Flash in the Pan 

Victory is ours

The Bush administration’s prescription for dealing with the economic slowdown has been to encourage consumers to shop their way out of it, but as we know, doing so with borrowed money can only go so far.

The effort behind World War II is often credited with ending the Great Depression, but the two wars we’re currently fighting haven’t exactly stimulated today’s economy. Clearly, we don’t need another world war, but some lessons learned during the last one are still relevant.

Now the nation awaits President-elect Obama’s version of FDR’s New Deal program, which promises to have a green focus. But alongside—or as part of—Obama’s new New Deal, an adaptation of Eleanor Roosevelt’s Victory Gardens program deserves serious consideration as well.

The Victory Garden program supplied Americans with the encouragement, tools, instructions and sometimes even the land necessary to create personal vegetable gardens. Twenty million gardens were planted, producing 40 percent of America’s vegetables.

“I was 9 or 10 years old,” recalls my dad. “I bought seeds, followed the instructions on the seed packet and grew corn in the backyard. It didn’t do very well.”

Still, he says, “It was the patriotic thing to do. Food was being rationed. Whatever civilians could grow themselves meant there would be more for the armed services.”

While the Victory Gardens program has been given partial credit for ending World War II, what could have been a wholesome and productive legacy of the war effort was derailed, in part, by its own success.

Ammonium nitrate is the main ingredient of both bombs and chemical fertilizer, and after World War II the government encouraged the conversion of the munitions industry into fertilizer production, while encouraging a shift in the focus of nerve gas research toward pesticides.

The U.S. government also began subsidizing commodity crops, paying farmers by the bushel for all the corn, soybeans, wheat and rice they could produce, while a string of agriculture secretaries encouraged farmers to “plant fence row to fence row” and to “get big or get out.”

But, as Michael Pollan points out in his recent memo to the next “Farmer in Chief” (New York Times Magazine, October 9, 2008): “The era of cheap and abundant food appears to be drawing to a close.” 

Pollan writes: “The way we feed ourselves contributes more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than anything else we do.” And he points out that before last spring’s food prices spiked, Americans had been paying less and less for food since 1960 (from 18 percent of household income to 10 percent) while paying more for healthcare (from 5 percent to 16 percent). 

So if cheap, industrially produced food means expensive medical care, how cheap is it? And now, with the prospect of rising food prices, cheap food is not only bad for human health, not only bad for the environment, but it isn’t even cheap. 

So if Victory Gardens helped win World War II, and thus end the Great Depression, perhaps this time around we could just skip the war and improve our health, heal the economy, and cool the planet all at the same time. It may seem far-fetched, but it’s already worked once—and there’s nothing to lose.

Several organizations are already advocating a resurrection of Eleanor Roosevelt’s program. These include Revive the Victory Garden (www.revivevictorygarden.org), and Victory Gardens 2008+, a San Francisco group working to support the transition of backyard, front yard, window boxes, rooftops and unused land into organic food production areas.

Victory Gardens 2008+ redefines “Victory” as growing food at home for increased local food security and reducing the food miles associated with the average American meal. The crown jewel of Victory Gardens 2008+ is a 10,000 square foot public garden planted in front of San Francisco City Hall last summer, in a joint project with Slow Food Nation. While the produce went to local food banks, the high-profile garden became a beautiful showpiece for the importance of local food.

City Hall is a good first step. Perhaps the next step, as Pollan suggests in his memo, could be converting a portion of the White House lawn into a vegetable garden.

Whether you call your own garden a Victory Garden is, of course, a personal choice. But whatever you call it, now is a good time to start planning it—especially if you want to plant it from seed. Many seeds, like shallots, onions, peppers, tomatoes and others should be started in early spring. Which means now is the time to start ordering seed catalogs—or perusing seeds online—and thinking about what you want to grow and what seeds you should order.

And if you think a garden on the White House lawn is a good idea, a campaign called “Eat the View” (www.eattheview.org) is already in full swing to petition President-elect Obama to start a vegetable garden. Maybe it will go in the same spot where Eleanor Roosevelt planted her garden and inspire a new wave of small gardens. Maybe it will also help get the economy back on track. But even if it doesn’t, we’ll still eat well.

Ask Ari: Good beer vs. bad wine

Q: Dear Chef Boy,

While being especially thankful last week, I realized I should thank you. So thanks especially for convincing me to grow shallots this year and eat more locally. Yesterday we feasted on antelope tenderloins with our own shallots, garlic, baby arugula and not-our-own mushroom sauce. Pretty much everything else was from our garden, backyard or neighborhood. Of course, having the Amish General Store with occasional exotic treasures practically next door doesn’t hurt either.

Now I’m off to deal with the deer neck as per your recent article, but I don’t know if I can bear to use that much good beer—I’m thinking about using the half-used bottles of not-so-good wine instead.


A: Feel free to do whatever you want, Thankful, but I can’t be held responsible for the results of a compromised recipe. I use wine a lot when cooking meat and I don’t have any reason to believe that subbing wine for beer won’t turn out a good dish. But my rule of thumb for cooking with either wine or beer is simple: Don’t cook with a wine or beer you wouldn’t drink. This should be obvious, but I’m constantly amazed at how many people taste a bottle of wine, wrinkle up their face, and conclude they’ll use it for cooking instead of drinking. Is food less worthy than drink? Can a dish be better than the ingredients with which it’s made?

I’d recommend saving those half-used bottles of wine for drinking, after you’ve already drank the good stuff and numbed your taste buds to the point where you don’t know any better.

Meanwhile, I’m glad you’re planting shallots—and congrats on your antelope!

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