Growing Food

by Alan Porter

Even now, when I roll them around in my hand,
I am amazed, thinking of the miracle trapped inside,
waiting for its internal cue. Seeds do that.
They know what they can become. It is humbling.

People give gardeners too much credit. Even a great gardener can't make basil sprout from dill seeds. What we can do is prepare a spot of ground and do a little tending. Try to help a bean become a bean. The seeds do the rest, with efficiency and determination.

As I hold the beans in my hand, I can't predict which seed will grow and which will lie dormant. I can't know if it is a good year for beans. But I can choose what variety of bean I try to grow. And therein lies a journey of discovery and taste. With increasingly standardized food, it is a delight to learn there are still fruits and vegetables whose primary boast is not that they "ship well," "store well," or "color up before ripe." Instead, there are Lebanese summer squash with luscious melting skins so delicate they scratch themselves as they grow past the prickly stems. There are strawberries so laden with drunken scent you catch the perfume before you open the garden gate.

These choices I can make. And I have. I grow Montmorency sour cherries precisely because you can't buy them and because they have lacked rivals as pie cherries since the fourteenth century. I grow Bodacious corn because it is truly bodacious how sweetly it still tastes like corn, not just sugar. I dug an asparagus bed because I used to shimmy on my belly between the rows of grown out asparagus ferns at my grandmother's house to hide from my parents on hot summer Sundays, and because, more than any other vegetable, the sweet fresh taste begins to decline within minutes of picking. I grow rouge d'etamps pumpkins not just because it tickles me that they are clearly the squat, deeply-lobed inspiration for Cinderella's carriage, but because they make a pie of such ethereal delicacy you dream of Thanksgiving you plant the hills in May. I pamper frost-sensitive Meyer lemons for their bright sweet taste, their delicious scent and their impossibly yellow skin. I grow a type of summer squash called lagarniaria longissima because their climbing vines are capped by delicate white flowers and the two-foot fruits taste and smell of artichoke hearts. Osaka purple mustard greens, Howard miracle plums, brandywine tomatoes, Cox's orange pippin apples, pink reliance grapes, roma beans, on and on and on. Choose for taste, select for scent, yield to romance and nostalgia.

As a gardener, I have a heritage. Like many traits, it skipped a generation. My maternal grandmother was a gifted gardener. Deep Central Valley soil helped, but my grandmother had a skill and intuition about gardening that transcended the natural advantages of site. She knew where to plant things and followed instinct in pruning, watering, and harvesting. Several years ago I planted spice-scented sweetpeas on the back of the vegetable garden fence to climb up past the musk-scented roses planted on the front side. In May, the great effect achieved, I was quite proud. Right then, as I rocked back and forth, foot to foot, to smell the related, yet very different, perfumes, I realized this was not my idea. I had merely copied a stretch of fence between my grandmother's back yard and vegetable garden. Another lesson in humility.

In tending a garden I have gradually learned about the frustration of loss. Some things are within my care and others are beyond my control. This year, my barn cat gone, gophers and voles pulled down all but one of nearly two hundred heads of garlic. This year I also lost a ten-year-old persimmon tree because tiny field mice ate the bark in a three-inch band all around the base. Last year the blue jays pecked what few cherries the raccoons, in a snare of broken branches, had not already eaten. When my beets were consumed by earwigs, it was irrelevant that just the past year I had glibly decided that I had finally learned to grow beets.

In my first years of gardening, such disasters prompted a swift, furious response. I was determined to save every carrot. I set traps and surveyed the beds by flashlight at midnight to pick off bugs. Once, in a rage at the consumption of my peas, I madly shoveled every inch of dirt from a raised bed, in a crazed determination to find, and dispatch, the offending gopher. Of course it eluded my shovel, and, in replacing the dirt, I felt rather silly. Nowadays, I still respond, but in a more measured way. More recently, I try to be more vigilant in maintaining the sense of joy and wonder within my beds than a pest-proof perimeter around them. At some level, I have come to accept that the one loss of one crop will be offset by the success of another. Just as my peppers shrivel up and the beans succumb to blight, my peas or apples will be spared and produce in profusion.

