Tag Archives: local food

Spring watch

The arrival of local vegetables defines late spring for me. Last Sunday, I had to drive from Chelmsford back to New Bedford, and I decided to use some back roads instead of getting right on the highway. I found myself driving past Verrill Farm, not far from where we once lived, and I could see that their strawberry plants were in full bloom. That could mean only one thing: it was asparagus time. I pulled into the farmstand.

There it was, right at the entrance to the farmstand. Asparagus: bunches of thin, tender stalks, slightly purple at the base shading into pale green and up to the dark green tips. My mouth started watering as soon as I saw the asparagus.

And rhubarb: long, gently curved stalks, a vivid vermilion with green undertones. I got three or four pounds of it. And early raspberries, horrendously expensive at six dollars for a scant pint, but I had to buy some anyway. And pea tendrils, an odd vegetable to be sure, but I was craving fresh greens so I got some of them, too. And I got some local honey to sweeten up the rhubarb.

So I’ve been eating well all week. I finished the last of the pea tendrils tonight. I’ll go out and get some more asparagus on Friday — none of that tough rubbery asparagus they fly in from California, you have to get it fresh and local, so fresh and tender you don’t even have to cook it. And maybe I’ll get some local lettuce, too.

Soon it will be time for local peas, and all kinds of greens, and then strawberries. And strawberry season marks the beginning of summer.


It was my turn to buy the food for the youth group; each week we cook dinner together as a part of our meeting. This afternoon, the supermarket had fiddleheads on sale, so I bought some along with everything else.

Emma, the other advisor, said, “You always bring such interesting food when you buy.” Jarrod looked at the fiddleheads skeptically; they do look pretty weird, coiled up heads of ferns cut before they can grow into those tall fronds. Alyzza just chopped garlic.

“Interesting food?” I said.

“Yeah,” said Emma, “Like you brought in the parsnips a couple of months ago. I don’t think I’d ever eaten parsnips.”

I thought about it. I guess it’s true: most people in these United States don’t eat parsnips or fiddleheads. Why do I? “I guess it’s because Carol and I keep trying to eat locally grown food,” I said. “Parsnips are just about the only vegetable that you can dig all winter. And I really don’t like fiddleheads all that much, but they’re really the first green vegetable you can get in the spring that’s local.”

We sauteed the fiddleheads in olive oil with lots of garlic. “About a third of the population has mild allergic reaction to fiddleheads,” I announced as we dug in to the food.

“Great,” said Emma, who’s an R.N. “When I go into anaphylactic shock, you can drive me to the hospital.”

“Well, maybe it’s not a full-blown allergic reaction,” I said. “Sometimes I get kind of an itchy feeling inside my mouth. Besides, you’re a nurse — oh wait, guess you can’t do first aid on yourself if you’re in anaphylactic shock, can you?”

We all tried the fiddleheads. They weren’t very good. They never are.

“They taste kind of like asparagus,” said Alyzza.

“Kind of,” I said. They just taste like leaves to me.

Emma actually had seconds. We talked about it later: fiddleheads must have tasted pretty good when you hadn’t had any fresh green vegetables all winter long. I suppose now we are spoiled by having fresh produce shipped in from California at a great expenditure of jet fuel. Even so, I think the only reason I’d eat fiddleheads is because they remind me of spring; but not because they taste good.


Something about winter makes me crave pancakes. Usually, they’re a weekend food. But some years, like this year and last year, I’ll eat pancakes every day. Last year, I’d get up fifteen minutes early every morning so I could make pancakes before going to work. Not only would I eat pancakes every day for breakfast, sometimes I’d make pancakes for dinner. Then when spring came I just stopped eating pancakes altogether. Until winter rolled around again this year….

It must be the fat; many animals crave fat in the cold dark months. Squirrels eat nuts (also full of fat); I eat pancakes. When I make pancakes myself, they tend to have even more fat: I just took one off the frying pan, and when I cut it with my fork, the fat glistened in the light. Mmm.

For some people, pancakes are an excuse to eat maple syrup, another winter food. But I don’t use maple syrup on pancakes. Sometimes I put some fruit in them — this evening, I added frozen cranberries grown in Freetown, the next town north of here — but I never use sweetener of any kind in or on my pancakes. It’s not the sugar I crave, it’s the fat.

There’s nothing like biting into a pancake hot off the griddle, the wheat flour providing just enough sweetness, the springy texture, and above all the lovely taste of hot grease. It doesn’t even matter what kind of grease: I’m protecting my arteries so I use olive oil, not butter. The pancakes still taste wonderful to me. My partner Carol gets her winter grease from fried squash seeds. I am not as fond of squash seeds as she is, but I suppose everyone has their own preferred way of ingesting winter grease.

