A Time To Give

Gifts come in many guises. While commercialism obliterates and/or skews how we celebrate the season, in our hearts we know we can do better than simply following the directive to shop with abandon. Giving thought to each gift we select makes it that much more meaningful and valuable.

I have long abandoned the shopping frenzy encouraged at this time. It is overwhelming and undermines my true intentions.

I largely give socially, ecologically and culturally conscious gifts. Selecting what is appropriate to each recipient is the best part primarily because it gives me pause to think about my relationship with them, what I know about them and how much I value their part in my life. At the same time, I want the gift to reflect who I am and what I stand for. That means, I cannot in good conscience give anybody a fake plant, gas powered mower or a flat of impatiens. (About that last one – I’m allowed to have my personal dislikes so don’t bother setting me straight please!)

So, here’s a comprehensive list of what I think are good gifts. They benefit deserving organizations and people and offer enjoyable, sustaining experiences to the recipients:

1. Membership to the New York Botanical Gardens, Wave Hill Gardens, Jay Heritage Center, the Garden Conservancy, Teatown Preservation. Each of these institutions provide a very valuable environmental and educational service to the country. An annual membership means one can visit and enjoy them all year long. I’m sure you will have additional institutions to add to your own list.

2. Gift certificates to a local nursery. In my neck of the woods, my favorite is Rosedale Nurseries. Similarly, gift certificates or actual products from local merchants would not go amiss.

3. Products that support worthy causes. Profits from my own soft furnishings the Printed Garden collection and botanical note-cards go towards the education of orphan girls with HIV. I would appreciate your support very much.

4. For the folk who subtly drive your days in ways that we easily overlook. Hand warmers plus tip for mail carriers and garbage collectors – they work in cold weather and slipping a warmer in their gloves would I’m sure make their work a tad bit nicer. Tips for anyone who assists you in living better is a must – hairdressers, house cleaners, garden helpers, snow-plowers etc., I like giving a little something along with the tip.

From homemade cookies to fat beeswax candles to a piece of artisan jewelry to gift certificates to a movie house, one can always give something meaningful. The first year I gave movie tickets to a person who’d helped with odd jobs in the garden, I discovered that this was the first time he’d been able to take his whole family to the cinema.

5. As an artist, I know what it means to sell my work. Gratifying, validating and so encouraging. Buying from local artists is a great way start your own collection, add to somebody else’s and in making such a purchase, you are supporting the arts. Potters, painters, sculptors, jewelry makers, crafters could all do with your patronage. Hire a local musician to your next big event!

In this vein, the New York Art Students League is having their famous Holiday Art Sale. Lots of affordable art by emerging artists to be found here. Full disclosure – I have a painting in this show.

I’m also very proud to have my painting ‘Willow’ in the art show ‘Fragile Waterways – Protecting What We Love’ at TeaTown. All the art has been donated by local artists and 100% of the sales goes to the Croton River Stewards Fund.

6. Finally, the priceless gift of all – the gift of time. Spending money is all very well but one always has limits on budgets. However, giving of ourselves can be much better. Offering to help with a chore/project, going on weekly walks, meeting regularly to catch up over coffee/lunch/brunch/tea/dinner, setting up a recurring date to see art shows, concerts, plays or any other shared interest, promising to call/FaceTime/Skype someone who lives far away on a regular basis are all ways to show how much you truly care. Time, we know, is the most precious. Imagine what it would mean to the receiver.

‘Tis the season.

Wave Hill, NY
TeaTown’s Wildflower Island. Pink Lady’s Slippers
“Willow” my painting at TeaTown’s art show
“Dawn Over Rousillon” at the Art Students League’s Holiday show
Pumpkins and gourds galore at Rosedale Nurseries
NYBG annual orchid show
A glimpse of my products
A glimpse of my products

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

French Salad

I’m spending ten days in Provence – France’s salad bowl. The land stretches in all directions yielding all manner of produce. The weekly markets serve up fruits and vegetables so fresh and so local that you couldn’t bring farm and table any closer. Prices are affordable too. For years I’ve longed to buy fruit in quantity for canning. Finally, this past week, I bought 2 lbs of figs and made half into jam and the other half into chutney. A dream come true. Some aspire to sky-dive while I yearn to find my inner French chef.

The conversations with the market vendors/farmers are themselves instructive. Faced with a variety of eggplants, I asked the farmer which ones would be best for eggplant parmigiana. Without hesitation he pointed to the deep aubergine colored ones. The paler, slender varieties were for baba ganoush. Another variety was best for grilling of stuffing. And so it went. If I’d probed further, he’d have recommended the correct wine pairings too.

