Waiting For Asparagus -Late March -Animal, Vegetable, Miracle_ A Year of Food Life
A question was nagging at our family now, and it was no longer, “When do we get there?” It was, “When do we start?”
We had come to the farmland to eat deliberately. We’d discussed for several years what that would actually mean. We only knew, somewhat abstractly, we were going to spend a year integrating our food choices with our family values, which include both “love your neighbor” and “try not to wreck every blooming thing on the planet while you’re here.”
We’d given ourselves nearly a year to settle in at the farm and address some priorities imposed by our hundred- year- old farmhouse, such as hundred-year- old plumbing. After some drastic remodeling, we’d moved into a house that still lacked some finishing touches, like doorknobs. And a back door. We nailed plywood over the opening so forest mammals wouldn’t wander into the kitchen.
Between home improvement projects, we did find time that fi rst summer to grow a modest garden and can some tomatoes. In October the sober forests around us suddenly revealed their proclivity for cross- dressing. (Trees in Tucson didn’t just throw on scarlet and orange like this.) Then came the series of snowfalls that comprised the first inclement winter of the kids’ lives. One of our Tucson- bred girls was so dismayed by the cold, she adopted fleece- lined boots as orthodoxy, even indoors; the other was so thrilled with the concept of third grade canceled on account of snow, she kept her sled parked on the porch and developed rituals to enhance the odds.
With our local- food project still ahead of us, we spent time getting to know our farming neighbors and what they grew, but did our grocery shopping in fairly standard fashion. We relied as much as possible on the organic section and skipped the junk, but were getting our food mostly from elsewhere. At some point we meant to let go of the food pipeline. Our plan was to spend one whole year in genuine acquaintance with our food sources. If something in our diets came from outside our county or state, we’d need an extraordinary reason for buying it. (“I want it” is not extraordinary.) Others before us have publicized local food experiments: a Vancouver couple had announced the same intention just ahead of us, and were now reported to be eating dandelions. Our friend Gary Nabhan, in Tucson, had written an upbeat book on his local- food adventures, even after he poisoned himself with moldy mesquite flour and ate some roadkill. We were thinking of a different scenario. We hoped to establish that a normal- ish American family could be content on the fruits of our local foodshed.
It seemed unwise to start on January 1. February, when it came, looked just as bleak. When March arrived, the question started to nag: What are we waiting for? We needed an official start date to begin our 365-day experiment. It seemed sensible to start with the growing season, but what did that mean, exactly? When wild onions and creasy greens started to pop up along the roadsides? I drew the line at our family gleaning the ditches in the style of Les Misérables. Our neighborhood already saw us as objects of charity, I’m pretty sure. The cabin where we lived before moving into the farmhouse was extremely primitive quarters for a family of four. One summer when Lily was a toddler I’d gone to the hardware store to buy a big bucket in which to bathe her outdoors, because we didn’t have a bathtub or large sink. After the helpful hardware guys offered a few things that weren’t quite right, I made the mistake of explaining what I meant to use this bucket for. The store went quiet as all pitying eyes fell upon me, the Appalachian mother with the poster child on her hip.
So, no public creasy- greens picking. I decided we should define New Year’s Day of our local- food year with something cultivated and wonderful, the much- anticipated first real vegetable of the year. If the Europeans could make a big deal of its arrival, we could too: we were waiting for asparagus.
Two weeks before spring began on the calendar, I was outside with my boots in the mud and my parka pulled over my ears, scrutinizing the asparagus patch. Four summers earlier, when Steven and I decided this farm would someday be our permanent home, we’d worked to create the garden that would feed us, we hoped, into our old age. “Creation” is a large enough word for the sweaty, muscle- building project that took most of our summer and a lot of help from a friend with earth- moving equipment. Our challenge was the same one common to every farm in southern Appalachia: topography. Our farm lies inside a U-shaped mountain ridge. The forested hillsides slope down into a steep valley with a creek running down its center. This is what’s known as a “hollow” (or “holler,” if you’re from here). Out west they’d call it a canyon, but those have fewer trees and a lot more sunshine.
