Reconsidering the Radish

Reconsidering the Radish

One of my many new undertakings this busy season was a full fledged garden. Though I’d lived in a rural area with a fair bit of small-scale farming and gardening all around, and though I’d been vegan and pretty political about my food for years before the day that a friend walked me through the packed and productive urban garden of a punk house in Oakland, I never really got the whys and wherefores of growing your own food. It dawned on me that day, but it’s take a good decade to implement.

Sure, there have been years of containers with variously successful peppers, tomatoes, herbs and even an ill-advised experience with sweet potatoes, but I’d never been able to create a garden that could hope to do much more than garnish a plate. So, when a friend offered up his hard-won plot to me for the season, I took it on in a blink. And though I came into it with a righteous do-it-my-own-self streak–pouring over heirloom and organic seed catalogs, starting seeds in March and tending them with careful dreams of high-yields and liberal doses of compost tea–I had to bow to this friend’s offer to help me plant seedlings and sow seeds in the early summer. As he ripped open his packet of lettuce seed, I quietly patted my own tom thumb lettuce seeds, whispering to them, “later, later.” And when his pedigree-less beet seeds were sown, I thought of the room that my unfortunately named, but reportedly delicious, Crapaudine beets would have to sacrifice, but still I said nothing. When he got to the radishes though, well, even in friendships, there is a line, and for me, radishes are sown on the other side of it.

There are very few vegetables that I cannot respect and enjoy eating at least somewhat, but radishes have never moved me in a positive way. Here and there I have nothing specific against a radish or two in salad, or a little daikon in miso or dashi–sure, rock it out, but to grow a radish? To take valuable space away from other vegetables? No way. Not on my plot. “Hey, whoa, ok, let’s take it easy. Don’t do anything rash now. Can we talk about this?” I begged as his hand poised to shake a full packet of seeds out into a beautiful patch of perfectly turned soil. “What?” he asked, shaking the seeds out as he spoke and I cringed. “Radishes are great, and they grow really well.” And it was done. The radishes were planted and what could I say?

One of many salads from my garden: featuring radish, nasturtium and tahini dressing

In the months that followed, I thought of many things I could have said, reoccurring thread concerning the fact that this friend who thought radishes so great was going to be away for the entire summer and not eat a single one, among the most prominent. Whatever I thought about the first part of his radish claim though, the second bit was dead on. Radishes grow really well. Really well.

At first their productivity was simply alarming. I was overrun with a vegetable that I didn’t even like and couldn’t really think of what to do with. Then, strangely, it was compelling. Unsure quite how it happened, I found myself feeling tenderly toward the radishes. They were kind of miraculous, shooting up volumes of spiky greens and crowning from the soil with bright red heads from out of nowhere. It was the magic of the garden. Magically, they also seemed to reproduce in split second intervals. I would pull up one and notice in the days after, a new little shoot scrambling to fill up the recently vacated one. Probably this was due more to the great quantity of seeds my friend dumped on the ground, but it felt magical and my respect for the radishes went from grudging to whole-hearted, even if they were driving me a little crazy.

Lemon Pepper Roasted Radishes

Why didn’t I just dispose of the radishes, clear out the patch, leave them to the slugs? Why did I tend them, pick them, prepare them when still they ranked somewhere around durian and dental appointments in my book? Again, it was the magic of the garden. The radishes started to seem like a proverb, a truth I should come to see, a lesson to learn–something about making peace with what’s there in front of you and making the best of it. Maybe it’s the economy, maybe it’s adulthood, but the radishes solidified a sense for me that nothing should be easy come, easy go. There’s something relevant in the radish.

Radish greens soup, not recommended
So, I dutifully ate radishes. Everyday, I put radishes in my salads. Tiring of that, I roasted them with lemon juice, olive oil and pepper, which is pretty darn good. Getting generous, I started using the greens too. I made a terrible soup, tried to sneak a handful into sauteed greens here and there, tentatively tried them in a salad, offered them to my guinea pigs and finally decided that they made fine compost. In life, you can only do your best.

Garden Giardiniera: pickled cauliflower, cucumber,
green tomato, hatch chili, carrot and radish

What seemed like virtue in making use of all of the radishes soon faded into simple fact. This is what we do. Food grows, we eat it or store it and eat it later, then it grows again and we do the same. I wasn’t sure I could be more respectful of my food or more seasonally aware, but in trying to fill my days only with food from the garden and CSA farm-share or farmer’s market, I got past the highlights: tomatoes, corn, peaches, apples, squash and got into everything–were these the last borlotti beans? The first russet apples? Are the radishes done for the season?

Canned Giardiniera

A natural extension of gardening is canning and the radishes were first to prompt me in this direction as I put up jars of spicy Giardiniera, an Italian mixed vegetable pickle. It’s all part of the effort to preserve that moment, even into darkest winter, when you pulled vegetables out of soft, warm earth. Even I will enjoy those radishes then, if not as much as the grapes from the arbor preserved in jams and jellies or the tomatoes in the sauce that will speak to all the best of August, but still. I grew them, saved them, will eat them, will be (if only moderately) nourished by something I had complete control over every step of the way.

Left to right: watermelon radish, black radish

I knew that things had changed between me and radishes forever when last week at the farmer’s market, I exclaimed over a striking black root vegetable. It was dark as Mordor and deeply, finely textured as an elephant. I wanted it before I knew what it was, and it was, of course, a radish. Next to it was another small basket of dingy pink radishes. I bought both.

I had been weeks since I had a radish, and after months of them, where once I would have simply been glad of a reprieve, I was nostalgic and they, beautiful. So there it is, peace with radishes and a deeply felt experience as a grower. For next year, I have saved the seeds of these radishes and will plant them–a few of them– without holding a single grudge.

I know it must seem like bad form to come back from an unintentionally long blogging hiatus with an all radish review, but they have been on my mind. Rest assured that there are desserts and treats a plenty in the future. Thanks for your patience and kind words while I’ve been away. I really appreciate them and am looking forward to repaying you in posts that won’t even mention the word “radish.”

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