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Seed Catalogs a Throwback to Yesteryear

By Ben L. Kaufman · March 7th, 2012 · On Second Thought
A printed news source I can’t do without comes unfailingly in the mail: seed catalogs.  Forget Hindu, Jewish, Chinese or Gregorian new years. Delivery of the first seed catalogs starts my new year before Thanksgiving.  

There’s little I can do to respond to sub-Saharan hunger and malnutrition caused by deforestation, overgrazing, political/religious/tribal violence, drought or climate change. Seed catalogs, however, provide news that affects what’s on my dinner plate. 

As current editions arrive, I recycle older copies, drop in new catalogs into my milk-crate hanging files. I read and remember them as I do other news sources. 

Many seed suppliers have websites but they’re as satisfying as “vine ripened” tomatoes from the store. 

For days, I agonize over varieties of peas, tomatoes, peppers, egg plants, leeks, basil, garlic, beans, carrots, parsley and my limited urban space. I calculate ways to finesse my limited ability to rotate crops and my need to amend soil with manure and leaves. 

And my mind skips to St. Patrick’s Day when I can begin planting peas if the soil is dry enough.  Meanwhile, I’m harvesting leeks, onions, parsley and carrots planted last year and anticipating digging garlic planted last autumn.

In this continuity of life, credulity reigns at the expense of habitual skepticism. It’s embarrassing. Skepticism has stood me in good stead for decades as a reporter and editor. Belief and assertion are not evidence.  

But I’m helpless in seed catalog writers’ hands. It’s worse than fishing lures. Who can resist a tomato called Orange Flesh Purple Smudge? Or blue, black or orange sweet peppers when I was content with green peppers that sometimes turned red.  Tell me anything is an “improved” version of a treasured vegetable and it’s a candidate for order forms. New varieties replace those that disappointed or were just good enough. 

I’m Ben and I’m a veggie seed catalog addict. 

Heirloom tomatoes are a perennial quagmire of desire. How do I know which eastern European early or  “black” tomato to buy? Do I order Brandywine, Mortgage Lifter, Cherokee or Pruden’s Purple? And how can any Progressive not order a tomato named for Paul Robeson? Is “all of the above” the right answer?

For years, I raised hundreds of heirloom tomato seedlings and colored sweet pepper plants for the Civic Garden Center’s annual plant sale. Heirlooms caught on. Gardeners returned for more. Commercial growers caught on; those that I grew and many more are available from nurseries like Funke’s Greenhouses on Gray Road in Spring Grove Village. 

I’ve ordered improved varieties of Oriental eggplant and on enough different colors of sweet peppers to create a shattered rainbow when I slice them thinly into my wife’s sweet/sour salad. 

Orders reflect such other factors as how many seeds I’ll need and how to spread purchases among catalogs that I value to keep them all coming again in November.  

Pinetree prospers by offering a few seeds at modest prices. Others, such as TomatoFest, Johnny’s or Stokes, provide far more seeds at higher prices. If I only want four Brandywine tomato plants, it’s Pinetree. Even so, there are enough to share with friends.  

Seed orders arrived last month. Leeks, kale, parsley, Italian red onions and red, orange and multicolor Swiss chard — my edible landscaping — have germinated and are prospering in a sunny window.  They’ll go in the soil before long. 

Then there is garlic. It’s hard neck and soft neck, mellow or sharp. I want it all. 

Brian Madison at Findlay Market introduced to me locally grown Music garlic years ago. I ate some and planted the rest. Music is perfect for our soil and climate. His family had no plans for further crops so now I buy from Linda and Rick Van Spronsen at Claddagh Farm in Clermont County when they have enough to share. Otherwise, it’s back to my catalogs. 

I scour catalogs and websites for “hot” garlics that might lay low a North Korean dictator. They have names like Asian Fire. I want kick-ass raw hot garlic for dips, Provencal mayonnaise for salmon and cold boiled new potatoes, and other foods. I read catalogs for coded language that tells me how hot raw garlics truly are.  Unlike peppers’ Scoville Scale heat ratings, garlic has only the catalog copy to stimulate my fantasies and salivary glands.

Barring an early freeze, I’ll still be harvesting when the news — 2013’s catalogs — arrives and kick off my new year. 

Curmudgeon notes:

Pat Reddy’s Saturday Page 1 Enquirer photo of a Kentuckian looking for pups in the wreckage of her home provided the perfect face for Friday’s tornadoes. Liz Dufour’s Sunday Page 1 photo of a survivor raising a tattered flag was a perfect second day photo . . . but it was on Page 1 of The New York Times and not in The Enquirer where she is a photographer. Too bad.  It caught the spirit about which Enquirer reporters wrote in Sunday’s paper better than another image of a battered home. 

