Today's guest post is from Joan Lambert Bailey, an American ex-pat who lives, gardens, and writes in Japan. We're trading blog space today, so be sure to go out my post on her blog, too!
Jack London famously said of inspiration that it couldn't be waited for, but that it had to be chased down with a club. I prefer to think I wield weapons more enticing, but when a deadline looms I give that club some serious consideration.
My inspiration, more often than not, comes while I'm working at the farm or in my garden, weeding between long rows of komatsuna (a leafy Japanese green) or edamame seedlings, marveling at the critters running to and fro as I lift purslane, sugina (horsetail), lamb's quarters, and some nasty prickly vine from the soil. Recipes take shape as I thin carrot seedlings or harvest yet another over-zealous zucchini. I fish a notebook and pen from my pocket (inspiration on a farm requires old school technology as dirt and new school tech don't mix!) to jot down what my Muse mumbled just before she dashed into the bean patch.
There are moments, though, when there is no inspiration despite a looming deadline. An article needs to be written or a blog post generated, and rain keeps my notebook in my pocket, me at my desk, and my Muse napping. As any writer knows, it is these moments that result in sleepless nights, a bit of hair pulling, and the occasional bout of over-snacking. It is then that I turn to a handful of favorite remedies to see what I might find.
My pictures. I often take more photographs than I use on my blog or for a given article. My computer is full to overflowing with flowers, bees, rivers, leaves, vegetables harvested and on the vine, assorted foods, and other people's clever gardening or cooking ideas. Reviewing them often jogs loose a memory of an idea, and I'm off!
My bookshelf. I occasionally receive food and gardening books for review from publishers or writers, and, of course, I pick up one or two that strike my fancy. Feeling the heft of the book in my hand, turning the pages to review my notes, or re-reading an ear-marked page reminds me of what was so intriguing in the first place. This usually results in a trip to the garden or kitchen to start experimenting, photographing, or taking notes for the article I'd forgotten I wanted to write.
My journal. I set aside about an hour each morning before the rest of the household wakes up to sit down with pen and paper and write whatever comes to mind. What begins as a mundane “Yesterday at the farm we...” rolls out into a stream of consciousness that lets me wander again through the day and the thoughts that crossed my mind. Often I end up connecting ideas and actions, sorting out new questions to research, or remembering a conversation to quote later. Especially when I'm traveling, my journal helps me capture every impression of a market, every feeling or taste so that I can mine it later for an article, essay or blog post.
My run. Even if rain keeps me out of the garden, it won't stop me from putting on running shoes and splashing my way around the neighborhood for thirty minutes. Plants don't appreciate being handled when they're wet, but I'm certainly none the worse for wear. A good run (or walk if it's not a running day), hike, or quick trip to the gym helps get creative juices flowing again.
My local haunts. Like running, a change of scenery and a bit of conversation can jar ideas loose or even plant a few, too. Chatting with Nakagawa-san at her onigiri shop over a yummy lunch set of her handmade onigiri (rice balls usually wrapped in seaweed with something delicious in the center), steaming miso soup, homemade nukazuke (traditional Japanese pickles made with rice bran) with good strong green tea results not just in new vocabulary, but often in some thought-provoking conversation, a recipe, or just plain old relaxation that lets me return to my desk with fresh eyes.
Where do you find inspiration for your writing or other creative work?
Joan Lambert Bailey currently lives and writes in Tokyo where she is lucky enough to get her hands dirty at a local organic farm. You can read about her adventures learning about Japanese food from seed to harvest to table at Japan Farmers Markets or join her on Twitter.
It isn't quite canning season but I have all these jars so I was wondering what else I could do with them while I wait for the berries and stone fruits to ripen up. And lo, this post was born. 10 things you can do with Mason Jars:
1. Make Butter
Since my friend Veronica posted recently about making butter in Mason jars, I've been wanting to make some at home. When I was a kid we would do this with my mom. It is surprisingly easy, and makes really really good butter. I also found some flavored butter recipes that I'd like to try.
2. Candle holders for the garden
Here is a how-to for a straightforward hanging candle holder made from a Mason Jar. This version, all in a row, is lovely, but I can't figure out how it was assembed and there are no instructions.
I love Sunset Magazine. I don't even know how long I've been reading it - longer than I've had a house of my own, certainly. When I recently did a clean out of my magazine subscriptions, Sunset was one of only 3 subscriptions I didn't cancel and the other two have since lapsed. I love when that new issue arrives in my mailbox and I can curl up with a mug of tea and flip through the pretty lifestyles that don't actually seem so unattainable, unlike a lot of magazines I used to read!
