Fresh from the Kitchen Garden
Georgeanne Brennan's life and livelihood revolve around the vegetables and herbs that grow outside her back door
As kitchen gardens go, Georgeanne Brennan's is big enough to do the Jolly Green Giant proud. Not only does it measure 40 feet by 60 feet, it's prodigiously prolific. What grows there? "Let's see," says Brennan, before matter-of-factly rattling off a list of more than two dozen vegetables and herbs: hot peppers, sweet peppers, okra, wax beans, haricots verts, eggplants, summer squash, chard, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, fennel, basil, cilantro, dill. Not to mention tomatoes. "I always overdo it on the tomatoes," she comments without a touch of irony, before lovingly describing the unusual varieties she favors, including tiny Sun Golds and big-as-a-baseball Brandywines, ivory-yellow White Wonders and gold-striped Green Zebras.
For Brennan, the author of several cookbooks, including the forthcoming Food and Flavors of Haute Provence (Chronicle Books), and a contributor to The San Francisco Chronicle, gardening is both a hobby and a profession. She and her husband, Jim Schrupp, live in a 1920s farmhouse east of Napa Valley, near a town that's just beginning to feel the effects of creeping suburbia. When they bought the 10-acre property a decade ago, the house was a wreck. "The assessor said the only value was the pump," Brennan recalls. But for Brennan-- who also owns a farmhouse in France, where fresh food is an inextricable part of the culture-- the land was a miracle waiting to happen. When she and her family were living in a rented apartment while their new home was being renovated, she'd faithfully walk or bicycle to the site every day to plant and tend the kitchen garden.
That garden is still Brennan's baby. It's large enough to keep her supplied with the ingredients she needs to develop recipes, plus enough extra so that visiting friends and family can pick freely for themselves. Over the past several years Brennan and Schrupp have also converted much of the rest of their acreage into a commercial farm she refers to as "the fields." Officially called Johnson Road Farm, it produces splendid vegetables, herbs and flowers that are sold via wholesale distributors throughout the Bay Area. Brennan's impulse to share the bounty of her garden with the people she cares about, combined with an entrepreneurial streak, led to a business venture that she unpretentiously describes as "taking all this stuff and putting it in boxes." The more formal name for the endeavor is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), a program in which consumers essentially buy shares in a small farm's harvest. Last year, Brennan decided to enlist her San Francisco publishing compatriots into a CSA plan. About 80 staffers at Chronicle Books, Ten Speed Press and The San Francisco Chronicle signed up with her, each agreeing to pay a lump sum up front-- the equivalent of $17 per week-- for regular deliveries straight from Brennan's fields. Brennan oversaw the entire operation herself, so that no middleman stood between her and her customers. In an unassuming cardboard box, each client received a generous selection of picked-that-morning produce and herbs (enough to feed a family of four) and a recipe suggesting how to make the most of the assortment, plus a bunch of gorgeous fresh-cut flowers. Several of the spectacular recipes that appear on the following pages originated on those modest recipe cards.
"People loved it," Brennan says about her CSA project. "They said it completely changed their eating habits." Short of quitting their publishing jobs, uprooting their families and moving to a small French farmhouse, it's the closest many of her citified colleagues will ever come to existing in sync with the land-- a rhythm that, for Georgeanne Brennan, is a simple fact of everyday life.