Garden Diary

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Boston Globe had an editorial on Farm Aid, Farmers' Markets and Community Supported Agriculture in the July 28th issue. While it's a bit of a cheerleader for Massachusetts, it does highlight the importance of local farms, and the ways that people can support local farmers, particularly Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) clubs.
Natually, I'd rather grown my own vegetables and fruits, but not everyone has the space or the time (my wife would say that I don't have the time!) to do so.

The garden is certainly growing vigorously this year, although we've picked up some sort of blight in the tomatoes (at least the early girls and the plum tomatoes). The cherry tomatoes seem fine and will be huge producers over the next few weeks as they start to ripen.

We've had some good zucchini harvest, but the squash plants are definitely looking pretty sad. Even the cucumbers are already looking worn out, and they've not produced much at all yet. It may be we've had too much rain this summer...July and August are usually pretty dry here on the South Shore, but this year the rain is never far away, and I've spent very little time watering. But that's made up for by the extra time I have to spend weeding!

The green beans are the stars of the garden this year. I've had more than we can eat, and have started bringing some in to share with my coworkers. I have some neighbors that will get the next batch of extra...which should be in a day or so.

The other crops are doing well also. We've harvested some Swiss Chard already, and are getting out Mexican recipes for our tomatillos.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Our garden continues to grow, and the promise of fresh provisions, a mere wisp of hope a few weeks ago, is growing more and more concrete. Here are some photos from last night.
Tiny cucumbers adorn the vines which are climbing up chicken wire. Meanwhile, there's plenty of blossoms on the yellow squash, but no squash so far.

There are lots of small peppers and tomatoes on the vine too. Quite a difference from just a month ago.

Tomatillos and chard. I planted the tomatillos about 5 years ago. They keep coming back. We've been getting ready for the harvest by collecting recipes for mole.

The first eggplant has shown up, so we'll be having baba ganoush soon!

And tomorrow should be our first zucchini of the season (although you can't see it because it's hidden beneath the leaves).

Our pole beans are already far taller than I am (the poles in the foreground are over 6 feet above ground).

Pretty as all the vegetables are, there are flowers around the yard too. Here are our glads.

Hues leaping heav'nward,
As roots, anchors in the soil,
fix them in the breeze

Friday, July 04, 2008

Finally, in the matter of drink, St. Benedict has the following to say:
Of the Quantity of Drink, Chapter 40

"Every one hath his proper gift from God, one after this manner and another after that" (1 Cor 7:7). It is with some hesitation, therefore, that we determine the measure of nourishment for others. However, making allowance for the weakness of the infirm, we think one hemina [about 10 ounces] of wine a day is sufficient for each one. But to whom God granteth the endurance of abstinence, let them know that they will have their special reward. If the circumstances of the place, or the work, or the summer's heat should require more, let that depend on the judgment of the Superior, who must above all things see to it, that excess or drunkenness do not creep in.
Although we read that wine is not at all proper for monks, yet, because monks in our times cannot be persuaded of this, let us agree to this, at least, that we do not drink to satiety, but sparingly; because "wine maketh even wise men fall off" (Sir 19:2). But where the poverty of the place will not permit the aforesaid measure to be had, but much less, or none at all, let those who live there bless God and murmur not. This we charge above all things, that they live without murmuring.

Naturally, people entering a monastery bring with them habits and expectations that they formed while living in the world. And while some of the vows that monks traditionally take (not the three evangelical vows of the friars, i.e., poverty, chastity and obedience) are obvious such as obedience and stability, that of conversion of life is the furtherst reaching. Indeed, it is in some ways the heart of monastic life, because both obedience and stability can be seen to be a part of this conversion of life. In this sense, the monastic vows are the fulfillment of St. Paul's admonition in Romans chapter 12:
I BESEECH you therefore, brethren, by the mercy of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, pleasing unto God, your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world; but be reformed in the newness of your mind, that you may prove what is the good, and the acceptable, and the perfect will of God.

