Food fighters

May 27, 2009 at 12:00 am

Detroiter Holly White says what started her gardening was stark staring fear. After getting rattled by theories about "peak oil" — with its scenarios of a future where fuel prices soar so out of control that people can't afford to eat — she wanted to find a way to make a change.

"I got sort of freaked out," she says, now relaxing in the comfortable condo apartment she shares with her husband in a smartly refurbished old building near Cass and Canfield. "After freaking out, I figured the easiest thing to do was to take control over the food I was eating — to concentrate on food to ease my mind.

"But then I tasted my first fresh tomato and the flavor blew me away."

Wary of big food and eager to explore natural options, White quickly revolutionized her shopping, at first vowing to buy "nothing with a bar code" — these days as little as 5 percent of their purchases bear a UPC. Depending on the month, the couple buys between half and 90 percent of its food at Eastern Market. Like many of the market's dedicated shoppers, White has a favorite vendor: Randy and Shirley Hampshire, whose Tuscola County farm has been in the family for more than a century. She calls them "the kind of farmers I wish all farmers were." In fact, the Whites get milk from their share of the Hampshire's Jersey cow, which White says can produce as much as 25 percent milk fat for rich, "unbelievable" yogurts and cheeses.

White is a voracious reader and a well-educated and charismatic advocate of fresh, real food. She can wax a bit rhapsodic when describing a piece of cheese, declaring, "You can feel it. You can feel the difference in your body. It's really cheese. It's not some chemist's idea of cheese." It's difficult not to get swept up in her enthusiasm.

In addition to changing her shopping habits, White took up kitchen gardening. Though she jokes that she grew up in apartments, mostly in Florida, and never had a back yard (she says the closest she got to gardening was growing a bean in a cup in elementary school), she has built up a sort of kitchen garden writ large, something actually more akin to a complete home ecosystem.

On the balcony of the modern, airy space overlooking Midtown's parking lots, she's growing flats of seedlings soon to be transplanted into large self-watering tubs nearby. This patio garden is nothing to sniff at: In a good year, one tomato plant can produce 40 pounds of ripe tomatoes.

Four years ago, White began with some simple plantings of tomatoes, greens and flowers. After an assault by cabbage worms, she started trying plants with a reputation for attracting more beneficial insects. She also doubled her tomatoes and tripled her greens, dispensing with the showy flowers. By the third year, her organic container garden boasted more varied vegetables, filling up the outdoor space with appropriate dwarf varieties and vertical or climbing plants that could receive maximum light.

"You see what works in your space. You pay attention and watch. It's amazing how much you learn," White says, adding, "I would love an acre, but I've figured out how to make it work for me."

Of course, the containers need plenty of rich soil amendments for healthy, living soil. That's where White's "worm farming" comes into play. In a semi-industrial setup in her open kitchen area, she keeps roughly 40,000 red wiggler worms — about 40 pounds total — in two large bins. Inside, she feeds them kitchen scraps, shredded mail and the plentiful waste from her pet bunnies. (She says the pellets of bunny poop are like "ice cream" for the wigglers, which are adapted to digest it the rest of the way.) The worms turn what most people would throw in the trash or grind down the disposal into a rich "worm castings," a valuable organic soil additive, at virtually no cost.

Though it might sound unsanitary to the uninitiated, the bins are clean and contained, emanating perhaps a slight aquarium smell. When the lid comes off, a humid, jungle-floor smell of clean, aged compost, rises, and the string-thin creatures, exposed to light, wriggle — a few locked together in full-on mating mode!

White estimates that the total price tag for everything, from the seeds to the planters to the worm bins, comes to more than $1,000, though most of those costs came during the first two years. But it's 100 percent utilitarian, and she has made it her business to use everything the garden gives up, between canning, pickling and other kitchen alchemy. Picked fresh or processed, she estimates the garden provides almost half of their vegetables on average. Last year she canned 140 quarts in all. She also made 30 pounds of sauerkraut, though she says she should have made more, as it was "fabulous" with juniper berries.

And when things go awry, she gets creative. For instance, last year's mild summer wreaked havoc on her tomato plants. White had expected to harvest 400 pounds (!) from her balcony, but got just more than a third of that in ripe, red fruit. Faced with a surplus of green tomatoes, she says she fried a few and pickled some more. But after being inspired by the way the green tomatoes crunched like apples when she sliced them, White decided to make tomato butter, "much the same way you'd make apple butter, using a dash of vinegar and sugar, caramelizing it on low heat for five or six hours."

