John’s World: Our Garden of Eatin'

September 8, 2010 11:32 AM

There are rare occasions when I can look upon the concept of vegetarianism and not be utterly mystified. Like late summer, when the picking is easy. Of course, chewing your way through nearly expired root vegetables in late winter would inspire most of us to keep a nice, fresh pig or two around, as our ancestors did.

But as our home garden expands and fortune smiles, fresh plant life isn’t so bad. Even with our incredible food system, homegrown is almost always better. Or at least unique.

I am—to the continued amazement of my friends—still married to a master gardener and gourmet chef. No, this is not “Big Love,” just an undeserved dual talent in a single person who, according to her sisters, “settled way too soon” in the matrimonial game.

Be that as it may, around late February, Jan vibrates with the anticipatory fervor to garden. It could be all of the meetings and garden shows she has attended or just being cooped up with me for several months. Regardless, it is the beginning of happy things for me and my digestive tract.
The garden season opens up with modest offerings: leaves. That first triumphal harvest of varied greens from a cold frame is very exciting but hardly flavor-intense. About the only thing I know about such early season gathering is that there is an esoteric salad green called frisée that looks eerily like chickweed. It’s a mistake anyone could make, I tell you. Actually, the chickweed tastes slightly better, I think.

So I don’t get sent out to pick the salad anymore, as you might guess. But the days soon lengthen and serious vegetables are put into play, such as the first tender spears of asparagus. Followed by larger, robust asparagus. Spears begin appearing in surprising menu locations, such as asparagus and gravy; bacon, lettuce and asparagus sandwiches; and, toward the grisly end of harvest, the dreaded asparagus martini.

So by the time strawberries ripen, they are welcomed like volunteers for the membership committee. Having narrowly escaped asparagus overdosing, we launch into the next inning of produce excess with gusto. But again, after a few weeks of perfect, red-clear-through sweet berries, the thrill wanes. Eventually, there is not enough whipped cream in Wisconsin to tempt you to another helping.

We’ve only just begun. There are beans, radishes, carrots, corn and a myriad of other initially tasty waves to crash upon your summer palate. Mercifully, potatoes and onions are self-preserving and avoid wearing out their welcome.

Lurking ahead is the Godzilla of Garden Gorging: the tomato. In production years where heat and rain combine to perfection, porches and counters strain under the load of those red, juicy acid-bombs. The first is ambrosia, the second hundredweight a joy, the next few tons a grim table duty, and finally you’re sneaking out to the garden at night and throwing them into the cornfield. Meanwhile, your pH has dropped to about 2.7 and your gums are as tender as a pineapple-glutted Hawaiian tourist.

With any luck, some relief will come in the form of an always unpredictable peach crop. Good peaches can battle tomato overload to provide a culinary counterpoint for midsummer, at least. Peaches are fickle, however, being either spectacular or utterly forgettable.

Note that I have only mentioned what I consider to be righteous vegetables, i.e., plants that do not begin with a funny letter. This leaves out, for example, kale, zucchini, okra, etc. (Technically, o is not a funny letter, but it’s way too close to k, which is.)

In fact, it should be clear to any casual observer that zucchini is actually a weed. It never fails—you could have a total wipeout of your garden and still be foisting those counterfeit cucumbers off on distant relatives. Plants that can’t miss are de facto weeds, I say. Nobody talks about a “poor ragweed year,” for example.

More importantly, it is essentially tasteless, if not inedible. Cooks have to devise ways to trick innocent eaters. Zucchini bread, for example, is not bread. It is cake—another way (similar to cold fruit soups) to have dessert before the end of the meal. If it were really bread, you could order a ham and swiss on zucchini, right? I rest my case and hope we can stamp out this unnecessary and possibly life-threatening garden pest.

The sequence is perversely repetitive. We mysteriously forget the lamentable end of these gorging cycles and line up next year for more. No wonder we have canine teeth.

John Phipps farms in Illinois and is the host of “U.S. Farm Report.” Visit for station listings. To view past columns, visit or

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