The Singular Comfort of Growing Salad

From a British novelist who knows all about it

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IT’S WAY TOO LATE TO GROW SALAD THIS YEAR, but I still wanted to talk about it with the charming and very funny British novelist Charlotte Mendelson, partly because I adore her sideline, a gardening column, Onward and Upward in the Garden, in the New Yorker magazine. I like to plan ahead when it comes to salad. Next year I’ll install pots on my terrace.

Of course, I also love her novels, the latest of which was long-listed for the Booker Prize. She has a new one, The Exhibitionist, coming out in March. Mark your calendars.

Mendelson roots around in many urban-botanical topics in her New Yorker magazine column, and I especially admire her confessions about greed when it comes to “adopting” plants and cuttings and the joy she takes in stealing fallen fruit (which she refers to as “semi-legal harvesting”), her wish to ban roses, and her advice on which plants you can and cannot hope to grow in an urban garden. A single cabbage, for instance, “is a slug amphitheater, in which, over many months, ever beefier and more psychopathic mollusks will compete to render your lovingly tended leaves filigree nightmares of holes and rot.”

Getting muddy and finding new ways to get more edible plants into her life in London is her mad obsession—the force that through the green fuse drives her salads, which she loves and eats almost daily.

We have a lot in common! We both have Eastern European Jewish ancestry, we’re both gardeners, and we’ve both been in the employ of the same magazine. Plus, she has vivid memories of a childhood connection to the South, particularly North Carolina, where I lived until very recently, and where she greatly enjoyed our vittles.

Why, we’re practically the same person, I began to tell myself.

Never mind that my Russian Jewish great-grandfather changed his name from Itzig to John and completely assimilated after moving to the American south by way of Brooklyn to start furniture factories, while Mendelson’s Hungarian grandmother, who was a huge part of her life and whose cooking infuses so much of her writing, stayed a “foreigner for life.”

My grandmother lived in England for 50 years and her accent was so strong people would say ‘Are you here on holiday, dear?’ and she would say: ‘No. I leeeve here since 1939.’”

And never mind that Mendelson has managed bumper crops of produce by wedging over a hundred different plants and trees into her diminutive garden plot and a rooftop container garden at her London apartment—while I haven’t really gardened in 3 years, even though I lived in the country with a big kitchen garden just beneath my bedroom window, because two snakes began to take sunbaths in  my cucumbers and I just never went back down there again. It may have been one snake, returning frequently.

Oh, and also never mind that Mendelson has written four novels (with that fifth one on its way), not to mention ”Rhapsody in Green,” an irresistibly irreverent book of essays about gardening (recently released in the U.S.)—while I have written exactly one book, which will probably be my last since it nearly murdered my soul, and which formerly close members of my own family hated so much they created fake personas with names like Fifi Boofenheimer and Constance Purebred in order to pan it online.

So maybe we’re not alike. I never said I was Toni Morrison. And this is not New York Review of Books.

This is a salad publication! And we definitely share a love salad and writing about food.

“Have you reached the party yet?” Mendelson immediately asked me, when I held up my copy of “Almost English” during our Atlanta to London zoom. “I practically wrote that book just because I wanted to write about Hungarian food.”

She was referring to a passage in the very first pages, inspired by her own upbringing, of a spectacular dinner spread: “cold sour-cherry soup, chicken paprika, buttered noodles, stuffed cabbage, red cabbage, sweet-and-sour cucumber salad, cold krumplisalata, made with gherkins and chives and hot paprikas krumpli with sausage. . . . Schnitzel; goose-liver pate; polish salami; Ildi’s famous palacsinta stuffed with ground walnuts and rum, with lemony curd cheese and raisins”—and on and on.

“For me,” she said, “a huge part of who I am is about being the grandchild of people who went through terrible trauma, my Jewish Hungarian immigrant roots.”

And like a lot of grandchildren of displaced immigrants, that trauma was passed down to Mendelson like epigenetic heirlooms, which manifested as the fear of not having enough.

Enough Apricots? Maybe. Maybe not. Mendelson’s harvest from her rooftop garden. “They’re so hard to grow. Last year I grew one. This year there are millions. I can take no credit.”

“With my kind of gardening—despite me totally not being bred to garden—there’s a kind of instinct that says: We need food for winter! Will we have supplies? How will I keep my kids from getting scurvy? I know: I’ll give them dandelion greens. So for me it feels like a really important-slash-besiegement concept.”

“So much of my writing is about food—but the gardening comes from my greed. I realized I could grow food. And pickling! I’m into the whole concept. How can I make this last longer?

“But because I am a wild enthusiast and very easily distracted, I will never grow nice rows of potatoes or nice rows of carrots. Growing rowing potatoes and carrots is not something I watched my grandfather doing. He didn’t care about potatoes and carrots. He played the piano.”

Gardening is a form of therapy for Mendelson, a comfort, which she says keeps her sane for her own children. So she’s an indoor gardener, too. After her divorce years ago, she moved briefly to a smaller place than the one she lives in now, and “that’s when the houseplant obsession kicked in. My parents came to see my flat and said Oh, my God. This looks like your grandparents’ place—meaning dark, lots of books, and lots of plants.

So it all creates a friendly buffer between Mendelson and her non-fanatical-gardener parents—while also connecting her to her gardening sister (“We both seem to have become obsessed with houseplants, so we’ve started swapping”) and to her past.

“My mother frequently says: I have children who are interested in gardening. And I’m like: But it has nothing to do with you. Anyway, I can grow what the hell I want to,” she said. “I love berries, and I love bitter leaves and Asian greens and apples. There are too many things I want to grow so I produce very small quantities of everything. I’ll think: But what about that berry? So I never grow enough of any one thing.

