Sunday, September 27, 2009

Our new roommates

During the pre-wedding festivities, we played a round of The Newlywed Game, and among the questions was: "What item off your registry is Anna most excited about receiving?" We both answered, with confidence, "A Composter!"

And although our great friends knew us well enough that we actually got TWO whole composters for our wedding, both had stood idly in our basement the last three months, as we first tried to decide which one to use, and then tried to find the time to actually set them up and shift our habits of compostables-collection enough to make it all happen.

But then, a week or so ago, I finally got to hear Will Allen, of Milwaukee's Growing Power fame, come speak in Madison. As his MacArthur genius grant blurb puts it, "Will is an urban farmer who is transforming the cultivation, production, and delivery of healthy foods to underserved, urban populations." The NYTimes has done some great pieces on him in the last year: here and here. His presentation was a thoroughly inspiring one, from his description of the ways that they're growing food in the middle of a Wisconsin winter by heating greenhouses with compost to the aquaponics systems they've set up to grow fish right in the city, from the ways he's recreating their projects all over the country and all over the world to the way his system of farming and gardening has been taken up by the Milwaukee City Hall and by the Milwaukee School District. It was all so exciting. At one point he mentioned that Growing Power has 35 employees working for them. Later, though, when describing the amazing system of vermicomposting they've set up, he said, "Actually, I should take back what I said earlier, we don't have 35 employees, we have 35 million employees: all our worms!"

Here is Will with his worms:

So after listening to a talk like that, how could I go home and ignore our empty worm bin?

A few days later, I biked over to our local bait shop and picked up four containers of red wiggler worms--they're the most voracious eaters, I learned. A few hours and one dinner preparation full of vegetable peelings later, our little worm roommates had found a new, and hopefully happy, home:

Hooray for composting! More stories on this adventure to follow...

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Our own Hungry Planet photo!

At our dear friend Kroy's request, we've made our own Hungry Planet photo, displaying a week's worth of what we eat around here in the Zeide-Horn-Vedder household. (Inspired by the photos discussed in my High Price of Cheap Food post). It's a really interesing exercise to put this together, so we encourage you all to try and share your photos with us!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Carrots have a history

In my two day streak of posting garden-related videos, here's an inspiring video about Michelle Obama's White House garden:

"Just like people, carrots have a history."


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Growing School Gardens

The Madison Metropolitan School District, in partnership with Community GroundWorks at Troy Gardens (where I worked this summer), produced this video that outlines the 'Growing School Gardens' initiative, a local organization dedicated to helping schools create and sustain gardens that will serve as outdoor classrooms and provide children who live in an increasingly urban landscape with a direct connection to their food and the earth.

It's a great video, and you get to see footage of the kids' garden where I worked; Nathan Larson, my boss; and some of the wonderful kids our program serves! Check it out, eh?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Food for Thought

Every year for the past few years, Madison's REAP Food Group (Research, Education, Action, and Policy) puts on this Food for Thought Festival, in which it brings in speakers and chefs and food demonstrations and activities in order to help the town "explore and celebrate our many opportunities to eat more pleasurably, healthfully and sustainably." This year, my muse Michael Pollan will be giving the keynote address. And, the opening act before the big guy comes on will be readings of the winners of the Food for Thought's writing contest, in the areas of fiction, poetry, and memoir. Well, I couldn't pass up the chance to open for Michael Pollan, and so I threw my writing into the mix. I guess this one goes in the category of memoir, but only because they don't have a creative nonfiction category. This also helps to sum up what my work in the kids' garden was like this summer (in one word: inspiring):

“Taking Back the Table: Real Food Connections”

September 2, 2009

The path from bus to basil plants to outdoor kitchen was clear. June and July had passed, leaving behind a trail stamped flat by Martell's colorful and dusty sneakers. His mornings at the garden were always spent in the kitchen, no matter how pet-able the chickens were nor how sweet the mulberries tasted. Martell's feet always remained firmly planted under the yellow tent, where he directed the food preparations, serving as head chef to his sous chef classmates. Black eyes sparkling with the inspiration of a thousand artists, he sawed away at the basil leaves with the (ever child-friendly) butter knife.

