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Speaking of spices. May 28, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here (again). Just yesterday, I was posting about Scottish spices. Then our friend Ben called my attention to an article called “A Taste for Hotter, Mintier, Fruitier” in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal. (Read it for yourself at www.wsj.com.)

The article itself was about how American companies are making their foods’ and drinks’ flavorings more extreme, from Third-Degree Burn Doritos to Wrigley’s Orbit Mist Gum with flavor crystals called Micro-Bursts. “In short, American cuisine is adrenaline cuisine,” author Miriam Gottfried says. This is not what I—or presumably anyone who prefers to taste real food with real flavors, not lab-created coatings for tortilla chips and the like—would call good news, though it’s hardly a surprise. I recommend the article to your attention.

But what amazed me was a spice-related statistic: “At home, seasoning company McCormick & Co. Inc. says Americans now keep an average of 40 different spices, a figure that has grown roughly twice as fast in the past two decades as it did in the previous 30 years,” Ms. Gottfried reports. Forty spices! We’ve come a long way from salt, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, vanilla, and dried mustard, baby.

Thinking this through, I could see a sort of timeline. First were the regional herbs and spices used in traditional cuisines like that of this area’s Pennsylvania Dutch (caraway, coriander, sage, dill weed, dill seed, fennel, yellow mustardseed, horseradish, and anise) and the fiery dishes of the Southwest. Next, the Mediterranean herbs: oregano, thyme, marjoram, basil, rosemary, garlic. And then French cuisine, adding tarragon, lavender, and fines herbes to the mix.

Then the spices of India and Pakistan (curry leaf, fenugreek leaf, fenugreek seed, cardamom, black mustardseed, cumin, ginger, turmeric, and innumerable others) and their spice blends (curry powder, garam masala, chaat masala, and so on, in all their variations). And then Asian cuisine, with its wasabi, star anise, sesame oil, lemongrass, chillis, coconut, and distinctive curries.

These days, we can enjoy the spicings of Ethiopia or Senegal, Lebanon or Turkey, Thailand or the Philippines, Jamaica or Barbados, with hardly more effort than it takes to go online or open the spice cabinet. Still, I’m kind of awed.

Admittedly, I have hundreds of spices, herbs, and blends. But I’m a spice junkie. That the average American kitchen now has 40 spices simply blows me away. I can’t think of stronger proof that our culinary horizons have expanded. Maybe our national obsession with fast food, junk food, and fake food will finally fade in favor of real food with real flavor. But then again, maybe we’ll just reach for another bag of Third-Degree Burn chips.

                ‘Til next time,



Vital statistics. April 22, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Good news for vegetable gardeners! Our friend Ben was paging through this month’s copy of greenPROFIT/GROWERTALKS magazine when my eye was caught by Ellen Wells’s editorial, “Edible Endeavors.” One paragraph provided some amazingly encouraging statistics for all of us who love to grow edibles. I quote:

“This is… what the Garden Writers Association Foundation found in its 2009 Edibles [sic] Gardening Trends Research Report conducted in November: More than 41 million U.S. households (38%) grew a vegetable garden; 19.5 million households (18%) grew an herb garden; 16.5 million households (15%) grew fruits; 7% (7.7 million households) were new to edibles [sic] gardening; about 33% of experienced gardeners grew more edibles in 2009; and 37%  of households reported plans to increase their edible gardens in 2010.”

Wow. How exciting! Finally, gardening with edibles has arrived, not just among the cognoscenti but across America. No wonder Michelle Obama is planting an organic vegetable garden on the White House lawn and venerable nurseries like White Flower Farm and Logee’s are offering an amazing selection of edibles, from tomatoes to olives to coffee trees and vanilla orchids to passionfruit and citrus. But our friend Ben thinks this trend has taken its own sweet time. After all, the last time growing edibles was trendy was in the Victory Garden era of World War II.

Then, with the boom years of the Fifties, growing your own food fell into disrepute. The idea seemed to be that you should grow ornamentals in your landscape and get your fruits and vegetables from the grocery, that growing your own was somehow shabby, not respectable, even trashy. And unfortunately, this perception endured for decades.

The youthful Ben would wander through my beloved Grandma Simms’s backyard with its vegetables, herbs, edible flowers, and even a peach tree, as if visiting Paradise, it seemed so exotic. Certainly, no vegetable dared show its head in our home’s Colonial landscape, and when a German family moved into the neighborhood and began growing corn in their front lawn, they became instant outcasts and were the talk of the whole area. Shocking!!!

