Cooking Tips from Burma

So I’ve been having trouble explaining to my parents why I’m doing what I’m doing.

I’m not a complete idiot. I do understand that, from their point of view, the point of view of African Americans who were the first in their respective families to achieve a higher education, my obsession with grubbing in the dirt may seem a tad … eccentric? At best.

The absolute center of all cuteness in our garden on harvest day.

The absolute center of all cuteness in our garden on harvest day.

I’ve tried taking the tack that it’s an heirs property thing. I am, after all, the eldest grandchild of a group of grandchildren who’ll be inheriting nearly 120 acres of beautiful, productive land in the South Carolina foothills. I should know what the land requires and how to steward it.

They’re not quite buying it.

I try the economic argument. Hey, I say, I live in Charlottesville, Virginia: a city that Forbes magazine recently dubbed “the locavore capital of the United States.” Experience here seems to indicate that farmland is increasingly valuable. Hedge fund managers are even speculating in it. People are moving here from all over the country to start organic farms–and they’re finding it personally rewarding and profitable. Given those trends, we are well ahead of the game in our family, I say. We own our own land. We should be exploring ways to make it pay.

They look at me as if I’ve gone mental. In their frame of reference, there’s no way to make farmland pay–nor any reason to try. Don’t you know that’s work? is the unvoiced thought.

Finally, I try the spiritual angle. They’re good Episcopalians, after all. Daddy is a delegate to the general convention. Shoot, he chairs a community housing agency funded by the diocese that’s been providing affordable housing for young families in downtown Charleston for nearly 20 years now.

Hey, we want to empower people to grow their own food, I tell my mom, rattling off the local statistics on adult diabetes and childhood obesity. And then there are the Burmese refugees, I add. These people had to leave everything to come to America. We’re hoping maybe a garden with things they like to eat will make them feel more at home.

This gets a reaction–but not the one I wanted. “Kendra, are you sure you know what you’re doing? You’d better be careful,” my mom says, instantly alarmed.

I don’t know why I’m surprised. This is, after all, her reaction whether I’m proposing to cross the street or cross the country (which I did, to the accompaniment of much hand-wringing, in 2001). “Come on, mama,” I cajole her. “Jesus said, feed my sheep.”

She gives a snort of exasperation. “Why do you have to take everything so literally!”

I just shake my head. Maybe I should have just said, Hey, they’re great cooks. She’s always interested in new recipes.

That’s not to give the impression that integrating the new families into our work has not been a challenge. It has and not just because of the language barrier. Our tools are unfamiliar. Our heavy clay soils, depleted by centuries of abuse by extractive tobacco and cotton planting regimes, are unfamiliar and do not yield up their riches without techniques–the rigorous application of double digging and soil amendments, to name just two–that may also be unfamiliar.

And our foods are unfamiliar.

I spent a rainy Saturday afternoon about a month-and-a-half ago with Pleh Meh, a self-possessed 20-something who’s serving as translator for the three families who have joined us, and Win Htay Oo–young also, stylishly dressed, the epitome of urban cool. Married to the city’s ESL coordinator, Win had stopped by to lend his English skills to the task at hand: poring over seed catalogs and kitchen garden picture books to ascertain what seeds the Burmese families wanted to grow.

Ali Cole, helping with the root harvest.

Ali Cole, helping with the root harvest.

Win drew me a map to show me where his and Pleh Meh’s respective homes were, then indicated all the respective borders and border states with lines and stars: Thailand, Laos, China, India, Bangladesh. I nodded as a big hunk of world geography suddenly fell into place in the map of the world inside my head.

Then we dug into the catalogs, and I discovered … that there’s actually very little dietary overlap between the Southeast U.S. and Southeast Asia. Win and Pleh Meh waxed enthusiastic over okra, tomatoes (sauce style), eggplant (green! not purple), Thai basil and peppers. Peanuts were cool, too–though there were many, many  greens and gourds that are staples for them … and unknown here.

Meanwhile, the fruit we call tomatillo was quite familiar. “That grows all over the rainforest,” Win said. “Nobody touch,” he added with perfect comic timing. We all laughed.

Again and again as we leafed through the pages of The New Kitchen Garden, Win would shake his head at the gorgeous pictures of potatoes, carrots, beets, turnips, most of the peppers we enjoy, not to mention the grains we like and the most common spinaches, broccolis, cabbages, and beans. “They don’t know what to do with that,” his refrain.

That answered my question about too much duplication of effort between the family beds and the communal beds for the rest of the gardeners. But it also gave me food for fretting about how we’d manage our collaboration.

I might as well have saved the energy. On the ground, our neighbors turned out to be quite curious about the things that we grow–the turnips, for example. (Though I don’t think they were quite curious enough to try them.)

And unexpectedly, they’ve taught us new uses for the parts of the plants that we would have otherwise tossed on the compost heap. For example, the “bolts” off of the mustard, turnip, and collard greens that overwintered in our garden.

