A dinner party last night at which I was a guest proved to be a very lively affair indeed. Our host has an indisputable and long standing passion for gardening; it was her idea to invite a few others of like persuasion for the evening. Though her living room is spacious and elegantly proportioned, she sequestered the eight of us in the library for champagne and amuse bouche. This intimately sized room, enclosed by panelled walls lacquered tomato red, is furnished with art, books, and comfortable seating arranged to place us directly in the huddle, as her husband Arnold would say. It was not long before before the conversation got to simmering. Two gardening families represented are avid vegetable gardeners. Though I have no interest in growing food unless for ornamental reasons, I am very interested in the culture and community that revolves around growing, cooking, and sharing food. As my garden gets better in direct relationship to how well I listen, I listened. This discussion began, naturally, with the seeds.
One gardener is quietly and amiably obsessed, among other things, with the history of vegetable cultivars. He comes from a family who owned a working farm. That farm today is a historic site, owned, maintained by, and a resource available to, the surrounding community. He searches for seed of old and rarely grown varieties all over the world. A local grower takes these seeds, and produces small starts ready for planting out the minute the danger of frost has passed. He grows hundred of varieties of tomatoes alone-to astonishing size. His garden is sited under the high shade of mature oak trees, yet his vegetables prosper and fruit for him. I would not have thought this possible, but I have seen it. Though he is a business person with great responsibility, he draws intense satisfaction from growing his own food. In concert with his wife, who is equally passionate about design, they have created a landscape all of a piece, integrated on two neighborhood lots. Every decision was made with both their focused and thoughtful attention to materials, shapes, plants, and spaces. It is a world specific to their sensibilities.
To their right sat a gardener of equal skill and passion whose Italian heritage figures strongly in how she thinks, grows, cooks, and entertains. Her grandfather’s grape vines brought from his garden south of Rome thrive in her working garden. Infused with the history of a family life that regularly sat 25 to dinner-an affair that might last four hours or better, she expertly germinates the seed, plants and cares for her crop-all of which provides the raw materials for her cuisine. She takes on the work of producing fruits and vegetables for her own cooking in the belief that anything of any importance revolves around the exchange generated from family and friends sharing the dinner table. This is sowing seed of a different sort; insuring the preservation of values she grew up with by passing them on. Though her husband is unlikely to ever take up a gardening spade, he respects her committment, and shares her enthusiasm for good food, wine, and intelligent discourse. He is as self effacing as he is formidably talented; Buck and I and all others we have not met are lucky to know him. Though she is completely engaging, her ideas about how to grow come from long experimentation and experience; she is sure in her methodology. She has definite ideas about what constitutes good culture, good food and straight thinking; I admire this in her. He and I both sat out the discussion of how best to get one’s brussel sprouts to head properly, and how to get an artichoke to fruit despite its need for a very long growing season-as we are best with fork in hand, with appropriate appreciation to follow.
As some of us cook, and all of us eat, we all were able to discuss the regretfully brief season for baby Rome artichokes, the makeup of soil best condusive to successful root crops, the visual merits of various support structures for indeterminate tomatoes, and so on. Lest you think this idle talk, I would suggest that enough food, and good food is serious business. If you have never eaten a home-grown potato, you’ve never eaten a potato, period. Good sandy soil prep insures one’s roasted beets get ranked in the top ten of culinary experiences.From Lauren and Tom, I understand that the restored property at Monticello are as much about the history of the ingenuity of American farming as they are about the history of the Presidency, judging from last night’s exchange of views. The upshot of the library discussion-gardens are germane to life.
Dinner for eight was served in the breakfast room; an alternate top for the table made ample room for the lot of us. The first course- soup au Pistou. This Provencal favorite is made with summer vegetables and vermicelli. The pistou, or paste of garlic, fresh basil and olive oil, was served cold, and on the side, in the traditional manner. A dollop of pistou in the soup, followed by a generous dusting of grated fresh parmesan cheese-we ate. If you are skeptical that I would have any knowledge of such soup, you are entirely correct. I learned about the origin, history and preparation of this meal at the table. The soup course was followed by a steaming platter of baked beef bones. My understanding is that the recipe came originally from Michael Fields; his intent was to provide a meal from the bones and meat fragments left over from the beef roast that had been served on some previous occasion. We all dispensed with our knives and forks; there was no other way to eat them. As I was quickly and completely absorbed in the task at hand, I was not paying much attention to the discussion of the process. Bones, vinegar, and crumbs of some sort in rich concert, baked in an oven with slow, consistent and even heat-to a delicious end. The tart pink grapefruit sections which followed prepared us for a light lemon souffle, dressed with fresh strawberries.
At a certain point the conversation shifted away from providing good conditions for growing, harvesting and cooking, to garden making of a metaphorical sort. Under what conditions will our greater plot be healthy, and grow? How will we survive our stormy weather? What is important to plant? To whom do we entrust the vital work of maintaining and protecting the landscape? Informed and educated exchange from diverse backgrounds like this, properly composted, grows plenty of good food for thought. We are members of a group-Janet, Arnold, Lauren, Eddie, Buck, Tom, Jane and I-and we represented in a spirited way last night. The most important seed sown at dinner to my mind? Tom, quoting Frank Morgan, the Chaplain of the US Senate in 1947. “Give us the clear vision that we may know where to stand, and what to stand for, because unless we stand for something, we shall fall for anything.”. I held my breath, hearing this. Waking up in the middle of the night, I knew instantly-this is a seed well worth growing on.