Friday, November 28, 2008

Victory Gardens-Red, White & Blue is Green Again

This country was created by small sustenance and plantation farmers and I believe we will be returning to that way of life out of necessity. The women in my family have always had vegetable (and flower) gardens in abundance. My maternal grandmother and grandfather moved to a 100-acre New Hampshire farm from suburban Radburn, New Jersey in the spring of 1946, just after World War II ended. Inspired by the writings of author-agriculturist Louis Bromfield from his Malabar Farm in Mansfield, Ohio, their intention was to raise enough food for their family of eventually six children, but also for those who came to buy the surplus from their roadside farm stand. For over fifteen years they succeeded in that enterprise and their motives were entirely democratic ones (even if they themselves were old school Republicans). [Even my Ohio great-grandparents (both sets) had large estate gardens which were particularly important during World War II when they raised most of their own produce during hard times.]

My grandparents' four daughters, as well as their two sons, always had gardens. About twenty years ago one of my aunts converted an old tennis court into a large vegetable garden, with its own built-in, critter-proof fence. Another moved back to New Hampshire and set up gardening on her hillside farm where she grows enough to keep her family, friends and coworkers in fresh fruit and produce. When we visited my uncle this spring, a retired doctor in nearby Tennessee, he took great pride in showing us his flower beds. While we were children and long after we'd moved out, our mother continued to tend a large garden at the farm for almost thirty years and now has a smaller, more manageable plot (yet equally abundant) at her new home.

During the decade of my parents' marriage, my mother even grew tomatoes, flowers and pumpkins on our tiny postage stamp-sized lot in suburban Akron, Ohio. My earliest memories are of visiting local greenhouses with her and smelling the fecund, tamped soil in pots and on the floor. I thought Elmer, my great-grandmother's gardener, was Mr. McGregor from Peter Rabbit, while my farming New Hampshire grandfather seemed to be more like Mr. Green Jeans from my favorite children's television program, Captain Kangaroo. Elmer gardened in a brick, walled garden after all--something that seemed out of a storybook--and would emerge with gifts of seedlings or potted geraniums for my mother. In New Hampshire, my grandparents also tended their own greenhouses. Gardening was in my mother's blood and gave her a chance to stake her claim on her foreign, suburban land.

I have made various well-meaning garden attempts over the years but not with the same ambitions as my relatives. I have a brown thumb with slight hints of moss on them but I believe with more due diligence it can turn a respectable shade of gardener green. The first thing I wanted to do when I rented a small farm apartment in the 1990s was to plant a garden. So I did, along with my daughter--I created a small little patch, "a bit of earth" like Mary Lennox sought in A Secret Garden. We didn't sustain ourselves from that garden but the process was fun and we grew some vegetables. Over the years at our house in Hancock we had several gardens--mostly squash and pumpkins and tomatoes, herbs, rhubarb and mint. In the past few years, I have not bothered much and I truly believe it is because I have not felt rooted. I knew I was about to be transplanted.

Tonight I happened to catch Michael Pollan on Bill Moyers' Journal. I have read The Omnivore's Dilemma and want to revisit his book this winter. Pollan is one of the advocates, if not the main thrust, behind the "Buy Local" food movement. What started in a small, semi-precious, even intellectual and expensive, way with more affluent people has burgeoned because of fluctuating gas prices and predicted hard times ahead. There are even farmers' markets in inner city neighborhoods and a return to urban gardening on formerly neglected lots.

In early October, Pollan wrote a letter entitled "Farmer in Chief" to the (then unknown) President-Elect, urging him, among other things, to use local foods at the White House. What a message that would send! Not only that but to take some of the White House lawn and have a sustainable garden and hire an official vegetable gardener. Eleanor Roosevelt had a "Victory Garden" at the White House and, initially, the Department of Agriculture was concerned that it might send the wrong message to Americans. That was hardly the case: by the end of World War II 40% of our food was being raised in such gardens by 20 million Americans on plots of land not much bigger than a suburban back yard. Other bloggers have written about Pollan's letter, and Obama's awareness of it, with great links and detail, such as over at Fair Ground, an agriculture-related blog from "toxic free North Carolina."

