As I’ve written before, it has been a tough spring here in eastern Massachusetts. Lots of rainy, cool weather. It seems now that things are looking up, and some of my favorite spring plants are out in all their glory. The vegetable garden is also taking off (finally).
The other good news is that I am out of the waling boot and mostly back on my feet so I am able to get back up to Appleton Farms to see the girls.
Our daughter loved radishes and so we have been planting, harvesting, and replanting in quick succession and will do so as long as the weather permits (radishes bolt when the warm weather sets in). Radish sprouts are great on salads and sandwiches, and we of course love the full grown radish root. However, radish tops/greens are a different story. Unlike beet greens, radish greens are not as appetizing in their raw state.
The leaves are rough if not somewhat spiny and, of course, they have some zip to them. But after all the effort that goes into planting, we hate to simply toss the greens onto the compost pile. My wife discovered a recipe for radish top pesto that we have really enjoyed over at Genius Kitchen.
2 -3 cups radish greens/radish tops
3 cloves garlic, smashed
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons pine nuts
Salt and pepper to taste
Place the first four ingredients in a food processor and pulse into a fine paste
Add remaining ingredients and pulse to combine
If the pesto is too bitter, add some additional sugar. Adjust salt and pepper to taste.
That’s it, pretty simple. Be forewarned, this pesto is very different from its basil based cousin; the spiciness of the radish definitely comes through! We really enjoyed it though and it was a nice change of pace from the tomato sauce or traditional basil pesto we typically put on pasta. Special thanks to Genius Kitchen user Just Garlic for posting this recipe!
When we tackled the restoration of the back yard we did not have a solid plan in place. I had a rough idea where the hardscaping would go, but we really did not engage in much careful planning since we were most focused on removing invasives and making the ground accessible. Now that the bulk of the hardscape is complete, we are turning our attention toward the plantings. We now think about the garden in terms of “rooms” which must simultaneously have unique characteristics in terms of plants, design, and themes but which must also fit together into a cohesive whole. As we develop the themes for each of the rooms, we will continue to refine those areas to create unique spaces. This means a lot of moving plants, adding plants, and taking away plants. I’m sure that if we had hired a skilled garden designer we could have simply plopped down our plants once and for all and been done with it. I don’t know how much fun that would be though. I like that this garden is evolving and changing over time. I suppose it also reflects my status as an amateur; when I get something right in the garden it is often due to experimentation or happy accident. That’s fine–many great things have come from passionate experimentation and happy accidents.
The bottom left of the garden, the area where the steps that ascend the hill begin is in need of an overhaul. There will be some hardscape work to be done, but nothing nearly as intensive as has been completed over the past few garden seasons. The soil needs improvement so I will need to add substantial amounts of compost. As far as design goes, we envisage a garden “room” that invokes or honors some of my early garden memories; my grandmother’s garden. We are early in the design phase with the idea that hardscape construction and soil amending will happen this fall and planting will be done in the spring of 2020. Here is what the new garden design must accomplish:
The plant materials must be selected from heirloom varieties that would have been common in gardens from the mid 20th century or earlier. The challenge is that many older varieties of herbaceous plants are not widely available in garden centers, so much of the plant material will need to be propagated from seed obtained by firms specializing in heirloom plants. Thankfully there are a few of them.
Though we are creating a unique room in the garden based on heirloom plants, the plant selection must still meet a couple of essential standards: they must be non-invasive, they must attract wildlife, and the majority of the plants must be native species.
The layout of the new garden must invoke vernacular design from the last century which could include garden arbor, formal clipped hedges, or some other features commonly found 60 to 80 years ago.
Undoubtedly this new room will have a unique feel, but it must still have continuity with the rest of the garden.
In short, the garden must pay homage to the past while fitting with the rest of the garden design and keeping to contemporary standards for ecological sensitivity. A garden for the past and the present.
Two initial tasks then. One, Hilary is developing plans to improve the ramped steps that currently serve as the entry to the garden. Task number two is to research plant choices and design features from many decades ago. I have obtained a few vintage gardening books from the 1930s through the 1950s that are a wealth of information and ideas and give me an idea of how people thought about gardens and gardening back then.
