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Sunday, March 07, 2010

The hungry time

February into March into April. This is that time of the year when the cold room shelves are more bare than laden, and the garden (mostly) and fruit trees (entirely) empty.

For centuries, it was known, in non-tropical northern latitudes, as The Hungry Time. Many subsistence farm families have known the agony that drove Pa Ingalls to raid his neighbor's seed wheat, saying, in that don't-mess-with-me tone, "I am buying some of your wheat (The Long Winter)." Almanzo, the neighbor, noted to his brother afterwards that the man had lost a lot of weight, and that many families in the frozen town must be in like case.

We're not in that condition at Stony Run, but in the interest of research, I like to look about me and see what could be done for a meal after a long winter. Not so much; but it's not hopeless either.

As we bought in a lot of grain, there is still plenty of oats, wheat, rye, and quinoa on hand. Potatoes are holding out well. Applesauce, dried apples, frozen blackberries, frozen vegs, lamb, tomato puree and the like are plentiful also. But what if all of this were gone, and we could not get to a supermarket?

In the ground there are lots of Jerusalem artichokes, which we regard as mostly a seed crop, multiplying toward any emergency we might have. It's a safety crop, something like a CD in the bank used to be. We could get into those.

Kale is something we try to grow in extra quantities for ourselves and the poultry. There's not as much on hand as last year and we could easily eat it down to nothing in a hurry. But I'll cut a few leaves in the grow tunnel and bring it in. The Walking Onions in there are doing all right, too, as well as in the garden beds. There has been enough rain to just sloop one out of the ground, with a firm grip.

What really sets this winter garden apart, though, is its elephant garlic. Ours came up right after the first few frosts, in late November, and has grown right through the winter, which it does easily here. It's taken over enough in all the beds that it is near becoming a nuisance weed. There is a surprising amount of sustenance in these tall green stalks, naturally blanched toward the as-yet narrow bulb. So I'm weeding to eat when I pull these, and can even afford to toss the edible (but stringy) long leaves in favor of the mild, onion-y white bit.

Many gardeners around here grow these, most chopping off the stalk as it nears the flowering stage to encourage the formation of cloves, which is all they gather. We take cloves as we find them but never use as many as we think we will, preferring the leek-like stalks, and also enjoying the blossoms, scissored from the heads, as a seasoning. I frequently, even late in the summer, chop the leaves and bulbs very small and include them in soups, salads and bread dough.

In spring the white of the stalk is very mild and soft, when cut across the grain, and can be used in any shallot recipe.

This morning's breakfast was elephant garlic and Walking Onion bulbs fried with fresh eggs, dandelion leaves, and chopped kale. The dandelions, kale and eggs, stirred together, goes in last and the whole business is turned over two or three times until the eggs are done, and served right away. It's flavorful and sticks with me enough that I don't go for a second helping.

It's an extra-layer-of-clothes morning out there, though. If I get hungry enough to come in at eleven and polish off the pan, who's to object?

At the moment, fruits were only getting ripe in places where people were wearing bikinis. Correlation does not imply causation; putting on our swimsuits would not make it happen here. "Strawberries will be coming in soon," I said, recognizing this as possibly the first in a long line of pep talks. The question remained, What about now? -- Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Vegetable Miracle


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