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The Curious Gardener

Photography by Desiree Espada

It was Rebecca Allinson’s boundless curiosity and generosity that landed her home-grown produce at Chad Houser’s Café Momentum, a restaurant in downtown Dallas where at-risk youth learn to be cooks and servers. She arrived with seed packets and said to Houser, “I’d like to grow them for you. I think it would be a good opportunity for your kids to see vegetables that they wouldn’t see in a grocery store.”

For Allinson, gardening, cooking and the art of life are entwined. At her home in Plano, where she lives with her husband and three cats, and where three grown children swing through periodically, the back, side and front yards are her personal wonderland of growing things, niched in 500 square feet.

For over a year, the Café Momentum youth have been frequent recipients of her garden’s changing treasures. The “fire salt” in glass bottles on the restaurant tables comes from Allinson’s peppers. Produce deliveries are frequently accompanied by extras—a fresh fig tart, a batch of cookies, sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves. Much of what Allinson does reflects what could be her personal mantra: Food is meant to be shared.

When Houser and crew contemplate the idea of using her Malabar spinach-berry juice to color a gastrique to accompany pork at Café Momentum, she thrills at the passion Houser inspires. This is the kind of conversation she loves and thrives on.


Muscade carrots, a rare North African variety, are known for their rich flavor.


The butterfly pea vine’s vivid flowers can be used to make Malaysian blue rice. Photo: Istock.com/enrouteksm,

When Allinson was a child growing up in Connecticut, her British- born father, a professor of agronomy at the University of Connecticut, worked on projects like developing a hybrid of brassicas that grew in extremely poor soil. As a little girl, happy for a reward of soda pop, Allinson helped water the campus garden.

Allinson’s father, born at the start of WWII, learned about gardening when it mattered. Row houses’ tiny cement backyards held precious little. Most people would have a coal bin and outhouse and garbage cans and lines for women to do laundry and a tub. Victory gardens were a boon that cost a few shillings. “[That] could buy a good bit of food,” Allinson says. “But if you bought a victory garden, you could feed yourself.”

In Connecticut, the family’s home garden of approximately 500 square feet—about the size of her plots in Plano now—was a place where she learned that fresh-picked corn is sweetest eaten that day. New England summer bumper crops multiplied squash and zucchini. Romano and pole beans formed a bower. “In the heat of the summer, I loved to go under there and pick the beans,” she recalls. Allinson began her own garden while she was working as a culinary instructor at the Central Market cooking school in Plano. (Self-taught, she is a tenacious learner, who twinned classes with her own perspicacity.) This was after she graduated with a vocal performance degree and taught voice lessons and before her current occupation of selling art she purchases at auction and lovingly restores.

“I wanted to increase my education, be a co-producer and not just a consumer,” she says, sounding an ethos that runs throughout her organic garden and resonates deeply with the Slow Food movement. “I think it’s important that we slow down and nourish ourselves.” Thanksgiving the first year was based on foods from the garden. Each member of the family chose a dish. They harvested that day. They cooked the bounty.


Peppery nasturtium leaves are great in salads and for making pesto.


Allinson tending to her carrots.

For Allinson, gardening, cooking and the art of life are entwined.

“I (always) try to grab something from the garden, maybe even just an herb.” In her kitchen, the cook and gardener ever come together. She’s harvested Swiss chard, beets, spinach, turnips, rutabagas and lettuces in winter, and kale, arugula, peas in fall and spring, and lots of summer peppers, eggplant and okra. But after the first year, she decided she wouldn’t grow anything she could easily buy in a grocery store. She turned to heirloom seed catalogs for Mehmet’s Sweet Turkish, togarashi and starfish peppers, not just jalapeño. “I like seeing something and growing something about which I know nothing,” she says.

One garden experiment came after a meal at New York City’s Malaysian restaurant Kopitiam, where she’d been served a rice tinted sky-blue by morning glory blossoms. On the plate of someone less curious, the colorful grain might have been savored and forgotten. But for Allinson, it was a dish to be mastered from garden to fork. Research yielded many varieties of morning glory, but the restaurant meant butterfly pea flower, she discovered. She ordered the seeds. She grew the blooms. And then made a beautiful blue rice.

Not all experiments are so successful. Epic failures: strawberry spinach and lamb’s quarters. (They looked so pretty in the catalog.) But that’s part of the process, Allinson insists. “It’s a permission slip to try anything. If it fails, it fails,” she says. That is the garden’s great promise.

Certainly, the transition to Texas climate and soil wasn’t easy. The first summer, 2011, she planted approximately 25 varieties of tomatoes and sought advice from North Haven Gardens when they bloomed but refused to set. “Pull them all out and start again around July 4,” they told her. She was shocked. This was a new world. Since that first scorching summer, she’s learned lessons about her For Allinson, gardening, cooking and the art of life are entwined. garden, like how much she needed to amend it with nutrient-rich substances from lava sand to expanded shale, compost and manure. (“It took about three years to reach the richer soil I was used to in Connecticut,” she says.) She battles pests organically, rotates crops, puts down cover crops, and in the winter seeks out coffee grounds. Now, the soil is full of worms.

Each plant requires its own care. Potato plants need hilling; butterfly pea seeds need scarifying. She’s learned to use her space wisely, foregoing space-grabbing asparagus that might yield only a few stalks. She carries the words of a seminar teacher with her: “We have an ever-growing population, but what we do not have is more land.” In the garage, on long tables under grow lights, pepper seedlings, among others, take off every New Year.

“I am not the sort of person who can sit down and meditate,” Allinson says. Being outside fills that impetus. She uses words like “meditative,” “calming,” and “nurturing.” She enjoys shepherding plants from seed, hardening them off by alternating indoors and outdoors, seeing the roots grow, putting them into the ground.

Allinson, who harbors the impossible notion of visiting the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the Arctic, always has something new on the horizon. She can easily go from the subject of mid-century French painting to the Tunisian origins of chakchouka. The project of building a hydroponic system means laborious effort involving PVC gutters, clay aggregate and a drip system. (It offers a space-saving yield and avoids disease.) She has her eye on making cocktails with her bergamot, lemon balm and pineapple sage.

“When I’m 85, if I have nothing but table beds and I can pitter patter around, I’ll do that,” she says. In the meantime, she’ll dig up an otherworldly moonflower plant from her front yard and give it to an admirer passing by. It’s her exercise in abundance.

RECIPE

CHAKCHOUKA WITH ROASTED OKRA

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