Good Idea Crashes on Tip of an Iceberg

These are trying times, so let's be honest.

Men and women do not live by rigor alone. They also require a certain number of sentimental affections. I'll confess to mine: I like the music of Aaron Copland, the films of John Ford and, God help me, New Year's. It is a silly, sort of arbitrary holiday, but I like the fact that it inscribes on our mental map of time a kind of invisible arrow that says: "Start here." That's why we mark it with resolutions, most of which are forgotten, some of which which bear fruit. Which brings us--obliquely, I admit--to the subject of my vegetable garden.

Long ago, the Chinese poet Li Po wrote:

A man should stir himself with poetry

Stand firm in ritual

And complete himself

With art and music.

He ought also, I decided two New Years ago, to grow a garden that would feed him and a few of his friends. And so I have, to my great profit, over the past two years.

As originally conceived, my walled vegetable garden was to be a place of Thoreauvian self-sufficiency, contemplation and repose. It would include espaliered fruit trees, berries, vegetables and flowers in a fecund metaphoric collage, all the more remarkable for its location in the center of Los Angeles. Of course, this being the late 20th Century in the multicultural, ecologically responsible American Southwest, it also would include state-of-the art organic, raised-bed agriculture, water-conserving drip irrigation, compost bins and vegetables grown from imported European and pre-agribusiness American seed.

I have found it a serene place, where--sort of like Dodger stadium on a Sunday afternoon--you can sit in the sun and drink beer. On the other hand, a friend--no stranger to stress since he is an attorney who tries death-penalty murder cases--who arrived during construction looked around, then fled muttering:

"Look's like a Type-A hobby to me."

I will not pretend all my garden experiences have been entirely edifying. Take, for example, an incident which I always shall recall as "the deceit of the iceberg lettuce."

Now, in most matters I regard myself as a tolerant person. So do several other people I could name, at least two of whom are not relatives. Even so, I do not believe there is any valid explanation or excuse for the existence of iceberg lettuce. Oh, I know, there are the American adaptations of Chinese chicken salad and tacos, but I remain unconvinced that both dishes wouldn't be improved by the use of some other green. In fact, I suspect that among the awful torments of the damned is a nightly serving of watery, fibrous iceberg lettuce topped with a generous dollop of commercially prepared Thousand Island dressing. You know, the sort whose surface glistens with a suspiciously petrochemical sheen. It is my private theory, by the way, that Thousand Island dressing derives its name from a now-desolate archipelago whose inhabitants perished because they were unable to cook.

But we digress. One day, I was thumbing through a seed catalogue (you do that if you garden), when I happened upon an entry offering for sale the seed of the "heirloom" lettuce from which our commercial iceberg was bred. According to the entry's author, this antique vegetable "tastes nothing like" its unpalatable commercial progeny, which had been bred solely to make "shipping easy." Heirloom iceberg, the catalogue said, "deserves to be a part of every American garden."

My immediate reaction was guilt, which, as a Catholic and a liberal, is one of my favorite emotions. I had wronged this vegetable. Where compassion was required, I had given only contempt. Iceberg lettuce was a victim, the helpless casualty of a callous system all too ready to commit genetic vandalism in the service of commerce.

I would make amends. I would grow heirloom iceberg. I would serve it at dinner parties.

"Hmmm," my admiring guests would say, "what is this delicious salad?"

"Iceberg lettuce, plain old iceberg lettuce," I would respond, launching into the tale of this noble old American vegetable's cruel abuse at the hands of avaricious agribusiness. There was a metaphoric, almost epic quality to the fantasy.

I even began to experiment. Perhaps Thousand Island dressing could be improved by the addition of a vintage-dated extra virgin olive oil. . . .

Weeks passed; months passed. Heirloom iceberg is an unusually slothful lettuce. I consoled myself: Patience, I thought. In the old days, people were content with a slower, healthier pace of life. And, as the plants matured, they were not without a certain interest. True, they took about three times as much space as any other lettuce in the garden, but they clearly were unlike commercial iceberg. Their color was deeper, the heads slightly looser--more, I thought, relaxed and poetic.

Finally, the plants reached what the seed packet informed me was a mature size. I harvested one. I took it in the kitchen, washed and prepared the leaves. I dressed them simply in olive oil, wine vinegar and freshly ground pepper, the better to appreciate the vigor of their authentic American flavor.

I bit into them and tasted . . . well, iceberg lettuce. I went out, rooted up the rest of the plants and tossed them into the compost bin.

The moral: Like supply-side economics, some things are a bad idea from the start.

Others, like the impulse to do something for ourselves and others, no matter how difficult, are not. As the Japanese Zen master and poet, Ikkyu, wrote:

Following your own mind is like working a muddy field.

Tim Rutten's column has moved to Thursdays.

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