Saturday, August 31, 2013

Global Family

I've been an active user of Facebook for about six years, and have jokingly referred to it from time to time as my home. I moan and bemoan the advent of Facebook ads that clutter my space, recommendations (that might very well be fake) from friends that I like Wal-Mart or purchase Tide, and the overwhelming amount of swearing and sexual innuendo that often fill my wall and home page. Despite these intrusions of corporate clutter into "my Facebook space," I continue to contribute actively to the exchange of news, information, and insight that constitutes Facebook because it is best way that I have discovered to date to stay in touch with friends and family members all over the world. After one has lived at 40 different addresses, it is difficult to call any one place decisively home.

The power of social media to connect and communicate surprised me once again this weekend as I flew into Chicago to celebrate my cousin Shikha's wedding. The official wedding takes place tomorrow; however, the past two days have been filled with food, festivities, rituals, singing and dancing performances, family connections, and generally a lot of fun. One highlight of the weekend was the sangeet, a celebration with song and dance, that took place last night. Shikha's parents -- my Aky Mamaj and Sushma Auntie (whom I should properly call Mamiji but never quite learned to for reasons that are a bit too complex to explain here) -- organized the sangeet as a sort of hybrid Indian and Indian American style celebration. It featured three rounds of snack foods -- north Indian, south Indian, and Indo Chinese -- and a formal program of dances, songs, a skit, and a round of qawwalis performed by longtime friends of Shikha's immediate family. I arrived at the event with my parents, my sisters, their husbands, and my two nieces. We were immediately surrounded by our extended family in the United States, and I, the documentarian at heart, immediately began taking pictures with my iPhone.

Since I had the capability to do so, I uploaded the pictures almost as soon as I shot them. I did this, primarily for the benefit of those in attendance but was somewhat aware that friends of mine (and of theirs) were noticing the photos and liking and commenting on them.

What I did not realize was that the photos also were beginning to attract attention on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, where the members of our extended India family who could not attend the wedding in person were just waking up. As a series of "likes" and "thank-yous" and "oh, all of you look so good," and "blessings" began to populate the comment spaces beneath the pictures, I became aware that the wedding festivities were being watched in a virtual sense by family members all over the world. This realization motivated me today to take even more pictures of the rituals associated with the bride's family: a welcoming of the bride's mother's parents and siblings and families; a bequeathing of gifts from mother's side to the father's side; a bathing ceremony for the bride known as tel; and a puja honoring the goddess like beauty and qualities of the bride-to-be. It also created a sense of connectivity in me that felt incredibly powerful.

I have written much about growing up as the eldest child of Indian immigrants in small-town America in the 1960s and 1970s. In doing so, I have spoken at times of knowing intellectually that I had a very large extended family that included ten siblings on my mother's side and seven on my father's side but not really experiencing emotionally or kinesthetically the life within this kind of a framework. I only met my paternal grandparents once before they passed away, and my maternal grandparents a handful of times before they, too, passed. While I have gotten to know all of my mother's siblings (some of whom also have passed) as well as my father's elder brother, I would not be able to recognize my father's sisters as my aunts without being introduced to them personally.

Other South Asians whom I met later in life have told me that I "missed" out, as have some of my relatives in the United States who emigrated after growing up in India and who have built regular return trips to visit family or pursue work into their daily lives. I do agree that I missed out, but I'm not sure I ever really lamented the loss. One cannot know what one did not receive if it was not available to begin with.

Still, as I grow older and as I wonder when (or if) my current life circumstances will allow me to visit India again, I find myself wanting to nurture closer connections with my global family. I am not really sure how to create those connections because, admittedly, I am coming to the table late in the game. For that reason, perhaps, I appreciate the utility and power of Facebook to help facilitate the path. Years ago, the Indian-born travel writer Pico Iyer wrote a piece entitled "Nowhere Man" where he described himself as feeling more at home in the airport transit lounge than any one place. Perhaps it is the space that social media creates that allows the "Nowhere Self" to have a place.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Perks of being a wallflower

My hand, with mehndi
I'm stealing this title from a film based on a coming of age novel about a teenage boy in Philadelphia whose life history had a decidedly more sinister edge and somber tone than my life ever had. But it has struck me as I have spent the late afternoon and evening in the company of my parents, two aunties, an uncle, and two adult-but-decidedly younger female cousins that I am sort of a representative wallflower in the South Asian American experience.

It's not so bad being a wallflower, and it adds a range of insight to the scholarly work I do on this group in the United States as well as the storytelling form in which it often evolves. In my particular family, age-wise, I am about 10 years younger than the youngest members of the "auntie" generation who emigrated from India and about 15 to 20 years older than the generation of children born and raised in the United States. I also am considerably older than a good chunk of emigres of my generation of cousins who emigrated as young adults in the 1990s and early 2000s. My extended family of related-by-blood individuals in the U.S. consisted of three people in 1962, the year I was born. Today, it includes eighteen people and would be more than double that number if spouses and their related-by-blood family members were added in. As a result, it blows my mind to realize that of all the people of Indian ancestry who make up my family, only my parents have lived in the United States longer than me, and they only have me beat by a year.

I find this position interesting as I write this post with my two index fingers unavailable for typing because of the intricate mehndi-painted pattern drying in a diagonal arc that stretches from the tip of my index fingers and across the palm to the inner wrist of both of my hands. Mehndi is a henna-based paste that goes on dark green and wet and flakes off as it dries, leaving behind a deep reddish-orange design on the hands and sometimes the feet. Mehndi is well known in the U.S. today as a temporary henna tattoo. Having your hands painted with mehndi has become a regularized ritual  at Indian weddings in the U.S. with the bridal party often hiring professional designers. Growing up as an isolated Indian child in a geographic region where in the 1960s and 1970s families from India, Pakistan, and what eventually became Bangladesh were few and far between, mehndi was a rare experience. I remember the ritual occurring often in India, where my family lived for one year in 1973-74, but perhaps once or twice at the most in the United States.

Which brings me to the wallflowerism with which I began.

There's an economy of cultural literacy embedded in generational and demographic differences in the various eras of migration, resettlement, and life span within the South Asian American community in the U.S. I don't have space and time tonight to delve into them deeply, but I'll highlight a few because they shed light on how persons of South Asian ancestry experience both the United States and the countries of their birth or heritage differently, based on where they are situated along the spectrum. I grew up in the 1960s where India signified "poor starving children" and immense poverty, images used by teachers, parents, and other adult authorities to guilt children into eating all of their vegetables at meal time. If you were Indian, you were perceived as disadvantaged -- even if you never lived a day of your life in India and had parents with higher education degrees. Today, the children of one of my cousins who emigrated in 2000 attend an elementary school that is 50 percent Indian. The "starving child" metaphor probably persists, but it loses its currency in a community that includes numerous multi-millionaires.

