Category Archives: books

On this week’s goat milk adventure

I bring you fudge!

Of the two books I have on using the products of one’s home dairy, I have teed off fairly roundly on the one, but I haven’t said anything about the other.  “The other” would be a slim spiral-bound book called, crazily, Goats Produce Too:  The Udder Real Thing, Cheese Making And More Volume II by Mary Jane Toth.  Once I got beyond the utter church-ladies-recipe-book style of  the thing in both format, tone and (frankly) badly written instructions, I have decided that the late Mary Jane Toth is my hero in all things dairy.  (Deep bow.)

The fudge was a start.

Don’t judge a book by its cover says the nag in my head.  Surely, there’s plenty of appeal to Ricki Carroll’s book: it’s glossy, there are 75 recipes in it, plenty of pictures and how-to’s and it’s gone through the hands of an editor and a graphic designer but goodness you get to a recipe, get all excited to make it and realize DUH you don’t have the one thing needed to make the cheese happen:  and in 74 of 75 cases that one thing is something she’s glad to sell you.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this.  It just means 1.  I should really read the recipe closely and 2.  I should continue the idea that my cheese will continue to cost me money in terms of ordering the stuff to make it.

But Ms Toth’s book is refreshing, despite its lack of panache.  It’s totally commonsensical.  And:  you don’t need to pay her a dime to make cheese, or anything else dairy-related.  In point of fact, you can get many of her recipes for free on the internet, and most of the needed ingredients right out of your refrigerator (yogurt as thermophilic starter, buttermilk as mesophilic).

Incidentally, I have never made fudge before.  It was tasty, and chewy…or I should say “is” because I am sure it will take us weeks to eat it all!

On meat-eating

P1010907Not gory, not fleshy:  last night’s salad

A call came in.

“Do you want a backbone?” asked my friend.

See, I am not missing a backbone, and never could have been accused of such:  I’m pretty spiny (in more ways than one, especially if you rub me the wrong way).  No.  This call related to a pig’s backbone, as its owner didn’t know what to do with it.  Apparently, a pig came her way (these things are known to happen if you live with your ear to the local food rail) and she got smart and called the itinerant animal killer/butcher to come over and help her out.   He did, killing and hoisting that boy onto the branch of a tree.  She took it from there, with one of her children holding the butchering book.

But I didn’t want a backbone.  Backbone of poultry, backbone of beef, yes, I wouldn’t have said no.  But pigs don’t make great stock, and that would be why I would need a backbone.  (Maybe I can smoke it, then use parts to flavor bean dishes. Hmm.)

“Do you have any meat you don’t want, or fat?  Or the head?  That, that I could deal with,” I said.

Jonathan Safran Foer has a nonfiction book out now called Eating Animals.  I have never been able to stomach his fiction, but he’s a clearer, less annoying voice when he’s researching things and telling stories from his life.  A vegetarian who’s wavered between carnivory and veganism, this book prods us to think about what it is that we DO eat.  One of the more outlandish outtakes that’s been covered in the media is his questioning our taboo of pet flesh.  (I would throw horse in there too:  there are peoples all over the world who eat pets AND horses, as you might know.)  For the most part, though, the book is a look at the meat industry, and how it has accomplished its highest goal:  keeping us away from knowing what it is we eat.  Keeping us blissfully ignorant, in fact; the average American consumes 21,000 animals in his or her lifetime.  (How so many, you ask?  Ground beef in your burgers is how:  there could be up to 400 individuals in your patty.)

As a new-ish returned carnivore (two years this month, all due to producing my own meat) I obviously have very strong opinions on this issue.  My reason for 16 years of vegetarianism is that I could not be ignorant, no matter how hard I tried.  No, it was too cruel, eating meat from factory farms; it wasn’t who I was, or am.  But I am not blind to the way my own animals live and die, and I can easily eat those of the beef and pig farmers I know.

That’s all it’s about.  Being a little less cruel.  Being a little more open-eyed to the reality of our food.  And being game when backbones come your way.

On good ideas


My garden guru has a new book.  It’s all about winter gardening, and I am so pleased he wrote it.

You have to understand one thing about me:  I am guru-less as a matter of principle.  I never quite could understand the need to follow, be it some kind of spiritual leader or some kind of money person or some kind of visionary politician:  good ideas speak to me, not the people who spout them.  Plus, I am a firm believer in the idea that the best shepherd follows his flock, leading from behind.

And Eliot Coleman is chock-full of good ideas, and very familiar with the phrase “you can do it.”  A born tinkerer, it has been his fervent goal to work with less and less inputs, growing the things that will best grow in the conditions they are given.  For this reason, he “discovered” the unheated winter greenhouses used in Europe for the last 100 years or so.  The northern half of the U.S. and southern Canada, though colder than Europe in the winter, have a lot more sunlight:  thus, we can also grow things in the winter, despite the cold.

This new book, however, is geared much more toward the small market grower, much like his first big published book, the New Organic Grower.  Sure, there are a ton of tips in it; in particular, he makes some fine distinctions regarding the methods his farm employs to grow their produce.  All his greenhouses, save one, are mobile.  To aerate the soil, he moves each greenhouse twice a year over a single rectangle of land:  dead in the middle of this land is an electrical hookup and a hose bibb so the structure always has access to both.  He has one greenhouse that stays in place, and is heated to just above freezing.  It is in this greenhouse that he and his workers clean their lettuces and produce year-round.

He also makes a fine labeling distinction between these greenhouses.  See, *I* call my own growing structures “greenhouses” because most people have no idea what a high tunnel, hoophouse or polytunnel are, and I don’t want to be so imperious as to school them on the distinction.  He thinks “greenhouse” is inaccurate because it is not the glassed-in, immovable enclosure filled with palms and orchids that most people know.  “Hot house” is accurate, but only for half the year.  So, his movable, unheated greenhouses?  He calls them “cold houses,” and the one where he’s got a propane heater in it a “cool house.”  I like this distinction.

