Casaubon's Book

Salvaging My Garden

Yesterday afternoon we put our work aside and drove down into the Schoharie Valley, at least as far as we could go. We wanted to check on friends in the area, and we had called down to Schoharie Valley Farms to see how they were doing and also ask about the status of the flowers I had ordered for a bar mitzvah this weekend. Despite the fact that just about everything else they had was destroyed, the flowers were unscathed. Moreover, they told us that since no one in the town had power, lights or time to preserve, we could come down and buy anything they had to preserve. So down we went, and came back with a few boxes of tomatoes and peppers and some sweet corn.

This was hardly altruism (although one thing you can do for some flooded out farmers is buy any produce they had picked before the disaster and preserve it, since they often won’t have a market in place and need the money!). Most of my garden was destroyed by the flooding – the tomatoes I bought for them may be the last ones I get this year. I know there are other farmers, but I suspect they will be inundated with requests, and most of our sources of additional produce had it worse than we did. If you’d like to make a donation to those flooded out in Schoharie County, please do so – you can go here to donate, and just earmark your donation for flood victims. I suspect they’ve got other things to do besides update the website, but they are accepting flood donations. (Hat tip to Emma and Deb for pointing this out to me!!!)

The other project for today, besides making roasted yellow tomato salsa and freezing chopped up peppers is salvaging what I can out of my garden, and doing what I can to preserve it. Some of the onions can probably be dried before fungal diseases take them. The squash are hopeless, but there are a few lingering cukes, and the corn can be fed as fodder to the goats at least if I cut the stalks by hand. There are tomatillos still viable, and green tomatoes that can be pickled.

n her superb book _This Organic Life_ writer Joan Dye Gussow talks about making do with flood damaged produce – and why she doesn’t just go out and buy fresh, perfect stuff.

We harvested 37 pounds of onions, but despite my best efforts, some of them cured with soft spots where mold had gotten underneath the outer layers and would work its sway through the whole onion if we didn’t stop it. So we had to cut up many onions and freeze the good parts – or cook them. All of which accounts for the fact that a year and a half after we arrived in Piermont, I found myself one morning cutting up a half-rotten onion to salvage, and realized that a year earlier I would have thrown the whole thing away.” Gussow, 103

And

The lesson I take away from the realization that our crops will sometimes be drowned is not that those of us who live in the colder states can’t be relatively self-reliant; we can. And although Alan and I would have been wise to choose higher ground, I’ve seen no sensible agricultural scenario that suggests that anything can be done to insulate food production from the vagaries of nature. If we wish to feed ourselves from our own regions, and allow others to do the same, we will need to try and adjust our choices and our appetites to what Nature will provide in a given year. We need accept the fact that in some years we won’t have al the potatoes and onions we want. On the other hand, we will sometimes have more raspberries than we can eat, and the crops that succeed will be both safe and tasty.” Gussow, 107-108

Why spend my day out among the rotting vegetables looking for the good ones? Most simply because it is food, and you don’t just waste it.

This, I think, is a mindset that is worth getting into early on. It would be easy to say “oh, it was a terrible crop, why bother.” Or perhaps to say that the birds can have the last of the sunflower heads – and perhaps they are entitled to a share of the grain as well. Fair enough, but now they’ve had their share, and I’m taking mine. Even if it is imperfect. Even if it wasn’t what I dreamed of.

We live in a world that throws away nearly half of all the food it produces – and a world where we increasingly struggle to feed everyone. There’s a connection there – the food I don’t salvage is lost, and I buy in the markets. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for the markets, but everything I waste, that is lost that doesn’t have to be costs us something.

The ability to make something of vegetables caught by frost, flooded, stunted by drought, partially eaten by some creature is one of our gifts – food preservation methods can mean that something that would otherwise have been lost can be saved – onions that won’t store well can be dehydrated or frozen, as Gussow points out. Or new recipes arise for green tomato pickles, the outer leaves of cabbage and green pumpkin pie. It is food, and you don’t waste it.

