Sunday, September 28, 2014


My husband Jim and I spent today at the Hudson Valley Garlic Festival in Saugerties, New York. The trip to Saugerties, according to the fastest route, was about an hour and a half. We decided to take a more scenic route, which made the trip an hour or so longer. That long road trip, coupled with the overwhelmingly heady sensation of sampling about a dozen different varieties of garlic, created a day trip that I will long remember.

I like to think of garlic as an aromatic. It, like onions, is a member of the allium family. This group of plants also includes shallots and leeks. My style of cooking often involves these flavorful vegetables as a base. Fairly typically, I will heat oil, chop up a couple of cloves of garlic and/or some onion and fry it in the hot oil until the air around the cooking pan is fragrant. Then, it is time to add the main element of the dish: whatever meat or vegetable or grain will comprise the key ingredient.

Garlic, as a result, is an important but perhaps under-recognized element of each daily meal. It was a treat, as a result, to spend a few hours hobnobbing with aficionados and to get a sense of what can happen when this base ingredient moves out of the sidelines and takes center stage.

Our entry into the garlic festival began with a stop at the first booth, manned by a garlic entrepreneur known as Jake. The booth, like many others, featured wooden boxes of both loose and bagged bulbs of garlic in several varieties, and small dishes set out in front. In the small dishes were bits of raw, fresh garlic diced into pieces that we perhaps a quarter-inch in diameter. Next to the dishes were toothpicks. Visitors were encouraged to select a toothpick, pierce one of the diced bits, and pop it into the mouth.

My first taste was of a fairly mellow German white variety. It was fresh and sharp. I felt both the freshness and sharpness penetrate my tastebuds, waking them up. In the meantime, my husband was sampling a different variety: a hard neck variety of garlic known as Georgian Fire. "You've got to try this, hun," he exclaimed. "I pierced one of the pieces and felt the fire slip down the back of my throat."

"Wow," I exclaimed.

From Georgian Fire, we moved to sampling what are known as soft-necks: a Chamiskuri variety that came from one of the former Soviet Republics and the famous (or infamous) Elephant Garlic, which is known for its large cloves and its mild flavors.

From each, along with several other types of hard neck garlics, came the sharp freshness over and over again.

To return to an unanswered matter, the difference between a hard necked garlic and a soft necked one has to do in part with the stem. Garlic grows from a clove planted about four inches deep into the ground. From the clove sprouts a green shoot that eventually stretches upward about four feet and thickens and dries into a stalk. If the stalk is firm like a small stick, the variety is a hard-neck. If the stalk is soft and pliable like a piece of twine, you've got a soft neck. Hard necks also produce a scape, which is a long green stem, just as the bulb growing from the clove underneath the ground begins to mature. Growers learn quickly to cut off the scapes -- partly to promote the bulb's growth and partly because the scapes are a delectable savory treat in and of themselves.

Most of the local farmers in our part of New York grow primarily hard neck garlics because soft necks are more vulnerable to cold. However, even if the soft necks are vulnerable, they tend to store better, retaining their aromatic headiness up to a year after their harvest. We wanted to give these soft necks a try, and a consultant with the Garlic Seed Foundation encouraged us to give it a try. A little bit of extra mulch would help protect it through the winter as long as we remembered to start pulling off those layers of mulch once the snow melted in April.

We left the garlic festival with a pound of the Chamiskuri soft necks, a pound of Elephant cloves, and a pound of the peppery Georgian Fire that had first kicked our taste buds alive. We also left feeling the heat of the late September sun baking through our skin and the sharp hot fragrances of the miniature pieces of garlic that we had sampled warming our stomachs.

I rarely eat garlic raw. Like most people, I see it as something that requires roasting, frying, or baking in some form or fashion. I also see it as an enhancement to dishes, not a singular ingredient. But eating it raw and by itself opened up an amazing discovery. Garlic, by itself, smells and tastes good. It is powerful in its strength and its freshness. What I had sampled had awakened my taste buds and kindled my appetite. It had cleansed my palate and made me eager for more.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Finding the Source

My name means Snow, which my mother told me throughout my childhood was Princess of the Snow. I was always embarrassed by the princess reference because it seemed pompous and girly. These days, it's funny when sometimes people call me "princess" -- as a sign of affection, mostly. I like it. I did like the idea that my name meant snow, and as I grew older, I realized that the snow references also were tied to the Himalaya mountain range. I saw the Himalaya briefly in 1973 when our family went to India and took a trip to Simla, where my mother was born. I felt -- or imagined -- some connection to the mountains.

Later still, I learned that the Ganges River, which Hindus refer to as Ganga, had its source high up in the Himalaya mountains and that you could actually trek to the source. I never felt very connected to the Hindu religion -- it was a little too offbeat for the Midwest sensibility all around me -- but I longed to see the source. I think actually I wanted to climb into the mountains, and I felt that seeing the source of Ganga would be an appropriate excuse.

Growing up in the Midwest didn't give me a lot of opportunities to be around mountains, but I always felt that I would enjoy them. I remember feeling very excited about being near the mountains when I had an internship in Boise, Idaho, and loving the Cascades and Olympic mountains when I moved in 1988 to Seattle.

I got an opportunity to trek to the source of Ganga in 1999 when I traveled to India as a graduate student, as part of a study abroad group organized by a couple of professors from University of North Carolina. By this point, I knew that the town where one began the trek was known as Gangotri and that it was at about 10,000 feet. I also knew that the source of the river was actually a glacier, with the name of Gaumukh, and that it was all but impossible to get to the source -- the point of origin -- because the size of the glacier would vary with the seasons, which meant that the source was never a fixed point, a point that becomes obvious when one looks at the concept of an origin from the perspective that Michel Foucault offers in his essay Nietzsche, Genealogy, History. This essay teaches that there is no origin, only beginnings, with emphasis on the plural. Still, I was excited to make the trek.

The hike was 18 kilometers (about 12 miles) one way. It was supposed to be a relatively easy walk, but I was out of shape and relatively easy on a mountain trail at 10,000 feet has a meaning of its own. I was in my mid-thirties, and I was with a group of students who were mostly in their teens. I really could not keep up with them, but I wanted to do the trip.

There were tea houses along the way -- which were essentially huts built into the mountain where shepherds and other mountain folk would live. Serving tourists was a big part of their livelihood, and the tea and samosa and hot paratha that we could get at these rest stops were quite nourishing.

Most people walked to the base of the glacier, and stayed overnight in an ashram like guest house at the base of the glacier. We were going to do the same.

Our group of some fifteen to eighteen people kind of split into clumps. There were a few very kind people in the group who walked with me, mostly older men. One of them was the study abroad group leader Afroz. The other was a graduate student like myself, whose name I'm not sure of. I think it was Vinnie. Anyway, I caught up with a group at the last teahouse before the guest house. One of the girls in the group had gotten some altitude sickness and while she wasn't seriously ill, she didn't want to continue. She decided to stay overnight in the tea house at the shepherds' invitation. This made me a bit skeptical, but Afroz queried the men and gave his approval. It worked out okay, from what I could tell.

I then started walking with Afroz. He and I were talking, and he was putting me at my ease. Throughout the trip, I had sort of felt like an older person. I had had a chip on my shoulder because I am Indian and I wasn't particularly pleased at the way that a bunch of college-age kids were handling their first trip outside the country. I also felt like a prude because I didn't approve of smoking or of women drinking in India in public, unless it was some place like a bar. Afroz treated me like an equal. We talked about research, scholarship, and he encouraged me to keep on exploring my roots. He was Muslim so I talked to him a little about how he perceived the place of Muslims in India.

Then, we hit a point on the trail where a rock slide had occurred. What had been a fairly safe and wide mountain trail had become reduced to a narrow treacherous path that could only be crossed single file. Afroz panicked and said we had to go back. I knew, however, that darkness was coming and that we couldn't make it back. I felt that if we were careful we could get across safely. My knowledge of the Ten Essentials from hiking in the Cascade Mountains kicked in. I asked Afroz if I could walk in front of him, and I held his hand so he could cross after we made it. He was shaking like a leaf and worrying about his partner. I told him that if we kept our own thoughts focused on safety, everyone would arrive safely. My prognosis proved to be correct. Everyone arrived safely.

