One of the biggest concerns that I have as a dietetic student is connecting the foods that we eat to what they actually look like. I read a recipe once and it asked for kohlrabi. I had no idea what it looked liked, or let alone how to cook it. In case you have no idea what it is, kohlrabi looks similar to a beet, but the bulb or the swollen stem is above ground. The plant belongs to the cabbage family. The leaves and the stem are edible and it can be eaten either raw or cooked. The more young or tender the stem-bulb, the sweeter the flavor. In my food service class, taught by a professor who was a Cordon Bleu chef, a class member suggested if we could bring fruits and vegetables that we have never eaten or prepared before and if we could learn how to cook these items during lab. He agreed and the next lab, sure enough, everyone brought something that they were unfamiliar with. During that lab, we prepped and cooked a variety of vegetables, mostly root vegetables and tried fruits we rarely would have tried on our own. Although some students needed a little persuasion. The variety of root vegetables people brought included kohlrabi, Jerusalem artichokes and a few others I could not pronounce. Someone brought a beautiful, but funny looking broccoli called Romanesco, also known as a Romanesque cauliflower. After looking at all the varieties of vegetables I thought to myself, “What would be the best preparation method for this fruit or vegetable?” I was excited. This was going to be a fun challenge.
In addition to trying to find new and different fruits and vegetables in both regular and ethnic grocery stores, I started visiting farmer markets more often. If you have ever purchased fruits and vegetables at a farmers market you know the taste and texture of locally grown vegetables and fruits are unlike any other. Apples just taste sweeter. Carrots have that extra crunch and if you have ever tasted blackberries grown on the vine or tomatoes, you know the flavor profile is nothing short of amazing, for lack of a better word. So I started to ask the question if I were to grow my own fruits and vegetables would they taste like this? Well, I am no gardener, but I love food. I agree with Alice Waters on that note.
So while I was at my local library I saw a sign for a seed library. I thought okay, this is worth looking into? So I researched the history of a seed library. It turns out like the “Slow Food” movement it was also started in the bay area in California of all places. No wonder California is the great hub for agriculture. It turns out that if you buy certain fruits and vegetables in the store and plant them in the ground they may not grow, or they may grow, but you do not get the same or lasting results. Why? That is a different topic for another time, but to make a long story short some fruits and vegetable will not produce viable seeds that you can plant. I tried planting a cucumber from seed and only a few plants grew, but I tried planting the same seeds from the cucumbers that did grow again the next summer and the results were disappointing. So I was curious as to why my cucumbers did not grow the second time around. Like I said, I am a dietetic student, and gardening is an entirely new concept to me. I went to the meeting for the seed exchange at my local library and met Tom, our local master gardener. He explained to me what an heirloom seed variety was. The seeds that I had may have not been good seeds to start with. Heirloom varieties are open pollinated seeds that are crafted by nature to grow in the local environment. They adapt to their growing conditions. Heirlooms include all seed plants and just as families past on valuables from one generation to another, also called heirlooms, seeds were saved and handed down to the next generation to ensure the health and well being of the families that cultivated them. We have moved far from this agricultural practice, but people are starting to appreciate the value of saving these seeds not just to preserve tradition but to continue with genetic variety. Tomatoes and carrots come in very many different colors. The seed library is actually a collection of heirloom varieties preserved and shared with members of the community. In the long run collecting and saving seeds helps to preserve biodiversity. There are quite a few seed libraries, some in your local community and some are even online. The best part, it is FREE.
If you are interested in learning more I highly encourage you to go to your local library to see what programs are available to you. My library not only gives you the seeds, but it also teaches patrons how to plant, grow, harvest and save them. All of these things are of course at no charge. In return for taking the seeds, the library asks that patrons bring a few back to replenish and continue the work of the seed library. The seeds that my library has include such plants as: eggplant, tomato, bell peppers and squashes. There are a lot of questions I have about starting a garden, but I find that many people from all walks of life like to share seeds, recipes and words of encourage to help you get started. If you live near Pomona and the Diamond Bar area the Growing Home is a wonderful resource. You can check their website for class dates, schedule a time to see what is growing, take classes or learn more about the best practices to cultivate and maintain your garden. Learning by doing it is a great place to start. The information is out there, we just have to learn how to ask the right questions.
Someone asked me why would you ever want to grow your own garden and how much can you really produce? Well, I have lots of personal reasons for why I would like to grow my own garden, but my biggest reason was cost. Do you know how expensive herbs cost at the grocery store. I think learning to grow herbs is actually a nice simple way to start. The second reason and main reason I wanted to learn more about gardening is taste. I can remember biting into an heirloom tomato and thinking, “Wow, this does not taste like the same tomato I get at the store.” The added benefit of growing your own produce is that you build a connection with the land, people and your community. There was a reason why cities had community gardens. People could rally to meet and support each other, sort of what a Starbucks is for our generation. In addition to meeting in the garden, you get to work in the garden, which means fresh air, sunshine and exercise. Just think of all the Vitamin D you could be making if you were outside.
My family came from an agrarian society before they came to the United States. Sadly, my mother did not keep up with her families’ farming traditions and she will not be able to past down this knowledge to her children or to her grandchildren. However, if we make the time to learn it now, between the both of us at least we can past down some basic information for future generations. Plus, it gives us more time to spend together besides shopping. People tend to eat what they grow. So if you grow vegetables, you eat more vegetables. As dietetic students we always stress variety in our diets. Eating different fruits and vegetables also trains our pallets so that we are more experienced about what and how certain foods should taste. The way I look at it, gardening is the precursor to cooking and we all know what comes after cooking. Eating is a great opportunity to bond with strangers, so that relationships may blossom into friendships and friendships may turn into extended families. This is the biggest take home message I have learned from dealings in the garden.