Archive for April 2009

Why does gardening make us so happy?

April 9, 2009

UK scientists suggest that a type of friendly bacteria found in soil may affect the brain in a similar way to antidepressants. See article here.

000_0495Lead author, Dr Chris Lowry from Bristol University said, “These studies help us understand how the body communicates with the brain and why a healthy immune system is important for maintaining mental health.”

“They also leave us wondering if we shouldn’t all be spending more time playing in the dirt,” he added.


April 5, 2009

A lot of people who live alone talk about the challenge of cooking for one, but I don’t buy it. Sure, there are some dishes that only make sense to prepare in quantity, and some of those aren’t very good left over. But there are also delicious small-quantity meals that can be put together in less time than it takes for  the delivery to arrive. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy sharing a repast—I love to sit at table passing the bread from hand to hand, refilling each other’s wine, lingering over the last morsels of food and conversation. But there is something equally—if very differently—lovely about preparing a meal for oneself with care and enjoying it slowly with the company of a good book, or perhaps a just a view of the darkening sky.

Last week I went to a concert with some friends, which is unusual for me. I first developed the habit of going to performances alone by accident (it’s not always possible to find a companion who shares my latest curiosity), but it’s now become a more conscious practice. I go to the theater, or to the concert hall, for the communal experience, but I like being the master of my own attention in the buzz before the event, whether it’s taking in the stage, eavesdropping on fellow audience members, perusing the program, or just trying to shed the day. And while some terrible evenings can be salvaged by lively post-show analysis, I’ve never had a truly great evening anything but diminished by discussion. 

Recently I began studying with an Important Yoga Teacher. I had resisted this path, partially because seeking out a “star” yoga teacher just seems kind of gross–the worst kind of New Yorkness. Also, the chain near my apartment is cheap and convenient, and while there are some inexperienced or merely adequate teachers cycling through, there are also a couple who are quite wonderful.  In first weeks following the move, I spent a fair amount of time thinking about the quality of instruction—was it sufficiently better to justify more than doubling my monthly yoga cost? The quality of instruction is excellent, but lately I am coming to realize that the quality of the community is equally valuable. I appreciate that I do not swipe my bar code upon entry, just as I appreciate the fact that I do not walk through a retail shop on the way into the studio. I especially appreciate the sense of the sacred space, which is created not so much by the representations of the various deities as by the intention and the intensity of the practitioners.

In Ashtanga yoga, you practice a set sequence to the beat of your own breath. The teacher(s) move about the room, offering adjustments and teaching the next pose in the sequence as individuals are ready. Because each person begins upon entering, there is no opportunity for conversation: I know almost no names, and certainly no personal details, of my fellow yogis, and yet there is something that passes between us as we come together each morning. It is a daily experience of being completely absorbed in one’s own practice, and at the same time being aware of oneself as a member of a community. One of the most important techniques of the Important Yoga Teacher seems to be to simply leave us alone… so we can practice.

Back to the solo supper: There is a story told about Lucullus, one of the canonical great men of Roman history who was also known to be quite the gourmand. The story goes that one of his servants, upon hearing that there would be no guests for dinner, served only one course. Lucullus reprimanded him, saying, “What, did not you know, then, that today Lucullus dines with Lucullus?”

More than three decades into a life that has turned out to be more solitary than not, I understand that there is a difference between being alone and being lonely. More recently I’ve come to see that conversation and connection are two very different things—and in fact, some of the most satisfying communal experiences can involve no exchange of verbal data whatsoever.

Dandelion Pie

April 4, 2009

000_0525I had hoped to be supping on chard by this weekend, but even that hardy perennial is still too meager to make more than a homely garnish. However, the dandelions have begun to sprout here and there, so I had in mind that I would feed myself and accomplish some weed control all at once. But when I tried removing the first couple of plants whole, I got more mud than leaves, and still left the tips of the taproots in the ground. So I gave up any plans of eradication and just took the part I wanted to consume.

