Eat This

Mission – Dining off the Grid

Amenhome300 Most people in my town know Dr. Nazirahk Amen and his family as the Purple People who live in a bright purple house on our main street.  Some know the good doctor as the practitioner of naturopathy, acupuncture and other healing arts, or as the teacher of meditation and vegan cooking.  But what I only learned recently is that they're in the forefront of the growing movement to eat locally, popularized by Michael Pollan in his bestseller "The Omnivore's Dilemma".  Food that is merely organic makes way for the growing legions of "locavores," and what's more local than growing your own food?  That's exactly what the Amens do, though not because they  read Pollan's bestseller.  It's all part of their spiritual quest to live sustainable, holistic lives.

THE GARDENS
To learn the secrets of their sustainable food operation, my first stop was behind that purple house, where I found raised 2-foot-tall vegetable-growing beds filled with  compost (9 years' worth) and coconut coir.  And everywhere are containers of all types – even old tires – planted with food-to-be, many of them discards from Whole Foods ("wasteful!").  An 85-gallon compost tea brewer is nearby, and inside the house is a kitchen compost bin and the worm composting operation. Nothing is wasted.

Then it's only a short drive to the nearest community garden, where the largest part of their suburban farming operation is located – a 50 x 30-foot plot bursting with sweet potatoes, okra, tomatoes, eggplant, pepper, okra, cucumber, corn, summer & winter squash when I visited in September.  (They pay only $30 a year for this double plot, which generously covers all the water used!  Incredibly, plotsAmenpots300 went unused this year.) 

BIOINTENSIVE GARDENING
According to Dr. Amen, a family of four can feed themselves on a quarter-acre lot, or a 30×30-foot plot, which includes space for crop rotation.  And what makes it work are the techniques of biointensive gardening, which produce maximum yields from a minimum of land while leaving the soil better off. (See Growbiointensive.org and PolyfaceFarms.com.)  The raised beds are intensively planted, meaning with different plants in the ground, on the ground, and vertically in air space above.  Okra is grown on top of sweet potatoes in the same spot.  Cukes are grown under corn.  Different crops are grown in the same spot at different times of the season, as well.  The plants grown include good compost crops, too, so that the gardens produce their own fertilizer, too.  Using these and other techniques of biointensive gardening, the Amens produced over 700 pounds of sweet potatoes alone.

FORAGING FOR DINNER
I love this part.  Turns out there's plenty of free food around town for the picking – literally – and the Amens supplement their gardening by foraging for the unwanted food around town.  Like wild persimmons, berries, figs and apples.  Even bamboo shoots are good eating, stir-fried.  Those messy droppings from mulberry trees that everyone complains about are sweet and great for pies and muffins – just get them before they drop.  And speaking of freebies, the Amens estimate that half the greens they eat are either weeds or volunteers, like the squash and tomatoes that grow from seeds in their compost.  The weed amaranth (aka pigweed) is a grain that's complete protein and a popular food in the Caribbean, "like spinach but more nutritious". So the Purple People will tell you they're not just gardeners but "gleaners" or "freegans."

THE RESULTS
From June through October the Amens feed their family – equivalent to four or five adults – entirely from the garden.  Winter is trickier but greens can be grown all winter using a high tunnel or a greenhouse.  Other winterAmenfamily300 crops include squash and sweet potatoes and everything they've canned, dried, frozen or stored from the previous season.  So the key to eating in winter is "intensive kitchen prep", like drying herbs and sun-dried tomatoes, making and freezing gumbo, making and canning tomato sauce.  Carrots and beets are simply stored for eating during the winter.  So year-round, the family grows about 85 percent of all the foods they eat, with only such items as oils, nuts, flour, peanut butter, and sweeteners remaining to be bought.  Their diet is vegan, primarily whole grains, with seasoning making up for the lack of "meat taste."

Not bad for suburbanites.  At their monastic headquarters in the Ozarks, even greater success in sustainability has been achieved through the practice of extreme conservation, and there's almost zero waste.  For more information visit ThePurplePeople.org.

TEACHING HEALTHIER EATING
Fortunately, Dr. Amen isn't satisfied with having the healthiest family on the block.  His mission includes setting an example for others, especially his patients.  They come to him as individuals with problems like arthritis or overweight and leave with 3-week detox diets that he hopes become lifetime diets for their whole families.  "It's hard to change in isolation, so whole families have to change," he explains.

Judging from my own brief exposure to the biointensive, vegan lifestyle of the Amen family, I can report that it's hard not to be swept away by the sheer wholesomeness of it all.  The sweet potatoes and sweet potato greens that they cunningly sent me home with tasted so good that they changed my own thinking about food, even about how I garden (which for me is a bigger deal than how I eat).  Okay, maybe it wasn't the taste alone that was so compelling but the awesome experience of eating food that's just been pulled food from the soil – just as awesome as my online veggie-growing friends have been saying all along.  So you see what finally convinced me to rip out my front lawn and turn that patch of unproductive monoculture into an edible landscape.

For more information about growing and preparing foods, Dr. Amen recommends:

Posted by on October 16, 2007 at 3:29 am, in the category Eat This.
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5 Responses to “Mission – Dining off the Grid”

  1. Matthew Wilson says:

    Hello Susan

    Interesting piece. I live in the UK where allotment gardening has been on the up for some years, having suffered a decline up until the mid 1990s. On my own allotment I have been able to get from 30 x 10 yard patch of nettles, bramble and dock to growing corn, brassicas, onions, garlic, beans, zucchini etc etc in less than 2 years. But perhaps what is more interesting is what you can grow in pots, especially for those of us with limited time and limited space. At home this year I grew tomato, bell and chilli pepper, potato. sweet potato, baby onions, garlic and salad leaves. Anyone could do this, no matter how limited the space – even on a balcony. Keep up the good work on the blog, I work for the Royal Horticultural Society in the UK (I am Curator of Harlow Carr) and I really admire the spirit of Garden Rant. I was pleased to see that you really love Gardens Illustrated, one of the magazines I write for. I’d like to send you a copy of my new book so email me back if you would like. All best

    Matthew

  2. Susan, I really admire the way you are taking to this food growing business. I LOVED reading this post. It confirms my own experience–the insane amount of fantastic food that I get out of a garden that’s 40 by 52. And I’m not like the Amens. I’m just an unserious weekend gardener.

    P.S. It doesn’t just taste better because of the pleasant experience of harvesting it. It just tastes better. I made my own buttercup squash this Saturday for visiting family–they couldn’t get enough of it.

  3. Ed Bruske says:

    Great post, Susan. It really does unmask conventional, artificial agriculture for what it is: a boon for big business and a waste of precious resources. Everyone who ever gets that question at cocktail parties–Wouldn’t we starve if we had to all farm organically–should carry a copy of this in their pocket.

    Regarding coconut, I think you meant to say “coir,” that the fuzzy brown stuff that comes off the shell and is now used sometimes instead of peat moss. And I do hope you will be posting this on the DCUG blog.

  4. Katherine says:

    For anyone interested be sure and check out Barbara Kinsolver’s latest book “Animal Vegetable Miracle” – a great read about one family’s year of eating only locally. Lots of food for thought…

  5. I always cast an admiring look at the Purple House as I walk by – beautiful and resourceful. I’m also glad someone is eatting those much-maligned mulberries. I tried one, but it was wormy so have not attempted another.
    I occasionally see folks working hard gathering dandelions and purslane by the railroad tracks. They are welcome to all of mine as well. I’m thinking of posting a sign “edible weeds – all you can eat” by my out of control artemisia too.
    Nothing but admiration for those with the time and inclination to do live off the land.

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