Fortunately, influential voices were raised in favor of edibles throughout the “all flowers, all the time” era. There was a big revival of interest in growing edibles in the 1970s, fueled by Organic Gardening magazine, by the popularity of Helen and Scott Nearing’s homesteading classic, Living the Good Life, and its sequels, and by the Back to the Land movement.

Ruth Stout’s books on mulch gardening, The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book and How to Have a Green Thumb without an Aching Back, proclaimed that vegetable gardening didn’t even have to be the backbreaking endeavor brought to mind by truck gardens of the era. John and Betsy Jeavons insisted that yes, it did, with the publication of the first edition of How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine, introducing Americans to the concepts of double-digging, Biodynamics, and French Intensive gardening. But the complexity and one-upmanship inherent in Jeavons’s sytem was countered by Masanobu Fukuoka’s The One-Straw Revolution, which introduced readers to the Zen of gardening and reinforced that it didn’t have to be hard.

A generation largely raised on frozen and canned vegetables, TV dinners, and other “convenience foods” had had enough. But they were viewed as Hippies and radicals, an idealistic and foolish fringe. Flower gardening still reigned supreme.

The one “respectable” voice championing food gardening in the ’70s was that of Jim Crockett, whose pioneering PBS gardening show, “The Victory Garden,” took its very name from those vegetable gardens of old. Crockett grew ornamentals, including houseplants and greenhouse plants, as well as edibles, on the show. But his cheerful approach and easy-to-follow month-by-month format won the show and the books spun off from it a legion of admirers, even in the suburbs. The Stepford Wives and their Toro-riding husbands were still in charge of the landscape, but there were definitely cracks in the veneer.

By the ’80s, it looked like corporate culture was going to be the death knell of vegetable gardening. In the era of Yuppies and “upward mobility”—emphasis on mobility, move every two years at your company’s command and to hell with what that does to family stability, children’s sense of security, and sense of place—who’d want to do anything to the faceless, cookie-cutter house and property you’d bought in the new place? Not only would you not be there long enough to enjoy it, but it might reduce the property value when it was time to resell!   

Thank God, the ’80s also brought new forces to bear on the fight for edible gardening. Edible landscaping, a concept pioneered by Rosalind Creasy in her books The Complete Guide to Edible Landscaping and Cooking from the Garden, as well as by Robert Kourik and others, showed gardeners that vegetable and fruit growing didn’t have to be an eyesore. Bill Mollison’s Permaculture made its way from Australia to America, reinforcing the idea of planting dual-purpose plants (for example, nut-bearing shade trees) and landscaping for self-sufficiency.

Upscale food-plant-focused seed companies, such as The Cook’s Garden and Shepherd’s Garden Seeds, began offering gourmet varieties that had previously only been available in Europe, Central and South America, and Asia. Composting became a backyard phenomenon. City dwellers began rediscovering the venerable community gardens that had been thriving in their communities for decades. And that enduring blockbuster, Square Foot Gardening, took the fear factor out of vegetable gardening once and for all.

The ’80s also produced the largest rise in awareness of environmental issues, including pollution and what chemical-based farming and gardening were doing to our food and our planet, since Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring. Buying organic produce began to move into the mainstream, out of the health food stores and into Whole Foods, Wegman’s, and the like. People began making an effort to eat better and use fewer chemicals. Organic finally went mainstream. But food gardening? Not yet.

Then came the ’90s. Now at last was the era in which chefs and their restaurants, like Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, gained national, even celebrity, attention. The organic vegetable gardens backing many such restaurants were prominently featured in the press, along with the small-scale organic farmers who supplied them with produce.

Potagers and kitchen gardens were hot. Vermiculture, earthworm composting, took the gardening world by storm. Farmers’ Markets came into their own, as more people became hooked on the freshness and variety of the produce and the relief of knowing where their food came from. Heirloom vegetables became the hottest trend in food, and companies like Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and organizations like The Seed Savers Exchange thrived. Martha Stewart and her ilk made food gardening trendy, not trashy.