That was one of the most empowering and strengthening moments of my life. Earlier, on our bus ride up to Gangotri, we had passed through the town of Tehri, which was controversial because a dam had been built there in the 1980s, displacing villages of people. Unlike the lively gurgling sparkling Ganga that characterized most of the ten-hour drive between Rishikesh and Gangotri, the river was dead in Tehri. The water was thick and mosquitoes swarmed the air. The air felt hot and humid, and there seemed to be a fetid smell. I realized that this was the impact of the dam. It had killed a civilization. I remember that I thought as we drove out of Tehri and up toward Gangotri that this was a good reason to be religious. One could link the religious values of Hinduism to the environmental activism that would restore land and life. I could get excited about this kind of a politics, a politics of justice, rooted in the land.

There's a lot more to the story of Gangotri. It's amazing that I have never told it. I have thought it over and over since 1999. That was a difficult period of my life, and I was a difficult person to be around. I had a huge chip on my shoulder then. But maybe when the rocks slid on the mountain that is part of the range from which my name is derived that chip began to loosen. The next day, upon reaching Gaumukh and getting to the glacier's current source, I did a little puja for my parents. That was my mother's request. I bought some incense and flowers from a shepherd, and I placed them in the snow. As I spoke to God, the mountains around me seemed to hover around me, offering me a protective quilt. I felt as if I were them and they were me. As the incense flared with a match light, (and the lighter was provided by one of the smokers in the group, which is ironic that yet someone else whom I had looked down upon came to my aid), I heard a noise. Snow was tumbling down a cliff, the result perhaps of an avalanche. Some people shuddered. I knew somehow that we would be safe.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Joyful Clutter of Abundance

I live these days in chaos. Six cats tromp up and down the stairs of my house, chasing each other and their tails. Two young goats graze in my backyard, and one of the seventeen hens that lives in our chicken coop just gave birth to twins. Five roosters herald the sunrise in a harmonic chorus, and it's not unusual to see wild turkeys tromping across the yard.

With the cavalcade of animals also has come abundance in other forms: our garden is overflowing with fresh produce. Our kitchen is full of vegetables that need to be picked or preserved soon, and tiny jars of seeds I'm saving from this year's harvest to start next year's crops are scattered hither thither. Beyond the garden, our house is also filled with gifts of books, furniture, pots and pans, and kitchen appliances from our parents, and my office now boasts a stunning collection of feminist literature -- thanks to the generous donation of a retiring professor.

I feel blessed with all these gifts, and I know I want them in my life. I'm just not sure how and when and where I'm going to make space for all of them.

Themes of scarcity and abundance run through my life -- and often surface in my writing. I first encountered the pairing of these concepts in 2001 during a seminar at the Esalen retreat center in Big Sur, California, while attending a weeklong Anti-Career Workshop: Creating the Life You Love. In 2001, life felt perhaps as Thomas Hobbes described it: solitary, nasty, brutish, and short. I felt as if there were so much to do, and as if I had no choice but to do it all alone. During the workshop, I began to gain an appreciation for the fact that I had lived -- and was currently living -- in beautiful places, always had been able to do work that I enjoyed, and even when lonely never was entirely alone. Looking back, I see that during that time I was living with the glass half-empty and that the years -- post Esalen -- were about making a shift toward seeing life and its opportunities as, always, the glass half-full.

One story about abundance from Esalen comes back to my mind. The workshop facilitator was describing abundance as always being able to create more, of not running short, of always rejuvenating one's self, of always finding ways to accumulate. I don't think he meant accumulate in a material sense but more in a sense of gaining more joy, more creativity, more fulfillment. Still, I asked the question, "What do you do with all of this abundance? What do you do when you have too much?"

The facilitator's answer was simple: You start giving it away.

That credo also makes enormous sense, and over the years I have given away quite a bit: full wardrobes, box loads of books, enough furniture cumulatively over the decades to furnish a mansion, cars, appliances, and artwork, among other things. Not to mention monetary donations.

These days, I give other things away: food, time, knowledge. I earn a salary as a member of a college faculty, but I have no trouble doing a lot of additional work for free. One 'ism built into the credo of giving is that what one gives comes back ten times greater.

And so I wonder is the wealth of knowledge (from the books), functionality (from the household items), food (from the garden), life (in the form of all the animals and, of course, the garden, too) and future growth (in the form of seeds) the "return" ten times over. It feels like more than ten times. But the new question surfaces: What does one do with it all?

I thought about this point in my office as I looked at the three tall piles of women's studies books collected from the boxes left behind by the retiring professor. I was so grateful to see these books because they included many classic titles that I have yet to read as well as provocative collections of works on activism, social movement theory, black feminists, multiculturalism and gender, and numerous other topics. I began to look forward to the time when I could go through them one-by-one, soaking in their wisdom.

And I realized, well, fact of the matter is this: I probably will not get through even a quarter of them. I read fast but not as much as I would like. The academic life is one of solitude, reading and contemplative writing in theory. In reality, it is a long, busy day of sound bite style activities: prepping classes that one teaches, responding to e-mails, attending meetings, applying for conferences, grants, papers, and other projects; household tasks, financial responsibilities, and, oh yes, your scholarship sandwiched in there somewhere. The great boon and bane of this frantic life is that it is largely one that one creates one's self. It is full, it is rich, it abounds with clutter.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Ice Buckets

I've been trying to get my head around the latest Facebook fad to engulf the universe. This is something called the Ice Bucket Challenge, which as I understand it, requires someone who receives the challenge to either donate $100 to a favorite charity or pour a bucket of ice over the head. For quite awhile, I dismissed the challenge as something of a celebrity spoof. If people who could spare $100 or more would do so to benefit a cause such as research on Lou Gehrig's Disease, all the better. And, I figured that since most of my circle of friends knows -- hopefully at least -- that my current condition of life is one of being cash poor and food rich, I wouldn't be challenged in the first place.

My hackles rose, however, when I learned from a close friend -- okay, my sister -- that the Ice Bucket Challenge was evolving into a bit of a popularity contest, particularly among teens, such as her children. Only the more exciting and risqué aspect of the challenge wasn't about donating the $100; it was about the brain-numbing thrill of dousing yourself with ice. My close friend -- okay, my sister, sorry, sister, that I am divulging the source -- has decided to respond to the challenge her daughters are receiving by donating the money for them and letting them indulge in the ice pouring exercise. That raised some questions for me: What are we, as a society, learning through this experience?

All right, before we go any further, I should issue a preachy alert. Anytime one starts talking about giving, some sense of moral piety is bound to emerge. And, so if it surfaces in the words that follow, my apologies in advance.

My flip answer to my sister was that I didn't have $100 to give to anyone right now (except National Grid, Time Warner Cable, Verizon Wireless and the countless other monthly providers of services whom I must satisfy with cash every month), and that if anyone challenged me, they were probably going to get a piece of my mind.

And, in a sense, that was the challenge: How to make the "piece of my mind" meaningful to someone other than myself.

I have given money to charitable causes -- and less charitable ones -- quite freely in the past. These days, because I lack money, I try to give time, food, and knowledge about various life skills that I happen to possess by virtue of living as long as I have. As the small food-growing operation in our backyard garden/farm/homestead continues to expand, I find myself feeling that it is important to remember not to sell the bounty of our harvests before: first, making sure that the nutritional needs of my husband and myself and all the residing animals on our land are met; and second, ensuring that we're donating at least 10 percent of what we raise to local food pantries. Anything that's surplus after that, in my view, can be gifted or sold. A piece I read by Garrison Keillor on "wisdoms" seemed to echo this point. He says that the credo of generosity says to give all you've got, but that if you do that, you'll have nothing and others will have to give to you. So don't give everything you've got, he advises. At the same time he notes that most people can give 10 percent.

