Monday, January 7, 2013

Honor Thy Vegetable Garden (excerpt from A REAL LIFE)

Honor Thy Vegetable Garden (another excerpt)

Our relationship with food defines cultures, often starts and decides wars, and reflects not only our social status but our whole economy. It is also a profoundly emotional and social one as when we share meals with friends and family, and when we build comforting memories with our children.

Perhaps the oldest and most enduring food culture is that of China. The Chinese philosopher Lin Yutang wrote, “If there is anything we are serious about it is neither religion nor learning, but food.”

To the Chinese, food and friends are inseparable.

Twenty-five hundred years ago, Confucius dreamed and fussed about the art of cooking and enjoyment of life through the cultivation of the palate and delight of the senses. The art of cooking was much more than food; his culinary etiquette, social sharing, presentation and combining, are still considered to be the standards of today. (As is the cutting of food into bite-size pieces during preparation to avoid the need for knives—for obvious reasons—at the table.) He considered food as one of the beautiful and gentle things, which also contributes to the peace and harmony of society. His philosophy elevated cooking and eating from a dull daily chore to not only an art form but a celebration of life.

I think it is safe to say that our modern hurry-up culture has, in the past few decades, handily reversed that trend. We seem to grab any industrially-made whoknowswhat from wherever we can, then eat it, largely alone; on the run or even while we drive; eat it out of paper boxes, and plastic cups, or a dripping package; often while multitasking or watching the tube; seldom giving a thought to the food’s appearance or flavor—which, considering what we mostly eat, is not such a bad idea.

For some ancient peoples from the Greeks to the Etruscans, symposia—discussions involving eating, drinking, music and dance—were the main thing in life. The culture of food—not just its consumption, but also its growing and preparation—has remained the foundation of life for the Etruscan descendants in today’s Tuscany.

While we North Americans were brought up to consider true security to be the steady job, a house, and a cushy pension, our Tuscan friends have a completely different view of life.

When I asked my neighbor Ofelio, who just celebrated his seventy-sixth birthday, what made him feel secure, he recited a short list: a stack of aged fire-wood for the winter; half a pig put up in the cellar and freezer; a hundred liters of olive oil in a stainless vat; two barrels of wine; chickens and Guinea hens in the courtyard; then he raised his hoe and pointed down the hill at a vast vegetable garden, “And that.” And slammed his hoe back into the ground.

Ofelio has a Buddhist mentality to life: when he walks, he walks. And when he hoes, he hoes. His vegetable garden didn’t have raised beds or manicured paths; it was absolutely and completely utilitarian. It had big patches of onions, garlic, potatoes, and chard, rows of poled tomatoes, peppers, fennel, carrots, eggplant and zucchini, in fact just about every vegetable I can name.

He grinned at me with pride. “E il resto del mondo?” and he leaned his hoe against his chest to free up both his hands then gave the world an energetic Neapolitan salute.

With him, as with most Tuscans, the vegetable garden, the orchard, the olive trees, and the vines are almost always family affairs. Kids, uncles, aunts, nephews all come to help out during the vendemmia, or to pick olives or share in the bounty of the gardens. It gives children from a very young age a sense of identity, skilled hands, and a sense of belonging.

Since these gardens are such wonders, and the culture of food is such an all-inclusive, gastronomic and social wonder, why don’t we all have Ofelio’s garden in our yards? What happened to America’s once favorite hobby that also gave us fresh, organically pure and nourishing food?

A recent piece in The Globe and Mail cited twenty-five foods for health and longevity: almonds, avocados, beets, berries, black beans, broccoli, cabbage, dark chocolate, flax seed, garlic, green tea, kale, lentils, oats, olive oil (extra virgin), oranges, pomegranates, red bell peppers, red grapes (I substitute with red wine and lots of it), salmon, spinach, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and walnuts.