Apparently women used to garden in dresses with full makeup and a pearl necklaces, outfits that would have impressed June Cleaver.
Some of the plant choices were also pretty cringe-worthy by modern ecological standards (Privet! English Ivy! Turf!), as was the generous use of pesticides (DDT!).
But, the images I have come across are also evocative of my earliest garden memories and the gardens quite charming with swathes of snapdragons, cone flowers, hollyhocks, bachelor’s buttons, blue bells, and foxglove. It is hard not to be a bit nostalgic or wistful when leafing through these books (and I acknowledge that nostalgia is at least party contingent upon my white male privilege).
One thing that has struck me while reading through these old gardening books is not so much the garden design (predominately formal but some cottage inspiration) but rather the very human and humane scale of the houses. These books were meant to give gardening advice to the average suburban homeowner and so it is the average home that is depicted. Some are classic American vernacular architecture (like a cape or colonial revival) while some are classic mid century modern forms. In all cases, the houses are small but tidy and well balanced and welcoming unlike the post 1970s horror/ crime-against-architecture-and-humanity that is the McMansion. We forget that in 1973 the average house size was a modest but comfortable 1,500 square feet; today that number is 2,467 square feet. In the early 1950s it was only about a thousand square feet! Somehow people managed to comfortably raise larger families in much less space with much less stuff. Go figure.
This is already a fun project and I have not even dug a bit of soil yet. The challenge will be in merging the formal features of mid century American gardens (such as clipped hedges) with the more naturalistic aesthetic we have been following thus far. I believe we are up for such a challenge. Stay tuned for more posts as this project moves along.
I’m not a professional gardener or carpenter or furniture maker or restorer. These things are my passion, but they are not my job. In my professional life, I am an associate professor at a small state university in Massachusetts where I teach courses in public policy, biomedical ethics, and social research. I do love teaching, and I also really enjoy the time I spend working with ethics boards within various medical systems. It is a good job that I mostly enjoy and that affords me a decent salary, benefits, pension, and flexible schedule. I also get a lot of freedom, which I appreciate. How I got here deserves some explanation
A small state school in eastern MA was not what I was trained for–I was trained for a position at a major research University. That I didn’t end up working at an R1 (that is, a PhD granting research institution) surely caused some disappointment among the faculty and deans at the University of Pennsylvania where I earned my masters degrees and doctorate. With all due respect to my beloved professors, I don’t care–I made the right choice.
Life at an R1 university is not for the faint of heart. Your life is tied to an endless cycle of funding proposals, data collection, conference presentations, and publishing, publishing, publishing. Some of that is fine, but at that elite level, the demands for funding and publications affords one little time for other things like, for instance, growing, building, and restoring, not to mention family. No thank you. I received such a great education and my training as a researcher was second to none. I also made a lot of close friends and I remain close to several professors whom I admire deeply. I have no regrets about going to an elite graduate program, but I also have no regrets about turning my back on that particular rat race when it came time to find a faculty position.
I have been enjoying my sabbatical and reading things unrelated to my professional life (don’t be alarmed, I have also wrapped up some research projects). Today, I read through Bill Watterson’s (he of Calvin & Hobbes fame) commencement address at Kenyon College in 1990 and it beautifully expressed the way I think about my own career and extra-curricular pursuits.
“But having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another.
Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success.”
Thankfully, I have had the opportunity to allow my interests and ambitions to spread out over many areas. To be sure, many are linked to my professional life, but many are not except, perhaps, in a very abstract sense. I am an ambitious person and I there are few things I love more than tackling an ambitious project; that should be obvious given the things I write about her. However, my ambitions are diffuse rather than focused. Does that make me a bad academic? Perhaps in the R1 sense of the term. Does it make me a happy person? Absolutely it does.
“Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.”
I would not consider my job undemanding; being a good teacher (and that is a title I will claim) takes work, as does publishing and consulting. But I get his point. Again, there were some folks at my graduate program who really did not understand why I didn’t want to go to an R1. It was hard to explain that there were other really, really important things I simply refused to sacrifice in order to get there. I don’t know if that makes me a flake.
You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.