People also became fascinated with the Amish and the Pueblo cultures of the Southwest, where folks grew and preserved their own food and always had. And books like Eliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower’s Four-Season Harvest and Leandre Poisson’s Solar Gardening assisted gardeners in temperate climates to produce food even when the temperatures plunged outside. During the ’90s, back-to-basics magazines like Backwoods Home, The Mother Earth News, and Back Home were enjoying a renaissance as they helped people learn basic gardening and cooking skills.

The concept of eating seasonally was gaining ground (pardon the pun). And the threat of Y2K was encouraging more people than ever to learn how to grow and preserve their own food. Other ’90s trends: vegetarianism becoming accepted; edible flowers; broccoli and other sprouts; maitake, shiitake, and other “miracle mushrooms” being added to cooking for health; “spring mix” and mesclun salads; more exotic cuisines (Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Cuban, Ethiopian, Turkish, Moroccan, Spanish tapas, sushi, etc.) going mainstream; “spa cuisine.”

Fruit finally came into its own in the 1990s, too. Books like Lee Reich’s Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention, Roger Yepsen’s Apples, and Lewis Hill’s Fruits and Berries for the Home Garden helped make the seemingly arcane prospect of growing your own fruits and berries plausible.

At last, the first decade of the 21st century. The rise of the CSA (consumer-assisted agriculture, aka seasonal subscription farming) is at hand, where people sign up for a season’s worth of produce, paying in advance, and the farmers provide them with an ever-changing assortment of seasonal organic produce. Veganism and raw foods take the stage. Locavores make a determined effort to eat only foods produced within a 100-mile radius. The Slow Food Movement has inspired people to cook from scratch and avoid fast food.

Even mainstream supermarkets are highlighting local produce. With obesity a national scandal and Monsanto a national disgrace, more people are making the effort to avoid “Frankenfoods” and chemicals and invest in fresh, organic foods, fresh air, and health, for us and for our land and the creatures we share it with.

Our friend Ben would like to see edible landscaping come into its own in the new decade awaiting us. Here at Hawk’s Haven, Silence Dogood and I make a conscious effort to plant fruiting ornamentals like elderberries and pawpaws, choose vines like hardy kiwis and grapes to climb our arbors and trellises, choose nuts like hardy pecans and filberts (hazelnuts) when we need new trees and shrubs, plant roses that provide beauty and nutritious, vitamin-C-rich rose hips like Rosa rugosa, and grow cherries instead of flowering cherries, apples instead of crabapples, pears instead of ‘Bradford’ Callery pears, and the like.

We choose herbs for container plantings, grow as many tropical fruits and spices as we can cram in our greenhouse in the winter and on our deck in the summer, and try to grow as much fresh produce as our raised beds and greenhouse can produce. What we’re not able to consume fresh, Silence knows how to preserve for delicious meals in fall, winter, and spring. These days, people don’t even look at us oddly when we say we have a little flock of heritage-breed chickens. They just ask if they can have some eggs.

It looks like almost 40% of Americans are joining us. We hope with all our hearts that soon that number will climb to 100%. Whether you’re growing one potted tomato on a balcony or a potager or a full-scale edible landscape, hooray for you!  Go for it and enjoy. We know we do!

(Er, a footnote is needed here. When covering whole decades of garden history, much is bound to be left out, at least when our friend Ben is acting as historian. The revival of herb gardening prompted by the likes of Jim Duke, Varro E. Tyler, Maud Greave,  Adelle Simmons, Bertha Reppert, and Rosemary Gladstar, among many others, is just one example. Alan Chadwick’s Biodynamic gardens in California, John Seymour’s homestead arts, and the Foxfire series are others. If you think I’ve left something out that needs to be mentioned, please comment here! It would be great to fill in some of the many blanks.)

The discomforts of comfrey. March 20, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben continued my relentless pursuit of self-destruction today with a too-close encounter with some comfrey plants. (Readers may recall that earlier this week I managed to stab a splinter of asphalt roof tile under my thumbnail, reminding me yet again why stabbing slivers of things under people’s nails was considered such an effective form of torture.)

Today was so beautiful I decided to spend part of it clearing two of our garden beds. These beds are great to work in because they flank our greenhouse and compost bins. Short trip out to the beds with transplants, short trip to the bins with garden debris.