The people of St. Benedict's time would expect to drink was often the only way of drinking uncontaminated drink, especially after the disapperance of the Roman administration following the collapse of the Empire. Nevertheless, St. Benedict knew that it was all too easy to take too much wine, and that this would inhibit the life of Christ and the community for the monks. So this small amount (two glasses really) of wine per day is the allotment for well-off monasteries. Poorer ones are to go without, but most importantly, without grumbling.
This is of course, the key idea in St. Benedict's rule: that we are to be grateful for the grace of God, not grumbling about what we don't have. That grumbling may be just as much a part of human life as making mistakes, but we are supposed to learn from the example of the Israelites who left Egypt, but grumbled about the onions and garlic they left behind. Unfortunately, we all too often imitate those ancient children of Israel too closely.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Let's return to the Rule of St. Benedict, to see what wisdom it contains about eating.
Chapter 39: Of the Quantity of Food
Making allowance for the infirmities of different persons, we believe that for the daily meal, both at the sixth and the ninth hour, two kinds of cooked food are sufficient at all meals; so that he who perchance cannot eat of one, may make his meal of the other. Let two kinds of cooked food, therefore, be sufficient for all the brethren. And if there be fruit or fresh vegetables, a third may be added. Let a pound of bread be sufficient for the day, whether there be only one meal or both dinner and supper. If they are to eat supper, let a third part of the pound be reserved by the Cellarer and be given at supper.
If, however, the work hath been especially hard, it is left to the discretion and power of the Abbot to add something, if he think fit, barring above all things every excess, that a monk be not overtaken by indigestion. For nothing is so contrary to Christians as excess, as our Lord saith: "See that your hearts be not overcharged with surfeiting" (Lk 21:34).
Let the same quantity of food, however, not be served out to young children but less than to older ones, observing measure in all things.
But let all except the very weak and the sick abstain altogether from eating the flesh of four-footed animals.

Each monk is allotted, per day, one pound of bread (to be split between the two meals on days when two meals are served), and one cooked dish, although fresh fruits and vegetables can also be served when in season. No “meat”, that is, no beef, veal, pork, lamb, or mutton except for the sick and convalescing. The foundation of the daily diet is, naturally enough, bread, the “staff of life.”
What would those cooked dishes have been? Well, pasta wasn’t invented yet, rice was unknown in Italy at this point, and neither potatoes nor corn (maiz for non-US English-speakers) hadn’t been brought back to Europe yet. So dishes could have been made with barley, buckwheat, millet, fava beans, lentils or garbanzos. (Most of our beans such as kidney, pinto, and green beans were also unknown in Europe at the time of Benedict. These all came to Europe, along with peppers, tomatoes, squash and pumpkins, not to mention chocolate, from the Americas after Columbus.)
This diet would have, no doubt, seemed especially bland to modern-day Americans, used as we are to a diet enriched by foods and cuisines from all over the world. But the diet Benedict laid out was one that was sufficient for a person’s daily needs, and even looked out for taste (hence the requirement of two cooked dishes) as well as for the differing needs of the sick and of children.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The New York Times food blog has an interesting item titled "The 11 Best Foods You Aren't Eating". The foods they list are:
1. Beets
2. Cabbage
3. Swiss chard
4. Cinnamon
5. Pomegranate juice
6. Dried plums
7. Pumpkin seeds
8. Sardines
9. Turmeric
10. Frozen blueberries
11. Canned pumpkin

The idea behind the list is that many times, as was the case with the two books I recently read by Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food) the easy critique of the "industrial" eating that contemporary Americans have taken on isn't joined to simple advise on how to direct your diet in a more healthful direction.
One of Pollan's points was that in the past culture helped pass on healthful diets (at least as an ideal...of course, in preindustrial societies, famine was a real possibility at times); and that "culture" in most cases meant "Mom". In contemporary society, mothers rarely have the leisure to cook properly, and so are not passing along much in the way of accumulated wisdom. Nor do children learn how to cook from their mothers, and so we need to reforge the broken chain of food culture.
So in the Times' list there are many foods that are healthful, easy to find; they should be items commonly found in most kitchens. We use all of these regularly in our kitchen, except for Pomegranate juice. Canned pumpkin is great, not only in pies, but in rolls. Prunes are great too--we've got a fabulous spice cake that uses stewed prunes in it. We've got Swiss Chard and Blueberries in the garden. And I've liked canned sardines ever since my father introduced me to them at the bar in the Old Colony Yacht Club when I was but a "wee lad". Cinnamon is used in so many recipes, Indian foods, chili, baked items, and mixed with sugar as a topping for French toast; turmeric is an essential in Indian recipes, and one in particular that we like is cauliflower.
Cauliflower, Indian-style
  • One head of cauliflower, with greens removed and broken into small florets
  • 1/2 stick (2 ounces) of butter
  • 1 tsp. cumin seeds
  • 1 Tbsp. Turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp. salt

melt the butter in a heavy, large skillet or dutch oven under medium-high heat. Heat the cumin seeds in the butter, then add the turmeric and salt. Finally, add the cauliflower, stirring and turning so that it is covered in the butter and spices. Add 1/4 cup of water and cover for 3-4 minutes. Uncover, stir and serve.

