24. The Changing of the Garden
I’ve written before that I came late to gardening and haven’t internalized the seasonal rhythms of gardening. (When to order seeds, when to start them, etc.) Every year I have to look up how long it takes different seeds started indoors under grow lights to be ready to be planted outdoors.
Proving my point, right after I wrote the preceding paragraph I realized I had to stop to bring a tray of seedlings indoors. I’m hardening them off1 and sunset, when I was supposed to have brought them in, was hours ago.
The one part of gardening season I understand without a reminder is that at some point in August, I will run out of enthusiasm for taking care of a garden. And I think it’s because for years almost everything I planted in the garden was tomatoes. Sometimes I’d have fifteen or twenty different varieties. But there comes a moment when I just can’t look at another one. And when tomato fatigue sets in, so does garden maintenance fatigue.
When I worked in an office, the late summer onslaught of tomatoes could be managed more easily - I gave my surplus away to my colleagues2. But once I was, as I like to put it, made to go freelance, I no longer had that tomato relief valve. I realized this, of course, when tomato season kicked in and not, as would have been sensible, when I was planning the garden with the same number of plants as before.
Not having understood this rhythm yet, for the next several years I repeated the same mistake, now with the added complication of the pandemic, which sometimes meant not even being able to meet up with friends to give them away. Last September I finally realized what I had been doing to myself and decided to make a change.
Last September was also a month-long dry spell for work. I dealt with it the way I usually do: by going slightly insane. Every day for about two weeks, I would drive somewhere3 to buy cucumbers and then make pickles. Half sours, full sours, and shelf-stable knockoff McClure's that are a favourite of family and friends. The basement was packed full of about sixty pint and quart jars of sour, spicy goodness4.
I’ve tried growing Kirby cucumbers (the best variety for pickling) before but always encountered the same problem: the vines, which take up a lot of space, don’t produce many fruit at the same time. In order to have enough fruit to make up a batch for pickling, you need a lot of vines, all with one or two fruits ripe for the picking. With the size of my garden, I estimated I would have to plant nothing but cucumbers in order to pickle even a tiny batch.
Enter the Bush Pickle, a type of Kirby cucumber that, as the name suggests, grows as a bush, not a vine. And each bush produces many fruits simultaneously, making it perfect for picklers with smaller home gardens or even just balcony containers. When I learned about the Bush Pickle, a light went off and I realized what I needed to do: plant a pickle garden. I’d reduce the number of tomato plants I grew from around 60 to around 15. In the newly-opened space, I would try to grow enough cucumbers, garlic, dill, and hot peppers for a one-year’s supply of pickles.
It’s a good thing that I realized this in September and not, say January, since garlic needs to go into the ground in the fall, spending the winter under a thick layer of mulched hay and sending up green shoots even before the snow has completely melted.
I remembered to look up when to start the pepper and tomato seeds just days before it needed to happen in March. They moved from the grow lights to being in the ground around the middle of May. I started the Bush Pickle seeds almost on time. My plan is to get them in the ground this week. I sowed the dill directly into the beds, but it seems they either got dug up by raccoons and birds5, or the bed they’re in was shaded, and therefore too cool, for them to germinate properly. So a trip to a garden center for some dill seedlings and a few extra plants to replace the two or three seedlings who didn’t survive the transition from the grow lights to the great outdoors.
After that, all there is left to do is wait. And water and weed and fertilize and hope that, unlike years past, I don’t get sick of the whole enterprise and let it all fall into sad neglect. Fingers crossed.
What I’m Consuming…
Zingerman’s Guide to Good Eating By Ari Weinzweig - Zingerman’s is a pilgrimage-worthy deli6 in Ann Arbor. It came up in conversation twice this week and again on the latest episode of the Judge John Hodgman podcast. I took that as a sign and pulled my copy down from the shelf so I could reacquaint myself.
A great purveyor is at heart a great buyer and this is what Weinzweig aims to teach the reader: how to buy better. The book is broken down into sections like “Oils, olives, and vinegars,” “Grains and rices,” and “Cheeses” and then further into chapters like, “Olive oil,” “Olives,” “Nut oils,” and on. The beginning of each chapter tells you what you need to know to make better decisions when shopping. How products are made. What to look for when buying, say wild rice. Questions to ask your cheesemonger. Weinzweig forearms7 you with an expert buyer’s knowledge so your food can reach its full potential8.
One way to do that is with the recipes that follow each crash course. When I first got the book, my favourite was Lex’s Roast Chicken: the bottom of a roasting pan is covered in slices of bread, which is topped with a savoury mixture of onions, celery, thyme, and other stuffing-ish things, and that is topped with a spatchcocked9 chicken10 and roasted. The juices from the chicken drip down through the vegetable mixture and get absorbed by the bread and… good god I wish it wasn’t getting too hot to roast a chicken these days.
