Posts tagged ‘seasonality’

May 7, 2012

Tomatoland

While I was perusing the Gardening section at the Central Library last week, my eyes tripped and did a double-take on a couple copies of Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook which I’ve wanted to read since the day it came out.

Armed with my library card, I checked it out and got right to reading. The book, if you haven’t heard of it, is about the tomato industry in Florida; specifically, those US-grown perfectly round, mealy, pink tomatoes you can buy in any grocery store in the winter. And virtually all the ones served to you in fast food and chain restaurants. If you’ve ever wondered why such awful tomatoes were deemed fit for sale, or where they came from, read Tomatoland.

Estabrook tells a short history of the tomato, talking about its origins in the arid and rocky mountains of South America. The natural next question for anyone who’s been to Florida is how you get something that evolved in that climate to grow in sandy, humid Florida. The answer: you declare chemical warfare on Mother Nature, pumping the sand full of each and every nutrient a tomato needs to grow, then dousing the plants in dozens of powerful chemicals to fend off just about every insect and fungus known to the state. We’re not talking about casually spraying weeds with RoundUp; these are seriously dangerous chemicals and lots of them.

Then he starts talking about the really outrageous parts of the industry. Migrant workers make up most of the field workers and are subject to all manner of abuses, including being sprayed with hazardous pesticides while they work, threats for trying to organize, wage fraud, and in shockingly many cases, full-fledged slavery. He talks about clusters of horrible birth defects in the children of some workers, occurring far too often to avoid suspicion. There are stories of workers effectively being paid just over one dollar an hour and being charged exorbitant rents on dwellings that should be condemned. If you want something to get mad about, check out this book, and buy tomatoes when they’re in season locally.

For all the injustice covered in Tomatoland, there’s a fair amount of hope too. The industry has gotten some unwanted attention in recent years for these very things and a number of grocery stores and restaurants have signed on to help ensure workers are compensated more fairly. There’s the Coalition of Imokalee Workers as the underdog fighting the behemoth tomato industry on behalf of field workers. There are also pioneers farming tomatoes more sustainably in the hostile environment of Florida, even some who consider their taste important.

If you haven’t heard much about the issues in Tomatoland, you’ll be surprised how thorny the existence of winter tomatoes really is. While we can focus on the world surrounding this one crop, you have to wonder what other mass-produced crops cause similar hardship behind the scenes in far off farmland. Count it as one more big reason to know where your food came from, who grew it and how it was grown.

April 18, 2012

Surviving Outdoors

Last week, I finally got out to Al’s Garden Center in Sherwood. As I wandered through the aisles, looking at their edible sprouts to compare them to mine, I was very thankful that we have such limited space. Otherwise, I’m afraid I would have emptied my bank account. Happily, I think my sprouts are pretty much on par with the commercially grown ones, with the exception of the bell peppers and strawberries; mine are tiny by comparison. I’m not terribly concerned about it, considering mine haven’t had the advantage of a greenhouse.

My garden is beginning to look like something. I’ve now transplanted all my little sprouts from their peat pots into bigger, heftier pots with organic soil, and bat guano or worm castings. So far everything seems pretty happy, although some really heavy rain recently had me shuttling pots into the kitchen, umbrella held with my chin, with the dog watching my every move through the screen door. From an observer’s perspective, probably hilarious. I was driven by my imagining the smallest plants drowned and

Here's hoping they all grow into their containers!

crushed by oversized raindrops. I even fashioned a garbage bag cover for the peppers and strawberries because I don’t have a flat surface big enough indoors for the pot that isn’t either the kitchen counter or the floor, where they would surely be sniffed and nibbled by the dog.

As the lettuce starts to look like lettuce—some of the leaves are already big enough to appear in a salad—and the tomato gets to know its new marigold companions, I’m finding myself thinking about how I can keep a garden year round. What if rather than buying kale every week at the winter market, I hopped outside with my kitchen scissors before I fire up the juicer? That’d really be something. I’m picturing lots of leafy greens and maybe some root vegetables. A friend posted this on Facebook a while ago about what crops are the most profitable per square foot. I think arugula may be in order.

Not that my current plants aren’t keeping me occupied. I’ve discovered that carrots are not necessarily something you want to have to transplant, but now the green beans and blueberry plant have lovely carrot borders in their pots. The other day, it was sunny, and I’m pretty sure I killed one of my green beans when my sunglasses fell off my head and snapped the stem. Oops. And while I was stuffing lettuce roots into soil, I definitely separated the top of one plant from its roots. Oops again, but I’ve had enough pleasant surprises with my garden (not the least of which is that the plants are still predominantly alive) that I stuck it in the dirt anyway. Does lettuce regenerate its roots? I guess I’ll find out.