But what is 10 percent? How is it measured? What if your wealth is not in the form of cash? What if you are a six-figure income earner with nothing left over after paying the bills that are helping you amass your wealth? What if the most valuable asset you've got is a skill you can teach, a practice you can promulgate? Why, I wonder, are these forms of wealth not figured into the traditional 10 percent figure of tithing or the $100 versus a bucket of ice over the head? Could an ice bucket challenge allow for these kinds of giving?

As some of you know, I have been a supporter of President Obama, and volunteered for his campaigns for the presidency in both 2008 and 2012. I will come clean now and acknowledge that the reason I did this had less to do with his politics and more to do with the value he placed on the $1 and $5 donations he sought particularly in 2008. The value of contributors was measured less in terms of the amount of money they could give and more in terms of the number of people they could mobilize for his campaign. Reading this logic in an Atlantic magazine article in June 2008 suddenly opened up a whole new scenario of political change in my mind. If all the poor of the country and the world gave $1 and urged their friends, neighbors, and family members to also give $1 and to tell everyone else, the insensitive 1 percenters would have no match. The tables of power would be reversed in an instant.

Reality has not quite followed this vision, but I do feel that politics in America at least has gained a certain dimension of egalitarianism through application of this logic. With the ice bucket challenge, however, there seems to be a push back. You are valued if you have $100 to give. You are punished if not because the bucket of ice symbolizes the quality of your heart. I don't oppose giving or ice, but I wonder if there is a way to revise the language so that we all are giving the best that we've got without worrying about how the dollars and cents measure up.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Writing Process Blog Tour

I decided to join the Writing Process Blog Tour after receiving a request from another writer last week. The idea behind this tour is to share some views about one's writing process, and to tag three other writers to join the tour by posting next week. I have not had a chance to circulate a request so I'm hoping three readers of this blog might be inspired enough to contact me and let me tag them. We have been asked to consider the following questions:

1. What am I working on?
2. How does my writing differ from others of its genre?
3. Why do you write what you do?
4. How does your writing process work?

So here goes:

1. What am I working on?
Currently, I am working on trying to get inspired. I mean that in more than a flippant way. I have been working on a book project over the past several years that, if all continues to go well, will be published in the fall of 2015. The project began as a doctoral dissertation, which earned me my PhD in 2007. It evolved into a strong and highly readable book manuscript from 2011 to 2013, after I floundered with trying to decide what to do with it for a few years. I was fortunate to have been able to make contact with an excellent university press, and the support of their editors and two external reviewers have made the manuscript stronger and stronger. I just received some comments and am working on a final set of revisions, and am looking forward to seeing the book in print.

I am proud of the work, and I do feel that it will receive a warm reception when it is finally released. But the book has taken a very long time to develop, and as you might guess I am feeling the fatigue. I do have a second book project in waiting, and an idea for a third project. I also have several short articles and contributions to edited compilations that are in progress. But the past year has been a hard one emotionally and financially, and I am feeling a bit burned out. I am looking for ways to reconnect with my writer-self, so that I can seek some new energy and intellectual stimulation that hopefully will start to reinvigorate me.

2. How does my writing differ from others of its genre?

I would describe my writing as a hybrid of narrative non-fiction and academic auto-ethnography. I integrate an interdisciplinary mindset into my research and my writing, but my writing is not ponderous or dull. Before I entered academia, I worked as a daily newspaper journalist. That training made me into a storyteller, and when I was able to release myself from the constraints of journalistic writing, I found that many of its sensibilities -- organizational styles, short paragraphs, measured uses of quotes -- had become organic to me. The style persisted through a master's program and a doctoral program, to the point that when I would try and mimic more conventional ways of writing academically, my advisors would tell me to stick with what I do best. I do my best to do.

On the narrative non-fiction end, my writing differs because it is scholarly. I hesitate to say academic because it is not writing that seeks acceptance within academic constraints but rather writing that uses the skills that scholars acquire to theorize, pose curious questions, investigate particular situations, and come to personal and sometimes forceful conclusions.

Overall, I write to be read and I would be quite disappointed if someone refused to read my work because it was either "not academic enough" or "too academic".

3. Why do you write what you do?

This is a rather difficult question. I would offer two answers. The first is that I like to share with the world the things that I do. While I have worked to get inspired, I have blogged about growing food, about researching and teaching hip-hop, about the politics of sustainability, and about my quests to maintain a sense of health and fitness for life through moving my body. These are daily pursuits. Lately, I have been interested in writing more about teaching practices because a large part of how I earn my living comes through teaching. I experiment and innovate, and it is this freedom to experiment and innovate that I enjoy most about teaching. Grading papers -- not my favorite part. I feel like I have created some interesting activities in classrooms that I would like to narrate to others.

The second answer is that I want readers to have an opportunity to know about the world I have experienced, and to consider that world from the lens that I offer them, at least provisionally. I grew up as the eldest daughter of immigrants from India in the 1960s in the Midwest at a time when immigrants from India were few and far between. I was born in the United States, which made me American. But my identity and my place in the U.S. has always been ambiguous. I am a permanent "no fit" person, and it was only when I hit the half-century mark that I began to feel comfortable in that role. Being a no-fit offers a way to see the world differently, and an obligation (dare I say moral obligation) to tell the stories of what one sees.

4. How does your writing process work?

I have two daily practices: I write three pages of longhand in the morning, and I write at least 750 words electronically at night. Followers of Julia Cameron might recognize both of these practices as versions of morning pages. I began the longhand habit in 1998, and I joined in late 2012. The idea is to use the morning stretch to outline and hash out ideas, and the evening stint to generate sharable prose. The writings in these practices often do not dovetail with each other, which is okay with me for now. Years of morning pages have helped me draft essays, write course syllabi, outline books and book chapters, and generally take care of my life. The work that I began in earnest with in April 2013 has led to a fairly vigorous blogging practice, and some good work. I do feel that I need to add a third daily practice, which is to go to a library or a coffeeshop for a couple of hours each day to do some quiet reading and writing. I feel that that practice will help tap the wells of inspiration so that they start flowing again.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Farmer or gardener?

Gardener or farmer?
I've been stumbling over how to articulate the meaning of these two terms over the past couple of years as our family's emotional, financial, and physical investments in growing vegetables and fruits and raising chickens and small livestock has increased. I think about these categories as I walk through my yard to gather food for an evening dinner or to pull weeds or amass a big basket of tomatoes for canning. And, I wonder, am I walking through a yard? Or am I walking through a farm?
Out of curiosity, I googled the definition of farmer tonight. I came up with a fairly broad range of hits, all of which seemed to unite, oddly, around a singular and somewhat capitalistic theme. A farm is a source of income. A farmer is one who works on a farm. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is even more specific. Its website on Farm Household Well-being provides a glossary that states: "A farm is defined as any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the year. " In short, if you're growing food but not selling it, you are technically not a farmer. You are ... well, what are you? 
That seems to be an interesting question. We will have farm income this year -- about $200 from the weekly sale of a dozen eggs that my husband makes to a colleague at the local food pantry where we both volunteer. So, I suppose that's a start. We also receive inquiries from friends and colleagues occasionally as to whether we sell at the local farmers markets or whether we might have some particular product for sale. I tend to see these inquiries as not particularly serious. Everyone's curious about what other people are doing, and asking such questions such as whether we'd sell some turnips seems like a good way to open up a conversation. 
More to the point, however, is our own motivation. We put a lot of work into our food-growing endeavors. But we have no large aspirations to create a market for our produce. We mostly want to enjoy the food that we raise for our own consumption, share it with friends when opportunities arise to do so, and make some regular donations to food banks that always are in need of fresh produce. The last thing I want to do is to try and put a value on this endeavor in the form of retail purchases.
So does this make us gardeners? According to Wikipedia, "Gardening is the practice of growing and cultivating plants as part of horticulture. In gardens, ornamental plants are often grown for their flowers, foliage, or overall appearance; useful plants, such as root vegetables, leaf vegetables, fruits, and herbs, are grown for consumption, for use as dyes, or for medicinal or cosmetic use. Gardening is considered to be a relaxing activity for many people." Without the immediate link to bringing the food to market, it does seem that "gardener" is an appropriate way to describe my husband and myself. But relaxing activity? I find myself puzzling over that point. 
Recently, I arrived late at a party. I attributed my lateness to the fact that I had been working in the gardens and needed to change clothes and scrub the dirt out of my fingernails. I was not expecting any particular reaction. Yet, I was surprised when people started exclaiming, "Oh, fun!" "Good times!" "My garden is so far behind this year." Gardening for this group of people was clearly a pleasurable pastime, as it is for us. But I couldn't help wondering: "Do they realize that we live off this garden?" "Do they know that if the tomatoes or peppers or kale doesn't get planted, we probably won't eat peppers, tomatoes, or kale through the winter?" "Do they understand that this is our food?" 
The linkage that I make between "growing and cultivating plants" and food to subsist on seems to straddle a line between "relaxing activity" and "$1,000 or more of agricultural products produced and sold during the year." I have always felt that growing food is a source of income in an indirect way: When one grows one's own food, one lessens the reliance upon other food growers. Hence, money is earned through not being spent on the capitalist market. I find the question to be of deeper interest as I recall how some "real farmers" -- those who definitely earn more than the requisite $1,000 a year from the production and sale of agricultural products -- responded when I asked once whether customers of farmers markets who get inspired by the farm produce around them to grow their own end up hurting the very farmers who were their prime suppliers at a particular point in time. My question drew several laughs and one fairly insightful response. "Are you kidding? The more people grow their own food, the less we have to grow it for them. You can't believe how excited we get when we see others doing what you're trying to do." 
One last definition comes up in discussions among farmers and gardeners. The term is "homesteading" and it refers, according again to Wikipedia and numerous other online sources, to "a lifestyle of self-sufficiency." Homesteading, according to Wikipedia, "is characterized by subsistence agriculture, home preservation of foodstuffs, and it may or may not also involve the small scale production of textiles, clothing, and craftwork for household use or sale."
What does it mean, then, to be a homesteader? Is this the way of the future, of life after capitalism, when farmers cease to exist because all people are dedicated to becoming self-sufficient, a lifestyle that erodes the necessity of buying and selling produce via the market? 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Frugal Feasts

