Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Gardening, Part I: Mothers' Hands


     I have been putting aside writing this post since things have gotten very busy.  I’m diving back into my dissertation work and will have my hands full researching and writing my prospectus.  It may be more appropriate to write this now anyway as the fall season is coming to an unofficial end and the dreary, gray clouds roll in filled with snow and biting cold.  I write this with some bitterness because Buffalo has a long, and often sunless, winter and the thought of not seeing green, vivid color, or plant life for the next five months takes its toll on my spirit.  In fact, I have learned I (and I suspect many others) deal with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) every winter.  Fortunately, it’s not severe and I do my best to soothe it with careful attention to diet, Vitamin D supplementation, a light box, and restorative activities that help center me.  I try my best to survive the cold, listless days with beadwork, photography, yoga, reading, puzzles, or (if I am absolutely without energy) binge-watching TV shows on Netflix.
      Before we fully succumb to the short days and long evenings, I want to reflect on gardening.  When I was a little girl, we often visited my grandmother’s house on the reservation, and my mother, sister, and I sometimes lived there too.  It was a small two (?) bedroom house built by my grandfather’s own hands and it’s amazing to think they raised thirteen children there.  From what I remember, Grandma always had a small garden in the backyard where she grew tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, corn, green beans, and squash.  She often canned what she grew, or shopped from the nearby farmers, and made THE BEST homemade pickles with fresh dill, spices, and cucumbers.  Having worked in a cannery in the past, Grandma has a vast amount of knowledge on how to preserve tomatoes, chili sauce, beets, peaches, plums, black-caps, jams, or pretty much anything.  Many times I would come home from school and be greeted by the spicy sweet smell of salsa or the garlicky dill, acidic vinegar scent of pickles waiting to be canned in her pristine jars.  Sometimes I was sternly scolded for getting my grimy hands on her precious, clean Masons.  I would see her and my mother standing over the hot kitchen stove, boiling jars, peeling tomatoes with the speed and ease with which we might peel string cheese, shoving cucumbers into jars, and telling jokes and stories about rez happenings.  I usually kept out of their way so as to not be a pest, playing outside and making forts, but sometimes I stayed and watched, quietly enjoying the comfort and nurturing of two maternal generations who have taken good care of our family.  I can still remember the smell of onions and garlic lingering long in the pores of my mother's hands when she tucked me into bed later in the evening.  The scent permeates with the love, care, and strength of women providing nourishing sustenance for family so that we can live and thrive.  I dream of the day my own hands can one day carry on the tradition.  Though Grandma no longer has the energy to do these things these days, I still like to ask her about it and hopefully can learn myself someday. 
     I look back on these memories with such fondness.  I loved having the chance to water the garden and be her assistant, watching green fruits ripen under the hot, August sun, or being the one to pick these Creator-given gifts when they were ready.  We never knew how each growing season would treat us and sometimes our poor plants were flooded or scorched and our yield depended on that.  Regardless, we did our best.  It really makes you respect the old agricultural ways and farmers who do this for a living.  My mother inherited this gardening tradition and now has the green thumb of the family.  She lacks the land for a garden plot right now, but I assure you she has the ability to revive wilting plants destined for the garbage, or to magically produce more tomatoes than a ketchup factory might need in a week.  My aunt carries on the wonderful practice of food preservation and her pickles almost rival those of Grandma’s, especially her special spicy formula.
      I have been trying to keep these gardening traditions alive through my lowly little porch container garden over the past few years.  I started gardening in Oklahoma when I soon found out practically only cacti and prairie grass can survive heat of that magnitude.  My cucumbers and tomatoes did not stand a chance by the time the mid-June steambath hit and water would begin to sizzle once you poured it.  Exaggerations aside, my first attempt at gardening was a failure.  Then my husband and I moved back home to New York where I began to start container gardening using clay and plastic containers and store-bought soil.  I found that tomatoes thrived here, but lettuce not so much, and growing out of containers comes with its own challenges. 
      At our current apartment, I am fortunate to have a south-facing porch that gets plenty of sunlight from season to season.  I got a late start this year since I was finishing my comprehensive exams in mid-June.  This year I planted green beans (bush), kale, arugula, spinach, and basil from seed.  Since I started so late, I supplemented with plants I purchased at the nursery.  These included: strawberries, rosemary, thyme, oregano, lemon balm, catnip, mint, and lavender.  I had a wonderful turnout with the herbs, beans, and arugula.  In fact, soon I’ll be devoting a separate post for ways to harvest and preserve homegrown herbs.  This year, my spinach became the gardening casualty as well as the kale and green beans, but for different reasons.  Spinach turned out to be a less than stellar container plant because it needs more space to grow and branch out.  My kale became a breeding ground for a family of hungry caterpillars that transformed into what I believe were yellow sulphur butterflies.  I thought I was safe to plant a new batch of seeds after they cleared out, but a new generation introduced itself.  Luckily, I was able to enjoy a salad and a smoothie for a split second before they decimated my greens.  My last nemesis, red spider mites, attacked the leaves of my green beans  In late July, I noticed my leaves took on an unhealthy yellowy, spotty appearance and soon discovered tiny red bugs just barely visible by the naked eye on the underside of the leaves.  They quickly spread to other containers and it was too late to wage war on the little critters, but next year I’ll get my revenge.  I look forward to carrying on these experiences in six months (eek!).
      Thanks for listening to my ramblings about gardening, food preservation, memories, and my maternal teachers and inspirations.  Today I am grateful I had these experiences for they taught me the value of patience, hard work, love, and faith.  It brings me such great peace when I garden, connecting with my family, past memories, the natural world, and growing food I can pridefully enjoy consuming.  I know there is a larger story underneath this telling that I hope to unravel in another post about gardening, resistance, economic self-sufficiency, and sovereignty; but for now my mind must get some quiet rest before this winter storm hits us.  Enjoy your evening and take a moment to remember the greenery while the flakes fly. J