And in case you’re wondering, no, I haven’t picked any of the lettuce yet. While about three of the leaves are now a respectable size (out of 20 plants), each plant has no more than five leaves. I’ll let them keep those first leaves a bit longer until they have more company.

March 12, 2012

Growing Success in Seed Pots

I’m happy to report that my garden is coming along and slowly convincing me that I do not in fact kill plants just by touching them. Woohoo! There have already been some sprout-sized ups and downs, but I guess there’s no fun in guaranteed success.

I started a number of seeds last month and set them on a cozy heating pad, and while some lettuce sprung forth and quickly suffered “damping off”—that means they keeled over and died—everything else stubbornly refused to sprout for what felt like ages. Meanwhile, I decided to hedge my bet by planting a second round of seeds, which have fared much, much better. I’ll attribute their success to my buying special seed starting potting mix for them and the clear plastic lid I put over the freshly planted pots.

Here’s the roster of what’s coming up: more lettuce than I could ever need, so they’ve been thinned quite a bit; four strawberries,

My farm circa March 12, 2012

three of which are still standing; four green beans (they’re the big kids in the yard); five basil sprouts; a whole bunch of carrots I’m nervous to transplant; two rosemary; four tomatoes, two or three of which will need to be thinned (the heartache!); and about a dozen teeny, tiny oregano sprouts. I’m giving my bell pepper seeds another week or two before I give up and decide to buy established plants.

Now none of these little guys is out of the woods yet. The dreaded “damping off” could still take them, but I looked around online and decided to sprinkle cinnamon over the new soil. Weird, yes, but it’s apparently a natural antifungal, and fungus is what causes damping off. So, it’s worth a try; plus, I had some in the cupboard already. My arsenal of gardening-specific products is pretty much nonexistent. And I’m watering everything that’s sprouted by setting them in a pan of water, because that’s supposed to help too. I guess a wet plant is a vulnerable plant. I’m learning…

With the sunshine lately, I’ve been able to put the little sprouts outside, which I think has made them look a little greener and happier. I’m keeping my fingers crossed and would probably play Mozart to them if I thought it would give them a better chance of becoming producing plants. I’d be lying if I said these plants weren’t getting an occasional pep talk too. I really want them to live.

Up next, though, is the fun part for me. I get to find containers to put everything in! I found a big red metal bucket at Goodwill for $4 recently that I’m excited about. I’ll definitely need one or two more good-sized containers for what I’m hoping to have. Then I’ll need to invest in an array of soil, sand and rocks. And I need to find someone in Portland who sells worm castings in small quantities. I hear they’re like magic, and if I’m going to get much of anything out of this garden, I still need all the help I can get.

February 22, 2012

Food in the News

It seems to me lately that the food industry is getting a lot of media attention—much of it unwanted. Part of that is probably because I follow news outlets that report on these things, but in general the companies who feed us appear to be coming under new scrutiny from the public and the media alike. Here are some of the stories that have caught my attention lately:

Protein Propaganda: I cannot express how thrilled I was when Grist started its series on protein a few weeks ago. This piece of the series focuses on the equivocation between animal products and protein. If you think of meat when you think of protein, thank the meat and dairy industries and their respective lobbying and marketing efforts. Never mind the evidence that plant based protein is plentiful and better for your health than animal based. If you’ve ever hesitated at the idea of foregoing meat at a meal, please, PLEASE read this. And if you’ve ever wondered how much protein we actually need, or what its environmental impacts are, or anything else about protein, really, this series is for you. Grist has done a fantastic job of outlining the status and importance of protein in the US.

Tomato Politics: If at some time, when you’ve come into a grocery store, you’ve gazed in curiosity at mounds of fresh tomatoes, glistening at you as you take off your scarf and gloves as you come in from the cold, and wondered where these mystical orbs could be from, check out this Mother Jones article. At the very least, these (likely) crunchy- and pink-inside spheres of summer are global travellers, and odds are, they caused some kind of strife wherever they came from. This article examines just one sliver of the organic winter tomato industry and it’s not a pretty picture. The solution presented is pretty simple: if you want tomatoes in winter, buy them canned. I’d recommend looking for BPA-free cans, but those can be hard to find. Better yet, buy local tomatoes by the crate during the high season (when farmers or friends with gardens will practically pay YOU to take them away) and take up canning.