Early spring will bring odd foods like dandelion greens and fiddleheads, foods that seem so unappetizing right now, but in a few months, as days get longer and warmer, I know I will crave them — the bitterness of dandelion greens, the slightly itchy texture of fiddleheads. For now, just give me pancakes.

NOFA winter conference

Carol and I drove out to Worcester today for the winter conference of the Northeast Organic Farmers’ Association (NOFA). Carol was on the NOFA/Massachusetts board fifteen years ago, and wanted to go to some presentations on permaculture; I went along for the ride.

Sections in this post:

  • “Organic growing 101
  • Phytoremediation through urban gardens
  • Lunch conversations
  • “Husbandry was once a sacred art
  • Bees

“Organic Growing 101”

We started out with “Organic Growing 101,” presented by Frank Albani, who works two and a half acres at the Soule Homestead in Middleboro. I was particularly interested in what he had to say, because he started with a 30′ by 50′ garden, and in addition to his two and a half acres he still works a 50′ by 100′ garden. Market growing on that size plot (about an eighth of an acre) would be adaptable to urban settings. Albani works the 50′ by 100′ plot by hand, having built up the soil to the point where he no longer needs to use a power tiller. He grows much of his lettuce on this smaller plot, but because the plot is in full sun he has to partially shade it (which implies that partial shading on an urban plot could be used to advantage).

Albani went into many specific techniquess of market growing. He makes extensive use of row cover material like Remay: row cover will keep marauding insects of crops like cukes and squash; it keeps deer at bay; it will keep crops warmer in cool weather. Albani advocated drip irrigation if the grower has access to filtered water but unfiltered water will clog the drippers; he pumps unfiltered water from a nearby stream using a Honda 5 hp pump (he advises, don’t skimp on pumps but get a good one), and says it takes a good eight hours a week to irrigate his land if there’s no rain. His seeding is done with an Earthway seeder, which he finds greatly improves efficiency with such tiny seeds as carrots. Most important, Albani said: “Organic growing is all about feeding the soil” and about “promoting soil health”; good food is simply a byproduct of doing sustainable agriculture.

Phytoremediation in an urban setting

The second workshop we attended was the one I was most interested in. A small non-profit called Worcester Roots Project did a presentation on using plants to remove toxic substances from soils, a process known as “phytoremediation.” They are mostly interested in lead (from lead-based paints) in soils around urban housing. One of the dominant pathways that lead gets into children is by playing outdoors and ingesting lead. Worcester Roots Project has experimented with a couple of soil remediation techniques that are low-tech, inexpensive, and that can be implemented by ordinary citizens.

First, and most obvious, is to grow a good groundcover over affected soils. But before planting the groundcover, they discovered that research shows that adding a one inch layer of compost reduces the bioavailability of soil lead (“bioavailability” refers to the ease with which ingested lead can enter the blood). A study in Baltimore showed that tilling the soil, covering with 6 to 8 inches of biosolids (e.g., compost), and seeding with a turfgrass groundcover led to a 57% reduction in soil lead after one year. Apparently, compost application reduces plant uptake of lead, as well as supporting healthy groundcover growth; additionally, a phophate soil ammendment reduces bioavilability by putting the lead into a different chemical form. Worcester Roots Project has also had success planting scented geranuims in soil with high lead levels; the geraniums take up about 2-% of the soil lead per year, storing the lead it their leaves and shoots. They dispose of the geraniums in a lined landfill.

Lunch conversations

In true NOFA style, lunch was a potluck affair, and with thee hundred people bringing potluck we had lots of good food to choose from. We wound up sitting at a table with Josh from D-Acres in Dorchester, New Hampshire, and Jonno, a biologist and permaculture teacher from Leverett, Mass. Once they learned that Carol had co-authored The Composting Toilet Systems Handbook, Josh, and Jonno immediately engaged her in technical conversations about waste water treatment. A young woman named Anne also sat at our table, but she and I didn’t get a chance to say much; I mostly asked a few questions and sat back and listened with interest.

Josh found out that Carol had written Liquid Gold: The Lore and Logic of Using Urine to Grow Plants. He looked impressed, and said all his interns loved the book. It’s always fun to see that in certain (very small) circles, Carol is well-known.

“Husbandry was once a sacred art…”

The keynote speaker, Brian Donohue, started off his talk by quoting Henry Thoreau: “…husbandry was once a sacred art.” Donohue, the author of The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord is an organic-farmer-turned-professor who has become interested in the cultural roots of a land ethic. “Where do we look for inspiration” for a sustainable way of life?

