Monday, July 20, 2009

Gardening & Auntie Em's Produce Delivery

Me, age 2 1/2, helping water Grampa Rollie's garden, Arroyo Grande, California, March 1962.


Gardens were a big part of my childhood. As long as they were alive my great-grandparents, Rolla and Ora Goodman, had a bountiful garden. Lucky for me they both lived until I was in my teens. The garden I remember the most, and spent the most time in, and ate the most food from, was the one they had at their modest little home in Orcutt, California, along the Central Coast of California. Each visit my sister, Traci, and I would spend hours down in the garden; eating strawberries right off the vine, pulling up carrots for the mid-day meal, helping Grampa Rollie water or weed. I learned a tremendous amount about gardening from them, and from helping out in their garden.

When I was around eleven or twelve my mother let me plant a few rows of vegetables in our backyard. We were living in San Luis Obispo, also on the Central California Coast, not far from my great-grandparents, and I wanted to apply what I had learned from them. I think I planted some zucchini, Swiss chard and tomatoes, maybe a few other things. And I believe I was able to get a small harvest from it. Our neighbors, across Pismo Street, were Mr. and Mrs. Tanner, and he was quite the gardener. I spent a lot of time with him in his garden. He had the touch; his plants were healthy and very productive. He sent me home with zucchini, tomatoes and any other surplus he had each time I crossed the street to visit him. He also came over and offered his advice about my fledgling few rows. After my first few successes, and after eating my own home grown vegetables, gardening really got under my skin.

Then I grew up. I went to live in Europe, then San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles. Gardening quickly took a back seat to living life in the big city. To work, school, and a busy social life. I lived in apartments not in houses with yards; there was no real property to plant a garden. I currently live in a condo with little available outdoor space. A poor excuse, I know that many people find ways to plant vegetables in very small areas but it's my excuse nonetheless. I replaced 'garden fresh' with 'farmer's market fresh' and at least I had that. Enter Auntie Em's Kitchen in Eagle Rock, California -- a mere 4.2 miles, 12 minute drive from my home in Atwater Village.

Auntie Em's Organic Produce and Dinner Delivery

Auntie Em's is quite the food enterprise. Located on Eagle Rock Boulevard, there's a cafe and bakery that serves fresh, healthy food using 'seasonally available fruit, vegetables, meats, poultry and fish'. The cafe menu and bakery items offered change according to what is seasonally available. My kind of place! They also have a marketplace that offers cheeses, condiments, sweets, Auntie Em's frozen dishes, tableware and gift baskets; and they offer full catering services. Their newest venture is a farmer's market produce delivery service: 'Auntie Em's Organic Produce and Dinner Delivery'. The service brings 'locally grown, organic, seasonal produce and heatable meals and baked goods to your doorstep'. I am in my third week. And I love it.

They go around to local farmer's markets, gather whatever is fresh, seasonal and wonderful, and deliver it to my doorstep once a week. The produce they have chosen has been top notch: fresh and full of flavor. It lasts longer than anything I buy in a grocery store. Some of the local farms that the produce comes from are Wieser Farms, South Central Organic Farms, McGrath Family Farms, K and K Farms, Jiminez Farms, Tutti Frutti Farms and Finley Farms. My delivery arrives on Monday afternoons but on Sunday an e-mail arrives with a list of the items to expect; often there are notations about a specific item, a way to prepare it, or store it. Usually there's a suggested recipe for one or two of the items. Have I said I love this? It's almost like having my own garden -- okay, okay, I did say 'almost.' Another reason I like it is I had been finding it difficult to get to my local farmer's market on a regular basis depending on what else was going on in my life. It has been a perfect solution. I have yet to try the heatable meals and baked goods as the produce is more than enough to feed me for a week but I will try them soon.

Week #1 produce delivery: Candy Striped Beets, Red Carrots, Red Butter Lettuce, Lemon Cucumbers, Leeks, Green Beans, Purple Pole Beans, Saturn Peaches, Majestic Pearl White Nectarines, Black Plum Cherry Tomatoes, Purple Cherokee Tomatoes, Red Onions, Ronde Nice Zucchini, Chiles

Last week's e-mail had an additional touch: a story written by Auntie Em's owner, Terri Wahl, about her gardening trials and tribulations over the years. I found it so interesting and charming that I asked her if I could re-post it, and she agreed. As you will see gardening is not always easy but as both Teri and I know it is immensely satisfying. When the carrot you put in your dinner salad comes out of the garden your hands planted, there's no feeling, or tatse, quite like it.

In Terri Wahl's own words...

I have such a giant respect for farmers -- especially organic farmers after the trials and tribulations with my own garden. I have had a garden every year, in every apartment, duplex and now the house that I live in. When I was eighteen, I moved out of my parent's house, into a 4-plex. I was on the second story. I started a little garden in pots on the balcony. Herbs, cherry tomatoes and carrots. The carrots didn't do too well, the herbs did pretty well, and the cherry tomatoes grew like weeds. My mother was always an avid gardener. She had compost piles before it was the cool thing to do. She explained to me that the things that I planted in pots would do much better if they were in the ground. More nutrients, more water, more sunlight. I dug up parts of yards in rented apartments to plant my little gardens (boy were the landlords pissed). I tore out the ugly perennials the gardeners planted in front of another apartment I lived in and planted away (not enough sun there). But I never gave up.

