Connecting the Dots with Vegetable Literacy

Eggplant in Bloom

‘Vegetable Literacy’ is centered on 12 plant families and how they meet in the kitchen. It’s also a cookbook (some 300 recipe). Mostly it’s about connecting the dots between botany and the garden and the cook. People ask me what inspired this exploration and I have to say that I don’t recall a single moment in which that intention suddenly leaped to the fore. It was more like the idea of botanical families and the relationship between them and the kitchen had been there for a long time. Maybe it’s in my genes—my father was a botanist and gardener and farmer among other things. And even though it didn’t occur to me plant anything until I was in my mid-thirties, something must have rubbed off.  And it rubbed off from my botanist brother, Michael, my many farmer friends and the gardeners I have known. Most of all, though, it was starting to garden that made plants and their families come into view with increasing clarity. Once I started to grow vegetables, I saw them in different ways: how much space they need, how large and many their leaves, how similar the blossoms within a family, the possibilities of eating more of them then what we see in the store or even the farmers market—hence the many little pointers about eating the whole plant—and more. The garden reveals the big and sometimes gnarly world that lies behind the pretty vegetable.

I’m the last person to write a book about gardening, and this isn’t a garden book. I’m still a beginning gardener; a fumbler in the garden. Here it is March and I haven’t even planted my peas. Expert or not, it’s amazing what a garden can teach one. It gets you to open your eyes and all of the sudden plants connect to one another, to you, and your cooking like never before. It’s a deep thrill that also be a cheap thrill. You don’t need an acre. Grow a pot of cilantro and use those little green balls before they become dried coriander and you have a really special treat. Or try a larger pot of chard, and an even larger container of potatoes. One caveat is that you do have to be there for your garden and this is the one thing I really  had to work to make possible. No traveling in summer. No more teaching or going off here and there. It worked. But ironically, it looks like this summer I’m going to be away from my garden too much to take proper care of it doing what?  Walking around the country with ‘Vegetable Literacy’ in tow.

Presenting a book to the world is always a thrill and something of surprise. Here I am hunkered down in my office or out in the garden, and suddenly ‘Vegetable Literacy’ is out there, no longer my near secret activity of the past two years. As my artist husband says about his paintings, he wants them to “grow up and go to college” – that is, get out there in the world, and it’s the same with a book. Although this first foray into the world feels tender and vulnerable; a bit of shock, really, I’m thrilled to have had the chance to write ‘Vegetable Literacy’. I hope it inspires those who read it as it did me while writing it.

And tell me if you wish, what plant families are you drawn to?  In the garden or in the kitchen.

 

11 comments to Connecting the Dots with Vegetable Literacy

  • I love the nightshades. Tomatoes, especially. Heirloom tomatoes are my gardening passion, and they appear in most meals, one way or another, from July through October.

    Thank you for all of the heart and soul you poured into this book. I’ve prepared two dishes already, and I just can’t seem to leave it rest.

  • Adele

    Being of Italian descent I grew up with my Grandparents growing lots of fruits and vegetables Myself, due to an injury, am now limited sadly but I do grow what I can in the climate I am living in at the time. I grow many herbs and of course tomatoes, salad greens and squash when I can. Some strawberries and lots of citrus currently. I am living in a hot climate so a lot of the things I was able to grow in the north do not do well in the high heat and humidity but I have adjusted and grow what I can, even some grey leaf herbs that everyone says not to grow here.
    I have not had the opportunity to see your book as yet but am looking foward to getting it soon.
    Thanks Deborah

  • Ali

    I picked up the book today after a very long week and am just about to delve into it, very excitedly! I, too, share a penchant for nightshades above all others, probably because they’re available for such a short time each year. On the other hand, the allium family is the one I truly could never live without since it makes the months of fall/winter/spring greens so much more interesting!

    Deborah, I’m also thrilled you’ll be speaking next month not 10 blocks from my house-really looking forward to it and will make a list between now and then of how many friends and family I will send your new child (that sounds funny, but it seems relevant to your husband’s comment).

    • It’s absolutely how it feels – not that I have any children, but books really are like these tender little babies when they first come out – not at all toughened to the world. Puts me on pins and needles!

  • Congratulations, Deborah! I hope to be able to take a close look at your new book soon and maybe catch you as you walk around the country this summer. My dreams of growing tomatoes and zucchini clashed with the reality of the climate I live in and my very limited gardening skills, so my little plot has kale, collard greens and chard: I see no reason to fight the fact that they do well here and with me. They are great ingredients anyway. I don’t think there is a specific family that attracts me more than others. I like variation and I like to follow the seasons: I am still enjoying Brussels sprouts while looking forward to peas and leeks. I do love leeks. I like the challenge a “new” vegetable issues to me: what can you do with me?

  • Adrienne

    Deborah, your new book is beautiful and informative as well as containing some great recipes. Your books continue to inspire me – now in the garden as well as the kitchen. Congratulations!

  • Greg

    What happens when you grow your own vegetables is you appreciate the people that produce food for a living. It risky, creative, difficult work. I don’t complain about what I pa at the farmers market anymore.

  • Ms. Madison,

    I suppose I have no right to comment on “Vegetable Literacy” yet, seeing as I’ve not yet finished it (or finished the carrot chapter…Umbelliferae!).

    But. I have a hunch that I won’t ever look at the vegetable world the same ever again. To become aware of vegetable relationships and families, to fully realize there are awesome forces at work in nature.

    So, thank you! Thank you for being the bringer of this knowledge!

    And now, I shall continue reading.

    Heather N.

  • My daughter Amy (24) and I (recently retired!) love your book and have decided to take a chapter each month and focus on the garden and the vegetable group. Do you have a recommended order and planting guide? We are in the Pasadena CA area.

    Thank you for the gift of this book!

    Mary Ann Laun

    • Mary Ann – what an interesting project! You have a lot more possibilities in Pasadena than I do in New Mexico —no snows, no freezes and that sort of thing. But I might check
      with your local garden club, botanical society, or Master Gardeners as to what to actually plant when. And not all members of the same family necessarily want to be planted at the
      same time. Lettuce you could probably do now. Radicchio (same family – Asteraceae) – is better when it gets some cold weather, so you might want to wait quite a while so that your heads are ready when it’s
      cooled down. But I hope you have fun with this project. I too like to focus on a family each season that I can plant. That’s why I ended up planting cumin, anise and other herbs along with carrots
      and their relatives – easy to buy, but fun to grow at least once! Good luck, have fun!

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