The Enquirer’s tornado response was well done — typical of The Enquirer over the decades when all hell breaks loose.

Local TV scrambled but it was the weekend papers’ breadth and detail that was satisfying. The best TV news is more like an air kiss; a good, daily newspaper story can embrace the subject. 

Now comes the hard part: following the tornado recovery. It’s a human story, a finance/business story, a labor/construction story, and all of this and more must compete for staff talent and news space with the Reds Opening Day and the presidential election. At least the Ohio primary is over and Kentucky’s primaries won’t happen until May 22. 

On local TV news, in-depth often means both sides in 90 seconds. Or, you can read Janice Morse’s thorough look last week in The Enquirer into potential problems with many Ohio drunk-driving convictions. Questions involve state document changes and doubts about the breath analyzer’s accuracy. 

The latest Enquirer coverage of Mahogany’s Café & Grill tells me that the restaurant’s local and federal tax problems were news to someone. How does that square with the assurance by Sean Rugless, the president of the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky African American Chamber of Commerce? He told The Enquirer that restaurant owners Liz and Trent Rogers “provided . . . an unusually high level of transparency on all business matters . . .” That suggests the paper’s business reporting staff and Cincinnati City Council were so eager for a minority-owned business at The Banks that they didn’t read the application for a city grant carefully or the tax problems weren’t in the application. Either way, council approved $984,000 to move Mahogany’s plans ahead. 

I shouldn’t have to pay to learn whether The Enquirer provided Denyse Ferguson’s record as a development specialist for Lansing, Mich. She’s the new executive director of Cincinnati USA Partnership but the announcement story made no mention of how well she did in her previous job in Lansing. If the paper reported that, it was behind the archive paywall.  As a seven-day Enquirer home delivery subscriber, my free archive access is one week.  As a Monday-Saturday home delivery subscriber to The New York Times, I have complete, free archive access.

Double entendre headlines provide endless mirth. Every issue of Columbia Journalism Review devotes an inside cover to such idiocies. My latest nominee comes from The Enquirer: “Shooting victims’ families say thanks”.

From Page 1 images of high school shootings, you’d think guys are so insensitive that they don’t show emotion when buddies or their students are murdered by classmates. It’s weepy girls and their moms who draw the photographers. 

With all of the anger over President Obama’s requirement that most health insurance plans provide women’s contraceptives, much of the news media has failed to report a more troubling aspect of the McConnell-led GOP’s failed Senate attack. Republicans would have allowed an employer or insurer to opt out of any portion of the health-care law if it offended their moral/ethical/religious values. 

Another vital angle skipped by many, if not most, articles and broadcasts about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline: that Canadian oil probably is meant for the export market, not U.S. gas tanks. Eleanor Clift, a veteran Washington reporter, explained it this way in her column at The Daily Beast.

The oil is headed for refineries in Port Arthur, Texas — a foreign-trade zone that allows tax-free transactions — and it could go anywhere from there. Rep. Ed Markey, the ranking Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment, asked the president of TransCanada if he would agree to allowing Keystone XL oil and its refined products to stay in the U.S. He said no. 

Then, Clift continued, Markey proposed an amendment to that effect, and Republicans said no — it couldn’t be done because the market for oil is not just domestic; it’s global. The GOP links the recent increase in gas prices to Obama’s obstinacy about Keystone even as oil production is at a record high.  Last year for the first time the U.S. exported oil; in fact, it was the number one export, says Markey. Yet consumers are paying more at the pump, which Republicans blame on Obama.

If you missed it, go back to last week’s New York Times and read how the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools scheduled an Orthodox Jewish team to play in state basketball semifinals on the Sabbath (sundown Friday through sundown Saturday).  When the association refused to switch the game to the afternoon, a judge ordered the change. The Jews beat Covenant School of Dallas 58-46. The final was played after Sabbath ended Saturday night. Abilene Christian won, 46-42. 

The Times’ photo accompanying the weird Texas high school basketball tournament story (above) showed the Jewish Beren Academy players wearing skull caps and it recalled a flap when a suburban Cincinnati roller rink barred a rabbi because he wore a skull cap/kippah/yarmulke. Pins held it in place when the rabbi did a somersault to show it wouldn’t come off and trip other skaters.