Today, in front of the woodstove, my children and I will draw back the husks of what corn survived and hang it up to dry further in the house. Most of the ears are full, some are not, but we will save what we can – because it is our food. When we committed to growing it, we committed to this – that we will regard our food as primary. I’ve no sorrow in buying to replace a lost crop when needed, but if I grow it, and I possibly can, I will eat what I grow before I rely on other sources.

It is hard to believe how differently people who live through food scarcity regard food – in some cultures, to tread on a piece of dropped bread is a sin, and a deep one. In Elizabeth Erlich’s superb memoir _Miriam’s Kitchen_ she observes her Holocaust survivor mother-in-law using her thumb to ensure that every drop of egg white was removed from a shell. When she enquires, her mother in law observes that her own father died of starvation – how could she ever waste food? We blur and grey the fact that there is a connection between the food lost to waste and the hunger of others – it is not as direct as “children are starving in India so finish your twinkie” but what you buy and grow and use shapes markets that transform the lives of others.

We are told that the only good and safe and healthy food is perfect – we are lied to and told that perfect looking is the same as tasty, safe and healthy. Up to 20% of all produce in the US is discarded and wasted simply because of cosmetic imperfections. We thus lose the old habits of thrift and care, and the value that says “this is food, we do not let it go to waste.”

So out we go, to scavenge in the mud for our food. And then back to the kitchen to transform the muddy, imperfect and nearly lost into the delicious and perfect – the roasted tomatillo sauce, the green tomato pickles, the peach jam and leather, the spiced plum chutney, the roasted corn salsa. There is treasure in the mud, good food for the claiming, and we will not let it go.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Lauren
    August 31, 2011

    Wishing those in the flooded areas a quick return to drier ground. Thank you for the wake up on not wasting food. Here in very dry South Texas my garden has been barren for weeks, although there are still some figs that may ripen. My fall planting may have to be delayed due to intense heat.

  2. #2 Michael
    August 31, 2011

    What a wonderful story. It’s a great reminder that the pretty-but-bland produce we get in stores is not what we should be eating. And helping those farmers recover quickly makes sure they’ll continue to provide for your community in the future.

  3. #3 GB Heron
    August 31, 2011

    Just a question: how do you know if food from a flooded garden is safe? I’ve been reading about sewage, dead animals, and toxins in flooded rivers…

  4. #4 Sharon Astyk
    August 31, 2011

    It really depends on knowing what’s around you and where the water came from and went through – in my case, it is safe – I know how the water’s path went and nothing really troubling is there. For folks dealing, as they are in the valley below me, with sewage backups and spilled diesel fuel, you have to let it go. In general, if it flooded up from a river, you’ve got more problems than if it flooded as it did on my property, on the way down a hill.

    Sharon

  5. #5 Daniel Rothman
    August 31, 2011

    Best wishes for rapid (and thorough) recovery.

    A quick question on direct recycling – how suitable are these spoilage items for slops/livestock feed? I had a cousin who was a chef, and all of their trimmings/spoilage went either as slops or composting. (P&Gs in New Paltz – don’t know if they still operate that way)

  6. #6 Mike
    August 31, 2011

    A farm I once visited (in South Korea) actually takes a portion of its corn harvest every year and leaves it – cob, husk, and stalk – to ferment until winter. Then, when the weather hits its coldest and the chickens are at their most vulnerable, they feed it to them as a booster for their immune system. I’m not sure if this would work with corn that has already been soaked, but I suppose it’s worth a try for anyone with an excess of corn they can’t make use of.

  7. #7 Stephen B.
    September 1, 2011

    Outages force a trip to past
    Residents resort to games, candles

    Widespread power outages across Massachusetts, which entered their fourth day yesterday, have cast whole neighborhoods back in time to the days of candles and board games, denying families their appliances and electronics and forcing them to lean on friends and their own ingenuity to stay fed, clean, and entertained.

    http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2011/09/01/70000_in_mass_struggle_to_cope_with_power_outages/?page=2

  8. #8 Jennie
    September 1, 2011

    Glad you and your family are fine.
    Gleaning and salvaging definitely are an integral part of gardening, no matter where you are. Preach on!