In his interview with Moyers, Pollan describes gardens as "very powerful things" and not "sweet and old-lady like" (but yet they can be that, too, and personally that's part of their appeal!). The following steps are those that anyone can do now, particularly in hard times when we are apt to feel more powerless. As Pollan says, a garden can empower and uplift the human spirit (while putting food on the family table):

1. Plant a garden (or rent community garden space).
2. Cook. Declare your independence from the culture of fast soon as you cook you start thinking about ingredients: plants and animals and not the microwave.
3. Invest more time in food. Cooking has become a spectator sport...if you would invest the time you spend watching cooking shows in actually cooking, you would find you have plenty of time to put food on the table.
4. A freezer is a good investment. Pollan sees this as a "cost effective" investment and advocates hunting in overpopulated wild herds and raising one's own grass-fed meat and eggs.

To these I would also add: 5. Learn how to preserve foods that will not require electricity to store them. To this end one could also install a root cellar. [A recent article in The New York Times, "Food Storage as Grandma Knew It," outlines its return and practical uses.] The Mennonites and Amish are experts at canning and food preservation and are only replicating what has occurred on farms for generations, especially before rural electrification.

admittedly tends his own 10x20 foot garden plot that produces so much he has to spend time figuring out how to give some away. He also referred to the marvelous Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer, writer, poet and philosopher whose writings are at the heart and soul of the entire "Green" movement, decades before it was even called that. Berry bemoaned that we don't do anything for ourselves any more. We have "cheap energy" minds. Gardening is an empowering way to actively engage in feeding yourself and your family and, as Pollan cautions, as "preparation for the world we may find ourselves in."

Come to think of it, most all of my good friends who have space have gardens (or produce stands such as Tenney Farm in Antrim). My friend Edie even started an organic garlic farm last year at Bee's Wing Farm in Dublin, New Hampshire. Here in Kentucky everyone who has any patch of land, large or small, seems to have a small sustenance garden. Our Mennonite friends and neighbors certainly do. Canning and preserving are ways of life and have been forever. People here will survive through hard times because in many ways they always have.

Today we are a nation still at war but the spoils are not the same. While World War II galvanized everyone in a different way on the home front, today's Victory gardens can be victorious over dependency on oil to truck produce from great distances and an agricultural culture of reliance on chemicals. We can be victorious for knowing what is going into our diet and for helping the sustainability of our planet. Now that we're settled on our ridge, despite a few small, affordable and abundant local produce stands during a long growing season, I want to dig into the earth again. Next spring, if the good Lord's willing and the creek don't rise, I will.

[PS On a related note of possible interest to readers, last year I wrote an on-line piece for on "The Wartime Pantry" as background to the documentary, The War.]

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Thanksgiving by Doris Lee, 1935 [Art Institute of Chicago]

This is my favorite holiday of the year, hands down. For the past thirteen years we have had large gatherings on this day at our old New Hampshire home, now someone else's and arguably one of the most Currier & Ives kinds of settings for a Thanksgiving feast. Our extended families and, in more recent years, dear friends have come together in fellowship and feasting. Out of the pantry we brought the special crystal, our favorite blue Yuan china set, the old Indus servers with their brown Aesthetic-era patterning, polished silver and pressed linens. Our museum-like house was warmed with people gathered around us and the scent of meal preparations in our spacious kitchen. A large savory turkey with my special stuffing, butternut squash my husband and I had prepared together earlier in the fall, apple and cranberry sauces and grape jam I'd made with the kids, mashed potatoes, homemade rolls and gravy, pies and other unique offerings from friends. A groaning board of plenty and goodness.

This year we are just the five of us--my husband, our two boys and elderly aunt. Our daughter is working at a ski resort in Vermont so she is too far off to come here for the holidays. Meanwhile, I've been knocked over with bronchitis and pneumonia so I'm not pushing myself too much. We have had several kind invitations to join new friends and we had also wanted to gather friends to join us here for dinner. Instead we decided that the best thing was to have a "no stress" holiday: just us, minimal preparations, easy on the fixings. We can celebrate with friends another time this winter. [Photos of our children--three of my main blessings--are from last year's Thanksgiving altogether in New Hampshire. Ironically, my husband was here in Kentucky at the we had another gathering when he got back with a different group of friends.]

