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Patchwork: The world in a garden right here at home

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Posted on May 13, 2010 |
By Barbara Ganley



I’m probably breaking all the rules of “local” down in my basement, where under banks of grow lights artichokes, epazote, cumin and lemongrass, nigella and fenugreek, radicchio and rapini, Corsican gourds and tomatillos, and 12 varieties of hot peppers are humming along. There are the usual suspects, too — tomatoes and eggplants, squash and greens. 

But I have to admit, I spend far more time looking at the 120 hot pepper seedlings than at the pumpkins.  I’m much more excited when the cumin breaks ground than the lettuce. How many people around here have seen za’atar growing, an herb in dried form that infuses my kitchen with Middle Eastern flavor? What will it taste like fresh?

For years I’ve experimented with international cuisines in my kitchen. I’ve been lucky enough to eat my way around a bit of the world, visiting food markets as often as cultural sites on six continents. I’ve found that you can learn more about a place and its people in a farmer’s market and grocery store than in any museum, eat far better in people’s homes than in restaurants, open up to other traditions and world perspectives through exploring the flavors of a place.

And so instead of souvenirs, I lug back recipes and cookbooks. And then I spend hours exploring at the stove. The best part is sharing the discoveries with family and friends at the table — there’s no better way than through food to get people talking about the world.

In the past, cooking internationally has meant scouring the shops of Montreal and New York for ingredients not easily found in Vermont — Jordanian za’atar and Mexican oregano, Aleppo pepper and Spanish piquillo peppers — or sending away for them online. I can now find some, but certainly not all, of what I need here in Vermont as the state grows more diverse — less northern European, not just in its population but in its eating habits.

It’s a marvel how we’ve opened up our palates. The shifting population, the interest in cooking shows, the explosion of food blogs, the access to the world’s traditions and ingredients — these changes help fill the groceries’ international foods shelves, even here in the north country. In the old days, you might have found some canned refried beans, some hot and sour sauce; it would have been unheard of to find tomatillos in a Vermont grocery store. Now you can get them in the middle of winter.

But they are not always affordable. Or necessarily of the highest quality. Or particularly fresh. They’re oddities on the edges of the produce section. Transporting them burns fuel. In this age of environmental crisis, do we give up a varied diet, return to growing only those things native to Vermont? Why not instead bring the world — of a certain growing latitude — to the garden as well as to the table, balancing between local and global, between native and imported species, making sure to avoid invasives that jump from garden to field?

Growing food grounds us in the relationships between earth and nourishment; preparing food brings us into relationship with our culture and community; sharing meals brings us into close contact with those gathered at the table with us. What better way to build healthy inclusive communities than through growing locally and cooking globally?

And so I am experimenting with a melting pot garden — to see what can grow in Addison County under energy-efficient grow lights in the basement and then out in the unpredictable wilds of a Weybridge garden.  So far so good.

The seedlings are flourishing in the easy world of artificial warmth and light where they do not have to contend with the wiles of wind or cold or critters. We’ll see how they — those 120 hot pepper seedlings, those fronds of cumin, the stalks of lemongrass, the minty looking za’atar, and more — do outside in another week or two. I’ve got Mexico, Morocco, Italy, France, and Thailand.  I’ve got India.  I’ve got a window on the world. All in a Vermont garden.

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