Becoming Julia. Friday, August 21, 2020

Fires fires fires – all over California. The footage is terrifying, the way these fires move, the speed of devastation. The campus at U.C. Santa Cruz has been evacuated, and I fear for friends in the area. The air quality in San Francisco is bad, I imagine this is the case almost everywhere in Northern California. We are so far lucky, but no call for complacency, the winds could change at any moment. Maybe next time my blog will be written in a different register, but for today it’s a rumination on gardens and the food given to us from gardens, and other things …

Some Gardeners are greedy. Our eyes are bigger than our capacity, we tend to over reach, to bite off more than we can chew. Or we take on projects that we do not have the knowledge or expertise or tools to complete. Or we just get overwhelmed by weeds. So we need help. And perhaps we also seek out companionship in the garden. So friends and family are dragooned into collaboration or servitude, and sometimes we pay others to help. Few gardens are stand-alone works of art. 

Other Gardeners – those who work in gardens other than their own, usually for pay, sometimes out of friendship and love – are traditionally fairly invisible. Most of the great gardens of the world are sustained by armies of lowly paid gardeners who seldom figure in the literature. You might be forgiven for thinking that these gardens sprout out of the head of some genius and are maintained by beneficent genii let out of the bottle at night.

John Vass was head gardener at Sissinghurst from 1939-1957 but seldom rates a mention by Vita Sackville West in her copious writings. When she sacked him after a disagreement she said, “Well, I never loved Vass, you know.” Charles Darwin developed many of his theories in his garden, aided for 30 years by his gardener ‘Old Lakeman,’ who began work at the age of 14 and who scarcely rates a mention in Darwin’s writings. 

I grew up on a farm in the colonies, in what was then Rhodesia, and both the farm and the garden benefited from cheap African labor. To my shame I can remember scarcely any of the names of the “garden boys” from those years, though I do tell the story of one man, Jeremiah Mudimu, and his long relationship of servitude and friendship and collaboration with my father, in the book I’m working on now, Gardening in a Strange Land.  Naming is a way of preserving the presence of individuals and classes and ethnicities that otherwise disappear from history. It’s not enough, but it is a reminder of those who did the work and who otherwise only appear as ghosts, haunting histories told from the perspective of mastery. There is a very touching passage in The Gardens of Hampton Court (1950), in which Mollie Sands provides a list of the names of those who weeded the orchard of Hampton Court in 1516. “It seems worth recording their names,” she writes, “as a tribute to this whole class of essential but little-regarded workers.” Most of them were women.

All of this preamble is by way of answering the question I posed in the last blog: Who is Craig? From now on I’ll spend a bit of time in most blogs telling you about the many people who have contributed in one way or another to this garden I call “mine.” And since Craig is recent, Craig is now, it may take some time to reach him. But in the meantime, so you know it isn’t just a rhetorical refrain – who is Craig? – here he is, caught between tasks.

I moved into Herman Avenue on the 1st January 2001.

Jeffrey was visiting but soon went back to Australia, and it would be four years before he moved over permanently. I struck gold in terms of neighbors: on the one side Mrs Tam who I have written of in earlier blogs, and on the other side Patty Bathurst and her partner Cheryl (here for my first six years). Across the road, Dutch, and in the house next to him, Mrs Tam’s friend Margaret. Patty became an accomplice, someone to chat with and envisage the transformation of space. She was also the person who I could call on for help when things were too heavy or difficult to maneuver.

In January of 2004 I planted four fruit trees in the front – two peaches and two nectarines – in a single hole, the idea being that they would grow together, almost like one tree, and we would have stone fruit throughout the season. My diary notes tell me: “I rented a post hole digger and this helped the back, but still had to do much digging and earth moving and the day wore on, and it was off to the opera in the evening. I landed up digging a lot – with the pick part of the axe, as the other part buckled. Had to dig what felt like a huge hole though in fact it probably wasn’t big enough. Amazingly gratifying however to see how the soil has improved in a year. I soaked the roots in kelp solution in the bath tub indoors as the only big enough option – another impetus to get the trees into the ground before dark, cos I needed to have a soak with mineral salts for my back before a three hour opera. In the end got it done – just, and thanks to Patty. She helped by holding the trees in place. I got enough earth back to cover the roots and anchor them in place, and then abandoned the enterprise to rush in to cleaning the bath, running myself a new one, throwing some chicken into the steamer (eaten with Jeffrey’s delicious sorrel sauce, from a week ago) and pea soup made the day before.”

I’d love to report that those trees are growing still, bountiful and luxuriant. But alas the experiment was ultimately unsuccessful, mainly because I failed to keep the monster tree, May Pride, a too-early and not-too-tasty peach, in check, and it thwarted the others, particularly the magnificent looking and tasting, Red Baron. So out they came eventually, and in their place a single nectarine, Double Delight, and on the opposite side the nectaplum, Spice Zee. Double Delight is still small, but Spice Zee has become way too high, and both trees threaten to outgrow their domestic orchard. Spice Zee’s leaves are already turning and dropping, both trees are looking shaggy and bedraggled.

Just like me. I’ve been morose and depressed, worried that my vocal cords are permanently damaged. My voice has changed, it’s very hard to speak and I’m often gasping in an asthmatic mode, for air. All this arises from lung damage done during radiation last year (for lung cancer). But it’s gotten way worse. The pulmonary specialists have been awful in dealing with the cough (it sounds like whooping cough, or like the lament of a woeful werewolf). At the infusion Center I’m given my own room so as not to upset the other patients. And to add to this malaise: the CoVid apparition that has been greeting me when I pass a mirror would be horrifying if it weren’t so pathetic.

So: for the trees and I: a hair do. And for me a bit of tarting up, a mild assault on the look of bedraggled faded shabbiness.

Good reason for the raising of eyebrows!


Relief and joy! Still have to tackle THE CUT, but achieving something closer to what feels like my natural born color, getting a bit more body into the hair, was like a tonic. Charged with energy I was up early the next day, and with newly sharpened pruners, rehearsed THE (HAIR) CUT on the trees.

oh it’s a grand feeling, shaping a tree! Here the nectaplum

and here the nectarine

Summer pruning is not about stimulating new growth, it’s about cleaning up and shortening. Particularly important if you want to keep your trees small. It makes winter pruning so much easier. And it’s so much easier if you have help. I made an almighty mess, strewing branches and leaves all over the paths, and then ran out of energy. Lucky for me, Craig cleaned up the mess. You can see the pile of debris on the right, all those gorgeous yellow daisies turned to brushwood. Soon it will be Fall, time to prepare the soil for winter.

Back to Patty:

9/11 happened during my first year at Herman Ave. As shocking as it was, as traumatic as was the devastation, I found it hard to countenance what seemed to me xenophobic responses – American flags being planted up and down the street. I wrote at the time:

All over the world people are going about their daily lives, people who are not soldiers or ideologues or zealots, and suddenly they are attacked, tortured, killed. Topographies—emotional and geographic—are reconfigured in the time it takes for smoke to settle, blood to dry. Very often, in very many places, nothing will ever be the same again. 

I do not want to be here, in America, surrounded by talk of being American:  Peace-loving, misunderstood, beleaguered, exceptional.

As I think this thought I look across the road and see something different—Dutch has hoisted a Mexican flag. Patty comes over to help me prepare the bed for the lettuce seedlings and as we crouch together in the dirt she says, with her usual disarming humility and clarity, “I have absolutely no idea what it is like to be attacked … During the Korean War we did drills at school, preparing to hide under our desks if there was an air attack. But it was all a game, virtual reality. I did not even know where Korea was …”

Recently Patty sent me a message on social media: “Be well always my neighbor in heart.” 

Dutch laid the original slow drip irrigation in the front garden. After all these years, it remains as the basis of the watering system. And here am I digging the first rose hole

Dutch eventually moved away. I was not hospitable to Margaret. She would barge her way into the house, invariably with some lovely Chinese dish, sit herself down and start chattering. She died suddenly, of a cancer I did not know she had. Dutch told me, tearful; she was a good neighbor to him. I felt bad, and sad for Mrs Tam. I have written more than once about Mrs Tam and shown some images of her garden. We chatted every day, she in Chinese, I in English, we swapped plants and recipes. She knew a great deal about the medicinal properties of plants.

A word about the food pics, above, that butted in to my garden-help-friendship meandering. The first is Ottolenghi’s Red pepper and baked eggs galettes, from Jerusalem. No, I did not make the puff pastry. But I did make sure to get a good quality all-butter one, and this makes a difference – crispy, flaky, melt-in-the-mouth pastry. The melding of flavors in this dish, is great. Second: stuffed peppers (one of the veg I can eat on this drug diet). There are a thousand ways to do this, but if you are using rice as your base make sure you cook it with delight. Here I began as you do with risotto, including a dash of white wine, but then cooked it more like a pilaf with a home made chicken stock (vegetable stock would be good too). Add herbs, olives, capers, whatever takes your fancy … top with bread crumbs, and a dab of butter before it goes into the oven. Then: Jeffrey grilled a few prawns, to go with polenta and his romesco sauce (red peppers again).

