So my point is, go grow something. If my family can do it, anyone can!