Taking a second look at the list, I notice that all the items, except the Pomegranate juice, are among the less expensive items you might pick up on the grocery list, the vegetables especially when they're in season. Foods that pack a powerful nutritional wallop needn't be out of the reach of the poor. Among the "ethnic poor" I've visited over the years, there seems to be a storehouse of traditional recipes which are heavy on plant foods and rice, and which can be very healthful. But in the houses of the poor "natives", that culinary culture isn't usually in evidence, and the foods that they rely on are the kind that contribute to poor health. Because no matter what your culinary culture, you only buy what you can afford, and refined carbohydrates are cheap. In the past we've printed and distributed a brochure based on info from Bob Waldrop's "Better Times Cookbook" to help folks figure out a better way of buying food, but even that can't overcome the problem created by the gap in cultural food transmission that is evident.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

What wisdom has Catholic tradition passed on to us regarding eating and drinking?

We know that gluttony is classified as one of the seven deadly sins. St. Paul, in a striking phrase, comments on those who do evil as being those "whose God is their belly" (Phillipians 3:19).

St. Benedict, in his Rule for monks has a few things to say. He discusses the quantity of food and of drink that the monks should be allowed, the times for eating, special rules for Lent, makes provision for a reading during the meal, and also for those who should help in the kitchen each week and for the cellarer, an important office that oversees most of the monastery's material goods.

I begin by looking at his rule (Chapter 41) for times for eating:

From holy Easter till Pentecost let the brethren dine at the sixth hour and take supper in the evening. From Pentecost on, however, during the whole summer, if the monks have no work in the fields and the excess of the heat doth not interfere, let them fast on Wednesday and Friday until the ninth hour; but on the other days let them dine at the sixth hour. This sixth hour for dinner is to be continued, if they have work in the fields or the heat of the summer is great. Let the Abbot provide for this; and so let him manage and adapt everything that souls may be saved, and that what the brethren do, they may do without having a reasonable cause to murmur. From the ides of September until the beginning of Lent let them always dine at the ninth hour. During Lent, however, until Easter, let them dine in the evening. But let this evening hour be so arranged that they will not need lamp-light during their meal; but let everything be finished whilst it is still day. But at all times let the hour of meals, whether for dinner or for supper, be so arranged that everything is done by daylight.

Using modern time keeping, from Easter until Pentecost the main meal of the day should be taken around noon, with a light supper in the early evening (before sunset). From Pentecost until mid-September this is the same, but on Wednesdays and Fridays a partial fast should be kept, with meals delayed until around 3 p.m. From mid-September until the beginning of Lent, the main meal should be around 3 p.m. During Lent, only one meal per day, and that in the evening!

The initial reaction of a "modern" Catholic might well be "Well, that's for monks" or, less charitably, "That's nuts!" It's well to keep in mind that until the rules of fasting began to be mitigated (which for lay people in the West began in the 13th century), one meal per day in fasting seaons (Advent, Lent, Embertides, Vigils) was expected of everyone! And most of those were to be meatless too. Of course, our fasting rules now are so light as to be forgettable (and no doubt they are by the majority of Western Catholics). Even a century ago, the rules were much stricter (see here and here), and much closer in sense to the eating patterns laid down by St. Benedict.

Another thing that might slip breakfast! But what about all that "most important meal of the day?" stuff. Well, that was a concept that apparently didn't occur to the ancients.

