When I’m angry — which is often these days — I pull weeds. Getting my hands in the dirt untangles the knots that form in my stomach. With the first few weeds, I feel my exasperation with those who refuse to wear masks relent. It takes a little more digging and pulling to address the rage that builds up each day while I listen to friends and colleagues who have been mistreated by the food-media organizations that are now being exposed for systemic racial injustices.
For months now, the garden has been the only place I can reliably find any solace. Last winter I suffered a devastating bout of depression. Unable to do much else, I took to the neglected beds of the vegetable garden I share with my neighbors. Weeding and composting for hours a day, I was regenerating both the soil and something deep in myself. It felt so crucial to my well-being that sometimes I wore a headlamp to extend my work time past the waning daylight.
When shelter-in-place orders were imposed in Oakland, I began planting seeds. As days and dates became increasingly meaningless, I learned to measure the passage of time by counting the number of leaves on a seedling, watching the sunlight hours extend little by little or noticing the growth of rhubarb stalks as they cracked through the winter soil. As observing the garden became both my watch and calendar, I felt my mood improving.
I wasn’t imagining things — gardening was improving my sense of well-being. According to a study by researchers at Princeton University and the University of Minnesota, gardening at home is a source of contentment for people across racial boundaries, with women and lower-income gardeners in particular reporting the highest levels of happiness. Gardening — especially vegetable gardening — makes us happy. Beyond the physical activity and the satisfaction of cooking with and eating the crops that our work yields, gardening gives us access to sensory experiences we don’t typically have in modern urban life. When you brush against a French lavender or lemon verbena plant as you walk by, you instantly experience calming aromatherapy. When you pick a sage leaf, you can feel your nervous system relax as you rub its soft velvet between your thumb and forefinger. Wind rustling through leaves is more meaningful when you planted the seed that bore those leaves.
And of course there are the countless ways a garden offers us flavors we might not otherwise have a chance to taste. Some foods are too delicate to withstand the extended transport that most of the produce in this country undergoes in getting to market: Squash blossoms tear and bruise, elderflowers wilt and lose their precious Muscat aroma, mulberries implode and rot before anyone can taste their sweet-tart perfection. Others, like tiny, impossibly fragrant Alpine strawberries, grow on low-yielding plants that make little economic sense for most farmers to cultivate.
I love planting my garden full of things I can’t readily find at the store or market, and while I geek out on rare varieties as much as the next horticultural nerd, my favorite garden flavor is neither delicate nor esoteric. Green coriander seed — the fresh seed of the cilantro plant — is the most special thing I grow and something many others view as a mistake. “Cilantro can be hard to grow,” says Leslie Wiser, founder of Radical Family Farms in Sebastopol, Calif., “because it bolts easily.” When a plant bolts, or prematurely goes to seed, its flavor changes. Gardeners dread bolting, but when it comes to cilantro, I actively pray for it, because nothing is as welcome in my kitchen as the intensely aromatic, slightly citrusy, mildly cilantro-ish flavor of the plant’s fresh green seeds.
I use them anywhere I would use cilantro: for marinades, dressings, hummus; in stews, soups or braises; in herbed rice; with rice noodles or soba; mixed with oil and drizzled atop poached eggs. If it were available to buy, I would use green coriander year-round. “As American consumers, we’re only offered the leaves and stems at non-Asian stores and markets,” says Wiser, who specializes in growing Asian heritage vegetables. “But the cilantro plant can give in many ways if you look at it outside of a white, Eurocentric lens.” Wiser’s customers, both chefs and community members, come to her for not only the leaves, stems and seeds but also the flowers and even roots. “The coriander seeds and root are required staples to many Thai, Indian and Cambodian dishes,” she says. “There’s so much cultural significance to these parts of the plant — the parts that most white farmers throw away because Asian-American voices go unheard.”
With Wiser’s words in mind, I worked a handful of traditional Southeast Asian ingredients — fish sauce, ginger, garlic, chiles and a generous amount of pounded green coriander, of course, into a stick of softened butter. It was savory and spicy, fragrant and pungent, and the first thing I wanted to do with it was slather it all over hot grilled corn. So I lit the grill, cooked the corn until it was just charred and then took my plate to the vegetable beds so I could sit among the plants. As I watched the butter melt over the corn, then took my first bite, I thought of something else Wiser said: “The simple act of cooking with ingredients like coriander root or its green seeds is an act of defiance and resistance and an attempt to salvage cultural heritage.”
The sun was setting and hummingbirds were zooming in and out of runner-bean blossoms, and I wondered if this might not be yet another way that gardening was improving my well-being.
Gardening — especially vegetable gardening — makes us happy.