In Stalking the Wild Asparagus, master forager Euell Gibbons gives a number of treatments for the dandelion plant, starting with those fierce roots which, when boiled, “furnish a better vegetable than either parsnips or salsify, although it tastes very little like either of them.” These same roots, when carefully roasted, provide what Gibbons considers to be “the finest coffee substitute to be found in the wild.” He also offers a method for dandelion crown salad, a treatment for the embryonic blossoms, advice on cooking the greens, and instructions for dandelion wine which, according to a “drinking uncle,” will bring summer right into the house, even during the worst blizzard in January.

I enjoy reading about these austere and resourceful ways with the plant, but I had something else in mind. To start, I cut a medium-sized potato into half-inch cubes and sliced a small onion thinly. These went into a small pot of cold salted water. As I waited for it to come to a boil, I washed and picked over about a cup (packed) of new dandelion leaves.

Once the potatoes were tender, I drained that mixture and combined with the greens and a handful of last summer’s dried tomatoes. The vegetables went into a pie pan, to be covered with five eggs, which had been beaten with a hill of grated hard cheese and a few grinds of pepper. Then more cheese for the top, and baked until done. Delicious.

While I was out gathering the weeds, a small group had assembled for a burial in the little cemetery across the street. I tried to stay out of their line of sight, partly out of respect for their somber task, and partly because I recognize that my earnest attempts at a hardscrabble countrified foodways are somewhat ridiculous, the conceit of a city girl who has read too many essays extolling the simple life and who has too much time on her hands. Some of my neighbors still cultivate a small vegetable garden, but many feel they get a better value for their scarce time and money in the aisles of Wal-Mart these days. 

Thursday is market day!

April 2, 2009

000_0524The little market in my neighborhood isn’t much, especially this time of year. There are bins of last fall’s apples and potatoes, and today a few potted herbs. But even in deepest winter I can count on my friends at Bobolink Farms for bread and cheese—the most gloriously indulgent breakfast I can imagine, especially when enjoyed at leisure in the company of a good book. Today: cranberry-walnut bread and some extra-ripe Drumm.

And the meat guy always makes me smile, even if I don’t often make a purchase:


Better to plant a single seed than curse the price of groceries

April 1, 2009

They’re in! I ordered this year’s seeds way back in the bleak midwinter and then got busy with other things. Finally, a great big manilla envelope, full of lots of smaller envelopes of hope, has arrived. This is garden #4 for me, and while I’ve learned a few things along the way, I still have a lot of experimenting to do. This year’s selections fall into three categories: tried and true, sounds like a good idea, and what was I thinking? Here’s the inventory, in no particular order:

Marfax Dry Bean

Sugar Daddy Snap Pea

Black Turtle Dry Bean

Early Wonder Beet

Kentucky Wonder Bush Bean


Pak Choi [sic]


Chiogga Beet

Tendersweet Carrot

Butternut Winter Squash

Bennings Green Tint Scallop Summer Squash

Early Prolific Straightneck Summer Squash

Blacktail Mountain Watermelon

Ebony Acorn Winter Squash

Total, including shipping: $24.72

Sweeter than roses? You bet!

April 1, 2009

In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan writes:000_05232

Sweetness is a desire that starts on the tongue with the sense of taste, but it doesn’t end there. Or at least it didn’t end there, back when the experience of sweetness was so special that the word served as a metaphor for a certain kind of perfection. When writers like Jonathan Swift and Matthew Arnold used the expression “sweetness and light” to name their highest ideal (Swift called them “the two noblest of things”; Arnold, the ultimate aim of civilization), they were drawing on a sense of the word sweetness going back to classical times, a sense that has largely been lost to us. The best land was said to be sweet; so were the most pleasing sounds, the most persuasive talk, the loveliest views, the most refined people, and the choicest part of any whole, as when Shakespeare calls spring the “sweet o’ the year.” Lent by the tongue to all the other sense organs, “sweet,” in the somewhat archaic definition of the Oxford English Dictionary, is that which “affords enjoyment or gratifies desire.” Like a shimmering equal sign, the word sweetness denoted a reality commensurate with human desire; it stood for fulfillment.

By that definition, then, it would appear the term “sweet potato” is redundant.