At the mouth of the hollow sits our tin- roofed farmhouse, some cleared fields and orchards, the old chestnut- sided barn and poultry house, and a gravel drive that runs down the hollow to the road. The cabin (now our guesthouse) lies up in the deep woods, as does the origin of our water supply—a spring- fed creek that runs past the house and along the lane, joining a bigger creek at the main road. We have more than a hundred acres here, virtually all of them too steep to cultivate. My grandfather used to say of farms like these, you could lop off the end of a row and let the potatoes roll into a basket. A nice image, but the truth is less fun. We tried cultivating the narrow stretch of nearly flat land along the creek, but the bottomland between our tall mountains gets direct sun only from late morning to mid- afternoon. It wasn’t enough to ripen a melon. For years we’d studied the lay of our land for a better plan.
Eventually we’d decided to set our garden into the south- facing mountainside, halfway up the slope behind the farmhouse. After clearing brambles we carved out two long terraces that hug the contour of the hill—less than a quarter of an acre altogether—constituting our only truly level property. Year by year we’ve enriched the soil with compost and cover crops, and planted the banks between terraces with blueberry bushes, peach and plum trees, hazelnuts, pecans, almonds, and raspberries. So we have come into the job of overseeing a hundred or so acres of woodlands that exhale oxygen and filter water for the common good, and about 4,000 square feet of tillable land that are meant to feed our family. And in one little corner of that, on a June day three years earlier, I had staked out my future in asparagus. It took a full day of trenching and planting to establish what I hope will be the last of the long trail of these beds I’ve left in the wake of my life.
Now, in March, as we waited for a sign to begin living off the land, this completely bare patch of ground was no burning bush of portent. (Though it was blackened with ash—we’d burned the dead stalks of last year’s plants to kill asparagus beetles.) Two months from this day, when it would be warm enough to plant corn and beans, the culinary happening of asparagus would be a memory, this patch a waist- high forest of feathery fronds. By summer’s end they’d resemble dwarf Christmas trees covered with tiny red balls. Then frost would knock them down. For about forty-eight weeks of the year, an asparagus plant is unrecognizable to anyone except an asparagus grower. Plenty of summer visitors to our garden have stood in the middle of the bed and asked, “What is this stuff, it’s beautiful!” We tell them it’s the asparagus patch, and they reply, “No, this, these feathery little trees?”
An asparagus spear only looks like its picture for one day of its life, usually in April, give or take a month as you travel from the Mason- Dixon line. The shoot emerges from the ground like a snub- nosed green snake headed for sunshine, rising so rapidly you can just about see it grow. If it doesn’t get its neck cut off at ground level as it emerges, it will keep growing. Each triangular scale on the spear rolls out into a branch, until the snake becomes a four- foot tree with delicate needles. Contrary to lore, fat spears are no more tender or mature than thin ones; each shoot begins life with its own particular girth. In the hours after emergence it lengthens, but does not appreciably fatten.
To step into another raging asparagus controversy, white spears are botanically no different from their green colleagues. White shoots have been deprived of sunlight by a heavy mulch pulled up over the plant’s crown. European growers go to this trouble for consumers who prefer the stalks before they’ve had their first blush of photosynthesis. Most Americans prefer the more developed taste of green. (Uncharacteristically, we’re opting for the better nutritional deal here also.) The same plant could produce white or green spears in alternate years, depending on how it is treated. If the spears are allowed to proceed beyond their first exploratory six inches, they’ll green out and grow tall and feathery like the houseplant known as asparagus fern, which is the next of kin.
Older, healthier asparagus plants produce chunkier, more multiple shoots. Underneath lies an octopus- shaped affair of chubby roots (called a crown) that stores enough starch through the winter to arrange the phallic send- up when winter starts to break. The effect is rather sexy, if you’re the type to see things that way. Europeans of the Renaissance swore by it as an aphrodisiac, and the church banned it from nunneries.
The earliest recipes for this vegetable are about 2,500 years old, written in ancient Greek and Egyptian hieroglyphics, suggesting the Mediterranean as the plant’s homeland. The Caesars took their asparagus passion to extravagant lengths, chartering ships to scour the empire for the best spears and bring them to Rome. Asparagus even inspired the earliest frozen- food industry, in the first century, when Roman charioteers would hustle fresh asparagus from the Tiber River Valley up into the Alps and keep it buried there in snow for six months, all so it could be served with a big ta-daa at the autumnal Feast of Epicurus. So we are not the first to go to ridiculous lengths to eat foods out of season.