For the average homeowner itching to perhaps extend their season beyond spring-summer-fall, this might not be the best book to own.  To really get dreaming on what’s possible in your back yard, Four-Season Harvest is your book.  He wrote this for just this kind of ambition, and it’s what got me noodling around with sketches and graphs years ago.  He details coldframes to low tunnels to the cold- and even cool houses above, including charts and lists of crops you can grow.

What I admire about the man is his extreme passion for fresh produce.  Everyone should have a farmer like him nearby:  wouldn’t that be a wonderful world?  Fresh produce year-round, local, and using “deep organic” methods…and that’s why he wrote this book:  it’s his dream too!

SO:  small market growers?  BUY THIS BOOK.

On starting new gardens

3408013991_7a179fc0e5Planting red set onions.  Set onions (little bags of seed onions you’ll find at garden stores now) can be eaten at any size, and the greens can be eaten at any time too.  They’ll never get as large as onions you grow from seed but they’ll do in a pinch.

I thought I would give a bit of a primer on garden-starting, considering that we’re starting our school gardens from scratch (and have great plans for them soon).

Whenever you start anything, of course, there’s a bit of an up-front investment you must make in time and materials.  Before that first seed can sprout, some earth probably needs to be turned.  In our school garden’s case, we had a working garden: it produced pie pumpkins most recently, so the whole garden was covered first with weed-suppressing fabric and then a layer of woodchips.  To start our beds, we needed to build the beds (each bed required (2) 2″x8″x8′-0″ boards and (1) 2″x8″x6′-0″ boards cut in half), rake away the woodchips, cut the fabric away, and do a bit of weeding.  Our soil at school is rather nice, but raised beds are nicer:  they warm up/dry out earlier in spring, they’re easier to weed and water, and–probably most importantly–are off-limits to little running feet!  We dumped some semi-composted sheep poop and bedding onto the bottoms of the beds, then we filled each bed with about 4-6 loads of topsoil.

(The above steps assume you have:  1. a saw, 2. a drill, 3. a rake, 4. a shovel, and 5. a wheelbarrow.  Having access to sheep poop is a bonus, and topsoil is the dream but not reality for many gardens:  raised beds do NOT need to be filled to the brim, especially not with topsoil.  Do what you can with what you have.  I certainly do!)

We expect to end the school year with a Harvest Festival sometime during the third week of May.  Our last frost date here in chilly Michigan is somewhere between May 1st and May 15th:  and yes, I am expecting a harvest of goodies 2 weeks later!  Am I crazy?  Nope.  I am simply working with things that don’t mind the cold.  Some of these things I am starting from seed both indoors at school and inside the semi-warm confines of our home greenhouses.  Many of the seeds, though, are being planted in the beds now:  peas, carrots, beets, radishes, turnips, potatoes, set onions, lettuces.

3408764690_5723b3109eLettuce seedlings can take a bit of frost, and the smaller they are, the hardier they are.

Our garden’s focus this semester is Asia.  Fortunately for us, many Asian countries grow things that appreciate the coolness of a Michigan spring, and have a very short (under 40 days) growing season.  I ordered a large portion of our seeds for things like mibuna, pak choi, flowering Chinese broccoli, Napa cabbage, chrysanthemum greens, daikon radishes, etc. from the esteemed Kitazawa Seed Company in California:  they specialize in Asian goodies AND have both a fantastic selection and really wonderful literature supporting each seed variety.  At $3.50 a seed packet they’re running nearly double what you’d find at a garden center of your local big-box retailer, but the seed quantities are generous AND you can’t expect to find Oka Hijiki (seaweed mustard) on a rack at Home De(s)pot.  But say you’re not that interested in Asian vegetables.  You can still easily start your garden now by planting many of the other things I listed.  And don’t stop at the big-box stores for sourcing cheap seeds!  Get out of the city and suburbs and find a feed store in the country.  Most farmers still have kitchen gardens out back and it is at their local farm/feed store that they often get their seed potatoes, carrots, and beans.  Most feed stores sell seeds out of a bin, cheaply:  expect to pay 40-80 cents for more carrots than you could ever eat in a year.

Your gardens needn’t be (16) 3’x8′ raised beds to be productive.  A family of four could easily do quite well in trimming their grocery bill with four raised beds of such size.  The key to a great harvest, frankly, is constant production.  If I were such a family of gardeners, I would use approximately 1/4-1/3 of one bed as a seeding bed (i.e., using it to start seeds and then move the leafy seedlings around to other beds as they get big); I might even place an old window on top of this area to heat things up and hurry things along.  Most root crops (carrots, turnips, potatoes) like to stay where they’re planted, so having a seeding  transfer bed mainly helps leafy greens.  To save space, tomatoes and pole beans can be trellised, as can certain kinds of vining melons and squash; going vertical does save lots of precious growing area for other things.  There are many great get-started-gardening books out there:  I would recommend Square Foot Gardening or Ruth Stout’s method of Lasagna Gardening to get you thinking about both how to maximize a small garden and how to garden without breaking your back.  My absolute favorite beginning-gardening book is Barbara Damrosch’s Garden Primer:  she’s very approachable, and she covers more than just veggies.  I also worship her husband Eliot Coleman and have used his Four-Season Harvest to get my own greenhouses up and running.

Get digging, everybody!  Spring is here in half the world, fall in the other:  both are great times of year to start new garden beds.