All of this productive activity and smart shopping, of course, makes White the perfect host, and she whips up a simple slice of crunchy toast made from Hampshire Farms' three-seed bread, covered with her fresh-made butter from their milk, as well as a convincingly "black" but herbal tea of rooibos and tulsi. It's the sort of thing you could have eaten a century ago, definitely what you'd call real food.

Driving the point home, White says, "It's so much more than food security: It tastes good! It's what we've evolved to eat."

Not all people have joined the good food revolution for political reasons. Mark Covington found a new purpose in gardening.

In early 2008, the environmental services worker found himself between jobs, spending most his time in the neighborhood surrounding his grandmother's house near Harper and Gratiot avenues. Looking to do something productive with his time, Covington started clearing rubbish out of the three vacant lots at the end of his block, where locals had beaten a diagonal path over to the low-quality groceries and liquor stores along Harper. At first, he only intended to police the lot's litter and garbage. But as he cleared away the corner, he became inspired to turn it into a community garden.

Yesterday's shortcut through scrubby earth is now a rustic scene: a small garden, piles of slow compost, a stack of wooden pallets, and a path softened with wood chips. Using Adopt-a-Lot permits from the city, donations and his own gardening skills, Covington has built the corner into the hub of the Georgia Street Community Garden.

It was hard at first. Covington says he had to overcome a lot of indifference. "I was preaching to the neighborhood," he says with a smile. "It was hard to get people to come out. They were used to a lot of people talking about things, but nothing being done. I just thought, 'I'll start doing it.'"

After clearing the lots, Covington had the soil tested. It was deemed free of lead and other contamination, but was so organically inert it couldn't support any plants. Covington had to amend the soil with nitrogen, phosphorus and aged horse manure before planting. As he describes his challenges, standing near a 7-foot-high pile of composting grass clippings, a robin alights nearby and pulls an earthworm out of the ground for a quick meal. Covington points out that this patch of earth didn't even have worms a year ago.

Given the condition of the lots, early predictions for the project were grim. Some locals, Covington says, thought "people would steal from it, that we'd need a big fence. But we don't need a fence. I just strung a rope around it. Nobody takes anything, and we leave tables and chairs out there. Now if you put up a fence and try to control something, people would want to fight that."

Indeed, nobody took so much as a radish from the garden, and in December, Covington hosted a neighborhood dinner. That night, Georgia Street attracted 80 people. Not only did they eat much of the harvest, they brought so much food they had plenty left over to donate to Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries in the Cass Corridor.

Given the success of the project, Covington was inspired to add an educational component, using the garden as a way to mentor students. Now he intends to refurbish the old corner store and to turn its attached home into a community center. And the project keeps growing. The garden now comprises five lots on Georgia, including a fruit orchard with apples, plums, cherries, peaches and pears, as well as raspberries and strawberries.

"I couldn't have done it without all the volunteers," Covington says. "People come from Ann Arbor, South Lyon, Roseville, St. Clair Shores, Taylor, Romulus. With our gardens and mentoring programs, I think they like what we're doing. And it's not just a garden." After describing all the various plans and projects ahead, he takes a breath and adds with a laugh, "I think big, but my volunteers don't let me get ahead of myself."

Thankful to the community that supports the project, Covington also relishes being identified with his brainchild. This March, he was featured in an article in Time magazine about Detroit's path to renewal. After the piece was published, a journalist from the Netherlands bicycled down Georgia Street, looking the project over. When the visitor coasted by, Covington, sitting on his porch, fielded his question about the garden.

"Who made that?" the writer asked.

"I did," he said. The journalist was thunderstruck.

Covington beams with pride telling the tale, saying moments like that make him feel like an "ambassador to the neighborhood."

Steve and Hillary Cherry, 32 and 36 respectively, are what you'd call a Hamtramck power couple. They seem to belong to every local organization imaginable, from the neighborhood watch to the Zoning Board of Appeals. Their home on Sobieski Street is home to their Hamtramck Star website and even their own low-power AM radio station, the latest effort in what Steve jokingly refers to as the "Sobieski Media Network." They regularly attend City Council meetings, and seem intimately knowledgeable about what's happening in the community.

What's more, their aggressive brand of citizenship extends deep into food: They're passionate locavores who strive to eat a diet of 100 percent Michigan-made products. Steve jokes, "The condiments are the hardest," asking with a laugh, "How do you get good Worcestershire sauce made in Michigan?"

It all started about five years ago, when the couple's diet changed drastically for a lot of reasons. Steve recalls, "We'd been eating like bachelors, you know. Kind of making a pot of chili a week. I think we realized our well-being was suffering. We were just 'fat and happy.' Hill said we could do something about it. And then the local food thing happened."