Northern Europeans didn’t catch on to asparagus until much later, but by the time they came to the New World, they couldn’t leave it behind. It’s a long- lived plant whose seeds are spread by birds from gardens to hedgerows, so we have wild populations of it growing in every temperate part of North America where enough rain falls to keep it alive. It likes light soils where the top few inches of the ground freeze in winter. It’s especially common along roadsides and railroad right- of-ways that are kept clear of overlying vegetation. Wild asparagus is not always tastiest but offers the advantage of being free. My father used to love bringing home bundles of it in early spring when house calls took him out on the country roads where it grew. The biggest problem is finding it, among tall weeds, in the first day after emergence when it has to be cut. Dad always made it a point to notice tall stands of wild asparagus later in the summer wherever they waved in the breeze. He would stop his car, get out, and mark the location of the patch with orange flagging tape he carried for this purpose. If the highway department or winter weather didn’t take down his flags, we’d have well- marked asparagus checkpoints all over the county the next spring. We kids loved the idea of eating anything stolen, especially with lots of butter.
In my adult life I have dug asparagus beds into the property of every house I’ve owned, and some I rented—even tiny urban lots and student ghettoes—always leaving behind a vegetable legacy waving in the wake of my Johnny- Asparagus-seed life. I suppose in those unsettled years I was aspiring to a stability I couldn’t yet purchase. A well- managed asparagus bed can keep producing for twenty or thirty years, but it’s a ludicrous commitment to dig one into the yard of a student rental. It’s hard work to dig the trench, fill it with compost, and tuck in a row of asparagus crowns ordered from a seed company. Then you wait three years for a harvest. A too-young plant gets discouraged when you whack off its every attempt to send up new shoots in the spring, abuse that will make the plant sink into vegetable despair and die.
After the plant has had two full summers to bulk up, then you can begin cutting off its early efforts—but only for two weeks in the first year of harvest. Even with fully mature plants, the harvester must eventually back off from this war between producer and consumer, and let the plant win. After about eight weeks of daily cutting, the asparagus farmer puts away the knife, finally letting the spears pass beyond edibility into the lanky plants they long to be. For most crop species, the season ends when all the vegetable units have been picked and the mother plant dies or gets plowed under. Asparagus is different: its season ends by declaration, purely out of regard for the plant. The key to the next spring’s action is the starch it has stored underground, which only happens if the plant has enough of a summer life to beef up its bank account. Of all our familiar vegetables, the season for local, fresh asparagus is the very shortest, for this reason.
Don’t expect baby asparagus tips any time other than March, April, or May, unless you live in New Zealand or South America. Some California farmers have worked out a way to cut a brief second harvest in late fall, but this is exceptional. For most of us, if we see asparagus in any month far removed from April, we’re looking at some hard traveling. At our house we only eat asparagus for the weeks it’s in season, but during those weeks we eat it a lot—the spears must be cut every day. About the same time the asparagus plant is getting weary of our management plan, we’re starting to feel the same way. It works out.
From the outlaw harvests of my childhood, I’ve measured my years by asparagus. I sweated to dig it into countless yards I was destined to leave behind, for no better reason than that I believe in vegetables in general, and this one in particular. Gardeners are widely known and mocked for this sort of fanaticism. But other people fast or walk long pilgrimages to honor the spirit of what they believe makes our world whole and lovely. If we gardeners can, in the same spirit, put our heels to the shovel, kneel before a trench holding tender roots, and then wait three years for an edible incarnation of the spring equinox, who’s to make the call between ridiculous and reverent?
The asparagus plant’s life history sets it apart, giving it a special edge as the year’s first major edible. It’s known botanically as a perennial, with a life span of many years. The rest of our plant foods are almost always the leaves, flowers, fruits, or seeds of plants that begin life in spring as seedlings and perish just a few months later when they’re frozen by autumn, or eaten, whichever comes first. (The exceptions are the fruits we call “fruits,” which grow on berry bushes or trees, and root crops, which operate a bit differently; more about these later.) Annuals tend to grow more quickly than perennials and have been cultivated as food crops for thousands of years. The grass family (whose seed heads are our grains) is especially speedy, with corn the clear winner in the carbon- fixing efficiency race. But asparagus wins the vegetable prize for living longer than one year. That’s why it is the very first one to leap up in springtime, offering edible biomass when other vegetables are still at the seedling stage; it had a head start.
