Francis Avenue Community Garden: a chile-lover's delight
Community Gardens Dispatch No. 17: Francis Avenue, Los Angeles
Although the Francis Avenue Community Garden is small -- only 18 10-foot-by-10-foot plots—it's a Meso-America foodies' delight.
"This one is hot," said Marta Servin, the caretaker, pointing out a tiny green-brown ball-shaped chile pepper. "Chile bola. This round one is from Salvador, also very hot, muy picoso. They call it chiltepe, and they also have it in Oaxaca."
Located in the most densely populated neighborhood in Los Angeles, Francis Avenue Garden -- also known as the Moothart Collingnon Community Garden, after the land owners who made the space available -- is small, tidy and always busy. During the day, housewives come to sit on the mismatched park benches under the pergola just outside the fenced-in gardening area, trading gossip and watching one another's children. It's a true community meeting place, used for wedding parties, talks on domestic violence, arts and crafts classes for the kids. (In the photo below, that's Marta Servin on the left, showing varieties of peppers from states all over Mexico, Destiny Borrales at center eating and playing in the sugar cane, and Fernando Larios chatting with other community gardeners.)
Nearly all the plots are in raised beds, and everything has a use, either as food or as medicine. Most of the beds are surrounded with plastic mesh to keep out the chickens that shared the space until last year. Except for one Korean American gardener, everyone is from Mexico, Guatemala or El Salvador. In the summer, corn, tomatoes, epazote, chiles and squash dominate, but now, in winter, the beans are just starting to come up, planted neatly in rows, and the bananas that tower in the corners are mostly done, their stalks bare of fruit. That doesn't mean they're useless, however. The leaves are used to wrap tamales. The avocado leaves are similarly harvested, either for enclosing meat for roasting or to be ground into powder for flavoring the masa dough for tamales.
In the sunniest corner, a 6-month-old papaya, grown from a seed by Servin, is being crowded by a riotously thick chayote vine. There is so much fruit on it that it's being allowed to flourish for a while, and anyway, the tips of the vine can be used in soup. Next to the papaya is a mango, the pride of the garden.
"It's now about 3 years old, Servin said, pointing out a flower. "I was so happy when I saw this. There are always mangoes where I grew up in Michoacan, many types --long, short, big, small." Every evening when it's cold she wraps the mango in plastic, holding in the warmth. (Pictured above, from left, corn grown from seed from Mexico, a banana flower that attracts hummingbirds, the mango plant being nursed by Servin and an herb seed pod that is high in iron. Below, Veronica Bala tends to her spinach.)
And all around the edges of the garden there is hoja santa, the peppery herb whose large heart-shaped leaf is used in many dishes, most famously Oaxacan green mole. Although there are a lot of gardeners from Oaxaca here, everyone uses the hoja santa, in soups, salsas and salads and as medicine for arthritis.
"We call it acuyo in Puebla," said gardener Sylvia Rivera.
It's the same with the hierba mora, whose leaves are used in pupusas in El Salvador and in soups and tamale masa in Mexico. It has a lot of iron, Rivera said, and is good for anemia.
The tiny stars of the garden, however, are the chiles: pasilla, habernero, chile pequin, chile de arbol.
"This one is called diente de perro, dog's tooth," Servin said, smiling and holding up a tiny curved green-black pepper. "It's from Oaxaca and is very, very, very hot. Super picoso."
-- Jeff Spurrier
Photo credit: Ann Summa
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