28 October 2008

(Mis)Adventures in Urban Gardening

As the rain pours down and the gusts of wind cause leaves to dance about my roof, I reflect on my first attempt at urban gardening this past summer. Now nearly October, all that remains are three clay pots -- lemon thyme, silver dust, daisies -- and a lovely painted blue pot (a gift) with lavender. I may eventually move the herbs inside. The wooden wine crates I had converted into planters now stand stacked at one end of the roof. My buckets are filled with rain water and leaves and a watering can lies wedged inside the buckets so as not to fly away.
I wish I could boast of an abundant harvest: juicy tomatoes from late July through the end of September! Pepper after pepper combined with my delicate zebra eggplant. Sadly, that would be a gross exaggeration. In mid-May, after having settled into my new apartment with its incredible roof space right outside of my bedroom window (which doubles as a door), I went to Greensgrow in Northeastern Philadelphia (which was featured that same week in the New York Times) to stock up on seeds, seedlings, organic soil and some extra pots. I came home with irish moss, silver dust, dahlias and daisies for my non-edible planter, with thyme, basil, rosemary and lavender for the herb planter, with three tomato seedlings (one patio tomato and two heirloom varieties), cucumber, eggplant, watermelon and pepper seedlings and with two varieties of lettuce seeds. I drilled holes into my four wine crates, planted seedlings, sewed seeds and gently slipped my tomatoes into their clay pots. Let the growing season begin!!
Here are the wine crates before they were turned into planters:
The watermelon and cucumber were the first victims of unknown vermin. I bought marigolds from the farmer's market to ward off pests. Promising. July crept in, my patio tomato showed the promise of two green tomatoes. I eagerly watched as one turned orange and then a deep red, while the other began to blush, as well. Imagine my horror to discover one morning that the red tomato was gone. Something had come and eaten it, as well as half of its blushing sibling! This, of course, was not enough. The unknown culprit had decided to nap on a soft green bed of lettuce after its tomato feast, smothering a lettuce crop which had already been on the verge of bolting. Goodbye, lettuce. Rest in peace, ripe tomatoes.
Tomato cages seemed the most obvious solution. I also caged in the eggplant and pepper. The pepper was blooming and the first eggplant began to show it's striped little head, and I was not about to risk losing them. Meanwhile, the two heirlooms had not yet done anything but look tall, green, healthy and flowerless. Oh, I had also managed to over water and kill the heartiest of herbs -- my dear rosemary.
Long story short. The heirlooms never bore fruit. Muddy footprints revealed that a raccoon had been feasting on my tomatoes (managing to steal two more through the cage). I harvested one tiny pepper, two small tomatoes and a modest eggplant. In fact my entire harvest could fit into the palm of my hand (the second tomato came later in the season).
The herbs (rosemary aside) were a success. I will definitely continue planting herbs each summer. I am not certain if I would return to my other failed crops. The farmer's market is right down the street and I do love supporting the local economy (and preserving my own personal economy by not throwing money into unfruitful plants). Perhaps I will do more research next year and wisely choose one or two items to grow on my roof. I will check first, however, with the raccoon to establish what it does _not_ like to eat.

25 October 2008

Inside the Fridge of a Foodie

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times Sunday Magazine had its "Food Issue." One article had an interactive online feature, "Inside the Fridge of a Foodie." I admit to running to my refrigerator to see what was actually in there while listening to each of the food activists describe the content of their fridge. I thought it would be fun (for me at least) to write about what is in my refrigerator today.
These pictures are not actually that great. But right now I have two local cheeses, brita filter water, raw milk from the market, homemade jam (plum-nectarine and plum by me, strawberry by Elisha), salsa (also made by Elisha), leftover pumpkin, sweet potato, cauliflower dal that I made with goodies from my CSA.
Here you can see the raw milk better as well as the cheeses. In the paper bag is Elisha's half of this week's share: beets, cauliflower, apples, potatoes, onions, granola. Half a dozen eggs belong to her as well. The other dozen cage-free organic eggs are mine from the share (half from this week and still six from last week!).
It's hard really to see, but in the crisper I have apples and cauliflower (both in plastic bags I reuse to keep apples crisp and cauliflower fresh). My CSA share beets were already roasted this afternoon to be ready for a weeks worth of grazing. The yoghurt container houses the dal leftovers. I have some sundried tomatoes in the back, along with some of my homemade jam, wheat germ, and quite old brown sugar that gets used in Christmas cookies, but little else, as I prefer honey, maple syrup or organic evaporated cane juice. Often you could find a cat on this lower shelf, as Firlefanz loves to dive in every time I open the fridge!
Here (from the bottom up) I have local apple cider, more jam I made, raw milk that went sour that I am saving for baking, two local maple syrups (I had bought some from the co-op not realizing that I would get some in my CSA share the following week), some organic Trader Joe's mayo, an elderly stonehill jam, and then assorted condiments (curry paste, organic mustards, soy sauce, organic peanut butter). At the very top I have some organic unsalted butter, cream cheese, cat antibiotics, capers, yeast. In my tiny, in-desperate-need-of-defrosting freezer can be found frozen whole wheat pizza dough from the summer, leftovers of a variation of Paula's vegetable cous cous and harissa from a few weeks ago, coffee beans, ice cubes, organic unsalted butter.
Does it get more exciting?
I generally keep squash, pumpkins, tomatoes, garlic, onions and potatoes (and often bread -- this week a yummy rye, always from the wonderful Four Worlds Bakery) out of the fridge. I have assorted legumes, grains, rice and nuts in jars on a shelf. Spices, honey, sugar, tea are in cupboards. And there you go!
What's in your fridge?