There were successes along the way, even great veggies that I grew. Back then if you saw mold on the leaves of a zucchini plant or motes on the underside of the leaves of a tomato plant, it was fine to blast them with some crazy toxic anti bug spray. Back then it was also fine to sprinkle everything with some kind of powder that would make everything grow huge. But over the years we have all learned that these pesticides and sprays were harmful, and not the proper way to garden or eat. In the house my husband and I live in now I have had an organic garden plot in four or five different places on our hillside backyard. One place was too shady, one place smack in the way. THEN three years ago, the attack of the gophers. I really thought I'd found the absolute perfect spot. My pastry chef, Michael, and I dug it over, added organic Amend and compost, measured out the perfect rows, and planted every row from seed: heirloom carrots, heirloom beets, Easter egg radishes, leeks, Little Gem lettuces, and rows of different herbs.

I really thought that this was going to be the best and most prolific garden yet. We did everything right. I had plans to use all the produce at the restaurant, and to eat from the garden at home and not buy produce for months, and then we would turn the soil and rotate the crops! Oh yeah, I had it down. I thought I was such a pro. The garden was growing beautifully. Giant green carrot fronds; the beet greens above ground looked so tender and tasty. Then all of a sudden there were two or three carrots, or radishes gone from the end of the rows. The next morning more were gone. I thought my dogs might be digging them up but there were no digging holes. I picked some of the other carrots to see what was up, and all that came out were the green fronds -- no carrots attached. Same with the beets and radishes. SOMETHING was eating them from underneath. My mom came over and saw the little gopher hole about five feet away right away. I got a hose and filled up every hole with water. Flood them out! To no avail. I went online and looked up 'humane' ways to trap them. Not one thing worked. I was so pissed that I stormed down to Home Depot and bought six packs of these crazy big fire cracker-looking things that you're supposed to light and shove down the holes to smoke them out. I would stop at nothing to get them. I paid some 'gopher guy' hundreds of dollars to trap them. Nope! Nothing worked. It was definitely a 'Caddy Shack' situation in my yard. I sadly let my garden die from no water. They were not going to have my lovely garden.

Two sad years went by, and I refused to plant a vegetable garden. This year my husband suggested a new location up and away from all the gopher activity. So I planted another garden. Skeptical at first, but I took the precautions just in case they decided to come up hill to have a nibble on my new garden. I wrapped roots in wire mesh, and the garden started to grow. I had the humane trap guy come back (I negotiated a lower price) and set kill free traps. SO far so good. The score is even though. They ate a zucchini plant and eggplant plant. They literally sucked the whole thing underground, top leaves and all. Gone! But when they started to nibble on two tomato plants, I caught them. I covered their holes, and ruined their tunnel. So I saved those. Everything looks like it is thriving. I check daily (sometimes two or three times). So a tip of the hat to the organic farmers that do this for a livelihood. They battle this problem a hundred fold and have to use non-commercial, humane and organic ways to deal with all pests. It's hard and frustrating. They always seem so positive and upbeat, and I am always so excited to taste and see their bounty.

Reprinted courtesy of Terri Wahl, Auntie Em's Kitchen, Eagle Rock, California

My Status: it's still hot in Los Angeles - upper 90s, summer is really here; enjoying all the summer produce; writing, cooking, blogging and eating!

Upcoming Posts: The Wedge Salad: a recipe, the origins of the salad and of Iceberg lettuce. Review: 'The Barcelona Cookbook'. Pimientos del Padrón: a recipe and pictures from a weekend pepper cooking session with my Galician friend, Júrgio.

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  1. First of all... I LOVE THE PHOTO OF YOU!!

    Second, I am going to have to try Auntie Em's delivery service. Thanks so much for all the info.

    I have a few pots of herbs in my garden near the kitchen door, but my sister is really the green thumb in the family. Her peaches this year were AMAZING.

  2. Thanks Jo! See, that pic just shows that I have been gardening since I was a baby. My next house WILL have a garden. In the meantime, Auntie Em's can feel im. Let me know how it goes if you sign up.

  3. I agree- adorable photo! What a marvelous delivery service. I could get very used to something like that! Please let Terri know that the best way to eliminate gophers is to place a dead rodent (mouse, rat, etc.) into the gopher hole. They will smell the dead rodent and move out of the area. I've done this before and it works wonders!

  4. Thanks Phoo-D! I was already jealous of your and your garden! And I will pass the gopher tip along to Terri - I love that! Have to tell my mother that one too - she's always fending off gophers in her yard.

  5. Invalueable photo for sure! What terrific memories you have of your grandparent's garden. My grandparent's had a ranch when I was growing up & grandma always had quite the garden going. All I can remember though is picking watercress & making watercress & cream cheese sandwiches. And the fig tree too.

  6. Thanks Lori! As you can see I am very happy to have all those memories of my great-grandparents. Love hearing about your grandparent's ranch/garden. And watercress and figs? Watercress and cream cheese sandwiches? All sounds good to me!