Manic Organic: a Restaurateur’s Rant
There is a large maple tree in my front yard. At about 50’ tall, and assuming it was planted around the time my house was built, I expect this tree is about 100 years old. My tree (which I like to think of as “mine” even though it was here well before me and will long outlast me) provides entertainment throughout the year. In the spring – before my tree’s canopy reaches out to embrace the canopy of the similarly large tree across the street – the slow unfurling of lime green leaf buds is tentative but hopeful. In the summer months, my tree provides pleasing shade and the lovely whisper of fluttering leaves. Come fall, the leaves rage in red and orange, and then turn brown and papery before drifting to the ground. And in the winter, the graceful limbs of my tree trace a dark silhouette against the grey sky.
My tree even nurtures my personal philosophies. When my children were small, the tire swing that I hung on a conveniently low branch horrified the neighbours in my gentrified neighbourhood. “A tire swing? That’s not very ‘Pleasant Road’”, they sniffed dismissively through snobbish, upturned noses behind the leaded glass windows of their faux Tudor manses. Good! I’m all for non-conformity, independence, individuality, rebellion and iconoclasm. When they were older, I cheered when my children climbed the tree, every year going higher and higher: play outside, touch nature, challenge yourself, scare yourself, step confidently, see the world from a different perspective, and reach reach reach!
I have cursed this tree too. When the driveway was carved into our narrow, urban lot, we were required to give the tree’s roots adequate space – which resulted in a thin and snakey driveway. Parking the car involves much slamming of brakes, repeated slow application of gas, quick change monitoring of rearview mirrors and cameras, high tolerance for annoying buzzing backup sensors, as well as a painful amount of head swivelling, spine twisting and general contortionism. Every falling leaf in autumn is a reminder of inexorable death, preceded by raking, raking, raking and countless trips to the hardware store for more leaf bags. Occasionally, in winter, a severe storm encases the tree limbs in a thick armour of ice which, while briefly glittering and magical, causes burdened limbs to snap and fall on electrical lines, vehicles, hand-stacked stone retaining walls or lovingly maintained shrubbery. Boom! Heat and lights, rearview mirrors, tender sleeping life, all snuffed out, crushed, decimated.
I curse this tree most especially because nothing will grow beneath it. The tree roots are shallow, gnarly and intricately patterned; it is impossible to wedge more than a butter knife in the earth, never mind a spade. What soil there is beneath my tree is heavily alkaline, apparently, and most plants, I understand, prefer a more hospitable, acidic environment. The ground is so hard-packed that when it rains the water runs off in sheets streaking my driveway and the sidewalk with rivulets of mud. In the dry summer months, the remaining soil is lifted by the mildest breeze in a cloud of whorling dust. When designing the driveway, and having regard to the city’s rules about giving my tree a wide berth, no one turned their mind to the fact that the resulting design would mean a very large, very unsightly mound of crud with a tree sticking out the middle of it. I am not popular with my neighbours who think, I’m sure, that one day I will finish the job of landscaping my front yard. “This is it!” I want to tell them. “It doesn’t get any better than this!”
As it turns out, the tree’s messy, unmade bed offers the perfect accommodation for all manner of weeds: dandelions, crabgrass, bindweed, Canada thistle, clover, creeping Charlie and plantain. Every year I spend hours pulling these freaking interlopers from the ground so my neighbours won’t start up petitions about my slovenly gardening standards or snicker to each other over their perfect picket fences about whether my “garden” will soon be sporting a rusted-out jalopy on blocks and mounds of beer cans tossed from the front porch.
This spring I decided to really get tough. My front garden was truly an eyesore and I was tired of feeling like the Nick Carraway of the neighbourhood. After pulling out every single persnickety weed, I layered hoarded newspapers, and then sheets of landscaping fabric and, finally, covered the whole lot with several inches of wood mulch. The entire process involved several days of backbreaking and ass aching labour but, at last, the weeds were gone and I would be able to hold my head up high at the upcoming street party.
