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Eating My Way
Spring equinox: A day of turning over the earthchurning up dark garden soil buried beneath the winter's leaf litterto replenish it with sunlight. A day of humus-stained hands and hopeful hearts. Laurie and I passed the daylight hours weeding, tilling, watering, and planting. We worked to make a fertile place for vegetables, herbs, and beans in all the unsown garden beds around our desert home.
I took a pick known as a Pulaski and loosened the dry, compacted alkaline soil. Laurie, a few feet away from me, wisps of blond hair streaming into her face, turned it over shovelful by shovelful. I sifted the decomposed matter rescued from our compost pit of food scraps and clippings until I had separated out the smaller grained particles, returning the larger chunks to the pit. We folded in leaf litter and organic soil gleaned from beneath mesquite trees and poured this mixture into the beds, establishing a new blend of local earth.
Down on the soiled knees of our jeans, we planted one heirloom seed stock after another, watering them, covering them with netting, and then placing larger meshed frames over them to deter the birds. I mouthed the names of the seeds as we buried them snugly in their beds: Mesilla Valley pasilla chiles, O'odham pinto tepary bean (a dry legume that has been cultivated in the desert for centuries), Mrs. Burns' lemon basil, Zuni tomatillos. It was a canticle of desert seeds, sung into darkness in hope that they would rise again into light. Once one bed was done, we moved to thenext, then the next. Between beds, we would drink from our canteens, and Laurie would tuck her long blond hair back under the brim of her felt cowboy hat. She hummed to herself, nodding occasionally, while I blathered on about the history of each of the seeds.
Even when we ducked inside the house for a moment to get a drink or to bring out more seeds, we were never far from the musky fragrance of soil bathed in warm sunlight.
This day of toil marked the first phase of a fifteen-month ritual, one involving my sweetheart Laurie as well as many of my kin and old friends. The ritual extended beyond the planting of vegetables in our backyard; it included the tending of a small orchard and some terraces of agaves and prickly pears in front; the gathering of desert greens, yucca blossoms, and cactus buds and fruit in the wildlands beyond our fence; the hunting of game birds and the capture of other creatures out where the desert wilderness seems boundless. We searched for other food producers hidden in our own neighborhood, discovering those who locally grow vegetables, dress game, or can fruit that complements our own.
The ritual then moved indoors to the drying rack, chopping block, the hand-cranked grinder, the stove, and the dinner table. It had no single name. It might be termed "a communion of neighbors." It might be thought of as a "return to the old ways" of subsisting on native resources at a time when globalization is all the rage. My friend Jack Kloppenberg called it "coming into the foodshed." In some kind of shorthand to myself, I've decided to call it "coming home to eat." I've lost my interest in those "movable feasts" or "global smorgasbords" that have been the most pervasive secular rites celebrated by humankind since the Industrial Revolution began.
Let me try to be more precise about what this ritual entails, for precision is not my inclination.
I have initiated an extended communion with my plant and animal neighbors, the native flora and fauna found within 250 miles of my home.
I have chosen to eat with them, as well as eat them. I've decided to join them in what Italo Calvino calls "the ecstasy of swallowing each other in turn, as we were aware, in our turn, of being swallowed." Calvino suggests that we must swallow our pride and "erase the lines between our bodies and sopa de frijoles, huachinango a la Veracruzana, and enchiladas...." For the moment I pick up a clod of clay, roll it into a marble-size ball, and tuck it into my cheek. Let me stick to this earth a while longer....
As the end of this first day arrived, I was still many turns away from seeing this modest proposal bear fruit. But blisters had blossomed on my palms, and my fingernails had filled with grains of granitic grit. At last I felt that I had tangibly begun something in earnest, although Laurie kept pressing me to articulate just what this something might be.
"You know we can't begin to eat out of that garden tomorrow, don't you?"
"I know ... but we do have all that stuff in the pantry that we stashed away last season. It'll tide us over until this grows up," I replied, trying to exude optimism while remaining humbled by what little lay before us. "I guess this is just our warm-up exercise."
I glanced at the garden. There were a few rows of multiplier onions that had resprouted earlier in the winter, a few transplanted chilies, and quite a number of recently planted but empty-looking rows in the vegetable beds. The seeds that we had buried there might not germinate for another week or two.
I had to keep telling myself that this would be an extended ritual, like some marathon run, one that lumbers slowly forward at first, replete with aches and pains and even a bit of queasiness, until it gains momentum.