So in this very different holiday for us, our first in our new land, I am reflecting on what is truly important. It's not the table settings, now all in boxes in storage so we're using my favorite every day pottery, "Country Fare," with its rustic brown and aqua glazing, similar to the colors in the above painting (and also in my former New Hampshire kitchen). [Ironically, Country Fare pottery started in the 1940s in Zanesville, Ohio and ended up distributed at Louisville Stoneware in Kentucky, by way of Carbone in New England--just like me.] It also isn't about the picture-perfect Norman Rockwell home. For now, our cozy double-wide is home and provides a warm, comfortable roof over our heads (no pantry or cellar but we're making do with a root cellar/tornado shelter, a few well-stuffed cupboards and a chest freezer on the back porch).

We've been downsizing this year and our Thanksgiving is reflective of that: paring away to the bone of our family. Faith, family, friends, food, clothing, shelter (and to this list, on a personal level, I will add farm as that is what we are doing and trying to build here--a solid farm life--it's also the subtitle of my "In the Pantry" blog heading, more or less!). But this is what it's all about--the rudiments of what makes us who we are. We'll gather together, call our daughter and be thankful for what we have and our many blessings.

The painting by Doris Lee [you can click on the image, above, and it should open in a larger format--there are wonderful details and I've even just turned it into my computer desktop] was sent to me by my friend Sue who often shares her wisdom with me. She's like the big sister I never had and she and her partner Steve did most of the photography for The Pantry book. Lee lived among other artists in Woodstock, New York and was most famous for her WPA-era murals and paintings from the 1930s and 40s. "Thanksgiving" is a nostalgic reminder of a warm, wood-fired farmhouse with a kitchen full of women preparing a special dinner in distinct harmony.

In many ways, the image reminds me of the large, women-filled kitchens in the homes of our Mennonite friends, complete with wood cook stove. It appeals as much to me now, and to Sue, on the cusp of what are surely harder financial times ahead, as it did to those who saw it during the Great Depression. [Like Mary Poppins, Bert and her charges, it would be fun to jump right into the image, if I could. One thing I know I want in a future farmhouse kitchen is a big wood-burning cook stove! I miss the smell of a wood-warmed house and also want to use one for cooking.]

So a happy Thanksgiving to friends and family across our great nation and many blessings to you and yours,


PS If you click on the "Holidays" label below, there are other blog entries from past years. Almost four years for this blog now. [And I clearly need to go through and better inventory my entries...]

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Little Bits of Yourself Fluttering on the Fences

How hard it is to escape from places. However carefully one goes they hold you - you leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences - little rags and shreds of your very life.
Katherine Mansfield to Ida Barker, 1922

Katherine Mansfield was born in New Zealand in 1888 and died, too young, in 1923 in England. She is often regarded as one of the best short story writers of the modern age.

I have had this quote, torn out of a Reader's Digest "Quotable Quotes" from an issue from the early 1980s, in a little scrapbook of such things I kept in my college years. I thought of it today when responding to a blog comment, then found the entire quote, and realized how it defines my outlook on life, and place, but also why I want to keep blogging.

My wise friend Sue, who is a practitioner of natural healing whenever possible, emailed me yesterday the following remedy for coughs. I have been so afflicted for several weeks, since around the happy events of the election, and am finally seeing a doctor tomorrow. I thwarted it for months with vitamins but finally just succumbed to the inevitable. I share this as a natural remedy from the pantry.

"In the meantime," she writes, "Here is an old fashioned remedy to use by Hanna Kroeger...German holistic intuitive healer. Boil some cut onions in apple cider vinegar. Add a bit of honey to taste. Take 1 TBS every hour. All the old herbals recommend hot onion tea as the best cough cure, that plus slippery elm cough drops."

But she continued, as Sue is also highly intuitive herself: "On the emotional level, the cough means deep feelings of grief or sadness that have been stuck, like in a dam, are trying to loosen. Like all the little twigs breaking up and floating away, being dislodged by the cough motion. So the healers say to take Willow for respiratory/repression ailments...Willow is a Bach Flower Remedy (note that is not a homeopathic remedy, it's a flower essence/energy)...I have always associated you with using mullein tincture for some reason. Maybe because it's found in English country gardens. It's a mucilage."

