Thursday, September 6, 2012
Chef John Foster: Gardening attempts fell short this season, but there’s always next year
I am a failure……. No, that is a little strong, I’m not a failure, I have just failed again to do something I have pledged to do for years now, and it always seems to elude me.
As August slips into September and I start to receive jars of salsa and pickles, chow chow and tomatoes, it reminds of my own promise to have a garden. I see it every weekend when I roam the market. I write about local food all the time. Yet I just can’t bring myself to follow through.
Each winter and early spring, I scheme about where to place this Eden and what I shall plant first. I look at charts, consult the almanac, buy the seeds and wait. And wait and wait and wait. The grounds too muddy, the grounds too hard, the tomatoes plants were purchased last week and spent a lonely life and death in my garage. The bag of seeds for “Mideast Prolific Cucumbers” is found tucked underneath mail, unopened from April. While it’s true I have an abundance of oregano, sage and mint planted when we first arrived ten years ago, that can be considered by nearly all but my close friends as cheating.
First, herbs grow themselves; you have to almost plot murder if you don’t want them to survive. Secondly they keep coming back, stronger and more full the less you care for them. The oregano has been trimmed back hard four times since May and will grow well into a Kentucky winter before it finally rests.
Mint as you know is merely a weed all dressed up for a cocktail party, and should know enough to leave after the first Saturday in May. But it now has my back wall in a vise grip of tangled mayhem and begs to be used for anything. The sage I admit is a welcome addition to the front garden both as a frame work for the walk and as an aromatic when the rain manages to fall. But as I said, herbs, even the basil that my wife seems to have a gold thumb with will always be there.
I did manage to finally raise a tomato plant to fruit. That it was a giveaway, without pedigree and perched dangerously close to death in the back of my garage makes a better story. I nursed it back to life (no I didn’t, it grew in spite of the fact that even out front I forgot to water). I praised it daily as I know plants love to be crooned at (even this is patently false, I only noticed it after weeks of neglect when I saw the fruit set). And I sustained it through the bitterly dry, hot months of middle summer (true in part as tomatoes like dry hot weather and once I saw food I watered it.)
Now I reap the benefits of my hard labor; beautiful golden cherry plum tomatoes, thick shelled with lots of meat and a pocket of sweet juice that pops when you bite them. Fresh pasta tossed with crushed tomatoes, fresh basil and green onion from the backyard. Tomatoes with pita and mayo, tomatoes with fresh mozzarella, olives and olive oil on crusty bread, the sweet and the tart, the salty and rich. The best part I found out; they keep coming, so I have a few when I walk through the front door, even more when I take the dog for a walk. And still there is more!!
Will I be like my friends and can and hand them out…..nope, not enough this year. But I am heartened by the small success I have and humbled by the bounty that local farmers, pros and Joes have been able to reap in this season of sizzle. I guess as I grow older I will have to have a hobby. I like to be outside, like to play in the dirt, and definitely like to eat local. Plus I have a certain love hate relationship with gardening. Both my Mom and Dad were masters of the mulch; it was their refuge from work and family. I spent long hours as a kid, weeding or avoiding weeding, but not missing a meal of sweet corn and tomatoes, asparagus in the spring and apples in the fall.
My reverence for what nature and a good grower can spin is immense. What seems so effortless at the market I know is so hard to duplicate. So I will plant two tomato plants out front next year, maybe get those cukes in the ground before August, and maybe, with some nudging, get some pole beans in…maybe some corn…squash…get a bigger front yard…
John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Chef Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been an executive chef, including at the popular Dudley’s Restaurant, and a restaurant owner.