Do you have any beautiful and inspiring stories about your own or your relatives’ gardening experiences?  Or maybe you have natural remedies and advice to get rid of these pests?  Please feel free to share them in the comments.  I would love to hear them.

Delicious baby arugula leaves made for great salads and smoothies.  I really enjoyed it blended with pears or peaches and coconut milk.

The green beans were so plentiful this season until the spider mites appeared.  You can see the beginning of their destruction in the top right photo.

The unfortunate kale and beautiful pests!

Gorgeous sunflowers grown from seed gifted by the Indigenous Women's Initiatives last year.

My container garden, two curious eyes, herbs in a clay pot, and lavender flowers.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Week of Indigenous Eating Challenge + Broiled Haddock with Cranberry-Sage Quinoa and Delicata Squash Strips


     I have to say that November is a pretty good month and it's not just because of an extra hour of sleep or a day to gorge ourselves in delicious Thanksgiving foods.  November has been recognized in the U.S. as National American Indian Heritage Month officially since the year 1990, though an American Indian day has been celebrated in some form since around 1915 thanks to Arthur C. Parker (Haudenosaunee, represent!).  It is marked by events, celebrations, and festivities around the country that celebrate the strength, survival and continuity of Indigenous nations.  Coincidentally, it is also Diabetes Month in November which started as a week-long dedication in 1948 and has since expanded.  It really does make one wonder if it is truly a coincidence since Native American people have extremely high rates of diabetes - 2.3 times higher likeliness of type 2 diabetes diagnosis as adults and a 110% increase in Native youth diabetes diagnoses from 1999-2009.  But I'm not here to throw around scaremongering statistics vis-a-vis news reports or on your doctor's office waiting television monitors (whoever thought of this idea, I would like to personally force him/her to listen to them for hours nonstop!  Grrr... yes, I have some built up anger here.).  However, I do think it's important to acknowledge and bring awareness to this heightened risk and to do what we reasonably can to make our lives healthier right now to ensure better health and healing in the future.  So November basically means I get to acknowledge two really significant components of my identity and existence as a Haudenosaunee woman with type 1 diabetes.

