“Victory in Jesus” Gardens

We have a yard that is mostly walnut and maple trees. My garden was a washtub with tomato plants and herbs in it.

My family had large gardens when I was young. Both sets of grandparents had large gardens. Have dirt, will garden. The farm never left our souls. We grew food, we ate it fresh, we canned and froze it. We gave it away. We gleaned fields of peas and potatoes, orchards of apples, wild bushes of berries, riverbanks of fiddleheads, maple trees of sap, hedgerows of hazelnuts.

I am delighted now to think of that connection to the past.

Our parents and grandparents grew Victory Gardens during the last European war – people were encouraged and supported in digging up their yards and growing their own food, so that crops could be diverted to the support of the troops. Many European families had to wild-gather to survive during and after the war.

We were still just a few years past being an agrarian culture. People knew how to make a garden.

I don’t think any of our neighbours has a vegetable garden. This little town is proud of its shade trees, its luxurious lawns, its air of ease and privilege. When I lived in rural parishes, people left bags of corn, tomatoes, green beans, onion and zucchini on my doorstep. One parishioner dropped off a few homegrown vegetables here this year. I bought the produce I canned.

The food bank here is in constant need of donations. Industries have closed in this area; other people are chronically unemployed or underemployed. It looks like it will get worse rather than better. (And just to bring this up – local farms employ migrant workers to pick apples, tobacco, ginseng and cabbage. The reason? Local people don’t want these seasonal jobs. The work is too hard, the pay too low, and if they take them, they endanger keeping their government-paid benefits. I can’t take even seasonal work until my immigration status is settled, except to work for the church. I did field work as a child and teenager. It isn’t that hard.)

In a land of plenty – in the garden region of Canada – why are people receiving boxes of dried dinner ingredients and cans of soup? Why don’t food banks have great resources of fresh food? Some do – because someone had the inspiration to solicit donations from farmers and farmers’ markets.

But we could all be doing more to feed those in need by planting a new kind of victory garden – I’ll call it a Victory in Jesus garden, from the old Baptist song.

We could be feeding ourselves and the poor, improving local nutrition levels and health. We could be reducing our reliance on transported, carbon-hungry resources. We could be getting rid of harmful lawn-maintenance practices and chemicals. (One reader wrote me earlier this year to say she had persuaded her church to plant a garden on the church lawn. That’s what I mean.)

The black walnut trees on our lawn are at the end of their growing years. The best thing to do with them would be to cut them down and sell them to a craftsman for fine furniture. This would also get rid of their messy nuts and the squirrels who live on them. Not much will grow around black walnuts, except the maple trees which are also as big as they can get, are dropping dead limbs, and hogging the arable area of the yard with roots. I love trees, but these are at the end of their lives, and they will soon be a hazard. I say take them down, use the wood as possible, and plant something like fruit trees, a little more in keeping with using the yard for a garden. (Don’t get me started on the line of overgrown cedars along the fence.)

Gardening is work, more than many people think they should have to do. But why shouldn’t we turn our hands and hearts to the earth, and share in its production? We are divorced from the natural world; we try to corner it in parks where we are comfortable with mown lawns and trimmed trees. We like the idea of wild spaces, but we don’t want to live in them. Our homes are air-conditioned and warmed so it is always perfectly temperate inside, and we never have to wear climate-suitable clothing. (I had a friend in past years who literally ran from car to building, building to car, car to home because she didn’t want to bother putting on a coat even in a mid-Atlantic winter. It took a while to persuade her to carry suitable winter clothing in her car so that if the car broke down she wouldn’t freeze to death.)

It’s autumn here in the North; most of us are done with the garden. The last of the basil came in for pesto here; the other herbs are potted and in the shed, hardening up for a possible winter indoors on a cool windowsill. (Herb plants do not like our overheated homes.) But there is next year. I want to be in a place suitable for a garden and more. I want to grow not just for ourselves, but for those who are unable to grow for themselves.