Similarly, the cheese maker, mushroom forager and flamboyant charcuterie guy can help select, share recipes and serving ideas along with some strong opinions on our American politics. Shopping in these markets is an immersive experience. I’ve learned to set aside an entire morning to the weekly market. You come for the produce but you stay to strengthen your relationships with those who grow the produce.

Inevitably, I return from market laden with flowers, fruits, vegetables, cheeses, eggs, mushrooms, olives and tapenades, pickled garlic ( my new favorite snack) and a sense of urgency to get the zucchini blossoms stuffed with the fresh goat cheese and fried up right away. Those blossoms will curl up tight and go limp if one waits too long.

Despite all the availability, most homes with a bit of land will maintain a potager of some sort. Some are simple with pots of geraniums, tomatoes and herbs, others attempt a myriad of vegetables and flowers in slightly larger plots and then there are those truly impressive gardens that make me stop and marvel. Each garden says the same thing – a gardener resides here. All are my kind of people.

It’s easy to eat well with such affordable abundance all around. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt if the $ got a bit stronger against the EU.

Santé et bon appétit!

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

Weather-worn But Never Beaten

Has anybody been able to keep their minds off the weather lately? Typically, whilst on vacation, I stay away from all news. Particularly the political sort. It’s my necessary escape into an Utopia where all is well all the time. I absolutely need that state of make-believe to recharge my batteries. But with Harvey and Irma on the war path and an earthquake of epic scale hitting North America, it’s been impossible to stay unaware or worse, unconcerned. To reach out, to determine how to help is everyone’s obligation.

The concerns are grave and so many. The people injured, dispossessed, stranded or lost are our immediate focus. Followed closely by the animals in distress. How to manage the inevitable dangers of disease, hunger, destruction of the infrastructure, search and rescue are just the beginning. Then comes assessing and containing the damages, rehabilitation and finally the repair and rebuilding. And all of this happens almost concurrently. Without the help of agencies like FEMA, the National Guards, the amazing first responders, the Red Cross and Habitat For Humanity as well as the unfailing generosity of individuals and communities across the country and globe, emerging through such disasters is near impossible. So, here I am seeking to help in some manner or other.

Whilst determining where and what is needed, I’ve been thinking about food. No, not like in reaching for food in the snack section to comfort but more as in how future meals everywhere will be affected by these natural disasters. When crops are destroyed, we must pay attention. From a complete loss of certain crop yields to a scarcity of them, there are the problems of lost or endangered livelihoods for farmers and all related food industry workers from truckers to factories to grocery stores to restaurants and finally our own kitchens. Nobody is unaffected. A hurricane might be in one corner of the country but, the entire nation will feel its far reaching impact.

Here’s my resolution. Apart from immediately donating money, clothing and other imperative sundries, I’m committed to supporting our American farmers. If the citrus crop or any other produce that is a mainstay that I typically depend upon is completely lost, I am willing to do without until those farmers recover sufficiently to once again grow and harvest their crops. Because of a paucity of the produce, if prices go up, then, I shall pay without complaint. Until such time, I cannot in good conscience indulge my habits or wants by purchasing from other distant shores.

Local, seasonal produce is always my first choice. I belong to a Community Supported Agriculture Co-op. But there is plenty more that our farmers all across the country supply. We are simply so accustomed to having them readily available that we hardly ever consider the where and how.

This matter of supporting our farmers is particularly highlighted for me here in Provence where every town or village has its weekly market day. Visitors revel in these markets but the locals truly await this day of buying their food for the week. Fruits and vegetables, meats, poultry, seafood, mushrooms, honey, confitures, breads, olives and tapenades, dried herbs and spices, cheeses, wines – just about everything a French cook needs. And every single vendor is from the region. There are far fewer supermarkets in these parts. That says something doesn’t it?

True, our farmer’s markets are also local but in all honesty, they are pricey for the average consumer. Those of us who frequent these markets ( my hand is up), are privileged. My hope is that in time, demand will grow, supply will grow and then prices will drop. Together we will all eat local, support our farmers and grow healthy individually, as a community and as a nation.

Political divisions be damned.

Note: The images of the devastation caused by the storms breaks my heart. So, I’m going to focus on the positive and provide images of seasonal produce in the markets and some of the foods we’ve been enjoying as a result. A few of the photos were posted in the last couple of weeks but I think they’re worth repeating!

Making lavender wands

Tomato tart

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar