Foodie Diaries: palette on a plate

Vincent Van Gogh, "Marguerite Gachet in the Garden," Oil on Canvas. Auvers-sur-Oise: June, 1890. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

Art Scatter regulars will remember essayist Trisha Pancio Mead’s recent struggle with the concept of kale. Her gardening roots run deeper yet: thanks in a roundabout way to Barbara Walters and Keanu Reeves, she’s a budding artist of the side yard plot. Read on to see how the plot thickens – and savor the garden-fresh recipes at the end.

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By Trisha Pancio Mead

The pea shoots are up in my garden. The collards and rainbow chard and arugula seedlings are finally gaining the upper hand against the hordes of slugs that have been decimating them this particularly wet spring. The watermelon radishes are popping out little heart shaped leaves and the “cosmic purple” carrots are sitting patiently in their packets for the next sunny day.

Our garden plan this spring is a painter’s palette of unusual hues, heirloom textures and pickle-able curiosities. Golden beets. Red and white speckled cranberry beans. Giant picturesque turban squash. It’s an artist’s garden and a foodie garden, focused on the rare, the expensive, the edible and the beautiful.

I couldn’t be more delighted by it. I find myself out there every morning and every evening, tucking a few more eggshells around some vulnerable seedlings, checking the progress of the dill sprouts, and dreaming of the day, someday soon, when I can pass breezily by the produce section on my weekly grocery trip, rolling my eyeballs at the “local, sustainable” sticker on the tomatoes and announcing to anyone in ear shot that everything in my garden salad will be sourced from my OWN BACKYARD.

It wasn’t always this way.

I have typically had a life too packed with performances and play dates and unrelenting long hours to do much but pass apologetically by the few tortured houseplants given to us by well-meaning friends and family.

I would like to say that my journey to become a joyous (if slightly precious) Portlandia-style urban gardener was launched by an epiphany about supporting local food systems and lowering the carbon footprint of my food sources.

But it would be a lie.

It started as a cocktail conversation excuse.

When I was in college, I had a friend whose doctor dad treated celebrity clients. As a kid, she recalled, it was pretty normal for Barbara Walters or Keanu Reeves to drop by for drinks and it was her duty to make small talk. It was one of her chores. Like taking out the trash. Or doing the dishes. Some 13 year olds would have been ecstatic, chattering happily about a recent movie or asking for autographs. My friend couldn’t stand to be seen as an airhead celebrity chaser and was too shy to talk to anyone without a carefully plotted conversational strategy. So she developed a secret weapon.

“Do you garden?” she would ask. And inevitably, whether they waxed philosophic about the pleasures of peonies or launched into the litany of plants lost to neglect and bad behavior, a pretty interesting conversation would ensue.

Claude Monet, "The Artist's Garden at Vétheuil," oil, 1880. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.As a closet introvert myself, I found this tactic incredibly useful. It helped me navigate my own first meetings with celebrity types and has proved equally successful with grandmothers and board members and bar acquaintances. One day, I asked that question of a filmmaker’s girlfriend who had showed up at my house for a party. I was secretly hoping to steer the conversation away from the creepy vibe I was getting from her boyfriend.

As it turned out, she was a pioneer in what has become the “urban gardening” movement. She share-cropped a dozen tiny side yards and easements in inner SE Portland, selling her hyper-local, hyper organic produce to restaurants like Genie’s and Murata and sharing the rest in the form of “rent baskets” to the various friends and neighbors who had loaned out their yards to her endeavors.

She had been eyeing our idle side lot greedily.

So we struck a bargain. She got a half-lot of rich Willamette river “farmland” in full sun and we got something really cool to talk about whenever we had people over for dinner. For two years she introduced us to mizuna and celtuce and lemon cucumbers and we introduced her to writers and enthusiasts interested in new models of “living off the land.”

Then her relationship went south, geographically and metaphorically. She had an “apocalyptic” vision that told her to move to Southern Oregon to avoid an unspecific catastrophe fated to befall Portland. These sorts of visions are moderately common in the bohemian circles we run in. She was having a rough year. So we wished her well and said goodbye.

Now we were left with a side yard rapidly turning to dinosaur-sized weeds and a landlord who started making ominous noises about “re-sodding costs.”

How hard could it be? She had already done all the work of preparing a site and amending the soil. There was even a beautiful bed of perennial herbs still thriving… so we scared up some garden tools, spent a ludicrous amount of money on vegetable starts and decided to make a go of it. After 15 years of faking it at cocktail parties, I looked forward to proudly showing off my newly discovered green thumb.

We planted peas, carrots, potatoes, corn. It was a pot pie garden, an Irish share-cropper garden. The cucumbers failed (who knew you couldn’t plant them next to sage?) The tomatoes went crazy (but what do you do with 70 lbs of tomatoes that all ripened the same week?!?) The peas got hopelessly tangled with the corn. When it was all said and done, it ended up costing about double what we could have paid in the store with no noticeable improvement in flavor. The weeds got horrifying and the work got repetitive. We got discouraged. It felt pedestrian. Something was missing.

This year I had a revelation: We should stop focusing on the practical and instead create a garden just as weird and wonderful as our lives. What if we selected only plants that thrilled our eyes AND our appetites? Most importantly, what if we started with the recipes we wanted to make, and worked backward to the seeds we’d need to make them a reality?

Armed with a pin-up book of turban squash soup cooked in its own shell, watermelon radish salad, pickled beans, roasted beet tartlets and green tomato piccalilli, I started this year with my eyes on a completely different prize. Instead of cocktail party bragging rights, I wanted art. On a plate.

I’ll keep you posted on how it all turns out.

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What were your garden goals this year? And what recipes are you dying to make with the results? Do tell.

ILLUSTRATIONS, from top:

  • Vincent Van Gogh, “Marguerite Gachet in the Garden,” Oil on Canvas. Auvers-sur-Oise: June, 1890. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
  • Claude Monet, “The Artist’s Garden at Vétheuil,” oil, 1880. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

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