The first time I joined a community-supported agriculture (CSA), almost ten years ago, its kickoff late on a Thursday afternoon sent me racing out of the office at the end of the day. The first week’s bounty included lettuce greens, herbs, onions, kohlrabi, radishes. Adults chatted and children hopped around like happy rabbits as we waited for strawberries to arrive. After a long winter, we all hungered for fresh food.
In her bestselling book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver described an imaginary plant that she called the “vegetannual.” The vegetannual, if there were such a thing, would pass through all the stages of its life during each and every complete growing season. Leaves, buds,flowers, green fruits, ripe fruits, hard fruits. If the entire garden could be visualized as a single plant, that plant would reveal its first fragile green leaves each spring, pass through stages, and then, finally, expire each fall with a spectacular, rainbow-colored gasp of root crops. This is the vegetannual. The process by which vegetables ripen is as predictable as the tides: Loose leaves come first, followed by mature leaf heads and flower heads. Then the young, green fruits ripen, and some of these mature into colorful fruits. Large, hard-shelled fruits ripen, seeds tucked safely inside for the next year. Throughout the season, the above-ground greens of root crops draw all their nourishment from the sun as they transfer, store and grow rich with the sugars and starches that, later, will sustain us through the cold while the garden rests.
For this reason, it is the leaves that predominate in the first weeks of spring. Lettuce, spinach, chard, mint, kale, asparagus. In my own herb garden, lemon balm, thyme, lavender, oregano, parsley and especially lovage grow in abundance. On the Thursday night following that first CSA delivery, we ate a simple salad of lettuce greens dressed with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and fresh herbs. We drank mint tea. I cut raw kohlrabi into matchsticks, and they were gone before we sat down to dinner, eaten by whoever passed through the kitchen. Bowls of strawberries became our breakfast on Friday morning. I fried zucchini with the onions and garlic until everything was soft, added some salt and cracked pepper, and then pureed it into a dip for carrot slices and crackers. Not a speck was left.
It is wonderful to contemplate what each week’s harvest will bring. In June, more mature leaf and flower heads, like cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower, will begin to appear in the gardens. Young fruits will set, and our mouths will fill with snow peas, baby squash, and sweet cucumbers, followed by crisp green beans, green peppers, and small tomatoes. In August the more mature, colorful fruits will ripen, and beefsteak tomatoes will come into season. Beefsteaks, the sublime standard to which all tomatoes will forever be compared, muses this Jersey girl. Peppers will ripen to red and yellow. And then, a long time from now, the weather to cool again. Melons, pumpkins, and winter squash will, finally, ripen. Potatoes, carrots, and beets. Each in turn, each in its time.