Now, unless you live on the North Pole, you can grow most of these in any normal yard with the aid of a modest greenhouse. I admit, the salmon is a toughie, the olive oil you’ll have to buy from us, the green tea from China, and I haven’t a clue what the hell flax seeds are, but the rest are a shoo-in. So why are we all inside lying on the couch instead of outside digging?

The National Gardening Association claims a quarter of American households grow some of their own fruits, vegetables, herbs and berries, so why not the other three quarters? Why is the money spent on lawn care products ten times more than money spent on the home vegetable garden? When the reasons for having one are so compelling—58 percent of gardeners said they do it for better tasting food, 54 percent to save money on food bills, 51 percent for better quality food, 48 percent to grow food
they know is safe—why is the vegetable garden not a coast to coast fixture?

The Joy of Soil

Twenty years ago a Los Angeles Times survey on favorite pastimes found over 60 percent of those questioned put gardening at the top, and while most of the guys probably meant doing wheelies on their lawnmowers, that’s still a huge difference from a recent CNN survey, where in a quarter million responses, gardening didn’t even make it into the top ten.

Yet many of our friends in big cities from New York to Milan still have a common aspiration: to own a square of dirt, and to get out on a Sunday morning, grab a spade, and dig. The need to have contact with the earth seems hardwired in our genes, if you don’t believe me, stick your toddler in the yard with a little spade and watch her instantly become a busy, tireless mole. She’ll dig feverishly and—almost guaranteed—she’ll start “planting” leaves and sticks in the tilled ground.

The urge to work the land seems to stick with us even in the most inhospitable places, almost no matter how unused to working the land we may be.

The countryside near Siena is hard and dry in late summer. With the wheat cut, the hills are bare and only small vineyards, olive groves and wooded ditches break the brownness of the land. We were taking a Sunday walk on a silent, dusty road, hadn’t passed a soul for an hour—there were only ruins in this valley—when amidst some olive saplings, we saw a middle aged man, in shorts and a tennis shirt, hoeing happily around the tree trunks.

He was bright and cheerful, a director of the Bank of Tuscany in Siena, who loves tennis and soccer, but, most of all, he loves digging dirt. He proudly showed us the patch of sorghum he planted for wild pheasants, the woods where he cleared the undergrowth and hoed shallow troughs among the poplars to drain off the water to create an ideal habitat for truffles; but most of all he showed us his grove of olive saplings, planted by his own hands. If you looked really closely, you could see the first cluster of tiny, pale green olives. He talked about growing things—vegetables, figs, anything you can eat.
“When you see the first fruit come out on something you have planted, it is such an . . . ” he searched for words. “Such an immense joy!”

Thanks to Candace who is the heart and soul (and callouses) behind our three vegetable gardens, we are able to celebrate a harvest nearly every day. To try and compare rationally anything you grew—planted, watered, nursed, protected from evil, watched ripen—with some fruit or vegetable grown elsewhere on this planet is a hopeless task; the others don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. Yours, blemished and misshapen as they may be, will be sweeter, richer, have flavors never imagined, while the others will be a watery, tasteless, barely edible pulp.

I look forward each summer’s day to just before lunch, when I go out to the garden and pick the darkest, reddest tomatoes I can find. To bite into a homegrown, fully ripe tomato with the warmth of the sun still on it, is—well, what can I say—such an immense joy!

Fresh peas rolling out of the shell, or radishes just uprooted full of all the flavors that they have drawn out of the earth, or the apricot that you watch for days on end waiting for that perfect, ripest moment when it’s about to fall, when, as you touch it, it tumbles into your palm, warm, soft, full of nectar. That first bite—good God—is well worth waiting the whole year for.

Bye-Bye Miss American Lawn

There is a sense of vitality to food gardens, plants crowding, fruits bulging, colors exploding, things flowering, maturing, wilting, dying off, the autumn earth freshly tilled, and everything you touch, everything you see, you can eat. And, just as important, someone is out there planting, hoeing, tilling, in touch with the soil and with the cycles of nature.