The gap in experience presented itself most vividly when my cousin picked me up at the Chicago Metra suburban rail station closest to their home. She told me that we needed to stop at a beauty salon to pick up our auntie, age 60, and her daughter, age 26. To my surprise, the salon was an Indian-run and Indian-focused operation that specialized in treatments one would find in New Delhi. The gap repeated itself as the cousins practiced for dance performances for the weekend's wedding festivities and the aunties and my mother switched between Hindi and English as they discussed and enacted preparations for the wedding. I offered myself up to assist numerous times, and each time my offer was recognized and appreciated. But the reality was there wasn't anything I could really do. Being in the middle, not an Indian with an experience of living much in India nor an Indian America with much of an experience of growing up in an Indian community in the U.S., too much was lost in translation, literal and figurative. So, in the role of wallflower, I did what I usually do: I read, I responded to e-mail, I did some writing, and went for a run. In short, I lived the world with which I had become most culturally literate.

I want to emphasize to anyone who reads this that this post is not a lament. Ten years ago, the situation might have caused angst, twenty years ago anger, and thirty years ago deliberate disinterest. Today, it provokes happiness, and curiosity.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Home-grown karela

 I wrote a story about karela (widely sold in the U.S. as bitter melon) during National Short Story Month in May. The story described how karela entered my immigrant Indian family's household in the 1970s as a rare delicacy that I particularly found distasteful, and went on to narrate how my disdain for the bumpy, bitter and somewhat sour tasting gourd turned into first appreciation and ultimately passion. The story ended with the seeds saved from a bitter melon we ate in the fall of 2012 sprouting and sporting true leaves in mid-May. Now that it is near the end of August, I thought that an update might be in order.

The update, on a broad scale, is a bit dismal. The sudden warm-up in April that was followed by snow and unseasonably cool weather until early June was not good for heat-demanding, sun loving plants like karela. Even the Otrembiak family farmers (whom I discovered in the midst of talking to them about bitter melons) had trouble with the bitter melon this year, and as of today, I did not see any of the fruits for sale at their stand at the Saratoga Farmers Market. They had a half dozen extra starts, which they generously shared to supplement the seeds I had tried to start. Between their collection and mine, two plants grew into vines. One of the two vines has withered and doesn't look like it will produce flowers, let alone fruits. But the other vine did flower and to date has produced a single karela.

Excitedly, I watched the karela grow through August. Two days ago, when it was about five inches long, I thought I saw another fruit starting to form. To encourage the new growth, I cut the bigger bitter melon off. I have since lost sight of the new fruit, so the one melon might be all that we'll get.

My husband and I shrugged philosophically. Once again, we had made some planting mistakes. Even though Jim did a much better job of giving the various squashes and cucumbers we planted enough space to spread, he did not account for the face that the bigger leaves of the pumpkins, summer squash, and butternuts would crowd out the delicate lady-like vines of the karela. In addition, neither of us quite got the hang of creating an appropriate  trellis for the karela vines until it was pretty much too late.
But we did get the one fruit, and I prepared it tonight. Using a recipe for a Punjabi style fried karela that I had found last year, I cut the gourd into one inch circles and sauteed it in oil, turmeric, dried ginger, and cumin seeds. I removed it from the oil so the excess could drain and sauteed a bit of minced red onion and garlic from the garden, along with a green chili pepper, also from the garden. As the kitchen filled with the aromatic scent of the spices, I tossed the karela circles and stray seeds back into the mixture for a couple of minutes and let everything simmer together. The result was an explosively delicious flavor. Karela, I concluded, is like many other vegetables. It might taste good if you buy it at a grocery store. It probably will taste better if you get it fresh from the farmers market. But from your backyard, it's flavor is indescribable.

We ate it as a side dish alongside a smoked ham steak, roasted eggplant, green beans, and kale. Except for the ham steak, the oil, and some of the spices, everything we ate was straight from the garden. That's been the regimen for the past several weeks. We decide what we're going to eat based on what's growing outdoors. While some produce benefits from a little bit of curing, most of it is picked within hours -- if not minutes -- of being consumed.

As we eat like this with an increased frequency, questions and suggestions come up. We've been encouraged to start selling our vegetables, and just today, we were asked if we would have interest in being part of a co-op where we could conceivably both buy and sell produce amongst a select group of people. We usually respond to these queries noncommittally -- maybe down the road, someday in the future, right now we still have a lot to learn.

People seem to understand -- and respect -- the learning curve. What's harder to articulate is the real reason that I, at least, shy away from selling food. It goes back to raising -- or trying to raise -- plants like karela, which are quite popular among Indians but not widely known in the local markets here. Our failures with karela -- coupled with our sweet success of one bitter melon fruit -- add to our resolution to try harder the next year. If we were growing things for a market, we wouldn't have the luxury of choice in terms of what to plant. We'd lose the ability to experiment, and track notes of what we were learning and not learning in the process. We also would have to grow what sells because we wouldn't be growing food for ourselves as much as we would be growing it for a market.

I will continue to watch the bitter melon vines over the next few weeks, in hopes that we'll have another fruit. If we do not, we will at least remember the fresh, spicy, flavor-bursting taste of our first-ever homegrown karela.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Family time

The two weeks in the Midwest is drawing near. A blend of stress and calm engulfs me as I ponder the itinerary and how it represents my life. I'm flying into O'Hare -- an airport I have transited through at least a thousand times as I've criss-crossed the country for research, family visits, and other purposes but almost never left to enter Chicago. From O'Hare, I'll take the "El" -- at least I think it's still called the El or Elevated train to downtown Chicago, walk (only I need to keep this walk, my exercise for the day, a secret from my extended family) to Union Station and board a commuter train to the western suburbs. There, a good chunk of my Indian family in America will gather for my young cousin Shikha's wedding.

Just these details alone are heavy with significance. For now, let me continue with the itinerary.

The wedding will last three days. For two nights, we'll stay at my uncle's home and engage in family festivities. Saturday, we all relocate to a Hilton, in preparation for the nuptials which will take place Sunday morning, afternoon, and evening. Shikha -- like I did eight years earlier -- is marrying a non-Indian. However, Indians know how to do weddings better than anyone else so when it comes to the festivities, let the Indians run the show.

