In her book, In the French Kitchen Garden, Georgeanne Brennan describes the time-honored notion of the French potager, or small family vegetable plot, which provides "something for the pot" (thus potager) on a daily basis, year-round. The intention of this small kitchen garden, traditionally incorporated into the already-crowded front or back yard of the average French home, is to produce a steady flow of fresh vegetables which, whether plentiful or sparse, is always enough for the soup pot.
Compared to our American method of grand-scale agriculture, the French potager seems a humble endeavor, going straight to the heart of the question, "What is enough?" Is it possible for us, as Americans accustomed to choosing from hundreds of items in grocery store produce departments, to consider eating from small potagers? Wouldn't we feel deprived? What if there wasn't "enough" in the garden? For me, the very idea of browsing a small garden instead of vast stretches of produce bins can bring up all sorts of "enough"-related anxieties. Can I really create an appetizing meal from a few plants? What about all those crazy variables, like weather and pests? I'd always thought of my home-grown veggies as more treats than staples. Even as a relatively experienced gardener, I never imagined that my own vegetables could be a significant part of my diet.
Last summer I planted a couple dozen things in my small kitchen garden and promptly got busy with projects that took me away from it. Throughout the summer there were panicked waterings, occasional weedings, and prayers said over plants whose prognoses seemed dire. Some seeds never germinated. Others produced seedlings that never made it out of six-packs. By fall, cucumbers languished and lettuce bolted, but I was amazed to find how many veggies had survived and even thrived. By September, I was almost embarrassed to find that I had a bounty I didn't seem to deserve.
And then, ironically, I had a potager experience that changed my ideas about growing, eating and cooking. Every few days at the end of summer, I found myself wandering out to the garden with a small basket and picking a few things... a handful of basil, a small summer squash, a tomato, a few beans, a beet, perhaps some broccoli -- in short, whatever I found. There wasn't a lot of anything in particular, but enough to fill my basket. I'd wash the offerings, lay them out on the counter, and look at them. What did they suggest? I imagined adding one "store-bought" ingredient like pasta, rice, beans, pesto, a little cheese, or eggs -- and suddenly, my imagination took flight. For the first time in my life, I found could actually visualize how a few random ingredients could come together to make an inspired meal.
For several weeks during that warm, glorious stretch of autumn, I delighted in hot and cold salads, breakfast egg scrambles, and simple stir-fries made from my slim garden offerings. Later, in October, the salads and scrambles became soups. I shared these meals with friends and family who raved about them. When did I get to be such a good cook? they asked, demanding recipes. I shook my head, knowing something amazing had happened -- a new insight and understanding, an experience that would lead to new ways of growing, cooking, eating, and thinking about food.
Finally, I began to understand something about the potager way of life.
Coming up, Part two: Grocery-store epiphanies.