The World in a Garden
I’m probably breaking all the rules of “local” down in my basement, where under banks of grow lights ten varieties of hot peppers, artichokes, epazote, cumin and lemongrass, nigella and fenugreek, radicchio and rapini, Corsican gourds and tomatillos are humming along. I’ve got the usual suspects, too–tomatoes and eggplants, squash and greens. But I have to admit, I spend far more time looking at the ninety hot pepper seedlings than at the pumpkins. I’m much more excited when the cumin breaks ground than the lettuce. It’s a little experiment I’ve got going. To see what I can reasonably grow in Addison County with energy-efficient grow lights in the basement and then out in the wilds of the garden. Eventually I hope to bring what I’ve learned to other cooks and gardeners–how garden and kitchen open the doors of the world. So far so good. The seedlings are all doing well 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 do outside.
For years I’m been experimenting with the world’s cuisines in my kitchen—what I can reasonably cook in a Vermont 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 food in people’s homes than in restaurants, so many of which in places like Morocco seem to cater exclusively to tourists. 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. I can now find some, but certainly not all of these things 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. In the old days, you might find some canned refried beans, some hot and sour sauce; it would have been unheard of to find tomatillos in a northern Vermont grocery store. Now you can get them in the middle of winter.
But they aren’t always affordable. Or necessarily of the highest quality. Or particularly fresh. Recently it dawned on me that I might be able to bring the world—of a certain growing latitude—to the garden as well as to the table. And so I am experimenting with a melting pot garden. Those ninety hot pepper seedlings. Those fronds of cumin. The stalks of lemongrass. I’ve got Mexico, Morocco, Italy, France, and Thailand. I’ve got India. All in a Vermont garden. I want local to mean the world.