A noted author proposes a simple problem beyond canning, freezing and giving food away to that annual grower's problem of excess garden produce.
The author proposes a simple solution to that annual grower's excess garden produce problem known as gardener's glut.
About this time of year, almost all vegetable gardeners face the same old problem: what to do with all that food they've grown. Besides eat it, that is (which in late summer might use up a quarter of what the garden insists on yielding).
There are, of course, a number of standard solutions. You can can the stuff. You can freeze it. You can give it to friends. You can resolve to have a smaller garden next year.
The standard solutions all have problems, though. Canning, for example, is a great deal of work for a very small reward. All that preparation, all that high-pressure processing, all the new lids to be bought for the jars—and you still get nothing better than canned string beans. In 1905 home-canned vegetables were standard winter fare, and doubtless worth the effort. In 1985 they amount to little more than acting out the hoarder's instinct.
Freezing's quicker, though you still have to blanch the damned beans; you can't just impulsively toss them in the freezer compartment. It is also quite expensive—starting the moment garden overproduction forces you to move from shoving a handful of packages into the freezer section to buying a real freezer. Quite a small garden can precipitate that move.
As for unloading your surplus on friends, it's not for nothing there are all those zucchini jokes. Giving away garden produce in August or September can be almost as hard as selling it, without even the solace of being paid. Earlier in the season it was not so; the first peas and lettuce were quite easy to give away. It's the late-bearing vines that are so relentlessly productive. If zucchini weren't such a picturesque word, I think there would also be cucumber jokes, tomato jokes, even melon jokes.
And as for planting a smaller garden, those who actually remember and do so the next spring soon discover that there is no happy medium between the purely symbolic garden (one tomato plant, a three-foot row of carrots) and one that overproduces in August. If you want anything worth eating in June and July, the late-season glut is inevitable.
Fortunately, there are some other alternatives. I begin with the assumption that among them is not the degenerate practice of leaving everything to rot on the vine, nor yet that experience in futility of picking everything only to transfer it to a compost pile. Each of these is an affront to the goddess of fertility, not to mention normal thrift.
The ideal, the gem among solutions, is to keep a pig. A piglet bought in April will be able, four months later, to keep up with the production of almost any garden. Pigs adore fresh vegetables, as they do most other edible substances. More important, on this healthy diet they will yield truly sumptuous pork, quite unlike the medicated stuff sold in supermarkets. I have known guests to send their plates back for fourths when eating a pork roast from such a pig.
Obviously, the pig solution is not available to everybody. Most towns and suburbs have a quite narrow prejudice (and also a couple of laws) about pigs, even though the family pig is quiet, clean, and perfectly odor-free when kept in a reasonable-size pen. It's commercial hog farms that produce the smell, require the medicated feed, etc. Your individual pig can be downright dainty. But many suburban mayors fail to realize that.
Even where no laws exist, there's often another severe problem: No slaughterhouse exists, either. There are many reasons why this is so, not least being the successful lobbying of the major meat-packers to make running a slaughterhouse so complicated and expensive that only large companies can afford to do it.
Beyond all this, of course, there are two major religions that frown on pig keeping, no matter where you do it.
If a pig is impossible, the next best solution is to keep chickens. There is a widespread impression in this country that chickens are picky about what they eat, preferring only a few things like cracked corn and, when available (which on large battery farms is never), the more succulent varieties of earthworms.
This impression is wholly false. A chicken will eat just about anything a pig will, though obviously in much smaller quantities. The only vegetable I'm aware of that chickens won't peck into is lettuce that has gone totally to seed and hence is totally bitter. Moreover, chickens have, in terms of diet, one advantage over pigs. They love Japanese beetles, whereas pigs can take them or leave them alone. To a gardener who doesn't love them—perhaps actively dislikes them—it can be deeply satisfying to toss a dozen beetles into the chicken yard and watch the hens snap them up as hors d'oeuvres.
Many a community whose officials would turn livid at the mere thought of a family pig can stand the idea of four or five chickens, especially if there is no rooster to announce dawn. A rooster makes life more interesting both for the hens and for the owners, and there are even those who think his presence leads to tastier eggs, though I am not among them. All informed persons agree that vegetable- and bug-eating hens, with or without a rooster, produce better-flavored and healthier eggs than the prisoners on the battery farms do. The difference is not so extreme as with pork, but it is perceptible to nearly all palates. Four or five chickens won't handle your surplus produce with the monumental efficiency of a half-grown pig, but they can and will consume most of it—and pass it back to you in the form of two dozen eggs a week.
What if neither a pig nor chickens is possible, and you can't even make a deal with someone in return for a share of pork or eggs? Then the thing to do is to sit down and decide which of your products are worth the trouble of preserving. The number will be small. It will include almost no vegetables. But if you have an apple tree, for example, you can reflect that whereas home-canned string beans are inferior to commercial frozen ones, and home frozen legumes are apt to be only the merest shade better, homemade applesauce is almost invariably far superior to even the luxury commercial brands. If you don't peel the apples first, it's prettier, too.
The other thing you can do is to reflect upon what you can grow in a home garden that preserves itself—and that is also higher quality than what stores sell. Potatoes make a good example. Potatoes keep handily for six months or longer. One can grow many succulent varieties that agribusiness never touches. From a garden one can also pull out little new potatoes the size of walnuts and ten minutes later enjoy them lightly steamed for supper. Americans are eating fewer and fewer potatoes, except the greasy fries (invariably of a variety called Russet Burbank) that all hamburger chains sell. Presumably this is from fear of growing fat. It is a groundless fear. The grease at Wendy's will make you fat (and don't think I'm implying that grease loses this ability at McDonald's or Burger King), but potatoes in ordinary quantities will not. Ounce for ounce, potatoes and pears tie in number of calories.
But I'm afraid these are make-dos. The only real solution is a vegetable-eating animal. Myself, if I lived in a city apartment and had even a little balcony, I might try growing vegetables on one side of it and secretly keeping two hens on the other.
EDITORS NOTE: Noel Perrin is the author of First Person Rural, Second Person Rural, and Third Person Rural (all published by David R. Godine), three outstanding collections that contain "essays of a sometime farmer."
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