The plant’s edible portion, however, is direly short- lived. The moment the asparagus neck goes under the knife, an internal starting gun fi res “Go!” and it begins to decompose, metabolizing its own sugars and trying—because it knows no other plan—to keep growing. It’s best eaten the day it is cut, period. When transported, even as refrigerated cargo, the plant’s tight bud scales loosen and start to reveal the embryonic arms that were meant to become branches. The fresh stems have the tight, shiny sex appeal of dressed- up matrons on the dance floor of a Latin social club, but they lose their shine and crispness so quickly when the song is over. The sweetness goes starchy.
We don’t even know all the things that go wrong in the swan song of a vegetable, since flavor and nutritional value both result from complex interactions of living phytochemical systems. Early in the twentieth century, Japanese food scientist Kikunae Ikeda first documented that asparagus had a flavor that lay outside the range of the four well- known tastes of sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. Its distinctive tang derives from glutamic acid, which Dr. Ikeda named “the fifth taste,” or umami. This was, for once, the genuine discovery of a taste sensation. (Later came the invention of an artificial umami flavoring known as monosodium glutamate.) But the flavor chemicals quickly lose their subtlety. Asparagus that’s not fresh tastes simple or even bitter, especially when overcooked.
Pushing a refrigerated green vegetable from one end of the earth to another is, let’s face it, a bizarre use of fuel. But there’s a simpler reason to pass up off- season asparagus: it’s inferior. Respecting the dignity of a spectacular food means enjoying it at its best. Europeans celebrate the short season of abundant asparagus as a form of holiday. In the Netherlands the first cutting coincides with Father’s Day, on which restaurants may feature all- asparagus menus and hand out neckties decorated with asparagus spears. The French make a similar party out of the release of each year’s Beaujolais; the Italians crawl over their woods like harvester ants in the autumn mushroom season, and go gaga over the summer’s first tomato.
Waiting for foods to come into season means tasting them when they’re good, but waiting is also part of most value equations. Treating foods this way can help move “eating” in the consumer’s mind from the Routine Maintenance Department over to the Division of Recreation. It’s hard to reduce our modern complex of food choices to unifying principles, but this is one that generally works: eating home- cooked meals from whole, in-season ingredients obtained from the most local source available is eating well, in every sense. Good for the habitat, good for the body.
A handful of creative chefs have been working for years to establish this incipient notion of a positive American food culture—a cuisine based on our own ingredients. Notable pioneers are Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in San Francisco, and Rick Bayless of Chicago’s Frontera Grill, along with cookbook maven Deborah Madison. However, to the extent that it’s even understood, this cuisine is widely assumed to be the property of the elite. Granted, in restaurants it can sometimes be pricey, but the do-it- yourself version is not. I am not sure how so many Americans came to believe only our wealthy are capable of honoring a food aesthetic. Anyone who thinks so should have a gander at the kitchens of working-class immigrants from India, Mexico, anywhere really. Cooking at home is cheaper than buying packaged foods or restaurant meals of comparable quality. Cooking good food is mostly a matter of having the palate and the skill.
The main barrier standing between ourselves and a local- food culture is not price, but attitude. The most difficult requirements are patience and a pinch of restraint—virtues that are hardly the property of the wealthy. These virtues seem to find precious little shelter, in fact, in any modern quarter of this nation founded by Puritans. Furthermore, we apply them selectively: browbeating our teenagers with the message that they should wait for sex, for example. Only if they wait to experience intercourse under the ideal circumstances (the story goes), will they know its true value. “Blah blah blah,” hears the teenager: words issuing from a mouth that can’t even wait for the right time to eat tomatoes, but instead consumes tasteless ones all winter to satisfy a craving for everything now. We’re raising our children on the definition of promiscuity if we feed them a casual, indiscriminate mingling of foods from every season plucked from the supermarket, ignoring how our sustenance is cheapened by wholesale desires.
Waiting for the quality experience seems to be the constitutional article that has slipped from American food custom. If we mean to reclaim it, asparagus seems like a place to start. And if the object of our delayed gratification is a suspected aphrodisiac? That’s the sublime paradox of a food culture: restraint equals indulgence.