The month of August seems to offer an interesting paradox: On one hand, I walk through my gardens every evening and marvel at the fact that I have so much food that I cannot decide what to eat. On the other hand, I open my bank account in the morning and look at the diminished rate of return. I shake my head and sigh as I realize that this paycheck cycle will not be the one that will leave over enough money for such desirable trifles as running shoes, car repairs, greenhouse sheeting and lumber, or a much needed break from cooking for a dinner out. It seems that the paradox is perhaps instead a parable, a less on how to feel rich and poor all at once.

There's got to be a capitalist theory of money out there that explains the imbalance: an almost over-abundance food, a scarcity of cash. August (and July) also are difficult months for food pantries and providers of social services because the demand for assistance goes up. "School's out," one individual who works at a local food pantry explained. "More bodies at home, more mouths to feed."

And more people on vacations, and less likely to give.

A year ago, I had a hard time seeing the abundance even as the gardens were exploding with their harvest. All I could think about -- and, for good reason, worry about -- was whether or not the bills would get paid. Some grim realities were staring me in the face: a cut to the paycheck as the result of what the State of New York (which is my ultimate employer) described as the "deficit reduction program" was going to slice about $140 off my after-tax monthly income; an increase in health care premiums as the result of a new union contract was going to swipe an additional $100. On top of that, I had income taxes I owed the IRS as the result of receiving several generous (and unfortunately in the long run untaxed) grants in 2012.

In the face of this dire scenario, my husband and I made what seemed to be an audacious decision. We reconfigured the direct deposit plan for my paycheck so that a modest amount -- $50 a month -- would go into a money market and investment account we had with Charles Schwab brokerage. I didn't see how this diversion could be possible; for the past three years, we had been withdrawing money from the account in order to live. It was nearly tapped out, and my paycheck was diminishing. So how could we possibly put money back?

Somehow, we did. And a year later the modest amount that had accumulated provided enough to expand our small farm to accommodate two goats. We acquired the goats -- two boys -- along with their mother on loan as they had not quite been weaned off of her on the first day of August. They live a good happy life on the farm eating weed-ridden swathes of grassland that we hope eventually to turn into cultivated land, and generating a fair amount of what I've come to call "black gold" -- manure that contains only vegetable matter and therefore can immediately be put back into the land as a natural fertilizer and nutrient rich booster of soil.

The goats will go to a butcher in November. While that might seem crass to a vegetarian, it is another way of building abundance for those who eat meat. For now, they are part of a growing family of animals that live on our farm: six cats, five roosters, and seventeen hens. Like the goats, these animals too create wealth for the land. The hens lay an average of four dozen eggs a week, a figure that probably will come close to doubling when the birds that were babies in March begin to mature enough to lay eggs consistently sometime later this month. The hens and the roosters also generate a form of black gold, and they keep the incessant insects that dominate the Adirondacks somewhat at bay.

The cats, too, build abundance in ways that transcend their innate cuddly qualities. Despite their cute, sweet purring demeanors, they are among the planet's best hunters. For us, that has meant rodents that dominate farms and can wreak havoc in gardens are relatively under control. Without getting too graphic, I would also note that the spoils of the hunt also contribute ultimately to the creation of black gold.

When I consider how we managed to save $50 a month during a time when the net monthly
income went down by about $200, I am reminded of the paradoxical parable that August unveils. One year later, our bills have not diminished nor grown less urgent. My bank account doesn't look a whole lot better than it did in August a year ago. But we have food in the gardens, and in the chicken coop. There's plenty to eat and plenty to share. A little bit of frugality can indeed lead to a bountiful feast.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Celebrating sobriety

I broke my fast from alcohol earlier this week, ending 600-plus days of dryness with a glass of a crisp white wine. It was a beautiful summer day, and my husband Jim and I were celebrating the Hindu festival of Rakhi with our friend Caitlin. I was cooking a nine-dish vegan meal featuring the vast breadth of our summer harvest. Caitlin arrived with chocolates, some beer, and two bottles of a crisp-looking white wine. I saw the bottles cooling in the refrigerator and announced, "I think I'll have a glass of wine tonight."

I promised my husband it would only be one glass and that the glass would come deep into dinner. He in turn promised that he would not let me drink more than the one glass and would make sure that I was keeping myself well hydrated throughout the meal with apple cider and seltzer. A little before sunset, I had the one drink. And, well, what can I say? It was anti-climatic.

So what does a crisp white wine taste like after one has been dry for nearly two years? To be honest, it tasted like alcohol. Rubbing alcohol. I felt no intoxicating effect and I tasted none of the tangy sweet crispness that I had remembered with wines. I continued to sip water in between sips of the wine, partly because the wine seemed a bit difficult to swallow. I did finish the glass and at that point pretty much felt as if I were done.

What does this say about the allure of wine in our society? How much is the "fine taste of wine" a real sensation and how much of it is a story we make up in our heads?

Before I began abstaining from alcohol, I was a pretty consistent daily drinker. I would have two or three (or four or five) glasses of wine through an evening, usually beginning the sips while preparing dinner and continuing until I was ready for bed, though often I would switch from wine to whiskey or vodka on ice after the meal. It amazed me even in those days that this was widely regarded as a socially accepted practice. It seemed to me that it was something else -- an addiction, perhaps a disease? I was afraid to name the practice. I didn't want to call myself out as complicit.

Going cold turkey as I did on December 13, 2012, has been one of the greatest cleansings of my life. Without alcohol affecting my taste buds, my senses, my moods, and my brain, I have felt strong, clear-headed, direct, and fairly confident in all of my words and deeds.

But abstention, as you might guess, hasn't been easy. I didn't realize it at the time, but when I gave up alcohol, I also gave up participation in a social milieu. I no longer would meet people at bars, or feel comfortable at parties. I opted out of a pre-graduation reception that the college where I teach was hosting because one of the advertised events was a champagne toast to the new graduates. I found myself feeling guilty at large athletic events, where free beer to all finishers of such endurance events as marathons were the rewards for a job well done. In settings where I could not avoid being in the presence of people drinking (such as my cousin's wedding reception last year), I would find myself feeling chilled and unsettled. It's hard to explain that physical sensation. It was almost as if abstention was giving me a fever.

