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Flash in the Pan

Plotting a return to the garden

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Tim Cahill was the main travel-adventure writer at Outside magazine for decades. During his tenure, he led a lifestyle that most of us have at some point wondered about whimsically for ourselves, before filing it away in a hopelessly unattainable mental archive marked The Ideal Schedule. Diving on South Pacific coral reefs, bushwhacking through the Andean jungle en route to uncharted Incan ruins; the caves, mountains, rivers of the world, not to mention the bars, streets, dead-ends and secret passages of human culture, not to mention the, ahem, how shall we say…culinary attractions. Chef Boy Ari can only say “wow.”

Cahill got there by “following his bliss” as they say, pursuing the things that most interested him. As a young lad, he was interested in adventure. At the time, there wasn’t much travel literature in magazines like we have now (thanks in part to Cahill himself) combining scientific, political and cultural information, and maybe some moralizing. For young Tim, most of his fodder came from, in his own words, “articles in magazines that might have been called Men’s Testicle, carrying illustrations of tough, unshaven guys dragging terrified women through jungles, caves, and hordes of menacing bikers.”

As Cahill’s writing evolved, some aspects of Men’s Testicle hung on. In his book Jaguars Ripped My Flesh, Cahill tells a story of two lost boys stuck on a narrow cliff ledge who alerted their rescuers and kept warm through the night by burning the pages of their wilderness survival manual. “I find this story fascinating,” Cahill notes, “because I am a man who sits around at home reading wilderness survival books the way some people read seed catalogues or accounts of classic chess games.”

And this is where Tim Cahill and Chef Boy Ari cross paths. I am the type of guy who peruses seed catalogues. Each of us finds our wilderness in a different place. My buddy Tom Spanbauer, a writer of a different sort, finds his wilderness in the high-tension sexual energy of bars, movies, and his writing group. Others find it on city streets. I call all of this wilderness because it is the arena in which our archetypal survival dramas unfold.

Chef Boy Ari’s survival strategy is all about the culinary attraction. That’s why my pantry and freezer are stocked. Lately, I spend about $30 every two weeks at the store to supplement my stash. I hardly dine out at all, and don’t exactly suffer at the table.

In a way, my survival strategy is mostly a fantasy, because I’m basically as dependent on the system as anyone. Yet it’s still completely real. And the food is definitely better. And fantasy creates reality. Which brings us back to the seed catalog.

I really dig Cahill’s comparison of badass wilderness survival to chess (which is a war game) and farming. Growing your own food truly is on a survival-based par with war and wilderness. Like a good chess player, the cultivator plans many moves ahead. Like the hunter, the cultivator is in tune with the workings of life. By the way, Chef Boy Ari does not condone war. But chess is cool.

So, fellow cultivators, now is the time to bust out that seed catalog. I like Fedco seeds, based in Waterville, Maine (www.fedcoseeds.com). They not only have a huge assortment of stuff that can grow in cold climates, including lots of organic, but they have great information on how to grow different things, as well as a broad selection of books, tools, and addresses. They also have a section devoted to publications and organizations that are good to know about, including phone numbers, addresses, and Web pages of other sources of info. They have a funny, folksy, down-home attitude with lots of funky illustrations. My copy is dog-eared and marked up from long sessions of wintertime fantasy.

Believe it or not, it will soon be time to start some seeds, like my very long-season Natalino Romanesco, a brassica that tastes somewhere between broccoli and cauliflower and looks like an acid trip. I’m also really excited about my Red Kuri squash seeds, my Green Zebra tomatoes, my Jerusalem artichokes, and my Love-in-the-Mist flowers. Heck, maybe this year I’ll give okra a shot.

And dig this description for Fish hot peppers: “It may be the most attractive pepper plant on the planet with its distinctive green and white mottled foliage and striped fruits. The 2” curving pendant fruits look a little like swimming fish. They turn from white with green stripes to orange with brown stripes to red, packing considerable heat and full-bodied flavor.” And Chef Boy Ari’s library would not be complete without the book Keeping Food Fresh: Old World Techniques and Recipes by the gardeners and farmers of Terre Vivante. Some of you might be interested in Preventing Deer Damage by Robert Juhre, as well.

Bottom line: if you want to start seeds in March, you need to order them by February, which means you need your seed catalog soon.

E-mail Chef Boy Ari: flash@missoulanews.com

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