When I bought my house it had been a rental for a number of years, so as you might imagine the yard had largely gone to pot. Everything was overgrown or weedy. The gophers had the run of the place and I had the twisted ankles to prove it. A couple of times in the years that I've lived here I managed to rein in the weeds in one or another corner of the lot, but I've never really had the place looking good all at once. I've never even had all of the front or all of the back looking good at once. Let's just say the yard was best enjoyed with blinders on. Just focus on this clean bit and don't look over there!
I've added flower beds, let them grow over, installed a container garden and let it get unruly, trimmed back the lovely antique roses that came with the place and then let them get out of control again, built raised vegetable beds and then forgot to clear them out in the fall, and hoed the weeds down to the dirt just to have them spring back after the next rain. It has definitely been a one-step-forward-two-steps-back sort of situation. But slowly, slowly, at least the back yard was becoming habitable. But then my back went out last fall right when I should have been cleaning up the garden for the winter. So that didn't happen. By the time my back healed I was too pregnant to do much in the way of yard work. And then right when it started to get warm again I had a new baby.
One fine day in late March I tied the baby to my chest and went out to survey the damage in the back yard. I could see the bones, and they were lovely. But oh, the weeds. So I set in. After about 30 minutes, during which I woke the baby by leaning forward so far, drenched myself in sweat from wearing 18 yards of Moby in full sun, and only pulled about 4 linear feet of weeds, I admitted defeat and called my friend Kate for some help.
I think she spent 6 hours back there, and let me tell you, that woman is a whirlwind. She dealt with the weeds, cleared out the veggie beds, refilled them with fresh dirt and compost, brought me veggie seedlings, was ruthless with the containers (emptied some, cut others back), and even cleared out the trash (hoarded containers) that was lurking in one back corner. Do you need help in your garden? Hire this woman.
By Mother's Day, I had a garden worthy of a Sunset photo shoot. At least from one wide angle.
Last year I grew and cooked so many tomatoes. Remember my "20 things to do with tomatoes" series? I didn't quite make it to 20, but I got pretty close. This year I grew some, but cooked with hardly any. Mostly that's a reflection of other things going on in my life and how little I've been cooking generally, but also I wasn't as pleased with the tomatoes coming out of the garden and so was less inspired to cook with them. Some made it into my kitchen, but then didn't get used before they went soft. Some were collected by my mom or her partner when one or the other of them were over helping me clean up my garden in August. Many just dropped off the vines and rotted into the ground - I expect lots of volunteer plants next year.
The vines are just about done at this point. I picked the last of the paste tomatoes today and all of the ripe cherries - I may get just a few more of the golden pears if the warm weather holds through the holiday. I made a big batch of tomato soup with what I picked, augmented with a few dry-farmed tomatoes from last week's farm share. Honestly these are pretty tasteless for dry-farmed, so maybe it just wasn't a very good year for tomatoes all around. The soup is good, but doesn't hold a candle to the soups I made last fall. I dressed it up with a big dollop of pesto, and it is nice and warm and comforting. But it isn't the *pow* of the bowl of soup my recipe is based on, which I ate at a cafe in Amsterdam the September before last.
It is hard to imagine that was only just over a year ago. It feels like so much longer. So much of my life has changed - so much of who I am has changed - that it doesn't quite seem possible.
But I did learn a few things from the garden this year where tomatoes are concerned, and in the hopes that I'll remember them next year when I am planting, I'm going to write them down.
1. I really like to grow tomatoes. My basic garden has only oregano, tomatoes, basil, and flat-leaf parsley. Anything else I have room for or can get to grow is just gravy (though I really enjoyed the Anaheim chilies I planted this year and I yearn to have a successful strawberry crop someday).
2. For the things I like to cook, it makes the most sense to grow paste and either cherry or small pear tomatoes. Maybe one plant of some very flavorful globe variety to round out soups.
3. Heirloom varieties don't do well in my garden. Don't waste the space. Just buy them at the market.
4. It is better to select varieties for their ability to thrive in the foggy weather of my neighborhood rather than because I like the name. The Dona plant didn't produce very well and many of the fruit started rotting before they were even ripe. Also they tasted bland. The Early Girl I planted last year did much better and tasted much better. I might have good success with San Francisco Fog, too.