She also added: "Yes, it's unusually cold this November... and extra hard for people to make the transition. A lot of changes are happening and it's too fast, it needs to be slowed down."

So I am boiling onions in apple cider vinegar for good measure and catching up on my reading today. Doesn't time seem somehow suspended on a Sunday? Lately,
while regrouping and healing a persistent virus, I've been trying to slow it all down even more. My greatgrandmother J.A.T. called this "the ruthlessness to rest" in her own writings and letters. [Here are some other natural cures for coughs. And I highly recommend a slathering of Unkers Medicated Salve (or Vicks will do, also) on your back and chest and soles of feet after a hot bath. Some Mennonite friends taught me about the feet, especially, and I recommend bed socks, too.]

Blogging is a way of slowing down and capturing, for a time, a thought or event. And I realize that, cough aside, I have been stuck for awhile by variations of profound grief and letting go. So in my mind I am renewing and relocating, while trying to rest and catch up. It has been quite a year of changing places and letting go, of losses large and small, of breaking up and floating away. However, after the dam breaks, there is always comfort in water finding its own level again.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Sugar and Spice and All Things Nice

A writer friend of mine Melissa Holbrook Pierson, and a fellow Akronite (who I still have not met in actual space and who writes beautifully about place, and her dog Nelly at her blog It's Nelly's World), emailed me today about a blog I had not heard about: Jellypress: Old Recipes, Modern Life. It is the shared blog of two writers, Nancy Ring and Laura Schenone, who write about food, fun, art and ideas [they have also written three books between them]. Among a variety of topics, I noticed, at first glance, that they have written about West Virginia ramps and have quoted from The Kentucky Housewife. It is clear that their interest in the history of food is pervasive in their writings (and blogs). Laura also wrote A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove--A History of American Women Told through Food, Recipes, and Remembrances, a book that has been on my "want to own" list since I first heard about it.

Their blog and food writings are a reminder that it is because of food and my love of it--and its history--that I wrote The Pantry in the first place and also why I started this blog three-and-a-half years ago (yikes!) as preamble and a scrapbook of that process. In recent months, especially, I've steered away from that vision into religion, politics, our journey from New England to Kentucky. I've interjected personal memoir with food and place and sometimes the crumbs have been a bit too scattered, even for me.

In the past two weeks, two new Kentucky friends have decided not to blog any more. This is because of many factors, some of which point to greater issues of modern communication and that I'd like to blog about soon. Ironically, we met through each other's blogs but their decisions to "un blog" have given me a needed identity crisis as to why I do.

So, while sick post-election these past few weeks (and not sick from the results but from a dormant chest virus which has just knocked me off my socks and the computer) I have been reconsidering what I want this blog to be about. I believe what I really want to do is to return it to its food and history roots: more history, more recipes, more food memories and links and discussions of others. [Ok, maybe the occasional recipe about food and farming, or food and can I escape from the topic of place when it is in my very being and the topic of my next book? The observation of and dwelling in a place--whether historic or double-wide. Ok, well, food in situ. There we go. Now we're on to something.]

Call it a pre-Thanksgiving identity crisis. Call it a mid-blog crisis. But the end result will be more blogs...soon. While I consider this topic further I would appreciate any thoughts you, the reader, might have. What would you like to read In the Pantry and why do you come here in the first place?

In the meantime, Seasons Greetings!


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Amazing Grace

Jessye Norman singing Amazing Grace ~ I can not say, or sing it, any better. I am filled with grace tonight--for the political process, for the healing that will now occur after the past eight years of strife and discord and unrest, for a most gracious concession speech by John McCain (despite the "boos" from his assembled crowd), for the humility, radiance and inspired leadership of Barack Obama at his shining and history-making night in Chicago.

