Stalking Celery

How is 2023 going for you so far?

It’s a slow and sloppy season on the farm for us, but there are so many little lives under foot that time just flies.  

For myself, I am spending probably more time indoors than ever before right now, trying to give Morgan a hand around the house, and preparing a great deal of food.  I find cooking very relaxing: a little domain of which I am in full control, with no weather, labour or mechanical issues to deal with… Just pleasant tactile and aromatic experiences and a manageable sequence of events with a sweet payoff.

As much as I really really enjoy preparing food, it’s something I rarely have time to indulge in when we actually have all the goodies in the garden.  So, I end up cooking with a relatively limited palate of meat and the traditional winter vegetables.  Given that my primary audience is 3 feet tall or so, a wide variety of ingredients isn’t generally appreciated anyway!

Over the years as a cook, outside of the liberal application of dairy products, I have been quite radical about relying on stuff we grow on the farm.  I am ignorant and stubborn about many things in this way.  As my curiosity expands and the question of “what makes it good?” buries itself deeper and deeper in my psyche, I have conceded some territory to additional ingredients, many of which would be considered backbones of western cuisine.

Wine: who knew that you can add wine to basically everything as you cook?  I didn’t.  I’ve also taken to drinking the stuff (was always just a beer and rye guy) and it certainly enhances your cooking experience on many levels… Of course, you can add beer and rye to your food as well, though I was never that generous – there’s something about the wine that makes you want to share the warmth.

Mushrooms: not being something I’ve ever grown, and something I’ve never had the time or knowledge to forage, I have generally neglected fungi as a cooking ingredient.  It’s something I always noticed in people’s grocery carts and wondered what the heck they’re doing with them.   As I’ve learned, they go well in almost any dish, and can either be the star of the show or play a supporting role.   Mushrooms are something we grow year round in this part of Ontario: they’re produced at scale near Ottawa and in Prince Edward County and also grown by smaller producers even closer to home.  Mushrooms are the definition of a local and sustainable ingredient, maybe we should start carrying them?

Celery: despite being one of the more difficult vegetables to produce, celery’s crunch and distinctive flavour are hard to replicate and widely applied in a variety of dishes.  Celery’s presence in French mirepoix is what has pushed my appreciation over the edge, and is now rendering it a “must have” in my crisper drawer.

Mirepoix is the aromatic foundation for much of “wet” French cooking: 2 parts onion, 1 part carrot, 1 part celery, carefully sauteed without browning to release and coalesce the volatile compounds in the ingredients.   Different cuisines have variations on this: Germans suppengrun relies on leek, carrots and celeriac, Italians soffritto adds tomato and garlic to the mix.   Garlic, onions and ginger serve a similar foundational flavour background in many Eastern cuisines.

So impressed am I with celery’s understated yet irreplaceable quality that I have resolved to attempt to grow it this season.  It is very uncommon for farms of our nature to cultivate it.  The specimens I have seen kicking around the “local food” scene for 20 years do not resemble or taste like what we find at the grocery store.   They’ve been dark green, sprawling (not tall), tough and taste about 10x stronger than what we’re accustomed to.

So specialized is celery production that I noticed the last bunch I bought came here via airplane from Spain.  I will see what I can do with it in our gardens.  My primary resource for this experiment is the 1867 book Gardening for Profit: the first North American book on vegetable production.  At a time when the selection of vegetables on the market was far narrower than today, celery was king.  

The author, Peter Henderson, was a Scottish immigrant who intensively farmed on the New Jersey shores of the Hudson River across from the island of Manhattan.  Not only a successful market gardener, he went on to become a wealthy seed merchant and America’s leading writer on horticultural matters.  Universally beloved, he famously personally read and *immediately responded to* every correspondence he ever received (all 50,000 of them).

Another aspect of the appreciation for Mr. Henderson was for his role in the development of the fledgling vegetable industry.   This was a time when large populations were moving off the land and into congested urban, industrial centres; where for the first time they were entirely dependent on commerce for their food and fresh produce.  Generating large quantities of affordable, high quality of veggies was regarded as a valuable public service, and a healthy highlight in a relatively limited nutritional and culinary landscape.

Today, of course, we are overwhelmed with options, and the produce industry is so productive and specialized that we find ourselves buying celery from Spain.  Thanks to refrigeration, growing vegetables a short trip from the people who eat it, as Mr. Henderson did, is no longer the business paradigm, and the personal connection between growers and eaters is all but gone as well.  The logical conclusion of all of this efficiency is eventually feeding us some sort of optimized kibble ration.  

In the meantime, cooks and consumers such as yourself stand between maintaining the art of thoughtful food preparation and dining, and an ever homogenized food culture (or lack thereof), where eating is regarded as a burden or vice: rather than a pleasure to enjoy for its own sake and to share with those we love.

The only way I can express my appreciation for your continuing support of our small farm is through these little notes, and the ongoing effort we lay out towards each successive season.  Thank you for very literally putting your money where your mouth is, and making a small corner of your countryside bloom with life.

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