When I lived in San Francisco, I had the pleasure of paying the occasional visit to a woman named Frieda. Her last name is lost to me, but I remember vividly how much I enjoyed spending time with such an erudite, interesting human being. She was a mathematician by training, but she seemed to know something about everything.
Frieda was over ninety, and came from a prominent Eastern European Jewish family – I want to say she was Hungarian, but that’s probably because I automatically assume all mathematicians are Hungarian. She was well-educated and well-read, and spoke enough languages to statistically compensate for a whole roomful of pathetic monoglots like me. She had somehow escaped the Nazis, and made a career in the United States.
The one thing Frieda couldn’t do – and, as far as I could ascertain, there really was only one – was cook. It was a mystery to me. She was so accomplished, so intelligent, I was sure she was capable of it. But, whether or no, she obviously preferred not to cook, so I would sometimes make a big pot of something, something she could make several meals out of, and bring it to her house.
One day I brought over a big batch of pasta sauce and a couple pounds of pasta. As I made dinner, she watched. “All you have to do is heat the sauce and boil water for the pasta,” I told her, feeling stupid giving such simple directions to one of the smartest people I knew.
Frieda was tiny, probably a foot shorter than I am, and I remember having the impression that she had to stand on tiptoe to look over the side of the pot as I put the pasta in. She watched as I stirred it to make sure it wouldn’t clump.
“How long do you boil it?” she asked me.
“Just until it’s cooked through,” I said. “Test it when it starts to look flexible. You’ll be able to tell.”
“No,” she said, taking my elbow and looking up at me sternly. “You will be able to tell, but I will not.” She pointed to the pasta in the pot. “It speaks to you,” she told me. “It does not speak to me.”
And she was right. Food has always spoken to me. Loudly. And a good thing, too, because it drowns out the deafening silence of music, fashion, and contemporary art.
Those of us who are either lucky or prescient start careers in fields that speak to us, and stay there, happily playing to our strengths, for the duration. I was neither, and came to food writing only after more than a decade of bumbling around in the corporate world (can you imagine?) irritating bosses and subordinates alike.
Part of what makes this enterprise that Kevin and I have taken up both interesting and frustrating is that I’m engaging in all sorts of activities for which I have no particular aptitude. The only way I can tell if a chicken is sick is by taking out the Sick Chicken Check-List and running down it. Tail down? Listless? Poopy bum? I have no intuitive sense of it; Kevin is always the first to notice a problem in the poultry pen.
When I took a hunting workshop last fall, the leader took us into the woods to teach us to identify deer habitat. We stopped by a small clearing in the trees, and he pointed. “See that? Deer slept there last night.”
I looked, I saw nothing. I made sure I was looking where he was pointing, and I looked again. It was only when he pointed out the flattened grass did I see the nest. It spoke to him, but it didn’t speak to me.
This week, I set about trying to solve the calcium problem in our hydroponic system. There is a very specific prescribed solution, and it involves water-soluble calcium nitrate. My first impulse was simply to order it, but because it was both A) expensive and B) at least a week away at standard shipping rates, I decided I would try to find a local solution.
I made the rounds of the local garden centers and talked to the staff. I found that the spirit was willing but the inventory was weak. They understood my problem, but didn’t have anything they thought could help. Kelp was about as close as they could come.
Finally, I ended up calling a hydroponic shop a good sixty miles away. I talked to the owner, and I was mystified when he didn’t seem to have any idea what blossom end rot was. Kevin had to explain to me that the only hydroponic crop grown in quantity to support an entire store in an otherwise depressed area of southeast Massachusetts was pot. Pot growers aren’t interested in blossoms, so blossom end rot just isn’t on their radar.
Still, marijuana needs calcium too, and the store carried a product called Cal-Mag, designed to make up the calcium deficiency in hydroponic fertilizers. (Why hydroponic fertilizers have a chronic lack of calcium is a mystery to me, although I’m sure there’s a straightforward chemical explanation.)
The amount of gas I burned getting there, and the money I spent buying a quart of Cal-Mag, are unconscionable. It was only after I got home and Kevin and I added the supplement to both our gravity-feed and our self-watering containers that it occurred to me that calcium was an ordinary substance, present in all kinds of cheap, readily available products.
“I should just add milk powder to the mix,” I told Kevin, facetiously. And then, on a whim, I Googled it. Seems people water their tomatoes with milk all the time. They also crumble eggshells into the soil. Or they use calcium gluconate supplements meant for human consumption.
The reason I’m trying to solve the problem with an expensive, custom-tailored, mail-order product is the same reason Frieda wanted to know how many minutes to cook the pasta. It’s a problem I have no feel for, and so I’m looking for specific directions from someone who does have a feel for it. Following directions, I can do.
But gardening isn’t so different from cooking. You try things until you find what works for you. The more you try, the better you get at it. The biggest difference is the lag time between the attempt and the result. Cooking, you add and then you taste. Gardening, you have to wait. By the time the tomatoes are ripe, you can barely remember how you amended the soil. But that’s what notebooks are for.
So I’m thinking we grind up oyster shells and add them to our hydroponic substrate. Or maybe even try adding non-fat milk powder directly to the fertilizer. I can’t believe that expensive additives are the only way to solve this problem. It may take several iterations to figure out just how to make our hydroponics work, but I think if we pay attention, read up, and experiment, we’ll get there.
All my life, my plants haven’t spoken to me, but maybe it’s just because they couldn’t get a word in edgewise.