My father, who is 81, and my mother, who will celebrate her 77th birthday on the day of Shikha's wedding, want to drive to Iowa following the ceremony. They emigrated to Cedar Rapids in 1961, and moved to Iowa City shortly thereafter. My father completed his PhD in Iowa City, where I was born in 1962. We left Iowa in 1965, and I did not return in any significant way until 2003 when I enrolled in several workshops as part of the Iowa Summer Writers' Festival. I remember the bus from the airport dropping me off near the campus. I saw the massive river that flows through its grounds, and felt somehow that I knew this place intimately, that I had been here before. Was it the photographs in the baby book my mother kept of me? Was it stories that my father and my mother told, sometimes to me, sometimes others with me eavesdropping? Or was it DNA?

My mother told me about my father's desire to make the trip. Almost immediately, it became my desire, too. We will stay in Iowa City for one night and in Des Moines for one night, where family friends from before my birth reside: Lee and Penny Ferguson. Penny is of Indian ancestry; Lee is African American. The fact that they had an interracial marriage north of the Mason-Dixie line before the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act became law still astounds me. They had three boys, whom I remember vaguely from childhood days as visiting us in Muncie, Indiana, where my parents ultimately settled. Penny and Lee visited me once in Seattle, and we had a marvelous salmon dinner while arguing Clinton versus Ross Perot.

From Iowa, we will drive to Muncie, the town where my parents have lived since 1966 and the object of my research on race, ethnicity, and religion in small-town Middle America. I am looking forward to being there, though part of my purpose in going is to help my parents downsize their possessions and to arrange for movers to transport several pieces of heavy furniture and other items (including, I hope, all of my mother's photo albums and newspaper clippings) to my home in upstate New York. They are moving into a smaller, more efficient senior living space in Muncie -- their fifth residence in forty-seven years. I am just grateful that they did not follow through on a fleeting idea to relocate to Bloomington, because Muncie -- the place that as a teen I couldn't wait to flee -- has grown into a very dear spot for me. If my parents left, how could I call it home?

The stress. It emerges from the sensation of what I like to call the post-industrial condition. I am leaving with a major writing deadline unmet (and hence a big stack of papers, photocopied book chapters, and copious notes) as well as other twittering projects calling out to me, student papers and projects, and adjunct questions associated with my college's new learning management system. On top of all that, I'm running a marathon in 3-1/2 weeks. How to get it all done?

"Is there any way you can cancel?" my husband asked, as I fretted earlier this evening on the deck.

Truth is, I considered the possibility numerous times this afternoon as I drove to the bank, arranged for a heating oil delivery, staked tomatoes, harvested cucumbers and squash, and checked my e-mail every hour to deal with questions related to my day job. It would be so much easier to stay home, not to mention cheaper. But the value of family time and sentimentality trumped anxiety eventually, as it should.

I also remembered something Shikha had said to her mother during my wedding eight years earlier. Her mother passed it on to me. She said Shikha wanted her wedding to be like mine. Mine was laden with stress, strife over religious differences, and irresolveable family tensions. But it was creative, integrative, and ultimately, I think, fun. I am looking forward to being a part of hers, of perhaps writing about it, of reliving mine.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Clearing Clutter

Not what our house usually looks like!

We've had a ritual in our house for the past two years. To understand the ritual, you need to understand the house. It was built in the 1840s and is essentially built like three boxes piled on top of each other. Each box is divided into two rooms: a basement and a boiler room; a front room and a back room on the main floor; and a front bedroom and back bedroom upstairs. A kitchen and a bathroom were added later.

A central chimney and fireplace provides a dividing point on the main floor. The fireplace was non-functional when we bought the house, which was heated primarily by oil. We unplugged the chimney and had a wood-burning stove put in, thinking primarily of it as a cozy place to gather in the evenings. Then, we found out that in our part of the world, oil is expensive and wood is not particularly so. We made a decision to heat our home as much as possible with wood.

Which brings me to the ritual: The front room is large enough technically to be two rooms, but we currently have a dearth of furniture. So every fall -- around October -- we move our sofa, coffee table, and a cushy armchair to a space around the wood-burning stove so we can stay warm. When spring comes -- mid to late April -- we push everything back against the east-facing windows that line the room so we can take full advantage of the fresh air and fragrant flower scents flowing in from the outdoors.

It's a nice seasonal ritual with one great big disadvantage. It leaves our front room, which is our main living space, in a state of perpetual clutter. Books and papers are piled on top of a table near the windows that's too heavy to move easily so it generally stays in one place. It's often too cold to eat so close to the windows in the winter so the table ends up becoming a repository for newspapers, discarded mail, printouts of things I bring home from work, and often packets and boxes of seeds. We prefer to eat outdoors as much as possible when the weather's nice and are too busy with spring planting to do much indoor cleaning so the papers pile continues to grow through the spring and summer. Once every few months or so, a cat jumps into the heap and scatters everything on the floor.

The table is one source of clutter. Built-in bookshelves, a wrap-around fireplace mantle, window ledges, and radiator tops are others. When we're huddled around the fire, books and paper piles gather around us. Firewood slivers, snow and dirt constantly flow in. It creates a source of stress that, uncertain how to react otherwise, we try to dismiss with shrugs and jokes. Truth be told, it drives both of us crazy and we wish we could create a solution.

Now, an odd resolution seems to be materializing. Both sets of parents made decisions in the past six months to move into smaller, empty-nest style homes. The end result is that they're downsizing and we're acquiring more sofas, love seats, armchairs, tables, and bookcases than we ever dreamed we'd own. Both of our parents have pretty good taste in furniture and much of what they're giving us holds great sentimental value for us as well as them. So we're ecstatic -- and a little frightened. Will this acquisition of furniture become our answer to a cluttered life? Or will it fill our house to the brim with too much stuff, and make the clutter chaos that we face even worse?

I have always been someone who appreciates simplicity in home and lifestyle design. I lead a busy life -- which some, including my husband, characterize as a cluttered life -- and because of that, I have always liked keeping my home life simple. Traditionally, I have kept furniture purchases to a minimum, and tried not to acquire too many clothes or accessories such as shoes. I have a lot of kitchen appliances because I like to cook and because many of these items were given to us as wedding gifts, but I own little in the way of cameras, televisions, entertainment systems, and other electronics.

My stark housekeeping habits often contrast markedly with friends whose homes are filled to the brim with "stuff": garage sale specials, thrift store purchases, clothes and books and greeting cards and souvenirs acquired over decades that never could be gotten rid of. I might be a little odd, but it is for this reason that I fear acquiring too much stuff.

