One surprise about the social isolation, forced by the novel coronavirus, is the positive activity that can arise from the sustained time spent at home, such as, patio gardening, and a leisurely four-hour long salad course of homegrown lettuce. I live in an urban area, surrounded by construction, so the skyline is littered with cranes. Even so, with the help of a friend (thank you very much), I was able to organize the small (100 inches wide by 50 inches deep) balcony to be able to enjoy my outdoor space. Now, I can observe the Moon, planets, and the sunset lightshow, with a cocktail or a glass of wine al fresco.
Previously, the balcony was chock full of pots, with the remnants of past plantings, and having been neglected for several years, that even entering the area was almost impossible. Also, I have a heavy Japanese stone lantern, that I could view through the window from the living room, but it dominated and blocked easy access to the open space. My friend, with a great sense of spatial acuity, planned out a planting and cozy seating arrangement, and suggested a move of the lantern to provide a more welcoming flow.
The next step was to determine what plants to place in the few pots that fit. Annuals were the natural first selection, for splashes of color to brightened up the concrete balcony. A medley of herbs was the next choice, to complement my increasing interest in experimenting with new (for me at least, and that’s another social isolation story) recipes. Almost an afterthought were the packages of seeds picked up after selecting the annuals and herbs – a package of Little Prince Eggplant, and four varieties of lettuce seeds, Jade Gem, Baby Leaf, Jericho, and, the most intriguing, Wasebi Arugula. Like a proud father, I welcomed the lettuce sprouts when they pushed their little green heads above the soil a week after seeding.
I was raised in the Lower East Side of New York City, and my upbringing, as a street urchin playing stoop ball until dark, didn’t include interactions with growing plants. Even as a house owner, with child rearing, work, and lawn care, enjoyment of the outdoors was limited to the Weber grill, or lazy drinks and meals out in the patio. I enjoyed visits to Brookside and Longwood Gardens, or the National Arboretum, but it was just a spectator sport for me.
Social isolation, and my current teleworking schedule, have allowed me to not leave my condo building, at times, for a whole week. That has fostered a concentrated presence, to observe my surroundings, in a way not possible in the “Before Times.” It is magical to actually witness, day to day, how plants of all types quickly grow in Spring. Flower buds, that were tiny, open up to full petals, in one day; bare soil is pushed aside by microscopic green sprouts, that grow into stalks with miniature leaves; vines reach out, and overflow their containers, forming tangled profusions. All it seems in a blink of an eye. All of this might be missed, in the to-and-fro, of the “Before Times.”
The most surprising performer has been the lettuce. Its pot is not large, and each variety of lettuce was given its own quadrant. In my lack of experience, I filled the quadrants densely with seeds, fearing that the majority would not grow. You can see in the beginning photo, they all have sprouted, and rapidly filled the pot. Their fecundity surprised me. The Wasebi Arugula, though, fell behind the growth rate of its siblings. In six weeks since the seeding, the lettuce seemed ready for harvest, and to be freed from its cramped pot. But I was ambivalent.
The prospect of eating something that orginated from just air, water, soil and Sun is very alluring. Especially when I will witness the whole food chain from seed to table. But the thought, of cutting the lettuce leaves, filled me with a bit of remorse. My friends assured me that the lettuce would recover, for a second, or even third, harvest. So on Father’s Day, what irony since I considered myself the father to these infant lettuces, three varieties of lettuce were harvested, leaving the Wasebi Arugula to mature more fully.
In honor of this event, the salad became the first course of Father’s Day dinner. So why did this course take four hours? To begin with, there was the careful trimming of the lettuce leaving room, above the stalks and around the more slowly growing Wasebi Arugula. Then there were the lettuce aphids. How these critters found their way to my fifth story urban balcony is a mystery. Many washings ensued. The first of many soakings drowned the offending aphids. Tiny barely visible bodies floated in the water. A few still managed to escape, and tickled the hairs on my arm. A final soak in ice water firmed up the leaves. Several spins helped dry the lettuce.
“Itadakimasu” (phonetically, eat a duck and mouse), as the Japanese say before a meal, “let’s eat.” The young greens in the salad have a delicate taste that heavy dressing would overwhelm. I tried extra virgin olive oil, and sesame oil, coupled with lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, and rice vinegar. It was an experiment to find the best combination. For me, drops of sesame oil, mixed with rice vinegar, dash of sea salt, and ground pepper respected the youth of the lettuce, while enhancing its delicacy with a depth of different tastes.
Four hours from harvest to enjoyment went quickly. I feel the time was well spent, almost a meditation, to fully appreciate my seed-to-table salad. It is a memorable Father’s Day first course, and I am thankful that my grownup human children remain healthy in this crisis. Before a meal, Zen adherents offer this grace, “I give thanks to the many beings who helped this meal become possible before me today. I vow to use this energy for only good. The Sun is in my Food.”
June 27, 2020
Gordon Chin: I have deep roots in New York City. I was raised in the Lower East Side in the days when it was truly a ghetto. My grandfather had a grocery store in Chinatown on Mott Street. I attended PS 160 on Riverton Street. The elementary school is within walking distance from Ludlow and Delancey where our small apartment housed a family of seven people, albeit four of us children. I was fortunate then to have attended middle and high school at the Rhodes School on a scholarship. Rhodes (no longer exists) was housed in two historic Stanford White buildings and was located across the street from the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum (at that time neighbors) on West 54th Street near Fifth Avenue. Having a student pass to both museums, I spent countless hours in front of Picasso’s “Guernica”, Monet’s “Water Lilies” and other masterpieces. Perhaps it was here that I developed a love for fine art, whatever the genre. I attended Columbia College and University as an undergraduate and a graduate student. My day job is a planetary scientist and I return to New York, my spiritual home, as often as possible.