Management banned all head coverings because of the hazard posed by then-fashionable floppy Super Fly “liquor store hats” favored by some skaters. I recall the issue was resolved in the rabbi’s favor. I wish he’d alerted me in time to photograph his acrobatics. 

New Yorker cartoons once had real bite. Now, they tend to be cuddly. I doubt they’d even publish the wonderful Charles Addams today. A recent cartoon, however, recaptured some of that old zest: A woman is telling her obviously unfulfilled bedmate, “Larry, you can’t blame everything on the media.” 

It would have been hard to escape Rush’s choice of “slut” and “prostitute” for a Georgetown University law student who spoke out for Obama’s mandate for female contraception in health insurance. In part, the student, Sandra Fluke, 30, invited the GOP leader’s scorn when she said classmates “tell me that they have suffered financially, emotionally, and medically because of this lack of coverage. Without insurance coverage, contraception, as you know, can cost a woman over $3,000 during law school. For a lot of students who, like me, are on public interest scholarships, that's practically an entire summer's salary. Forty percent of the female students at Georgetown Law reported to us that they struggled financially as a result of this policy.” 

The statement was red meat to Rush.

In Rush’s world, women use contraception only for risk-free unmarried sex. For Rush, that makes them sluts and prostitutes or, worse, freeloaders asking the government to subsidize their orgasms. God knows what he thinks of House and Senate mistresses.

As advertisers fled his radio show, Rush performed an unaccustomed crawl back. But lest you think reaction to Rush is overstated, he underlined the cultural issue (fear of women’s sexuality) at the heart of the GOP presidential campaign. Here is some of what the sincere Rush initially said: 

“You know, folks, millions of women enjoy sex in the back of a car. You have some women that can’t afford a car. What are we to do? What is our solution to women who prefer sex in the backseat of a car but can’t afford a car?”

She’s having so much sex it’s amazing she can still walk, but she made it up there (to Congress).”

“What does it say about the college co-ed Sandra Fluke, who goes before a (Democratic) congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.”

"If we're going to pay for your contraceptives and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch."

"She was not allowed to testify (before GOP members of Congress) because it was not about women at Georgetown who have so much sex they can't afford birth control.”

Rush called it "$3,000 worth of birth control pills worth of sex . . . So the woman comes forth with this frankly hilarious claim that she's having so much sex — and her buddies with her — that she can't afford it. And not one person says, “Did you ever think about maybe backing off the amount of sex that you have?’"

Rush continued, “I'm offering a compromise today. I will buy all of the women at Georgetown University as much aspirin to put between their knees as they want.”

Are the lives of journalists more important than those of other civilians during a civil war? That question was raised again after Syrian forces shelled the media center in Homs, killed two journalists and wounded at least two more seriously enough to require their evacuation. Western news media paid homage to the dead reporter and photographer as we do when colleagues are killed.

In absolutist ethical terms, every dead civilian noncombatant is a victim and their numbers can run to faceless millions in the Congo. Their lives have equal value, however diminished by their own governments or predatory rebels. War correspondents and photographers, however, are a small band that voluntarily put themselves in harm’s way to tell vital stories that otherwise would go unreported. We know them or know of them.

They are not faceless to us even if their bylines and photo credits are meaningless to readers, viewers and listeners.  

Some reporters and photographers are war lovers. They need the energy that comes with risk; covering combat is the only way they can get it. Some are former soldiers who never fit back into civilian life. Others seek bylines, photo credits and advancing their careers. That’s why I went to post-colonial 1960s Africa. Others hate war and risk their lives to keep us from flipping pages and changing channels whenever foreign news comes us.  They want their stories and images to grip and disturb us.

From all of the accolades, Marie Colvin, killed in Homs by Syrian army gunfire, was the latter. Brave, but not foolish, she was committed to upsetting us with vivid, accurate descriptions of ruling madmen, rebel fighters and dying youngsters. 

For generations, war correspondents and photographers generally were welcomed; all sides hoped for a sympathetic telling. In Rome, I knew a couple who reported the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s for a New York daily; one covered Franco’s Nationalists and one covered the losing Republican side. Each side had only to read the papers to know that “their” correspondent’s spouse was “on the other side.” That’s a dead or dying immunity in today’s international wars, rebellions and civil strife.  

Still, if you doubt that war correspondents and photographers are perceived by many people as special, ask anti-government Syrians who risked their lives trying to smuggle two wounded journalists from Homs to Lebanon. More than a dozen Syrians helpers were killed in that attempt.



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