Looking for more local ways to eat, Hillary grew eager to learn how to make the things her grandparents made, to preserve heirloom seeds and recipes. In charge of shopping, Steve, who had himself once labored on an organic farm, found a way to support indigenous species and local growers.

But they discovered it wasn't easy to buy local. They drove out to a local fruit festival that Steve says was "a major disappointment."

"There were about four flats of California strawberries," he recalls. "And the baked goods used strawberry out of a can!"

Given this hunger for locally grown produce, when the couple moved here from Ypsilanti in 2005, they were especially excited about Hamtramck's proximity to Eastern Market. While they definitely consider organic or "transitional" a bonus, local is all-important, whether they're buying milk from a local co-op, handmade tortillas from La Gloria in southwest Detroit or even a can of Spartan beans.

What's more, the Cherrys are active home canners. (Though the process is called "canning," the end result is more commonly a perfectly sealed glass bottle.) Steve says some Eastern Market vendors can sense when customers are buying fruit for jams and preserves, and vendors are willing to give canning advice, like using many varieties of apple for the best applesauce, even throwing together mixed batches, or offering affordable "seconds," fruits that aren't pretty but boil down to jam just fine.

Like all market fanatics, Steve has a favorite vendor, a guy he's nicknamed "the angry fruit farmer" due to his stern manner, who sells fabulous Damsen plums grown "just for canning."

"Once you know what works, you have targets of opportunity," Steve says. "I'll call Hillary from the market and say, 'This guy has raspberries. Is that OK?' One time, near closing, I got a flat for $5. We usually have to pay $36 a flat. That's a big score."

Hillary adds a note of caution, "At the end of the day, do you have your heart set on raspberry preserves? Or are you willing to do some salvage and try a blueberry-lime jam?"

The Cherrys keep the family gold down in the basement in boxes filled with dozens of jars of preserved food. In any given year, the Cherrys may produce as many as 30 half-pint jars of jam, 14 quarts of applesauce, 14 quarts of tomatoes, seven pints of blueberries and eight half-pint jars of salsa. They'll also try a dozen or more pints of such experiments as asparagus, chili, spaghetti sauce and, lately, pickles — this last year they canned 14 pints of pickles, including "icicle pickles" using a British pickling recipe. And Hillary wants to preserve as many of her family's recipes as she can, written back when families would commonly make 50 or 60 bottles of wine, cold-pack tomatoes, or grow fruit trees in their back yard.

Speaking of old backyard fruit trees, perhaps the most interesting thing they're up to is a sort of guerrilla urban fruit scavenging. It began when Steve was mowing the lot of a vacant neighborhood house. He noticed that, like many older, working-class homes, it had several fruit trees, including a dwarf cherry. He was able to harvest enough extremely good quality sour cherries to make two batches of jam — eight pints in all.

Some of his missions have been more ambitious. Talking with other urban gardeners, Steve learned of several places to find fruit worth harvesting in the city, even clandestinely harvesting from surviving fruit trees nestled away in the largely vacant Poletown neighborhood. There, he hit the urban fruit harvester's dream: a few full-sized cherry trees — productive, mature plants, both sour and bing for complex, superior preserves.

But these forays into guerrilla urban foraging are infrequent. The Cherrys are focusing on building their ambitious household food system, including a kitchen garden, basement worm farm and their top-of-the-line pressure cookers, about which Hillary is something of an expert. They have a five-liter Swiss pressure cooker with three safety valves and a larger, more expensive, Wisconsin-made, solid aluminum pressure canner, weighing in around 35 pounds and large enough to produce 14 pints of preserves at a time.

In these vessels, the pressure and intense heat can cook food in insanely brief times, parboiling pork ribs in a half hour — a process that can take two hours in a conventional oven. They can cook a quartered cabbage in three minutes, and work magic on the corned beef Steve buys from Wiggly's in Eastern Market in just 15 minutes, producing a tender beef that Steve says "pulls apart like butter" — and makes a fabulous breakfast hash in the morning.

Though the outlay for such specialized equipment as pressure canners, food mills and apple corers was significant, they point out that they're able to cook food using a third the energy of a typical oven. (Hillary jokes that it's like the opposite of a slow cooker, since it quickly and efficiently uses a single gas burner. In the summer, their gas bill hovers around $15, their huge 1980s water heater notwithstanding.) They also add with a smile that they take a "tax" of a few jars when their friends borrow the equipment. Steve also points out that they're in it for the long haul, that the equipment is remarkably durable, and that they're willing to pay a little more now so they won't starve in 20 years.