So why do we pay astronomical sums for, over-processed, over-packaged, often insipid food, transported to us over thousands of miles when much of it we could have grown right in our own yard with much more joy and much less effort, pollution, and expense than it takes to cut, water, and fertilize the useless bloody lawn?

Who will have enough sense and intestinal fortitude to be the first to dig up the lawn and plant in its place a lovely patch of spuds? You can probably do it under one of two conditions: if you’re self-confident and just don’t give a damn, or if you’re armed with enough facts to convince your gasping neighbors.

There seem to be four excellent reasons to lay waste to the lawn: economic, nutritional, environmental and social, so let’s touch on them one by one.

Economic Benefit

Last year, CNN cited a report concluding that a family will get an average 25-to-1 return on its investment in a garden. By that count, a family that spends $200 on a medium-to-large garden, as Michelle Obama reportedly did, will save $5,000 in grocery bills over the course of a year.

According to the National Research Council, which is part of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington D.C., the American family spends between 10 and 50 percent of their income on food. This broad range is created by the disparity in annual incomes, such that a family of four with an income of $20,000 spends as much as 50 percent on food, while the family earning $100,000 spends about 10 percent.

These figures bring up an interesting question. In the case of the poorest families, we can assume that the jobs they hold are not of the dream variety. Parking cars and flipping burgers are probably not on anybody’s wish list. If half of the earnings from these endeavors goes to pay for food, would it not make more sense to cut the time spent doing them in half, and instead—with much less effort—work a nice food garden?

(…) We can begin with small steps like a roof garden. Cities abound with flat roofs, ideal for the shallow six-inch beds needed to grow vegetables. The layer of soil provides two added benefits: insulation against heat and cold, and longevity, offering roofing materials protection from the sun.

Another alternative food source popping up in cities across the globe is the community garden. Our niece in North Vancouver is involved in three major projects promoting community gardening to ensure that residents—especially those in need—have access to a safe, reliable food source. One is an urban garden in the local safe house for youth, where the kids are involved in planting, growing and at the end, getting “free food.”

She is also involved in the Edible Garden Project, which supports the growing and distribution of local food, and, perhaps most interestingly, she helped to break ground for Vancouver’s first urban farm. On a piece of unused parkland donated by the city council, they’ll be able to produce and sell organic vegetables right in the city.

An already in-use idea is community-supported agriculture (CSA) While it’s not as satisfying as pulling a carrot out of the ground or picking a ripe peach in your own backyard, the system delivers seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables (and, now, even meat, eggs and flowers) that are pesticide-free and competitively priced. This food network—started in Europe and Japan in the ‘60s—is over 10,000 farms strong in the U.S. alone, and growing. Members share the risk and reward of each harvest by funding a transparent annual budget. This allows farmers to plan ahead and enforces a fair pricing system. Typical small, independent CSA farms sell their vitamin-packed tomatoes or juicy squash at farmers’ markets, or provide for pickups or even home deliveries. You may not know to cook kohlrabi or what to do with three pounds of zucchini, but you’ll soon find out.


Some will argue that planting a food garden will provide minimal savings because they eat very little fruit or vegetables. This bad habit is understandable if you don’t want to live long (remember the twenty-five foods for health and longevity), and is nearly justifiable given the bland produce sold at most supermarkets. How can anyone be enthusiastic over lettuce and tomatoes when they have no more flavor than the average tablecloth?

I confess I used to have very little interest in eating green produce until we moved to Paris and began shopping at a street market twice a week. My enthusiasm did not bloom into a mania until we moved to Italy and Candace began to feed us from the garden. Once I was introduced to real fruit and vegetables, I not only began to enjoy them, but began eating them much more frequently, abandoning processed, often horrendously expensive, snacks and substitutes that I had eaten in the past. In other words, my daily consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables went from about 10 percent of my total daily food intake to over 70 percent in a short period of time. If you add in my favorite fruit: wine, then it’s closer to ninety. It is thus easy to see how your savings from growing much of your own food can be far greater than you might at first think.