I do know that when I lived in Colombia as an exchange student in high school people generally didn't eat breakfast, and if they did, they ate very minimally...a bit of bread with their coffee (hey, in Colombia you always had coffee!). We also had a main meal around noon, and a very light supper (bread, occasionally with some cheese or cold sausage) and coffee with milk. Only on a few big feast days did we have anything more substantial for supper. Perhaps that was the Catholic culture that hadn't been diluted yet. Looking back, it was certainly very Benedictine!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

All cooking really begins with one of two things: gathering in the bounty of nature through foraging or hunting, or working to raise animals and plants for food. While prehistory was likely based primarily on the former, history began when we took to the garden and the pasture to tie our lives to the life cycles of the plants and animals we had domesticated.
Genesis records the oldest profession as being that of gardener. This is a profound truth which is not just a religious doctrine but the conclusion of historical research: civilization and history begin with agriculture. We could say that at its root all culture is but a flowering of agriculture.
I've read that one of the reasons that Christianity has exploded in sub-Saharan Africa, gaining millions of converts in the 20th century, is that the Africans can see themselves in the stories of the Bible. The conflict between herder and farmer (Abel and Cain), the shepherd seeking water for his flocks (Moses' bride), the struggle to coax sufficient yield from a planting (so many parables of Jesus), are all everyday events in rural Africa, in a way that hasn't been true for Europeans and their American descendants for many decades.
Perhaps it's this disconnect between contemporary life in the city and the agricultural base for civilization that helps explain why faith is so foreign to so many; having divorced their lives from any real connection to the garden and the pasture, contemporary city folk cannot see themselves as very much rooted in the earth, which makes those aspects of our being which distinguish us from the earthly stand out less clearly.
I've always been grateful to my dad for introducing me to both gardening and gathering. We didn't hunt, but we did fish (a lot) and I remember fondly the big garden we kept for several years. Even when we lived in Delaware, with a postage stamp for a back yard, we grew a few tomatoes. Ever since our first summer here in this house in Brockton in 1998 we've had a garden, which expands each year.

Pole beans have begun to snake their way up the 8-foot stakes I've driven into the ground. If this year is like others, the stakes will be too short.

Amazingly enough, I've not had great luck with zucchini and summer squash since living here, although we were never able to eat everything we'd grow when we lived in Vermont. (The joke has it that the only time people lock their cars in Vermont is during late summer. If you leave the car unlocked, you'll come back to it to find giant zucchini filling the back seat.) But last year's harvest was pretty good, and I'm hoping that the same will be true this year. The plants are looking good so far.

One of the things that living in such a highly mobile society makes difficult is growing food that isn't an annual. We planted a couple of apple trees in Vermont from which we never got to harvest an apple. But the peach tree we planted four years ago looks like it will produce a nice crop of peaches, if I can keep the birds away.

Similarly, this will be the first time we harvest some blueberries, which I planted three years ago.

We've been harvesting raspberries and strawberries for years (the raspberries actually showed up on their own, but I've been sure to water and manure them over the years).

And finally, our other crops are also doing well: tomatoes (above), eggplant, peppers, cucumbers, several herbs, a second planting of beans.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

I remember once being startled during a conversation with my boss, a pharmacist, because his response to my points about getting vitamins from diet was basically "why worry about that, just take a vitamin pill". To me, the idea that health comes from a pill rather than from living properly is bizarre. But to someone with a doctorate in pharmacy, which in many ways is applied chemistry, it is an obvious path.
This conversation from a couple of years ago came back to me as I read Michael Pollan's latest book In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. Mr. Pollan begins his manifesto by identifying nutritionism, the idea that we should "understand and engage with food and our bodies in terms of their nutritional and chemical constituents and requirements..." because "foods are essentially the sum of their nutrient parts."

After years of health classes in public school, learning about the four food groups (or the seven) and the USDA food pyramid, (not to mention the alternate food pyramids that have been suggested by Harvard University, the University of Michigan, and vegetarian groups), stints in restaurant and hospital kitchens, and many years of cooking and gardening, I have to admit that the obvious problem with a lot of my thinking about food and diet wasn't so clear to me until I read this book. That obvious problem is that we've let the inmates take charge of the asylum!
Science is not a body of's a process for adding to our knowledge. And the results of scientific investigation are, by their very nature, tentative--always waiting to be supplemented or supplanted by further investigation. Yet, we put the scientists in charge of food long before they were ready. And if you look at some of the foods that have been created since nutrition science came along, things like margarine and egg beaters, it's pretty obvious that something's wrong. Of course, as a hospital cook I had the same idea when I was working under a nutritionist; some of the stuff that was being pushed on patients was basically inedible. But it conformed to the nutrient tables and prescriptions, and so that was what counted...even if the food got sent back to the kitchen uneaten.
Mr. Pollan's book is not a book for gourmands, however. It's a plea for real food, not manufactured edibles. It's a slender volume and well worth a read. It's available at Amazon, of course, and likely most book stores. (I got mine from the library.) There's also an essay on Mr. Pollan's web site that reproduces some of the beginning and ending of his book that is a great introduction to the work.
I'm now reading his earlier (and longer work) The Omnivore's Dilemma.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Yesterday I did a little shopping. Here's the list of what I got:
24 whole frozen chickens
48 1-pound packages of ground turkey
72 20-ounce cans of pineapple
48 16-ounce cans of sliced peaches
48 16-ounce cans of corn
48 16-ounce cans of carrots
60 10-ounce packages of coffee
40 1 quart cartons of “shelf stable” milk
24 20-ounce packages of oatmeal
36 packages of macraroni and cheese
36 24-ounce jars of Bush’s chili with beans
4 banana boxes full of assorted cans of tuna, ham, beans and other high-protein foods
24 46-ounce cans of grapefruit juice
24 5-pound bags of sugar