Over time, I began to relax into abstention. I can successfully sit at a bar in a pub and have a bowl full of pasta or a small pizza with a ginger ale or a root beer. I made through a friend's wedding shower at a wine bar on water alone. I can joke now about being a tee-totaler because saying I don't drink no longer feels awkward. At the same time, however, I have begun to wonder whether it would be okay to try drinking again. Moderately? A single drink on a special occasion?

I feel like the answer came through fairly clearly with those few tentative sips of what tasted like rubbing alcohol earlier this week. If there's no pleasure in the flavor of alcoholic beverages, stick with the seltzer. It's cleaner, cheaper, and healthier any time. But I also feel that there needs to be a shift in how we imagine ourselves as social creatures. We need to understand that celebrations need not be made toxic with intoxicating drinks. We need to look at those crisp lovely bottles of wine for what they are: bottles of sugar-laden, full-fat poison that will ultimately kill us if we continue to treat them as delicacies.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

From raw to royal

I wrote a few weeks ago about a six-week series of food demonstrations and tastings that my husband Jim and I had begun offering at a local food pantry as part of a goal to encourage people who live on the tightest of budgets to incorporate more fresh locally produced vegetables into their diets. We just finished our fourth session today, and so far have featured preparations of kale, Hakurei turnips, summer squash, and green beans. While we have not yet been able to encourage very many people to watch the actual cooking process, our samples and recipes have been gaining a warmer and warmer reception.

The series is teaching me quite a few things and leading to a range of thoughts about politics, health, and food security. It also is motivating me to make changes in how I cook on a nightly basis and how I value certain vegetables and fruits. It also is encouraging me to look a little more deeply into how one can create a well-stocked kitchen while subsisting on a low income.

So step-by-step, let's start with politics. Well before the seeds for this project were sown, Jim and I were trying to dispel presumptions that shopping at the farmers market and/or eating organic, fresh-from-the-farm food were privileges of the affluent. Our stake in this fight was fairly personal -- as most political battles tend to be. We discovered the value of farmers markets ourselves in the summer of 2007 when both of us were unemployed for a brief period of time and had applied and were receiving food aid in the form of an EBT card. Going to farmers markets and buying local produce not only was a healthier chance but an economically feasible one because we could buy exactly what we thought we would consume in a week. Nothing would go to waste.

A year or so later, I was working several part-time and/or temporary contract jobs, one of which was as a fitness coach at a local Curves. My work shift on some days coincided with the farmers market, but understanding the budgetary and health value of purchasing produce at such markets, the Curves manager would cover for me for about forty-five minutes so I could get down to the market. And another year later, as I was still working several contract jobs, I found myself researching environmental justice and coming to a realization that there was a direct link between economically underprivileged neighborhoods and obesity. One study in Seattle, where I was living at the time, had found that people who lived in the generally poorer, more inner city neighborhoods south of the Lake Washington ship canal were generally about fifteen pounds heavier than those who lived in the more affluent northern neighborhoods. That insight was staggering to me for both personal and political reasons: I was a resident of a south of the ship canal neighborhood, and despite my high level of education and deep commitment to physical fitness and health, I was about twenty-five to thirty pounds overweight. These insights led me to theorize what is perhaps obvious: If people can find fresh, local affordable options for food (or even better yet, grow it themselves), rates of poverty, hunger, malnutrition, and obesity would drop significantly.

That memory rang itself back into my consciousness this morning as I handed clients of the local food pantry dixie cups filled with green beans that I had gathered from my garden the previous night. I prepared the beans in four different ways, starting with simply washing them, snapping them into bite-size pieces with my hands, and serving them raw.

"Wow," said one woman who was waiting in line, "what a treat. I don't usually eat healthy things like this."

She then shook her head and looked me in the eye. "You probably can tell by the way I look."

"We're trying to get you to eat healthy," I responded.

I went on to explain that a pint of green beans cost between $3 and $5 at the farmers market. Unlike the cheaper versions that could be purchased at grocery stores, however, the beans that were fresh from the soil would last considerably longer. "You know that they're fresh when you can snap them into pieces like these ones."

For the second preparation, I emphasized the simplicity of raw with one added touch: I steamed the beans in a bit of water. "You know that they're ready when their skin turns a bright green," I explained, noting that the $3 pint of green beans probably would make at least two or three meals.

"What did you put in them to make them taste so good?" one person asked.

"Water," I replied. "Just a little bit of water."

The third preparation emphasized a medley of flavors. I added oil, fresh onion, cabbage and cherry tomatoes that I quartered to the basic green beans. "This meal would cost about $2 to prepare," I explained. "There's nothing in it but fresh vegetables."

For the fourth and final preparation, I made the same mix of vegetables as I had for the third preparation. I added a simple twist: spices from India. I started with about one-eighth of a teaspoon of turmeric, which I added to the oil and allowed to froth as the oil heated up. I then sautéed the onions, added the beans and cabbage, and then two more spices: one-eighth of a teaspoon of ground cumin and the same amount (more or less) of coriander. I finished the dish by tossing in cherry tomatoes, once again chopped into quarters.

"Wow," said the intake officer at the food pantry's front desk, "You went from raw to royal."

"You know what this would go good with?" added one woman, a client of the food pantry?


"Brown rice."

I couldn't agree more. Before making the final dish, I had given some thought about how to present it. My fear was that the spices would add too much complexity to the dish and put it out of the price range of the food pantry clients. After thinking the issue through, however, I realized that most of the spices I use cost about $3 per jar and that a little bit of spice can go a long way.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Learning to love your veggies

I grew up remembering vegetables as foods to be tolerated, not savored. I would like to blame this memory of vegetables on the bland diets of the Midwest, but I can't really do that as a child of Indian immigrants whose mother was not only a fabulous cook but also a stay-at-home mom up until her children's early teen years. Somewhere in adulthood, my opinion of vegetables moved from toleration to respect, and then from excitement and finally to all-out love. These days, as I prepare meals, I think less about the "main course" and more about the sides. What vegetables will we eat? How many different colors can I sneak onto the dinner plate? How shall I prepare them? Can we do more than one dish of greens?

Translating this love for vegetables has become a goal of sorts through a six-week series of food preparations and tastings that my husband Jim and I are doing for the food pantry at the Franklin Community Center in Saratoga Springs. The series grew out of a collection of thoughts (seeds, if you will) centered on how social justice through food security: encouraging donations of healthy, local produce to food pantries and other social service organizations; helping recipients of such donated items understand the foods in terms of their affordability and nutritional value; and, finally, diversifying the pool of "typical" shoppers at farmers markets as a way of making the credo of "from farm to fork" more than just a buzzword for the affluent.

When my husband proposed that he and I prepare foods that we grow in our back yard and offer recipes and free tastings to food pantry regulars, the response was enthusiastic. But with the enthusiasm came some warnings. The preparations had to be very simple, involve no more than four or five ingredients, and should feature vegetables that, unlike, say bitter melon and kohlrabi, are easily recognizable.

Last week, we kicked off the series with the featured vegetable: kale. We steamed one batch in water, added some lemon juice to a second batch, and apple juice to a third batch. We handed out samples, which people politely tried and seemed to like. We timed the preparations and realized that we had scored very high on the scales of simplicity and affordability. The dishes we served cost less than $1 to make, and the preparation time -- including washing and chopping up the vegetables -- was about three minutes.

But would these dishes make people fall in love with kale? Sampling the leafy, fibrous greens myself, I had my doubts. The kale we made was like the infamous spinach that a lot of adults who were children of the 60s and the 70s might remember from their childhoods. A green thing that was good for you, but didn't particularly seem to taste distinctive, innovative, or, for lack of a better word, special.

So this week we switched strategies, and tried turnips. Equally boring in name and reputation. But when prepared four different ways, truly one of the most delicious root vegetables around.

