I love taking cooking classes. It’s so much fun to be with other folks who — as hard as this is to believe — are as culinarily-challenged as I am. Yes, it’s true — there are a few of them out there. However, it’s also true that most cooking-class students are talented and innovative food fans who want to improve their skills and increase their repertoire. I mainly just like to eat. Every once in a while, though, I am able to impress. Such as during a recent class I took at the Shoals Commercial Culinary Complex. “Ah, you’ve done this before,” the instructor/chef said as he observed my onion-chopping technique: While keeping the ends intact, slice the onion in half and then half again to give yourself a flat base to work from, remove skin but don’t slice off ends, then make horizontal cuts and then vertical cuts and then cross-cuts, resulting in quick and easy diced onion. Of course, I learned that from my friend Sherry, who is a Shoals-famous cook and cooking instructor now working far away from home. Temporarily, we all hope. I mean, the chef teaching in her absence at the Culinary Complex is a nice guy. He knows what he’s talking about and is helpful and patient and everybody enjoys his classes. But is he Southern sassy? Does he know the difference between oatmeal and grits? Is he willing to stop at every Starbucks he sees on a road trip? Come home, Sherry! We miss you! I’ll even chop up some vegetables in your honor.
You know how you open up the newspaper every morning (you do open up a newspaper every morning, don’t you???) and read it and then shake your head and complain, “There’s never any good news. Why don’t they print any good news?” You know news people say that this happens because “good” news isn’t news since good things happen all the time and we’re only startled by “bad” news that’s outside of the norm. But we all know that “good” news can be as rare as … well, say, a coffee shop owner remembering that he overcharged a customer on her previous business and so without asking gives her her favorite drink for free on her next visit. That just happened! To me. And I wrote about it in my weekly newspaper column. Just, you know, to sneak a little good news in.
Spring’s arrival means several things: 1) Horror as we peel off our wool socks and take a look at our feet for the first time in months — emergency pedicure! 2) All basketball all the time as March Madness takes over — although my bracket is sinking so low that it’s fallen off the listing at the online bracket-game I play. And 3) we start inexplicably hungering for such treats as fresh tender asparagus and juicy sweet strawberries. In my weekly newspaper food story, I found out when spring arrives at local farmers’ markets and previewed what to look for — and when — although we’re lucky here in northwest Alabama since we’ve got Jack O’Lantern Farms, a hydroponic farm which grows lovely fresh veggies year-round. I’ll bet there’s someplace close to you where you can get a taste of spring soon.
We think we in the 21st century invented green living? Huh. We’ve got nothing on our parents’ generation. My folks, both born in 1934, each grew up with the Depression-era philosophy of “why buy when you can make do?” And they’re still following that directive. My mom saves plastic butter tubs and bread bags for leftovers, my dad turns paper over to print on the other side and they would never think of going out and buying tomato stakes. This is their backyard garden in Tennessee, and you can see that they definitely reuse and recycle — from the rusted metal fence posts to the strips torn from old cotton sheets to the outdoor artwork of flags decorating the iron headboard from a vintage bed. And they water the flourishing tomato and pepper plants with leftover ice. When the ‘maters are ready to eat, my dad probably will put a salt shaker out there for the freshest possible eating. I just hope they share.
There’s a commercial on TV about some sort of food where the voiceover says something along the lines of “Nobody comes home and says, ‘I can’t wait to eat a big bowl of lettuce.'” But that’s exactly what happens in our house on the days our local hydroponic farmers, Steve and Connie Carpenter, open their farmer’s market. I promise you that once you eat fresh hydroponic lettuce, you will never let plastic-packaged iceberg pass your lips again. Steve’s explained why lettuce develops more flavor when it’s grown hydroponically, but all I know is that a sandwich made with good toasted homemade bread and some of this tender-yet-crunchy lettuce is beyond delicious. Literally, it’s one of the things we just stand there and eat out of our fridge. But if you want actual recipes, go to http://www.timesdaily.com/article/20100428/ARTICLES/4285000 to find some recipes from a “Meatless Meals” cooking class I covered recently. Sherry Campbell, my friend and the director of the Shoals Culinary Center in Florence, Alabama, is a confirmed meat lover, but fresh and homegrown vegetables rank right up there with her, too, and she gave us some wonderful veggie recipes — although of course she admitted that at home she’d add a nice grilled steak to the menu. Go to http://www.jackolanternfarm.com/ to find out more about Jack O’Lantern Farms. Farmers’ markets are gearing up here in northwest Alabama/northeast Mississippi/southern middle Tennessee, and we can’t wait.
My friend Polly has one of the most beautiful home gardens I’ve ever seen. She’s a retired teacher, and most of the work she’s done in these photos has been in the past three years. Can we say “incredible energy?” She and her husband travel around the world, but I think I would just park myself in the backyard if mine looked like this. I especially love her zen approach to gardening: It’s organized, but not formal or structured — the plants, flowers, herbs and vegetables just sort of spill out in exuberant joy. And she’s got such whimsical touches everywhere: Birdhouses, sculptures, yard art, chairs, gates, fences, stepping stones, arches. It’s a treasure everywhere you look. Polly and her husband live within the city limits of Florence, Alabama, but with the deer grazing in the front yard and the creek dancing over on the side and the abundant shade trees cooling everything off, you feel as if you’re at a wonderfully isolated woman-made Eden — yet bustling civilization is just at the end of the driveway. To my mother’s eternal frustration, I remain ignorant of all things gardening. I mean, I can tell a rose from a daisy (that’s the yellow and white one, right?) but that’s about it. Yet even a non-garden person like me can recognize and appreciate a green paradise such as Polly’s garden. I’m just glad there are folks like her in the world who know what they’re doing with seeds and dirt so folks like me can enjoy.