I’ve written before that people often say to me things like “how do you find the time” or “I wish I had time to work in the garden.” For one, I don’t spend several hours a day watching TV or scrolling through a Facebook feed as the average American does. Secondly, I consider things in terms of opportunity costs–a tip I learned by reading the chapter “economy” in Thoreau’s Walden many years ago. I want a bigger house or a newer car or a few thousand dollars more in my salary. O.K., what do I give up to get those things? Time away from my family? Less time to teach my daughter how to use hand tools? Must I give up volunteering at my daughter’s school or serving on the board of my local farmer’s market or homeless shelter? Do I need to cut back on how much time I spend in my garden or at my workbench or writing this blog? Is it worth giving up those things in order to have a bit more money? The answer is usually no.
This is not to imply that I am endorsing hedonism. I am doing no such thing. In fact, I believe that the whole point of life is to be spirited and useful and not just self indulgent. I am simply saying that the demands of more work and greater efficiency in order to pursue yet probably never achieve an artificially narrow definition of success and happiness forces us to disregard all of the manifold ways that we may contribute to the welfare and happiness of our family, our community, our environment, and yes, ourselves.
“To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.”
Like last year, this has been a cold and wet spring. Northern New England got snow the night of May 13th, while here along the Massachusetts coast the nighttime temp last night was upper 30s to low 40s. They are calling for the same again tonight. I hurriedly put row cover over my garden to keep my peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes toasty while we wait for real spring weather.
I have traditionally planted out my tender veggies on mothers day weekend–looks like I should have waited a bit! For now, the garden sits in a holding pattern while we wait for sun and warmer temps to get things moving along. The doldrums this has engendered in me is exasperated by the fact that I am just now able to get back into the garden following surgery to repair my Achilles tendon. I excitedly got rid of the cast, off the crutches, and into a walking boot, only to find myself hobbling from the couch and into a cold drizzle. Bummer.
Late-autumn-weather-in-spring notwithstanding, we have managed to get some work done. Before going in for surgery, we wrapped up the hardscaping and regrading at the “top” of our yard.
After I got off my crutches and into a walking boot I planted grass at the top of the hill. I then planted some of the relatively shallow, rock areas around the new steps with succulents and alpine plants.
I’ve been obsessively watching the British gardening show Gardeners’ World (more on that at a later date) on BritBox. They often feature scree gardens, and while I know what scree is, I had never heard of a scree garden before. I’m quite glad that I now have. I filled in the new steps and walkway with river stone (slightly bigger than pea stone) after planting some tough alpine plants that can handle both rocky, sandy soil and moderate foot traffic.
I did finally get a holly bush moved and replaced it with one of my all time garden favorites, Viburnum
I also planted an homage to my father-in-law Jim, wife Hilary, and daughter Elsie’s heritage: a trio of Korean lilacs.
And lastly, we did get out window boxes planted. Elsie took charge.
So, a slow start weather wise, but the garden has not been without activity. My growing, building, and restoring activities are so tied to seasons that this late start to spring feels like a real disruption. We plant in the spring, grow in the summer, and harvest and preserve in the fall. After I put the garden to bed I take up my tools and spend the late autumn and winter in the woodshop. After a long New England winter I am desperate to start the cycle over again, and so the cold rainy spring has certainly dampened my mood a bit. It will change though, and the warm weather will be here to stay, and soon enough I’ll probably be complaining about how hot it is.
Zero waste sounds like a lofty goal, and it is, but rather than be intimidated by it we should remember that “perfect is the enemy of the good,” or perhaps even the possible. So while we (and this is a team effort between my daughter Elsie, wife Hilary, and me) we strive to do our best, we recognize that though we may not be perfect we can always do better than we do now. So, when we say zero waste, we really mean minimal waste. We are taking steps toward dramatically reducing 1. the waste we put out for curb collection, and 2. our use of plastics overall. This second point is important given the current crisis in plastics recycling. Hilary is the one who has planted the seed for our family, but we all share a deep concern over environmental issues so she didn’t have to work too hard to get Elsie and me in board. My passion for building and growing and restoring is inseparable from my environmentalism and is rooted in my concerns about the impact of modern technology and consumer culture. Our move to zero waste will, I think, intersect with woodworking, gardening, and restoring is interesting ways: these activities will help our efforts in some ways (restoring means reusing, and the composting we do significantly reduces waste), but will be challenging in other ways (the dreaded black plastic nursery pot for instance).