I have come to realize, though, that a lack of "stuff" can create problems instead of solving them. As a result, one welcome solution that I anticipate the arrival of new "old" furniture will bring is a chance to clear up our home life clutter. Just the very thought of having two sofas makes me smile. We won't have to move our furniture back and forth in accordance with the seasons. We'll have a winter space and a summer space all in one house, and hopefully an organizational formula to create some method in the madness.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Dead sourdough

This feels like the day when we might as well throw in the towel. Deadlines are unmet. The bank account is in the red, and the cell phone carrier turned off our phones. Service was restored after I arranged for a post-dated check to pay the bill after the paycheck arrived. At least they were good enough to waive what would have been a $45 reconnect fee after I told them that it might be cheaper for me if I just terminated my relationship with them altogether.

But perhaps the worst calamity of the day was Jim killing the sourdough starter.

A little bit of back story might be in order.

For many, many years, I have fantasized about having sourdough starter. A small jar in my refrigerator, ready to use at a moment's notice. I started to think about how I might realize this fantasy when I bought my first house in Seattle in 1993. But then I moved to Hawai'i, lived in rental units for 11 years, and came back to Seattle overweight and with little desire to eat sourdough. The very thought of having something fermenting in the frij appalled my husband so I shelved the fantasy for awhile.

The sourdough story took on a different twist a few years later when we moved to upstate New York and bought our 1840s farmhouse-type house on Squashville Road. Smitten with a new passion for raising food and hens, Jim began gardening with a passion, canning and freezing our summer harvests, and reading up on every possible method known of building a root cellar in a basement to keep the produce fresh through the winter.

With this passion came one for baking homemade bread.

The bread baking began with a gift of a hand-me-down bread machine. It evolved slowly into buying first packets and eventually jars of yeast and making doughs late at night. This was my vocation, by the way. Reliving the days of eighth-grade cooking class when our teacher told us to make yeast rolls on days that we were frustrated because we could work out our angers through our kneading, I eagerly delved my fists into yeast-infused flour, oil, sugar, and water, pounding, pulling, twisting, folding until the mass beneath my hands evolved into a smooth, blistery-surfaced dough. Large fresh loaves would be ready for consumption some three, four, six hours later.

In the midst of this enters our friend Doug, known affectionately among some of us as "the streak" for the white patch that graces his black thatch of hair. Doug is not a backyard farmer, but he is an avid reader, cook, and accumulator of odd items, one of which is a batch of sourdough starter that he's kept alive for 20 years.

I've known Doug for about 23 years, when he joined a book group in Seattle that my college friend and former Seattle Times colleague Ferdinand deLeon and I started. Doug met Ferdinand through his then-girlfriend-now wife Janette, when the two of them (Doug and Janette) made sales calls for Time Life Books. The friendship persisted through numerous moves across the Pacific and the U.S. continent, and periodically, Doug would offer me his sourdough starter.

I accepted the offer in March. The starter arrived in New York from Doug's refrigerator in Honolulu via federal express. It included explicit instructions on how to revive it, and urged me to get the revival process going within minutes of opening it. Jim, overcome by adventure, took over from there.

For the next two days, he assiduously fed the starter warm water, flour, and sugar. It grew from a tiny tablespoon to a full bowl. Jim turned some of the starter into bread, and discovered that he could make bread. Between Good Friday and last Sunday, we always had fresh bread. My role as the baker had been displaced.

I didn't mind. I work full time and am trying to run a marathon and whip out a book on the side. When I made bread, it was a fortnightly affair and I would always make a huge batch of dough so that there would be bread to last 10 to 14 days. Jim claimed that this made the bread go stale. He vowed that his loaves would always be baked fresh, and would never last more than two days. For the most part, he lived up to his promise.

But the sourdough starter sputtered. Perhaps it was overuse. Perhaps it was excess experimentation. Perhaps it was heat, humidity, or simply the fact that we live in the country, have a homestead sort of farm, and as a result often subsist side-by-side with chaos. At any rate, Jim tonight turned on the oven because I wanted to bake a dish of eggplant, garlic scapes, tomatoes, summer squash, and mozzarella cheese. He reached into the cold over to remove the bowl of starter and we discovered that it looked a little moldy and smelled not sour but foul.

"I killed it," Jim moaned. "Twenty year old starter, gone."

We grieved. Somehow, its death was like the loss of a loved one, even if it had only been in our lives a mere six months. All of our other problems -- unmet deadlines, unpaid bills, unusable cell phones -- seemed so trivial compared with the loss of this living, breathing, vital organism that had powered so many of our loaves of daily bread.

We resolved to start anew, and Jim began a new self-starter alongside a small batch of the existing one that we decided we would try at least once to clean up and revive.

        11:30 p.m. approached, and I felt one more failure coming up on the horizon. Tonight was going to be the night -- the first night in 144 days -- when I would fail to write 750 words. My spot on the site's acclaimed Wall of Awesomeness would be dropped. I would go to the Wall of Shame.

        What to do? Write about debt, again? Find a silver lining, again? Be cheerful when my spirit was in the dumps?

        "Write about dead sourdough," mumbled Jim, still numb from grief.

I was one hundred words into the rumination when it dawned on me. The starter has not died. It lives in at least two domiciles separate from ours. Doug still has some starter, and so possibly does Caitlin, a friend in Saratoga. Caitlin is like Doug in some ways. She has a passion for cooking and for acquiring and holding onto odd items. We had given her a jar of starter in April shortly before her wedding and shortly after reviving Doug's.

"It's alive, it's alive," I burst out in a song.

"Caitlin has it."

A grin and grey cloud lifted from Jim's shoulder. He sent Caitlin a text-message (which our restored cellphone service enabled him to do) and we ended our day folding up instead of throwing in the towel, thinking about tomorrow with a renewed note of hope.

       Every day is fresh, as long as the starter lives.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Armpits of America

A photo of the Jackson brothers' childhood home in Gary,
Indiana, following Michael Jackson's death. (Wiki Commons)

A Facebook post and resulting conversation thread about Gary, Indiana, this evening got me thinking about areas of the world that are regarded as the worst places to live. Gary certainly ranks high on that list, if not at the top of it. Like many cities that are unfairly dubbed "armpits of America", Gary is riddled with vacant buildings, urban blight, joblessness, searing poverty, crime, and drugs. In an effort to lure people back to the city, properties are on sale for $1.

I find myself thinking of armpits of America as I try to wrap my head around our latest personal financial crisis. As a one-income family living in a rural area that some might regard as an armpit, our bank account is always tight. Usually, though, we can manage to make it to the next payment with a few dollars -- $11 or so -- still in the bank. This week has been different. A combination of work-related trips that require waiting periods for expense reimbursements, a snag in an effort to reconfigure the distribution of paycheck funds via direct deposit, and the IRS finally implementing the payment plan we had requested for an unusually high 2012 tax bill last week left our account in the red. A couple pending items pushed it further into the red, and an overdraft fee was slapped onto a declined payment, leaving us with, well, nothing, until the next paycheck.