The ramen noodles in the next dish look like worms, but tasted like heaven. I braised the cabbage (another veg I can eat) with shallots, ginger and garlic, then a splash of Shao Xing wine and some dried and frozen tiny shrimp, softened and ground up. Then add the stock. When it’s simmering, add some white miso. I did it like “Master” in Midnight Diner: take a ladle of the stock/soup and add the miso and stir it in the ladle before mixing into the larger pot. I cook the noodles separately for about three minutes, share them between two bowls and pour the cabbage soup over. The mango and cabbage slaw is tossed simply with dill, lime juice and fish sauce, NOT mayo. But its absence did provoke a desire for mayo, made the old fashioned way, which is so easy and satisfying – that marvelous sensation when it begins to emulsify, you feel it thickening, see it turn luscious. And then you can make a somewhat more traditional slaw. By the way, the left-over polenta was used in a variety of dishes. Most simply: fried and topped with parmesan which merges into the crust. Here, it turns up for Sunday breakfast

Another thing that lifted me out of the doldrums was a televisit with the lovely Dr Millen. It’s amazing how affirming – as a patient – it is when a Dr takes you seriously, listens, and thinks about your symptoms and experience. We now have a plan of how to make daily life and breathing easier and also a scheduled visit with a vocal cord specialist. She also made me laugh by saying “Your voice has changed! You sound like Julia Child.” Well Julia Child doesn’t have the most soothing voice, its a bit hoarse and high pitched (not to mention the pluminess), but I recognized something there, and in all sorts of ways wouldn’t you love to be compared to Julia Child? Millen sent me back into a TV binge of the early Jacques Pepin and Julia Child shows. So calming and restful, they make the most affectionate and engaging pair, the twittering about butter forming a melodic leitmotif: “do you think that’s enough butter? Oh I think a little more, don’t you ….. yes, I agree, here we go [toss in another stick]”

One of the joys of this blog has been meeting new people and engaging in food and garden chat with old friends. I have many queries and comments to respond to, but they will have to wait till next time.

I feel as though summer is fizzing out, many of my plants in the vegetable garden have given up the ghost, but still, it surprisingly keeps giving. Look at those strawberry figs – all eaten by Jeffrey as figs are one of the dicy fruits for me at the moment (likewise tomatoes).

But the significant thing is I managed to save these from the RATS! Moreover, Craig and I have not only hatched but also launched a new experiment in deterrence. I started thinking about what rats can’t chew through and thought of wire mesh. Craig ran with the idea and has made these giant pockets, sealed with staples. We’ll see. In fact rats can probably chew through anything. But the battle has been reinvigorated. If we defeat those rats I won’t begrudge Jeffrey a single fig!

14 thoughts on “Becoming Julia. Friday, August 21, 2020

  1. I loved reading this!! Entertaining and inspiring as ever–make sure you cook it with delight! Dragoon! And invoking all the invisible gardeners of history . . . I’ve always resisted gardening because it seems like it takes soooo long and who knows where I’ll move and so much work. But I’m creakily giving it a shot now and am starting to feel the things other people talk about that used to mystify me. You are a magician.

  2. Everything look delicious, as ever — no one would guess the restrictions you’re enduring. And so lovely to see your face (and fabulous hair). We have also been watching Julia Child whilst in lockdown; the other day I heard her tell Pepin she always washes her raw chickens with hot water before cooking — haha! Pepin looks slightly puzzled and responds that this would be something done in America, rather than in France. Nevertheless, I would consider Dr Millen’s comparison a great compliment. Missing you! x

  3. so sorry to hear about your voice/throat. How cheery you looked after your sprucing up inspired me to do something about my covid hair! Glad you are finding things to eat. Edie and I made fresh pasta for the first time for my birthday last week – it was really fun and a revelation. Thank you for your words and remembrances and sharing the garden!

  4. Les, glad you have a voice coach – I know it’s something else but I see you talking normally again, even singing. I am amazed by you and J with the wonderful food, miss it and enjoying the tastes vicariously. I only get the will to be creative for cooking about twice a week. So by contrast to your elegance and the lofty inventions of Julia C, my latest improvisation: pasta cooking in boiling water, add spinach 3-4 mins from the end, drain, mix in Costco’s pesto (I think it’s good!), eat with grated parmesan. Love the photos of the garden before you got hold of it! Wow, what a transformation you made! Brilliant and inspiring. Love you. xxx

  5. I enjoyed this blog Lesley. Regarding gardeners of famous gardens, check out the great English gardener Christopher Lloyd (passed in 2006) of Great Dixter. His later books always included his gardening team especially his heard gardener Fergus Garrett. I will loan you a few of his books. I had the pleasure of working there for 2 weeks one Summer and loved to see the friendships they all shared.

  6. Another absorbing post, complete with wonderful self-portrait, and Julia Child comparison (I love her and her voice)! As JC might say, bon courage..!

  7. Yes. Gardeners are blessings, especially as I age. What always amazes me is the upbeat smile and can-do attitude of my Hispanic gardeners over the decades. Their happy spirit is contagious; I end up being a kinder person being around them.❤️ bbbrown
    PS I know I wouldn’t like Vita—to treat Vass do shabby after 18 years of tending her garden! Wish I lived then—I’d take Vass home w/me.

  8. I wrote quite a lengthy response to this post some weeks back, but that was on my phone, which wanted me to sign up again so it never got posted. Just rereading as I’m catching up after a few weeks, and as always, so enjoying the way friendship, food, gardens and yes even illness, comes together in your vivid writings. So distressing to witness the fires – all way too familiar after the summer we had. I hope the poor air quality is not too terrible where you are xx

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