On cross-quarter festivals

For the past few years I’ve picked up The Old Farmer’s Almanac at the feed store in November for the coming year.  It’s a bit of a lark, really.  It normally sits on my nightstand, vying for space with the 6-20 books I am juggling at any one time.  I find it a fun flip-through, a kind of pocket agrarian Wiki, that gives me a tiny something to think about before I turn out the light.  I flipped through it Friday night and realized that, thankfully, Candlemas is on Monday.  Candlemas, Groundhog Day, Imbolc:  all three of these quasi-religious festivals overlay an important earth-based event.  It’s the halfway (cross-quarter) point between winter solstice and spring equinox.


After a long winter like this one, I can see the need for a party, even if it’s only to celebrate the fact that we’ve made it through half the winter.  Now raise a glass with me, will you?

*Interesting thing about Imbolc:  this is the day that The Winter Goddess (Cailleach, an old woman) in Celtic lore would gather her firewood for winter.  If it was sunny, then she’d have enough light to gather more wood, thus meaning the winter would be longer.  Does that sound familiar?


On cheap leeks


Snowcover has a way of throwing a brand-new look to the garden, making you look closely at what’s already out there.  After the first snow, my eye and the camera fell upon a spouting leek blossom.  Lookee that, I thought.  What an anomaly.

I had allowed this particular leek to go to seed because it had the fortitude to live through a tough winter.  It duly sent up three big flower stalks this spring, followed by a couple of leek pearls and at least one leek bulb.  So I cut and harvested the seedheads this fall after they’d dried, and harvested the leek bulb for a greenhouse transplant, but I ignored the rest of the plant.  Well, we must have had a wetter autumn than I had previously thought because one of the smaller blossom’s many seeds had sprouted right on the bloom itself.

When I was a kid of about 11 or so, I picked up a ratty copy of The After-Dinner Gardening Book by Richard Langer at a library sale.  This one unassuming paperback has actually been one of the most influential books of my life.  It was written by a sun- and soil-deprived New Yorker who had a hankering to see what he could grow from the castoffs of his meals.  (The 1970s were, after all, the Age of Indoor D.I.Y. Plants:  whose house didn’t have an avocado pit or a sweet potato half sprouting in a jar of skunky water, toothpicks stuck in their midsections?)  Anyway, this book was transformative for me, a gangly preteen with a hankering for her own windowsill garden.  It certainly made me look (and continue to look) at any and all plant-like things as POTENTIAL.


So here I am, not even a day of snow-covered ground behind me, and I am pulling the sprouting leek blossom apart, planting the babies in a leftover take-out container filled with seedling mix, leftover take-out chopstick as my planting tool.


The babies will sit inside on the dining room table for a while, inside a perforated plastic bag to keep our one evil plant-munching cat from eating it.  The babies will get bigger, get a haircut, get bigger still and then they’ll be transplanted out in the greenhouse.  It’s quite possible I will never get a leek from them, as the trip from warm house to chilly greenhouse might signal them to go to flower this spring.  But I couldn’t just let the blossom winterkill with all those little babies clinging to it.  What would Richard Langer say?

On note-taking

In the category of “You know it is fall when…”, I started this year’s garden notes.

Are any of you ardent note-takers?  If so, I take my sunhat off to you.  Me, well…I started with the best intentions when I moved here in late fall of 2004.  My first season’s notes were copious, with each variety of vegetable and each bed elaborately detailed.  (How I ever pulled this off with a one-year-old I still don’t know.) Now, I have settled in to creating three sets of notes per annum:  a seed inventory/seed order, seed-starting notes, and then the garden bed inventory.  The latter is what I began last night.

The bed inventory is a bit of a trick, considering I am a manic succession-planter.  My main objective is to label each bed to show what I grew in it that year, thus avoiding putting the same stuff, or same family of stuff, into it again.  Mostly, I simply remember what went where.  Having the notes is kind of a nice crutch though.

But golly:  I had 47 beds of stuff this year to take notes on.  Yipes.

On the art front

Thomas Allen: Remedy C-print, 2008

Just to step away from farming for a minute, I thought I would update you on the art happenings here and around the country-slash-world.

As some of you know, my husband is an artist. Between his artmaking and my architecture, we’re very fortunate to be able to work from home and have this hobby farm. Tom’s book came out last fall. He will be on the cover of Harper’s Magazine in September, and has six commissioned works in August’s O Magazine (O is for Oprah). He illustrated a feature on memoirs, and had a lot of fun with it; it’s on newsstands now.

On Saturday, August 2nd, he will be in Jackson WY for his show at Oswald Gallery. I love Wyoming, but I love canning season more, so the kid and I will be home-bound.

On September 3rd he persuaded me to go to his show in Boston at Bernard Toale gallery. Bernie is handing the reins over to Joseph Carroll, and Joseph is reopening the gallery that week as Carroll and Sons; it should be a hoot. I could be persuaded to go to this because 1. Boston is a great city and 2. Boston has seafood!!

Other recent publications in which Tom’s work has been shown: New York Magazine did a spread on the precipitous fall of Governor Spitzer. Tom’s take is here. The Irish literary publication Field Day Review did a huge feature of his work in April, with a nice write-up by the novelist Seamus Deane. In Singapore, Designer magazine did a spread in Issue 16.

So. Just thought I would share. There’s been a lot of artmaking going on around here recently!

On rare and endangered foods, and vanishing food traditions

Jimmy Nardello’s Sweet Italian Frying Pepper greening up nicely in the greenhouse. These are great frozen.

