Friday Takeaway: Dame Edna

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, April 26, 2018, by Caroline Pam

When my husband, Tim, pulled in from the field with a bucket full of dandelion greens the other day, I was forced to agree with the snippet of Shakespeare posted at our kids’ school in Sunderland: “April hath put a spirit of youth in everything.” Despite the sleet and snow, there are signs of new life sprouting everywhere and, with them, our irrepressible urge to cook the foods that call for specific seasonal ingredients available only this particular time of year.

For us, spring dandelions signal spanakopita — a Greek phyllo pie stuffed with aromatic greens such as dandelions, overwintered spinach, juicy green garlic shoots, and spearmint that all spontaneously return to life before the farm’s spring plantings are ready to harvest. Tim had excitedly plucked a few choice plants from the edge of the field while training a new tractor operator to form long, straight beds. In indulging this foraging frolic, a little bit of the youthful idealism that got us into farming lives on.

I can still remember the precise moment when I first imagined living a life connected to the land and punctuated by the foods of the seasons. I had stumbled upon a copy of “The Taste of Country Cooking” by Edna Lewis and was immediately entranced by her evocative yet down-to-earth description of her childhood in Freetown, Virginia, a community of freed slaves formed after the Civil War and still intact in the early 1920s when Lewis was a young girl.

I had virtually nothing in common with the author whose family grew its own food, saved seeds, foraged in the woods, put up preserves for the winter, and turned the biggest projects like hog butchering into a community celebration. Nevertheless, I felt that this book written the year before I was born was outlining a way of life that I had never known but desperately wanted.

Edna Lewis is not a household name, even though she articulated the farm-to-table philosophy decades before it became a movement. But a new collection of essays about her work, “Edna Lewis: At the Table with an American Original,” edited by my friend Sara B. Franklin, highlights her far-reaching influence on some of the most important American chefs and food writers of our time, including Alice Waters and Deborah Madison.

To many of her fans, Lewis is known for defining Southern cuisine and the central role of African-American cooks in inventing it — subjects I find fascinating and fundamental, but foreign to my personal experience. Still, her books offered me a practical roadmap to creating a meaningful life around hands-on work, collaboration, appreciating nature, and — most of all — the simple pleasures of cooking and preserving the best of each season.

Our family is not especially religious, but these are the values we live by. And our idea of wealth is a pantry stocked with canned tomatoes, dried chilies and enough cured garlic to last the winter.

Our children haven’t developed a taste for bitter greens yet, but they cherish the eggs from our backyard chickens and stubbornly refuse to eat carrots that aren’t farm carrots. Our daughter loves to pot up plants in the greenhouse, and our son loves plucking weeds and telling jokes with the farm crew. Occasionally, we can convince them to traipse out into the woods to search for ramps or mushrooms. Sometimes, irritatingly, they insist they’d rather hone their survival skills on their computers playing Minecraft. Life doesn’t always live up to our ideals.

In fact, we never did get around to making spanakopita this week because the demands of seeding peppers, planting lettuce, prepping land, and packing lunch took all the energy we had. But even the act of gathering the greens and conceiving the idea brings us joy. And we’ll surely make one sometime this spring, perhaps with beet greens or chard instead of dandelions, and scallions or leeks instead of green garlic, depending on when we get around to it.

Caroline Pam owns and operates Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland with her husband, Tim Wilcox. The farm grows organic vegetables, makes award-winning sriracha and salsa and hosts an annual hot pepper festival, Chilifest, in September.