The allium and herb bed, where we also plant greens and snap peas in spring and tomatoes once the soil is warm, was a piece of cake to clean out. Our friend Ben battles grass in the bed, despite its sturdy wood sides, but pulling out the creeping stems was a lot easier in the moist spring soil. I was alarmed to see that the peppermint had escaped from its container and is threatening to take on the grass as worst weed in the bed, but at least it smells great and is easy to pull. I’d also neglected to remove the flower heads of our garlic chives, and as a result the bed is full of tiny seedlings, but fortunately, Silence Dogood has plans for them in future salads and stir-fries.

The first spring cleanup is always exciting, since it’s only while gingerly removing winter’s protective covering of leaves, stems, cornhusks blown in from the field behind our property, and the like that we can see what’s showing signs of life. Besides the peppermint and the original healthy clump of garlic chives, our chives, garlic, sage, scallions (green onions), and “walking” onions were all thriving. And yes, we do grow shallots and bulbing onions as well, just not in this bed. (Can you tell we love alliums? We’re always stunned when friends serve onion-free food and scallion-free salads. Don’t they realize what they’re missing?)

But what about the comfrey? Let’s move on to bed #2, a bit more of a challenge to clean up. That’s because it’s our perennial vegetable bed. Coarse, tough asparagus stalks from last year’s flowering ferns and horseradish stems and leaves must be pruned and hauled off. Rhubarb buds must be uncovered. (A very gratifying cluster of them was emerging under the straw.) More $#@!*&% grass must be pulled out, despite the straw mulch. And yes, last year’s comfrey leaves must be cut and composted.

Our friend Ben is not a big fan of gardening gloves, being more of a bare-handed gardening type. I want to feel the soil, stones, and plants beneath my fingers. An exception is when handling prickly and/or thorny, spiny, etc. things, and I have an excellent pair of “thornproof” gardening gloves just for this purpose. At least, I had an excellent pair of thornproof gloves that I’d brought back from a garden trip to England and Wales years ago. They’re always in the greenhouse with the other small gardening tools, within easy reach… but not today. Our friend Ben looked and looked. No gloves.

Oh, well, I thought. It’s just some asparagus stalks and comfrey leaves, no big deal. Comfrey, after all, forms thick, soft, velvety leaves, a reason they were used to bind bruises and boils back in the days when herbal remedies were the most readily available medicine. Even the name comfrey sounds soothing, with its association of comfort.

Yow. Grabbing a handful of stems with my left hand while preparing to cut with the right, our friend Ben was horrified to feel bazillion tiny spines stabbing into my fingers. Not since I grabbed an opuntia pad at age four, mistaking it for a pineapple (I guess we didn’t often eat pineapple at home), has our friend Ben had so many spines sink into a hand at once. Fortunately, the comfrey spines weren’t as aggressive as the opuntia’s, and few of them stayed in my fingers after I tossed the leaves into the compost bin. But enough did to make me look at the row of remaining comfrey leaves with considerable dread.

Poor comfrey! As if it hadn’t already been through enough. In the heyday of herbals, comfrey was a plant of heroic stature. It was said to knit and strengthen bones, restore digestive function, heal ulcers, open the lungs, strengthen joints and ligaments, strengthen the blood, and heal abscesses. Its leaves and roots are packed with minerals, vitamins, and protein. It was also considered a premier herb for feeding livestock, fertilizing plants, and enriching compost. Herbalists from Nicholas Culpeper to Maud Grieve sung its praises, and the attractive (though vigorous) plants grew in every medicinal herb garden.

Then it fell from grace. In the 1970s, Australian scientists fed lab rats a diet made up of 50% comfrey leaves, and some rats developed liver damage, which the scientists attributed to pyrrolizidine alkaloids in the comfrey. A Japanese scientist subsequently claimed that the alkaloids in comfrey were carcinogenic.

After news of this research spread, comfrey dropped from the list of modern herbal remedies faster than lead paint and asbestos vanished from modern approved building materials. It became a pariah, despite respected modern herbalists and botanists from Rosemary Gladstar to Jim Duke coming to its defense. Dr. Duke, the renowned ethnobotanist, “calculated that wine is 144 times more cancer-causing than an equal amount of comfrey tea,” according to Judith Berger in her excellent book Herbal Rituals. She goes on to say that “comfrey has about the same cancer-causing potential as a peanut butter sandwich.” (Now that the presence of highly carcinogenic aflatoxins have been found as a hazard—but mercifully not a given—in peanuts, our friend Ben would say that comfrey is probably considerably safer than that PB&J.)

