Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Difficulty of Eating From the Garden

I grew up in a house where meals "looked" a certain way. Breakfast was cereal, hot in the winter, cold in the summer or eggs and toast. Lunch was a sandwich, sometimes with canned soup or a handful of chips. The dinner plate was sectioned in three vectors...meat, starch, and vegetable consisting of a rotation of canned corn, green beans or beets. Now I'm not saying that my mom never veered off of this routine, we had a fair share of taco night and spaghetti, but for the most part, this was the food of my childhood.

And there's nothing wrong with that I guess. We were an average family in the 80's and 90's. Before Food Network, Cupcake Wars and the internet provided an endless supply of recipe inspiration. It was before the term "Foodie" or "Pinterest" ever existed. My mother's system worked. We were fed, full and satisfied...until we grew a garden.

My love of gardening began less with a love of fresh veggies and more with a fascination of watching things grow. When I was a teenager and planted my first tomato plant, I could have honestly cared less as to weather this tomato would taste better than a store bought...that came later. I just wanted to see if I could make a tomato! And I did, and it was awesome!

But gardening is addicting and the fun of growing a tomato soon led to a full out garden with rows of green beans, clusters of lettuce, radishes and cucumbers. And while beautiful, I hadn't the foggiest as to what to do with all this stuff and neither did my mom. We would eat a handful of this or that, some radishes with salt, a slice of tomato in our salad, green beans as a side dish, and again as a side dish, and again and again till we were so sick of green beans that we never wanted to eat them again. And in the mean time, the carrots as a side dish were getting just as monotonous.

So we gave most of it away so that others could have green beans as a side dish too.

As I got older, I started reading about so many people eating from their gardens, saving money and loving all the fresh produce they were picking and consuming. I wanted to think that we were doing the same, but we really weren't. Our grocery bills were just as expensive, I would make my list of needed items and occasionally I wouldn't have to buy lettuce because the lettuce was in ready in the garden that grocery trip. Yippee...

In fact, we were spending more money because by the time I bought the seeds, and the potting soil or the established plants at a nursery it was another $50 to $100 on top of the every present grocery bill.

I wondered how gardeners were eating so many vegetables. Did they use a different seasoning salt each night to make the veggies taste different, were they just salad fanatics, part rabbit?   

It took a while, but eventually the light went on and I remember the day when I had the epiphany.

Zach and I were picking peas...we always grow peas...you know, as a side dish. It was dinner time and we were picking peas to go with meatloaf. The raw peas were so delicious that we were snapping and enjoying them right off the vine. I felt guilty about not filling my basket for dinner but one pod after another, the sweet burst of green popped delightfully in my mouth until a realization came over me. I was full!

I remember telling Zach, "These are so good I don't even care if we have meatloaf." And it was there! That exact moment when it clicked for me.

I realized that the problem was not in finding a magic way to prepare vegetables, as it was in re-examining what our meals should look like. What our plate should look like.

And so, over the years breakfast, lunch and dinner look different from my childhood. Breakfast might be tomato slices and leftover sweet potato. Lunch might be fried zucchini and a salad, dinner might be roasted eggplant with honey carrots and eggs. Every once in a while my mom will call me while I'm eating and exclaim "You're eating WHAT at 8:00 in the morning?!"

She's gotten away from gardening, it never really was her thing. She is a creature of habit...and so am I. We don't always eat the way I'd like to. But it's getting easier. I have my own repertoire of seasonal recipes that correlate with the garden. I've learned to can things and cook from scratch, I also start every meal with what's available in the garden, rather than trying to find a way to fit it on our already established plate.

Nowadays, I feel like we would perish in the summer without fresh herbs and there are things like tomato and squash season that have engrained so richly into Zach's and my life that I wouldn't feel whole without them. They are a tradition that I long for all year round.

I write this today because occasionally cooking from the garden still feels intimidating to me even though I've been doing it for a while now. The idea of "farm to table" isn't as nearly as easy as the actual act of "farm to table". The "simple life" is almost never simple and delicious homegrown veggies take skill, patience, work and time to make them into creative meals.

I read about urban food deserts, and how the skills of gardening are becoming a lost art with newer generations. Children raised on fast food and processed meals are at an all time high.

It's encouraging to think that there are movements to try and get veggies growing in abandoned inner city real-estate and farmers markets are blossoming up everywhere. The "Grow Food Not Lawns" meme makes it through my Facbook feed on almost a daily basis.

So to those of you who are just starting out, don't get discouraged. Magazines, websites...heck, even I'm guilty of it on our own page, want to paint an idyllic pastoral image of baskets of sun ripened tomatoes magically turning into ball jars filled with homemade marinara. Many times I don't include the details about how the wind knocked over the tomato steaks and now half the fruits are squished and rotten. Or how the goats busted through the fence and ate half the pickings, or how the canning pot boiled too rapidly and three of the jars broke, leaking tomato gunk all through the boiling water bath.

But for the most part, our lives are filled with beauty. And that beauty is something that inspires me to keep going even when it feels like every living creature on this farm is against me. And that's the part that is so fun to share. The romance. It's the romance that got me where I am today. Would I have wanted to grow a garden had someone told me all the things that can go wrong? Would I want to raise goats if I'd known how hard it is to loose one? Maybe not.

No, I fell in love with the white-picket-fence of it all. And I hope you do too. Because though the fence might be chipping paint and grey with weather beating, it's sturdy enough to keep in the dream of returning to a natural system. The system that feeds, nourishes and continues from the earth and gives life to our soul.      

So my advice? Start small, dream big and learn to eat green beans for breakfast.
   

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