On a Sunday in early April we sat at the kitchen table putting together our grocery list for the coming week. The mood was uncharacteristically grave. Normally we all just penciled our necessities onto a notepad stuck onto the fridge. Before shopping, we’d consolidate our foraging plan. The problem now was that we wanted to be a different kind of animal—one that doesn’t jump the fence for every little thing. We kept postponing our start date until the garden looked more hospitable, but if we meant to do this for a whole year, we would have to eat in April sooner or later. We had harvested and eaten asparagus now, twice. That was our starting gun: ready, set . . . ready?
Like so many big ideas, this one was easier to present to the board of directors than the stockholders. Our family now convened around the oak table in our kitchen; the milk- glass farmhouse light above us cast a dramatic glow. The grandfather clock ticked audibly in the next room. We’d fixed up our old house in the architectural style known as recycling: we’d gleaned old light fixtures, hardware, even sinks and a bathtub from torn-down buildings; our refrigerator is a spruced- up little 1932 Kelvinator. It all gives our kitchen a comfortable lived- in charm, but at the moment it felt to me like a set where I was auditioning for a part in either Little House on the Prairie or Mommie Dearest.
They all sat facing me. Steven: my faithful helpmeet, now quite happy to let me play the heavy. And whose idea this whole thing was in the first place, I’m pretty sure. Camille: our redheaded teenager, who in defiance of all stereotypes has the most even temperament in our family. From birth, this child has calmly studied and solved every problem in her path, never asking for special help from the Universe or her parents. At eighteen she now functioned in our household as a full adult, cooking and planning meals often, and was also a dancer who fueled her calorie-intensive passions with devotedly healthy rations. If this project was going to impose a burden, she would feel it. And finally, Lily: earnest, dark-pigtailed persuader and politician of our family who could, as my grandfather would say, charm the socks off a snake. I had a hunch she didn’t really know what was coming. Otherwise she’d already be lobbying the loopholes.
Six eyes, all beloved to me, stared unblinking as I crossed the exotics off our shopping list, one by one. All other pastures suddenly looked a whole lot greener than ours. All snack foods come from the land of Oz, it seems, even the healthy ones. Cucumbers, in April? Nope. Those would need passports to reach us right now, or at least a California license. Ditto for those make- believe baby carrots that are actually adult carrots whittled down with a lathe. And all prewashed salad greens emanate from California. Even salad dressing was problematic because of all the ingredients—over a dozen different foods logging their own mileage to get to a salad dressing factory, and then to us. As fuel economy goes, I suppose the refrigerated tropicals like bananas and pineapples are the Humvees of the food world, but multi- ingredient concoctions are sneaky sports cars. I drew a pencil line through one item after another. “Salad dressing is easy to make,” I said. The vinegar and oil in our pantry were not local, of course, but with a small effort, thirty seconds spent shaking things together in a jar, we could improve the gas mileage of our vinaigrette. In the herb garden we already had garlic chives and oregano, the hardiest of the spicy Mediterranean perennials, braving the frosts of late winter.
We were getting plenty of local eggs too, so in a reckless burst of confidence I promised to make mayonnaise. It’s supposed to be pretty easy. I had a recipe I’d been saving since my high school French class, waiting for the right time to try it, because of one irresistible step that translates as follows: “Whip heartily for two minutes while holding only pleasant thoughts in mind.”
Back to the grocery list, trying for that positive mindset: a few more items fell without significant protest. Then I came to block letters in Camille’s hand, underlined: fresh fruit, please???
We were about to cross the Rubicon.
I shifted tactics. Instead of listing what we can’t have, I said, we should outline what we knew we could get locally. Vegetables and meat—which constitute the bulk of our family’s diet—would be available in some form throughout the coming year. We had met or knew of farmers in our county who sold pasture- fed chickens, turkeys, beef, lamb, and pork. Many more were producing vegetables. Like so many other towns, large and small, ours holds a farmers’ market where local growers set up booths twice a week from mid- April to October. Soon our garden would also be feeding us. Our starting point would be this: we would take a loyalty oath to our own county’s meat and produce, forsaking all others, however sexy the veggies and flesh of California might be.
