“What do you eat?” Riding across the country I don’t think a day passed without some sort of conversation about food. Eating and drinking are even more universal than the weather – we all need to do it, usually several times a day, and it’s not like we can just come inside, adjust the hungerstat and ignore it. Some of these conversations were short and sweet: “Want a sandwich?” “Yes, Please! Thank you!” Others were long and challenging and gave me much food for thought as I rode along, hobnobbing with the ponies, watching the land go by. When I rode through Mississippi the most common first question was, “When’s the last time you ate?” And last Sunday night I had a baffling food conversation as I tried to unravel the mystery of “Corn Bread Salad” without seeing or tasting it, asking such questions as “what sort of texture is it when it’s done?”
By the time I arrived in Big Creek last December it had been 4 1/2 years since I’d regularly enjoyed the luxury of going to a grocery store, choosing what I wanted to eat, bringing that food home and cooking it in a “real” kitchen. Of course, at that time, I didn’t think of it as a luxury! Back then, I shared the kitchen, the cooking and the eating with three other people (sometimes more) and we were in Ireland where it was Impossible to procure cornmeal, but I baked bread and made quiches and chopped vegetables – and it was good. Here, thanks to the incredible kindness and generosity of my neighbors in Big Creek, I didn’t spend the winter cooking over my wee wood stove. There wasn’t much for heat in the kitchen, but it has a fridge and an oven and a crock pot and an electric skillet and a blender – even a microwave! It has felt really good to move back into the world of baking and cooking, especially now that the entire kitchen doesn’t feel like an ice box.
Now, If I were to tell my heart’s honest truth, I’ve never been much for gardening. My folks are avid gardeners and I’ve lived on farms, had close friends who are farmers, greatly enjoyed the fruits of those fields and am capable of following directions: weed the strawberries, go pick some beans for dinner, deadhead the snapdragons, plant one of these seeds half an inch deep every three inches down this row. I’ve fantasized about having a garden and growing my own food, but that’s different than actually planning something viable, acquiring seeds – then doing the work of preparing the soil, planting the seeds, keeping up with the weeding and watering all through the season, dealing with insects trying to eat my plants (and me!) and then Eventually harvesting and preparing (and preserving) the food I’d grown. It all sounded like a whole lot of work – requiring skills and knowledge and an ability to follow through on a long-term, often boring project that I simply knew I didn’t have.
Somehow, the ride changed all that. I’ll probably ramble on about some of the reasons in another blog post, but for now, let’s just say that by the time I finished the ride I had proven to myself that I had the ability to follow through on a long-term, often boring project – and the many conversations along the way had convinced me that I needed to make a serious attempt at acquiring the skills and knowledge (and doing the work required) to feed myself. Big Creek, Mississippi felt like a viable place to establish a smallholding. February found me rolling spare change to buy seeds. Reading and researching and attempting to plan gave me an excuse to huddle by the wood stove during one of the coldest Mississippi winters in decades. Saint George arrived with local gardening knowledge and experience. The ponies and goats and chickens were busy providing plenty of free manure. I started a compost pile. Fantasy met Reality. Hay and manure, no matter how dutifully the pile is turned, don’t turn into rich, soil enhancing, seed-free compost between winter and spring. The ground in my yard is red clay. The ponies packed it down – deep and hard and solid with lots of hoof-shaped pockets to hold water. The winter lingered on. Last frost in this area is supposed to be 6.April. This year it was the 16th. The ground was too wet to work.
I started tomatoes and peppers inside. Three weeks later not one seed had sprouted. I disinterred them to discover that they’d molded instead. Too much water – or seeds that were several years old? New seeds – try again. This time it worked! Using peat and vermiculite and a blend of bought and newly created compost (roughly following Mel Bartholomew’s growing medium from his Square Foot Gardening book) I filled two pallets and planted salad greens. Miraculously the chickens didn’t wreak havoc but about the time the first sprouts arrived – so did the fire ants – ouch! (Attempts to get rid of them without destroying my greens are another whole story.) Due to the waterlogged ground, green peas (called “English Peas” here – to distinguish them from black-eyed peas and their family) went in late. The ground was still too wet, probably not tilled deeply enough and fertilized only with chicken poo and a bit of old hay and manure. The plants came up looking weak and sort of yellow pale. It was hard not getting discouraged.
A week ago Wednesday I collected all sorts of random wooden boxes and metal tubs that I found in the house. Saint George drilled holes in the bottoms as necessary and I filled them with the stuff plants love to grow in. I planted parsnips and turnips and carrots and radishes, oregano and thyme and lemon balm, seven different kinds of basil, more greens. I prayed. I watered. I hovered. I waited. I didn’t wait long, actually – since by that Friday morning I started seeing sprouts! I have yet to see evidence of carrots or cilantro, but most everything else has at least one representative poking above the soil. Excitement!!!
Monday afternoon I ate a salad of baby greens from the pallet for the first time – and managed not to disturb the fire ants as I wielded the scissors to harvest them. Today I enjoyed the sweet bliss of a few wee peas, squeezed from their pods into my mouth and eaten raw. There are more seeds to plant, much more to learn and work to be done but tasting the fruits of my early endeavors is nourishing, not only to my body but to my dream of being able to feed myself. Baby greens, baby steps. Poco a poco. And I find that I’m enjoying the process thus far – which is a revelation in itself.
And now it is time to go feed other people! In March I started working at the Big Creek Steakhouse as the fry cook, adding another dimension to my explorations into food. It’s great to be able to walk “next door” to go to work and I usually walk home, pulling my little black wagon, with enough table scraps to feed the dogs all week. The Steakhouse is only open Friday and Saturday nights – though this Thursday night there was a private party for 60 people and I got to help with that as well. I brought over some samples of the salad green mixes I’ve been growing and began a conversation about growing enough greens and veggies for the restaurant – which would be a huge learning curve, and really satisfying.
Meanwhile, from the realm of the ponies: Look who’s back from Texas!