There are many really great blogs that cover zero waste living. I’m partial to this one, but there are lists of other “top” zero waste blogs that give great tips on minimizing waste in the home: using travel mugs, switching away from liquid soaps and shampoos, buying in bulk, etc.
We are progressively adopting these practices in the home, but I’m mostly interested here in considering the unique advantages and challenges for gardeners. Later on, I’ll tackle zero waste issues in the wood shop.
Advantages and challenges
In some ways, we have already been operating on a zero waste philosophy. Most gardeners do. First off, we compost everything we can from food scraps to the cardboard rolls from toilet paper. Very little from the kitchen goes down the garbage disposal. Obviously, we don’t compost meat or grease, but just about any other scraps from the kitchen are fare game. That equals a significant waste stream reduction.
There are however two big sources of plastic in the garden that present challenges: the plastic bags in which compost, mulch, and potting soil are packaged, and the plastic pots that come from the nursery and plastic trays and cells that are used for propagation. Eliminating these sources of plastic is challenging, if not impossible given our current infrastructure. Here are the ups and downs and challenges and victories of going zero waste in the garden:
1. We produce a good bit of our own compost, and when we run out, we have the luxury of access to free municipal compost through the Marblehead transfer station. It’s a great deal if you don’t mind filling up your buckets and trugs and hauling them in your own car (and I don’t mind, which is why my wife drives a new car while I drive a used one).
2. I order my bark mulch in bulk and have it delivered, or I use leaf mold which I produce myself. I like to use a coarse wood chip for the paths in the vegetable garden, and I also get that for free from the transfer station (see above).
3. Potting mix/peat/vermiculite. Well, there is no getting around this one. Until garden centers start selling in a “fill your own container” format, I am forced to purchase it in 1, 2 or 3 cubic foot bags. Now, being that we are a seaside town our transfer station has a special drop off area for plastic boat wrap. I am am still waiting on an answer at to whether I can deposit plastic soil and peat bags there.
4. Plant pots. This one is another tough one. New plants, shrubs, and trees come in black plastic pots that range in size from small plugs and “six packs” to 5 gallon. If you are going to buy new plants, there is really no getting around the fact that they will come in plastic–occasionally you will find peat pots, but mostly it is plastic. The best bet is to recycle these pots as if you can (there are challenges for commercial recyclers) or reuse them at home for plant propagation over and over and over until they they break (then recycle them if you can). If you are buying trees or shrubs, try to buy them “B&B” (balled and burlaped), all of which goes in the ground and decomposes. I am also told that Lowe’s will take nursery pots for reuse and recycling (assuming you live near one).
5. Our goal should be not just to reuse or recycle, but to minimize our use of plastic pots all together. It is great if we can recycle plastic, but there is still a large energy input required to do so. For propagating at home, try to use alternatives to plastic pots. Currently I am experimenting with peat plugs, cow pots, and paper pots in place of the flimsy plastic cell trays that have a limited life span.
6. The old adage of “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” still applies. In the past I’ve purchased I don’t know how many plastic watering cans only to have them split, break, or otherwise fail after a distressingly short period of time. No more. Now I only buy used/vintage galvanized cans. Occasionally I have some repairs to do, but they last for years and years, and when they finally rust through, steel is readily recyclable.
7. As money permits, purchase high quality tools once and you will likely never have to purchase them again. That means less going to the landfill. For instance, a pair of Felco #2 pruners may run you double the cost (they retail for about $50) of a middle of the road pair but they are very durable, easily resharpened, and most parts (most importantly the blades) are replaceable. This means you don’t need to pitch them altogether and buy new pair if one component happens to wear out. I’ve had mine about 15 years and they have seen heavy if not downright abusive use; I’ve replaced the blade once at a cost of about $10. I keep them sharp, lubricated, and clear of sap, and with some basic routine maintenance they work as well now as they did brand new. And by the way, I would not have even had to replace the blade had I not used them to cut some hard steel wire that damaged the edge beyond what I could grind out. The other lesson is to not (overly) abuse your tools.