I hadn’t even put the mulching rake in the shed before there was a knock at my front door. I recognized the neighbourhood gardener. And by ‘neighbourhood gardener’ I don’t mean an old lady whose verdant lawn is admired by all passersby or whose artfully tangled English garden stops traffic; I mean the woman who is paid to do the gardens for pretty much everyone on the street except me. (I have neighbours that will call the interior designer to hammer a nail into the wall before hanging a child’s fingerpainting.) Business is so good for the neighbourhood gardener that she now has two trucks, both of which are usually parked somewhere on my street. She and her employees are probably planting, weeding, seeding, sodding, deadheading, mowing, leaf blowing, pruning or perennial crooning somewhere nearby at this very moment. She says, “Excuse me, but where did you buy your mulch?” “The Home Depot”, I reply. “Is it organic mulch?” she asks. “Organic?” I say. “What do you mean ‘is it organic?’ ” “Well”, she says, “my customers all want organic mulch.” “Seriously?” I say. “Organic mulch? Why, are they eating it for dinner?” “Hee hee”, she titters, “I don’t know, they just keep asking for organic mulch.” “Well”, I say, “it’s made of wood which, by definition, I would expect is organic.” We joke about it for a few minutes and then she’s off to flower whisper at the neighbour’s house.
Seriously? Organic mulch? Is that what the world has come to? It’s not like I’m spreading nuclear waste on my front garden and then watering it with deuterium oxide. This whole organic thing has officially jumped the shark in my humble opinion. Now I have to give organic food to grass, earthworms and tulip bulbs? I literally spread shit on my flower beds. Do I need to ask if the manure comes from well-adjusted, free-range cows that were fed an organic diet? Next thing you know I’ll have to find artisanal organic mulch. Artisanal, local, sustainable, ethical, organic mulch. For trees. For vegetables and flowers. For my frigging WEEDS!
I like to think I’m halfway intelligent and more than marginally informed. I went to university. I graduated from law school. I read the newspaper every day, I listen to the hourly news broadcast on the radio and I watch the nightly television news. Yes I read some crappy ass novels but I also read more than my fair share of serious non-fiction. And I like to think I understand what I read, see and hear. Notwithstanding that I congratulate myself about having at least half a brain, I generally don’t voice an opinion about subjects I know little about. I don’t have a medical degree so I am really not well-positioned to give an opinion about your unsightly rash or what that bump signifies. Yes, I participated in the model U.N. in high school but I don’t believe that entitles me to pronounce on Middle Eastern relations. As a devout and practising atheist I don’t feel adequately qualified to pontificate about relativistic belief structures. Unless I truly feel that I am an expert on something, I mostly keep my mouth shut and just listen.
I believe anecdotally, rather than know empirically, that the earth is an oblate spheroid that rotates the sun, that climate change is real and dangerous, that my tree photosynthesizes, that my circulatory system provides nutrients and oxygen throughout my body, that nothing travels faster than the speed of light in a vacuum, that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, that one day I will die. I’m no expert on anything. I am probably very ill-informed about most things, in fact. So I tend not to express opinions about matters when I am likely to be embarrassed by my own ignorance. Having said that, this whole organic business drives me nuts. Every restaurant needs a “green sheen” nowadays. Why, suddenly, must every menu item be organic? What does ‘organic’ mean, anyway? It doesn’t necessarily mean environmentally-friendly. It doesn’t necessarily mean healthier, safer or better-tasting. It doesn’t necessarily even mean pesticide-free. And it means different things to different people in different countries. One thing I do know for sure is that organic means expensive.
As a restaurateur, I’m not going to tell you to be a vegetarian or a teetotaller. I just want you to be happy. If you want local produce, I’ll do my best, but don’t expect strawberries in January in Canada. Or lemons, ever. And don’t even think about salt . If you want sustainable fish, I’ll do my best. Hope you didn’t want Chilean seabass or halibut or tuna or sturgeon caviar. Ethical seafood? Uh oh, no shrimp for you. Organic? No problem, but it’s gonna cost you; up to 50% more in fact because that’s what it costs me to buy it for you.
Every time someone snootily inquires whether a menu item is organic, I want to ask them if their Lexus parked out front is organic and if it got here on organic gas. Is your Botox organic? How about the shellac on your perfectly manicured fingernails? Is your Rolex organic sir? How about that iPhone? Organic? What about your Louboutins? No? Well thank goodness for the organic mulch on your garden!