The 100-Foot Salad

(Or: “Eats Shoots, Blooms, Weeds, and Leaves.”)

You’ve heard of the 100-foot diet? Proponents strive to eat food grown or produced as close to home as possible. Much of the year, that is my goal. And the farmers of central Indiana offer much of what I need, from meat to eggs to dairy to fruits and veggies. There’s even a local oil option now, and certain grains and beans can be sourced locally as well.

This time of year though, I’m enjoying my 100-foot salads.

Every spring I plant salad greens in my Garden Tower and an old salvaged sink. My tradition is to go to the winter farmers market and buy starts from a farmer of my acquaintance, Laura Karr. I wrote about her farm, KG Acres, for this Farm Indiana piece. She was also the source of my perennial sorrel plants, which give a lovely lemony flavor to salads in early spring.

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OK, so the lettuce itself did not originate within 100 feet of my kitchen, but once a plant is in the garden, I claim it.

Even before the lettuce and spinach are ready to eat, I feast on chickweed that grows in my yard. Well, “feast” might be an overstatement: I graze. This succulent little salad green got its own shout-out in a Hoosier Locavore blog post, as the foraged food of the month. In February. Back then I was snitching chickweed from a farmer acquaintance’s fields, but now I have my own little clump growing next to a raised bed, and I pinch off the tips for every salad I make. Yum.

I also have chives (and chive blossoms!) that come back year after year just outside my back door. (The potted chives has developed a modest wintertime Facebook following of sorts, because I post photos of her on snowy days as Lady Chives of the Pillbox Hat, just to be silly.)

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“Lady Chives” in February, with an undignified mullet peeking out from her pillbox hat.

My catnip reseeded itself all over the yard last fall, as did arugula, as did lamb’s quarters. (Don’t think me weird, but I eat catnip leaves in salads. It’s a bit cheesy tasting. And suits my feline nature.) The young lamb’s quarters add pink interest to my salad plate, but I’ll let several of them grow tall  so I can eat them as cooked greens later in the summer. And who doesn’t love the peppery taste of arugula, especially if it’s free?

Pea shoots are another thing showing up my garden, and I think they reseeded themselves from last year’s Austrian winter peas. I am a lazy gardener, but sometimes that pays.

The coolest part of my 100-foot salad, though, lies across the street in a greenspace by the creek.

 

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Trout lily, in a photo snapped before my “salad bowl” across the street was mowed by an enterprising neighbor. Dandelion says “Hey, I’m here too!”

I can pick trout lily, violet flowers, and redbud blooms while they last. Maybe the fleeting nature of these delicacies gives them their aura of specialness. The redbuds are already on the wane, and last weekend a neighbor mowed the greenspace, so my trout lily salads are done for.

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Redbud blooms, the pinkest salad topper ever.

I also love to pick baby leaves off of a basswood (linden) tree over there. There’s something so novel about eating tree leaves in a dinner salad. They’re heartshaped, succulent (if picked small), and delicious.

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Seriously yummy basswood leaves. Later in the summer (actually very soon) it will be hard to find a small leaf this shiny and new on the low branches of “my” tree.

For a while I had sweet Jerusalem artichokes that I dug up in early spring and sliced like water chestnuts, but they’re gone now. But there’s plenty of other wild goodness in my yard and surrounding area. Small dandelion leaves (bitter!) and wood sorrel (tangy!) round out my salad bowl.

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I love to go out foraging with my little colander.

Eating a salad like this nourishes me twice, kind of like Thoreau’s wood chopping warmed him twice. It’s a delicious outing, carrying my colander out into the world to pick nature’s tenderest.

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I give you the 100-foot salad.

Homegrown

I got to meet local farmer Patty Langeland when I interviewed her for a Farm Indiana piece. She is the fifth generation on Langeland Farms in southeast Indiana, growing certified organic popcorn, beans, and grains. Her business extends to regional popcorn and grains production, and she also maintains a small cow-calf herd, selling grassfed beef.

Here she is five years ago (on right) at Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis, after delivering Langeland Farms beef to be used in “Homegrown Chili.”

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Patty has such deep roots in the community. You could say that she herself is a homegrown farmer. So many of us move far from home to find work, and change our housing repeatedly. Here’s a woman who lives in the house where she grew up (built by her grandpa over 100 years ago) and works the land where she used to play.

What I found most fascinating about Patty was the trajectory of her life from farm girl to farmer, and the detours in between.

She never expected to be a farmer, though she knew she loved the land. Like many of us, she can look back and trace the threads of learning that connect to what she does now.

She actually majored in fashion retail at Purdue for a time, and her business sense and creative flair flourished there. But when it sank in that such a career would require her to live in a city, she knew it wasn’t going to work out.

