Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Thanksgiving and Seed Saving

At the moment I'm baking a gigantic Hubbard Squash that began its live in a paper cup in my garden. I'm more than a little ambivalent about Thanksgiving, given the Native thing, but I admit, I like it because I love to cook, love to feed people, and believe with all my heart that festivals are going to be more, not less important in the future. To fully appreciate the value of a meal like Thanksgiving, with its many dishes, emphasis on the sweet, meaty and rich, you have to imagine yourself as an ordinary person in a pre-industrial world (or an ordinary person in much of the world right now).

You work hard all day. You never, ever get enough to eat. Oh, you get enough to get along, but you would always eat more if you could, and hunger is a constant companion. There is very little sweetness in your life (we eat 20 times the sugar of most pre-industrial peoples), and never enough protein or fat. Your meals are mostly monotonous - you eat cornbread and beans, biscuits and gravy, potatoes and eggs, rice and tofu every single day, for several meals, and only at the peak of the growing season do you eat much fresh food.

So now, imagine yourself celebrating. There are many, many dishes. Many of them are meaty or sweet, and involve special flavors and foods you miss the rest of the year. You are encouraged not only to eat as much as you like, but more, until you feel completely full. Then, instead of returning to your work, you sing, and talk and play with the children, before eating a bit more again.

That's what Thanksgiving (or any other feast day) is supposed to be - not a gorge of salt and sweet and fat on top of our daily gorge of those things. It is also, to me, special because it is one of the rare times when others eat the foods that I eat during the cold weather. The traditional foods of the holiday make sense - they are the foods that can be produced in cold climate New England or the northeast, and are widely available. They are what you produced in the garden all summer and fall, and what you have in your cellar. They are what I eat most of the winter - squash, potatoes, beets, carrots, parnsips, onions, apples, cranberries - and what most of the population only tastes at Thanksgiving time.

If we return to eating seasonally and sustainably, we're all going to eat a whole lot more of those foods - and they are so delicious I can't imagine why anyone would eat butternut squash soup or pumpkin pie or brussels sprouts or creamed onions only at Thanksgiving - but they do. 80% of all the parsnips eaten in the US are eaten in New England, in the months of November and December - despite the fact that parsnips are nutritious, sustainable, reasonably easy to grow, and delicious. They are also at their best in January and February, when comparatively little other food is - but no one eats them but me. Too bad - glazed with maple in march, or with celery root in soup in February, they are wonderful. (Is anyone reading this? Should I post recipes? I will if anyone is interested.)

The production of those foods begins in our gardens. And if we're concerned about the long term future and sustainability, it has to start with the sustainability of our gardens - with seed saving, growing our own fertility, choosing varieties that suit our climate, storage needs and that produce a whole lot of food.

Mostly growing open pollinated vegetables is no big deal - just choose the right varieties (ie,non-hybrids) from a catalog that has plenty, and grow them. Growing out seed is not that hard either, although it takes some practice. I'd strongly recommend reading Suzanne Ashworth's _Seed to Seed_if you are planning on living on food from your saved seed garden, and if you want to expand your knowledge into backyard breeding, definitely read and acquire Carolyn Depp's _Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties_ - which is surprisingly fun to read, btw.

Some plants have issues, of course. In my cold climate (borderline zone 4/5, fairly high up), it has been hard to find an entirely satisfactory sweet pepper that ripens to color in time. Since I'm fond of sun-dried peppers, that's a pain, although I've had some luck with _King of the North_ and _Staddon's Select_ both from Fedco, and _Albino Bullnose_ from Baker Creek. They can't match the hybrids, sadly. But since peppers are not a major crop (major in the sense of lasting through much of the year and providing a lot of basic food value), I take what I can get gratefully. Hot peppers, which *are* a major part of our diet, we do much better with. You can still grow hybrids, as long as you use reasonable care seperating the varieties - you don't have to choose between them right now. But if you are planning on sustainability, they should be a supplement, not a priority.

