Garden Diary

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!