Our Food

My friend Kurt:  “You know how people keep saying that the world is getting smaller?”

Me:  “Yeah…”

Kurt:  “Well, I’ve been thinking that maybe it’s time for the world to get a little bigger again.”

As I start this essay, the sky out our home’s windows is growing brighter, but it is hung with a layer of cloud, so it’s a muted dawn.  I can see a light shroud of vapor in the valley between our hillside and the West Slope of Massanutten Mountain.  The soulful silhouette of our front yard Sycamore has emerged to the south; out of the east windows, that of the persimmons.  A warm January so far, so no frost on the ground this morning.  It’s been cold enough this winter to sweeten the spinach in the garden, but not so cold as to yellow the leaf tips.  Recent days have brought enough warmth and rain to bring on a little growth…I am tempted to pick a salad!  Those spinach petioles (leaf stems) in winter can be unbelievably sweet.  This is not restaurant salad bar spinach, I assure you.

Spinach didn’t used to grow so well for us.  Partly that’s a function of soil development:  this southeast slope has seen some abuse.  The ignorant excesses of technologized Western agriculture have done it no favors, with rampant soil disturbance resulting in a trifecta of degradation: oxidation of organic matter, topsoil loss through erosion, and compaction.  It took us some time to realize what a devastated soil this is.  A few years of mulch, cover crops, compost, and minimal tillage has started to bring things around in our main garden now.  What a relief to realize we aren’t necessarily terrible gardeners!  The spinach crops are no longer disappointing.

The other part of it is development of the strain.  I am an innovator by personality, and have a lifelong enchantment with living things.  When I saw Carol Deppe’s book Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties for sale in a catalog, I knew it was for me.  My college agriculture training had already clued me in to the notion of landraces (locally adapted agricultural varieties), and I had already read and benefited from William Woys Weaver’s Heirloom Vegetables, and begun saving some of my own seed from our little front yard garden in Harrisonburg, but Deppe really poured the fuel to that fire, let me tell ya.  My favorite way to grow spinach was to sow in fall and overwinter it, such that we had a nice long stretch of harvest during the time of year when spinach is the tastiest before hot weather shoots the crop all to pieces by making the plants bolt (flower).  I had three frustrations with the Bloomsdale and Tyee Hybrid I had been using:  Winter survival was spotty, some of the leaves were so curled you almost couldn’t wash the rain-splashed soil out of them, and some of the plants bolted way before I was ready.

So when we bought this 6-acre former hippie homestead (o.k., maybe it’s still sort of a hippie homestead) and had finished home renovations to a point where we could start paying better attention to the land, I bought several varieties of Bloomsdale-type seed to trial for our purposes, hoping to save seed from the best variety and go from there.  But it wasn’t that simple.  Each of the varieties did reasonably well overall, each of them with a slightly different emphasis that I can no longer remember.  What I do remember is that I decided to just rogue (to remove undesirable specimens) the whole mess and save seed from all the ‘good’ plants.  I had thrown my old seed from town in with the trial, too, as much from sentiment as anything.  In that first generation, overwintering was at something like 50% (a guess).  The next year it may have been 75%.  The next year 90…you get the picture.  By now the population seems to have fully acclimated: the only winter losses I notice at this point are usually the result of pest damage to the taproot.

I used to try to mulch the spinach over winter, hoping to reduce winter injury and loss.  I think many market gardeners do this.  But picky little mulching like that aggravates me, as does trying to extract strands of grass clippings or old hay from a bunch of wet spinach leaves.  Soil washes off much easier.  So once winter survival became a non-issue for us, I somewhat guiltily gave in to my inclination (like the song says:  “I can’t fight this feeling anymore…I’ve forgotten what I started fighting for…”) and stopped mulching spinach in the bed, though I still mulch walking paths between beds.  This leaves the soil between plants exposed, but the plants’ living roots inhabit the whole…a compromise we’ve decided to live with.  The plants have shown their ability to withstand cold without protection: dips to 10 below no longer show much effect, and don’t seem to totally kill any plants.

