Someone once told me that nothing reveals more about the life of a gardener than plants who choose to grow in the courtyard. And it’s true that the roots of some of my personal garden plants go back to my childhood. My grandmother died when I was quite young, but most of my memories of her revolve around her vegetarian garden in New Jersey and the chickens she kept behind the house. As I look at my vegetarian garden, I see some of the same crops grown by my grandmother.
I got my name from my grandmother, so I always felt there was a connection between us, even though I was only in second grade when she died. She immigrated with my grandfather from Poland when she was only 18 and raised her family in New Jersey.
I was born in Alaska, but my mother took us back to New Jersey to see our grandmother several times during my early childhood. I remember its large lush garden and its fenced chicken yard. The hens of the courtyard I remember in particular because my sister and I had the task of collecting eggs from the pen and we had to fight a ferocious rooster to do it.
The only two garden vegetables that I remember from my grandmother’s garden are potatoes and onions. They remain in my memory because we children have been allowed to help dig potatoes, making us pleasantly dirty. And after the harvest, my grandmother used potatoes and onions – along with chicken eggs – to make plackis, her wonderful potato pancakes.
My Backyard Heritage Garden
Given my Polish / German heritage, growing up in Alaska and all the years I spent in France, you might think that my backyard garden might be full of foreign exotic vegetables from which I prepare exotic dishes. This is not the case. I mainly grow ordinary crops such as tomatoes, peas, lettuce and spinach.
But two points in my garden come from my grandmother: potatoes and onions. I started a potato crop with the sprouted eyes of a grocery potato bag. When I went outside to plant them, I had a sudden memory of the shallow trenches that my grandmother used to dig, a couple of feet away, and how she was going to plant the earth on the shoots as they grew.
Of course, I did the same and have grown potatoes in my garden ever since. I also cry onion sets, the same white onions that my grandmother used for her plackis.
“Growing” plackis: from the garden to the pan
I must admit that, although I have been a vegetarian for over two decades, potatoes are not an important part of my diet. In fact, I don’t think of myself as growing potatoes as much as growing plackis, since the vast majority of the spuds that I grow end up becoming potato pancakes.
Unfortunately I don’t have my grandmother’s recipe for plackis. My mom made them a few times, but the recipe got lost in the shuffle of life before I became an adult. But I know they contained grated garden potatoes and onions, fresh chicken eggs and some flour, so I experimented with recipes online until the resulting potato pancakes matched my memories. Cooked in a hot pan in vegetable oil and served with apple sauce, they always take me back to Grandma’s kitchen in New Jersey.