Eatocracy's Managing Editor Kat Kinsman attempts to vegetable garden on a roof deck in Brooklyn, NY in USDA Hardiness Zone 6b. Feel free to taunt, advise or encourage her efforts as this series progresses.
This morning, I stood on my roof deck and made my African Guinea Flint corn have sex with itself.
Some folks knit, ride dirt bikes or collect small, disturbingly lifelike figurines of a baby Lord Voldemort. I get my kicks from raising heirloom vegetables.
The process isn't always quite so hands-on. Mostly, it's just a matter of sticking seeds or shoots in dirt, fertilizing, watering and presto - potatoes, tomatoes and radishes as far as the eye can see. And if you have the acreage, corn would probably not require the services of a social director.
Out in a commercial field or garden plot, gravity, wind and insects would assist with this process, and most importantly, there would likely be no shortage of pollen to ensure a hearty dusting. I, on the other hand, have four stalks. Just four, and they're growing in a galvanized tin tub on my Brooklyn roof deck at slightly different rates.
They need all the help they can get, which is why earlier today, I could be found outside, gently brushing pollen from tassel to silk with my fingers in the hopes of knocking up my corn. I may have been humming some Serge Gainsbourg and Barry White as I worked. These things happen.
But the embarrassing part? Before this, I cannot in all honesty say that I knew how corn...happens. I've been eating it all my life, from supermarkets and farm stands and lived across the road from a vast, undulating plain of it in grad school. I'd tried to grow it myself, on occasion - never to great success and it never occurred to me that perhaps there was something more to the whole process than plant, water, ears, shuck, eat.
Yes, clearly pollination has to take place at some point, but for the tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, beans and okra I'd long grown (to varying degrees of success), the bees, butterflies and other winged things popping about from flower to flower seemed to do the trick. Corn doesn't have flowers - well, technically the tassels and silk are flowers - at least in the format I was used to; and it's actually a kind of grass.
Come to think of it, until I started growing them for myself from seed, I could not have, with any level of certitude, explained how exactly potatoes, artichokes, pattypan squash, horseradish, cauliflower or edible loofahs came into being. Blame my having fallen asleep on that day in elementary school, childhood in a suburb where the Chem-Lawn man was king or even my own lazy lack of exploration. I could cook the dickens out of these things but could not connect the items on the shelves and in the stalls (and if we're going back to my childhood, from the cans and frozen block) to how they'd come forth from the earth.
That's sad, and sadder still - I doubt I'm alone. And this is why I'm grateful for the emergence of chef/farmers like Charleston, South Carolina's Sean Brock, Greenville, South Carolina's Shaun Garcia who physically work the land on their own farms - and aren't afraid to evangelize about the importance of knowing where food comes from and what goes into growing it. Brock himself gave me, and other attendees of the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival, the rare heirloom kernels I used to grow the stalks to which I played Dr. Ruth earlier today, in the hope that increased propagation will keep this endangered strain from dying out completely.
Brock told me that he, himself likely won't even taste a kernel - he's saving his all for seed, to beget more seed and so on. I admire his restraint, but I'll have to nibble at least one ear and taste the fruits of my labor.
The farm-to-table movement is criticized by some as being elitist or precious - and sure, some of the culture around it may indeed be at times - but at its core, it's anything but. It's incredibly empowering to know whose hands touched the food I'm eating, how it was cared for, the way it formed and that some day, if push comes to shove, I could coax some into being - one blushing ear at a time.
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