Eating Local -Fall 2008

by: Gabriella Burnham

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

Patty Myers knows how a real tomato should taste. It naturally fuses the proper balance between acidic and sweet. Its skin, like a small red balloon, bursts with flavorful juices when punctured. It needs little to no more garnish than a simple drizzle of olive oil, a pinch of salt and a grind of pepper. The perfect tomato grows in Myers’ Nantucket garden, not on some anonymous farm in South America.

Butler and Wallace sell the fruits โ€“ and vegetables โ€“โ€‚of their labor at the Nantucket Farmers and Artisans Market, held the first half of the summer in the rear parking lot of the Dreamland Theater.

“I don’t use any pesticides. It’s all organic, so I know what I’m getting,” said Myers, sitting in her sun room on the first rainy day the island had seen in weeks this summer. Her garden looked particularly green as it soaked in a long-awaited drink of water.

“Pesticides are really bad for kids. You don’t know what you’re getting from foreign countries. I have nine families that I’m feeding out of that garden right now, plus Water Street,” said Myers, who provides locally-grown, organic food for islanders as well as the upscale restaurant on South Water Street.

Unlike her garden, a quick survey of the produce aisle in the grocery store reveals that most (if not all) of the vegetables travel from different parts of the United States and even various foreign countries before they reach their final destination. Myers knows what she’s getting when she walks into her back yard and picks a local tomato because she personally escorts the veggie to her kitchen. No gas was burned to transport it there; no laborers worked with hazardous pesticides to ensure a presentable product; and her vegetables don’t sit in a truck, airplane, freighter, or grocery-store aisle before boiling in her soup pot.

The most transportation trouble she might face is on a day like today, when Myers takes out her umbrella before harvesting her garden.

“During the summer time I don’t go to Stop & Shop at all. The only time I go in is to get melons. My husband Alan loves melon, but it’s difficult to grow here because the rats like to eat them.”

Sure, the occasional unexpected factor – like a rat with a sweet tooth – might make maintaining your own garden more unpredictable than driving to the grocery store and buying some strawberries from Chile. But the obvious difference in taste and freshness makes the intermittent strain worth the effort, she said.

“I love to make bruschetta. Tonight I’m making zucchini stuffed with some sausage. I love the peas in the spring. Hot spicy snow peas in hot chili oil. Lasagna with zucchini, mushrooms, parsnips, all roasted together.”

Dylan Wallace and Claudia Butler, who run Nantucket Native (a name that describes both the food and the gardeners) are particularly proud of their home-grown seasonal strawberries and rhubarb, which they combine to make a strawberry- rhubarb pie they serve with ice cream. In the spring they eat arugula from their back-yard garden, and this summer they enjoyed a rare specialty: artichokes.

“In eating fresh food from your garden, you really get picky,” said Wallace, who added that usually it is too cold in the Northeast to grow artichokes, but due to global warming the weather has been perfect for these more exotic vegetables.

“Sometimes when (Claudia and I) go out to eat, we can pick apart our plates. We know what was really baked there, what’s fresh, what’s not. You can taste when bread was baked at the restaurant where you’re eating.”

Their main garden (one of four) spreads out in front of a teepee and a greenhouse, the latter of which they acquired from the Chanticleer restaurant in Sconset where they maintain the back garden. The greenhouse provides shelter for herbs poised for planting as well as Araucana chickens, which lay blue and green eggs.

The garden itself is a medley of native and exotic plants, all of which Butler and Wallace have started from seed and fertilize with a slow compost made from chicken manure, food scraps and grass clippings. Growing in what doubles as a produce garden and a natural, serene sanctuary are wintergreen (the leaves of which taste like Lifesavers when chewed), raspberries, blueberries, hazelnut bushes, fig trees, tomatoes, grapes, tarragon, sweet potatoes, perennial herbs, tiger lilies and more.

“When you say you’re willing to pay an extra 25 cents to eat an apple that is grown organically (which all of their produce is), you are putting money toward the health of the people working there, the water in the area, the quality of the product. And if you’re getting (the organic food) locally, you see these impacts right away,” said Butler, who is a certified herbalist from the Southwest School of Botanical Medicines in Arizona. Wallace recently graduated from Tufts University and the Museum School of Fine Arts with a bachelor’s degree in art education and a concentration in environment.

Through their company, Wallace and Butler feed locavores – people who eat locally-grown food – and also design and grow gardens at private homes, no matter the style, size or type. The pick-up truck they drive runs on recycled vegetable oil (acquired from local restaurants) and they use push mowers, rakes and hand trimmers to maintain the gardens.

If they’re not at the beach, then these two are thinking about, growing or cooking organic food, said Wallace.

“When someone has a garden and spends time in it, they can really see the season changes. They will know how bark looks against juniper, how grapes ripen, get fat and juicy, and then fall to the ground. It’s wonderful having fresh fruit that’s in season,” said Wallace, whose father Peter used to own the island restaurant Oran Mor. For that reason he has always appreciated fresh ingredients that are prepared in the kitchen.

“When you eat things that were started from scratch, you know all the pieces of your meal. They’re not enriched with some weird additives,” he said. “Breakfast is one of my favorite meals. Seeing pancakes being made from scratch, and an egg white being beaten into a foamy cream that you can fold into your batter, making it so light and fluffy and perfect – It tastes so much better.”

Part of being able to enjoy fresh ingredients grown in your back yard comes with appreciating the food your local environment has to offer.

No, grapefruit trees do not grow easily on Nantucket, but blueberries, raspberries, cranberries, beach plums and strawberries do (which will make beautiful desserts – both Wallace and Butler can attest to that).

As do lobsters, mussels, quahogs, crabs and squid, which can all be procured fresh daily from island fish markets like East Coast Seafood on Hummock Pond Road, Glidden’s on Pleasant Street or Sayle’s on the Washington Street Extension. Other alternatives to growing your own garden or buying from Myers and Nantucket Native are Bartlett’s Ocean View Farm on Bartlett Farm Road and Moors End Farm off Polpis Road.

“People should find the beauty in local plants and ecology. They should see how great blueberries are, or beach plums and cranberries, or how wonderful a fresh mussel tastes, rather than something that needs fertilizers or pesticides,” said Wallace.

And learning this singular beauty – the delicious bite of a local vegetable – does not have to come from an intricate garden built from years of tending, maintaining and growing.

Adding local cuisine to your dinner plate can come from something as simple as a tomato plant on your back porch. Once you taste the difference between a local and imported tomato – the texture, flavor and size – you might never eat off your island again.


Gabrielle Burnham is a senior at Trinity College and a seasonal reporter for The Inquirer and Mirror.

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