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In the mid-1970s, Martha Stewart started a catering business that she ran out of her basement. Today, she hardly needs an introduction. Through the media empire she created, she taught a generation of readers and television viewers about the arts of food and entertainment.
Stewart grew up in a suburb of New York City and later moved to Connecticut, where she renovated a farmhouse and began teaching cooking classes locally. Those lessons eventually took on a wider appeal, reaching audiences for books, magazines and television. Her first book, Entertaining, was published in 1982 and more than 75 books have followed. Martha Stewart Living magazine debuted in 1990 and she took her encyclopedia of tips and how-to's to television two years later. Her cooking shows continue to air on PBS.
When Stewart talks about "good things," she includes travel on the list. Her blog — Martha: Up Close and Personal — includes a variety of packing tips.
"Visiting historic sites in America is one of my favorite pastimes," she said. "I remember clearly my first visit to Williamsburg with my husband and being tremendously impressed not only with the architecture and furnishings but also the landscape and the gardens. Years later, I took my 11-year-old daughter and her friends to Virginia to visit Colonial Williamsburg and we had the most amazing time. All the kids loved visiting the workshops, eating in the Williamsburg Inn, and tasting johnnycakes and fresh veggies from the gardens."
It's those kinds of food memories that Travis Brust, a chef at the Williamsburg Inn since 2004, wants guests to take home with them. His upstate New York upbringing included picking apples in the late summers. At 13, he knew he wanted to be a chef and he began growing vegetables to serve with pasta dishes. "I was not all that successful, but I did grow delicious 'Mr. Stripey' heirloom tomatoes," he recalled.
In the mid-1990s, Lilly's Farmers Market opened in Monticello, N.Y., and Brust's food world expanded. "I have vivid memories of shopping there with my mother — there were five kinds of apples, a huge selection of squash varieties and a cornucopia of vegetables I had never seen before," he said. "About that time I went to college in New Hampshire, where there were no farms — only Christmas trees, dairy cattle and maple syrup. When I finished culinary school, I traveled all over the country working at various jobs, where I learned to use what was grown locally — including prickly pear cactus fruits and chili peppers grown in the Phoenix area."
Because they share an interest in the exploration of both the culinary arts and gardening, we asked Stewart and Brust to tell us about
how those two passions intersect. And they've offered some ideas about how to get started.
Many people are now embracing the farm-to-table and garden-to-table movements. Can you talk a bit about how these movements have changed — and enhanced — your menus?
Martha Stewart: I have been a gardener since I was 3 years old and able to help my dad in his very productive and very eclectic Elm Place garden in Nutley, N.J. When I was growing up, Victory Gardens were extremely popular and our neighborhood was no different than everywhere else in the country. We grew pretty much everything in season that a family of eight could eat, including giant New Jersey tomatoes, beautiful beets, lettuces, grapes, raspberries, strawberries, orchards of apples and peaches and plums, among many other things.
When I finally had my own home in Westport, Conn., most of my yard was transformed into productive gardens and orchards. I used the produce for my farm-to-table presentation in my catering business and after that, I used the produce and the eggs from my chicken coop to create the recipes for my many books. My gardens have always enhanced my menus and nowadays I grow four seasons of food because I've learned from (author and organic farming proponent) Eliot Coleman about how to grow vegetables in a greenhouse and in the ground during the cold winter months.
Travis Brust: Understanding gardens and their beauty has enhanced the plating of food for me. Gardens are appealing, and so we make the food appealing on the plate, too. I want the plate to look like a garden. The more we use produce grown locally, the more likely it is that we can maintain the integrity of the vegetable and keep its original texture, such as with kale or spinach. It also helps us tell a better story about the food. Even if we don't grow it ourselves, we know the farmer. We've seen the vegetables growing.
When people talk about sustainable eating, there are often different sets of definitions on what the term actually means. What does it mean to you?
TB: You're right; to some, "sustainability" means not eating Chilean sea bass or other fish that are being depleted across the world. To me, it means purchasing products that are grown locally, which supports the community and the local economy. In some communities, there is a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) movement that helps sustain local farming. Members pay a fee upfront that helps farmers with start-up expenses, and then they get baskets of food throughout the season. It helps growers and consumers share the risk of farming.
MS: The attention to the sustainable is very important. We have a chance now to change the way we eat in a very responsible and important way. We are starting to encourage farmers to be nicer to their animals and to demand we stop eating so many hamburgers in fast-food places if their beef is not raised and slaughtered appropriately. I try to grow as much as I can and I try to share all of that natural, organically grown food with people in my office and with my daughter and grandchildren. It's more expensive and more difficult to find, but it's important if we want to stay healthy. I won't eat poultry that's out of a supermarket — I have to know where it comes from.
The idea of growing some of your own food sounds wonderful. But the prospect can also be a little intimidating. Can you suggest some simple ways to start?
MS: Planting a vegetable garden requires some planning ahead. First, think about where your garden will go. It should be in a spot that gets at least six hours of direct sunlight. Once you've identified your garden's location, decide what you want to grow. If you're unsure, try joining a local gardening club to learn different planting ideas, recipes and tips with seasoned garden lovers.
TB: Start small! Do not overwhelm yourself. Start with a 4-by-8 (foot) raised bed garden that is easy to control. Begin with peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and squash. These plants always yield a nice harvest.
And once you're comfortable, what are some staples that every gardener should consider?
TB: If you are successful and are enjoying it, expand with another 4-by-4 section and plant some herbs, then add pumpkins and eggplant. Set up a watering system to reduce the likelihood of failure. I use a water timer, which is well worth the investment. Some people prefer a drip system. And, you have to control the weeds by mulching and removing them so they don't smother what you are trying to grow.
The most important staple every gardener must have is two or three quality reference books. A good vegetable and herb identification book provides instructions for how to plant, how to space and so forth. And a garden planning book is also invaluable.
MS: I think every gardener should grow basics like lettuce, radishes, tomatoes and cucumbers. In addition, to extend the season, every gardener should also grow carrots, Brussels sprouts, cabbages and celeriac so that family meals can be varied and plentiful. And don't forget herbs of every sort!
What's in your garden that might surprise us? And how do you use it?
TB: Nasturtium. To be successful growing this edible flower, you have to rasp the seed, or file it a little bit to break the seal on the seed and allow water and nutrients to penetrate the seed. Nasturtium colors are vibrant with leaves that look like a lily pad. The petal of the leaf and the stem are spicy and peppery. The flower is sweet and buttery and tastes great in risotto, and, of course, nasturtium look beautiful as an edible garnish on a plate or to enhance salads, flatbreads and desserts.
MS: I've become very proficient at growing artichokes, okra and all kinds of amazing squashes and pumpkins. Sorrel is one of my favorite greens to grow, as I can transform it into all kinds of soups and sauces for fish. I grow a tremendous number of berries, such as white, black and red currants, green and red gooseberries, and year-round citrus both outside and in greenhouses.