8. I’ve stopped buying plastic plant labels and switched to using wood or bamboo. Both materials will biodegrade in the compost pie, though the bamboo will probably do so a bit faster.
The point here is not to be self righteous, but rather to talk about some of the successes we have had–this is tempered by the challenges we face and the places we fall short. In the end though, it makes little sense to restore our backyard habitat or grow our own vegetables if we don’t do our utmost to reduce the negative externalities those activities produce. I’ll continue to try new things and consult with others to find ways of reducing the waste produced by our gardening and thereby increasing the net benefit of our efforts. I’ll be sure to report back on how the paper pots hold up. Next year I will be creating a new garden area, and one of the ways I am going to minimize the use of plastic is to propagate most of the new perennials myself.
This fall I will put the garden to bed and return to my wood shop. Expect another post looking out ways of reducing the waste stream from my shop. Gardening, building, and restoring should be acts of environmentalism, activities that that engender thoughtfulness and care and are a bulwark against mindless consumption To minimize the environmental impact associated with these activities is not just something nice to do, but rather, goes to the core of the philosophy behind those activities.
I grew up in Eastern Pennsylvania along the Perkiomen Creek. The creek was wide and slow in parts, and in others, ran more swiftly cutting narrow valleys through farm fields and woodland. The damp cold and ash gray gloom of late winter and early spring proved irresistible to me, and it was surely one of the times I felt the greatest communion with the land. I spent many chilly weekend afternoons and evenings after school exploring the wild places and fallow fields around my home. Decades later, I read a passage in Henry Bugbee’s The Inward Morning about his own youthful excursions into the late winter wilderness. He found in cold, gray swamps of his youth a great sense of happiness in being in a vast wilderness despite the cold and the damp. Reading his essay It immediately brought me back to the fields and valleys and woodlands surrounding the Perkiomen creek.
I don’t know if happiness is the word I’d use to describe the feeling (as Bugbee does), but I understand what Bugbee was getting at. The late winter and early spring landscape provided me then–and still does today–a quiet moment for contemplation when the snow has faded but life has yet to make a bold vernal return. Inevitably though while tromping through the woods in the dusky haze one would fine a few harbingers of things to come. Even while there was still a chill in the air, the flat colors of the boggy stream bottoms would be punctuated by the fresh green of the emerging Symplocarpus foetidus, known to most as skunk cabbage. A bit later in April another sign of Spring’s arrival started to form dense colonies on woodland floors: Podophyllum peltatum, commonly known as the Mayapple. New life and the promise of summer was on the horizon. Sounds like a perfect plant to add life to the spring garden.
This woodland perennial is native to the eastern United States and hardy in zones 3 through 8. In recent decades other Podophyllum from Asia have been introduced (P. delavayi or Dysosma delavayi–Chinese Mayapple—is particularly stunning), but we grow the native species. Podophyllum likes woodland shade to part shade in cool, rich soil, and can grow up to about 12 inches tall. The American Horticultural Association notes that the native Mayapple will quickly colonize, and, they caution, can be “too aggressive.” That has not been my experience in my garden, but that may be due to the fact that my plantings are occupying relatively small shaded areas in marginal soil. The plant spreads rhizomatously and can be propagated by division in early spring at the first signs of new growth. Podophyllum received its common name due to the 2 inch fruit that turns from green to custard colored as it ripens in about mid summer. There is some debate online and in print regarding the edibility of the fruit; if eaten before ripening, the fruit of the Mayapple (which contains podophyllotoxin which is used to treat warts) can cause intestinal upset. I’ve never tried it, nor do I intend to, but I have read that they are tasty. I’ll take others’ word for it. Apparently the fruit of the Asian varieties is used in traditional medicines while the fruit of the P. peltatum was used medicinally by Native Americans. The leaves and roots are DEFINITELY poisonous. By late summer, the plant will die back and go into dormancy awaiting the next spring.
