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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.