     In relation to these month-oriented dedications, there are some interesting developments going on around Indian Country in terms of this correlation between diabetes and Native American people while examining the impact of decolonzing/ancestral-based diets.  A recent news article highlights the work of Martin Reinhardt at Northern Michigan University and the Decolonizing Diet Project blog, a year-long challenge to eat only Indigenous foods.  The participants of this study ate foods native to the Great Lakes region pre-1609 like turkey, fish, duck eggs, rice, wild cattail, berries, squash, and many more.  You can check out their master food lists here.  Devon Mihesuah had inspired Reinhardt with her own work at the American Indian Health and Diet Project at University of Kansas.  This project calls for a return to Indigenous eating to bring attention to Indian health problems, connect with the natural world, and find sustainable ways to support the earth in this process.  Mihesuah posts meals/recipes consisting mainly of Indigenous Western hemisphere foods and geographic region food lists.  You can find her Facebook page here and her own food list here.  Both projects, as well as previous writings I have cited, support a decolonization of our sustenance and eating patterns as a means to alleviate many of our health ailments and to nurture this connection between ourselves and the earth.

     Reverting back to an ancestral diet can be difficult to fully adapt to because of the time-pressured lifestyle in which most of us live.  For some of us, eating this way may never take us off insulin or Metformin.  Yet it is still a powerful concept and there are little ways we can make changes and move towards a path of wellness.  Challenge yourself to cook a meal from scratch and avoid the pre-packaged freezer section or interior grocery aisles for just one day.  Perhaps sauteing your vegetables in duck fat or coconut oil instead of hydrogenated margarine or fake butter products can be a start.  Maybe substitute a nut and berry trail mix as your afternoon snack instead of that 10-ingredient cereal bar that was processed in a factory on a conveyor belt.  You could simply substitute sunflower seed butter for peanut butter.  Or if that all seems too much right now, simply give some thought to how your own ancestors (whether Native or not) might have eaten and maybe meditate on the gratitude the act of eating itself provides.

     As part of Mihesuah's Indigenous Eating page and in conjunction with the Decolonizing Diet Project, she offers a Week of Indigenous Eating challenge to us for November 3-9, 2013.  Now I'm a bit late in joining this and can't commit to a full week at the moment.  However, I am making it a personal goal of my own to incorporate more ancestral foods into my diet, especially ones that are local.  Ideally, I would like to make an Indigenous meal weekly at least.  Most of my diet already consists of whole, natural, unprocessed foods but they are not strictly "indigenous" per se.  I encourage you to join me and try this out maybe just for one single meal and see what happens.  It couldn't hurt and I think challenges like this create an awareness we need to help combat the colonizing diseases we face, especially diabetes.

     I made my first meal this evening in response to this challenge - Broiled Haddock with Cranberry-Sage Quinoa and Delicata Squash Strips garnished with Red Onion.  While I didn't have enough time to take elaborate step-by-step photos or write down recipes and measurements this time, I will still delight you with a photo and description.  I breaded and broiled a store-bought haddock fillet with traditional Iroquois white corn flour and ground flaxseed seasoned with garlic powder, homegrown oregano, and sea salt.  I used lemon and olive oil to help the breading stick.  The red quinoa was cooked on the stovetop and infused with fresh sage, a pinch of dried cranberries, and walnuts.  The squash was previously roasted and leftover from another meal, so I simply peeled it, cut it into long strips, and reheated it.  This whole process took me about 20 minutes (10 minutes prep time + 7 minutes broiling/12 minutes quinoa).  It was also okay to my blood sugars as the carb count was moderate (29g quinoa, 5g cranberries, 5g corn flour, 4g squash) and the protein/fats from the fish and walnuts helped curb a rapid rise in glucose.  The fish turned out crispy on the outside and moist, flaky, and flavorful on the inside.  It was a wonderful and balanced meal and most of the ingredients were sourced from the Western hemisphere.  Nya:weh!