What else does a family need? Honey would do instead of sugar, in a county where beekeepers are as thick as thieves. Eggs, too, were an easy local catch. Highly processed convenience foods we try to avoid, so those would not be a problem categorically. The other food groups we use in quantity are grains, dairy, and olive oil. We knew of some good dairies in our state, but olives don’t grow in this climate. No reasonable substitute exists, and no other oil is produced here. Likewise, we knew of a local mill that ground corn, wheat, and other flours, but its wheat was outsourced from other states. If we purchased only these two foods from partly or wholly nonlocal sources—grains and olive oil—we would be making a sea change in our household economy, keeping an overwhelming majority of our food transactions local. We would try to buy our grains in the least processed, easiest- to-transport form available (bulk flour and some North American rice) so those food dollars would go mostly to farmers.
I put down the list, tried not to chew my pencil, and consciously shut out the image of my children going hungry . . . Lily begging leftovers from somebody’s lunchbox at school.
Let me be clear about one thing: I have no interest in playing poor. I’ve logged some years in frugal material circumstances, first because I was born into a fairly modest rural social order, and later due to years of lousy paychecks. I understand Spam as a reasonable protein source. Both Steven and I have done our time on student stipends, government cheese, and the young- professional years of beans and rice. A huge turning point for me was a day in my mid- thirties when I walked into the supermarket and realized I could buy any ten things there I wanted. Not the lobsters in the aquarium, okay, but not just dented cans in the bargain bin, either. I appreciate the privilege of food choices.
So why give them back voluntarily? It is both extraordinary and unsympathetic in our culture to refrain from having everything one can afford. Yet people do, mostly because they are allergic, or religious. We looked around the table at one another, knowing we had our reasons too. Strange, though, how much it felt like stepping into a spaceship and slamming shut the hatch.
“It won’t be that bad,” I said. “We’re coming into spring.”
It wasn’t spring yet, however. We were in for some lean months before the midsummer bounty started flooding us with the real rewards of local flavor and color. But April is a forward- looking time on the farm, full of work and promise. It seemed best to jump in now. Sink or swim.
Hedging, we decided to allow ourselves one luxury item each in limited quantities, on the condition we’d learn how to purchase it through a channel most beneficial to the grower and the land where it grows. Steven’s choice was a no brainer: coffee. If he had to choose between coffee and our family, it might be a tough call. Camille’s indulgence of choice was dried fruit; Lily’s was hot chocolate. We could get all those from fair trade organizations that work with growers in Africa, Asia, and South America. I would rely on the same sources for spices that don’t grow locally; a person can live without turmeric, cinnamon, and cloves, I’ve heard, but I am not convinced. Furthermore, dry goods like these, used by most households in relatively tiny quantities, don’t register for much on the world’s gas- guzzling meter.
With that, our hopeful agreement in place with its bylaws and backstops, we went back one last time to our grocery list. Almost everything left fell into the grains category: bread flour and rolled oats are big- ticket items, since Steven makes most of our bread, and oatmeal is our cool weather breakfast of choice. We usually buy almonds and raisins to put in our oatmeal, but I crossed those off, hoping to find local substitutes. Then we came back around to the sticky one. fresh fruit, please???
At the moment, fruits were only getting ripe in places where people were wearing bikinis. Correlation does not imply causation: putting on our swimsuits would not make it happen here. “Strawberries will be coming in soon,” I said, recognizing this as possibly the first in a long line of pep talks to come.
The question remained, What about now?
“Look,” I said, “the farmers’ market opens this Saturday. We’ll go see what’s there.” Around the table went the Oh sure, Mom face that mothers everywhere know and do not love.
Saturday dawned dark, windy, and fiercely cold. The day’s forecast was for snow. Spring had been slapped down by what they call around here “dogwood winter,” a hard freeze that catches the dogwoods in bloom— and you thinking you were about to throw your sweaters into the cedar chest. April fool.
The cold snap was worrisome for our local orchards, since apple and peach trees had broken dormancy and blossomed out during the last two sunny weeks. They could lose the year’s productivity to this one cold spell. If anybody was going to be selling fruit down at the farmers’ market today, in the middle of blasted dogwood winter, I’d be a monkey’s uncle. Nevertheless, we bundled up and headed on down. We have friends who sell at the market, some of whom we hadn’t seen in a while. On a day like this they’d need our moral support.
