Saturday, April 19, 2008

On Organic Circles and Books

I opened the May issue of Horticulture at work yesterday, after a long, very busy, over-wrought day, and found some hens.

We had a bantam hen when I was little, Henny Penny (after Beatrix Potter's, I-wear-long-socks hen). She was small and speckled and walked about in the garden with my mother, eating the worms she turned up when gardening. She also rode on the handlebars of my bicycle. And laid small, bantam eggs, which we ate. Just as Vince can't remember what happened to Hardi-pinpin-qu'a-pas-peur-des-chasseurs (Brave Pinpin who isn't afraid of hunters), the rabbit of his Provencal childhood, neither can I remember what happened to Henny Penny. Exactly. And best not to think too hard about it either...There is a vague memory of her not laying any more, the laundry lady adopting her and then...simmer simmer simmer.

The milkman delivered the milk to our 54 Paul Roux Street door in glass bottles. You could hear the dogs chasing him up the street, buzzing in his little electric three wheeler. Electric. This was the 70's. And the chink chink chink of the bottles as he carried them.

On Saturdays I would drive with my mom in her Mini out to the plots, as they were known, and pick up two roasted chickens from a lady known only as Cathy. They were warm and rich-smelling under cellophane, golden, sticky, delicious. We still roast chickens Cathy's way, though with considerably less (no) butter.

Butter: there was a farmers' market, the Market, in a huge, high-domed sandstone hall with pillars. I have thin, small memories of bright carrots, and a fat lady weighing pats of butter. We picked up trays of brown eggs from Mrs Newton in the suburbs, who had a white cat named Pennsylvania, a border of blue catnip and a huge mulberry tree.

My mother's vegetable garden was full of everything. Beans, brinjals, tomatoes, potatoes, broad beans, broccoli, Jerusalem artichokes.

Jerusalem artichokes, bear with me: In 1967 the writer John McPhee went on a canoeing trip in the Appalachians with Euell Gibbons. They lived entirely, and well, on foraged food, with the addition of oil and salt from a store after a few days. McPhee wrote an article for the New Yorker about it and I read it recently in Secret Ingredients, a collection of New Yorker food and drink writing published in 2007. I was hooked. Gathering watercress in Constantia, mushrooms in Tokai, a strawberry in the Swiss Alps, dandelions in Haute Savoie, and amelanchier berries in Dumbo, are experiences I will never forget. We found our own food and ate it, and it was delicious.

I am fascinated by plants we can eat, both because I cook and because I garden. Edible plants grow under our noses and are largely ignored or viewed with suspicion. The girls who spotted Marijke and me with our harvest of sweet amelanchier berries last June under the Manhattan Bridge ate one each and giggled almost hysterically when they didn't drop dead on the spot...Then they went gamboling off like lambs.

After failing as a fiction writer, Euell Gibbons, in his 50's, sat down to write what he knew about. Foraged food. He called it Stalking the Wild Asparagus. I asked about the book at Book Court, my local bookstore on Court Street. Not in stock, or familiar to anyone, I was told it may take a very long time to order it as it came from an "unfamiliar" warehouse. Whoooooooo.

On a trip to the Upper East Side to visit two new terraces and two new clients, I passed Kitchen Arts and Letters, that wonderful store devoted entirely to culinary writing. Of course it was in stock along with his later books, and I left with a 20lb bag, including two books by Richard Olney, whose work I have always meant to read.

Stalking the Wild Asparagus is a book about America. It's a book for people who like food, who like to cook, who like plants, who like nature, who are concerned about where what we eat comes from, and where it is going, and for parents of children who think that what is wild is scary and beyond interest. It's about independence. It is about weeds growing in the open lot next door in the city, about sap flowing from birch trees that can be tapped, about plants so many of us know by sight and yet know nothing about. Acorns, wild asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes ["The Jerusalem artichoke is a sunflower, unrelated to the French artichoke, and has no connection with Jerusalem. Otherwise it is well-named."], dandelions, chicory, milkweed, sassafras - the list is long and each chapter about a plant or genus includes memories, stories, recipes and fact. It's wonderful.

I think we are returned to a social environment where the micro-food economy has come back to itself. Though it is still fairly elitist, we are becoming increasingly terroir-driven. The ham is from this farm in Kentucky or that producer in upstate New York. And it is very good. The reaction to anonymous, mass-farmed, pestilential products is a growing, evangelical cry for accountability. In the past we knew where the food came from and took it for granted. Farmers' markets weren't chic, they were just there. Now we insist on knowing where it comes from, or should.

Blogging may be a ubiquitous scourge of mediocrity (to which this unfocussed blog may contribute) and emotional, diatribe-like self-indulgence, but it is exposing and yielding a culture of personal taste. Reading Last Night's Dinner is an education on what you can find where and why. That is one person's opinon well-expressed and beautifully executed. While I find the trendiness and bandwagon-ness of Green annoying, because fashion itself irritates me in its inherent transience, the knock-on effect is fascinating. Even deli's on the corner are asking me if I want plastic. Mr Kim stocks organic milk.

Which all boils down to this. I want a hen on my terrace.

Estorbo's catnip in this morning's sun.

The thyme fluffing out of its drab winter green.

Tarragon begging for some chicken...

New chive flowers.

Microscopic figs.

And the mizuna growing boldly where no leaf has grown before.


  1. "And the mizuna growing boldly were no leaf has grown before." Still laughing. And I thought you weren't a Trekie... ;-)

    And to your list I would add a bit of my own, chanterelles in the massif central, pine cone seeds in Cote d'Azur, pineapples in Vanuatu (didn't eat those, sadly) and mussels near Cape Town. Oh, wait a minute, we didn't go... ;-)

  2. Yeah...I was in the laundry room wading through lint and dust bunnies and suddenly that line came into my head.

    Chanterelles wow. Pine nuts...yes, my mom could add to that. She ate them in Pinelands (yes it's a real place, not unlike Mars, and of course, I forgot the mussels! next time. The last time I ate them with my parents we found lots of little brown pearls.

  3. ...... and surings (Oxalis) and suurvygies at the Breede River.

  4. Hi Jay,

    It's been a long time since we met in here! :-)

  5. Hi Vince - we miss you....

  6. Marie, how do you feel about others usurping your blogg site to chat to each other?

    I am still salivating at all those meaty dishes you have prepared over the years - much better than living off the veld, né?

  7. Yes, this is a serious blog for Issues. No more gossip!

    You could slag a nice bokkie you find on the veld, can't you? Cook up some uintjies, simmer some watercress and you have a lekker spread, ek se!


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