Most people in my town know Dr. Nazirahk Amen and his family as the Purple People who live in a bright purple house on our main street. Some know the good doctor as the practitioner of naturopathy, acupuncture and other healing arts, or as the teacher of meditation and vegan cooking. But what I only learned recently is that they're in the forefront of the growing movement to eat locally, popularized by Michael Pollan in his bestseller "The Omnivore's Dilemma". Food that is merely organic makes way for the growing legions of "locavores," and what's more local than growing your own food? That's exactly what the Amens do, though not because they read Pollan's bestseller. It's all part of their spiritual quest to live sustainable, holistic lives.
To learn the secrets of their sustainable food operation, my first stop was behind that purple house, where I found raised 2-foot-tall vegetable-growing beds filled with compost (9 years' worth) and coconut coir. And everywhere are containers of all types – even old tires – planted with food-to-be, many of them discards from Whole Foods ("wasteful!"). An 85-gallon compost tea brewer is nearby, and inside the house is a kitchen compost bin and the worm composting operation. Nothing is wasted.
Then it's only a short drive to the nearest community garden, where the largest part of their suburban farming operation is located – a 50 x 30-foot plot bursting with sweet potatoes, okra, tomatoes, eggplant, pepper, okra, cucumber, corn, summer & winter squash when I visited in September. (They pay only $30 a year for this double plot, which generously covers all the water used! Incredibly, plots went unused this year.)
According to Dr. Amen, a family of four can feed themselves on a quarter-acre lot, or a 30×30-foot plot, which includes space for crop rotation. And what makes it work are the techniques of biointensive gardening, which produce maximum yields from a minimum of land while leaving the soil better off. (See Growbiointensive.org and PolyfaceFarms.com.) The raised beds are intensively planted, meaning with different plants in the ground, on the ground, and vertically in air space above. Okra is grown on top of sweet potatoes in the same spot. Cukes are grown under corn. Different crops are grown in the same spot at different times of the season, as well. The plants grown include good compost crops, too, so that the gardens produce their own fertilizer, too. Using these and other techniques of biointensive gardening, the Amens produced over 700 pounds of sweet potatoes alone.
FORAGING FOR DINNER
I love this part. Turns out there's plenty of free food around town for the picking – literally – and the Amens supplement their gardening by foraging for the unwanted food around town. Like wild persimmons, berries, figs and apples. Even bamboo shoots are good eating, stir-fried. Those messy droppings from mulberry trees that everyone complains about are sweet and great for pies and muffins – just get them before they drop. And speaking of freebies, the Amens estimate that half the greens they eat are either weeds or volunteers, like the squash and tomatoes that grow from seeds in their compost. The weed amaranth (aka pigweed) is a grain that's complete protein and a popular food in the Caribbean, "like spinach but more nutritious". So the Purple People will tell you they're not just gardeners but "gleaners" or "freegans."
From June through October the Amens feed their family – equivalent to four or five adults – entirely from the garden. Winter is trickier but greens can be grown all winter using a high tunnel or a greenhouse. Other winter crops include squash and sweet potatoes and everything they've canned, dried, frozen or stored from the previous season. So the key to eating in winter is "intensive kitchen prep", like drying herbs and sun-dried tomatoes, making and freezing gumbo, making and canning tomato sauce. Carrots and beets are simply stored for eating during the winter. So year-round, the family grows about 85 percent of all the foods they eat, with only such items as oils, nuts, flour, peanut butter, and sweeteners remaining to be bought. Their diet is vegan, primarily whole grains, with seasoning making up for the lack of "meat taste."
Not bad for suburbanites. At their monastic headquarters in the Ozarks, even greater success in sustainability has been achieved through the practice of extreme conservation, and there's almost zero waste. For more information visit ThePurplePeople.org.
TEACHING HEALTHIER EATING
Fortunately, Dr. Amen isn't satisfied with having the healthiest family on the block. His mission includes setting an example for others, especially his patients. They come to him as individuals with problems like arthritis or overweight and leave with 3-week detox diets that he hopes become lifetime diets for their whole families. "It's hard to change in isolation, so whole families have to change," he explains.
Judging from my own brief exposure to the biointensive, vegan lifestyle of the Amen family, I can report that it's hard not to be swept away by the sheer wholesomeness of it all. The sweet potatoes and sweet potato greens that they cunningly sent me home with tasted so good that they changed my own thinking about food, even about how I garden (which for me is a bigger deal than how I eat). Okay, maybe it wasn't the taste alone that was so compelling but the awesome experience of eating food that's just been pulled food from the soil – just as awesome as my online veggie-growing friends have been saying all along. So you see what finally convinced me to rip out my front lawn and turn that patch of unproductive monoculture into an edible landscape.
For more information about growing and preparing foods, Dr. Amen recommends: