Friday, October 8, 2010

Harvest time

I've been a dedicated organic gardener for thirty-five years, a lover of fresh food forever, and an admirer of Thomas Jefferson all my life.  In recent years, like all Jefferson fans, I've worried and puzzled over the contradictions and the cowardice, the secrets and the silences and the sheer stubborn self-indulgence of the man.  More, much more about that later.

But for now, I want to start my musings in this blog with the question that's inspired my own gardens and dinners, more times than I can count:  What would Jefferson eat?

We're deep into harvest time here in New Mexico.   The tomatoes peaked a month ago, the green beans and peaches are long gone, and the air is filled with the savory tang of chile roasting, in market parking lots all over town.  We've roasted and eaten concoctions of four different capsicums from our garden, in combinations of red and green:  sweet bell peppers, poblanos, pimentos, and serranos.  We've put them together with other things, roasted and sautéed and raw:  tomatoes, onions, garlic, eggplant, tomatillos, made enchiladas and stews.  Soon we'll be turning to the root vegetables of winter, and the things we've put by.

But the zinnias, some of them taller than me, are rioting still.  There's still time to savor the last sublime bounty of the garden, and luxuriate in the blessings of the exotic, as Jefferson surely did and would.  He grew all manner of lettuces and bitter greens, because he loved salad.  He exchanged seeds with everybody, and brought back from Europe slips and seeds and plants to try at Monticello.  Some worked, some failed spectacularly.  I had worse luck than he did when I brought back some seeds for gorgeous escaroles I'd tasted in Bologna, creamy whites and pale greens frilled and veined with pinks and purples.  They grew spectacularly, but were so bitter that we dug them up ten minutes after we took our first taste.

When Jefferson returned from France, he asked his Paris majordomo, Adrien Petit, to come to America.  He gave Petit orders for things he'd learned he couldn't live without, things like "parmesan cheese, raisins, almonds, mustard, vinaigre d'Estragon, other good vinegar, oil and anchovies."  Much later, when the juggernaut of financial ruin was bearing down on him, he still sent to Europe for olive or "benne" (sesame) oil to dress the salads he adored.  When gastronomy and economy collided, gastronomy generally won the day.

And so today, I think we'll answer our question by going out to the garden, where years ago, a lone arugula plant went native, and has since given us two seasons of salads, every year.  I don't use much tarragon, but one stolid stem has survived in the herb garden, and I think I'll try it in the vinaigrette.  Like Jefferson, I am a persnickety consumer of imported olive oil, mostly from Spain.  Parmesan cheese definitely.  But what do you think:  raisins and almonds?  Or anchovies?

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