I stressed out, but surprisingly not as much as I might have a year or two ago. I know a paycheck's coming in a week, that there's plenty of food in the house and garden to last until then, that we have the skills and willingness to wash clothes by hand, and that the expense reimbursements are on their way. As with every other crisis that has hit me and my husband in our eight years of marriage, we'll survive this one, too. But I look around my armpit area and wonder what has happened to those who did not.

A bank repossessed a house across the street about two months ago. A neighbor has had to put self-employment on the back burner in order to earn extra income through a wage-labor job. Another neighbor will go another year without fixing an increasingly leaky roof, and for sale signs on available land up and down our tiny rural street abound. Most of the "for sale" signs are on the same lots that were for sale when we bought our place two years ago. We're far away from Gary, but perhaps the tragic fate of urban Gary is not so distant from us.

I grew up in Muncie, in the 1960s. My first memory of Gary has to do with the Jackson Five. Michael, Jermaine, Tito, Jackie, and Marlon were wonder-kids then, rocking out "I Want You Back" and "ABC". I knew them as Indiana boys, but didn't know much about their family, their history, or the place where they were raised. Years later, as Gary fell into blight, the Rogers & Hammerstein song "Gary, Indiana" filled my ears, and later still, I remember driving between Muncie and the rich Chicago suburb where I was attending college (Evanston) through Gary with nose plugged (because of industrial smells), doors locked, and windows firmly rolled up.

And, many many years later, when I knew a little more about Gary's socio-economic situation and its placement in America's messed-up history of race politics, deindustrialization, and urban abandonment, I would either drive or take a train through Gary and think of it as a potentially nice town.

Peter Jennings offers a portrayal of Gary in a coffee-table book published in 2000. Entitled In Search of America, the portrayal paints Gary as the unfortunate cousin of its typically American counterpart Muncie and despairs over its future. A teenage boy in a class at the St. Paul, Minnesota High School for the Recording Arts further described Gary -- his hometown -- as "Ghost Town Gary".

If you don't know anyone in the city, I remember the student saying, “you’re fucked. If you don't have a weapon to protect you, you’re fucked. And you don’t want to carry anything you don’t actually need on your person.”

The teacher explained to other students that Gary was a town that had been abandoned by its industries, its employers, and ultimately its people. When the teacher asked what happened in such situations, students had some ready answers: Guns, Violence, Drugs.

Guns, violence, drugs were terms used to characterize my old neighborhood in Seattle when I first bought a house there in 1993. Many of my friends and co-workers tried to dissuade me, saying I would be too afraid to un-shutter my windows, hang out in my yard, or even leave open my front door. I'm an obstinate contrarian at heart, and their warnings motivated me to do the opposite. My windows were always un-shuttered and on warm days often propped wide open. I was always in my yard when I was home, and often I had both the front and back doors open. Kids in the neighborhood would climb a tree in the front yard and sometimes run animatedly through the house. It felt like the way home should be.

I wonder what kind of people might be drawn to Gary by the $1 property deal. Would they de-shutter the city? Plant gardens, and encourage kids to climb trees? Or would they gentrify the city, surrounding homes with high walls, security systems, and barred materials over windows? Which would be the safer alternative in the long run? Would Gary remain an armpit -- or could its people transform it into the rich, vibrant, energy-pulsing place it deserves to be?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Squash surprises

Squash surprises

One of the many side benefits of growing garlic is the fact that it is planted in late fall, usually after the first frost. It is one of the first plants to sprout, after the snow has melted, and comes into full bloom well before the tomatoes, squash, corn, beans, eggplant, and other wonders of the summer harvest even begin flowering. To capture the strongest, most savory essence, one should harvest garlic when its green stalks begin to turn brown. In northeast New York, this usually occurs in the second or third week of July. The side benefit is that once the garlic is harvested, you have an empty space full of rich soil in your garden to initiate another round of crops.

We began fantasizing about what we would do with our former garlic field as we began harvesting the bulbs in mid-July. After some discussion, we settled on a fairly basic plan of planting kale, collards, Swiss chard, salad greens, bok choy, green beans, carrots, beets, radishes, and turnips -- basically any fast-growing plant that could begin to mature before the end of September and withstand at least a light frost. Squash -- which requires at least 90 to 100 days to mature -- was not on our minds, until we pulled down a basket of seeds and discovered a plethora of unopened packages of squash.

I began laughing as my husband Jim burrowed his head in his heads and groaned. All summer, our squash has been surprising us with its mysterious shapes, unusual hues, and surprisingly crisp combinations of flavors. In the meantime, we have been wondering: what happened to the butternut, the delicata, the sweet delicata dumplings that we like so much? Did the seeds never sprout? Did they fail to grow?

I would like to blame some of the fiasco on Jim's complete disdain for good, orderly direction. Although he tries to label starter pots as he plants seeds and although I try to keep track of what seeds he plants on what days in my calendar, once the seeds go from starter pot to the ground, Jim forgets what they are. This isn't usually a problem unless you're hoping to grow more than one variety of a particular crop such as peppers, tomatoes, beans, or squash. And even with peppers, tomatoes and beans -- it's pretty easy to tell which variety a plant is producing, once the fruits form. There's a big difference, for instance, in the shape and taste of a poblano over a serrano, or a mild sweet banana pepper versus a hot habanero.

Squash, for us at least, is a different story. As two people who lived in much warmer climates most of our adult lives, we tended to think of squash as being either a zucchini or a pumpkin, with the latter being more suitable for Halloween carving than eating. Moving to New York and seeing the elaborate displays of winter squash that would overflow farmers market stalls from September through January coupled with our own readings on the nutritional benefits and storage quality of these fruits made us fans of the item for life, and over time we have been trying our hand at growing more and more of it. The many, many varieties of squash that exist, however, still bewilder us.

It helps to understand a little about how squash grows. Despite some claims on gardening web sites that squash is a difficult plant to grow, we have not had trouble with it. A member of the solanaceous family of vegetables, squash seeds usually need a fair amount of warmth to sprout. Most gardeners sow the seeds directly into soil around the first of June, or start planting the seeds in starter pots for later transplanting in mid-May. Varieties known as summer squash -- zucchini, yellow crookneck, and patty pan, among others -- will begin to flower fairly quickly and will produce fruit usually by early July. These squash varieties are extremely prolific, as tales of gardens and CSA boxes overflowing with zucchini illustrate.