P. peltatum is hardly a big attention grabber–not terribly tall and lacking in big showy displays–this woodland stalwart disappears from the garden by mid to late summer, giving way to more ostentatious perennials. However, the Mayapple gives every gardener what he or she so desperately needs, a shot of early green. As it happens, that early green comes in the form of a cluster of lovely umbrella shaped leaves that bear a delicate white flower and yellow fruit that has been an important part of the traditional medicine of tow very old and very rich cultures. And, no doubt, there is for me a bit of sentimentality at work as well. Perhaps the Mayapple is not such a modest addition to the garden after all?
I’ve written quite a bit on our efforts to restore the back yard, which, isn’t really a yard. As a recap, starting about 5 feet from the back door our property rises nearly 20 feet over a run of about 20 to 30 feet. You can see in the picture below the view across the first set of retaining walls that sit atop the rock outcropping.
This outcropping of the Salem Gabbro-Diorite creates a low ridge that emerges suddenly from otherwise level ground and runs about 500 feet or so parallel to our street before dipping back down. The formation is evident in a few of my neighbor’s yards, but is most pronounced in mine. Turning this outcropping into accessible ground has been a lot of work: removal of invasive species, replanting with native plants, terracing, building steps, etc. Challenging yet rewarding, and the work is ongoing.
Last year we terraced off a small section along the right hand edge of our property in order to put in a vegetable garden. The area had previously been overrun with invasive like multiflora rose and shaded by a Norway maple. After removing these invasive we were left with an area of marginal ground. The soil was relatively shallow (little more than a foot in spots), rocky, and lacking in substantial organic material. The terracing helped increase the soil depth a bit and I was able to introduce some organic material into the soil.
Our first year’s garden was moderately successful. Truth be told, I didn’t have very high expectations for year one, knowing how poor the conditions were. Our tomatoes did O.K., as did the squash. The beets really struggled, as did the eggplant. I suspect soil PH and nutrients were at issue. The soil was also pretty compacted in spots. Despite those struggles I was happy that anything grew given how poor the conditions were before we constructed the low retaining wall and started the process of reclaiming that small bit of land.
Nearly a year later, we were ready to move on to step two which was to construct raised beds. The goal was to buy ourselves a little more soil depth, increase soil fertility, and ameliorate the problem of soil compaction. In the early 2000s, I managed a community gardening program in Wilmington, DE run by the Delaware Center for Horticulture. The problems faced by the community gardeners I worked with in that urban environment were similar to what I am dealing with here: nutrient poor, highly compacted soils. In Wilmington we had bricks and concrete in soil whereas here I have rock. About the only thing I’m not dealing with–thankfully–is soil pollution (Wilmington had elevated levels of lead and arsenic). Our solution there was also to build raised beds.
There is nothing complex about building raised beds. The only real question is the type of material you want to use. Obviously the fact that there is soil contact means that natural materials will eventually decompose and need to be periodically replaced. Pressure treated lumber is less toxic than it used to be since it no longer contains arsenic–nevertheless, I didn’t want to use PT lumber in my veggie garden. Cedar is rot resistant as is cypress but both were cost prohibitive. I also considered Douglass fir, though that ain’t cheap either. As this is a project on a budget (I have a Disney vacation to pay for) I simply used pine 2 x 8. I expect I’ll get no more than three or four years out of it before I need to rebuild. In the meantime. I am going to work on sourcing recycled plastic timbers like I used in Wilmington or perhaps I’ll find a source for cypress.
The beds were assembled with simple butt joints fastened with decking screw. I drove some stakes into the ground to stabilize the frames. I filled the beds with compost, peat , and a bit of vermiculite. That’s it. Easy. We are going to use square foot gardening to maximize out limited space–another technique that I learned doing community gardening.
We are approaching mid spring and have already planted carrots, radishes, spinach, lettuce, and onions. Elsie was if course in on the action.
As she planted she was humming and singing this great old song. I’ll post more as the gardening season progresses.
