Archive for Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The intricate art of subsistence gardening

October 26, 2005


We stopped at a roadside farm stand the other day to buy a couple of bales of fresh straw, and the vendor also was selling a nice assortment of pumpkins, gourds, apples, turnips, onions, sweet potatoes and winter squash. I felt like I was taking a step backward in time.

Right there under one roof was an accurate representation of what counts as fresh, seasonal and locally grown produce this time of year. But you won't see a grocery cart in the supermarket filled with this array of fruits and vegetables.

When I became seriously interested in vegetable gardening about 15 years ago, I began to understand how challenging it must have for our forbears to live off the land. Subsistence gardening was still a fact of life for many Americans before World War II, and it required intricate planning. Crops that would keep through the fall and into the winter in a root cellar had to be part of the spring planting.

While produce stored in the root cellar might have been supplemented by summer vegetables that had been home-canned, children did not have the luxury of turning up their noses at turnips and squash. The dinner menu was much more closely aligned with basic survival than culinary pleasure.

The inventory I saw at the roadside stand was probably pretty close to what a truck farmer would have been selling a hundred years ago, when my grandparents were children. In contrast, the American diet today, which is dominated by prepared foods, bears little resemblance to what they ate growing up. I would be curious to know what percentage of Americans under the age of 18 have ever been served turnips and how many could pass a name-that-squash test.

Somehow we have come to prefer produce grown out of season and picked before its prime. Oddly, this time of year we are more likely to buy a mealy tomato from a hothouse in Texas than a local butternut squash.

When I left the roadside stand, I took home a couple of winter squash. The easiest way to persuade children and squash-averse adults that these strange vegetables are OK to eat is with a serving of acorn squash. I know this strategy worked with me when I was a child, although the way my mother fixed it then is too sugary for my tastes today.

Acorn squash is easy to clean and simple to bake. While your oven is preheating to 350 degrees, simply cut the squash in half, remove the seeds and fibers, and trim the ends so they have a flat surface about the size of a half-dollar. Take care not to cut too deeply into the meat of the squash, however.

Place the squash face down on a greased baking sheet and bake for about 30 minutes. Remove the squash from the oven, flip them right-side up and dot the insides and orange edges with butter. If you like, sprinkle a half to a full teaspoon of brown sugar over the squash cavity. Return the squash to the oven and bake for an additional 5 minutes.

While I loved the brown sugar when I was a child, it is way too sweet for me as an adult. It's not quite as extreme as the marshmallow-topped sweet potato casserole that has graced generations of Thanksgiving tables, but it's in the same genre of dishes designed to trick children into trying a strange vegetable.

Now that I have a set of aging taste buds that don't like to take their sugar straight, I can taste the sweetness of the buttered squash itself and am more likely to sprinkle it with salt to balance the flavor.


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