The other kind of squash variety, however, is a slower grower, and more interesting for an array of reasons. These varieties -- known as winter squash -- include pumpkins, acorn squashes, big gourds, and football-shaped ovals among other varieties. They come in vivid shapes and vibrant hues of beige, green, yellow, and orange; and often feature such distinct features as bumps on the skin, stripes across the base, and shapes that range from tealights to snowman sized balls. Winter squash is easy to store, and provides an excellent source of vitamins A, B6, and C as well as such minerals as potassium. It tastes great baked, in soups, stirred into biscuits or pancakes, or baked into pies. We have come to rely on it as a major component of our winter meals.

This spring, we ordered our squash seeds last. Feeling unusually creative, we chose eight different varieties: a small orange pumpkin known as Baby Bear; a small lumpy variety of Hubbard called Blue Ballet; a green pumpkin called Buttercup; a gray-skinned kabocha called Confection; two kinds of delicata squashes; a butternut; and an acorn shaped variety called Tuffy. We also threw in a couple of types of summer squash: a yellow crookneck variety and something called zucchini that was more striped than green.

This summer, however, got off to a slow start. We planted some squash seeds that we had saved from the fruits of the previous year's harvest; they sprouted initially and then as we experienced one cold snap after another many died. In the meantime, our compost bin burst into bloom with a huge plethora of "volunteers".

Trying to maximize as many of the volunteers as we could, we transplanted the compost bin vines into our garden, and then watched with amazement as new volunteers continued to sprout, flower, and bear fruit from the edges of the compost heap. Figuring that we could never have too much squash, especially winter squash, we harvested the summer squash as it matured and then started to see winter squash growing fast, too. At the same time, though, we kept wondering why some of our favorite winter squash varieties weren't starting to slow up on plants at all. Particularly noticeable was the absence of delicata -- an oblong yellow and green striped variety -- and butternut -- a beautiful beige-brown fruit. It seemed inconceivable that the mood swings of our summer weather had prevented these squashes from growing when our garden was bursting with pumpkins, hubbards, acorns, and kabocha of various sizes and colors.

Adding to the puzzle of our summer garden of squash was a question of what was a winter squash and what was a summer one. At first, the answer seemed obvious. Anything that was light yellow, soft-skinned and small was a yellow crookneck. But when some green and white striped varieties began popping up in the compost bin, we were curious. Even though we had ordered a striped zucchini, we weren't expecting it to grow in the compost bin. We had neither planted nor bought zucchini for two years. Could these be remnants of our 2011 crop which had overwhelmed us?

One hazard of summer squash is that if it's not picked when it's small, it grows larger and larger and larger. The larger fruits often are more difficult to eat in the way that many appreciate summer squash -- lightly grilled or sautéed -- but they do make good soups, pizza crusts, breads, and cakes.

With that in mind, I cut three large yellow fruits of what I thought were yellow crooknecks to make into soup. As I cut the fruits, I noticed that while two sliced up quite easily as summer squash tends to do, the third one was tough and unyielding under the small all-purpose knife I was using, behaving more like a thicker-skinned winter squash. I put it aside, figuring we could try roasting it later and eating its innards while discarding the shell, much as we do with winter squash. I prepared the soup, which turned out to be delightfully flavorful, with the squash not cooking down to a mush but retaining some crispiness and flavor, much as a variety known as winter melon does.

In the meantime, some winter squash vines were beginning to yield big heavy fruits that I presumed were spaghetti squash, a variety that has become popular as a sort of substitute for pasta because after it has been cooked, its flesh will break up into spaghetti-like strands when forked. We figured that these squash were either coming from volunteer vines or seeds from the spaghetti squash we had harvested the previous year. Wanting to encourage the vines to produce new fruit, I cut several of the heavier fruits off and noticed that their bases had a color scheme very similar to the tough, unyielding fruit that I had presumed was an overgrown yellow crookneck squash. I began to wonder if, indeed, I had made the soup with winter -- rather than summer -- squash, and if the distinction really mattered.

To test the theory, we wrapped one of the fruits that we presumed to be spaghetti squash in foil and roasted it on the grill. My husband's first declaration was "This is spaghetti squash," but when I applied the fork test, it didn't break into noodle-like strands. Furthermore, it didn't quite taste like spaghetti squash. It had more of a pumpkin flavor. Was it the Baby Bear or the Buttercup?

About this same time, I read that squash plants often cross-pollinate, and that if you try to plant the seeds from a previous year's harvest, the seeds may produce a fruit of two or more varieties that hybridized through pollination. I began to worry that the use of the compost bin's volunteer plants coupled with our own haphazard planting of squash seeds without remembering which seeds represented which varieties was causing all of our plants to hybridize and that we would end up not with the diverse array of beautifully colored fruits we had been envisioning but more of a monochrome.

And then we discovered the seeds. Somehow, in the rush to get summer crops going after a slow start to summer, a lot of squash got planted from volunteers in the compost bin at the expense of the new seeds. I found myself laughing more in relief because the discovery convinced me that we weren't inadvertently engaging in a genetic modification of plants and offered an explanation for why we hadn't been seeing our favorite varieties coming into bloom in our garden. Having several full packs of seeds also filled me with delight because it meant I wouldn't have to buy new packets of these varieties at least for the next year. Even though seed companies warn that seeds they sell lose their germination power after a year, we have made several successful plantings with seeds from previous years.

A small green pumpkin that we decided might be either a Tuffy or Buttercup fell off its vine this afternoon. We cooked it on the grill, and found that its flesh came out as a beautiful yellow shade and had a fresh buttery sweetness, leading us to believe it is a Buttercup, which is a squash that should be allowed to cure a few weeks so that its interior flavor and outer shell toughness both improve. So we'll let the rest of these ones sit a few more weeks before diving into them again. And we'll continue to watch our vines, and dream of a brighter, more vibrant, and even more diverse array of squash to grace our garden next year.

Saturday, August 10, 2013


The word harvest literally oozes abundance. Harvest connotes brilliant blue skies, a warm sun, and baskets and baskets of fresh garden produce overflowing with goodness.

It is all that -- and it is hard work! My shoulders are aching and my neck is sore from picking tomatoes and cutting squash from the vine. And from lifting all that goodness out of the soil, walking back and forth from fields to a wagon while hauling some hefty 4-5 pound pieces of squash, and then carting the wagon across the yard with all of the day's harvest to the front deck to unload, dust off, and wash so it can be stored for future use.

