Stepping into Bonnie McDaniel’s garden transports visitors into a wonderland of robust fragrances that announce the presence of herbs like oregano, thyme, and basil, and the fragrant smell of lavender. They scent the grounds amid a kaleidoscope of vibrant colors bursting from cherry red tomatoes, sprayings of green from varieties of lettuce, cucumber, and okra, and the deep purples of eggplant. McDaniel’s oasis draws from her childhood home in the small country neighborhood Tucker Hill, in Central Florida. McDaniel said it was here that she developed a love for the garden and where the secrets of creating amazing landscapes and good food was born. McDaniel, an accomplished chef, urban landscape designer, television, and podcast host, earned stellar reviews for her restaurant, Christina’s at The Bailiwick, including, the Wine Spectator Award, for having one of the best food and wine menus in the world. Her inn, The Baliwick was also a distinguished member of Select Registry a club of the top inns in the country. Today, McDaniel provides architectural expertise, gardening advice, healthy food recipes, and encouragement through her website, BonnieMcDanielGoodLiving.com. McDaniel gave us a tour of the grounds before near 100-degree temperatures set in. We settle into a cooling pitcher of water next to the latest installation to the garden – a greenhouse — to discuss the importance of farm-to-fork living.
WI: What has been the importance for you of relying on the land for sustenance?
BM: It’s been a way of life and has helped me balance myself. There are a lot of people who are doing this now because it is fashionable or a trend, but this is a lifestyle for me. I like the serenity that it brings me. I like the fellowship that it allows me with other people. It also helps me spiritually – everyday that I get up it reminds me that I am just a tiny grain of sand it a great big old universe and it keeps me humble. We were created from this earth, and we are to respect this earth and to give back to this earth. I want to give that to people if they are willing to receive it. I don’t preach about it, I just do it and if they pick it up, then great.
WI: More than 100 years ago, Booker T. Washington rallied African Americans to take control of their lives by taking control of the soil beneath their feet…building structures and tilling the soil to create nourishment. Your book Farm Girl In The City immediately bought Washington to mind, as you both attach familial love, fellowship, and personal pride to growing your own food. Talk to me a bit about the relationship between you and your grandmother Lula Duncan and what she instilled in you about foodways.
BM: One of the vivid images that I have as a child is my aunties and grandmother and other relatives (because we all lived right around each other) –sitting on the porch and shelling peas and telling tales. That was their way of communicating and gathering with each other. I understand, with our history as a people in this country, why we would want to get as far away as possible from what happened to us as slaves. It is not what happened as slaves that we need to focus on; it’s the survival that happened in spite of it that we lose sight of. There’s an author, Patricia Jones-Jackson, who wrote When Roots Die. She went down to South Carolina to a community of Geechee (Gullah) people to learn about how they have thrived there long after slavery ended. She found that the generations’ knowledge was being lost. It helps you understand that we’re not here to do anything other than keep those roots alive. We do that by taking care of that little patch of earth that God allows us.
WI: There is also a belief that communion with the land represents a communion with God and the bit of God that is in each of us.
BM: I’ve never met a farmer or person who gardens who didn’t believe in a higher power. If you garden and say you don’t believe in God that’s frightening; it’s crazy. I see the hand of God moving every day in this garden. If I come out and see a plant that is sick, I’m asking, ‘what is wrong with you?’ I’m asking that plant, but I’m also asking God. And I get my guidance and I just know instinctively what to do. Not because I know, but because of the greater power that I’ve allowed to come inside me.
WI: But is this sustainable in an urban area with pollution and urban density?
BM: Plants clean the air – my air is great around here because of the greenery. We think in terms of the negative side, but there are things we can do to clean the air. Trees clean the air. We also keep talking about food deserts, but we have land that can be used for community gardens. Get students to come so they can do projects with them and get parents involved. Get the kids involved so that we help them learned new habits that counter some bad behaviors they have learned. This is something for them to do that will positively impact their overall health. It will teach them about economics and there is a certain level of pride that comes from growing something of value that benefits their health and the health of those around them.
WI: What are some of the health benefits you’ve found in controlling the sources of our food?
BM: I see so many young men in their forties dropping dead from heart attacks or in their thirties going through kidney failure and having to go on dialysis. It’s no accident that as you drive through D.C. that your see dialysis clinics springing up at shopping centers. Wea re facing kidney failure as a direct result of what we’re eating. Look at the young people – not being a little chubby but being obese. It is out of control. We need to have those conversations where we say I could love all 400 pounds of you, but I want to love less of that because I want you alive. Michelle Obama was trying to have that conversation when she had the White House Kitchen garden and started the ‘Let’s Move’ campaign. She wanted to encourage people to live healthier when she talked about the economics of it. I could get $15 worth of seeds and I could feed myself and a lot of my neighbors for an entire season. In this area, where you can grow eight or nine months out of the year, you can feed the average family with just $15 worth of seed. The outcomes would be financially and nutritionally healthier.
WI: How does the early education that Mrs. Obama worked to establish impact younger African Americans, whose obesity rates have steadily increased?
BM: The kids are sitting around eating stuff from those restaurants – we know who they are – and it’s just junk. It’s killing our children; when you think about it that way, it breaks your heart. I want you to see you get up in the morning and you’re not panting when you take 15 steps. I want you to be able to kick a ball and run with the best of them. I want you to be cognitive, because when your body is being stressed, it compromises the way your brain functions.
WI: Your work absolutely predated the current “Farm-to-Table” or “Farm-to-Fork” movements. Do you think these movements are sustainable beyond trends?
BM: I love the farm-to-table or farm-to-fork restaurants – my restaurant my chef would come to my garden and pick them from here and that is what we used. It is a good move. Chefs are typically not taught that they can do on the premises — put pots around the restaurant to grow what they need. There needs to be more education and what they restaurant owners would find that cooking with fresh herbs, especially when they are homegrown, there’s a bit difference – you notice the smell and it’s a lot more intense – which means you will also cut your food costs as you will use less of it the oils are very active and its powerful, so you use less. God gave us senses for a purpose – you see it, taste it… if you cannot smell it, you probably should not eat it.