Forgetting to turn off the grow light before retiring to bed is a new bad habit. Seedlings need a daily rest from light, at least for 4-5 hours. I end up turning the light off around 3:30 a.m. when I return to my writing space for the day.
Learning to garden is a never ending process if one is any good at it.
This year the garden is in for big changes. The Aug. 10, 2020 derecho blew over the Locust tree and tilted one of the three Bur Oaks enough it should be taken down. I plan to cut two of the Bur Oaks to provide space for the remaining one to grow normally.
The derecho damaged a lot of fencing I use to discourage deer from jumping into the plots. There will be new stakes and new chicken wire fencing. If we had the resources, I’d install an eight-foot fence all around the garden with a locking gate. There are other projects begging for the money, so that plan is deferred.
The garlic patch is in, but the other plots are an open book. I will rotate cruciferous vegetables and beans. I need a whole plot for tomatoes and a small one for leafy greens. I ran out of garden onions this month, so I want to grow more this year and that will require a bigger space. No final decisions to be made until I plant Belgian lettuce on March 2, two weeks from now, if the snow melts.
The goal of having a kitchen garden is to produce food aligned with our culinary habits that helps meet a basic human need. We have to eat, no matter where, no matter how. It may as well be enjoyable. We’ve all eaten our share of food that doesn’t please our palate. A kitchen garden should address that.
There are inputs to address, other than the garden part of a kitchen garden. Perhaps the most significant is intellectual. Most people don’t frame such a construct although they should.
A kitchen garden is a reaction to the culture of consumerism. An important distinction is reaction, not rejection. I will continue to buy black peppercorns, nutmeg, vanilla bean extract, refined sugar, and all-purpose flour milled elsewhere. How else will we get such necessary ingredients?
For the time being, I’m ovo-lacto-vegetarian (most of the time), which means consumption of dairy products and the good and bad that goes with them. I’m not of one mind on this. For example, I’ll buy a gallon of skim milk from the local dairy 6.2 miles from my house, yet I’ll also stock up at the wholesale club for half the price. I take local eggs from the farm when offered, yet I also buy them at the club. Maybe it’s best to become vegan and eschew dairy altogether. I’m not there yet.
While I am a local foods enthusiast, and my diet centers around being that, I am not doctrinaire. Other people have to consume the results of my kitchen work, although during the pandemic that’s only one other person who I’ve known for going on 40 years. Despite several issues with his behavior and written output — including bigotry, racism and patriarchy — I like the Joel Salatin idea of a food shed. That is, secure everything one can that is produced within a four hour drive of home. I am also not doctrinaire about “food miles.” I’ve written often on the topic and if we work at it, we can secure most of our food produced within less than an hour drive from home.
During the pandemic we haven’t eaten restaurant food even once. If we get out of this thing alive, I see a return to restaurants as a social endeavor. I like our cooking better than any restaurant fare I’ve had the past many years. I expect the habit of cooking and eating at home will persist. How would restaurant dining fit into a kitchen garden? It would be an infrequent adventure in expanding our menu and spending time with good friends.
Another part of a kitchen garden is providing proper nutrition. That means research to understand nutrition enough to combat common diseases — diabetes and cardiovascular disease particularly. Portion control is also part of nutrition, related to maintaining a healthy weight. My research into nutrition was mostly a reaction to medical clinic visits. I sought to change the results of my blood tests regarding cholesterol and glucose through dietary adjustment. The approach has been to discover techniques and processes, then adopt them by habit to weekly meal preparation. Every so often I will consider nutrition in my diet. Mostly, once a new pattern is set, I follow it.
The influence of television and so-called celebrity chefs is part of the intellectual development I bring to the kitchen garden. Before I left my home town for university I spent almost no time in the kitchen learning how to cook. The first meals I prepared for guests were tuna and noodle casseroles made with condensed cream of mushroom soup from a can, once for Mother before leaving for military service, and once for friends at my apartment in Mainz, Germany. My early cooking years — in the 1970s — were trial and error and a lot of marginal, home-prepared meals. I recall at least one loaf of “bread” I used as a doorstop. It was baked while I was an undergraduate, interested in macrobiotic cooking, and didn’t understand how yeast worked.
I learned cooking mostly from television. In 2014 I wrote this about my experience on a work assignment in Georgia during the 1990s:
TV Food Network, as it was known, occupied my non-working time, and I developed an insatiable curiosity about food and its preparation. Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali, Susan Feniger, Mary Sue Milliken, Julia Child and others prepared food on screen, and I was captivated, watching episode after episode on Georgia weekends. Food is a common denominator for humanity, and I couldn’t get enough. My involvement in the local food movement today has its origins in the contrast between that uninviting place in South Georgia and my food escape.
There is a broader point to be made than one person’s transient addiction to a television network while away from home. It is that American food pursuits, and the economy around them, continue to be based partly upon curiosity.Curiosity About Food, Blog Post, April 17, 2014.
Over time, Food Network became more formulaic and less interesting. It also moved to a form of cookery competition that diverged from recipe preparation. I don’t tune in today. It opened my mind to the possibilities of food preparation and for that I am grateful.
The last part of intellectual development affecting the kitchen garden has to do with studying recipes. In my ongoing document mining I expect to purge my collection of hundreds of cookbooks. Partly because there are too many for reasonable use, and partly because I have learned the lessons from many of them. Which cookbooks have mattered most?
Like it is for many people, The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker is a go-to book when I’m learning to cook a specific dish or vegetable. I continue to use it a lot. I frequently use Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck. I keep copies of other reference books, but those are my main two.
For variety, I have cookbooks by Mario Batali, Giada De Lautentiis, Rick Bayless, Jeff Smith, and Anthony Bourdain, all of whom appeared on television during the period I watched cooking shows. These recipes produce food we like. I also use a few baking cook books, Bo Friberg’s The Professional Pastry Chef, and The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion. I’m currently working my way through some cook books used by local chef, the late Kurt Michael Friese.
I studied church and organizational cook books extensively. I adopted very few recipes from them so most are going to go. I’ll keep those that have some sentimental value, ones in which recipes by friends appear, and a set of a dozen or so from my old neighborhood in Northwest Davenport. The purpose of acquiring these cookbooks has been to understand the development of kitchen cookery beginning in the 1950s and ’60s. People used a lot of gelatin and lard back in the day, that’s for sure.
Whatever I learned from studying cookery reduces itself into repeatable main dishes made using understandable preparation techniques. A family only needs so many recipes. As I progress, the kitchen garden becomes more related to cuisine, one recognizable and uniquely our own. It is a cuisine tied to soil I made, the flavors that emerge from it, and the methods used to make it into dishes. The garden has already changed to better match what is going on in the nearby kitchen. That relationship will continue to evolve.
The journey home begins with an understanding of where we’ve been and ends, if we are lucky, with a pleasant reunion with family and friends. A kitchen garden works toward that end.