By “bolts,” I should explain, I mean the flowering stalks that cool-season plants grown primarily for their leafy green parts start producing once the days get longer and the soils get warmer. Basically, the arrival of that gay profusion of pretty yellow flowers is the first stage in the plant’s going to seed–something I’ve always been taught is an undesirable thing.

A row of bolting greens makes quite a pretty show.

A row of bolting greens makes quite a pretty show.

You see, the taste of vegetables changes when plants start moving toward the end of their life cycle. Spinach, which during the deepest cold achieves a sweetness almost indescribable, develops a sharp taste that, while not unpleasant, simply does not compare with the taste of the leaves at their prime. The appealing bite of mustard greens, on the other hand, becomes more and more peppery, nearly bitter. Lettuces become decidedly bitter.

All of us garden volunteers loved the look of the bolting greens–and it was with something quite near sadness that we started ripping the rows out over several days about a month ago in order to prepare the beds for our warm and hot season plants: potatoes, beans and peas, sweet potatoes, tomatoes…

We were sad, particularly, because we’d had such plans for the 100 linear feet of spinach we’d grown. We’d talked of making spinach quiches and spinach lasagnas for church suppers–of all sorts of things–but at the end, the need for speed meant that we’d just be ripping them out and distributing them among the volunteers and neighbors. (Not a bad thing, of course, just not as splashy as we’d hoped).

Then I glanced over to the other side of the garden and saw Pleh Meh’s mother, Ika, doing something I had never imagined. She and a young woman whose name I hadn’t understood, a diminutive thing with a darling baby girl and a “bun in the oven,” were carefully harvesting the collard and turnip greens, taking only the tenderest of the tiny top leaves-and the entire flower stalk.


Ika, at right, with the young mother whose name I didn't catch.

Ika, at right, with the young mother whose name I didn’t catch… They were curious about the turnip root, but planning on eating the greens!


“Wow, you can eat those?” said Peggy, an experienced and avid gardener who’d been working the spinach row with me.

“I guess so,” I replied, feeling slightly stunned. “Well, yeah! Sure. They’re edible,” I added as I processed the new information. “Of course, you can eat them. I just … never imagined doing it.”

But later that night, Farm Boy and I tried it.

Greens and flower stalks, ready to pop in the skillet.

Greens and flower stalks, ready to pop in the skillet.

Since I couldn’t ask Ika for her recipe, I treated them the way I treat kale or mustards. I made a hot olive oil dressing in my cast iron skillet, adding plenty of garlic and balsamic vinegar, a dash of Bragg’s Amino Acids, and a few red pepper flakes. Then I tossed the greens in that mixture, rapidly, over medium heat, until they were tender.

It took eight minutes–ten at the most. They were absolutely delicious.

So that’s my first cooking tip from Burma.  I’m looking forward to many more to come.

3 comments for “Cooking Tips from Burma

  1. Anjana
    June 5, 2011 at 9:19 am

    This is a lovely blog, but I think you’ve got it turned around in the opening foray into the family perception of “playing in the dirt.” I see this aversion to the earth in every group of people who’ve been oppressed, dispossessed from their lands, and shamed into believing very narrow ideas about modernity. This alienation from the land removes people from the ability to feed and nourish themselves apart from a system that castes them in secondary, subaltern roles. Their entire energies are spent trying to achieve the approval of those who set the game against them. More importantly, choices are limited only to those produced by one’s oppressors and the acceptable presentations of self are only those which mimic and reproduce the repressive structures of power.
    So, back when I was a girl, part of being a real, grown woman was to have a garden and to tend to that garden, on hot evenings after work and supper, and on weekends. It was about food, but it was also about neighbors sharing news, recipes, plants, their humanity. It was a link between the past and the future and it was a site for the relief of life’s mighty stresses.
    As academics and in most jobs, we endlessly push and chase papers. Gardens provide instant gratification: you weed and it looks better. You plant and something is there, growing. They need our attention, but they give back to us, and the act of “listening” to our plants and observing the total environment leads us to a state of concentration and meditation that costs far less then the local yoga factories and doesn’t require special clothes.
    Personally, I don’t believe that we can really experience the spiritual without some connection to the natural world beyond ourselves, and so, dear writer, it’s not for you to explain your love of the garden, but rather, to wonder what has disconnected them from this source of vital being.

    • June 5, 2011 at 6:59 pm

      Hmmm. That’s so nice Anjana–your description of being “shamed into narrow ideas about modernity” and the ways in which the alienation plays to the interests of the power structure is especially eloquent and smart. I have more to say about this whole thing–in the blog and in the class I’m designing–and I think this conversation will be critical in helping me shape those ideas.
      Thanks, sistah!

  2. September 19, 2011 at 9:46 am

    This blog is certainly very helpful because I am at this time setting up an on-line floral weblog – though I am just starting out making it even now really small, in contrast to this blog. Could I backlink to a number of the posts because they are quite interesting. Many thanks. Ashley Avila

Comments are closed.