  9. #9 Sandy
    September 1, 2011

    Glad to hear you are safe. I live in Florida, and when I was a child, my mother would take me and my sister to an elderly neighbor’s house every year before the first freeze to pick oranges and lemons. the neighbor had 7 or 8 trees in her yard and was not able to harvest (or eat) all of the fruit. We would go pick it before the cold weather ruined it, and spend a week or 2 juicing citrus. We’d have 5 or 6 electric juicers going at once and ended up with so much juice we would give some away and freeze some.
    I moved to the other Florida coast years later, and a friend of mine was raving about some orange juice he bought at a roadside stand. He took me there and as we pulled up, I laughed! It was called Indian River Fruit, and the juice was from oranges grown just down the road from where I grew up!

  10. #10 Andy Brown
    September 1, 2011

    We’re in Day 5 of our vacation from electricity, thanks to Hurricane Irene — and thankful that I took yours and others advice about storing up for emergencies. The rain barrels and the 30 gallons of potable water I’d gradually stowed away in the basement (in empty seltzer bottles) have come in very, very handy. But I have to say I’ve been neglecting the garden in favor of eating up what we had in the fridge and freezer. Tonight we’re taking the rest of the salvage (black beans, tamales, arepas, bacon, casito and so on) over to friends who have their power back. Feasts, after all, were the original solution to the problem of perishable foods!

  11. #11 Michelle
    September 1, 2011

    Amen, Sharon! I’m thankful to have lost none of my crops, though I prepared as if I would. What I have at present is an abundance (and I’m talking ABUNDANCE) of egg yolks – probably close to 100 of them, from the innards of the stewing hens we butchered today. I’m scrambling for ways to use them – sorry, no pun intended – so they are not wasted. It would just feel wrong, and dishonorable, and disrespectful, to waste them. I’m glad you and yours are ok, even if you did lose crops. And thank goodness indeed that you won’t starve for those losses!

  12. #12 Sue in Pac NW
    September 2, 2011

    Sharon,

    Glad you and your family (2 and 4 footed) are all ok.

    It has been a few years since our Columbus Day Storm in 1962, but you never forget watching trees snap like matchsticks – often into houses, cars and powerlines and the loss of life (48)and the aftermath flooding and cleanup. You really get to see just how wonderful people can be…. And then there are the politicians. Over the years, I have repeatedly wanted to throttle some of them, but there was an assemblyman from Connecticut, I think, that really takes the cake. He was on the news blaming his local power company because the power is not back on yet. The fact that most of the roads were washed out, trees across power lines and roads and water everywhere never phased him he is grandstanding for the camera. There were reportedly people and trucks from other states who are giving their time, equipment and expertise to assist the people of his town. He didn’t even have the class to back up his local utility let alone the wonderful guys and gals who have come to help. He must be married to the whiney woman who was upset because her kids had to suffer without their electronics. Looked to me as if the boys were old enough to be helping neighbors and community out. My husband was a helicoptor pilot who worked forest fires and I got to see first hand how exhausted crews just kept at it until the fires were out. Same with the utility, first responders etc.etc., working the east coast right now. And Joplin and New Orleans and….Shame on you assemblyman, your constituents deserve a lot better. Ok, rant over.

    One of our local farmers suggested that we contact the US ag department to support aid to SMALL farmers, say under what, a hundred acres? Heard a figure of 30,000 chicken lost to flooding. I’m leading a fight for backyard hens in my town, and just added a large wire dog carrier to my preparedness list in case I have to evacuate. After I get chickens ok’d, I think ducks are next:)

    Blessings,

    Sue B

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    September 5, 2011

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