Flash in the Pan 

Dear Missoula

During the past six years I’ve written more than 300 installments of this weekly food column. While most dispatches were written in Missoula, I’ve also filed columns from Bhutan, Cuba, China, Thailand, India, Brazil, Venezuela and Alaska. Wherever I am, I look for stories that will interest readers back home and enrich the food scene of western Montana.

Now I’m on another big trip. I didn’t go far, but I brought a lot of stuff. Because for the next two years I’ll be living mostly in Placitas, N.M.—about halfway between Albuquerque and Santa Fe—and I’ll be filing the majority of my columns from the Land of Enchantment.

Some people call it the Land of Entrapment—with good reason. It’s nice down here. And as I prepared for the move, some friends gave me that sideways look that says, “You’re coming back, right? You’re not one of them, are you—the ones who go to New Mexico and never return?”

Don’t worry, Missoula. When I first arrived in the Garden City, in the summer before Y2K, I was looking for home, and I found it. I found people who prepare for the Big One every summer—not out of apocalyptic fear, but out of love for what the home ground produces. I found hippies who hunt, vegetarians who nibble on elk jerky, rednecks who gather huckleberries, and lots of people who garden, preserve food and care about where their food comes from. People here know that the Big One comes every year. It’s called winter. And preparing for the Big One makes for a satisfying lifestyle.

From day one, I behaved as if I would be here forever, which made life interesting since I was a recognizable local, and not some tourist here today and gone tomorrow.

In this way I learned that when you inhabit a place with habits geared for the long haul, you treat people and places better, and the rewards start coming immediately. You quickly gain credibility, friends, local knowledge and future relevance. In short, you matter.

I’ll never forget the thrill of planting fruit trees in my backyard, and what it did for my becoming a local. The literal fruit was years away, but that didn’t matter. In getting to know the nurseries, and who at the farmers market sold trees, and by figuring out what kinds of fruit trees grow in this neck of the woods, I rooted myself in my new home ground. And those roots are sweeter than any fruit.

This spring I got my pruning done in February, earlier than I ever have. There’s nothing like a big trip to force me to get my ducks in a row at home.

I’ve been harvesting fruit off those trees for years now, and this summer I’ll come home to harvest more. I’ll bring my dehydrator, so I can bring homegrown dried fruit back down to New Mexico.

I’ll be returning to Missoula often, for more than the cherries, apricots, peaches, plums and apples. There’s also pickling season, garlic harvest and, of course, hunting.

You’re more than home, Missoula. You’re my long-term relationship, my soul mate. But I have to be straight with you: I’m having an affair—a southwestern affair, and I hope that’s cool. I guess I’ll find out if you keep those letters coming.

In the meantime, I’ll be exploring the culinary nooks and crannies of north-central New Mexico, and reporting back. The early signs here are positive. In many ways, New Mexico’s local food scene is bursting at the seams with potential. And even though I’m a tourist in this dry, prickly, beautiful and piquant land, I’m going to employ the big lesson I learned in Missoula. I’m going to dig in and make as if I’m going to live here forever, because I know the rewards will start flowing immediately.

There are herds of wild horses roaming the canyons behind our house, and I’ve been collecting bags of wild horse droppings with which to fertilize the new garden spot. My neighbor Dick came by to see what was going on (it’s another universal principal that if you start digging in your yard, you meet your neighbors).

Dick is prickly, like the landscape, but has a big heart. He produces almost no garbage, and lives nearly entirely off the land with the help of a horse, a goat, an emu, a dog, amaranth-fed chickens and a greenhouse full of starts and 3-year-old tomato plants. I asked him if wild horse shit in the garden is a good idea, and he said yeah. He also said I chose the same garden spot that the occupants of my house used 30 years ago, which was the last time anyone gardened here.

Wild horses didn’t drag me away from you, Missoula, although they might help me hang out here a little while. But keep the letters coming, and I’ll keep sending home my culinary love-notes, like drops of rain watering my roots, where home is.

Ask Ari: Springing forward

Q: Dear Flash,

The springtime weather has my fingers itching for the ground. Is it too early to plant potatoes? What are some other good things to plant right now?

—Itchy Fingers

A: I’d hold off on the potatoes, because while temperatures might be amenable to spud growth, the April showers can rot potatoes in the ground before they even sprout. The rule of thumb in Montana is to wait until Mother’s Day to plant potatoes, although some farmers who don’t mind a little risk in their crop portfolios will take a gamble on an early crop. If a dry spring allows that crop to grow, said farmer will have an early crop to sell, before everyone else’s potatoes saturate the market.

Spinach and carrot seeds can be planted as soon as the ground thaws, and the same spring rains that will rot potatoes will be a bonus for most other crops, as long as they can handle the occasional frost.

Along these lines, I learned a cool trick from Patty of Fialky Farm in Dixon: Plant a handful of peas in early spring. They’ll sit in the ground until it’s warm enough for them to germinate, and when they do, pea sprouts will come up. This is your cue to plant your pea crop in earnest. The plants that came up early, meanwhile, can be harvested for their yummy pea greens.

And even if it’s too early for most other crops, there is still plenty for you to do in order to get the jump on this year’s garden. Now is a good time to spread manure, turn over the ground, pull weeds that are still small and even build some cold frames. And don’t forget about those fruit trees—if they haven’t been pruned yet, doing so should be a priority.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net
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