“No matter how cynical you get, it’s impossible to keep up.” –Lily Tomlin

For my birthday recently I received a copy of Renewing America’s Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent’s Most Endangered Foods, edited by Gary Paul Nabhan and with a forward by my hero Deborah Madison. This book (as you can imagine) is right up my alley. Nabhan founded Native SeedSearch. He’s an ethnobotanist who happens to be a kooky single-minded food enthusiast. I read his Coming Home to Eat a couple of years back and truly enjoyed it: it makes the nice idea of eating locally in the verdant hills of Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle look like the child’s play it is compared with local eating in the desert southwest of this country.

The premise of this book is to do what Slow Foods has done: instead of presidia, it divides North America (actually, just most of the US) up into small territories (nations) known by what Native Americans and early settlers would have cultivated, foraged and hunted. Traditional foods, in other words. My particular corner of Michigan has a foot in three such territories: the Wild Rice Nation, the Cornbread Nation and the Maple Syrup Nation. (I like that, that where I live is transitory, is between zones.) The book features once common, now rare plants and animals from each featured zone, and why it is in our best interest to preserve them. By preserving, of course, Nabhan means EATING them.

Carolina northern flying squirrel, anyone?

By teaming up with revered seed-saving institutions and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, this book gives little vignettes about disappearing flora and fauna. I think the stories behind each item are fascinating. Take the Northern Giant (McFayden) cabbage, for instance. Or the mulefoot hog. Or the Quahog clam.

Anyway, back to the cynicism of which I have in abundance. I am not one to believe capitalism is a cure to all that ails us: that we can, say, buy our way out of global warming by purchasing a solar panel or two, a hybrid car, a few canvas shopping bags. As you may know by now, I think we’re all quickly approaching the shores of an entirely different world. The index and bibliography in this book are stellar. The RAFT List of Foods at Risk in North America is a large one, 700 items and counting, listed with T (threatened), E (Endangered) or X (Functionally extinct). Currently, I do seed-save some of the threatened and endangered vegetables, and I intend to breed a few crucial animals over the next few years. My cynicism comes in (and again, it’s hard to keep up!) when everyone just HAS TO HAVE x cool endangered item. Is creating a market for them a good thing? I suppose if it brings something back from the brink of extinction, it is.

Either way, it’s nice that some people give a damn.

Another art post


Knockout, 2006

Knockout (2006: 24×20 c-print) courtesy

All you all in Dallas (or environs) on Thursday the 10th to, well, until Feb. 16th, go see my hubby’s show at Light & Sie gallery!

The opening is Thursday, and Tom will be there. (Me? I’m watching the chickens.) This new gallery is really very cool, and this will be a fairly big display of his work. He’ll also be around town for a few days signing his new book.

“Something is not right!”

Can you say “depressingly gray”?

We have a bit of a Madeline book fixation here in the house. Our kid is not a girly-girl, and I think she identifies with this character because of her fearlessness (i.e., “She was not afraid of mice–she loved winter, snow and ice.”). We often have whole conversations based on lines from her books or stanzas from her songs, and Madeline is right up there: this could be, of course, because I loved them as a child.

This morning, though, when we woke up to the howling winds, I brought her to the window and asked her what was wrong, what did she see outside, as “something is not right!”. “There’s no snow, it’s all gone!” she said, astounded. And it was.

That lack of snow sure makes everything so very dark and gray. Not to worry: another front is moving through, and it’s dragging winter behind it. Gone for a little while are those 50-degree days. But I’ll be glad to see the white stuff again. I too love “winter, snow and ice.”

On seasonal food preferences

Big bowl of yum

When the days start getting shorter, I notice lots of changes in my habits. I’d like to think that moving to a farm and actually being outside for some period of time every day has tuned me in more to the tilt of the planet, but I think it’s more ingrained than that. I think it’s biological in nature. Evolutionary biology, to be exact. Bear with me here. As far as I can trace them, my forebears came from either Ireland or France (and many more from the former than the latter). Both of these places see lots less light at this time of year than my little farm does, which, latitude-wise, is as far south as Rome. I have no known biological ties to Russia, but that is where my thoughts go at this time of year.

It is usually in November that I pick up a particularly long book to read, sometimes Russian; this year it’s the Oxford imprint (Maude translation) of War and Peace. Maybe it’s the early, Doctor Zhivago-inspired visions I had of an icy dacha, but I adore the good long slog in a sledge that a Russian novel reliably provides me at this time of year. It’s colder there than here, I tell myself, and darker too. So I tend to put the child to bed and then climb into bed myself, armed with my book, quite early in the evening.

And it is this time of year that, if given the choice, I will always choose a starch over any other food form. Bread, yes, of course; but also potatoes and (xoxoxo) beets, as I love them so. So I read an article like this one with interest: perhaps starch is just something I have been adapted to crave to, uh, tide me over until spring comes again. It’s a nice rationalization, really, as I grab my third beet of the week (and these the size of grapefruit).

But think about it. What DID people eat three hundred years ago to sustain them through a long winter? (In places where winter is an issue, that is.) And the answer, reliably, is starch: starch in the forms of roots like rutabagas, turnips, and sugarbeets. And potatoes, that new world wonder.

So bring on the borscht, baby.

Another non-gardening post

Hey! Allow me a bit of spousely bragging. My husband’s book came in as book #100 of Amazon’s Best Books of 2007!

My comment: “Somebody had to be #100.”
His response: “Better than #101.”

FYI: it’s an art book, in a toddler’s board-book layout. Uh, it could be considered a bit too naughty for your average toddler, but our daughter has taken it to school at Show and Tell (and she’s pushing 4). You can see more of Tom’s work here.

Stepping away from the gardens

Hello all…

My kid and I will be away for the week, going to “pick up” her daddy in New York.

