My Vegetable Love: A Journal of a Growing Season
Carl H. Klaus
Houghton Mifflin Company
I am not much of a gardener. I have a small patch of lettuce and tomatoes that I call my "salad," and a flower garden, smaller still. Some years the gardens do well; others they don't. I have no idea why. So it was not with a green thumb that I turned the pages of Carl H. Klaus' My Vegetable Love. But a gardener's touch was not required for enjoying a book that so wholeheartedly celebrates friendship, love, pets, the elements, family, academia, cooking, eating -- and of course, gardening.
For 25 years Klaus, a professor of English at the University of Iowa, has cultivated vegetables on a three-quarter-acre lot in Iowa City where he lives with his wife, Kate. For just as long he has been asking himself "why I go through it day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year."
In search of an answer to his perennial question, the author kept a journal during the growing season of 1995, beginning March 16 when he planted his first radishes and onions and ending eight months later on November 24 when he lifted a row cover to find his remaining bok choy wearing a "hangdog look."
As the months, and the garden, progress, Klaus discovers that keeping a daily journal can be a formidable task. "No longer do I feel free just to live a day without considering how the circumstances of the moment . . . will fit into the daybook," he writes; ". . . I garden to write, I eat to write, I think to write, I live to write. . . ."
A succession of family and friends pass through the professor's life. Rebecca, who helps Klaus and Kate in their gardens (Kate's flowers rival her husband's vegetables), has the delightful habit of showing up with a bottle of champagne tucked under one arm. Neighbor Jim drops down on all fours and rubs his head against the trunk of Klaus' dwarf cherry tree to illustrate how deer stripped its bark.
Though never stated outright, it is clear that to the author, Kate is the garden's most precious flower. Remembering their courtship some 30 years earlier, he writes, "How many times did I drive the twenty miles from Iowa City to Lisbon, by the rolling cornfields lickety-split, sometimes so fast I got picked up in Solon, halfway there, and taken to the local cafe, where I paid the speeding ticket right at the bar?" And a subsequent entry: ". . . I was standing at the back door watching Kate go from the terrace to the gazebo, placing her trays of seedlings on its sunny edge, just so, and then returning, her hair and her robe waving slightly in the breeze of her movement, her empty fingers pointing outward, just so."
As much as he loves to grow food, Klaus likes to eat food, and the lyric simplicity of his writing is well suited to describing the fruits of his labor: "a spinach salad that tasted so mild, some of its leaves so sweet and tender they reminded me of game fish caught in the chill waters of early spring." Radishes grew "so crisp and mild they tasted like spring rain."
The language of Klaus' garden spills into the language of his life. His students' theses "come to fruition." When the English department hires new, young professors, Klaus feels "like a late summer tomato in an early spring garden." When one fine day he declares, "And I myself felt as good as the soil," the reader knows that for Carl Klaus it doesn't get any better than this.
Though straightforward, Klaus' lean style can pack an emotional wallop. No one who has put a beloved pet to sleep can read with a dry eye his description of burying his 20-year-old cat. "There's a hump there now," he writes after tamping down the earth beneath the apple tree where he buried her, ". . . but Kate says that in time the hump will sink and the grass grow back until we hardly know it's there at all."
Near the end of the growing season Klaus notes, "It's only a vegetable garden, after all," but anyone who reads his book understands that it is far more than that. Just as anyone who reads his book will long for one of the meals so vividly described throughout -- like the one planned around the last stir-fried snow peas of the season: "Charcoal-grilled mahi-mahi marinated in canola oil, lime juice, garlic, and our own lemon grass; steamed basmati and jasmine rich with chopped garlic chives from the herb bed; a special side dish of fermented black beans mixed with chopped ginger, hot pepper flakes, and oil that we prepared this morning; a bowl of fresh cherry tomatoes from the garden, standing by to cool our palates, just in case; and a salad of sliced cucumbers, marinated in a vinaigrette of sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, sugar, tamari, and Tabasco." As Klaus put it, "So much fuss was ne'er lavished over a bunch of pea pods."
Bon appetit -- and good reading.
Reviewer Emily d'Aulaire writes from her home in Connecticut.