How much can we save as a society by bringing back the old victory garden? Well, for a start, we North Americans, who have elevated weight reduction to the national pastime, could save most of the $35 billion a year spent on diet programs and liposuction alone. Consider how much additionally could be saved in hospital bills for curing all the ailments caused by the eating of fats and junk foods, everything from diabetes, heart disease, and stroke to various cancers.


Eating well

“We are living in a world today where lemonade is made from artificial flavors 
and furniture polish is made from real lemons.”—Alfred E. Neuman

If you tried, by and large, to eat only what you grew, then you would have to say goodbye to Quarter-Pounders, Diet Coke, sugar Pops and Twinkies. What a blessing! The first week you might miss them; the second you will not believe you had ever insulted your taste buds and innards by ingesting such obscenities.

When was the last time you ate a real tomato? I don’t mean the red watery kind; I mean one that explodes with a hundred flavors as you take a bite. If you haven’t for a long time then that’s sad, but what is even sadder is that while some of us can at least remember a real tomato, most of our children have grown up eating only imitations. And worse than not being able to eat the tomato we once loved is never having eaten a real tomato at all. But how can we account for such a great difference in flavor?

First, it is estimated that more than half of all tomatoes—and many fruits—consumed in the US, are harvested and shipped green, and then artificially ripened with chemicals or radiation upon arrival at their final destination. No comparison in flavor with those ripened on the vine. Allow me to tell you something learned from twelve years of working our vineyards.

Our grapes turn a dark color; i.e. look good and ripe, sometime in early August. Do we pick them? Over my dead body. We wait. We wait all of August and some of September before I even begin testing the ripeness of our earliest maturing grapes: our Syrah. When the leaves start to yellow and the stem near the cluster has turned woody and brown (both signs that the vine is becoming dormant); when the seeds too have turned brown and taste toasted-sweet instead of bitter; when the color of the skin stains your lips, teeth and fingers; when the refractometer, which indicates sugar levels, reads a “perfect” 24, then the grape is ripe. That’s the time when I prepare for the harvest and—you guessed it—wait some more. I don’t know the chemistry of the why, but I know that with an extra week of maturation the perfumes and flavors take on a new intensity that simply was not there before. I do the same with the Sangiovese grapes for our Brunello. The results? Our Syrah was named Italian Red of the Year in New York, and our 2006 Brunello, just released, received 95 points from James Suckling who has thirty years of experience tasting for Wine Spectator.

Somehow, I don’t think we would have done so well had we picked the grapes early and “matured” them in a box with cyanide or a nuclear blast or whatever it is the “maturing” industry uses.

Second, we have to realize that in a culture obsessed with looks, fruits and vegetables are no longer grown for flavor but for appearance. Most of us don’t shop at farmers’ markets where we are enticed by the vendor’s cries to sample his sweetest, ripest or juiciest, but in supermarkets, where if we bit into an apple we would be arrested for unauthorized mastication. We are, in other words, expected to judge what we eat by looks alone.

Then there is the question of purity. About 500 million pounds of pesticides and herbicides a year are poured on what we eat. True, some of these toxins leach out, but some end up on our plates. Most of them have only one purpose: to make agro-businesses more profitable. In others words, if you grew your own food you could exclude these toxic delicacies from your menu.

But the above toxins used in growing are only a beginning. Next is the processing. Apart from genetically modified food, we have the above-mentioned artificial ripening either with chemicals or by radiation (have you ever checked to see if you glow in the dark?) plus a slew of antibiotics, preservatives, correctives, additives and food dyes. To describe their individual or combined dangers would fill volumes. The important point is that all of this ingestion of who knows what—not to mention salmonella and e-coli, distant food poisonings by oils pills and even nuclear contamination—can be avoided if you grow your own.