My Food Manifesto

This blog is about eating thoughtfully and in harmony with our environment and not about my personal life, or lack thereof, and not about the personal lives of my cats, of which I have two, both of whom eat very well. If you stop by this blog in hopes of finding gossip and private confession, read no further, you will only be disappointed. This maiden blog voyage will be my attempt at a modest food manifesto.
To precisely describe what I am in terms of what I eat is tricky. Vegetarian is not 100% accurate. I do eat fish (eco-best). Had I a real hankering, I might consider eating meat that comes from a local farm which observes sustainable practices. Locavore might fit. I strongly believe in eating local and thereby supporting local small farms and the local economy. I do not eat 100% local, however. And I do not believe that eating only local is necessary. Supporting free trade and buying organic products that travel to my table in environmentally responsible ways contradicts in no way my food beliefs. The most appropriate nomenclature for me would be, perhaps, ecovore. The environment and my impact on it informs what I eat, how I eat and how I live. That being said, I probably eat 75%-95% local. Thanks to my local food co-op, frequent visits to the farmer's market and a CSA share, this takes little effort and costs much less than you would imagine.
This might be the appropriate moment to slip in that I am a graduate student living off of a modest stipend under the shadow of an immodest student loan debt. Eating good quality ingredients and connecting with your local businesses and farmers is not a privilege of the wealthy. My co-op (which does accept food stamps, as does the majority of area farmer's markets) allows me to set up a monthly food budget by paying a self-determined amount to my account each month and shopping off of it. The decision to join a CSA was largely a financial one. I do love to eat and I love to cook. Beautiful, local, fresh produce thrills me. The colors, smells, new flavors -- I can not get enough. I, admittedly, would sometimes go overboard at the farmer's market and spend far too much. Thus, a CSA share structured my purchases. At the moment I pay approximately $20 a week to receive one dozen eggs, a local cheese, farm-made granola, and a large assortment of fruits and vegetables from Keystone Farm. This is an organic farm, mind you. I actually share half of this with a friend, as it is really intended for a family (I live alone). So for $10 a week I have more local, organic food than I can sometimes eat. Over the winter I will do a half share for, again, approximately $10 a week. Half-dozen eggs, one cheese, one bag granola, fruits and vegetables. I don't know that there is a better bargain.
The stage of my eating is not California, an ecovore's dream state where locally grown organic food abounds, including such wondrous things as almonds, olives, citrus, avocados. No no. For the last one and a half years I have resided in Philadelphia. The city of brotherly love. The city that loves you back. A city with one of the highest murder and crime rates in the country. A mecca of slow food and its locavore followers? As a matter of fact, yes (to all of the above). A grand, gritty, city, Philadelphia indeed has shown itself to be an ideal place for those who care about food and who want to make a difference through food. Since May I have resided in the eco-haven of Philadelphia, West Philly. Here can be found my farmer's market, my co-op, as well as many a liberal, green, progressive type. The park that serves as the cornerstone green space of my neighborhood also serves as an interesting intersection of academics, artists, hippies, punks, African-Americans, Eritreans, and more. And it kind of works.
If this is my food "manifesto," I should probably say something that might cast some light onto why I think any of this matters. I vividly recall a conversation with a dear friend in which said friend acknowledged my food beliefs -- he does respect, humor and even partake to some extent in them -- but made the point that there are greater issues: poverty, abuse, violence, war, whatever. Of course. These are real issues and they are of great importance to me and should be to all. I would be deeply insulted to think that anyone who knows me would ever imagine that I do not care about these things (and this person was not going that far). But my food beliefs (which I do not intend to push onto anyone, though perhaps some might take note of my example) reflect a certain mindset. Approaching food thoughtfully, being aware of where it comes from, informing oneself about production and environmental impact, limiting waste all have greater implications. Everyone has to eat. Changing the way you address your diet affects the way you address the rest of your life and the world. This may sound idealistic, but encouraging people to be thoughtful, aware and informed could really bring about radical change. My thoughtfulness does not end with food, nor does my concern end with the environment.
I doubt I will make such "radical" statements in future posts, but I do believe very strongly in how I choose to live and eat.
p.s. I abhor high-fructose corn syrup.