We started with the green tops. We chopped them off the turnip bulbs, washed them and shook them dry. We then chopped them up, and dry-roasted them on a flat skillet with a dab of canola oil (which prices out to be about one-fourth of the price of olive oil and in many cases tastes just as good), and a few mustard, fenugreek, and cumin seeds.

"Wow, that's got a kick," exclaimed one taster. "I never even thought you could eat the greens. I just threw them away."

Step two was a simple sauté. We sliced up a turnip, sautéed it in the oil and added a small sprinkle of salt.

"Pretty good," one person intoned. "And really simple to make."

The third step was a stir-fry. Although I was tempted to really go to town and cook the turnips with onion, garlic, carrots, peas, and ginger and turmeric, I remembered simple and stuck to oil, a bit of cumin seed, and shredded cabbage. We hope that as we write the recipes out into a booklet, we'll be able to encourage others to see the stir-fry method as a way of cooking together vegetables of a wide variety that might be sitting in a home refrigerator or of putting leftovers to good use.

The fourth and final preparation was a baked turnip. Like a baked potato, I explained. I wrapped the bulb in aluminum foil and put it in the oven for about 30 minutes. The result. "That's a turnip?" one person asked. "It's so soft, and so good."

The series continues next week with yellow crookneck squash, zucchini, an perhaps one or two other kinds of squash.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Complex Simplicities

The goal is simple: Create meals with local farm-fresh vegetables that are affordable, fresh, and require neither a recipe nor much time to prepare.

When my husband Jim and I began this project, I thought it would be quite simple. After all, we grow so much of our own food. We pick it fresh from the fields, often minutes before we cook it. Our preparations are fast and simple, largely because dinner comes usually at the end of long, hard work days and largely because we don't want to cook the flavor out of what we've grown.

Today, we took the goal to a different level, to a series of food tastings that we kicked off today at the Franklin Community Center, which has a food pantry in our community. And, I realized, simplicity is layered with many complex dimensions that highlight the hidden privileges that some of us, inadvertently and unconsciously, carry.

The featured dish was kale. Easy enough, I thought. Gather the vegetables, chop them up, rinse them and cook them in a pot with a little water for about two to five minutes. Salt and pepper, garlic, lemon juice, or apple cider could be optional additions.

I gathered a pile of kale leaves from our garden this morning, about a half-hour before departing for the Franklin Community Center. Jim and I created a flyer and a handout with recipes, and assembled a chopping board, knife, and colander. I washed the leaves and chopped them, and cooked a simple batch in two minutes. We timed it because we were curious how long it actually did take. We sampled our creation and distributed samples to clients of the pantry. It was fresh and crisp and flavorful.

Only, I realized later, it was a dish, not a meal.

So I started thinking, could I make a meal with just vegetables and water? Would this approach encourage people -- regardless of their income level -- to fall in love with vegetables and to see both their nutritional and economic benefits as flavorful as well?

The answer to that question has left me wondering about what it means to cook simple food. Exploring my own experiments in nightly meal preparations, I realized that one of the reasons that I can cook simply is because I have had the privilege to invest a lot of time and money into the items that make simple special: I have a great big backyard garden that borders on being a full-fledged farm that serves as my daily pantry. I have containers on my deck that are overflowing with fresh-raised herbs. I have a cabinet full of spices, and a refrigerator full of small bottles of such condiments as miso paste, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, Bragg's amino acids, lemon juice, apple cider, and yogurt. My messy kitchen holds four different types of oils, three different kinds of vinegars, and a range of nuts and seeds. So, yes, I can cook kale with water and make it taste just fine. But if I really want the kale to sing, it's likely that I would first slice up a couple of cloves of garlic, sauté them in oil and then toss in the kale. This is what I made for dinner tonight, alongside a leftover zucchini soup, a quick stir fry of garden fresh tomatoes, peas, and onion; and a fairly delectable chunk of seared ahi tuna.

I've found myself pondering how one might cook without a stove (or another source of heat), without an oven, without a collection of differently sized and shaped pots, and a bucket filled with spoons. Sure, I love to wrap Hakurei turnips in aluminum foil and let them cook over a grill or in the oven until they're soft. They need no butter, salt, or any other additive to acquire a melt-in-your-mouth taste. But they do require heat.

At the Saratoga Farmers Market this afternoon, I eyeballed the fresh produce on the vendors' carts, looking for ideas for the Franklin Community Center food tasting for next week. "What would be a good thing to make?" I asked a cooperative extension agent. She suggested a corn salad. I looked at the recipe, in a cookbook published by the farmers market, and it looked incredible. But it did require oil, herbs, and spices for flavor as well as additional vegetables such as onions and beans. It also required cutting the corn off the cob -- a simple task with a sharp knife and a chopping board, and an even simpler task with the specialized kernel remover that my youngest sister gave a couple of years ago. What if you didn't have these extra gadgets? Would you still be able to make a dish like this? Or would you settle for frozen kernels in a grocery store purchased bag? I found myself feeling as if this was turning into too much work. Did we really have to work within such restrictions?

As if reading my mind, Steve Otrembiak -- one of my favorite local farmers -- solemnly handed me a raw green bean. Grinning, he pointed to one that he himself was eating, raw.

"I could get some cookies," he said, "but I figured that this would taste just as good and be a lot healthier."

I bit into the bean and savored the burst of sweet green flavor that it produced. "It is like a cookie," I exclaimed. "Such a simple snack."

The flavor of the bean lingered, inviting new possibilities. Could we take vegetables that were uncooked and make them into meals? Perhaps it wasn't the condiments of cooking that were improving the flavor of the vegetables but the innate flavor of the fresh vegetable itself.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Growing Soil

Black turtles beans harvested in fall 2013
"We have a new compost pile," my husband Jim called out to our neighbor Tom as Tom came over with a gift of kitchen scraps and yard waste to add to the endeavors.

The fact that we had a new compost pile was almost news to me but in some ways no surprise.

For the past three years, Jim and I have been growing food in our backyard, and have gotten to a point where about 80 percent of what we eat year round comes from our gardens. I am quite proud and pleased by this accomplishment. Jim is, as well. But what really lights his face up is not the fact that he is growing food but rather soil.

"For the first time in at least seventy years," he proclaimed over dinner, "someone is actually growing soil on this land instead of depleting it."

Growing soil is an interesting side benefit of growing food, if you're growing your food in an organic, sustainable manner. There are multitudes of nitty-gritty details that I don't fully understand, but the basic premise is fairly simple: What you grow can nourish or deplete soil depending on what else is in the soil, and the more you contribute new organic matter to the soil, the better, more alive, and more healthy it will be over the long haul.
Compost creators; though the eggs taste good, too

The history of our land also is a bit a of a fuzzy store to me, but the general outline is as follows: Our house was built probably in the 1840s as a sort of farmhouse. Back in the day all of the land surrounding our current three-acre lot was attached to the house. The land was farmed for a number of years and used to herd dairy at some point. Some time after World War II, farming on the land stopped. The land started to be sub-divided and the house, instead of being transferred from one owner to another via inheritance, was bought and sold repeatedly on the real estate market. Growing food became a pleasant pastime called gardening, and things like "golf course lawns" came to be seen as more important than growing food. Over the decades, the soil got sandier and drier, and lost all of the healthy nutrients it once had possessed. By the time we moved into the house in 2011, very little land that looked like viable gardening space remained. The worst ravage to the land had occurred, in fact, just one or two years earlier when a teenage boy used a tractor to dig up the land and create a massive race track for the dirt bikes that the teens of this area favor.

The dirt bike was impressive -- in a way. It took up about half of our back yard and contained a series of hills and valleys, and six turns. Everything that was once alive around it had been matted down by tires and engine grease to dust. Whatever life the soil might have contained was gone. To make matters worse, the track covered most of the southern and western areas of the yard. The place was optimal for gardening; the soil, sadly, was not.

It was recommended to us that we hire a landscaper -- perhaps even an excavator -- to re-level the land and to cart in fresh soil. This was something we could not afford, and it seemed like it might prove to be an exercise in frustration because all of our neighbors were telling us that nothing could grow on that land -- the soil was too dry and sandy, the weather in the Adirondack foothills too unpredictable, and the insects and the wildlife too plentiful to sustain much of anything in the way of food at all.