Don't get me wrong. Harvesting is fun, and sort of spiritual, especially when you do have days like today of the brilliant blue sky and warm sun. At the end of the day, however, I was so exhausted that it wasn't until well after we'd had dinner and were relaxing on our deck that I remembered that I had wanted to go through our bush bean plants and pick some fresh ones for dinner.

Harvesting is one of the ways that my husband Jim's statement that "it's a good life, a hard life but good" starts to make sense.

We hadn't particularly planned to make today a day of harvesting. That's another characteristic that I'm learning about harvests. You can't plan it, entirely. When the vegetables are ready, they're ready. They don't care whether you are or not.

Our day began with our usual Saturday morning trek to the farmers market. Only this Saturday we got up extra early because Jim had made pasta from scratch and we had wanted to toss it with our garlic scape pesto and fresh cherry tomatoes from the garden to prepare a dish for one of the farmer families that had taught us so much and given us so much of their own goodwill and good spirit over the past three years. Going out into the gardens at 7:30 a.m. made me acutely aware of how different our crops look first thing in the morning when the sun is still climbing up the horizon and the night's dew is still moistening the fruits. Going out that early also made me aware that a lot of tomatoes, cucumbers, and both summer and winter squash were ripening fast. If left on the vines too long, these vegetables can either rot or become too large and less flavorful. After the market, I went for a run and then headed out into the gardens, planning to spend the afternoon staking our overflowing tomatoes and doing some weeding. In the midst of this project, tomatoes -- both red and green -- began dropping literally into my lap. Staking and weeding quickly evolved into gathering up tomatoes, as well.

As I fetched a bin for the tomatoes, I walked by our squash. It is literally everywhere -- as squash tends to be -- and vines of different varieties wove in and out of each other. Carefully treading my way through the squash so that I would not disturb the sweet potato vines, which also had decided to meander in multiple directions away from their roots, I noticed that some of the leaves on the far end of the beds seemed to have picked up a sort of mildew. I also noticed that several vines were sporting one huge squash and several smaller ones. I decided that I needed to cut the larger fruits so that the plants could put their energy into helping the smaller ones grow. So my quick trip for a bin for tomatoes became a quest also for my favorite chef's knife for cutting squash stems from their vines. And then came the third discovery: turnips had pushed themselves out of the soil beautifully round and fully mature. They had almost harvested themselves, and needed someone to pick them up.

I spent the next hour harvesting. I gathered about 30 tomatoes, and about 25 squash. I also pulled up about a dozen turnips, several carrots, and, almost as an afterthought, remembered to cut several leaves of kale for dinner. My harvesting also yielded an overgrown radish, and a couple of red onions that were almost lost in the thicket of weeds.

As the rainbow of vegetables in my wagon grew brighter and more varied, my arms began to tire and my neck began to ache. I actually had to sit down periodically and rest because of the work I was doing.

If all that wasn't enough, the weight of the squash made the wagon extremely heavy. I grimaced as I pulled it out of the garden, around the edge of the chicken coop and the compost head, and past the barn toward our house.

"What's wrong?" Jim asked me worriedly. "You look like you're crying."

"There's nothing to cry about," I said gesturing toward the wagon. "But I am tired. I can't believe how heavy these squash are."

He grinned and pulled the wagon to the edge of the deck. By sunset, we had sorted produce, gotten the tomatoes indoors, the turnips ready for washing, and the kale trimmed and cut into pieces and rinsed in a colander. The kale, with one of the squash and some corn we had bought from one of the local farmers, became our dinner -- along with a piece of striped bass and a small porgy fillet e had gotten from the local vendor.

Midway through the meal, I remembered the beans. And realized that while we had had a good day of harvesting, it was only the beginning.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Fresh, from the freezer

I was never a fan of frozen or canned food until my husband Jim and I started growing our own. Now, I find myself trolling the Internet for recipes, and asking local farmers for tips on making the fresh produce last.

Yesterday evening, I cut two oversized summer squash -- not zucchini, thankfully! -- from vines, adding to a collection of about four others on my mudroom shelves. I also went to the turnips, thinking I would pull a couple for dinner. I knelt down and saw that a collection of about two dozen had popped out of the ground all piled up on top of each other. It was time, I figured, to start thinking about winter.

Some of the my desire to freeze, can, and otherwise store is economic. The more frozen vegetables that I can keep in my freezer to use in soups, stews, or broths, the less we will spend this winter at the local farmers market and (gasp!) grocery store. Beyond economics, however, is a question of freshness and the mere joy of eating food throughout the year that you created yourselves. Last April, as we were eating the last of our potatoes from the previous fall harvest, we also bought some cold-storaged potatoes from one of the local farmers. We could swear that our potatoes -- sprouting leaves and all -- still tasted better than the ones we got at the market. Probably just because they were ours.

I am not a CSA subscriber, largely because now we grow almost all of the vegetables we eat as well as eggs. I never was a fan of such services because I felt that having a box delivered to you each week took away some of the fun of the shopping itself. But a colleague in Minneapolis shared a secret with me last winter about how she and her family had made the most of their CSA box. As the abundance of whatever vegetables were in season filled their CSA box, her family would chop, curry, and freeze, ensuring that they had a steady supply of warm savory meals throughout the winter.

I decided this year that I would try and give that method a try, using the vegetables in abundance from our garden in place of a CSA.

So one day this week -- perhaps Friday after my 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. date with my book manuscript ends -- will be chop, cook, and freeze day. Overflowing my garden right now are radishes, turnips, and squash. The two squash fruits that I cut the other night weigh six and a half pounds, total. A recipe for a squash soup calls for one and a half pounds. I figure I'll triple the recipe and make either a zucchini crust pizza or zucchini bread with whatever squash is left over. Our next door neighbor is recovering from a back injury and one of my co-workers recently had knee surgery. Both could use a fresh batch of soup. The recipe, tripled, is supposed to make about 18 cups. After we share some with our neighbor and co-worker and enjoy some ourselves, I figure we'll have about nine cups left over for freezing, easily enough for three winter meals.

Turnips pose a different kind of challenge. The variety we grow are known as Hakurei, and are considered a "salad" turnip. Although we like to wrap them in foil and cook them like a baked potato, my search for Hakurei turnip recipes revealed that many people recommend eating them raw. Unlike the kinds of purple and pink storage turnips that show up in markets between Thanksgiving and Easter, Hakurei turnips also do not store particularly well. One of the farmers at the Saratoga Farmers Market, in fact, advised us to just take off the tops and store them in the refrigerator for one or two weeks.