Tom’s book signing/book release party and talk will be on Tuesday night, October 16th, starting at 6:30, at Aperture’s offices in Chelsea. He will be holding a joint talk with Chip Kidd, the graphic design world’s rock star. Chip has followed Tom’s work for years, and has utilized Tom’s art on book covers for some James Ellroy rereleases and to illustrate a full edition of Francis Ford Coppola’s literary publication, Zoetrope: All-Story.

Personally, I am hoping that book release parties are as entertaining as art openings. This should be some serious fun. And, of course, it’s great to step off the farm every once in a while…at least for a bagel and a schmear.


Yep! Hot off the press, just released Tuesday night: Alice Waters’ latest. I am happy, as simple food is what I love. It’s a fairly basic cookbook, actually. But consider the source: in her talented hands, and with her instructions, simple magic can happen in anyone’s kitchen.

But what you’re looking at, of course, is a bribe.

You see, Tom leaves for London on Tuesday. Alone. Without us! So he needs to do some things to curry my favor.

He’s going to be in an art fair–slash–show there. It’s his profession’s version of a convention, I suppose; in such an instance I am glad I am not going, conventions being what they are. (I would never drag him to an AIA convention.) But then, London is a place where the child and I could have plenty of fun…with or without him.

As it is, we’ll see what trouble we can get in at home…

Books on food

Meredith, bless her heart, asked for some of my favorite culinary reads. So I did a quick gleaning, and scooped up “something for everyone” in this pile. She wanted ten, but I’m giving you eleven.

Mary Frances Kennedy (M.F.K.) Fisher: any and all essays, but a good place to start would be The Art of Eating. She is able to limn the most attendant details: if you read her, you are seated across the table from her.

Barbara Grizzuti Harrison: Italian Days. This is another instance of food plus autobiography. BGH returns to Italy in her 50s. I did not want this to end.

Julia Child: My Life in France. Like the previous two books, this is personal history. This is a love story, though: love of food, love of France, love of her husband. Child is just as witty and charming as ever, willing to make mistakes and quick to laugh about them. Now, if I could only find out if her pot/pan shop is still open somewhere after Les Halles closed…

Eat = Memory, so I cannot in good conscience overlook Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu: Remembrance of Things Past. If you have a lot of time on your hand, you should try this.

Paul Bertolli: Cooking By Hand. Bertolli is a former chef of Chez Panisse, and now mostly makes sausage. I admire his passion, and the depth he takes with his subjects. This book handles balsamic vinegar, sausage, and pasta-making to a depth that will astound you.


Jared Diamond: Guns, Germs and Steel. What the hell am I thinking, including a book about the rise and fall of civilizations in a list of culinary books? The social history of food is directly tied to the success or failure of any civilization. The cultivation of grain, the domestication of animals, the migration of peoples: it is all here.

Michael Pollan: The Botany of Desire. Pollan, who’s well-known thanks to his recent book, has actually been around for quite a while, writing his little heart out. This book’s my favorite of his, covering the history of apples, potatoes, tulips and…pot.

The Oxford Companion to Food
. Everything, and I mean it, is in this book.

Studies, Polemics, or A Bunch Of Food Nags
These books will hopefully make you think about what you eat.

Peter Singer and Jim Mason: The Way We Eat (hardback) or The Ethics of What We Eat (paperback): Why our Food Choices Matter. Singer is the preeminent philosopher and ethicist best known for his work in applied ethics (i.e., weighing life choices) and animal liberation. That said, this book will give you a lot to think about regarding food choice: local versus organic, farmed fish versus wild…it’s all here. And you won’t turn vegan after reading it.

Want to figure out how to negotiate the fraught aisles of your grocery store? Marion Nestle’s What To Eat will show you just how very devious stores and food companies really are.

Nina Planck throws bombs, too. Her book Real Food is one I turn to often, mainly because I cannot readily remember which oil I should grab for what purpose: this book is the best one I have found to decipher the mono- versus polysaturated fats. It is an interesting read.

Book sales

Tom hit a library sale yesterday and this was his take for me.

Now that we have a kid, library sales are our book-gathering method of choice. There’s a lot more bang for your buck there, and, let’s face it, with a few exceptions, children’s literature is a fleeting thing, captured and consumed.

I give him vague directions (“Oh, anything gardening, I guess”) and he usually nabs something that contains a few gems, a few pearls of wisdom. The Gourmet mags were a fluke. They are from the 1950s, and, without exaggeration, a good 25% of the pages are liquor ads! All of a sudden, all those John Cheever stories make complete sense. I can just imagine Pauline Hausfrau setting her ruffled apron afire while making crepes Suzette, fortified, as she was, by all those cocktails.

The gardening books are always fun reads, especially old issues of Organic Gardening. I usually can glean some earthen tidbits from all of these books. And, if not, our own library sale is in about a month, so we can recycle the duds.

Eleanor Perenyi

I’m stepping away from the garden for a few days (going to DEEtroit, especially to hit my favorite spice shop downtown), so I thought I would leave you with words that are not my own. (I feel I’ve been overly wordy lately anyway.)

Eleanor Perenyi has not written enough on gardening, in my mind; she is my favorite writer on the garden, though. I tried to find her take on peonies, as she had said something profound about their ability to drop their petals “like prom dresses atop the grand piano,” or some such; don’t quote me. But instead I found this paragraph on vegetables. Please note the date, and her sentiments.