Atop the dry sink in our dining room is one of my favorite photographs. It is my maternal grandmother and grandfather’s wedding photo from 1928 or 1929. All of the grandchildren called them “Babu” and “Didu,” which were shortened versions of the Ukrainian words for grandmother and grandfather “babusya” and “didus”
My grandparent’s were Ukrainian. Babu was born in Galicia (an area that straddled the border region between modern day Poland and Ukraine) as a subject of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Didu was born in the U.S. to parents who were also ethnic Ukrainians from Galicia; as a boy his family returned to what is now Ukraine but shortly thereafter returned to the U.S. Babu and Didu spoke Ukrainian, attended the Ukrainian Catholic church in Chester, PA, and they ate Ukrainian food. I was very close to them both and there are few people I respect or admire more. They exemplified the American immigrant experience, and their hard work, self sacrifice, and thrift laid the foundation for their childrens’ and grandchildrens’ success. They were also deeply involved in their church and community. Babu died in 1992, and Didu died just a few years later. I absolutely adored them and all these years later I still think about them frequently.
Apart from the virtues and values they passed along, I also learned from Babu how to make varenyky (know to many people as the pirogi). Foods from our childhood are often filled with great memories. Proust puts it better than I ever could:
“But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.” —Swann’s Way
That is the inextricable link between food and memory. So when our daughter Elsie had a world cultures themed meeting for her Girl Scout troop I took a trip down memory lane and made some varenyky. Memories for me, and a chance for her to share her Ukrainian heritage with her fellow scouts.
It is a simple dish; at their most basic, varenyky is just potato filling wrapped in pasta dough, sort of like an Eastern European ravioli. There are several variations on the filling including sauerkraut, mushrooms, and fruit filling. I opted to make an North American adaptation of the original Ukrainian varenyky using a filling of potato and cheddar (though I believe Babu used American cheese in hers). I had forgotten how much work they were, but I was helped along by three prized possessions: I have the bowl, rolling pin, and biscuit cutter Babu used and that I would have used as a kid. I’m not sure how old they are, but I’m guessing they date to the 1930s.
It appears that at some point the handle on Babu’s biscuit cutter came off or broke off. Ever thrifty, Didu repaired it with a bit of metal and a couple of screws rather than spend what at the time was probably 25¢ for a new one. Didu certainly lived by the mantra “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” He was a spirited man. He fixed or built almost everything himself; I remember him building his own electric lawnmower from a discarded mower deck and a washing machine motor. He never wasted and rarely threw things away. He was green before people knew what that was.
You always make the filling first. In fact, I make it the day before so it has ample time to cool in the refrigerator before use. There are many variations on the filling, but here is a basic one to get you started.
1 small onion
1 tablespoon butter
2 1/2 cups cold mashed potatoes (I use Yukon gold)
1 cup shredded cheddar, farmer, or American cheese
Salt and black pepper
Saute the onion in the butter for 5 to 10 minutes until soft and translucent. Add the onion to the mashed potato and allow to cool. Stir in the cheese and season with salt and pepper. Cover and chill in the refrigerator for a couple of hours or, ideally, overnight. If you have some leftover sauerkraut from your winter provisioning, chill some of that and use it in place of the potato filling on a couple, just to try it out.
The dough is also a relatively simple affair.
2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
2 extra large egg yolks, beaten
1 tablespoon melted butter
You can use a mixer or food processor to make the dough, or you can mix by hand which is what I do. Combine the salt and flour in a bowl or in your mixer or food processor.
To the mixture add the egg yolks and 7 to 8 tablespoons of cool water a few tablespoons at a time. To do it by hand I make a well in the middle of the flour where I start by adding the yolks and 3 or 4 tablespoons of water. I then gather the flour to the center and begin mixing, adding more water as needed until the dough comes together and I have the consistency I want. If you are using a mixer or food processor, start by adding the egg while the machine is running then slowly add water until the dough binds around the paddle, hook, or blade. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth. Place the dough in a bowl and cover with a towel. Allow to rest for 20 minutes.
Making the varenyky
Before you start rolling out the dough, put a large pot of salted water on the stove and turn it on high heat so that it will come to a boil as you are assembling your varenyky.
I have a secret weapon that Babu did not: pasta rollers for my kitchen aid mixer. The dough tends to be fairy springy and I find it much easier to use pasta rollers. Babu never used anything but a rolling pin. I like to divide the dough into thirds or quarters and work in small batches. I roll out the dough to a thickness of about 1/4 inch before putting it through the pasta roller. I run it through on the widest setting to start working the dough before setting the rollers to give me a dough with a final thickness of about 1/16th of an inch. After it is rolled out, lay the dough on a floured surface and use a cutter to cut circles. I use Babu’s biscuit cutter which is about 2 or 2 1/2 inches in diameter; many contemporary recipes use a 3 or 4 inch cutter. Your call, just adjust the amount of filling accordingly.