Some may shrug at this and say, “So what’s a little pesticide, preservatives and a bit of poisoning? And so what if things don’t taste as good as they could?” But it is not as simple as that. Apart from the health hazards of agro-food-chemicals there’s another factor. The flavor of the vegetables and fruits we eat is not merely luxury. It is just as connected to our lives and the world around us as the air we breathe or the water we drink. If we do not learn about, if we are not exposed to, the hundreds of unique flavors our fruits and vegetables can provide, then we will never learn to love them. In the same way, if we have never seen or smelled the clear blue sky of a winter prairie or a summer mountain, we will unquestioningly accept our filthy city air. If we don’t know the thrill of a forest, we will learn to accept our moribund, concrete cities. That is why we should fight tooth and nail for a real tomato; full of flavor, full of sun.

The Environment

“Year by year, the energy cost of each mouthful of our food has increased, 
until now we are using about ten times as much energy as our meals contain.”—Roger B . Swain

Lest we forget, or never think of at all, the way we cultivate, transport, process, package and market our foods results in staggering quantities of avoidable pollution.

Farming is no longer farming, it is agro-industry based on agro-chemicals. These agro-chemicals pollute not only our bodies, but cause vast collateral damage during their manufacture and application, and “increase health risks to agricultural workers, harm wildlife, and pollute groundwater.”

Then, of course, there is the great god of modern times: transportation. The average food in North America travels a staggering eleven hundred miles. In your back yard it would average about eleven steps. A Worldwatch Institute report warns of devastated economies and unlivable environments if we continue to mass-produce and mass-transport food. In a sustainable world, where carbon emissions must be cut by two-thirds, we “cannot be trucking vast quantities of food thousands of miles.”

But the amount of pollution saved from eliminating transport pales in comparison to the pollution caused by food processing, packaging, and marketing. To be specific: the farmer receives on average only 25 cents of each dollar you spend on food. The other 75 cents go to . . . ? Exactly.

Eating only food you grow would limit you to eating what is in season. Is that so bad? Do we have to eat strawberries in November or watermelons in January? Can we not build our excitement as we do for Thanksgiving and Christmas? Do we have to have everything all the time? How dull. As Goethe said, “Nothing is harder to bear than a succession of fair days.”

Social and Personal

Even not counting the above three factors, social bonds—whether within the family or with neighbors—and the personal benefits that a food garden can bring, is enough justification for us to go and dig.

Spending most of our lives nearly as inert as a corpse—apart from our twitching fingers on joysticks and keyboards—we have become so unaccustomed to even walking that to call our current lurch a “waddle” would be an insult to a duck. Hence the robust actions of working the soil will feel like a return to Eden for our bodies. The complex movements of constant stretching, bending, twisting, swinging and hauling, all those barely noticeable movements you do while in your garden, are both physically and emotionally rewarding. Candace hasn’t set foot in a gym. She just turned sixty and hates exercise. All she does is look after our fruits and vegetables; the rest of the garden she never touches, and she has firm hard muscles and weighs exactly as much as when she was twenty: a hundred and six pounds on a five-foot six-inch frame. The benefits of such work do not end when we step out of the garden; they continue to give a zest and limberness to our daily lives. They remind us that we are a mobile species designed and built to make miraculous motions: to run and jump, spin and dance. Working a garden lets us regain one of life’s greatest joys: the joy of movement.

When we work our gardens with others—family, friends, lovers—those movements take on a yet more special meaning: we move together. There is a kind of exhilaration when working with someone in close quarters: taking care how we swing our hoe without doing them harm, making sure we don’t leave a rake where the other can trip over it—seeming stupidities—but when we have to think about allowing others a space to move, when we anticipate their moves, and blend our moves with theirs, it’s a kind of basic choreography; a kind of primordial dance.

The importance of this is not in the artistic or aesthetic, but in the profoundly human: we share. We learn the beauty of working together, of achieving results together we could not have reached alone. We learn the joy of community.

A REAL LIFE: Rediscovering the Roots of Our Happiness is available through 
W. W. Norton and or wherever books and ebooks are sold. 
For more about the author, please visit

Stay tuned for a new chapter post next week!

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