“All that has changed. I am a full-time resident now and not as hell-bent as I used to be. I have cut down on many things, but nothing short of total decrepitude could make me decide to give up the vegetables. Ordinary greed comes into it, of course, and the bolstering of insecurities: Scarlett O’Hara grubbing for yams evidently made more of an impression than I realized at the time. But most of all they bewitch me with their textures, infinitely varied forms, even their sounds–the silky rustle of cabbages, the rattle of peas in their pods. Whether in orderly rows in the garden or lying in a heap on the kitchen table, they are almost too beautiful to eat, which at least proves that one isn’t just a hog. Given the aesthetic choice, I prefer vegetables to fruits or flowers. I am hardly the first to experience this half-worshipful emotion (think what Chardin could do with a scallion or a plum), but it is undoubtedly sharpened by the premonition that I may be the last. The seven-year-old-son of one of my garden helpers brought this home to me the other day. An intelligent child, he wanted to know what were the pea pods he saw lying in the compost heap. I explained. Still a blank, and it came to me that although he knew perfectly well what peas were, he had supposed they came out of a cardboard box, frozen. And there will soon be many more of him than me. Already I am something of a freak in the community on account of my vegetables, herbs and fruits. I foresee the day when I graduate from freak to witch.” from Green Thoughts: a Writer in the Garden, 1981.

A book review

Two things I am taking away from this book of letters:

1. Hellebores. They’re something I’ve only admired in OPG (Other People’s Gardens).

2. A great thankfulness that Civil Rights has passed in this country.

Yes, cantankerous me: wouldn’t it be LOVELY if I could just revel in these letters for their breadth of gardening knowledge? Well, whether it’s simply cultural oversight of a Yankee gardener with “hired men” or a Southern gardener with “half grown Negro boy[s]”…I seriously wonder if we can really consider these two women gardeners in the sense that we understand the term. (Especially Katharine White, who never deigned to even get out of a dress and heels.) I guess instead I will blame the editor, who did a fine job of delineating the silver spoon set but neglects to mention the hired help by name. It especially galled me when the editor saw fit to mention who Elizabeth’s mother’s doctor was, yet in the same paragraph, the ONLY place where he’s mentioned, she doesn’t cite Elizabeth’s gardener. “All saying things can’t be done, that my yardman, Willie, and I have been doing for years without a fuss.” [p. 76,Beacon Press ppb edition]

Okay, THAT is out of the way. Elizabeth Lawrence, if I were to rank them, is more bona fide a dirt digger. She wrote a gardening column for The Charlotte Observer and also had a landscape consulting business. Her personality comes through loud and clear in her letters, which describe a somewhat one-sided “friendship” between these two women. Katharine S. White (wife of E.B. “Andy” White, of Charlotte’s Web fame and a lot more) was an editor at The New Yorker who on occasion wrote a mostly gardening-related column for the same magazine. She had a large flower garden at their farm in Maine.

As a historical document, this batch of letters describes well how plantgrowing moved from one of local nurseries with local specialties to national nurseries with, as we know now, nothing local. This trend was helped somewhat by Katharine’s New Yorker articles about mail-order nurseries. (Katharine relied heavily in writing these articles upon the expertise of people like Elizabeth.) These letters document the loss of scent in roses, the hardiness of North Carolina daffodils in Maine, and bloom times for plants in December (!!). As such, it makes a very interesting read for those of us who’re plant-happy.

These letters also follow gardening trends, especially the emergence of the horrors of DDT and the re-emergence of chemical-free gardens. I think we were all a bit horrified to read how they describe how their yards were regularly sprayed with DDT and they noticed the loss of certain creatures because of it. (It was The New Yorker that first published chapters of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.)

The letters also describe what happened in their lives, particularly in terms of illness. (It is said that the Whites tended to be hypochondriacs.) Part of me wonders if some “real” gardening, the bend-and-stretch, dig-the-dirt, spread-the-mulch sweatiness that most of us practice wouldn’t have benefited these two, Katharine White especially. But then I also realize these women were very much products of their time, even though they were highly unusual by being fully employed. So getting sweaty in the garden was ONLY acceptable if they did it with their yardmen.

And that makes me wonder. Is my reaction to these women’s gardens a visceral kind of backwards jealosy? I am definitely in the bite-off-as-much-as-I-can-chew camp here on the farm. My vision, of course, is much larger than my time allows. If I had a yardman, or a crew…who knows what I could do. And seeing what these two COULD do, well…

And it is here that I should mention that my husband is in this week’s New Yorker. They mention his New York show, and include a photo (not online, unfortunately, but in the magazine itself). He’ll be in April’s Harper’s, so the ghosts of the Whites are all over this house…

(Thanks again, Carol, for hosting!)

A book review

Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web (Lowenfels, Jeff and Lewis, Wayne; Timber Press, Portland, OR; 2006)

Now, here is a useful book. There was enough handy information that even a seasoned organic gardener like myself could still glean a few kernels of wisdom from it. Here’s the spoiler: “Rule #2 holds that most vegetables, annuals, and grasses prefer their nitrogen in nitrate form and do best in bacterially dominated soils. Rule #3 points out that most trees, shrubs and perennials prefer their nitrogen in ammonium form and do best in fungally dominated soils.”

I also want to use the word “exudates” in a sentence now. Or at least in cocktail conversation. Cocktail conversation that does NOT include compost tea.

Forget about the idea for a second that the average human has a hard time with the concept of a “web.” Maybe it’s New Math (I certainly was a product), but most fields of study are linear in nature, and thus webs are kind of hard to conceptualize. That said, to team with the teeming trillions found in a tablespoon of soil is the stated purpose of this book. They have detours, they kind of get caught up in a few reductivist, or at least quantitative, digressions into these trillions…but I suppose that was important, considering the subject matter.

Here’s the rub, kids: soil is a living thing, or at least the host to trillions of living things. If you did not know that before, then you are probably not a gardener. Most folks know there’re earthworms in the soil. But there’s more to love than your average red wiggler.