Still, this ritual is simple in its intent: to make me a direct participant, as fully and as frequently as possible, in the making of the bread and wine that sustain not only my life but the lives surrounding me as well. At last I want fully to bear the brunt of what my own eating of the living world entails. I want to escape the trap that I, like most Americans, have fallen into the last four decades: obtaining nine-tenths of our food from nonlocal sources, with shippers, processors, packagers, retailers, and advertisers gaining three times more income from each dollar of food purchased than do farmers, fishermen, and ranchers. I want to reduce the distance that my food travels before it reaches my mouth and my mind, so that I can reduce the ignorance my friend Jim Harrison describes with such devastating simplicity: "The majority of our population that eats beef, pork, and chicken has never known an actual cow, pig, or hen."
However straightforward my intentions have been, the road back home has been chock-full of holes, and marred by curves, bumps, and sudden diversions. It has taken me more than a year to get to this point of beginning in earnest. What I had hoped this ritual might do, as most rituals eventually do, was move me beyond abstract intention into the unanticipated peculiarities of practice. Each day's bread, each season's batch of wine, might rise and take shape in its own weird way. The folks that I make and break bread with are surely part of the communion as well; every mouthful I take will be flavored by their presence.
Bread and wine. Whenever I have extended the offerings beyond bread and wine, to include the other forms of nourishment found in the larder, Laurie reminds me that killing fish and quail is much more gruesome than reaping grains and harvesting grapes. However local my endeavor has become, Laurie remains unconvinced that all my food getting will necessarily be noble. Laurie has found herself among my family members, friends, and neighbors who have been maintaining a healthy skepticism about my current project. They ask me over and over again to explain "the rules."
The rules. Although they never come out and say it, my friends have been convinced that I will force them to join me in suffering through some horrendously restrictive diet. Each of us, they have hinted, will surely lose dozens of pounds if only because the desert offers so few foods each season. Alternatively they have worried that I am about to make them "human subjects," testing some new harebrained theory of nutritional ecology I have conjured up.
Worse yet, they have all heard about the time I offered aflatoxinlaced mesquite pods in pudding form to my children at Thanksgiving. Fortunately Laura and Dusty declined to sample the pudding, leaving me the only victim. My digestive tract did not recover for another couple of weeks; meanwhile my near-fatal pudding recipe was sent off to be published in Organic Gardening. (Once it was in print, I regretted that I had not reminded others to avoid moldy mesquite.) My daughter, Laura, recently admitted to me that even when she was a little girl, she was already suspicious of my cooking, aware that whenever she sat down at the table, she was literally being asked to be party to a half-baked experiment.
Rules? I clear my throat and try to state my position. "I have no rules," I assert, "other than Thoreau's advice to 'live each season as it passes, breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.'" Unfortunately all my listeners hear is "resign yourself." This comment immediately brings out all their worst fears: I will be asking them to join me in eating any plant or animal, living or dead, that comes within my grasp.
"Will we have to eat turkey vulture if you find one rotting on the roadside? Will you remove all the cactus spines from the prickly pear fruit before you put it into the salad? Do we have to eat that wild chili pepper ice cream you invented?"
I try to say something reassuring, but it all sounds so defensive. The trouble is, I don't have any hard-and-fast rules, only a few tentative hypotheses about what "eating locally" and "coming into the food shed" might ultimately mean. I may change my mind about some of the provisional guidelines over the coming year, or change them several times. This is no diet, and it has no defined zones, other than a 250-mile loop around my home that I drew this morning on an old Arizona Highways map.
I must also explain that I am not "doing food therapy," as if I have joined a support group where we gather weekly to admit how long we have been addicted to buying junk foods from the global marketplace. That addiction is real, even though the psychosis of believing that hauled-in surrogates can fill in for what is homegrown has not attracted the attention of many therapists. But I don't need their outside help; I must simply try to stumble homeward, setting my hunger on what has nurtured me longest.
At first I was inclined to give most of my culinary attention to native vegetables and heirloom turkeysthat is, seeds and breeds that had adapted to the blistering heat, the pathetic-looking, alkaline earth, and the scant, brackish waters of our desert homeland. But the decision I made was not without its detractors, most of whom were my freeze-dried-Stroganoff-eating, instant-cappuccino-drinking, wilderness-backpacking buddies. They questioned me relentlessly, wondering how any home garden in the desert could ever be economical and ecologically benign, given that water was so scarce and costly here.
