27 October 2008

Community gardening

Saturday was clean up day at the community garden, which is finishing its second season. Thirty families have plots and after two years it's already popular enough that new locations around town are being evaluated for a possible second garden site. At this site there's a small perennial plot, a communal squash plot (which may be given up next year,) a plot whose produce is donated to the food shelf, and a mixture of 10'x10' and 10'x20' plots for families and individual gardeners. We have a few community work days where everyone is expected to participate, and during the summer a few "let's garden together" dates where everyone who can shows up and gardens and socializes.

Except for that, we pretty much garden by ourselves, finding time during the spring, summer, and fall to sow, weed, water, and harvest. I usually come with one or more of my kids, and most of the time we're alone in the garden. Talking with others at the workday this weekend, I wasn't surprised that most of my fellow gardeners experience the same thing.

We had a terrible infestation of Colorado Potato Beetles this summer, and there were times when I squished so many of them my gardening gloves were wet with their orange bodily fluids - nasty! I've never had them in my garden at home and I don't know how they got so bad, but except for this one problem, our garden was a good place to be. We had a few cases of stolen vegetables at the end of the growing season, but at our last meeting we came up with a few ideas that may deter the healthy thieves next year.

Community gardening shows people that gardening is encouraged and supported, and that it deserves to have dedicated space, just as soccer fields, golf courses, and baseball diamonds do. Anyone can garden, and everyone benefits from it. Gardeners gain an appreciation for the challenges that farmers face, and at the same time gardening gives us critical insights that help us ask better questions about how our food is produced.

Perhaps our small garden plots meet 1% - 2% of our annual food needs; I really don't know. Since June, we've bought few vegetables, and in the fruit cellar and freezer we have enough tomatoes to last into the winter. We've canned beets, too, and have frozen swiss chard for use in the dead of winter. We make winter stews and soups with dried beans and peas, and I've saved seeds from my favorite vegetables to ensure that I can plant them next year, too.

Gardening is active and contemplative, and I certainly enjoy the quietude of puttering around as I deadhead flowers or mulch tomatoes, which makes me ask why I think community gardens are a good idea. And my answer is that a shared experience gives us the chance to say yes and nod in agreement rather than find reasons to disagree. There are so many obvious reasons it seems unnecessary to point them out. But think about it. Our lives have become much more sedentary than they were a century ago and despite the fact that we may be several generations removed from active farming, human culture developed around, among other things, farming, and certainly we selected for gardening abilities somewhere in the past six to ten thousand years and I don't think that's all erased from our DNA just because we've worn neckties and white shirts for a few decades. In other words, it's in our bones to garden, and when we dig our hands into the soil and watch a new green plant push its way through the dirt, something happens to us in the same way that staring into a campfire stills the spirit and calms the soul. In practical terms, gardening brings together people who otherwise might not cross paths. It's pretty hard to say if gay or straight gardeners grow better tomatoes, and Democrats and Republicans alike eat arugula. Old women, young men, the boisterous and the shy - gardening doesn't discriminate - anyone can put a seed in the ground and marvel at the miracle of life.

Irrespective of the amount of produce grown in a small community garden plot, gardeners learn to ask questions about how food is produced in this country. One simple question is, why don't we eat more seasonally available vegetables? At home, we're eating potatoes, kale, and swiss chard from the garden, but when we go to the store there is no seasonal variety: the same hard tomatoes, crisp celery, and well-washed broccoli greet us in November and July. What's wrong with eating peas only in the early summer and green beans only when the sun is still high overhead? I think we can get used to the celebratory aspect of greeting the arrival of new seasons and new foods. I don't think we need asparagus in December or apples in March; why do we expect them to be in a supermarket in Minnesota?

For now, most of our gardens are at rest. I have a blanket over a few things to ward off the hard frosts of the past few nights, but one of these mornings the frost will stay and the growing season will be over.

23 October 2008

Pecan Pie Plate Tectonics

Meaghen loves pecan pie and I made her one for her birthday recently. I whipped a bit too much air into the eggs and had a hard time getting all the filling into the shell. I added what I could and put it in the oven, but I still had a few cups of filling in my mixing bowl. After a few minutes I used a fork and pulled the sticky and caramelizing egg filling towards the middle of the pan. I poured another cup or so of filling into the shell and let it bake some more. I repeated this three times and eventually all the filling made its way into the pie. Each time I pulled the frothy egg mixture with the fork tines I was delighted to see the surface subducted into the filling, which got thicker as time passed. Certainly I was witnessing a scaled down version of plate tectonics – and thankfully the crust withstood the rigors! By the time the pie was done, it looked unlike any pecan pie I had baked before, but tasted just as good! A delicious butter and duck fat crust, pre-baked about fifteen minutes before I added the pecans and filling. A single candle in the middle and another revolution around the sun.

22 October 2008

Foil packet dinners

Late fall, and in these unsettled economic times a camping trip reminds us that seasonal cycles are larger than stock market fluctuations. Southeast Minnesota is the driftless area, where non-glaciated areas were scoured by the melting glaciers long before the first shares of stock were traded. The resulting bluffs tower above valley floors and the mixed hardwoods now shine gold, bronze and yellow in the pale autumn sun.

After a gorgeous hike along the high ridges of Beaver Creek Valley, we started a fire for dinner. On the menu were foil packet dinners, camp food fit for a family. Ground beef, sliced potatoes, corn, butter, tomatoes, and salt and pepper, well wrapped in several layers of tin foil. When the flames died down and an even bed of hot coals pulsed in the fire ring, we laid our foil packets on the embers and waited. After a few minutes we could hear sizzling on the inside, proof that the meat was browning, the butter was melting, and everything was blending together. Ten minutes per side, and we flipped them to ensure uniform cooking.

Camping in the valley, the air cooled quickly, and by the time our packet dinners were ready we were putting on sweatshirts and wool hats. A plastic tablecloth over the park picnic table and we were ready to eat. Sizzling hot, I unpeeled the layers of foil and made a plate with the rolled up edges. We ate with gusto, drinking cold water and cold beer. The steam rose and we breathed like dragons, spuds good for the belly. Sitting around the fire after dinner, blazing stars in the clear sky, arguing politics and the upcoming election. Hiking the next morning we drank straight from springs, the cold clear water racing over rocks; we embraced the fall.