“The story we tell ourselves today in the environmental movement,” said Donohue, “is that the best thing we can do with Nature is to leave it alone.” He said for New Englanders, that attitude is based on the story we tell ourselves about how New England was settled. “The story goes like this,” he said: first were the Native peoples living in harmony with the land; then the English settlers arrived, displaced the Natives, and deformed the landscape; then around a hundred years ago the farmer went away, moving out to the Midwest, leaving us with a reforested and “re-wilded” landscape. Therefore, the landscape we have today should be left alone as much as possible.

But in Donohue’s view, that story is not quite right. The story we tell ourselves now says that there are only two options: pristine wilderness, and Native harmony with the landscape. Donohue wants to add a third environmentally acceptable option: a pastoral landscape where humans interact sustainably with the land through husbandry (as opposed to agri-business).

So Donohue likes to tell a new story of how New England was settled. He starts with Native harmony with the landscape. But his research shows that when the English settlers arrived, they managed to live sustainably in the New England landscape by adapting the European tradition of mixed husbandry (i.e., farms that combine tilled soil, pasture lands, orchards, wetland meadows for hay). This sustainable lifestyle ended at the end of the 18th C., as farmers increasingly grew for the marketplace and a cash economy. That meant land wasn’t seen as something to husband, but just something to exploit for cash. Then in the early 20th C., most farming died out in New England, leaving a forested landscape — a landscape which is now being eaten up by suburban sprawl. Donohue suggest that we go back to the husbandry attitudes of the 17th and 18th C., and “resist letting the market decide how we relate to the land.”

Working with others at Harvard Forestry, Donohue has come up with a specific proposal for Massachusetts. He says we should set a goal that 50% of the state be protected as forested land. Of that land, 90% would be managed sustainably as woodlands, and the other 10% would be protected as wildlands. His current work is to include farmlands in that proposal.

In short, Donohue wants to change the economic model so that an engaged citizenry supports sustainable farming and farmers. This, he said, would return to making husbandry a “sacred art” once more — instead of just setting land aside untouched.


For the last workshop, I went to a presentation on bees and beekeeping. I’ve been thinking about urban beekeeping as a possibility. But the presentation was really about the kinds of plants bees prefer, and I sort of dozed off. The samples of honey were good, though.


For the past several years, I have gone through late October and November obsessed with cranberries. I think it all started 15 years ago, when my partner Carol did the newsletter for the Northeast Organic Farmers Association in Massachusetts, and we were hanging out with Bruce Bickford who at that time managed Hutchins Farm in Concord, Massachusetts, then the largest certified organic farm in the state. Bruce said that he thought it was probably better to eat locally grown conventionally farmed produce, than it was to eat organic produce shipped in from California or some other far away place. That got me started trying to eat food that was in season. And at about that same time, Carol got interested in trying to always eat primarily produce that was in season, because it seemed like that’s what we were meant to do — it somehow didn’t seem right to eat citrus fruit from sunny Florida in the middle of a dark snowy February in New England.

Traditional New England cooking has always paid some attention to the seasons, at least with its use of fruits and vegetables. Cod might be good to eat any time of year, but in New England you eat apples and cider in the fall, squash and potatoes and root vegetables in early winter, parsnips in late winter, fiddleheads and dandelion greens in earliest spring, peas and new potatoes and salmon for the fourth of July, green beans and blueberries in mid-summer, crookneck squash and corn-on-the-cob in the summer, and then back to apples in the fall. And cranberries.

When cranberries first appear in the grocery store in October, somehow my whole being is ready to be obsessed by them. I’m ready for their deep red color, so red it’s almost black at times, like the leaves on certain October Red Maples, or on the Red Oaks in early November. I’m ready for the tart burst of flavor you get when you crunch them between your teeth, for I like best to eat them raw. The first time I found cranberries growing wild, I saw a spark of red at the edge of a swampy area, and I bent down to see what it was, that little bit of red caught in a tangle of leafless twigs and stems: a cranberry. I picked it and ate it right there, and it brightened up a dark November afternoon, and I ate another and another, all of the few I could find.

So I’ve taken to eating lots of cranberries mixed in granola in the morning, and even a small handful as a mid-day snack now and then. Sometimes when you eat them plain they’re so tart they kind of take you by surprise and pucker up your mouth and catch your breath, just a little, but I even like that. When the days are quickly getting shorter, and the sun keeps getting lower in the horizon, that burst of tartness is like seeing the burst of a last red tree in the setting sun on an otherwise gray leafless hillside. It gets you in your heart, and you might even gasp a little with the stark tart beauty of it.

For about two months, I crave and eat cranberries. They’re exactly the right food for this time of year, in this place. Fresh cranberries will probably disappear from the grocery store by early December, but that’s OK because by then I will be tired of them, and will have moved on to the soft boiled comforts of root vegetables: rutabaga, potato, kohlrabi, celery root, carrot.