That point was true: Most of the vegetable crops I was sowing required irrigation with two to three times the amount of water that naturally fell here as rain, which was a meager twelve inches a year. The water that flowed out of my backyard hose into my beds was fossil groundwater pumped to my house with fossil fuel, so that even my most locally grown food drew on water and energy supplies from a distant placethe Pleistocene. In other words they were lain down in the earth tens of thousands of years ago when mammoths and mastodons still romped around these parts. Still, I asked these skeptics, what was the lesser evil: growing my own or having Cargill, ConAgra, and SYSCO bring me foods from thousands of miles away, grown and transported in ways that require even more energy and water than what I could locally squander?
Fortunately for me and other Arizonans, three of our neighbors in Tucson painstakingly answered that question more than fifteen years ago, when they measured all costs and returns from their two home gardens for three years running. While doing so, Tom Orum, David Cleveland, and Nancy Ferguson undoubtedly spent more time weighing and counting vegetables than most of us will do in our entire lifetimes.
Although Tom, Dave, and Nancy liberally irrigated their desert gardens, the market value of the vegetables they produced was more than ten times what they paid for tap water, and three times their total costs for water, manure, tools, and seeds. Even though water was their largest single gardening expense, they reaped between $7 and $9 worth of vegetables for every dollar they spent on water. Devoting just two to three hours a week to sowing, manuring, watering, weeding, and harvesting, they produced $150 to $180 worth of vegetables each year, harvesting a broad mix of greens, beans, beets, fruits, or shoots no matter what the season.
I had shared some community garden plots with Tom, Nancy, and other friends a few years before, so I knew that they were religious gardeners, devoted to their daily practice of getting dirt under their fingernails and fresh greens in their mouths. However, their diligence in keeping up garden accounting day after day for a full three years was altogether flabbergasting. To my relief, in the final year, as Tom placed some newly harvested squashes on the scale, I finally heard Nancy admit just how strenuous the whole ordeal had become. Not gardening itself, mind you, but the accounting that went along with it: the weighing of all the produce, the measuring of manure piles and water use, the jotting down of seasonal market prices for vegetables.
In the end my friends had proved that even in the desert, where water was ecologically and energetically costly, home gardening consumed far fewer resources than did the production of trucked-in food. Large-scale production is typically far more wasteful of water and energy in the field, in the warehouse, in transport, and in the supermarket. Somehow the return on the water, time, and energy invested in gardening is always recouped. The toil involved in tilling the soil and handpicking the harvest is infinitely more satisfying than fighting the mobs in the grocery store for periodically misted, ethylene-gassed fruits and vegetables transported from fields and orchards a thousand miles away from our dinner tables. Nancy and Tom have retired from weighing all their veggies every day, but they have not grown tired of gardening.
A little less ambitious than my buddies Tom and Nancy, I currently hoped to wrest four out of every five of my meals from locally grown foodstuffs. Unlike them, I refused to count calories, kilowatts, or acre-feet. Instead, I decided to count species. I hoped that nine out of every ten kinds of plants and animals I would eat over the coming months would be from species that were native to this region when the first desert cultures settled in to farm here several thousand years ago.
Mind you, that was a hope, not a rule. I would prefer to feel the tension between lofty goals and realistic choices than to never hope at all, even if I risk being called a hypocrite for failing to accomplish those goals.
It was at this point in my elaboration that most of my friends sensed that there still might be some rough edges to my modest proposal.
"What kinds of crops are you willing to eat?" they asked.
"Oh, you know: chilies, squashes, tomatillos, beans, prickly pears, century plants, and amaranths, ones that have close relatives growing wild around here."
"You didn't mention corn."
"Well, it's just a seminative. I mean, the closest patch of its wild ancestor, teosinte, is more than five hundred miles south of here. Besides, I think I can do without Frito-Lay's chips made from genetically modified corn for a while."
"And how about animals? Which are kosher for you?"
The term kosher had currency for me even though I have Arabic rather than Jewish roots; I had recently been reading the Old Testament to try to understand the logic of its food taboos.