It’s one thing to receive a bag of canned goods and a loaf of plastic-wrapped bread when we are in need. But it is impersonal and industrial. It’s almost as if someone says, “Here you go – this is good enough for you.” But when we are given, in need, fresh tomatoes, a head of lettuce, a bag of sweet, long green beans that just taste of sunshine and clean water, a paper-wrapped loaf of still warm, fresh bread – we feel loved. We feel part of the community. We feel the gracious hand of God on us. Someone cared enough to grow and bake for us. We become part of the family.

Friday, Food Waste

does this look good to you?

It’s my Amish bread starter. I’ve neglected it for several weeks because (yes, indeed) I am not baking as much. I am a bit determined to take off a few pounds and since I am home all day, scrumptious baked goods lying around looking like forbidden fruit are not part of my meal plan. Note that the blueberry pie was eaten, nay – devoured – along with its sister whipped cream. Shame. The starter seems to be all right. I gave it some sugar, and shook it, and it foamed up nicely. Fact is, sourdough starters always look like something the dog brought up on an empty stomach.

A couple of weeks or so ago, I published a photo of what our refrigerator looked like after a trip to the farmer’s market in St. Jacobs, the Ontario Promised Land of all farmer’s markets. This is a photo of our refrigerator today:

The produce drawers are empty except for a few carrots, and there is part of a head of cabbage and a green pepper left. Mostly, this is leftovers – casserole, falafel, hummus, salad. (Although we do have one Waterloo Dark and a couple of Blackthorns. For medicinal purposes only.) I have some potatoes and onions in the pantry, along with the canned foods.

most of the contents of the pantry

You can’t tell from this, but there are six kinds of baking chocolate in here.

Lately, I have tossed out three cucumbers – I think they were a bit overripe when I bought them, which is hard to tell until you cut them open and see how big the seeds are. I can only make so much gurkesalat at once – I had a big Pyrex bowl filled with it, and it has dwindled to a small Pyrex flat dish. Gurkesalat is a standard Danish fresh pickle which is so stupidly easy to make that my Danish friends must have wondered why I needed a recipe. (Slice cucumbers and white onion paper thin, sprinkle with sea salt, pour vinegar over to cover. Refrigerate.) And a green pepper developed a slimy habit and was threatening the other produce in the drawer, so I booted it out into the hedge.

Mostly, our leftovers are eaten as meals, even if I have to group some of them together as a kind of smorgasbord. Since the food was good the first time around, we all tuck in gratefully when it reappears.

Food Waste Friday

This was our refrigerator last Saturday. So far, the only things that went to waste were half a pepper that went gooey,  some parsley that gave up trying, and a small amount of sour cream that incubated some penicillin mold. I have cooked and canned, and preserved those luscious big eggplants in oilve oil with lots of garlic. I got the recipe from a facebook friend. It is a real neolithic recipe that involves slicing and salting the eggplant, infusing the olive oil with lots of aromatics, then grilling the eggplant slices before immersing in the flavourful olive oil. I used my crockery beanpot, since I am not using it to bake beans this summer. Served with some of the olive oil and a dash of balsamic vinegar, it was a great companion flavour to grilled koftas – kebabs made of ground lamb and beef seasoned with paprika, cinnamon, cumin and hot chile flakes.

I have some beets left from pickled turnips, so they will become harvard beets to go with grilled meats.

Food Waste Friday, either a week late or a day early

We`ve had some busy days around here, but despite a refrigerator full of produce (farmer`s markets!) and houseguests, we haven`t had much food waste. Last week a big green pepper went all soft and mushy and slimy in the produce drawer, and earned itself a good scolding before it went into the trash. This week, I had to sort through a large bowl of blueberries (highbush local berries) and pick out about a half-cup of gooey ones. I was afraid that the whole bowl had gone off, but I caught it in time.

The rest of the berries, along with some sliced peaches and strawberries that hadn`t made it into fruit salad, ice cream topping, or cereal bowls, went into a very,very delicious sauce for cheesecake. I put all the fruit, along with the accumulated juices, in a saucepan (it must have been about a quart or so) and added a cup of white wine, about a half cup of sugar, and the juice of half a lemon. I cooked that over medium heat until it came to a boil, and let it simmer until it thickened – no cornstarch necessary. The lemon juice and sugar jelled the natural pectins in the fruit.