So what we’ve settled into, and what is now being marketed as a new introduction through Common Wealth Seeds that we’ve called Shenandoah Winter (go buy some!), is a moderately curly, easy-raising, winter-ready Bloomsdalish spinach that’s been selected for vigor and relatively slow bolting.  Leaf outline is variable within reason, and the amount of savoy (bulgy, puckered) character was selected for being plain enough to be easy to wash but curly enough to hold dressing and stand up on a plate (we don’t happen to like salads that lay in a flat little pile…give us something we can jab a fork into!).  We now treasure the strain.

Believe it or not, this essay is not about spinach.  The point is that it’s our spinach!  We adore it because it serves us so well in our particular circumstances, with our particular preferences.  The variety that has emerged here is a reflection of, or even a part of, what it means to be who we are, in this place.  We are quickly coming to depend on its appearance and provision each spring, and the harvest of its seed at the end of an abundant season of yummy leaves is increasingly joyful.  The sowing of the seeds in late September or early October in the beds from which the sweet potatoes have just been dug has a feeling of a season’s ending, but with the germ of next year’s beginning.  The complete life cycle of the spinach has become, in short, a part of our family’s yearly ritual.

Now, we can’t breed sweet potatoes (they don’t set seed in our climate), but we once bought slips at the farmer’s market that were probably Beauregard.  They yielded so wonderfully that first year and had such a rich, mild flavor and deep orange color that we have never looked back.  Each season is a little different, but we have come to have faith in the variety; we now grow enough of them to really amount to something in terms of our winter diet.  We did accept some free slips of a different variety (Mahon ‘Yam’) this year, and it had its benefits…we’ll probably use each, but in different ways.

Visitors to the website will perhaps have already known that we do a pretty similar thing with chickens.  We breed to more of a heritage standard than a modern production standard, so they reach butchering stage at about 16 weeks, and have usually spent most of that time with quality feed and good wild forage.  Their flavor reflects their life.

We have a garlic variety that was growing here wild, left over from someone’s former garden, when we bought the place.  Lovely variety that will have to remain anonymous, given our ignorance.  It’s all we grow, and we grow a lot of garlic!

And onions.  Similar story to the spinach.  Also now available through Common Wealth.

Potatoes:  got them from a friend.  Don’t know the name.  Love ‘em.

Carrots:  Two generations out from Danvers Half Long and Danvers 126, the tapers are more even, and the winter flavor is so nice.  Sow when weather starts to cool in late summer, top with a layer of mulch right over the green leaves before deep cold hits, and dig them all winter.  Magic!

Now, if a person takes one of those chickens and slow-roasts it with salt and spices (sage and thyme from the spice garden, dried green paprika or bell pepper, some of that garlic…) and a few handfuls of the potatoes and carrots and onions laid around in the pan, that is some good old-fashioned fine eatin’!

After everyone has begun to sit back and rub their bellies, the picked-over bird can go in a stock pot and simmer overnight while you sleep off your chicken and veggies.  Sometime the next day you can strain the broth; the meat can be slipped from the bones and added back.  Sautéing a bit more onion and garlic can’t hurt.  Then chunk up some of those fine sweet potatoes (use the big ones that aren’t as good for baking or roasting), and fetch a container of spinach from the freezer.  If you want, you can add some red lentils (dang…got to learn to grown lentils!), and you will have one of the most iconic dishes ever to emerge from Tangly Woods!  I don’t think I have to write anything about eating it…you can guess how good it is.  My preference is to add a dollop of our house recipe green hot sauce.

If sometime you should come here and share a bowl of that soup with us at our table, looking out past the gardens at our mountain, that might be a pretty good way for you to get a notion of what it means to live here.  Please do.  We would love that.

