Wartime Growing Vegetables
LONDON, July 15, 1943—
On the edges of American airfields and between the barracks of troops in England it is no unusual thing to see complicated and carefully tended vegetable gardens. No one seems to know where the idea originated, but these gardens have been constantly increasing. It is fairly common now that a station furnishes a good part of its own vegetables and all of its own salad greens.
The idea, which had as its basis, probably, the taking up of some of the free time of men where there were few entertainment facilities, has proved vastly successful. The gardens are run by the units and worked by the groups, but here and there a man may go out on his own and try and raise some strange seed which is not ordinarily seen in this climate. In every unit there is usually some man who knows about such things who advises on the planting, but even such men are often at a loss because vegetables are different here from the vegetables at home.
The things that the men want to raise most, in order of choice, are green corn, tomatoes, and peppers. None of these do very well in England unless there is a glass house to build up sufficient heat. Tomatoes are small; there are none of those master beefsteak tomatoes bursting with juice. It is a short, cool season. Green corn has little chance to mature and the peppers must be raised under glass. Nevertheless, every care is taken to raise them. Men who are homesick seem to take a mighty pleasure in working with the soil.
The gardens usually start out ambitiously. Watermelons and cantaloupes are planted and they have practically no chance of maturing at this latitude, where even cucumbers are usually raised in glass houses, but gradually some order grows out of the confusion. Lettuce, peas, green beans, green onions, potatoes do very well here, as do cabbages and turnips and beets and carrots. The gardens are lush and well tended. In the evenings, which are very long now, the men work in the beds. It does not get dark until eleven o’clock, there are only so many movies to be seen, English pubs are not exciting, but there does seem to be a constant excitement about the gardens, and the produce that comes from them tastes much better than that purchased in the open market.
One station has its headquarters in a large English country house which at one time must have been very luxurious. Part of the equipment of this place is a series of glass houses, and here the gardens are exceptional. There has never been any need to exert pressure to get the men to work in the gardens. They have taken it up with enthusiasm and in many cases men from the cities, who have never had a garden in their lives, have become enthusiastic. There is some contact with the normal about the garden, a kind of relationship with peace.
Now and then a garden just coming in to produce must be deserted as the unit is shifted to another area. But this does not seem to make any difference. The new unit takes over the garden, and the old one, if there is none at the new station, starts afresh. The value is in the doing of it. The morale value of the experiment is very high, so high that it is being suggested that supply officers should be equipped with an assortment of seeds as a matter of course. The seed takes up little room and gardening equipment can be made on the spot or is available nearly everywhere.
There is a great difference in the ordinary preparation of vegetables by the English and by us. The English usually boil their vegetables to a submissive, sticky pulp, in which the shape and, as some say, the flavor have long since been overcome. Our cooks do not cook their vegetables nearly so long, are apt to like them crisp. The English do not use nearly as many onions as we do and they use practically no garlic at all. The little gardens are a kind of symbol of revolt against foreign methods.
For example, the average English cook regards a vegetable with suspicion. It is his conviction that unless the vegetable is dominated and thoroughly convinced that it must offer no nonsense, it is likely to revolt or to demand dominion status. Consequently, only those vegetables are encouraged which are docile and capable of learning English ways.
The Brussels sprout is a good example of the acceptable vegetable. It is first allowed to become large and fierce. It is then picked from its stem and the daylights are boiled out of it. At the end of a few hours the little wild lump of green has disintegrated into a curious, grayish paste. It is then considered fit for consumption.
The same method is followed with cabbage. While the cabbage is boiling it is poked and beaten until, when it is served, it has given up its character and tastes exactly like brussels sprouts, which in turn taste like cabbage. Carrots are allowed to remain yellow but nothing else of their essential character is maintained.
No one has yet explained this innate fear the English suffer of a revolt of the vegetables. The easy-going American attitude of allowing the vegetable a certain amount of latitude short of the ballot is looked upon by the English as soft and degenerate. In the American gardens certain English spies have reported they have seen American soldiers pulling and eating raw carrots and turnips and onions.