It was a grim sight that met us in the parking lot. Some of the vendors huddled under awnings that snapped and flapped like the sails of sinking ships in a storm. Others had folded up their tents and stood over their boxes with arms crossed and their backs to the mean wind. Only eight vendors had turned out today, surely the bravest agricultural souls in the county, and not another customer in sight. What would they have this early, anyway—the last of last year’s shriveled potatoes?
Hounded by the dogs of Oh sure, Mom, I made up my mind to buy something from everyone here, just to encourage them to come back next week. My farm advocacy work for the day.
We got out of the car, pulled our hoods over our ears, and started our tour of duty. Every vendor had something better than shriveled potatoes. Charlie, a wiry old man who is the self- appointed comedian of our market, was short on cheer under the circumstances but did have green onions. We’d run out of our storage onions from last year’s garden, and missed them. At least half our family’s favorite dishes begin with a drizzle of oil in the skillet, a handful of chopped onions and garlic tossed in. We bought six fat bundles of Charlie’s onions. This early in the season their white bulbs were only the size of my thumb, but when chopped with their green tops they would make spicy soups and salads.
From Mike and Paul, at the next two booths, we bought turkey sausage and lamb. At the next, the piles of baby lettuce looked to me like money in the bank, and I bagged them. Fruitless though our lives might be, we would have great salads this week, with chunks of sausage, hard-boiled eggs, and experimental vinaigrettes. Next down the line we found black walnuts, painstakingly shelled out by hand. Walnut is a common wild tree here, but almost nobody goes to the trouble to shell them—nowhere but at the farmers’ market would you fi nd local nuts like these. The vendor offered us a sample, and we were surprised by the resinous sweetness. They would be good in our oatmeal and a spectacular addition to Steven’s whole- grain bread.
Each of our purchases so far was in the one- to three- dollar range except the nuts, which were seven a pound—but a pound goes a long way. I frankly felt guilty getting so much good fresh stuff for so little money, from people who obviously took pains to bring it here. I pushed on to the end, where Lula sold assorted jams and honey. We were well fixed for these already, given to us by friends or made ourselves last fall. Lula’s three children shivered on the ground, bundled in blankets. I scanned the table harder, unwilling to walk away from those kids without plunking
down some bucks.
That’s where I spotted the rhubarb. Big crimson bundles of it, all full of itself there on the table, loaded with vitamin C and tarty sweetness and just about screaming, “Hey, look at me, I’m fruit!” I bought all she had, three bundles at three dollars apiece: my splurge of the day
Rhubarb isn’t technically fruit, it’s an overgrown leaf petiole, but it’s a fi ne April stand- in. Later at home when we looked in Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse Fruit for some good recipes, we found Alice agreed with us on this point. “Rhubarb,” she writes, “is the vegetable bridge between the tree fruits of winter and summer.” That poetic injunction sent us diving into the chest freezer, retrieving the last package of our frozen Yellow Transparent apple slices from last summer. For dinner guests we threw together an apple- rhubarb cobbler to ring out the old year and ring in the new. Rhubarb, the April fruit. I’m a monkey’s uncle.
If not for our family’s local- food pledge to roust us out of our routine, I’m sure we would not have bothered going down to the market on that miserable morning. Most of us are creatures so comforted by habit, it can take something on the order of religion to invoke new, more conscious behaviors—however glad we may be afterward that we went to the trouble. Tradition, vows, something like religion was working for us now, in our search for a new way to eat. It had felt arbitrary when we sat around the table with our shopping list, making our rules. It felt almost silly to us, in fact, as it may now seem to you. Why impose restrictions on ourselves? Who cares?
The fact is, though, millions of families have food pledges hanging over their kitchens—subtle rules about going to extra trouble, cutting the pasta by hand, rolling the sushi, making with care instead of buying on the cheap. Though they also may be busy with jobs and modern life, people the world over still take time to follow foodways that bring their families happiness and health. My family happens to live in a country where the main foodway has a yellow line painted down the middle. If we needed rules we’d have to make our own, going on faith that it might bring us
On Saturday morning at the market as we ducked into the wind and started back toward our car, I clutched my bags with a heady sense of accomplishment. We’d found a lot more than we’d hoped for. We chatted a little more with our farmer friends who were closing up shop behind us, ready to head home too. Back to warm kitchens, keeping our fingers crossed in dogwood winter for the fruits of the coming year.
Waiting For Asparagus -Late March -Animal, Vegetable, Miracle_ A Year of Food Life