This has been a great day for the United States of America and I will remember it always, as will my three children [one who voted in the real election and two who voted at school in a "mock" election]. It feels as if there has been a collective sigh of relief around this nation and the world--and celebration for the promise of the future.

grace |grās|
1 simple elegance or refinement of movement
• courteous goodwill
• ( graces) an attractively polite manner of behaving
2 (in Christian belief) the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.
• a divinely given talent or blessing
• the condition or fact of being favored by someone
3 (also grace period) a period officially allowed for payment of a sum due or for compliance with a law or condition, esp. an extended period granted as a special favor
4 a short prayer of thanks said before or after a meal
5 ( His, Her, or Your Grace) used as forms of description or address for a duke, duchess, or archbishop

ORIGIN Middle English: via Old French from Latin gratia, from gratus ‘pleasing, thankful’ ; related to grateful .

Monday, November 3, 2008

Margaret and Helen

Once in awhile I come across a blog that just speaks to me. Today, Margaret and Helen came into my in-box via a friend who just knew I would love this blog. She was right. These two women have been friends for over 60 years and aren't afraid to speak their minds. Recently they have had daily blogs about politics and politicians. Whatever your politics, they have some words of wisdom for all of us and, one day, I hope I am as feisty and reflective as they are.

I am lucky to have a variety of great girlfriends--three since childhood (one since the crib, whom I hope to see next week for the first time in 7 years! -- one since kindergarten and one since middle school --so that's 46, 41 and 32 years respectively. Beth and Robin and Di, we're gaining fast on Margaret and Helen!), another for almost 20 years and the rest in the past decade or so, especially the past five years. I am very blessed. Now these are all women I count as really great sister-like girlfriends. I am also lucky to have some good college friends--and others--with whom I'm back in touch again or have remained in touch, thanks to the internet and wonders of cyberspace. Margaret and Helen, here we come!

Tonight, they posted about cinnamon rolls, a tribute to Grandmothers everywhere (with a request for readers' own grandmother memories). How very sad that Obama's grandmother passed at this time and was not able to live to see the day when her grandson would become the first African-American president of the United States of America! It is clear to see what an influence this woman was in Barack Obama's life, as so many of us are fortunate to have had in our own grandmothers.

I think Margaret and Helen would approve of this message below, from MoveOn, also just received in my in-box this afternoon. It too, mentions grandchildren and the legacy we will bring them on tomorrow's election day. Kentucky is likely not going to be a Blue state any time soon but this message gives us all pause and reason to VOTE, wherever we are. My daughter, now 20, is happy to be able to vote in her first presidential election tomorrow. I am happy to vote, period, and have never held this right so dearly as I am this year. [But oh how I am looking forward to the end of this campaign--to returning to "normal" and not being so anxious about everything. I pray that this nation can heal from the divisiveness and move forward, together, united again.]

Dear MoveOn member,

You don't live in Ohio. You don't live in Florida. The chance is pretty small that Kentucky will decide the presidential election. So: Why vote?

Here's why. This list is important—so please read it, and then pass it along:

The Top 5 Reasons To Vote In Kentucky
Or: Why It Still Means A Thing Even If It Ain't Got That Swing
Big margin = big mandate. The popular vote doesn't put anyone in the White House, but it affects what presidents can do when they get there. Want Obama to be able to actually do the stuff he's been talking about? Pass universal health care? End the war? Then we need a landslide.

The other things on the ballot matter! For example: Congress. Without more support in the House and Senate, Obama will have a hard time getting progressive laws passed. Plus, there are other important local races and ballot questions in some places.

If you don't vote, everyone can find out. Voting records are public. (Not who you voted for, just whether you voted.) Pretty soon, finding out whether you voted could be as easy as Googling you.

Help make history. You could cast one of the votes that elect the first African-American president. If we win, we'll tell our grandchildren about this election, and they'll tell their grandchildren. Do you really want to have to explain to your great-great-grandchildren that you were just too busy to vote in the most important election in your lifetime?

People died so you'd have the right to vote. Self-government—voting to choose our own leaders—is the original American dream. We are heir to a centuries-long struggle for freedom: the American revolution, and the battles to extend the franchise to those without property, to women, to people of color, and to young people. This year, many will still be denied their right to vote. For those of us who have that right, it's precious. If we waste it, we dishonor those who fought for it and those who fight still.

Live your values. Love your country. Vote.

Click here for information about where to vote, what to bring, and when polls close: