Urban Asparagus

Urban Asparagus

This page appeared first in Nougat Magazine's May, 2008 edition -- an issue devoted to mothers.

Mother Nature's meal planning follows a rule that great cuisines around the world have adopted: What grows together goes together.

For example, the happy Italian province of Parma produces both Parmigiano-Reggiano and prosciutto. And to drink? How about a bottle of Barbera, the food-loving red wine grown in the same area? Rooted in the same air, water, and soil, these foods sing on the palate when eaten together (It's opera, of course).

In the Bicol region of the Philippines, cooks mix dried fish or fresh shrimp with garlic, fiery sili peppers, and gabi (taro) leaves, simmer the stew in coconut milk, and serve it over rice. Fresh bananas make dessert. Any ingredient in this wonderful meal grows within 5 miles of any spot in Bicol.

Italian and Philippine families grow and eat foods much like those that nurtured their great-great-grandparents. In his new book, In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan suggests we ask our inner great-grandmothers to help us detect the difference between real food and the manipulated molecules inside most packaged foods. Anything a great-grandmother would not recognize as food we should reject. Wave "Bye-Bye" to Mountain Dew, SnaPeaCrisps, Twinkies, Coke Zero, and ' I'm sorry about this -- no more Tofu Pups, either.

The voice in my own head that tells me what is good to eat sounds just about exactly as if Ruth H. Roberts—aka "Mother"—is talking to me. I trust this voice on all matters related to food, and here's my evidence that Mother's voice is trustworthy: First, I loved her cooking. Second, she loved her mother's cooking, and used it as a guide to all that was good. Third, let's apply the butter rule. Although agri-food corporations spent millions to get home cooks to switch from real fats like butter and lard to made-up fats like margarine, they never snookered Mother. She knew butter was good, and our own homemade butter was even better.

Mother followed an inner guide about what was good to grow and eat, and that guide can be summed up in four letters: 'ours.' I have lots of memory audio of her talking about her love of our own food, our chickens, eggs, potatoes, lettuce and green onions. Our corn, bacon and butter. Our own blackberry jam and frozen strawberries, and homemade apple sauce. Even our own ketchup.

My mother would have been surprised to find how cutting-edge her ways of thinking about food have become. I doubt she knew the "grow together/go together" rule that underpins the world's great cuisines, but she followed the rule all her life. She and Mother Nature were aligned on this key point.

So what would my mother have served for Mother's Day dinner when I was about ten, too young to cook for her? She would have asked herself a series of questions: "What fresh food of our own do we have? And what else of our own do we have that is frozen or canned or preserved?" I think the meal would have looked like this:

Ruth's Mother's Day Dinner Our own whole roast chicken, with Mother's special butter-based 'baste' Our scalloped potatoes, using the last of our stored potatoes in the cellar Our green peas, frozen a year earlier Wilted lettuce, made with fresh Black Seeded Simpson and Bibb lettuces and green onions from the garden, and our own smoked and cured bacon from the smokehouse Homemade yeast rolls served with our own blackberry jelly and our own butter Buttermilk pound cake made with our own buttermilk, eggs and butter, topped with our own frozen strawberries for dessert Iced tea or our own milk with the meal Coffee with dessert

Because some of our local growers now use time-tested methods to work with Mother Nature to produce the finest quality vegetables, fruits, meats, poultry, and dairy, I can nearly reproduce Mother's menu today with central Kentucky ingredients, complete with the rich tastes and nutrients. See "Sources," below.

Like the fortunate people who live in exotic places with long, delicious food traditions, I can eat what my mother, her mother, and their great-grandmothers have eaten for generations in Kentucky. Unlike my ancestors, I don't grow it all myself.

Instead, I have expanded the way I think about "ours." My "ours" includes the foods grown near my home, produced and processed in ways that please Mother Nature. I know my own mother would have approved.

Sources Elmwood Stock Farm: Certified organic pastured chickens and eggs, certified organic vegetables, Scott County Blue Moon Farm: Sustainably grown vegetables, Madison County Weisenberger Mill: Locally milled flour, Woodford County Sunflower Sundries: Traditional jams made with local fruits and organic sugar Stone Cross Farm: Bacon produced in Taylor County without antibiotics, steroids, or hormones Real Milk: Local sources for milk, which can lead to cream and butter