Up until a couple of months ago, Patience Gray’s classic cookbook Honey from a Weed was the source of my favorite escapist fantasy. Following Patience’s lead, in said fantasy I’ve fled the city for an isolated Mediterranean island where I grow herbs, cook, indulge in some witch-like tendencies, and, ideally, unbothered by other people.
Present circumstances have drastically altered this fantasy. My fidelity to the herbs and witchlike tendencies remains, but we are well into New York’s second month of quarantine, and any idealization of solo-time on a rocky island is replaced by the reality of isolation in a small, light-limited New York City apartment. At this point, I would, quite honestly, take a punch to be surrounded by other people. Preferably the people I love, but even a crowded subway car would do. So, if you, like me, are desperate for whatever version of escape you can manage right now, may I suggest you start growing something. Plant some seeds. Pot up some herbs. Imagine sautéing purple carrots with tarragon and butter for someone come September. Where will the smell of your fennel seeds take you? For me, it’s to my favorite Indian restaurant with my mom. Which Thai beer are you going to serve with your Thai basil curry? What about the moon tomatoes? The name alone!
This isn’t a guide to the practicalities of seed-starting and herb growing. City apartments often have less than ideal growing conditions. What you can do is read the seed packet, check the internet, ask someone who knows—Susanne, for instance. You’re going to do the best you can with what you’ve got. Only have north-facing windows? Not ideal, but it will work! My sun-loving thyme, rosemary, mint, and scented geranium all live on a shaded north-facing windowsill. The lettuce seeds I planted in a cracked old Tupperware container have sprouted in a similarly shaded spot out on my fire escape. I’m eyeing an emptied Sahadi’s coffee tin for my New Yorker Tomato seedling.
I think Patience would admire the scrappiness of this setup. My plants, like all of us, are not thriving in their circumstances — things are bound to get a bit leggy— but they make an otherwise overwhelming present moment more bearable, when I let them. Which is when I pause to notice them growing, run my fingers over them, cook with them. In Honey from a Weed’s chapter on chopping herbs, Patience explains their effect like this: ‘Pounding fragrant things — particularly garlic, basil, parsley — is a tremendous antidote to depression… Pounding these things produces an alteration in one’s being — from sighing with fatigue to inhaling with pleasure.’ Reaching out the kitchen window to harvest my fire escape Tupperware lettuce is going to be a goddamn delight. As will chopping up mint leaves to toss with bush beans or peas. The more future visitors to feed on my island the better. My plants are keeping the lighthouse lit.