Mentors Aplenty, Part Two: My Kind of School

Earlier in the summer,  I wrote about learning from family, students and friends.  Actually, since I started blogging in 2001, I’ve often remarked on being far more student than teacher even when I taught in formal schools. Every day since then I’ve learned essential and moving lessons from the non-human inhabitants of the gardens, but just as surely, almost as often as a bee or a tree teaches me something, someone beyond my gardens has reached out to share some bit of wisdom about growing or cooking food, about stories and local community, about traditions around food, about living well.dancer from another world

In other words, I don’t think I have ever learned so much about the earth, about communities, about connections between people and between traditions, about myself or about life as I have since launching Open View Gardens.

Sometimes the lessons have come in the guise of an old, well-used piece of equipment handed down from my mother. In this case, an old French vegetable mill.

I asked my mother if she still had hers, and if so and if she didn’t use it, could I please have it?  I thought it would help me with some of the salsas and sauces and soups I was trying out–the tastes were fine but the texture not quite right.

moulin legumes

She brought it up the next time she came to visit, and I think I have used it almost every day since. How ever did I think a food processor could produce the perfect pizza sauce?

Using this well-worn, simple tool puts me touch with my mother as a cook during the pre-food processor days, and with my French mother (I spent my senior year in high school studying in France) who used one just like it, for soup, three or four times a week.  Remembering those soups both women made awakened a real awareness of texture and its impact on the way food tastes. Turning that crank, just like using the chinois or mortar and pestle or making cheese or pasta by hand teach me again and again that entering the process of turning what we grow into what we eat  brings pleasure, understanding, connection and better eating!

nasturtium vinegar bottling timeSometimes the lessons are simple and practical: “Mom, you better label what you’re making right away.  And keep a list.”  My sensible daughter made beautiful labels for the many jars of jam we made on her weekend visit.  Of course I hadn’t always been doing that and today did have a little difficulty distinguishing between the lavender and white currant jellies without breaking into them.

Sometimes the lessons are layered. A week from today we’ll be hosting a wedding for one of my former students-now dear friend and teacher to me.  Stacie has taught me about poetry, about caring for words–what they can do, how they sound, how they push up against one another and create magic, both terrible and sublime, silly and profound, ordinary and extraordinary. of red and green But she’s also taught me incredible things about food-how to make the best (and simple) salad dressing, how to care for ingredients as though they were those words, how to eat well, how to show your love for people through loving preparation of food –how to think about food–so much, so much.  In fact, she is a primary inspiration for Open View Gardens, mixing writing and cooking and gardening and photographing.  And now, she’s giving me a chance to know how to host a wedding.

And then there are the unexpected messages–one from Kristina, a student I hadn’t heard from in years, who wrote about her dissertation, an ethnography of soil–such an extraordinary endeavor that intrigues me as I grow closer and closer to the wee ecosystem that is my gardens. That she is anchoring her study of culture and politics right there in the earth gives me hope for this planet.  I have much to learn from her!

Bulgaria 030

Pumpkins growing in a Bulgarian garden--looks like a fine example of permaculture to me!

Another unexpected message came from a reader of this blog, a teacher in Switzerland I have not met nor before conversed with, who sent me photos  of her son’s girlfriend’s family vegetable patch.  She wanted to share the way they grow squashes, letting them hang through openings in fences and trellises. Mira, the gardener,wrote: it is called a violin because of its shape, but is a pumpkin. It is an annual plant (it lives only one year, on the next have to be planted again). seeds are to be planted in february/march which is considered early spring. The fruits are ready in October, and are collected before the first big cold. In colour they are orange. Its weight is more than its stem can support, that`s why they are usually hung in a net. One plant develops/brings both male and female flowers. It can be stored for the whole winter in a basement, in a cool but not freezing place. It is very sweet, more that the other laying pumpkins and is used for cakes and banitza (burek).” See more photos in this Flickr set. I’ve been doing that on a much smaller scale with my birdhouse gourds–when I grow the large Sicilian squash from the seeds Emilio’s mother sent me, I will have to try that!  I also have a recipe for candied pumpkin I’ve been wanting to try but now I am wondering if I have the right sort of squash…

And there were more lessons with pumpkins (’tis the season, after all), lessons in small community.  I bought a clutch of the most beautiful French cinderella pumpkins this past week at the farmer’s market (mine succumbed to squash bugs), and tried to bargain a bit since I was buying all the pumpkins, for the wedding, and was trying to be mindful of cost.  The growers gave me a break and off I went.  My husband, wise man that he is, scolded me a bit for bargaining with farmers, saying that I of all people should know how hard it is to make a living off the land.  And then, the next day, on the answering machine a message from the grower–she had reviewed the sale and realized she hadn’t given me a deal at all and wanted to give me another pumpkin to make up for it this coming week.  What a great lesson in fairness and decency. Just as soon as I finish this post,  I’ll head to the farmers’ market to thank her for that call and to buy more pumpkins from her.  No deals.

Online connections give me a window into worlds I otherwise would probably not hear about and bring lessons that stretch my thinking and deepen my ties to the human world.  Standing side-by-side with my daughters making jams or pasta, talking to my mother on the phone about her memories of making crabapple elixirs, working with the old tools and practices in the kitchen, planning a wedding including opening the kitchen to a bevy of cooks in a few days who will make a sea of pies to feed the wedding guests–well, these moments are making Open View Gardens the kind of school I’ve dreamed about–where collaboration and sharing and conversation are just a natural part of the learning, and I am the student!

How I Taught When I Did So Formally

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Categories: Guest Posts, inspiration, lessons, Memory, Musing


  1. Travels to LA and Back: Connections to the Earth | Open View Gardens - June 22, 2011

    […] is a fabulous, caring cook who has taught me a good deal about creativity in the kitchen.  She scours the farmers’ markets of Venice and Santa Monica for the freshest organic […]

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