In the Garden of Good and Weevil

REVIEW: 'To Boldly Grow: Finding Joy, Adventure, and Dinner in Your Own Backyard'

Penguin Random House
March 27, 2022

The first thing you should know about To Boldly Grow: Finding Joy, Adventure, and Dinner in Your Own Backyard, Tamar Haspel's witty recounting of sustenance and self-sufficiency, is that you do not need to own a patch of soil to appreciate what the book is about.

The next: While this review will strive for critical autonomy, the reviewer is decidedly biased. The author, her husband Kevin, and I have been pals since 2013, when Tamar began writing her food policy and nutrition column for the Washington Post. After all, as Pauline Kael said, "Every good critic is a propagandist."

Not that it's necessary, but I can verify that guests who gather near the wood-fired oven the couple built are treated to some damn fine pizza, topped with clams they harvested, herbs they snipped, and sausage ground with a researched ratio of fat to flesh. I can confirm that each learning curve Tamar describes—raising chickens, backing up a boat trailer, keeping slugs away from nascent shiitake mushrooms—started with the same humility and intellectual curiosity that have fueled Tamar's decades of journalism.

Those traits beget the book's many entertaining tangents. In the chapter called "Plants Everlasting," the author ponders the evolution of organic gardening and natural pesticides, or as she puts it, "a global conspiracy hatched by the pests themselves. … The leaf rollers wrote the mission statement, the cutworms did the PR, and the slugs—well, they were supposed to set up the website, but they never got around to it."

Spinosad is the pesticide Tamar chooses. But before she reports on its effectiveness in combating the insect ravages of their collards, we are treated to the backstory of who invented the natural compound: An Eli Lilly scientist let a Caribbean soil sample ferment for years. Turns out that particular bacterium, Saccharopolyspora spinosa, can kill leaf beetles but not whatever was chewing on their garden greens.

A single application of Sevin does the trick, which is a liquid version of the not-so-natural pesticide a youthful Kevin saw his father deploy on backyard tomatoes. It had been Kevin's first choice.

The incident underscores an important takeaway of To Boldly Grow, which is a lesson in partnership. Tamar and Kevin respect one another. Each complements the other's character and quirks. They met and married a bit later than some folks do, and anyone who spends any time around them soon understands that their union is rock-solid, and enviable. They were New Yorkers who moved to Cape Cod and crafted a sustainable existence there. In seeking advice from fellow first-handers, the couple recognizes the value of interdependence as well.

One of their rules in resolving situations where they do not agree is "to let the person who cares more make the decision." He has experience with watercraft, so they buy a bigger fishing boat than she wants. She does the math and figures a certain amount of gourmet-worthy salt can be extracted by boiling seawater atop their wood stove; he sets aside his skepticism, game to try. It works, to their firsthand delight.

In her words, "He is the kind of man who brings home roadkill and I'm the kind of woman who wants it." (On a personal note, I predict her book will prompt daydreams about husband cloning because Kevin is one of the most competent, hands-on, can-do humans I know.)

Besides "food science," tags To Boldly Grow as "cooking humor," and if you simply scanned the paronomasiac table of contents you would agree. Acornucopia. Poultry in Motion. Deer Me. A spoonful of funny helps the food science sink in.

Tamar's culinary skills are nothing to spit-take at, however. The woman makes a mean blackened bluefish sandwich, the recipe for which is sparingly detailed. Her lobster meat retrieval is legendary. Some of her kitchen pointers do possess a certain Peg Bracken irreverence: "Anyone who has ever tried to rinse rice until the water runs clear … knows that the water never actually runs clear. It just gets progressively less cloudy until you can't take it anymore."

Her progression of first-handedness and each narrative of how the striped bass or foraged fungi or venison lands on their table does tell a story of food. But the essence of the book is inherent in its affirming outcomes. By becoming a doer, Tamar is uplifted. It is her confidence that grows. So does her distance from the universe of packaged/processed foods, which is what she hopes for her readers.

She does not expect us to follow her particular path, but to create a parallel one in our own universe. Start small. Look stuff up. Embrace the sweat equity. The real message is one of empowerment. From that, comes joy—and maybe, eventually, a satisfying meal.

To Boldly Grow: Finding Joy, Adventure, and Dinner in Your Own Backyard
by Tamar Haspel
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 272 pp., $26 

Bonnie S. Benwick is a Washington freelance editor. She retired as deputy editor and recipes editor of the Washington Post food section in 2019.

Published under: Book reviews