These stories struck a familiar chord. In Honolulu in 1995, I had acquired a plot in a community garden that had been neglected for some years. It was full of weeds, particularly an insidious little thing called nut grass that contained a nut-shaped root ball deep below the soil. The root would sprout and re-sprout and new root balls would form. Yet, with encouragement of the other gardeners -- many of whom were locals of Asian ancestries who'd lived in Hawai'i all their lives -- I dug out the root balls and pumped the soil with new life. Hawai'i was so warm that kitchen scraps and rice could be buried directly into the soil, watered, and would break down within weeks. Within three months, basil, tomatoes, Okinawa sweet potatoes, lettuce, and a slew of salad greens were thriving.

The story repeated itself eleven years later when I returned to a home in Seattle that I had purchased with a friend about a year before my largely unplanned move to Hawai'i. I had started a raised bed of flowers, mint, and other herbs in the front and had a small but viable vegetable garden growing in the back. In 2006, however, all of this appeared non-existent. Wild thorny blackberry bushes had overtaken the back yard, dandelion plants were six feet tall, and an ivy that had vined itself fairly harmlessly over a fence had spread over a tree and into the soil literally choking it. Other trash and debris filled the yard, as well. I was told that there was no garden, no soil that could be restored. The only answer was to hire a landscaper and order in several truckloads of new soil. Since I really had no money this time around, I decided to take a slow, Zen garden like approach. I used a small set of pruning shears and spent twenty minutes each morning and evening snipping away at the weeds. My husband -- who is Caucasian, Christian born and suspicious of all things Zen -- watched me and laughed.

The following day, however, I came home to a transformed space. He had adopted my Zen garden approach with the fury of an elephant. With sticks and a heavy rake, he thrashed away at the weeds and vines, creating a pile of yard debris that, once re-discovered, went into the compost bin I had created a decade earlier. After three days of this furious activity, he pronounced success: he had found the garden I had dug and it had soil. Unusually rich soil, as it turned out, because it had benefited from the years of relative neglect by acquiring nutrition rich fallout from the blackberries, decaying tree bark, and the remains of countless rodents, victims of the neighborhood's band of cats.

We raised food in that soil for three years before a full-time job opportunity brought us to upstate New York. Walking through the race track that decorated our new home's landscape, I had a thought. The track edges and its divides between the various hills and valleys had left behind swathes of dirt-lined pockets, pockets that vaguely looked like raised beds. Could we fill those pockets -- one step at a time -- with topsoil and supplement it with materials like cow, goat, and sheep manure?

The potato harvest
For several local farmers, the answer was, "of course." A friend of a local contractor sold us several tons of sheep manure, and a couple who raised goats were more than happy to give us all the manure we wanted as long as we were willing to haul it away ourselves. My husband no longer had a need to destroy; he set out to create. In the first year, we raised tomatoes, peas, beans, cucumbers, too much zucchini, and enough potatoes to last us through most of the winter.

The experiment transformed the race track into what we dubbed the garden circle. In the next year, we continued to fill it with new soil and manure. All the while, we were planting and creating soil from the multitudes of weeds, grass, leaves, and kitchen scraps that were overflowing in our compost pile. By the end of the third year, we were reaping more food than we could eat alone. We evolved into canners, preservers, and donators of our abundance to others.

As year four unfolds, our gardens fill not only the space that used to be the race track but also a huge swatch of land to the east of it and a sizable chunk of our front yard. Our original compost heap has migrated from its space in the center of the yard behind a defunct milk shed to one of the old valleys of the track. It is taller and wider than the track, and it is full of life. Over the old heap are growing several varieties of winter squash, zucchini (which we welcomed back into our lives this year), and a multiplying number of sunflowers smiling and bobbing with the breeze.

The secrets to our success are many. We work our butts off. Our bodies and our clothes are often caked with dirt, and it takes copious amounts of chocolate each night to heal the sting of mosquito bites and the snags and thorns of unwanted weeds that plague us daily. The fresh and continual supply of garden-fresh vegetables and fruits that our fields yield more than compensate for the pain. But we both know that beneath this very rich reward of good healthful food and clean living in a very dirty way is the fact that every time we plant and nurture a seed to life we are helping to create new soil. Our years of living in Hawai'i taught us the value of the phrase Malama 'aina: care for and nurturing of the land. We do our best to carry out this mission every day.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Almost a free soup

After a three-year hiatus from our way-too-abundant crop, we are allowing zucchini to re-enter our kitchen again. Two big specimens of the summer squash that everyone seems to love to hate were gifted to us last Saturday near the end of the farmers market. Each one was approximately a foot long, and probably four or five inches in diameter. I resolved to turn them into a summer soup.

I found an easy recipe on the Internet and set to work. Because I had two jars of reserved soaking liquid from rehydrating dried mushrooms in the refrigerator, I decided to use a vegetable broth instead of chicken stock. I added a cup or two of water to the mushroom broth, and tossed in a diced potato, a couple of carrots, some garlic, and a handful of herbs. I was thrilled to note that making this broth cost me no money whatsoever because everything I used came from either stockpiles in the refrigerator, our storage bins of last year's crops in the garage, or fresh from the garden. The broth was a great way especially to make use of the carrots and potatoes which are nearing the end of their storage life after feeding us for nearly a year because the slow one-hour simmer of vegetables in water has a way of bringing out the delicate flavors of even the driest of vegetables and blending them quite tastefully into an integrated whole. I made the broth yesterday, and let it sit overnight. After straining the vegetable remains from the liquid, the soup was virtually ready to go.

The recipe called for about one and a half pounds of chopped zucchini. I didn't measure how much zucchini I put in; I simply cut my squashes into eight strips and then chopped the strips into bite-sized pieces. The recipe also called for fresh tarragon. Although I have tarragon growing in my garden, I decided to use a different mixture instead. This mixture consisted of cilantro, arugula, sage, thyme and oregano and was a result of a rapid-fire "haircut" that I gave to these herbs the day before to prevent them from going to seed. The snipped up leaves blended together emitted pleasant savory fragrance that I thought would complement the bland zucchini, as well.

This particular recipe was ridiculously easy: Combine the broth, zucchini and herbs in a pot; bring to a boil and simmer for seven to ten minutes. Afterwards, you're supposed to puree the mixture in a blender or food processor and then while re-heating it stir in grated sharp cheddar cheese. I simmered the mixture, and turned off the heat. On a whim, I spooned out a bit of the unpureed soup into the bowl, and realize that even without the additional steps, it tasted quite good. So good that I even added a small spoonful of the broth to a couple teaspoons of miso paste for a dressing to toss on the greens we were having as a side dish.

Because we already had dinner going strong for tonight -- a steak, potatoes, beets, peas, garlic, and greens all from the garden -- I let the soup cool on the stove before pureeing it. It turned out to be a lovely crisp green shade. I put it in the refrigerator, and will reheat it tomorrow with the requisite cheese. After, of course, sampling it clean.

I decided to write about this soup because my husband Jim and I have embarked on a project to encourage more people who live on very very tight budgets and/or receive food aid in some form or fashion to consider adding fresh, local produce available at farmers markets to their grocery lists. One of our goals behind this project is about combating the perception that farmers markets are upscale, boutique-like venues that sell exotic and different produce that's too expensive and too intimidating for the general consumer. In other words, you cannot shop at farmers markets unless you are rich. Jim and I know quite well that what is true is virtually the opposite. While people of all income levels shop at farmers markets, such markets can be a source of much abundance for those on penny pinching budgets. We learned this ourselves about seven years ago when we were receiving food aid for a brief period of time. The local office of the state's Department of Social and Health Services along with some friends encouraged us to try co-ops and farmers markets because EBT cards were accepted and encouraged at both locales. We discovered during those few months of hardship a range of shopping and eating tactics that stay with us today.

In writing about Zucchini Soup, I am reminded of the ways in which vegetables that overrun gardens like zucchini often can go to waste if one does not know what to do with them. I thought that the ease of this particular soup would create a meal that was virtually free.