There were a couple of things that stood out (i.e., annoyed the crap out of me) while reading this. One: “spouse”=”wife,” we get it. That your wives weren’t that keen about your raids of the pantry for brewing compost tea is your business: don’t lump the rest of us in that category, mainly because there are a lot of single gardeners out there, and there are a lot of wives who garden (ahem.). And two: doesn’t this whole compost tea-brewing obsession seem to any of you to be, well, the graying of your average basement beer brewer? Maybe it’s my particular demographic, but most beer-loving boys I know got into beer-brewing about age 25 or so, or at least when they had their first basement. I also thought the authors were showing their true colors (or at least their woo-woo bona fides) by giving us instructions to make our own fish hydrolysate by adding papain (aka papaya peptidase). Yep. Right there on the top shelf of MY pantry.

And the whole don’t-use-manure-in-your-compost thing because of (eeks!) E. coli. seems really like a lawsuit-avoidance tactic. Your average Nelly Nag down the road is not fed the same gut-turning crap your commercial Bessie is, so I would think this is a bit disingenuous on the authors’ part.

But the biggest apostacy of course is the throw-your-tiller-away dictum. Yes, we now fully understand how continued, twice-yearly tilling breaks the long strands of fungal hyphae. Hmm. Understood; understand. However. If one is to throw down the gantlet like this, I suppose I would’ve appreciated an alternative. My own little circle of hell here is clay soil. Before the tiller, in creating my garden beds, I was out there with a 10-lb. mattock. (Granted, I was a breastfeeding stay-at-home mother at that time so I felt my yin was way off my yang and I needed a butch-ifying outlet. This is also the time I took up with a chainsaw. But enough about me.) So yes, the only time I get out there and chop up the soil is when I bust the sod for new garden beds. Scraping the grass away daintily at the rootline was a hobby I could enjoy in my small city lot. Now, well. Manifest destiny.

And that brings me to the best line(s) of the book: “The organisms in the compost you apply…will spread life as far as they can. It is microbial manifest destiny.”

Eat or be eaten, kiddos. Go out and feed the eaters.

(and thank you, Carol, for your book club!)

Page gardening: Visions of grandeur

The greenhouse bed last fall

So I read another one of this bloke’s books recenly, this one about small-scale vegetable production (as in, sell the things) and somehow I am convinced that my land is being underused. Hmm. Maybe it is possible for me to produce EVERYTHING my family of three needs for a year, and not just 60% of it.

Beware the January garden, in other words. Lots of ideas, no weeds.

Page gardening, part II

Recently purchased: excuse the blobby nature, I nabbed it from the web.

I’d been contemplating a coldframe greenhouse since I read this book a few years ago. (I read the book as a citydweller in a very cold climate so it shows how elaborate my January gardening plans tend to get.) Well, this is the year! After what seemed like an unending search for a simple structure, I found a manufacturer within a half hour from our house. And they’ll ship the whole dang thing. Buy local!

SO. Yes, I would be more ahead of the game had I purchased this thing last fall, but hey, life has a way of getting in the way of one’s dreams. A 14’x20′ coldframe will soon be erected behind the icehouse (Tom’s tractor shed). It’ll face south, and have (8)3’x6′ and (1)2’x14′ raised beds in it. I will use it mainly for cold-season stuff all winter, and will put mainly root crops and some perennial veggies in it during the regular growing season.

I’m beyond excited. I am giddy!

Page gardening, part I

Not much I can do here

It’s January, and it seems I can rant just fine about food production. It’s January, and we’re finally snow-covered, so I can’t do much outside. I do my gardening now mostly with pages: in my notebooks, in books, on the Web. So I was reading here recently about putting more “fun” into your veg garden this year. Well, I think gardening IS fun, 95% of the time, but I understand how people can distracted, or even discouraged, in the edibles department: there’s a lot of work involved, for sometimes very little payoff.

I thought about my (fun) plans for this year’s garden, and the one new-to-me item I have ordered is sea kale. Now, this is an interesting factoid. I have consumed nearly every American publication on vegetable production…or so it would seem, between my sagging bookshelves and my worn-out library card. Either every book has the same information (and package the info. differently), or there really isn’t much that is new(s) to me, U.S.-garden-wise. It’s when I stumble across non-American books that my learning really climbs (or my ignorance does; your choice). Thus, the sea kale, a vegetable I didn’t know. I found it in one of my all-time fave organic books. It’s British.

In it I have learned many little semantic differences between the U.S. veg garden and one found in the U.K. (You’d expect this, especially if you’ve ever traveled there, especially in the company of a guy named Randy…but I digress.) But it goes further. They call something purple “broccoli” and something green “calabrese,” whereas we certainly don’t have the purple stuff growing in OUR gardens. There’s a boatload of other cultural (literally: soil culture on up) differences that I have gleaned from this, and other, books from the U.K.

But it really has me thinking. If I’ve learned as much as I have from one garden book from a country so similar to my own, I can only imagine what I would learn from a book from China, with its 4,000+ year old gardens. Or Peru, with their ancient terraces of potatoes. Or all the squashes and gourds in Africa. Or Iraq and Iran, the site of the Fertile Crescent, and 11,000 years of cultivation.

And somehow I am not so smug about what I know, for I know nothing!

But just think about all the new veggies I could get for my garden….

The country mice go to the city


We’re off for a few days to hit Tom’s show. He’ll be hobnobbing. Our kid wants to ride another bus. Me? I am looking forward to lots of great meals and some decent bagels (it’s been so long!).

p.s.: There’s more of Tom’s work here and here. Oh, and here; there’s an interview that was just published today.

A book review

Carol of May Dreams Gardens came up with the wonderful idea of doing an on-line book club with a bunch of us gardening bloggers. Great idea, sign me up! Then I heard about the first book selected. Oh no, I thought.