And then there’s Dairy: Sometime in the last decade or two, soy milk stopped being something you could only find at a co-op if you wore vegan sandals and hemp clothes. It’s pretty mainstream now and has a lot of closely related cousins. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of milk substitutes, unless you count coconut milk out of a can (not the drink and not the light kind). My love of coconut milk is as a cooking ingredient—seriously, put it in your soup. Apparently the dairy industry doesn’t like having competition and has mounted a campaign to diss and discredit its imitators. We’ve arrived at Small Bites, with a quick overview of the industry’s new “Real milk comes from cows” campaign. I hadn’t heard of the campaign, but it’s an interesting industry reaction to changing public sentiment. I like the point in the article that “real milk” could just be considered milk in the form it leaves the cow, rather than the pasteurized, skimmed, homogenized kind you get at the supermarket—if you want to know too much about that, check out this Food Renegade bit on “real” milk. Yuck!

One of the really big stories lately has been McDonald’s telling its pork suppliers to stop using gestation crates for their sows. It’s been covered in a number of outlets, including by Mark Bittman for the New York Times. Good for them, and it is a positive step. But, I can’t help wondering—maybe this is just my ignorance because I don’t go to McDonald’s—what’s on their menu that includes pork?

October 17, 2011

(One Reason) Why Pilgrims Didn’t Need Gyms

Last weekend, my husband and I were invited out to a friend’s childhood home in Sandy for a cider press. Each fall our friend and his family pick the apples in their small orchard and make cider on an old-style press.

We arrived at noon, potluck dessert in hand (an overfilled blackberry crisp right out of the oven) and started picking. We spent a good amount of time scaling trees, testing our dexterity with an orchard picker and looking for level places to put ladders. Not every apple was picked, but for a small number of trees bearing fruit, we collected a lot of apples.

Step one: grind up the apples.

After lunch, it was time to use the old press. It’s the kind where you put apples in the top and grind them into a wooden barrel frame; if you’re not the weight lifting type, it gets stuck when your cohorts throw in too many apples. Once the barrel is full, you put a cut out piece of wood on top of the ground apples and screw down the top until you need a 2 by 4 for leverage. Our friend’s nephews, ages 6 and 7, were oh-so-cute running the 2 by 4 around until the bigger guys had to take over.

While all of this was happening, delicious juice was trickling into our containers. We tasted several of the batches and made pretentious, mock-wine tasting comments. By the time we worked our way through all the apples, fourteen gallons of cider had been pressed, and there were still boxes of apples deemed pretty enough for regular eating.

I got to take a bucket of apples home and made applesauce sweet enough not to need any sugar. Taking a whole bucket of fruit from someone feels weird, but I remember the days when I was a kid and we had too much produce from our garden. Having someone take it away is a favor. The applesauce is occupying our freezer and will have destinations soon (I see you coming, Christmas).

Step two: press the mashed apples into cider...so simple!

Pressing cider was an entertaining and exhausting way to spend a lovely fall afternoon. It recalled much simpler times and the value of physical labor—it reminds me of Joel Salatin’s (of Food, Inc. fame) new book Folks, This Ain’t Normal, which I am thoroughly enjoying. Fall isn’t only a time for school supplies and new beginnings; it’s also a time to reflect on the products of hard work. Think about all you’ve accomplished this year and pat yourself on the back. Maybe toast with a little cider too.

September 30, 2011

New Season, New Veggies

Somebody seems to have told the weather it’s fall, because even with the sun shining, you can feel the coming chill in the air. That means last week’s farmers market had sprouted all sorts of variety unimaginable in the berry-and-melon-overload of July. We’ve arrived at that magical time between summer and winter when you get the best of both worlds. There are still berries to be had, and easy-to-keep winter squash have shown up right alongside.

Basil and apples are both abundant...this week. Blink and you'll miss it!

The ease of keeping winter produce is, to me, one of its most endearing qualities. I bought our first butternut squash of the year, and it’s comforting to know it will hang out happily in the pantry until December if I let it. Even leafy greens are hardier in the winter. Every season is an opportunity to discover and rediscover things you love.

Since spring, we’ve started to embrace some vegetables that I’d never prepared before and to which my husband and I have always had some aversion: eggplant and asparagus. I created an eggplant chili (which was vegan) a few weeks back that was unbelievably good. After a couple more test runs, that one will be showing up on Everyday Eats menus. As for asparagus, roasting rather than boiling was the ticket to acceptance.

So for this season, I’ve set my sights on some new produce to try. I have limited experience with Brussels sprouts, but it wasn’t good. That one time I tried them. But I read somewhere that roasting or grilling them makes them infinitely better. It works for cauliflower, so we might as well give it a spin (I’m cringing as I think about the sprouts). Another is cabbage: I’ve only cooked it once with corned beef, so that’ll be an adventure. I don’t know what I’ll do with it yet.

As the season suggests, fall is a little like going back to school. I’ll stop making cucumber and watermelon salad in favor of root vegetables and cooked hot dishes. Soup will be acceptable soon. I’ll rifle back through some recipes and reestablish what the standbys are. Then it’ll be time to branch out and find our new favorites.