It's official. Vegetables, though still weird to most Americans, are as hot as Michelle Obama's triceps under the media sun. Unless you've been hiding in the back aisles of Wal-Mart for the last week, you've heard by now that the First Lady has broken ground on a new White House vegetable garden on the South Lawn (arugula yes, beets no). All of a sudden the words "organic," "sustainable," "fresh," and "locally grown" are being tossed together with "government," as anti-industrial foodist factions whet their appetites for some attention from the powers that be. Of course, it's too soon to start juggling kumquats and tooting on your fiddlehead ferns in celebration, but when Alice Waters appears on 60 Minutes and on the front of the New York Times Business section in the same week, you know that the seeds of a new food consciousness have begun to sprout in mainstream soil.
The article, "Is a Food Revolution Now in Season?", looks at the growing consensus toward a need for reform in the U.S. food system--from reducing and redirecting farm subsidies to increasing funding for more nutritional school lunches--both on the side of policy (pleasant surprises from new secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack) and that of commercial/cultural influences (Whole Foods, movies like the upcoming documentary Food, Inc.), as well as somewhere in between: the NYT reports a lobbyist's amazement at "how many members of Congress were carrying copies of The Omnivore’s Dilemma." Here at Weird Vegetables, we usually float in our own idiosyncratic, farmers' market-driven thought bubbles and only get overtly political when the mood strikes, but if you want a good source of progressive food news and politics, I suggest adding The Ethicurean to your bookmarks.
While it's hopeful to be able to look to government for some large-scale food reform, I personally like Michelle's way of taking the matter into one's own hands by just going out and planting some vegetables. (By the way, The Economist has a great article you should read criticizing the fluff treatment--as fashionista and dutiful mom and daughter before anything else--Ms. Obama's been getting in the press and asks that the White House PR team "Let Michelle be Michelle") I was the most impressed by the price tag of the White House garden: $200. It might seem like a lot of work, but you can start small with just some herbs in a little windowsill pot from your local hardware store or nursery. Above is a family friend's quite advanced plot in Eugene, Oregon, which I found inspiring but impossible for my own limited space and time, though I am lucky enough to have some backyard space. Below are some further examples of vegetable dabbling:
Here is an herb project I started with my backyard neighbor (his hermitage, as I call it, is located at the far end of the yard over which my window looks). We drilled holes in an old wine barrel he had cut in half, poured soil in, and planted parsley, oregano, mint, thyme, and sage. I think herbs are the best way to get into growing food because they're cheap, easy to maintain, and more practical than the large bunches offered at supermarkets since you usually only need a handful at a time.
At the end of last summer, I came into some beautiful starter endives and mustard greens from an underground source with connections to the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center in Sonoma County, which is having a spring plant sale and tour on April 11. I shoveled out a 2' x 2' plot in my backyard and cordoned it off with string wrapped around stakes and chopsticks, providing my neighbor's collie with lots of naughty fun-time. The plant babies got fried in the sun, but revived into vivid green fronds a few weeks later. Nothing compares to freshly picked spicy mustard greens tucked into your midday sandwich. The endives have since retired, but the mustards (Ruby Streaks and Purple Wave) are still going strong seven months later!
Above, the rooftop garden of my Brazilian "auntie" (ti-tia) in Rio de Janeiro, where I also did some much-needed laundry while traveling last summer. Her chubby chives were a tasty last-minute addition to rice and soups.
My friend Lealah and I engaged in some inconspicuous foraging at the victory garden across from S.F.'s City Hall last Labor Day weekend during the first Slow Food Nation extravaganza.
The victory garden planners brought together a range of Bay Area community urban gardening projects and revived a bit of San Francisco's history by planting on the same site of the city's 1943 Civic Center victory plot. What's a victory garden? Read more about it here. We should all think of Amy Franchescini with awe and affection as the artist-activist-gardener who made it happen with lots of tenacity, library research and convincing conversations with the right people at City Hall. Check in with her organization, Futurefarmers, for more exciting uses of public land. And if you're looking for a plot to call your own in S.F, here is a list of some community gardens.