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Cultur-vating…connecting food and culture

Written by Rhonda Ferree, retired horticulture educator

May brings us our sixth gardening trend for 2014: Cultur-vating. "Taking local to the next level, people are growing the world in their gardens, mixing cultures and embracing what is local to their own region."

Growing our own food is more popular than ever. Bringing culture and foods together makes it even more exciting.

I first heard about using food to connect people with culture and history from Chicago chef Rick Bayless, Proprietor of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo. He gave a fascinating presentation at a conference I attended in 1012. As he explains on his website, "Great food, like all art, enhances and reflects a community's vitality, growth and solidarity. Yet history bears witness that great cuisines spring only from healthy local agriculture."

Here are a few examples to try in your backyard.

Mexican salsa has surpassed ketchup as America's favorite condiment. While there are many variations, a basic salsa recipe includes tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, cilantro and tomatillos – all which you can grow in your own backyard garden. Tomatillos, known as Mexican husk tomatoes, are unfamiliar to many American gardeners.

For authentic Asian cooking try growing bok choy or edamame. Bok choy is a cabbage relative with long, thick white stems and dark green leaves. It is delicious in salads, sautéed, or stir-fried. Edamame are edible, green soybeans. These soybeans are harvested when both the pods and beans are still bright green but the pods have filled out. Traditionally, edamame is boiled and salted as a great protein source.

The best way to obtain and try new produce is at Farmers Markets or by enrolling in a CSA. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture where you purchase a subscription for baskets of food from a local farmer throughout the growing season. Many CSA farmers include newsletters and recipes so you know how to use the various produce they grow.

Community gardens are another way to connect gardening with new ways to cook, while learning about other cultures. For example, the Forrest Hill Community Garden in Peoria includes garden plot rentals to families from various cultures. One man explained that he sometimes longs from foods that he used to eat from his grandmother's farm in India, and he now grows the unique variety of spinach in his plot. "We moved so far away from food and farming," Radha Chandra said. "I want my son to know when the food grows, how the food grows and what it takes to grow it."

As the garden trends report explains, "International flavor links fellow gardeners and cooks both historically and geographically." I challenge you to try new foods, their history and culture around the family dinner table tonight.



As horticulture educator, Rhonda Ferree inspired citizens in local communities to grow their own food and improve their home landscapes. She focused on high quality, impactful programs that taught homeowners how to create energy-efficient landscapes using sustainable practices that increase property values and help the environment.

After 30 years with University of Illinois Extension, Rhonda retired in 2018. She continues to share her passion for horticulture related topics as “Retro Rhonda” on social media.

ILRiverHort is a blog that helps people connect to nature and grow.