After talking about food for an hour in their Hamtramck kitchen, Hillary serves up a pressure-cooked cheesecake that was made in less than a half hour under pressure. This is the ultimate in local food. Unlike a dense, factory-made cheesecake shipped by freight, this is light and airy, creaming apart under the fork. It's topped with canned Michigan blueberries, as you dig into the creamy cake made from cream from Taylor's Dairy Fresh, sugar from Bay City's Big Chief brand, vanilla, eggs and crackers from Grand Rapids-based Spartan, Eastern Market-bought blueberries she canned last summer — and juice and zest from a lemon bought a few blocks away at Al-Haramine grocery. Most of the flavor in the generous slice of cake comes from right within the county.

Steve repeats the household mantra: "You can eat more Michigan products than you know."

On a sunny Thursday afternoon in northwest Detroit, Raziyah Thelma Curtis' front room is filled with neighbors who've gathered for a small community garden meeting. And there's a lot of business to be done. Greening of Detroit and Detroit Agricultural Network have offered the community gardeners two sales sites for their excess produce, one at Eastern Market, the other off the Southfield Freeway on the west side. The demands are strict: The produce they sell must not be grown with chemical fertilizers; growers must use compost. Then there's a crowded training schedule offered by the Detroit Urban Garden Education Series, which is offering classes around the city. And then there are three more lots available for family garden plots on Missouri Avenue.

Curtis raises the possibility of a work-for-food program that would offer nutritious organic meals for helping out with garden chores, but there may be too much left to do going into prime gardening season; the work-trade program would require interviews, plans and extra manpower. And there are more pressing needs, such as a flat of seedlings, gathered over the weekend at the Garden Resource Program on Meldrum Street, which must be placed in the fresh-tilled earth by the week's end.

Though the talk in the front-room think tank ranges over topics as various as politics, technology and spiritualism, it's all grounded in food. Relaxing on couches, the group feasts on food from Curtis' backyard garden, including marinated collard greens, natural jambalaya and loaded-up salads. She clearly wants to keep the committee happy, and feels that any volunteers "deserve a top-notch meal."

Away from the upbeat atmosphere of the meeting as she waters her garden out back, Curtis points out the spinach, collards and "Polk salad," a favorite of old-timers for whom the South is the old country. This one is a healthy "volunteer," already more than a foot high. She notes that it can only be eaten before it fruits. If it does, though, the birds love it so much they spread it around, leaving more next year.

Away from the concerns about finances and finding dedicated volunteers, Curtis touches upon her own enthusiasms, which include "wild edibles." Her grasp of Polk salad is part of a larger knowledge of plants some would consider weeds, but are nutritious and often medicinal. She organizes a wild edibles dinner every year, a delicious meal that can include plantain, comfrey and even such unusual-sounding plants as sour grass and stinging nettle.

It's a knowledge she has acquired over a lifetime. Curtis grew up on a 144-acre farm in the South, an ambitious family operation where her people made their own cornmeal, grits and molasses. An energetic youngster, she was assigned as her grandfather's "assistant" for some time, and the experience gave her "an appreciation for the magic of the relationship between man and the earth."

In the city, she was away from it for quite a while, and she found herself longing for a time when she could have a farm outside the city. So, 35 years ago, she began tilling her back yard, gradually becoming involved in teaching others the skills and the joys of gardening: how to judge weeds from seedlings, how to compost, how to rotate crops for maximum productivity.

"We're doing what's available to us for free," she says, adding, "at least with a little bit of work."

The teaching experience has been mixed. She expresses some concerns about whether volunteers appreciate the work that goes into gardening, that they're sometimes careless about sowing seeds, weeding properly, or keeping the compost covered. But, to her, it's clearly worth it to teach young people about their relationship with the land, something she waxes poetic about on this sunny, summery day.

"Every child should have the opportunity to garden. It gives a different appreciation of life, a personal relationship with the land," she declared. "It's not menial. It's honorable. It's life-sustaining labor."

More of the Food Issue:

Turning the tables
by Michael Jackman
If we want to fix the broken food system, we'll have to do more than eat our way out of it

Weird Science
by Todd Abrams
Fermentation is a metamorphosis right on your kitchen counter

Desktop lunching
by Sandra Svoboda
Making the most of eating in the office

Get it fresh
by Metro Times food staff
A guide to farmer's markets in metro Detroit

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto - Michael Pollan
Reviewed by Jane Slaughter
Michael Pollan makes the world safe for food again

Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]