“In England, you can grow berries. So, raspberries in a pot, wild strawberries. Apples and pears—but you need more space than I’ve got. Of course, I’m trying but it’s pointless. We grow black currants, red currants, gooseberries. And herbs: I have all these pots with five kinds of basil, coriander, parsley, garlic chives, lemon verbena, and other exciting herbs, as well. Tiny tiny amount of lemon verbena, lots and lots of mint and basil and thyme. Hyssop. And tomatoes. And kale, which I grow perpetually—if you just keep picking an odd leaf for salad it goes on forever.”

Mendelson may seem to have a chaotic gardening style, but it naturally lends itself to . . . you know what!

“I want to talk about garden salad,” Mendelson suddenly proclaimed.

“This is my thing—it’s the ONLY thing I’m confident about when it comes to the kitchen—it’s where my cooking and gardening are happiest meeting. Garden salad is my element! Because it doesn’t matter that I grow far too many different kinds of plants and produce very small quantities of everything, or that I’ve got three kinds of leaves or 3 kinds of radicchio, and a few berries.

“When I was married we’d have people for dinner a lot, and I’d do the cooking. I was proudest of my salad. But they never paid any attention to the salad, because by the time it was time for salad they’d already had the mingles and lots to drink and they were like no no no no no no leaves. And I said, I GREW this. I grew this.”

“It was very stressful. I’d make these salads for these *&$#@ers who wouldn’t care.

I was starting to tear up. Animals!

“Whenever I grow one berry—which coincidentally was my entire blueberry crop this year—I really need someone around so I can say Looooooo” (Mendelson’s hands were in the air, pretending to hold up a berry for my admiration. I nodded and smiled, appreciating this imaginary berry.)

“But now I have my freedom and my own garden and an apartment that’s just how I want it be. I’m 48 and I’m finally working out who I am,” she said. “And because I just do what the hell I want, including in my salads, I’ve perfected my salad recipe.”

This spoke to the core of my very being, and I asked Mendelson if she would teach me her ways, even though it was too late to grow salad myself. Like I said: next year I’ll have pots on my little terrace here in Atlanta, where there are no snakes.

*A Comforting Garden Salad from Charlotte Mendelson, In Her Own Words

In a way, I’m quite a purist. Meaning, I don’t really approve of mixed salad. No tomatoes. (I had tomato blight this year—but I never put tomatoes in salad.) It’s every possible kind of greens, it’s herbs, and a very strong dressing with garlic. Because of the Hungarian relatives I think garlic is basically oxygen.

  1. Say I was having a party for eight now, which is ridiculous because I have lost all social skills. I would buy lettuce because there’s no way I’d have enough lettuce. I’d get a nice Cos or romaine or Little Gem. But not iceberg. (I like iceberg in its place.) You want something with a lot of taste and a little texture. And then I would pick some lemon basil, purple basil, Greek basil, Italian basil, a little bit of lemon verbena, three different kinds of thyme, but tiny portions, parsley, I might have some green coriander seed, four or five kinds of bitter Italian greens, maybe some kale

  2. The other thing I’ve always used is flowers. I grow a lot of nasturtiums. I’ll put thyme flowers, mint flowers, borage flowers in the mix. Or courgette flowers. So twenty or so different leaf colors—and calendula! I like strong tastes.

  3. The dressing is crushed garlic, salt, extra virgin olive oil, maybe with a bit of rapeseed or nut oil, some pomegranate molasses, salt, and that’s it. Emulsify emulsify emulsify—praise the god of emulsification always. Sometimes I put a little honey in or maple syrup. Pom is brilliant. You have sweet and salty, plus bitter from the leaves. Oh, and grainy mustard!

  4. And then basically while I’m cooking dinner, I eat the entire thing with my fingers. And I have to make more. It happens all the time. I’ve eaten a bow of salad this big because it’s just too nice.

  5. Additions: I love Fennel! Raw beet root! Kohlrabi. I like the crunch. But no tomatoes.

*Emily’s Interpretation of Charlotte Mendelson’s Tart and Bracing Dressing for Her British Garden Salad (Which in America Would Be Tired Leaves, a Few Slices of Cucumber, and Some Tomato, Even It Was Not in Season, Especially in a Restaurant)

  • 2 big cloves garlic, grated or crushed

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

  • 2 tablespoons walnut or other nut oil

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons good Dijon mustard or grainy mustard

  • 1-2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses (even though there’s not a perfect substitute for this stuff, which you can order online, you may substitute: 4 teaspoons lemon or lime juice and 2 teaspoons of honey; or 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar and 1 teaspoon sugar, or 2 tablespoons raspberry jam and a big squeeze of lemon)

  • Lemon juice (1-3 tablespoons, depending on your personal tartiness)

Place the grated or crushed garlic and salt together in a very small bowl and make a paste using the back of a spoon. Add this to a jar with a tight-fitting lid, along with the olive oil, walnut oil, salt, mustard, and 1 tablespoon of the pomegranate molasses; shake and shake and shake until well emulsified. Taste it. If you want a dressing with more tartness, add more of the molasses. Now is also the time to add lemon juice to suit your taste; shake again. Adjust salt to suit your taste, as well. This is an extremely bright, garlicky dressing that works beautifully with all the big flavors here. Drizzle it all over the salad, toss gently to coat, then taste and adjust the amount of dressing and salt.

THAT’S IT. WE’RE DONE HERE. Midweek, for paid subscribers, we’ll have another delicious bauble as well as Charlotte Mendelson’s instructions for growing an avocado plant, never before shared in print. Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to share the Department of Salad: Official Bulletin with your friends and loved ones who deserve it.

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