Potatoes, Horseradish, and Other Gifts

Some years ago, when winter was coming to an end and spring was still soggy and cold, I discovered a lone organic potato in my kitchen. I have to specify that it was organic because conventionally grown potatoes are much less likely to root and generate offspring. This sad little potato was dried out, wrinkly, and way past edible. At least six little rootlets were beginning to form on the skin, and so I decided to try an experiment. I cut that little potato into six chunks, each containing a single rootlet. I dug a trench in the garden on the far side of our backyard, and dropped each of the pieces into the trench, about 1 foot apart. Then I covered them with dirt and waited.

A few weeks later, when potato buds began to push up through the mud, I covered them with more dirt and waited again. And that’s how things progressed for a while, with me continuing to cover the buds, and the buds continuing to push upward through the new dirt. Until I forgot about them completely, distracted as I was by other projects. Which is how, later that summer, I found a friendly group of straggly potato plants on the far side of the backyard. When I finally got around to digging up those potato plants, I discovered many beautiful, golden-skinned, new potatoes, perfect in every way.

I know I shouldn’t have been surprised but, even still, I was. It’s not that I never did anything like this before, but it still created a sense of wonder. All that had stood between me and those new little potatoes was a bit of effort. Despite that the original potato was no longer exactly edible, it still contained all the raw materials necessary to create new food, sustenance, satisfaction and joy. The whole experience reminded me of the children’s folktale, “Something from Nothing,” about a little boy whose tailor grandfather continues to craft for him progressively smaller articles of clothing from the remains of other used-up, grown-out-of, cast-off pieces.

Our family has an exquisite Passover seder plate, a treasured gift of blue-and-white porcelain that hangs on the wall of our dining room 51 weeks a year. After seder, I don’t clear it from the table; it stays as a centerpiece for days afterward. It’s certainly not the appearance of the food that keeps it there, but rather what it means to us. So it remains, in rapidly fading glory, long after the parsley, horseradish, beet, and charoset [an apple-walnut mixture] become dried out and unappealing. A few years ago, when I finally removed the plate to the kitchen sink to be cleaned, I got the idea to plant the dry chunk of horseradish in the backyard garden. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I was reminded that friends where we once lived would always arrive days before Passover with a large jar of homemade horseradish, the most fiery I ever tasted, and prepared from horseradish that they themselves had grown. Well, if they could do it…

Sure enough, a few years later, by which time that undisturbed horseradish root had given rise to dozens of 2-foot vertical leaves, I dug up a large chunk of root, scrubbed it, tossed it into the food processor with vinegar and salt, and stood back. That horseradish plant has continued to stimulate penetrating conversation every year since.

Like my mother, I have maintained a compost pile wherever I have lived. All the coffee grounds, egg shells, corn husks, apple cores, leftover green beans, nut shells, used tea bags, fruit pits and seeds, carrot peels, old refrigerator-drawer oranges, and other food waste go into it. Leaves and grass would be okay, too, but I happen to put those in a different place. Because the pile contains absolutely no meat, dairy or egg products (other than calcium-rich egg shells), there has never been a problem with pests or rodents. The compost heap is located out back, behind a particularly lucky spruce, in a spot initially demarcated by shiny chicken wire wrapped around four metal posts, each sticking a couple of feet out of the ground. After 20 years, the rusty chicken wire is gone, and the spot is identified mostly by habit.

An aside about that spruce: When we arrived at our new home late in the summer of 1996, it did not look well. It appeared to be fading, and I made a mental note to remove it the following spring. Much to my delight and amazement, the new growth on each branch the following spring registered more than a foot. It wasn’t dying; it was hungry! The compost pile had saved it.

In the spring, and at other times when I am planting, I push my shovel down deep into the compost pile to pull up a shovelful of rich, black dirt, as fertile as soil can be. I might toss some into a hole before planting a bulb or seed. Sometimes I spread it around my herb garden and dig it into the top few inches to enrich and improve the soil. Then nature takes over and the magic begins. Some forgotten seed, lying dormant in the compost, germinates and begins to grow. One year, we got grape tomatoes, green beans and gourds. Another year it was zucchini and roma tomatoes. Once a gorgeous broccoli plant grew. Once, incredibly, a tiny date palm began to grow, oblivious to the fact that the weather in Cleveland, Ohio, would not be friendly. My friend Amalia, an environmental educator and beekeeper, calls this annual experiment “compost gardening.”

Life hides in all kinds of unexpected places: a wizened old potato, a dried out chunk of horseradish, a spadeful of soil dug up from deep inside the compost pile. I’ve planted more horseradish as the years have passed, and early lacy greens are already growing this week. I’ve planted ginger, too. You never know exactly what surprises are hiding within, but you can guarantee that, whatever they turn out to be, they will be flavorful and bountiful. Some sun, some rain, and a little effort. All free for the taking.

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