Sweet corn is always a problem. For those of you in hot climates, apparently there's such a thing as an OP supersweet (pretty amazing) offered by someone in Hawaii through seed saver's exchange (you have to be a member, but you should be anyway - they are noble. www.seedsavers.org). For the rest of us, "Howling Mob" (Shumways) and "Ashworth's" (Fedco) are very nice, although without the sweetness and holding power of the hybrids. But again, sweet corn is a nice touch in our diet (we dry it for succotash, corn chowder and adding to chili), but dry and pop are much more important to a sustainable diet, and there are a number of dent and flour corns that seem to do well here. My favorite, although not a high yielder, is "Northstine Dent"

Corn is a seed saving problem for people with small gardens (which does not include me) or people with field corn down the road (me). We've had pretty good luck saving seed from our early sweets, but the fields have tended to hybridize on at least the outside rows. I gave up altogether this year when our neighbor planted a whole cornfield worth across the road. Remember, you need at least 200 plants and seed from 100 ears to have reasonable genetic diversity.

I still haven't worked out the squash thing to my satisfaction. There are four families of squash, and you can have one of each, if you don't want to hand pollinate. For me, the pepos are the problem - acorns, pumpkins and summer squash are all pepos. I think I'm just going to give up zucchini in favor of pumpkins, but I haven't decided yet. So far I've had pollinated, but I don't want to count on that. The maximas are also a bit sad - they are the best tasting, and I can never decide between them, but I can rotate - butternut this year, pink banana the next. The only mixta I've ever grown that I liked and got to maturity was Tennessee sweet potato.

I'm a huge fan of West India Gherkins, which are not quite cucumbers, but almost indistinguishable. They are wonderful picklers, very crisp and tasty, and allow me to grow both gherkins and a slicer or pickler and have a bit more variety.

Saving seeds from biennials varies from easy to hard. Kale and leeks reliably overwinter here, as do parsnips (important, since you need fresh seed every year). Cabbages do ok packed in the garage over the winter. Potatoes are not a problem most years, but I doubt that with the flooding we had any of our sad little potato crop is going to make it to seed - which is why I keep a supply of potato seed, harvested both from my own and bought from pinetree garden seeds (Gilroy - discontinued after this year, and the only "true from seed" variety I know of, so buy lots for your storage). Potatoes don't come true from seed, but some potatoes are better than none, and you can store seed for some years, but not potatoes. Since they are such a staple crop, definitely store the seed.

Beets do fine for me, and I just keep the parsley in a sunny window, but I have much less luck with brussels sprouts and other brassicas. I just keep trying to winter them over. Sometimes I've had luck persuading them to go to seed the first year by starting them very early. It works well with parsley and kale as well.

Start thinking about next year's festival meals. Even if you can't grow all your own food, you can grow the food for your feasts, and harvest the next year's seed to practice for the day when you may need to, and long for the change from your corn and beans.

A Happy Thanksgiving and a peaceful Day of Mourning to you all.

Shalom,

Sharon

17 comments:

Kimberly said...

Yes, you are being read! And yes, I would love the squash with maple glaze recipe!

I would also like to say hello. I went to high school with you, my maiden name is Kimberly Chipman. I do not normally read blogs but I have found your entries to be very interesting. I am so glad that you are doing well and are happy. Your family sounds wonderful. You deserve it. ~Kim

jewishfarmer said...

Hi Kim! Of course I remember you - how cool to hear from you. I'd love to hear about what's going on with you. And I'll post the squash recipe in my next entry.

Where are you living now. Sounds like you are married? What's happened to you since high school?

Sharon

Selina said...

Interested in Cooking? Need a new recipe for Thanksgiving or an unusual present for Christmas for the cook that has it all? Let me tell you about a cookbook that is older than you and me together, but still has more value that most cookbooks that are out on the marke these days. It is called America Cookery. It is the first cookbook of American authorship to be printed in the United States. Numerous recipes that adapt traditional dishes by substituting native American ingredients such as corn meal and squash are printed here for the first time, including "Indian Slapjack," "Johny Cake," and "Squash Pudding." Simmons's "Pompkin Pudding," baked in a crust, is the basis for the classic American pumpkin pie. It is awesome. I bought it and y family and friends loved and envied the sudden knowledge that I displayed and the tasty treats that I was able to make with this treasure. Thank you to the person who made it available for immediate download. Happy holidays from Selina and family.

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