Life and Death and Vegetables

Photograph by Kelli Campbell

To garden is to cultivate chaos.

Every winter I forget this. I believe what the photographs in my gardening books seem to say: that gardening is neat rows of baby lettuces or a climbing rose in perfumed abundance. Of course, it is those things, but only for five minutes. Turn your back and the lettuces have bolted. Blink your eyes and the rose is covered in beetles.

In other words, every sweet, sun-warmed strawberry is teetering on the edge of rot.

* * *

In summer, I teeter on the edge of grateful and overwhelmed. I can never quite catch up to the chores calling my name. Not those calling to me from within my fenced-in vegetable garden or those demanding attention within the brick walls of my old farmhouse kitchen. While the outdoor gardening chores are those you might expect (watering, weeding, squashing Japanese beetles), it is the work of indoor gardening that I tend to overlook. 

Gardening must also occur in our kitchens because plants do not produce food in the exact proportions needed for our nightly suppers. In the summer garden’s ridiculous prodigality we find the explanation for everything from grain barns to root cellars to modern tin cans and deep freezers. Summer overdoes it because winter, at least where I live, will have nothing to do with growing food.

Still, I forget that my work is not finished when I snap that pea or pull that carrot. I forget until a funny smell in the refrigerator reminds me of my neglect. A grocery-store lettuce left to liquefy in a crisper bin is a mess, but a garden romaine abandoned to the same fate is a tragedy. I remember when it was only a seed tucked in beneath basement grow lights. How I nurtured it for weeks! Tragedy, I tell you.

Alas, this tragedy runs local performances in my own backyard all summer long. In the morning I pick a bowl of perfectly petite cucumbers and at night I return to find scary monster cucumbers lurking beneath the leaves. How did I miss them? Could they have grown so much in a day?

I look forward to the beets for weeks and then, inevitably, I ignore them for a moment only to find that they have grown to the size of softballs and must be fed to the chickens.

I tell myself they are only vegetables and this is not the end of the world, but there are too many days when it feels like exactly that. As if overgrown vegetables are only the first sign of the chaos that threatens everything. 

Cucumbers never stop growing and this old house never stops crumbling and my children never stop changing, and I never do manage to quite catch up on everything I think must be done.

I never do manage to hold and keep and preserve the things that matter most.

* * *

But I try.

My favorite method for preserving the garden harvest is fermentation, a process that dances perilously close to the line between ripe and rotten. 

For thousands of years, humans have harnessed the bacteria naturally present in air and on the surface of food to transform our perishable food into something longer lasting, more delicious, and more nutritious. Before the relatively recent invention of water-bath canning every dill pickle was a lacto-fermented pickle. In other words, it was alive.

The fear of bacteria that first took hold in the nineteenth-century is now deeply ingrained in us. No wonder we have largely abandoned the fermented foods that filled our bellies in the days before tin cans and deep freezers and antibacterial soaps. In Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Michael Pollan describes the recent “startling” medical discovery that “in order to be healthy, people need more exposure to microbes, not less” (311). “Bacteria-free food,” he writes, “may be making us sick.”

I like that my old-fashioned pickles are healthier, but I love that they do not require me to tend a pot of boiling water in my non-airconditioned kitchen. Instead, I combine cucumbers and saltwater, along with garlic and fresh dill, and leave them to bubble in jars in the cool spot on my cellar steps. In only a few days, I have crisp, tangy pickles.

Though I began by pickling cucumbers, I now ferment everything from carrots and green beans to cabbages and beets. Emboldened by the simplicity and flavor of these unique pickles, I ventured into other bacterial experiments. Today, I also make my own yogurt, kombucha tea, and, when I’m feeling especially ambitious, sourdough bread.

The milk from our local dairy, less processed than its store-bought equivalent, doesn’t keep for long in our refrigerator. But the yogurt I make with it stays fresh longer and nourishes more completely. The orange juice I used to buy soured quickly and cost a fortune, but the kombucha tea I brew is cheap, long-lasting, and my kids think it tastes like fizzy soda.

Is it possible to harness decay? Is it possible to arrest the march toward chaos and death? Not always. Bacteria are living organisms. Like people, they are unpredictable. Sometimes, for reasons I can never fathom, my sauerkraut grows mold or my kombucha refuses to fizz. But failure sweetens the taste of success. Because I cannot entirely control the process, the transformation of cucumber to pickle is always a delightfully anticipated surprise.

No matter how many jars I store in the cool cave of our home’s old root cellar, I can never forget this truth: each and every bite is a miracle.

* * *

But there are days. Days when I am overwhelmed by the sun-ripened tomatoes turning into puddles on my counter. Days when the same rain that feeds the growing pears and apples also breaks through the plaster ceiling of my kitchen. 

Days when chaos and decay seem to reign.

These are the days I wish I too could dance on that line between ripe and rotten. Instead, I tend to lie down, pull the covers over my head, and wish for bedtime. In my dreams, nothing ever rots or wilts or grows unmanageable. In my dreams, even my children become babies again. I wake and remember what it was like when I could hold them completely within the small circle of my lap.

I could can all of it. The cucumbers, the cabbages, the beets. I could boil them in a churning pot until I’d killed every last thing with an urge toward contamination. I could line up super-sealed jars on my pantry shelves and never worry about mold.

I could probably find a way to heat treat everything else as well. Not only my food, but my home and my relationships. I could boil my garden vegetables, throw money at my old house, distance myself from friends and family and neighbors. I could fence my children in with a hundred thousand rules.

Then they would be safe. Then they would be contained. Then they would no longer have the power to break my heart.

Dead things are risk-free and easy to manage, but can they feed our souls? If I want food that is alive, I think I must accept the chaos of its living.

* * *

On the surface, fermentation is a neat metaphor for the continuous presence of death in life. Dig a little deeper, however, and there is nothing neat about it. Dig a little deeper, preferably in your garden, and the relationship between life and death looks so much more complicated. It is a tangle as maddening and messy and abundant as the vines on our split-rail fence.

In the garden, it is difficult even to find the line between life and death. Where does one end and the other begin? I am tempted to lump decay and death together, but fermentation defies this easy categorization. What does it mean that a partially rotten cucumber can taste better and keep bodies healthier?

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes that “creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:20–21).

Perhaps a pickle is the first taste of freedom. Perhaps it is the first hint that resurrection is our fate. A fate we share with everything that is green and growing and gloriously alive.

Christie Purifoy earned a PhD in English literature from the University of Chicago before trading the classroom for a vegetable garden in southeastern Pennsylvania. When the noise of her four young children makes writing impossible, she tends zucchini and tomatoes they will later refuse to eat. Christie is always watching for the beauty, mystery, and wonder that lie beneath it all. When she finds them, she writes about them at 

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