The ancient Romans had an expression that I re-remembered when I reread this book. (In point of fact, I thought of it when I bought the book, too, but more about that later.) It goes like this: “De gustibus non est disputandum.” This translates to “In matters of taste, there is no argument.” And I had to keep that in mind when the very particular Mr. Mitchell would tee off on one or another of my favorite growing things, or elevate one of my least-favorite.

About the book: Henry Mitchell was the beloved garden writer for the Washington Post for a time during the 70s-80s. His style was a bit revolutionary, and his yarns about his city and country gardens actually do travel very well. He’s something of a curmudgeon, his humor is dry, his opinions (like I mentioned) are legion. In other words, he (normally) would be someone I would love. This book is a collection of his essays, and therein lies my problem with the book. As far as narrative structure, the book is something easily picked up, read, and put down again…it is the gardening dilettante’s dream. Great for the bedside table, great for reading on the train to work.

One of my other favorite garden bloggers has this theory of her blog that I truly admire. She basically avoids giving advice because gardening advice is…boring! “Snoozy voice of God stuff,” she says. And honestly? Henry Mitchell’s voice is quite in my head, thank you; and yes, he, to my ears, is prone to sermons, and tendentious, even when (especially when) I agree with him. I frankly think this is ONLY because this book is structured the way it is, i.e., as a series of narrowly-connected articles. Quite fun to read in the newspaper, yes; as a whole book? no.

Considering Henry Mitchell is something of a sacred cow in gardening circles, I do feel bad that my review of this book is so harsh. My review of him? He’s great. In small doses.

But remember the Romans. In matters of taste, there is no argument.

How could I have forgotten this one?

This also came in the haul Saturday. I forgot to photo it yesterday because I was reading it.

Isn’t this the way YOU turn your compost heaps? Flower in your hair, Madras shorts, and tiny shoes?

I have the updated copy of this book. It lacks the photos and zany testimonials of Mrs. Henry So-and-So and Mrs. Eugene Such-and-Such. Most of the pics show women who look like Ma Barker and men who look like, well, your grandfather, doing all they can to make compost. Nowhere is there the Nancy Drew type found on the cover. Quite fascinating. LOVE it.


I have had the good fortune of finding a husband who loves books as much as I do. You see that “what kind of flower are you” thingy I put on this site? One of the questions is “How many books are in your house,” then it gives in my eyes an absurd option like 0-5, 6-10, etc. up to 100. A hundred? Per room, I hope they meant, and checked it, because geez, we even have books in our dining room.

And to add to our sagging floor joists, Tom went to the local library’s book sale yesterday, armed with two large cloth Ikea bags. He came back with the little stash in the photo below for me. And he got a lot of kids’ books for the kid, with names like “My Turtle Died Today” and “Jeepers There’s a Jet”, all in the same obvious vintage as my gardening selection, i.e., 1950s.

Here, of course, is my favorite. Now my question is, when is it that I can become an Old Wife? I mean, I am not young, but I have only been married 4 years. Do I have long to wait?

We interrupt our regularly scheduled blog…

…to brag about my husband.

This is the cover of the latest All-Story magazine, a literary publication that specializes in short fiction. Tom’s work is featured in it; actually, 39 of his images are used to illustrate the fall issue. Zoetrope: All-Story was created by Francis Ford Coppola, and its guest designer for this issue was Chip Kidd, who’s kind of THE go-to guy, book design-wise.

Go pick up a copy at your local bookstore. Here’s a link for you, too. ZOETROPE: ALL-STORY

On arachnids

Our daughter is going through her Charlotte’s Web phase. Mine has lasted 41 years, so maybe hers really isn’t a phase. August and September are certainly spider season, and we found this little cutie in the veg garden hanging out with the lima beans and cosmos.

When I was planting out the fall broccoli on Tuesday (sans camera) I disrupted a beauty who was easily 2″ long (legs stretched out, of course). I say “she” because her back was bristly with little babies. Though I suppose it COULD have been dad toting them around…

Food blogging


We have an esteemed visitor here this weekend, so I have stepped it up a notch, cooking-wise. In general, we eat from the garden all summer and fall, and it makes up about 75% of my daughter’s and my meals and maybe 60% of my carnivorous husband’s. In general, the fare is simple peasant food like garlic soup, simple basil/tomato sauce on pasta, and the odd egg-based dish like a quiche or pasta or crepes.

Here is the garden-based fare for this evening:
Beet salad with blue cheese crumbles
Soupe au Pistou
Zucchini Bread (not the sweet kind) with homemade herbed yogurt cheese
Corn from down the road
Barbecued peaches
Red Arrow Red wine from Tabor Hill Vineyards in Buchanan (15 miles)
White Demi-sec from the same
Bell’s Oberon from Kalamazoo (45 miles)

Tomorrow, we shall break our fast on:
Roulade with Tomatoes and Herb Yogurt Cheese
Zucchini bread with either grape jam from our farm or strawberry jam made with berries from down the road

These are the stats, location-wise, for the non-farm fare included:

Off farm:
Raw milk from an undisclosed farm in Buchanan (it is not exactly legal to sell raw milk, I am told) from which I made yogurt and then the yogurt cheese
Blue cheese goes with the shredded beet salad. Goat cheese would work well, too
Peaches, blueberries and corn from down the road
Organic whole-wheat flour from “the Midwest” which is about as much detail as the store people would say
Salt and pepper and olive oil in the soup

Soupe au Pistou is modified from Aug 06 Food and Wine
Zucchini bread is from Bread for All Seasons by Beth Hensperger (San Francisco: Chronicle, 1995)
Roulade base is from the bible, er, fabulous Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison (worship her) (New York: Broadway Books, 1997)