You may be thinking we have awfully big appetites here, but that wasn't for the house, of course, that was my semi-monthly shopping trip to the Greater Boston Food Bank to get food for our local St. Vincent de Paul pantry. We used to be able to go once per month, but now I go twice, plus we but some meat from the New England Serve folks to supplement this. The local bread outlet store also supplies us with a lot of "day old" bread, and we get donations each week from the parishioners. And still, we often don't seem to have enough. One week in May we had 24 families call for help! And we are one of at least a dozen food pantries in this small city of 100K.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The gardens are all planted for the season. The front and side beds have 1) swiss chard; 2) pole beans; 3) zucchini & cucumber; 4) yellow squash & cucumber; 5) tomatoes (15), eggplant (4) and cubanelle peppers (6).

The back garden plots are planted with herbs and more pole beans.

The back pole beans are up, as are the cilantro in the herb garden (the basil, dill, parsley, and sage were all plantings of already started plants). In the front, the squash, cucumbers and chard have appeared. The plants in box 5 were all transplants. Pictures soon.

And the easily identified fruits, the strawberries, raspberries are in bloom. The peach tree has lots of small peaches, and I just have to find a good way to protect the tree so that the squirrels and birds don't get all the fruit, like last year...I think we only got one peach.

And we have flowers all around. The spring gave us nice blooms of crocus, daffodils and tulips, and we now have a single iris blooming and peonies in the back, along with impatiens scattered around the back yard in boxes, pots and the bed behind the house. We should have a profusion of day lilies, asian and tiger lilies and begonias later in the season.

While this garden will provide some nice fresh flavor for the table, it won't do much as a real economic force. In order to plant a real victory garden more room needs to be allocated to vegetables than to fruits (you did notice that my "vegetable garden" is mostly fruits?), especially the kind that can be stored in a root cellar so that the harvest can supply food into the late Fall and Winter: winter squash, potatoes, carrots, cabbage (though I've never been able to grow cabbage or broccoli without terrible infestations of cabbage worms). I've been thinking that next year I'll plant a big potato patch in the back yard...I can never get the grass to grow there anyway!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A Kitchen Poem

Chop, chop, chop. Red peppers in slivers
pile up, under my father’s flying knife
on the scratched, white cutting-board.
Onions fill the room next with their sharp smell,
their light purple layers falling apart
from each other into neat heaps.
Behind my dad, sizzling butter
is skipping around in the black pan,
leaving a bubbling trail behind it.
Crossing the room in sure, long steps,
Dad swings open the fridge’s white door,
plastered with papers and magnets.
He reaches in for the chicken and
behind his back I snatch some pepper.
The slightly sweet, fresh taste fills my mouth
as I watch another kind of rascal
skitter across the floor, a small black ant.
His eyes noticing the tiny insect,
my dad lifts one large foot and brings it down,
barely interrupting his stride towards
the stove. With a hiss, the chicken
begins to cook, sending savory aroma
rushing through the air warmed by the stove.
Turning back to the counter, my dad
swats me away. Laughing, I watch as
his deft hands scoop up vegetables
and tip them into a blue bowl
full of lettuce. He wipes his hands and,
“Dinner’s served!”

Molly Cavanaugh, June 2005

Thursday, May 08, 2008

No huge surprise, but I'm not the only one who thought blogging about food, the liturgical year and the Christian life was a good idea. Fortunately, some of those who have also thought of it have had more time than I have for the past year.

Found the new site Catholic Cuisine. It is worth your time, with links to several cook books and other blogs.