Bringing Home the Farm

Kitchen gardening is all the rage, but Asian Americans have been doing it for generations.

January 11, 2010

THERE IS A SCENE I'll never forget in Spencer Nakasako's 1998 documentary Kelly Loves Tony. A Mien mother cooks an inky-black brew of homegrown herb soup for her daughter to bathe in after giving birth. Charming scene in the mountains of Laos? Nope it's East Oakland, CA, and she grew the wild potion alongside a concrete driveway next to a chain-link fence. It is here that Kelly's mother and other Southeast Asian families have turned parts of the "Murder Dubs" into arable land using ancient know-how and, sometimes, seeds smuggled through war zones and refugee camps. I once saw a Mien woman in full native embroidery, patiently tilling a vacant lot beside a porn shop on a busy Oakland street. This is Asian America, and our sometimes-incongruous immigrant habit has a new English name: "kitchen gardening."

Kitchen gardeners' are people who grow their own food. It might seem too simple to warrant a special term, but the rise of American-style supermarkets around the world has lead to fewer people with hands-on experience nurturing backyard plots of vegetables and herbs, let alone fishponds or the occasional chicken. But with the spate of recent food poisoning scares and a still-shaky economy, our attitude toward the humble backyard garden is changing.

In 2008, Kitchen Gardeners International gathered more than 100,000 signatures to convince the future president to replace part of the White House lawn with an 1,100-square-foot organic kitchen garden. Now, politicians from Ohio to Maryland to California are eager to show off their own kitchen gardens outside state capitals and city halls. Where do Asian Americans fit into this revival of kitchen gardening? Right at the center, it turns out.

"Even here in the inner city, I wanted to show that we can do it cheaply. Plants and food should never be inaccessible," says Kayomi Wada, director of the Giving Garden, an affordable urban garden on the campus of the University of Washington Tacoma. As an undergrad, she lobbied administrators to create an Asian American studies curriculum, and in the process, discovered that large parts of the university were built where Tacoma's prewar Japantown once thrived. Now a graduate student and service learning coordinator for the environmental studies department, Wada is determined to create a living monument to the area's rich Asian American past. The Giving Garden broke ground on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2008, and its crops will be donated to local food banks.

My mother, Betty Kano, is an artist whose next commission won't be on canvas: she's planting a garden using a sustainable farming model called permaculture, adding a Japanese twist in celebration of four generations of our family working the foggy landscape of Northern California. Along spiraled furrows fed with recycled water, she's planted gobo, daikon, mitsuba and hechima, a type of Okinawan squash. The results will be displayed at the California African American Museum in early 2010.

While kitchen gardening was once our meal ticket, returning to agriculture is an iffy proposition for city dwellers like myself. It's hard to imagine my sunglass- and sneakerwearing, American-born brethren in straw hats and stepping in fish poop. But let's keep it real: For every self-appointed descendant of a "samurai" or "Ming scholar," there were hardworking relatives tilling fields of rice and roots. Growing strawberries, shrimping or packing lettuce put many an immigrant child through college, or at least enabled someone to gain a foothold in order to emigrate.

And why hide it? Agriculture is our knowledge base. It was the use of traditional Chinese grafting techniques that enabled farm foreman Ah Bing to cultivate the nowubiquitous Bing cherry in the late 19th century. Philip Vera Cruz worked alongside Cesar Chavez to establish the United Farm Workers union. Koda Farms in California helped spread the gospel of brown rice to American hippiedom. In 2008, Asian Americans made up only 1.2 percent of people employed fulltime in agriculture, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But those numbers don't account for all the kitchen gardeners still growing bitter melon and cilantro from balconies and back steps.

Once plans for the White House garden were underway, First Lady Michelle Obama noted, "You know, the tomato that's from your garden tastes very different from one that isn't."

Spoken like a true Asian grandmother saving money and eating deliciously at the same time.

Nina Kahori Fallenhaum has contributed to Nikkei Heritage, Civil Eats and Spinshell.

NINA KAHORI FALLENBAUM's interest in kitchen gardens (which she writes about in this issue's Lazy Susan section) began in 2000 in Japan, where she lived for four years. "I started a ninth-floor balcony garden and got hooked. Japan is a great place for amateur gardening advice - and obsessions." The San Francisco Bay Area native was surprised to learn how central Asians and Asian Americans have been to American agriculture, and she hopes the trend continues into the present day, no matter how incongruous it sounds: "Imagine API hipsterhood slogging in the field. It's so funny to imagine. I hope It happens."


Nina F. Ichikawa

Food & Agriculture Editor

Nina F. Ichikawa writes on food, agriculture and Asian American issues. She graduated U.C. Berkeley and Meiji Gakuin University in food policy, and her education also includes working as a restaurant dishwasher, making corsages at her family's 107-year-old flower shop and helping to establish the nation's first high school Asian American Studies program. She was a 2011-2013 Food and Community Fellow with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Twitters: @ninaeats.