All along, she had been taking classes in the agriculture department, building on the knowledge she’d absorbed without even meaning to as a child on the farm. (A Daddy’s girl, she used to follow her father around and ask every question under the sun.) Eventually, just because she was fascinated by the agricultural arena—with no intent of ever turning it into a career—she ended up specializing in animal science when she graduated from the communications department.

Her life took a traumatic turn when her husband left her, their four boys, and the farm business abruptly. That’s when she ended up being the sole proprietor of the farm (though her beloved dad still owns the land).

It was quite moving to hear her speak of the support her local farming community gave her during this cataclysmic shift, and how her success hinged on a drought year. You can read more about all this in the story if you like.

Made of Sunshine

I first heard about Healthy Hoosier Oils when shopping at my food coop, Pogue’s Run Grocer. As a local food enthusiast, I was thrilled to find out that there was a new local alternative for culinary oils. I didn’t know much about how the product was made, but after I took home my first bottle of sunflower oil, I knew it was delicious. Seriously flavorful.

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Once you’ve tried it, you will crave its buttery flavor.

I ended up buying bottle after bottle of sunflower oil as we drizzled it on our salads all through spring and summer. And popcorn popped in the stuff is amazing. It’s great for stir-frying too. Then there’s canola oil, which has a more neutral flavor and a higher smoke point.

Eventually I suggested to my Farm Indiana editor that we do a story on the Boyer farm in Converse, Indiana. That’s where the seed crops are raised and turned into this fantastic staple of my dinner table.

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Sunflower fields forever.

Yes, this is the amazingly fortunate position I find myself in at this stage of my life: I get hooked on a particular foodstuff, and get to go visit with the folks responsible for it. I write a story about them and collect a (smallish) paycheck.

I met Craig Boyer, the 81-year-old patriarch of a family that manages to stay tightknit and geographically close in an age where that is rare. (All of his and wife Nancy’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren live within just a few miles of where the above photo was taken.)

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Craig Boyer with a section of the filtration system for the culinary oils.

The land has been in the Boyer family since 1848, farmed for six generations and counting. The culinary oil enterprise is fairly recent, and arose partly out of Craig’s health crisis. He had to semi-retire after a major cardiac event, and he was supposed to watch his diet. His sons Mark and John experimented with converting their biodiesel operation into culinary oil production, in part because of the market—but also because their dad loved his fried foods.

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Brady Bolen bottles and labels the freshly pressed oil.

I was pleased to hear that the oils are free of solvents and additives. I actually was a bit clueless about how conventional oils are extracted (through a nasty-sounding process involving hexane and high heat). Healthy Hoosier Oils go through a cold press.

The oil crops themselves grow in a minimally-tilled row-crop setup, in rotation with the corn, soybeans, and wheat that the Boyers also raise. “We use zero chemicals,” Mark told me, speaking of the canola and sunflowers. I asked about weed control: “It actually is relatively easy in that both canola and sunflowers eventually will canopy. When they canopy, they cover the ground and protect themselves from invasive weeds to a certain extent.”

Honeybees are key to the Boyers’ strategy too—they partner with a local beekeeper to make sure that honeybees are working their magic on the crops.

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Honey from Bastin Honey Bee Farm of Knightstown is sold onsite along with the oils.

 

I enjoyed my tour of the operation that July day, even the sweltering 1940s-era corn crib (repurposed to store the oil crops). Here’s the writeup for Farm Indiana, if you’d like to read more. Locally, you can find Healthy Hoosier Oils in Kroger stores, Pogue’s Run Grocer,  and other independent grocers.

 

To Pause and Give Thanks

Gratitude is not just a seasonal thing for me. I look to be aware of the blessings in my life all the time, the better to enjoy them. Lately I’ve been taking a few minutes before I eat a meal (when I remember to!) to celebrate all the contributors to my food.

I will look down at a humble bowl of oatmeal with raisins and almond butter and pause for a second. I will think (or say), Thank you! I love you I love you I love you! And then, if I feel like I have the wherewithal in this moment, I get focused and consider:

  • the farmers responsible for growing these oats, grapes, and almonds
  • the bees that pollinated them
  • the sun and rain
  • the worms and microscopic wee buggies that do so much unseen
  • the people involved in processing and transporting
  • the folks at my local food coop where I bought these foods.

Thank you, I love you!

What’s really fun is to look down at a meal and realize how many personal connections it embodies. I’ll think: Oh yum, I get to eat Amy’s spinach (from South Circle Farm) or Randy’s squash (from Stout’s Melody Acres). The celebration feels even more expansive when I know my farmer. And the food tastes better too.