“Put those in here!” he directed, as he held the handle of the hand-crank blender tight. “Just a little more olive oil,” he might add, even as the other kids snuck in some lettuce, perhaps a raspberry or two, expanding the range of pesto flavors. On the brightly-colored plastic cutting boards, the other kids hacked away, chopping garlic scapes in June, obliterating hefty garlic cloves in July, producing a pungent mash with little clods of northside Madison dirt mixed in for good measure. LaTia pooh-poohed the metal garlic press, showing me and the other kids the proper way of smashing garlic--pressing on the top of the clove with the flat side of the knife--as her dad had once shown her. Into the hand-crank blender it all went, swirling around in a sea of green. The kids each took their turn, cranking the handle faster and faster, turning to me only when the rickety plastic handle flew off and needed re-attaching.

Martell directed his friends in laying each cracker just so upon the cutting board “serving trays,” so that the pesto could be spooned atop.

Kids become chefs. Kids become waiters. Kids become experts.

Toward the end of summer, when the budget allowed for it and the grocery store run just had to be made for non-garden supplemental items, a container of pine nuts appeared in the outdoor kitchen. When I picked them up and brought them near the blender, Martell immediately eyed them with a look of suspicion.

Pine nuts? In pesto?

“There are no nuts in pesto,” Martell assured me.

“But…” I began, as his black eyes flashed with conviction. “Ok,” I said, as I backed away.

I know that he is right. There are no pine nuts in kid's garden pesto. At least not on Thursday mornings when Martell's group comes to the garden. Instead, there are mulberries and broccoli leaves and the occasional green tomato. There are haphazardly chopped basil leaves, garlic cloves that the kids themselves planted, sometimes hastily grated parmesan cheese. Pesto is as the kids make it, a culinary creation imbued with the authority and expertise of this particular brand of children's garden freedom.

And so the appropriately pine-nut-less pesto was blended. Round and round the hand crank went. And out came the savory delight. The kids eagerly reached in with their butter knives, scooped up clumps of dark green pesto, and brought the knives from blender to cracker, dripping basil juice and olive oil all the way. They spread the crackers with the utmost care (or the utmost-est care that ten-year-olds can offer), beaming, and tripping over each other with “Ooh! I want to carry this one!” and “I'll take this pesto over to the music machine!”

The kid waiters spread out around the garden, offering their wares to the kids planting flowers, to those chasing Oreo the black-and-white chicken*, to the ones running around with butterfly net in hand, to their friends banging on old pots and pans and overturned plastic buckets, to the girls already munching unripened grapes (a part of their cultural cuisine). And the kids ate, finding joy in this hand-made spread, this synergistic product of the garden's goodness. They ate, appreciating the handiwork of their culinary classmates, silently acknowledging--perhaps?--the power that the homemade and homegrown can bring.

Martell hung back in the kitchen with me, putting the used dishes through the garden dishwasher--a bucket of soapy water, a tub of rinse water, and a final splash in the clean water bath--and quietly approving of the work he and his friends had done, the work that now came so naturally, that felt to him like an extension of any normal eight-year-old activity.

Now, when I eat pesto, it tastes, more than ever, like summer. It tastes like accomplishment and knowledge and authority. Pesto, when spread thick, even tastes a little like childhood glee. And it doesn't even need the pine nuts.

* May she rest in peace. (The day before this memoir was written, Oreo--after 6 or so happy years at the Troy Kids' Garden--met her gruesome end at the claws of a watchful hawk, who circled round and round before targeting its prey, leaving Oreo's bunkmates, Pearl, Regina Marie, and Carmella, squawking with fear and, possibly, grief, as their fallen sister lay dead beside them).