Speak to me

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.

18 people are having a conversation about “Speak to me

  1. Broccoli keeps running through my thoughts. Broccoli is high in calcium, right? How about a compost tea of mostly calcium rich foods? Maybe hit the grocery store that still cleans their own cabbage and broccoli, and beg the leafy discards for a special compost project. I am no chemist, I don’t know how available ground oyster shells, like I offer the chickens, would be to the plants in a hydroponic system. But add a bit of acid, like say adding the ground oyster shell to compost, or maybe vinegar. . .


  2. Damn I love my wife!
    Do any of you realize how big a breakthrough this is…
    To have her express that having her finger on the pulse of the project at hand and going with your intuitive knowledge is something that brings our world view together.
    For me the oyster shell solution is a brilliant intuitive leap. The oyster shell solution may fail spectacularly or it may be the answer to our prayers but the idea of trying it is what keeps my heart pumping.
    Kevin F.

    • As I think I may have commented before oyster shells are a brilliant solution. Can you burn them at a high temp? We do a similar thing with bones to create phosphorous for our seedlings. if you want to know a bit more, I could dig around to find a forum that may have more answers fr you

  3. “They couldn’t get a word in edgewise.” I believe that is EXACTLY why so many people today feel as though nature doesn’t speak to them. We need some silence and stillness if we want to hear those quieter voices.

  4. “But officer! We thought those were pepper plants!”

    And for a moment things were going better until…

    “This time, officer, we were trying to really, really listen to them.”

  5. “It speaks to you; it does not not speak to me.” That is so profound. It’s amazing what we glean from the older generation. I’ve been spending a lot of time with my 89-year-old grandma in the last couple years, but I am still struggling to put words on why I appreciate our time together so much.

    Thank you for your blog. I enjoy it very much.

  6. What a great post! I love that Kevin chimes in to let us know how proud of you he is. Tamar, every time I read your blog… I learn something. Thank you!

  7. New reader here, enjoying the blog muchly.

    My girlfriend recently rescued some of my neglected tomato seedlings with aspirin water, of all things.

    Excellent post and premise!

  8. Food speaks to me too – sometimes I wish it would shut the hell up.

    Yesterday I was planning on a simple peanut butter sandwich for lunch. But then I made the mistake of opening the fridge.

    “Hi-ya Big Boy” I heard from the back of the second shelf. “Got time for some pie?”.

    It was that piece of leftover pie, Grammar pie[1]. Such a tart, always playing the simple dessert, but oh, so much more.

    [1] What we call “Grammar” down here is a type of crookneck pumpkin/squash (Cucurbita moschata). I’ve seen two different types labelled as grammar, but the one I’m most familiar with is a distant ancestor of the butternut. The other has a green striated skin, and seems to have a much higher water content. Both are very rare these days, but this year I’ve managed to get some seeds.

  9. So it’s a calcium deficiency that causes blossom end rot? I had learned the cause at some point but forgotten, and now one of our tomato plants has that problem. As if living next door to a black walnut tree wasn’t enough of an obstacle to growing tomatoes. It’s interesting to me that only one of the three plants in our big planter has blossom end rot, though.

    I also like Frieda’s comment about it not speaking to her. That could explain why I have absolutely no concept of time, but whenever I’m baking something I will walk into the kitchen to check on it within the last minute on the timer. Every time. It’s practically the only thing I’m ever on time for.

  10. A poem by Elizabeth Bishop about cooking with grandmother, listening to food and to the kitchen, and listening to Nature. The poem’s title, Sestina, is also the structure of the poem.


    In Today’s NYT, an article on hydroponic produce.

    September rain falls on the house.
    In the failing light, the old grandmother
    sits in the kitchen with the child
    beside the Little Marvel Stove,
    reading the jokes from the almanac,
    laughing and talking to hide her tears.