Today’s lunchtime moment: thanking Earl (Blue River Natural Foods) and his pastured hens for the beautiful eggs, Laura (dear friend) for the tomatillos that went into my salsa verde, Matthew (Big City Farms) for the gorgeous carrots.

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Local eggs cooked cooked “over hard” and topped with homemade salsa verde, with dilly carrots and spicy sauerkraut on the side.

Also Joshua and the folks at Fermenti Artisan for the spicy Latin American kraut known as curtido. And…myself for the small part I played in planting and harvesting dill from Seven Steeples Farm, where I sometimes help out Mike, the farm manager.

Thank you, I love you!

No matter where the food comes from though, this mindful, grateful state brings texture to a meal. A good thing, to pause and give thanks.

And Now for Something Completely Different

I don’t very often blog about my personal writing project(s), but the terrific nature writer Katherine Hauswirth nominated me for a “blog hop” (writers sharing about their work). So, bear with me as I answer a few questions…

What is the working title of your book (or story)?
Thrivalists: Reimagining the World in an Age of Crisis is the working title of the nonfiction book I’m currently “shopping.” It’s in research/pitching phase, and in the meantime I’ve started work on another project, as yet untitled. Also, some of my articles and essays are linked here.

Where did the idea come from for these books?
Thrivalists came about when I realized how little media attention goes to the people who are pulling together to make a major shift on our planet. I’m so inspired by the community resilience movement and all its permutations. My goal with the book is to shine a light on folks working toward greater ecological/economic/social balance. (Secondary goal and total bonus: to get to rub elbows with fun people and learn all kinds of mad skillz.)

A sister volunteer/learner at an Olympia Mycelial Network project in Washington State

A sister volunteer/learner at an Olympia Mycelial Network project in Washington State

The second project is a work of creative nonfiction exploring my 15-year recovery from fibromyalgia, culminating in emergence of my own healing abilities. Part of my inspiration came from Seven Steeples Farm, where I’m helping to grow produce right where an 1880s-era women’s mental institution once stood.

What genre do your books fall under?
Creative nonfiction, tending toward memoir on the new project. Thrivalists is closer to immersion journalism, still with an element of memoir, and the book would be shelved under Green Living/Activism.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I’m thinking Julianne Moore could play this Mudgirl, but that’s as far as I’ve gotten on that question!

Rose (inside wall) facilitates a Mudgirls workshop.

Rose (inside wall) facilitates a Mudgirls workshop.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Oof. Can I buy a sentence?

During a season of tending crops at Seven Steeples Farm, where the tomatoes and peas grow from ground that once held a 19th century mental institution for women, Shawndra Miller explores the turn in her own life from a 15-year bout with a debilitating mind/body ailment. While working the land she reflects on a wider societal transformation embodied by Seven Steeples, where something new is growing on the shell of the old.

Will your book(s) be self-published or represented by an agency?
I’m open at this point. My book proposal for Thrivalists has been making the rounds of agents and small presses. Meanwhile, I’m enjoying the process of discovery on the new project, while continuing to explore and highlight the community resilience movement.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
The original Thrivalists book proposal, with a couple sample chapters, took about six months, but I keep adding to it as I travel and research, so it’s a moving target. The new one is still very young.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Thrivalists is a bit like Omnivore’s Dilemma in the way that the author’s process of research and discovery pulls the reader along. In subject matter, it’s close to Walk Out Walk On: A Learning Journey into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze.

It’s hard to say on the new project since it needs more time to bake, but it might be compared to When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I’m inspired by Charles Eisenstein’s work, in particular The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. Without a massive consciousness shift, no amount of environmental activism or social change work will alter the bottom line of a culture built on dominance, control, and fear. That’s part of what I want to explore in the new project.

Thanks to Katherine Hauswirth for tagging me with this assignment! I nominate Julie Stewart, writer-and-farmer-in-residence at Urban Plot, to do the next blog hop.

Fomenting the Ferment

Fermentation on Wheels rolled into town over the weekend. Tara Whitsitt has been driving her mobile fermentation lab cross country since October 2013. As soon as I heard she was coming to Indy, I knew I had to make it to one of her events.

Fermentation on Wheels, a 1986 International Harvester school bus converted to a mobile fermentation lab

Fermentation on Wheels, a 1986 International Harvester school bus converted to a mobile fermentation lab

Tara’s mission is to initiate more people into the wonderful world of fermented foods (like sourdough breads, kefir, sauerkraut, wine, and kombucha). So far her tricked-out bus has traveled over 12,000 miles to share the love.