What’s on the Menu…
LEV Potato Buns. (This comes to no surprise to anyone who follows me on Instagram. Why aren’t you following me on Instagram?) I’m starting a search to replace Martin’s Potato Rolls as my hamburger bun of choice. Martin’s Potato Rolls are produced by Martin’s Famous Pastry Shoppe, which is owned by the Martin Family. It recently came to light that James Martin, formerly the president of Martin’s and now its Executive Chair, was by far the largest donor to a candidate for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano. I’ll be blunt: Doug Mastriano is evil. He wants to outlaw all abortion in Pennsylvania, with no exceptions for rape or incest. He likened gun control legislation to living under the Nazis. He denies the results of the 2020 Presidential election and was in Washington for the January 6th insurrection. And on June 7, he introduced a bill to limit trans youth access to sports that passed the Pennsylvania senate.
He also now has the Republican nomination, thanks largely to money that comes from the sale of Martin’s Potato Rolls, the bun of choice for so many of the burger joints that have sprung up over the last few years. The biggest of those by far is Shake Shack, which uses tens of millions of Martin’s buns each year and is essentially the fundraising arm of the Pennsylvania GOP. If I stop buying Martin’s products - they’re really fucking good, which is why this is particularly vexing - it won’t make any difference, but I just don’t think they will ever taste good to me again11. And I can’t in good conscience keep buying them12.
My first replacement candidates are what I thought were potato buns from Toronto-based LEV Bakery. They’re actually challah buns. They’re a little larger than Martin’s and, unlike Martin’s, they’re topped with sesame seeds, which is something I quite like. Where Martin’s are squat, flat, and squishy, LEV’s are taller and rounder with an airy, more springy texture. They’re also a little wider, which may suit a burger grilled in the backyard rather than a griddle-smashed patty. But they taste good and (as far as I know) I’m not indirectly funding people with views 100% opposed to mine. I’m going to try to get my hands on some of their actual potato buns—It looks like Sanagan’s carries them—soon to see how they stack up as well.
This could also be a great opportunity for a big player like Weston Bakeries or President’s Choice13 to bring out their own potato rolls and start chipping away at Martin’s share. How many people would make a special trip to Loblaws for non-evil potato rolls? 100% I would.
To prepare seedlings that have been started indoors for the stronger sunlight and winds outdoors, they are set out in the sunshine during the day and brought in at night to protect them from potentially damaging cold. This is called “hardening off.”
Dale Carnegie did not include a chapter on the soft power of homegrown tomatoes in How to Win Friends and Influence People, but he could have.
My favourite places to buy Kirby cucumbers are Fiesta Farms, natch; Lady York Foods, who always seems to have very fresh ones; Coppa’s on Dufferin, who usually has a two different sizes, and the Fortinos at Lawrence West and the Allen Road, where the chile pepper section is also very good. One day I should really write about what a fascinating store it is. I’ve also seen them turn up out of season at Ample Food Market, but I haven’t tried them yet. Dill seed heads can be hard to find, but Yummy Market on Dufferin reliably has them in late summer, as well as a very good selection of ready-made pickles. (But if you are continuing to mask, be forewarned that Yummy has been terrible about masking every time I’ve been there.)
Similarly, when I first was made to go freelance, I somewhat obsessively made stock every day for about a week. White chicken, brown chicken, beef, pork, veal, seafood. (Peanut. Hazelnut. Cashew nut. Macadamia nut. IYKYK) The Instant Pot was in constant use and the basement freezer was packed full of stock frozen in two-cup portions in Ziploc bags.
This in spite of covering all the beds with thin layer of cayenne, blood meal, and bone meal. Right after applying them, the garden smells like a particularly spicy horse barn. Plastic forks still protect the transplanted seedlings, but not in last year’s, as Beth put it, “worryingly large” numbers.
A deli and a creamery and a bakery and a restaurant and a leadership training centre and a mail order house. It’s the food hydra of Ann Arbor
As in “Forewarned is forearmed.” He doesn’t deliver a devastating elbow to your chest or chin, I promise.
A spatchcocked chicken has had its backbone cut out so it will lay flat in a pan. You sometimes see this at butcher shops as “flattened chickens.” It’s a great way to speed the cooking of a chicken and have the white and dark meat cook more evenly.
If you want to learn more about what stores and burger places in Toronto carry Martin’s (and how to get in touch to say you don’t think that’s very cool), you can find it in my Instagram story highlight here.
Please believe me when I tell you it was never my plan to write about awful people doing awful things on a regular basis. I would much rather not have to write about it. But staying quiet only makes things worse. I promise this won’t become a standing item. And, as I said last issue, if you feel you need to leave a comment or reach out to me about “cancel culture,” just fuck off and unsubscribe. This isn’t the newsletter for you.