In his book Coasting, Jonathan Raban writes about sailing a boat around Britain. By constantly studying the coastline and taking his bearings on anything he could identify, then marking his progress on a map every 15 minutes, he was able to chart his course.
Such attentive referencing left him with a vivid memory of the British coast, which, he says, is a profoundly different experience than sailing while watching GPS-monitored progress.
Reading Raban, I immediately recognized what he was saying through my experience cooking from a garden versus going to the store. Growing your own leaves a deep, lasting imprint on your body, psyche, and memory.
Imagine it's before dinner and you're on your knees in front of a squash plant that has weathered the summer. Your hands part its big leaves, then slide over the sleek, shiny bodies of the ribbed 'Costata Romanesco' zucchini, assessing their natures and deciding which ones to pick.
Meanwhile, in a supermarket somewhere, a woman is turning over a shrink-wrapped package of dull-skinned zucchini. With distance, our relationship with food weakens. Those of us who garden are ecstatic about finding the first shoots of asparagus in the spring.
But having no intimacy with asparagus flown here from Peru, we consequently recall little about eating it, even though it has made a rather astonishing journey, one that few asparagus spears have made before.
I believe that it's contact and memory, both of which increase as distance decreases between the soil and the table, that mark the difference between merely feeding and really nourishing ourselves.
Grow Your Own!
We seem to be in a collective state of anxiety about our food. Knowing that trucks and planes must roll and fly if you are to eat, and seeing the rising prices at the pump, you may suspect that there's a downside to your long-distance food and that food could get very costly. You might well wonder if indeed it makes sense to fly a few ounces of easily grown arugula from one end of the country to the other in indestructible plastic clamshells.
Should you rely on Big Organic, or support local farmers? Shop at high-end groceries, or at Wal-Mart? Are expensive organic vegetables as pure and wholesome as the stores would have us b Ask elieve? yourself any of these questions, and you might be tempted to throw up your hands and say, "Forget it, I'm growing my own!"
And that would be a good idea.
Whether you are a seasoned gardener or a neophyte, I'm confident that the most important reason you have for filling your backyard with trellises, hills, and beds for vegetables is that growing your own leads you to an experience—first of all, of real food; but also of your connection to the earth, the seasons, the weather, and other people.
You may have started gardening to correct problems in your own world, but the correction has surely enlarged your life, putting you right there where Jonathan Raban was when he sailed along the British coast, looking for signs that would tell him where he was. Garden, and you know where you are.
The signs a garden gives us to look at are many. Is the soil hard and dry with drought, or moist and full of worms? Did the lettuces sprout a month earlier than usual? Was it that late-spring rainstorm that kept the pollinators away from the fruit blossoms so that this will be a year without fruit, or was it that untimely freeze?
Be in the garden, and you learn firsthand about the large and subtle shifts in the world around you—about climate change and global warming, about migration and survival, and about the astonishing ability of tender seedlings to push out of rough ground each year and grow.
Ultimately, your garden gives you a real experience of plenty and even diversity. Your garden gives you tasty little fennel and beet thinnings to add to a salad, or tiny zucchini attached to big yellow blossoms that are begging for fillings. Creeping purslane nourishes you with good omega-3s, and your luscious purple amaranth sprouts make a gorgeous garnish, as will the violet sage blossoms.
Imagine having enough sorrel to use it by the fistful, instead of having to buy just eight sad leaves at a time. At last you can make a stupendous sorrel soup. You may discover that cauliflower greens are delicious, and that those small heads that come on at the end of the season lend great charm to a meal. A lovage leaf for your sandwich? No problem if you have a plant. Same with chive blossoms scattered on ricotta cheese or arugula sprouts adding bite and charm to a hard-cooked egg.
O, The Possibilities
Just think what you can do for dessert. Decorate a cake with candied rose petals, make a violet custard, or serve an ice cream infused with lavender. These are not silly, pretentious ideas when you can go outside and look at what's there. The so-called "exotic" ingredient that lies at the end of your clippers is there because you made a place for it, noticed it, and finally used it: You charted your own course through leaves and beds to come up with treasures that chefs want and can't get, unless they know a farmer and are close enough to catch, before they fade, the fleeting moments of plant life.
When you grow your own, you can see the possibilities your garden offers, and not only when things are at the stage—the only stage—that the supermarket shopper knows, but in all of their growing stages and, most important, the moment of their greatest flavor. An heirloom tomato grown in Belgium and sold in Texas simply can't rival even the most mundane variety grown (organically) by you. Kale punctured in a summer hailstorm can still be cooked; it need not be thrown away because of some visual standard created by a market.
There should be a warning: Cooking out of the garden will ruin you forever for anything less.
It's not surprising that the garden is the ultimate inspiration for those who go inside at the end of the day to cook dinner. And what you make from what you grow becomes part of who you are, so that over time, without effort, you begin to catalog your tastes; remember what was exciting from years before, be it a platter of vibrant 'Green Zebra' tomatoes glistening under a scattering of sky blue blossoms or a gorgeous 'Triamble' squash. Recipes rush to suggest themselves from your harvest, flavors sparkle, vegetables shine, and fruit is truly sweet the way it can be only when picked ripe. Even when things are a struggle, it's still utterly rewarding to grow your own.
Good, gorgeous food is not about privileged shopping, but about surrounding yourself with plants and all the possibilities they offer. Seedling by seedling, leaf by leaf, you navigate through each year's garden, and in that way, you grow your life. You're no longer a spectator standing in the aisle reading about what's for dinner, but the one whose hands, tangled up with weeds and leaves, dirt and dust, end up with a squash that positively gleams.
Deborah Madison, the founding chef of San Francisco's pioneering Greens Restaurant, is the author of many food books, including Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America's Farmers' Markets. She gardens and cooks at her home in New Mexico.
Find out what's happening with our food supply and how you can make a difference.
The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, by Peter Singer and Jim Mason. Learn about the ethical repercussions of our diet and how to make better choices. RodaleStore.com
The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, by Michael Pollan. Follow four very different dinners through the food chain to understand their true costs.
The Future of Food. See the impact of genetically modified food on producers and consumers.
Slow Food USA. Dedicated to supporting the values of thoughtfully produced and consumed meals.