At this time of the year, with lots of fresh food around, I check the refrigerator every other day and use anything I think has gotten past ripe. There`s no junk food in the house – we snack on fruit and cheese instead.

Friday Food Waste

We had lettuce go bad. I’d tried to revive it, but it didn’t seem to have any shelf life, so the last of it got tossed. Produce, especially when it is kept and eaten raw, is hard to stock up. Unless you’ve picked the head of lettuce yourself, you don’t know how long it’s been out of the field or how it’s been handled. I find it aggravating to buy food that doesn’t hold well, but it’s not as if we deliberately ignored it in favour of the chocolate-covered oreos.

In general, we eat well here, with whole grains, vegetables, lean meats and not too many desserts. I’ve been cutting fats and sugar in baking, with no discernible differenc ein quality. I use applesauce and about a htird less sugar in the Amish sweet bread and banana bread; they come out very moist but a bit flatter than expected. They keep well, though, and everyone here likes the texture.

I’ve also been working to use meat out of the freezer before we buy much more, or the older stuff will get buried and end up freezer burned. The freezer isn’t a pup, either; I think it’s got a bit of a gasket leak now and we are looking to replace it within the year. The older ones are often electricity hogs, as well, and it gets worse the older they get as the compressor starts to wear out. We could manage with just the little freezer atop the refrigerator, at least for a while, although that isn’t ideal for long term storage.

I’m quite easy with the thought that there isn’t any old, old food lurking somewhere – that’s one of the benefits of menu planning and using up what you have before you buy more.

Friday, Food Waste

I let the refrigerator stocks run low this week. That meant that I had used up a lot of the vegetables we bought last week. At this time of year, meat goes straight to the freezer, if it isn’t going to be used within twelve hours. I had made a good, spicy vegetable soup that incorporated frozen vegetables and herbs in the freezer, and served it with homemade bread twice this week. I have just a couple of frozen meals yet in the freezer, and I expect to use them in the next week.

One thing I haven’t done is made stock from the old turkey carcasses in the freezer. It’s about time, or time to toss them. Frozen stock or broth keeps well, better than its original meat or bones. I’ve been a bit lazy about this – it’s the whole planning issue, getting the frozen bags upstairs, into the big kettle, herbing and spicing it, and simmering it down. The worst part for me is disposing of the remains. This time I am just going to strain out the broth and toss whatever is too big to pass through the colander. I really should do it on a Saturday since the trash is picked up on Sunday night.

We have much less trash than we used to. Eight months ago, it was a full bin plus a bag on the curb and both recycling boxes. Now it’s maybe a bag and one box; there’s a little more this week since some old paper is going out. I’m pleased with this. Not only is the food waste almost nil, but the trash is more than halved in volume. My personal goal is zero waste, no trash bin, and almost no recycling – which is much harder to do.

My newest project is to find or develop a no-plastic freezer container. Some people use glass jars, but this is a temporary solution, since the jar will have air space, making it no more effective than the little plastic boxes. My parents, years ago, used to freeze blanched vegetables in a coated cardboard container, rather like a Chinese take-out box. Does anyone know if these are available?

Friday Food Waste

I didn’t blog about food waste for a couple of weeks, so we had some. One week, it was slimy salad (yuk). Then it was sprouty potatoes and onions – they weren’t forgotten, but I suspect that the packer let the bags get wet or damp, and the little roots and tubers just did what they are supposed to do. (Does anything smell worse than a rotten potato?)

I know that a leftover beef sandwich has been in the refrigerator for three days, and I believe that is about to become a dog snack. I could take the beef out, scrape off the mayonnaise, and give the bread to the dogs and re-use the beef ina chef’s salad…but no. We have lots of uncooked food in the house, and I’m afraid trying to recycle two slices of beef is a bit obsessive. (If I were starving, hey, sorry dogs! If the bread isn’t moldy, the beef still pinkish, and the mayonnaise uncurdled – that would be mine! But I don’t quite trust it now.)

Does anyone have the Mennonite cookbook from the seventies “Gathering up the Pieces”? I think that’s the title – I’ve had two copies and they got lent out and never returned. It had a lot of ideas and recipes and reasons for using food resources frugally. It may be out of print now, but is worth finding (again).