It’s pouring rain right now. Ten minutes ago it was drizzling. Ten minutes from now it might stop. The air is warm and thick and humid. One of those warm intermittent rain storms you get in New England in September, after the worst heat of the summer is done and before the cool air comes in for good. Not even a tropical storm or a hurricane, like the one pounding Cape Hatteras right now and headed our way tomorrow. Just a drenching rain storm, warm and humid.

We have a drum in our apartment with a goat-skin head on it. Over the weekend, the head was taut and smooth. Today, the head hangs loosely in the rim. You can see all the places where I didn’t stretch the head evenly when I was putting it on the rim.

With the rain, not many people at the farmer’s market today. The woman from Quansett Farm had winter squash this week, pretty deep-orange hybrid squash I’ve never seen before. She said she’s got Hubbards and Butternuts, too, but she didn’t bring them. It still seems too early to bring them out, it’s still too warm. We can ignore them, but the squash and these September rain storms are telling us: Autumn creeps closer every day.

Farmers market

Downtown New Bedford has a farmer’s market on Wing Court off Union Street (down from Pleasant), Thursdays starting at 2:30 p.m. I decided to go check it out today.

Now I have a theory that you can tell something about a community by its farmer’s market. The Berkeley (California) farmer’s market is huge, with musicians, bakers, and lots and lots of organic farmers represented. You see people of every shade of skin color, dressed in everything from tie-dye to button-down shirts. The farmer’s market in Geneva, Illinois, had three farmers, two bakers, and a few craftspeople. Everyone is lily white except the one Hispanic farmer, there are no organic growers, and everyone is extremely nice. The farmer’s market in Davis Square, Somerville, was smaller than the Berkeley market, but otherwise looked pretty much the same — another bit of evidence that Berkeley has a direct connection via a space/time warp to Cambridge and environs. The New Bedford farmer’s market is small, but it manages to offer a good cross-section of Massachusetts farms.

At the far end of Wing’s Court was the lone organic grower, a woman with curly gray hair, skin burnt brown from the sun, and ice-blue eyes. She was straight-forward and no-nonsense, but also pleasant and polite. Her organic blueberries looked extraordinary, so I bought a quart. She also had jam and jelly, labeled “Tripp Farm, Horseneck Road, Westport.” The ingredients in the rhubarb jelly: rhubarb and sugar. Nothing else. For the wild grape jam: wild grapes and sugar. No weird sweeteners or additives, just fruit and sugar. And when I picked up the jars, the jelly inside slid around a little bit but not too much — just the right texture.

She watched me peer at all the labels. “What are you looking for?” she said. “Is there some kind of jelly you especially like?”

“I’m just looking to see what you have,” I said. Rhubarb sounded interesting, but I really don’t eat jelly any more. I was mostly curious.

“I have some other jelly, I just haven’t put it out yet,” she said. “I’ve got beach plum…”

“Beach plum!” I said. The last time I had had beach plum jelly was probably twenty years ago when my mother got us some from down on the Cape or islands. “I haven’t had that in maybe fifteen, twenty years.” Or maybe more like thirty years — I remembered a wild, spicy taste, not as tart as currant jelly….

She got some out, and I said I’d take it. “I have to put a label on it first,” she said. “We don’t putthe labels on until we have to, because if it gets foggy the ink on the labels runs. It’s five dollars, it’s more than the others.” Of course it is — picking wild beach plums is hard work.

The next stop was two pick-up trucks, back-to-back, with a gray-haired man at each one, one leg up on the truck bed, arms folded over the knee. They both wore neat and trim shirts and work pants. Their vegetables were unbelievably inexpensive — I bought a lot, but only spnet a dollar ninety.

I went to the one who was selling the vegetables (since I already had blueberries). He had nice tender young yellow summer squash, and curly head lettuce — how he grows lettuce in this heat is beyond me.

The last truck stood right by the Union Street sidewalk — there were only the four trucks, it’s a small farmer’s market — and it was run by a brisk, friendly woman a little younger than I. She had by far the widest selection of vegetables, along with fresh eggs, peaches, plums, and a few New Jersey apples she had gotten somewhere. She was both a farmer and a saleswoman, pleasant and efficient, the kind of person for whom the chickens probably lay bigger eggs. I bought wax beans, a dozen eggs, and a gorgeous sunflower from her. She must have known that no one can resist a small, perfect sunflower.

As I said, it’s Massachusetts farming in miniature, lacking only two kinds of farmers: the Southeast Asian farmer, often Hmong, with incredible vegetables, and the dreadlocked hippy farmer whose organic bok choy has holes in its leaves from cabbage moths. I thought about this as I walked home, and as soon as I got in the kitchen I tried the beach plum jam. The texture was absolutely perfect, and it tasted just as good as I remembered. The problem is, I no longer care for sweets. Carol will probably wind up finishing it off, and next time I’ll get curious and try the rhubarb jam.