 Our friend Ben and Silence grow six cultivars of comfrey, because we love their felty leaves, clusters of rose, raspberry, pink, purple, or white bell-shaped flowers, and the bees they attract. No, we don’t eat the leaves or drink infusions of comfrey leaves or decoctions of comfrey root, nor do we use the leaves to bind wounds or bruises. Instead, we enjoy the beauty of this borage relative in our garden, its ability to attract beneficial insects, and its rich herbal history. (Though our friend Ben does wonder about the real danger posed by a healing herb that was used by Europeans for centuries in a time when cancer was an extremely rare affliction, unlike, sadly, our own time.)

But what about those wretched spines? Judith Berger explains those as well: “The leaves may be eaten raw, as a tonic in the springtime, before their surface hairs become sharp.” (She herself batters and flash-fries them to make comfrey-leaf tempura.) Well, I’ve never noticed the sharp hairs during the summer or fall, but our friend Ben can attest that those “hairs,” especially the ones on the stems, are plenty sharp after a long, cold winter.

Our friend Ben and Silence recommend comfrey as an ornamental for an herb garden, and to help attract pollinators when underplanted in an orchard or used as a companion plant in a vegetable garden, keeping in mind its reputation for spreading. But when it’s time to clean up the plants, gardeners, get out your gloves!

One man’s weed… June 4, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Is an herbalist’s treasure. Silence Dogood here. I’ve been pondering this ever since I read my friend Nancy Ondra’s post “Sow and Hoe” on her wonderful blog, Hayefield (click the link on our blogroll at right), about self-sowing plants that are sometimes considered weeds, and our friend Ben wrote a post here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, “Color progression: yellow and purple,” on the colorful self-sowers that give our late-spring front garden so much joyous color.

So many of our weeds were deliberately brought over as cherished medicinals or other useful plants, only to lose their status when their value was forgotten. (A subtle hint: If a plant’s botanical name ends in officinalis as the specific epithet, it’s usually an indicator of old-time pharmaceutical value.) Such is the case with teasel, burdock, dandelion, soapwort, comfrey, mullein, chickweed, stinging nettle, and many another once-useful plant now consigned to the trash heap. Some people even consider mints weeds because of their spreading habits.

One garden “pest” especially sprang to mind: mugwort. I’ve personally heard mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) reviled by local nurserymen as a pernicious weed that “gets into everything and is impossible to get out.” Yet it took me several years to find any mugwort plants and three tries before I was able to get it established here at Hawk’s Haven.

Why on earth would I want to deliberately introduce a “weed” on our property? Thank Judith Berger, and herbalist and author of one of my favorite books on herbs, Herbal Rituals, for turning me on to mugwort’s many wonders. (I have read this book so often the pages have come loose from the binding, which in my opinion is more a reflection on the publisher than on me.) Judith notes that mugwort got its name because it was used to flavor beer before the introduction of hops (and remember, it’s now thought that all agriculture began so that civilizations could grow grain for beer, not food).

Mugwort’s silver-green leaves are beautiful and aromatic, reminding me of chrysanthemums as well as artemisias. It was smoked or burned by Native Americans to “ease bronchial congestion, its diaphoretic qualities breaking childhood fevers, flus, and colds,” according to Judith. She also notes its efficacy in relieving menstrual cramps and other reproductive problems, assisting in the recall of meaningful dreams or visioning, promoting laughter, enhancing intuition, assisting digestion, preventing osteoporosis, and relieving bone, joint, and muscle pain.

Wow! Are you still wondering why I wanted to grow some? Judith suggests drying mugwort in bundles and burning them, much like the native American smudge sticks; drinking a hot “mug” of mugwort tea; combining the dried leaves with hops, lavender, mint, and flaxseeds to make a dream pillow; infusing the fresh leaves in vinegar for cooking or olive oil to make a massage oil; eating young leaves fresh in salads; and even making mugwort noodles by mixing minced fresh or dry powdered leaves with an egg, salt, and 1 1/2 cups flour to make a stiff dough, then rolling it out and cutting into noodle-thin strips. You can even cut flowering stems and hang them over your front door for protection from evil. I think if you try all these uses for mugwort, you won’t have much problem with it becoming a weed!

So next time you look at a weed in your yard, take a minute to wonder how it came there and what it could be used for before you grab the weed-whacker or herbicide. You may end up becoming an herbalist yourself!

           ‘Til next time,