The two dozen or so that literally leaped into my hands the other night would take us about a month to eat in the way that we like them. I did find several recipes, however, for turnip purees as well as a creamy turnip soup. So I'm going to do two things: I'm going to make the turnip soup, and I am going to use our freezer wrapper to create one bag of frozen turnips -- just to see if they work. Hakurei turnips grow fast and well into late fall, so we plan to continue planting and eating them fresh for as long as I can.

       The soup recipe, by the way, looks to make about five cups of soup from four turnips. So I figure that if I turn the entire two dozen into soup, we'll be able to pretty much duplicate the summer squash strategy. So that gives us three more winter meals. If you think in terms of winter lasting 24 weeks and one night of each of those weeks being a "soup from the freezer" night, I've got one-fourth of those weeks covered with summer squash and turnips. And there's still nine different kinds of winter squash in the garden coming into full bloom.

The radishes are rather tricky. We are growing an Easter egg variety, which produces lovely colorful pink, red, and purple skinned radishes that have a sweet and spicy flavor. Unfortunately, the radishes also grow very fast and tend to toughen and lose their sweetness if they're left in the ground too long. Like Hakurei turnips, they also lack a shelf life, and will last in a refrigerator for about a week. However, I have read that you can store them in dirt or sand at about 32 degrees, creating a mini root cellar of sorts. So I might give that tactic a try. I also would like to pickle some radishes for use with some of the Indian- and Mexican-inspired dishes we eat, and perhaps make a soup, if I can find a recipe.

In the meantime, Jim is planning to can our first batch of salsa verde using the green chili peppers that just began filling our plants and some of the multitude of green tomatoes on the 168 or so tomato plants that we planted last year.

These are our ideas for now. Stay tuned for more.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Long-term harvests

My husband Jim and I harvested our first potatoes of the season two nights ago. We had spent the afternoon working in the garden: I was staking and tying tomatoes, and Jim was beginning a fall planting of beets in the area where he had just harvested our 400 heads of garlic. Somewhere in the middle of our labors, we decided it might be nice to have potatoes for dinner. So Jim grabbed a shovel, chose one of the more withered plants (a sign that the plant had produced all it could) and dug it up. Seven perfectly round Yukon Gold potatoes tumbled out of the soil and into Jim's spade.

We were ecstatic, of course. "There's something so spiritual about the first potato harvest," Jim remarked, as we feasted on our first crop later, along with a fresh tomato, cucumber, Swiss chard, and eggplant plucked straight from the garden. "It's like you dig down and you don't know what you're going to get."

Jim posted a photo to Facebook, and drew a series of likes. He also received one query from a friend of mine in my hometown, Muncie, Indiana, which provoked an interesting conversation.

Our friend wanted to know why we went through the work of planting potatoes and then digging them up. Why not just put them in tires or burlap sacks, or even shredded up newspapers? Potatoes aren't picky. They'll grow almost anywhere.

Mulling the query took me back two years to the first season of our experiments at Squashville. We first saw the house and land that we now own on the last day of September 2010. Maybe it was the golden color of the falling leaves or the brilliant blue sky, but we took one look at the house, the barn, and the back yard and decided that this was the house we were going to buy. As Murphy's Law would have it, Jim suffered a herniated disk about four days later, and struggled with pain as we visited several other properties for sale, had a contractor give us some estimates on repairs and improvements to the house, and finally made an offer. The offer took several months to complete, and by the time we moved in, four feet of snow blanketed the back yard. When the snow melted in April, we went outdoors to see what we had gotten ourselves into. We had a big back yard, whose dominant feature was a dirt bike track.

To make a long story short, the soil was dead. I'm not sure we even had what could be called soil. It was dust, and sand.

We didn't have the $10,000 to $15,000 that we guessed it would cost to re-landscape the yard, and I didn't want that kind of heavy machinery work anyway. Our neighbors told us that the only thing that could grow well in the backyard was squash, and rhubarb. We stared at our yard, and at the chicken coop and barn, and felt like the land had to be able to grow more than squash and rhubarb. So we decided to buy bags of topsoil and start trying to grow things in raised beds. Somewhere along the way, we learned that planting potatoes was an even better alternative because potatoes return nutrients to soil, and because potatoes need to be hilled in order to produce new spuds, the very process of planting them generate topsoil. The topsoil can be purchased in bags (which gets expensive), but what gives the topsoil lasting value is composted matter, primarily manure from animals who are primarily herbivores. This group of animals includes goats, sheep, cows, and chickens.

We found out that we could get some cow manure from a local farmer, if we could procure a dump truck. The contractor who had worked on our house to bring it up to code had a better idea: his friend, Armand, had a dump truck and good access to sheep manure. He brought over a truck load three times in the first year, each for $140. In the meantime, we also were spending quite a bit of money on topsoil. So we started thinking of ways that we could generate compost ourselves. By the end of the first season, we had saved so much food and yard waste that our compost heap resembled a beginner's ski slope in height. Over the winter, it broke down slowly and by the end of the second growing season it had become soil.

In the meantime, we were making friends with farmers who sold us beef, goat, pork and chicken at the local farmers market. They were glad to give us their animals' poop, if we were willing to scoop it up ourselves. We began visiting their farms three to four times a year, armed with a box of heavy-duty contractor bags. We figured out that our car could hold about 200 pounds of manure so we would sometimes make two or three trip in a week. It was a stinky, smelly endeavor, but the manure was free.

In the first two years that we planted potatoes, we spent several hundred dollars. The work -- which Jim did the bulk of -- was laborious and intensive. He would do it knowing that the soil would eventually rebound and become healthy on its own.

This year, we didn't have to buy topsoil. We had procured enough goat and cow manure, gotten fertilizer from our chickens' manure, and created enough composted matter to plant and hill potatoes on our own. In our first year, about nine pounds of seed potatoes yielded some 70 pounds of potatoes. Last year, our second year, we planted about 25 pounds of seed potatoes. Our yields were lower because of a drought, but we still ended up with enough potatoes to feed us through April as well as enough leftover spuds to plant this year.

In the meantime, we also were building relationships with local farmers who, once they started to realize that we were serious, began sharing advice and tips on how and when to plant, techniques of hilling, and long-term storage.

We had read that you could plant potatoes in tires, trash cans, old newspapers, and burlap sacks. We chose the harder path of digging into the ground and then hilling the potatoes because we wanted to replenish the soil.

Our short-term goals are to grow potatoes that we can either eat, give as gifts or use to generate seed for the following year Our long-term goals are to create topsoil. Doing it as we're doing it is hard. At the same time, nothing can replace the spiritual sensation of driving spade into soil -- soil that we've created ourselves -- and emerging with a mess of new, pale yellow potatoes.