5. I grew San Marzano paste tomatoes this year for the express purpose of roasting them and making sauce to put up for the winter, and then I did neither. I want a do over. Also I missed the little Juliets that I grew so prolifically last year and had such good luck drying. I'm still using the dried tomatoes from last season but my supply is getting pretty low.
6. Cherry tomatoes produce best when they have good sun, plenty of water, and are picked regularly. I had a bit of trouble with #2 and 3 toward the end of the summer. I need more things to do with cherry tomatoes because I got a bit overwhelmed with the quantity. I wonder if I could dry some of these? In any case, one cherry plant is enough. Resist the urge to buy two.
7. The gophers from all over the neighborhood have discovered my back yard and are settling in like it is Manhattan. I won't poison them because we have a lot of cats in the neighborhood and also I'm not a big fan of killing things. My deterrent noise-maker stakes are obviously not effective. I have no idea what else to try. Suggestions? I'm not sure I could handle traps, because of that whole killing thing, and if I use live traps then what do I do with the critters once they are caught? To add insult to injury, I got back from Thailand to discover that my beautiful pink Japanese anenomne, which has been planted directly in the ground since sometime before I lived here, and which had so far escaped the notice of the gophers, had been eaten. They always seem to identify my most favorite plants and find them delicious.
8. My vegetable bed needs to re-dug with fertilizer before I plant next year. Ideally, I'll take the time and effort to put down gopher wire, too. Maybe. I also have a plan to build some new beds in a sunnier spot across the yard, and those will have gopher wire from the beginning. If I have the time and energy to build them. I need a handyman/woman.
9. The plants thrive best if they are put in the ground shortly after I bring them home. I know that seems obvious, but actually getting plants into the ground in a timely period is something I struggle with. Something to do with ambition being larger than the reality of time and energy.
10. I really like growing tomatoes. I realize I said that already, but it bears repeating. Even with this year's poor results, I'm not at all deterred. Even being able to make *one* meal with ingredients I grew myself is enough to encourage me to try again.
Recently, when I was talking about working in my garden, a friend said to me, "I sense that you are someone who gets a lot of healing from gardening." And yes, that is true. It calms me, slows me, to have my hands in the dirt. I find a great deal of joy from communing with the plants while I water, while I groom, or just check in on them. Notice which have new leaves, new flowers, which are struggling and which are flourishing.
My garden was feeling a bit overwhelming for a while there. Gardening was something Lisa and I would do together. But she's lost interest, or doesn't want to work with me in this way, and tending to a large yard solo is a pretty daunting task. But my mom has been helping, and having a helper caused my manager side to kick in. I broke it all down into tasks, made lists, prioritized. Made a repeating reminder on my calendar to water, to fertilize. The lists are still only half done, but I can see such a difference in the yard already, and I so much enjoy going out there in the mornings and checking in with the plants.
The basil that I thought wasn't going to make it is putting out lots of new leaves, getting lush and bushy, though still only about 3 inches tall. The sweet peas that are probably too much in the shade are reaching tall for the hairy twine wound around the trellis they are to grow up. The tomato plants are all strong and green-smelling and starting to show signs of setting fruit. The oregano and sage that had grown wild and lanky over the winter and which I cut back hard a few weeks ago are putting out new and healthy branches, smelling sweet and strong, and making me imagine the meals I can make with them. It is hard for me to cut back plants that have gone lanky, as I'm often afraid that I'm going to kill them. But more often than not, they come back stronger, healthier, more lush.
There were a few plants in my back yard container garden that survived the winter, though they never really did well last summer. As a gardener, I'm not a good editor. I have too much empathy for plants that are struggling but still showing signs of life. I felt especially protective of these particular plants. I have struggled through winters. I have struggled to thrive in an environment that wasn't quite right. These two or three that were valiantly a hanging on were rewarded with fresh soil, new pots, fertilizer. I rearranged them so they got more sun. And each of them is now thriving. One has put out the burgundy blossoms that were the reason I purchased it in the first place, a fact that I had forgotten because it never flowered last summer.
It is hard not to draw parallels between my life and these plants. And so I love on them, and in so doing, love myself.
Eat them right off the vine. Preferably from a sun-warmed garden.
While you might accuse me of padding my list with this one, I have a point: If you start any tomato recipe with tomatoes good enough to eat plain, whatever the rest of the dish is will taste better than if you started with a watery tomato.
Join me in boycotting watery, unripe tomatoes. I have 19 more ways to eat good tomatoes to come.
I also have photos and a journal of my Amsterdam trip, now posted and backdated. If you didn't catch them, those entries are dated 9/11 and 9/17, or just scroll down to find them.