"Well" I mused, "no factory chickens, no pond-grown trout or salmon, no feedlot anything. But I'm all for free-range turkeys, and quail and doves. Fish and shellfish from the Gulf of California, wild 'pork' from jabalina, maybe a few caterpillars and grasshoppers ..." I tried to recall the ancient list of clean and unclean beasts writ in Leviticus, and realized that it sounded as though I had gotten the two mixed up. I began to falter: "Maybe some fat lizards, and a snake or two ..."
Whenever any of my friends or neighbors listened to any of this, their discomfort became more and more obvious; sooner or later they shuddered with disgust and walked away. They had already concluded that they would be exposed to cactus spines, jimsonweed poisons, as well as all sorts of plant mucus and root microbes over the coming months of sitting down at my table, whether they ate anything or not. Although not a vegetarian, Laurie had seen far too much muscle, blood, and bone over her twenty years of nursing to look forward to any home-butchering events. She had begun to imagine with horror the various animal innards that would be sticking to the cutting board, and had tried to remind me why Yahweh set up a series of food taboos for Moses and Aaron.
I finally had to give up trying to rid Laurie and the others of their fears; some of their anxieties were no doubt justified. They had already seen Calvin Schwabe's Unmentionable Cuisine and Richard Sterling's Dining with Headhunters among my cookbooks piled up next to the stove. Before the year was out they would indeed find an errant cactus spine in their prickly pear punch, or a little rattlesnake meat in a fritter. If life itself is inherently dangerous, then surely eating to stay alive must involve some risks.
Now that I had scared off a few more potential dinner guests, I decided to retreat once more into the garden. To rake, to hoe. I toiled long enough and hard enough to work up a modest lather. As a Spamcolored sunset blanketed the western sky, the sweat on my back chilled. I paused for a moment to catch the light's decline, to let my own heartbeat slow. I was heading toward the back door to go inside but suddenly changed directions. Without much forethought I wandered out the back gate and planted summer squash seeds in the satellite dish perched just outside my garden wall.
I had never used it for what most people use satellite dishes for anyway. There had been a hookup and a standpipe for one long before I moved into this burnt-adobe home in a desert valley west of Tucson, Arizona. The winter solstice of 2000, I had a friend help me make the dish into the roof for what I call the Minstrel Hut. The hut is where I sit as I write to tell you of my plantings.
Back to the dish. The dish is perched eight feet off the ground on a metal ring welded to four uptight metal poles that are anchored in a concrete slab. The dish is painted pale green, and its mouth opens wide to the dry desert sky. Beneath its rim it is surrounded by a circular wall of living ocotillo branches.
Do you know ocotillo? Ocotillos are multistemmed desert plants that look like bunches of gangly TV antennas sticking out of the alkaline earth. They are most commonly found on limestone but also frequent the granitic slopes of the Sierritas, which rise above my home. Their awkwardly long branches, barren as rebar much of the year, miraculously sprout tiny leaves after the most meager of desert thunderstorms.
You can prune the straightest branches off the mother plant of an ocotillo, stick them in desert soil, and bind them together as a living fence or as a permeable wall. If you are lucky they will forget that they've been cut off from their mothers, and they will sprout new roots and grow new branchlets. Since the very first time I saw them used in Mexican fence construction, I had always dreamed of making a house with living walls. If I planted summer squash seeds in their midst, I figured that the ocotillo branches would serve as a living trellis for the vines, which could further buffer me from the desert sun during the heat of July and August.
I had gone out into the garden at the end of the day to plant a few squash seeds at the base of the newly rooted ocotillo walls. And yet I was tired enough that I hesitated for a moment before planting. Another possibility emerged from that momentary mental vacuum. I could also plant squash seeds above the reach of the ocotillo branches, in the satellite dish that was then yawning at a gaudy desert sunset. As the last daylight faded all around me, I tossed shovelfuls of peat, sand, and compost into the dish and watered them thoroughly, for the next morning I would plant a dozen squash seeds in the moistened soil within the rim.
Over the next fifteen months I would have a chance to sit in the Minstrel Hut knowing that squash seedlings had not only germinated just above my head, they had sent roots down into the soil within the dish. Their vines would cascade down from elevated heights like Rapunzel's hair as she let it down from the tower.
I remembered that old adage for peacemakers: "swords into plowshares." Perhaps I could offer an amendment for today's place makers: satellite dishes into squash planters. We could let the local seeds grow where we had once placed our hope for "keeping in touch with the outside world."
Excerpted from Coming Home to Eat by Gary Paul Nabhan. Copyright © 2002 by Gary Paul Nabhan. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.