The first time I joined a community-supported agriculture (CSA) project, almost ten years ago, the 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 jacketed children hopped around like hungry little rabbits as we waited for the strawberries to arrive. After a long, cold 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 over the course of each 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 (now in other words), and pass through all the 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 young, green fruits ripen, and some of these mature into larger, colorful fruits. Next, hard-shelled fruits ripen, with their seeds tucked safely inside for the following 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 and prepares for the next spring.
For all these reasons and more, it is the leaves that predominate in the first weeks of spring. Lettuce, spinach, chard, mint, kale, and, soon, asparagus. In my own herb garden, lemon balm, thyme, lavender, oregano, parsley and especially lovage grow in abundance. Let me know if you’d like any lovage — please! 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 all gone before we even sat down to dinner, eaten by whoever passed through the kitchen. Bowls of strawberries became 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 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, what seems like a long time from here, the weather will turn cool again. Melons, pumpkins, and winter squash will finally ripen. Potatoes, carrots, and beets. Each in turn, each in its time.