“The soil in Middle Georgia is so fertile, they say that if you stand at a spot for more than 5 minutes, your twin will sprout up next to you!”
That hilarious quote can be attributed to GA-based landscape designer and artist, James Farmer. I attended his presentation ‘Farmer to Table’ at the Decorators’ Show House and Gardens last week. Farmer grew up on a farm in small-town Georgia, moved to Auburn for college. In his presentation, he recalled his college roommates who ate out daily. Farmer couldn’t see how anyone could derive any pleasure out of eating out every day. One day, he began cooking a traditional Southern meal in their shared apartment – fried chicken, cornbread et al. His roommates were blown by the mouthwatering smells emanating from their tiny kitchen. One of them called his mother, and within minutes, Farmer was on the phone with her… explaining his special recipe, sharing his tips and tricks, answering her questions.
Gardening, cooking, decorating and entertaining are interconnected with each other, as Farmer explained. The notion of ‘farm-to-table’ may be a new one in the foodie circles of today, but in most traditional cultures, it was simply the way to be. Grow fruits and vegetables, pick them when ripe, cook with them, preserve them for future use.
My family hails from Kerala, the southernmost state in India. Lush and verdant, Kerala is a paradise of gently swaying coconut palms, acres and acres of green paddy fields, flowing streams, orchards bursting with mango and jackfruit trees, tea plantations, peppercorn groves, majestic temples and golden sunshine. Although I grew up in Mumbai, there is a special corner in my heart reserved for Kerala. I often remark, “You can take the girl outta Kerala, you cannot take Kerala outta her!”
In summer, the fruit trees are in full bloom, showering their bountiful produce in such generous quantities that one simply cannot keep up. You eat as much as you can until there comes a point when you have to give up. There is such a thing as too many mangoes, as I realized sadly one hot summer. Then begins the process of making pickles and preserves, as a means to use up the excess fruit. Bananas are chopped into rounds/slices and fried in coconut oil into crispy golden banana chips. So also with jackfruit, plantains, tapioca and more. The fragrance of coconut oil perfumes the entire home and its environs… Mmm. Ripe jackfruit and mangoes are also made into preserves, cooked with ghee and sweetened with jaggery.
Every region has (or used to have) its methods to store produce and use it over the entire year. These are tried and tested techniques, completely indigenous to the region’s climate, growing conditions and crops. Unfortunately, even in cultures as ancient as India, these methods are dying, as people develop a fancy for unseasonal fruit and vegetables. Think exorbitantly priced apples from Australia, mealy and limp, or tasteless kiwi fruit from New Zealand… Sigh. Hopefully, things will come back full circle and folks will go back to the traditional techniques of food storage and preservation.
Farmer spoke about how important it was for young people to hear the message from someone like himself, someone they could identify with, someone from the same generation who spoke the same language. The younger generation world over is concerned with appearing hip and modern. That pursuit need not be divorced from age-old practices linked with food and consumption, as one learns from Farmer’s presentation.