Gardeners also learn about surplus. Stories of excess zucchini are legion, but surplus is just as likely in other crops. This year, after several seasons of few or no cherries, we picked bucket after bucket, both sweet and sour. And just as I consider complaining about pitting another quart, or finding cherries in yet another dish they are gone. And in a few short months I will long for them again. Surplus teaches another lesson: sharing. It is another way of giving time. It feels good. Sure, I still leave those large zucchini in bags on a friend's doorstep, but I try to throw in a few tomatoes or cherries as well.

Making the most of surplus also affords the joy of putting things by. In recent years, I have begun to preserve more. True, you can buy good vegetables at farmers' markets and even at some grocers, but you cannot buy jam or chutney that compares with what you make yourself. Chutney is perhaps the most soulful of foods. Jam can be silken on the tongue and carry you back to the August orchard, but chutney is elemental; it awakens your spirit and is a balm for the soul. It gets the juices flowing and tantalizes every one of your senses on a profound level. The smell alone is ample reward for making it, and the taste makes me swoon. Sharing a jar is the best way I know to seal a new friendship.

I delight in working with food I have grown. It feels different than working with food I have bought. Part of this is conceptual and part is very real. Home-grown food is fresher. It smells, both of the soil and of itself, and it has a different touch. It is ripe. Generally, it is not cold. More importantly, you have a connection to it. Your hands aren't touching it for the first time. It is also odd, in a humbling way, that you will eat things you have grown that look much worse than what you would buy at a market. I routinely cut around worm holes in apples at home, but I wouldn't buy wormy apples at the market. When you have grown something, you want to honor it (and your guests) when you serve it. There is an even greater desire to show it to its best advantage.

I recall the first meal I prepared for Pippa and Steve then mere acquaintances now dear friends. It was one of those soft summer evenings, when the warm air and your skin bond in a soft, seamless clasp. With a glass of wine, we walked in the garden and tested the fruit in the orchard. I picked a few tomatoes. Later, as we sat at the table outside, the sky went inky purple, and I served summer squash blossoms with the baby squash still attached, flavored with dill and scented with roasted fennel seeds. Perhaps I imagine it, but it seems the herbs and toasted spices awakened more than our nose and palates; they also awakened a sense of kinship, our need to share laughter and tears. Pippa and Steve understood that the meal was the culmination of months of effort in the garden. They understood that in serving it forth I was offering my friendship. They accepted my offering. In doing so they helped me understand this: sharing my own tomatoes, with the yellow-green acrid dust from the vines and leaves still clinging to the back of my hand was an act of love. And yes, they left with a jar of chutney.

Alan Porter tends a garden in Anderson Valley.

Red-Green Tomato & Pear Chutney

In the dead of winter, eat a spoonful right out of the jar
to remind yourself what a wonderful person you are to have made it.

  • 2 pounds firm, ripe, red tomatoes (best to use fleshy varieties: roma or other plum) peeled and chopped
  • 1 pound green tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 pound Bartlett pears, stemmed, cored, and coarsely chopped (If you use gritty-peeled pears such as comice, peel them.)
  • 1-1/2 cups sugar
  • 1-1/2 cups apple cider vinegar
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 cup golden raisins
  • 1 cup currants
  • 1/3 to 1/2 cup grated fresh ginger root
  • 1 Tablespoon coarsely grated lemon peel
  • 1 teaspoon allspice teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 cinnamon stick

1. Put all of the ingredients (yes, all) in a heavy, large, deep, non-aluminum pot. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.

2. Reduce heat and simmer over low heat until mixture is very thick, stirring regularly. This takes about 1 to 2 hours. Stir more frequently toward the end of the cooking time. Be very careful at the end; this is the only time the chutney can burn.

3. Remove cinnamon stick. Pour the chutney into sterile canning jars. Seal and follow all of the jar company's pesky instructions for waterbath of the jars. Or, keep in refrigerator until used.

­ Alan Porter


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