    She thinks that her equinoctial tears
    and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
    were both foretold by the almanac,
    but only known to a grandmother.
    The iron kettle sings on the stove.
    She cuts some bread and says to the child,

    It’s time for tea now; but the child
    is watching the teakettle’s small hard tears
    dance like mad on the hot black stove,
    the way the rain must dance on the house.
    Tidying up, the old grandmother
    hangs up the clever almanac

    on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
    hovers half open above the child,
    hovers above the old grandmother
    and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
    She shivers and says she thinks the house
    feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

    It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
    I know what I know, says the almanac.
    With crayons the child draws a rigid house
    and a winding pathway. Then the child
    puts in a man with buttons like tears
    and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

    But secretly, while the grandmother
    busies herself about the stove,
    the little moons fall down like tears
    from between the pages of the almanac
    into the flower bed the child
    has carefully placed in the front of the house.

    Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
    The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
    and the child draws another inscrutable house.

    • Goose, I do love a relevant poem. My mother is very good at providing them; I’m glad to have another source. Thanks.

  11. I’m very glad to have so many people to whom plants speak coming to here to comment. Carol, do you mean egg shells? I was figure oyster shells might last longer. Brad, I might very well go the greens route if we weren’t oyster farmers, with an unlimited supply of shells. What we need is a good way to crush them … And, Cath, does burning make the calcium more available? Kevin’s always glad to have an excuse to burn something at a high temperature.

    Tovar, I do think that “reading” nature — being able to see which animals have been where, understanding the plant life — is a matter of paying attention. That said, I think it comes naturally to some of us, and the rest of us have to do it more by rote.

    Al, that made me laugh out loud.

    Matt, welcome and thanks for the kind words. I love the aspirin water. No aches and pains in your tomatoes, eh? Now I need to look up what aspirin has that tomato seedlings need.

    Kingsley, I see that both you and I speak pie. Kevin always shakes his head when I say I can’t keep ice cream in the house. “It calls to me,” I tell him. “It doesn’t call to you.”

    “It doesn’t have the chance,” he says.

    Cat, I think calcium is only one of the problems that leads to blossom end rot. I think it’s a common problem with a variety of possible culprits. And that’s pretty funny, about you and baking. I have the reverse problem — I’m always on time for everything, but if I don’t set a timer when I’m baking, I invariably forget about it until I smell it — by which time it may or may not be too late.

  12. Liquid calcuium should be available at any farm supply or even big box store. Bonide makes a product called Rot Stop for blossom end rot. It is liquid calcium. (Look at the ingredient label on products that prevent blossom end rot) Can be applied as a foliar spray, but I suspect you could put it in the hydroponic system (sorry, don’t know enough about hydroponics to say for sure). In the ground, blossom end rot can also be caused by irregular watering. Calcium is needed to provide strenght to the cell walls and if low, will cause the cell walls to collapse…thus blossom end rot. Without regular watering, calcium in the soil is not taken up by the plant at the time it is needed for the fruit. However, watering not the issue in hydroponics. Good luck.

  13. Tamar, this post truly spoke to me. I assume everyone– even (especially?) the very smartest people– have a topic, or a way of thinking, then just never jibes for them.
    I, for one, will read and write and cook– delving into the most complex forms of each– and not be stymied. But please do not ask me to run my Itunes through the wireless network in the house; add code to my site in the right place; or find a neighboring town without my GPS. I will be right 99% of the time about the human body and its functions and malfunctions, yet when a plant gets a yellow leaf I shrug and assume it will die within hours.
    But now I am inspired: perhaps my extreme ignorance will lead to a Tamar-like jump past logical thinking and allow me to come up with brilliant solutions to incomprehensible problems.
    Thanks for the hope, and congratulations on your adroit problem-solving.

  14. I meant egg shells but oyster shells should work too if you pound them up enough. Try running the poultry egg shells through the blender with water, let it soak for a day or three, pour off just the water into the plant’s supply and add more water to the eggshells. Repeat as long as you have patience.

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