As it turns out, I am both right and wrong. I spent perhaps $1 to prepare this soup, including the cost of sharp cheddar cheese, which I buy about once every two weeks in a two-pound block for about $10.50. But the reason I could prepare such a soup so frugally also had to do with the fact that most of the ingredients exist in my backyard farm/garden. To have bought everything that the soup (as I made it) entailed probably would have pushed the price of the dish up to about $7 or $8. That's still a pretty good deal, but it is not free. That creates an interesting dilemma in our food supply systems that I will try and work through in future posts.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

No Recipe Required

Dinner tonight was a bowl full of a lightly seasoned,  highly savory beef stew. In addition to the meat, it contained carrots, potatoes, and garlic from last year's harvest along with black peppercorns, and water. My husband Jim put the meat in a crockpot at about 2:30 p.m. By 8:30, its heady aroma filled the house, breaking through the hot humid air that has blanketed the Adirondack foothills where we live. I went out into the garden and filled a colander with leaves from a baby romaine plant, spinach, basil, arugula, sage flowers, pepper cress, and the first of our season's peas. To that mix, I added a dash of sweet onion, a small tomato, a chopped garlic scape, and a baby carrot. I tossed the mix with a small amount of balsamic vinegar mixed with a teaspoon of honey and some lemon juice. On a last minute impulse, I tossed in some freshly picked kale that I had wilted in olive oil.

The meal seemed perfect for a summer's night. It satisfied our appetites but didn't overwhelm us. In some ways, what was most amazing was the bill: $3.50 for the cut of beef we used, 35 cents for the tomato, and about 50 cents for the onion. Everything else was either a kitchen staple that we usually have on hand or came directly from the garden. And to top it off, we pretty much made up this meal as we went along. No recipe was required.

The idea of cooking without recipes, cookbooks or any other how-to guide on hand might seem incomprehensible to those of us who grew up with middle school home economics classes, and the wisdom of such cooking connoisseurs as Betty Crocker and Julia Child regarded as household essentials. The complexity of cooking craze is further fed these days by the proliferation of cooking shows and competitions like the Iron Chef that privilege multi-course meals built around "difficult" ingredients. Yet, it seems, simple is what creates gourmet. And by gourmet I mean spectacular meals that don't require a six-figure income (or even perhaps a five-figured one) to afford. They are meals that are great because they make the basic whole food ingredients the centerpiece. Rather than adorn the foods with trimmings, they dress them down so the eater receives the full experience of their flavor.

The cut of meat we cooked tonight was a shank, a cut that comes from a muscly part of a steer or heifer's leg. It tends to be a tougher, leaner cut of meat because of its muscle mass so appreciating its culinary contribution requires a long, slow cook, usually at a low heat. I never knew much about shanks until last winter when I happened to divulge to Kristof, of the Longlesson Farm in New York, that as much as I loved the high-end cuts of beef that he was featuring on his list of goods for sale at the farmers market, I was on a budget. His eyes glittered as he reached into his stockpile of available meats and cupped his hand confidingly around his mouth as if letting me in on a secret.

"For the budget," he said, "this is the best bang for the buck." From his cooler, he pulled out a shank -- a piece of meat that appeared to be quite thick and also appeared to contain a sizable chunk of bone.

"Four dollars a pound," he said. "You cannot beat that."

I knew it to be true on the basis of the price. While there might be cheaper beef at the grocery store, the meat from the grass-fed, locally pastured cows that the farmers who sell at venues like the Saratoga Farmers Market is better for its quality of flavor, nutritional value, impact on the planet, and nurturing of the animal before slaughter. The added care that independent farmers give their cattle can reflect a higher price. But four dollars a pound is hard to beat.

Kristof told me to put the shank in a crockpot or a large pot, cover it with six or seven cups of water, add some black pepper, and just let it cook slowly for eight to ten hours. At the very end, he told me I could add potatoes, carrots, or any other vegetables. He added that the leftover broth from cooking the shank would make an excellent base for a soup.

I took the shank home, and cooked it as Kristof instructed. The slow cooking allowed for a slow release of flavor that mingled pleasantly with the sharpness of the black pepper that Kristof had recommended as well as the fresh cloves of garlic that I also decided to add in. I reserved the broth, and made a hearty onion soup two days later. And even after that, enough broth remained for a second soup.

Needless to say, we were hooked. We cooked several shanks through the winter, and last weekend, as we faced our common scenario of scraping the bottom of our bank account in the few days prior to pay day, we contemplated menu options. Even though it was summer, we opted for a shank. We savored the meal, and as usual I reserved the broth. I am now considering possible ways to use the broth to create another meal. Pho perhaps? Or perhaps an early summer greens soup.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Salads straight from the ground

These are the days of the garden of good eating. Every night: fresh Asian greens, Hakurei turnips, and Easter egg radishes along with salads. I've concocted a new kind of salad mix lately, drawing basically on an array of available lettuce greens, herbs, and baby spinach, which actually isn't young at all but is the result of a plant that survived last winter's snow and this spring's mud as well as a transplant from one bed to the other. I wasn't sure whether the plant that had survived the winter could survive a transplant and by the time the plant proved itself worthy, it had begun to flower and bolt. So I've been clipping off the top and selecting a handful of small tender dark green leaves in hopes that the plant will experience yet another renewal and start to bush out into a full spinach plant once again.

In the meantime, the leaves pair well with the remnants of another soon-to-bolt lettuce green. This one is a kind of hybrid romaine plant that came from a set of seedlings that one of the Saratoga Farmers Market vendors gifted us with back in March. Like the spinach, the romaine survived the winter but faced an uncertain future when its leaves began to wilt in the container in which I was growing it around mid-April. I moved it into sun-warmed soil alongside a series of baby bok choy and tatsoi seedlings that seemed to be outgrowing their starter pots faster than I'd envisioned. Then, the spring warmth returned to a glum damp grey chill, and I thought I'd lost the whole lot. Hoping to salvage at least some of the plants, I clipped baby leaves off the bok choy and tatsoi in early May, then experienced the delight of watching the plants bounce to life. We ate from that garden nearly every other night for about a month, until the plants produced their final leaves and found relief in going to seed. By then, there was a healthy crop of arugula, basil, and mint growing in other beds, all of which combined with the struggling spinach and lettuce to produce salads that are a myriad shades of green and super-crisp.

As I've been scavenging and salvaging salad leaves from the gardens, I've also been trying to clear my refrigerator of various condiments that have found a home in the shelves over the past couple of years. Happily, the refrigerated shelf life for foods like miso paste, Worchestershire sauce, mustard, and Bragg's amino acids are fairly long. A little bit of label reading, common sense and creativity have led to some new salad dressings.

I never was very good at creating salad dressings from the basic balsamic vinegar and olive oil base. The vinegar always seemed too sharp and softening its edge with the smooth flavor of the oil seemed to blunt the fresh crispness of the salad greens I craved. My understandings of dressings improved, however, after I consulted with a coffee vendor at the Saratoga Farmers Market who encouraged me to go light on the oil and soften the balsamic vinegar's sharpness with honey, maple syrup, and a bit of fresh lemon. Another farmer was selling greenhouse-grown lemons at the time so I gave it a try and enjoyed it. Over the past few months, I've broken the dressing down into a formula that consists roughly of 1) an oil; 2) an acidic ingredient; and 3) some flavoring. With that formula in mind, I've created one dressing that blends miso paste, water, lemon juice, and sesame oil; another that mixes the olive oil with Worchestershire sauce; and a third that retains the basic olive oil and balsamic combo alongside the juices that spill out of freshly cut tomato slices and a few crushed leaves of dried stevia.

The challenge with these combinations is that they are un-measurable. This means that the quantities of each ingredient vary as do the combinations of items that get tossed into the salad spinner for a cold water cleansing and fast dry. I think, however, that the uncertainty works as long as the leaves stay small and green.

In the meantime, a new crop of lettuce has started to flourish, in the spaces where the first round of baby bok choi and tatsoi initially reigned.