Tara with pawpaw vinegar

Tara with pawpaw vinegar

Saturday she did a fermentation workshop, which I hear was fabulous. Sunday evening, Seven Steeples Urban Farm (see my earlier blog post about them here) hosted a potluck and culture exchange. That’s where we met Tara and her beautiful kitty.

Tara's cat Franklin is her traveling companion.

Tara’s cat Franklin is her traveling companion.

We had a terrific meal together that included loads of fermented drinks and veggies, some from the pros: Joshua Henson of Fermenti Artisan brought cultured ramps and daikon radishes, along with water kefir lemonade and a bunch of other delicious stuff. There was also a popular fermented drink called beer.

After we ate, it was time to check out the bus.

Inside the bus, where all kinds of groovy stuff ferments!

Inside the bus, where all kinds of groovy stuff ferments!

“I really want to spur the movement of getting back in the kitchen and doing things with our own hands instead of relying on other people to do it for us,” Tara told us.

All across the country, she’s been partnering with farmers and homesteaders to turn local harvests into something out-of-this-world delicious. People give her their home-canned peaches, for example, and bushels of chili peppers. She dried the chilis and used them in kim chee, and they are also a key ingredient in her peach-habanero mead.

Peach habanero wine-in-the-making

Peach habanero mead-in-the-making, with blackberry mead at left

We sampled kombucha, miso, and a mysterious drink of Tibetan origin called “jun.” (Instead of the black tea and sugar that make up kombucha, jun favors green tea and honey.)

We sniffed three types of sourdough starter, each with a different backstory. For example, the Alaskan sourdough came from a person in Portland whose great-grandmother had made it in the 1900s in Alaska. White flour and milk were the original ingredients, and that’s what Tara feeds it to this day. The starter is a key ingredient in creamy sourdough hotcakes favored by Alaskans.

No wonder she calls her starter cultures “heirloom” cultures: They’re completely different from something purchased online, typically made in laboratories.

Eating food from a starter passed down for generations is like wrapping your grandmother’s Afghan around you. Versus a Kmart coverlet. One is imbued with love and history. The other with factory threads and who-know-what labor injustice.

IMG_4728I wish I could say I had something terribly cool to swap with Tara, but she wasn’t all that keen on my dairy kefir grains (of unknown origin: a friend of a friend gave them to me). So, I purchased a rye starter that hails from Brooklyn. As we speak, I’ve got sourdough rye bread dough fermenting on the counter. I’m using Tara’s instructions and recipe: Fingers crossed!

The Miracle of Seeds

I’ve been thinking about how tenacious life is, encapsulated in a tiny seed. Some seeds I plant, but others sprout all on their own.

I’m probably the only person on my block who gives a cheer when she sees these coming up.

Lamb's quarters

Lamb’s quarters

These are lamb’s quarters, considered a weed, but deliberately planted two years ago in my garden. This is the second year they will have reseeded, and I can’t wait to taste them again when they get a little bigger. (They’re terrific fried crispy in my cast-iron skillet, with a couple eggs cracked over them. And incredibly energizing, as all edible weeds are.)

Here is part of another patch of self-sowing plants that are on their third (or fourth?) year of growing freely in my garden: arugula.

Arugula volunteers in leaf mulch

Arugula “volunteers” in leaf mulch

I wasn’t sure they would come up this year because I mulched so heavily last fall with shredded leaves. But lo: I pull away the top layer and find them rooted right in the leaf mold.

Miracles like these show up all the time, if we know to look.

“There is no way to re-enchant our lives in a disenchanted culture except by becoming renegades from that culture and planting the seeds for a new one.”

Thomas Moore, author and psychotherapist

Perhaps growing food for people in need would fall under this “renegade” notion? Here is a seedling started by a southern Indiana farmer and planted by a volunteer for the Hoosier Hills Food Bank.

Cabbage seedling planted by a volunteer at a food bank garden

Cabbage seedling planted by a volunteer at a food bank garden

And one more: Late last fall I blogged about starting Austrian winter peas and my happiness at their growth in cold weather. They are generally not grown for a pea harvest, but intended as a cover crop with benefits—pea shoots are sweet and tender.

They didn’t do much during the winter, but this spring they are the healthiest of plants in my garden. I have snipped them nearly every day as salad and smoothie additions, and they are growing as fast as I can cut!

Austrian winter peas in spring

Austrian winter peas in spring

With seeds on my mind, no wonder this statement in a new mother’s Facebook post snagged my attention:

“I did not know until I got pregnant that the first organ to develop is the heart. It’s as if a heart seed gets planted and from the heart grows the human.”

Laura Henderson, founder of Growing Places Indy

Miraculous.