We often marvel when we are eating at home that you just can’t buy food like this.  Recently we went for a family night on the town, and ended up deciding to try a new Mexican restaurant in Harrisonburg.  They seemed like nice people and a guy coming out the door declared the food good.  We were up for the adventure, so we took a table.  Atmosphere: a genuine taste of Mexico, near as we can tell.  The preparation: just fine.  Service: no problems to speak of.  Ingredients:  bargain basement.  Janelle and I agreed on the way home that it’s not that it tastes bad; we could eat that food once a week and not mind.  It’s that once you know and recognize deep, dense quality in food components, the least common denominator versions have a tendency to underwhelm.  I’d bet good money that those same dishes prepared in a Mexican village with ingredients wrought by families with careful skill from the fragile soil would knock your socks off.

But I’m going to get slippery again here:  the point of this essay is not to laud our quality ingredients (yummy and nutritious though they may be).  The point is that Mexican food carries a momentum of love from Mexico, where it was crafted out of necessity and joy from a combination of Old World and New World ingredients by people of Old World and New World ancestry making their way in a particular environment and year by year, generation by generation, acclimating their domesticated species, their lifestyles, their very selves to the possibilities and limitations of that place until their thriving and excellence couldn’t be contained, but was “discovered” by others, who couldn’t stand not to participate in the scrumptious concoctions they had contrived.

I’ve had hush puppies, collard greens, and fried catfish.  It’s really, really good.  But I suspect I’ve never really had hush puppies, collard greens, and fried catfish because I’ve never had them in a little clapboard café on the banks of the Mississippi.  I’m itching to try it.

I confess I don’t know much about the cuisine of the Shenandoah Valley.  It’s something I want to learn more about.  We got our start this year by butchering our hogs the old way with some neighbors.  Pon Hoss, folks, Pon Hoss.  Good stuff.

But here in the eastern United States—one of the epicenters of industrialization—the culture-crippling effects of shifting population and the commoditization of everyday necessities (including food and food products) has left us bereft, I am afraid.  We have largely forgotten—even given up—the cuisine and traditions that grew out of this place; left them behind in favor of the convenient offerings of the food industry that promised to relieve us of the “drudgery” of producing and preparing food.  Heck, a large percentage of us didn’t even grow out of this place.  I didn’t.  My family came from Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and Connecticut (after they came from Hungary and Sweden and Germany and Switzerland).  But my kids were born here, and they’ve known no other home.  In a way I envy them.  I spent my lightning-development years far from here; I can never know this place like they might one day know it, if they pay attention and if they stay.  This place will be their native ecological language.

I believe we can think of this stage of history in our society as being badly in need of essentially picking up the pieces and using what and who is at hand to re-start the process of creating culture.  Really, it only makes sense that that is what humans have always done whenever groups have faced massive changes of climate, environment, civilization, population, or location.  Given a little stability and a few resources (in some cases very few) we have proven ourselves astonishingly good at this, actually.  There is no reason to think we can’t do it very well now.  Certainly fossil fuels, industrialization, colonialism, and capitalism have provided some sufficiently massive disturbances.

It is always interesting to see the pieces that are picked up.  Another of our superpowers as humans is our ability to take horrendous tragedy and cruelty and turn it into beauty and thriving.  Witness the remarkable artistic, agricultural, and culinary output of communities of African descent in this country (thank you Chef Michael Twitty for your work on this body of knowledge).

One of our aspirations at Tangly Woods is to do the work that I’m trying to imply here:  To reclaim as much knowledge as we can from what’s left of the culture of this place, to mix it with the love and knowledge we and others have brought here, add a generous measure of tantalizing textures and flavors we have grown to love in our travels and other adventures, another of ideas gained through books and other information sources, and then to sow all those seeds together and see what kind of cultural garden emerges.  What will the cuisine and culture of the Shenandoah Valley be like a hundred years from now?  No one can know, of course, but I have an inkling it has something to do with that soup I was telling you about.

We invite you to join us on this journey, wherever you are.  Help us make the world bigger again by inhabiting well and deeply and attentively the place you love, with the people you love.  I believe that is the basis of all kinds of health for us as human communities and for the health of the lands on which we utterly and gratefully depend.

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