Ah, the taste of fresh dirt. I brush some clods of earth from a handful of tiny, just-picked French radishes and devour them, nibbling away like a hungry rabbit. The first bounty of the spring season, they're crisp, spicy and delicate. It's a marvel, really, that these little red firecrackers have grown so quickly in the cold, damp earth of March and April.
The radishes are from my kitchen garden, a small plot of raw dirt just out the back door carved from the uniformity of surrounding suburban greenery. There are neat lines of red radishes, orderly rows of pale green lettuce and an unruly tangle of fragrant mint.
Gardeners have a relationship with the land and seasons that's deeper and more complex than that of someone who simply picks up their lettuce at Kroger. There's a simple pleasure to growing your own vegetables that taps into something on a deep level, activating millennia of human agrarian heritage. Talk to serious vegetable gardeners and you'll see this in their eyes while they wax on about the snap of fresh peas, the taste of tomatoes fresh off the vine, the revelation that is fresh asparagus eaten raw straight from the earth.
Gardeners also have a way of talking about their gardens the way some people talk about their kids. I can't count how many times I've told stories about the sprawling, sun-baked garden I had in Vermont in a big open valley where the coyotes roamed at night. Or the patio garden in Boston that looked like something Martha Stewart dreamed up, with herbs in pots and tomatoes tumbling out of terracotta planters. And, of course, I'll never forget my first garden: a tiny square of dirt where, as kids, my brother and I grew tasty green beans largely for the benefit of the neighborhood rabbit population.
In an increasingly global age, when what we eat is hauled further and further from its source (food in the U.S. typically travels an estimated 2,000 miles to get to your table), being able to walk out to your back yard and eat a fresh radish is a defining and centering pleasure. My refrigerator right now is stocked with itinerant edibles like avocados from Mexico, berries from California and asparagus from Peru. I don't know about you, but I know how I feel when I stumble out of a plane after a long international flight: desiccated, jet-lagged and barely alive. Imagine what this does to your strawberries.
This summer, seize the opportunity to get closer to the earth. At the very least, try one of the local farmers markets where you can buy the freshest of food directly from the people who labor to create it.
If you really want to experience something special, though, grow something of your own. Even in little pots or a small piece of earth, you'll be surprised what you can grow, whether it's fresh herbs, tomatoes or hot chiles.
I guarantee that you'll revel in the difference in taste and freshness and in the simple pride of eating something that you yourself coaxed from the earth.
Contact Craig Bida: cbida(at)citybeat.com