After you have cut out a bunch of dough circles you can assemble the varenyky. Depending on the size of the circles you have cut, you will take 1/2 to 1 tablespoon of the filling and roll it into a ball. Place the ball in the middle of the circle and while holding the verenyky with your thumbs and middle fingers (like you are rolling a cigarette…or something else) press the filling lightly into the dough while folding up and stretching the dough over the filling.
Be careful not to allow the filling to touch the edges of the dough or it will not seal properly. Seal the edge by pinching it closed or, as I do it, pressing the edges together with the tines of a fork.
Working in batches, drop the varenyky into the boiling water and cook for 4 to 5 minutes. Remove them with a slotted spoon and drain thoroughly before placing them in a bowl or dish and drizzling with a bit of melted butter or oil to keep from sticking. To serve, saute the varenyky in butter and onions. Plate them along with plenty of onions and a dollop of sour cream. No, it is not the healthiest meal, but varenyky are a nice treat now and again. Then again, perhaps it isn’t the caloric and fat content of the food as much as the quantity and attitude toward foods that matter most. Babu and Didu lived on a steady diet of varenyky, kielbasa, and stuffed cabbage but they were not gluttonous people; neither of them were obese and both lived into their late 80s. An anecdote I know, but something worth thinking about.
I made a couple of dozen for the girl scout meeting and they were gone in no time. It takes some time and effort but the varenyky aren’t too hard to make and they are always a huge hit. It was also a chance to think about my Babu and Didu while I puttered away in the kitchen. All these decades later I could still hear her leaning over my shoulder saying “oh, you make them soooo pretty.” She was an endless fount of pride and love and encouragement. Thanks, Babu!
I often hear people say that “kids these days don’t know where their food comes from” or that “kids think food comes from the grocery store.” That’s hyperbole. I’m pretty sure most kids beyond the toddler years understand that there are places call farms where food is grown and livestock are raised. But, I understand the concerns implicit in these somewhat exaggerated claims: we are ever further removed from food production as fewer and fewer people make their living from agriculture and fewer people live in proximity to active farms. So, I’d like to amend the above claims to say that “kids these days don’t understand the work, energy, and sacrifice that go into raising food.”
It is not the knowledge of what a farm is, but rather, what a farm demands and what a farm means that we lose sight of. It is the loss of the culture of agriculture that Wendell Berry has warned us about for almost half a century now. My friend Jay (who works on the land) recently sent me an article about the need for a “chore culture”as a means for cultivating the virtues of hard work, commitment, and responsibility. It really struck home. These virtues have always been integral to the agricultural narrative, but of course translate into success in any sphere: family, community, and career. This is part of what we lose as fewer and fewer people make a living from the land and mix their labor with the soil in order to meet the basic needs of the community; we have ever fewer people whose lives exemplify those core virtues of work and thrift and sacrifice and commitment. No wonder we throw away so much food in this country–it is cheap not only in price, but also in the values we once affixed to its production. Our food is no longer set against a larger horizon of significant people, places, practices, and values.
We don’t all need to move onto a farm to revive the culture of agriculture. Gardening is a great way to introduce kids to the connection between the soil, labor, and the food we consume. It also teaches care and patience.
I am also grateful for having the opportunity to include my daughter in the volunteer work I do at Appleton Farms where she learns about the effort that goes into the gallon of milk in our refrigerator.
When we visit my friend Jay, she understands the daily chores that go into the carton of eggs we use for breakfast. She also learns what it means to be respectful toward and show gratitude for animals, even those that are being raised for food.
The point of all of this? If we wish to cleave to the virtues of thrift, commitment, hard work, and sacrifice that we claim are the foundation for our welfare and prosperity, we must seek out the places where we can transmit those values to our children. Those places are fewer and farther between, but they are there if you go looking for them, perhaps even in your own back yard.