The Tyranny of the Garden

Last week I extolled the virtues of gardening, and here I am saying the garden is a tyrant. I know. I’m a bundle of contradictions.

It always happens about this time of year—when the garden’s productivity turns into excess and demands more time than I have to give it. And I’m not talking about weeding and watering. For the most part, the Gnome takes care of those chores. I’m talking about harvesting the results of all the labor that has gone before. I’m talking about the next steps. This is the time of year I begin to reevaluate my relationship with the garden.

When the Gnome and I purchased our first home, we couldn’t wait to plant a garden. A few years after we moved to the diagonal, we tried gardening again. But we were too busy with child-rearing, house building, and jobs to keep up with it. When we retired, we took up gardening yet again—it was a natural extension of the simple lifestyle we were after. He liked working out of doors, doing something where he could see results, connecting to the earth.

I had my own reasons. Gardening is a huge part of my heritage; it ties me to my ancestors. Besides, I wanted to prove to myself that I could. If we were to find ourselves in the midst of a worldwide food catastrophe, I wanted to know I could still make food happen.

I like the smaller footprint we make by growing and eating our own food. Getting food from thousands of miles away costs the environment and decreases food’s quality and flavor. It doesn’t get much more local than taking a few steps from door to garden.

I like knowing exactly what’s going into my body. When I grow my own, I do. And there’s something almost magical about realizing the food I prepare and eat is mine! I made this happen. There’s nothing quite like looking at a plate of lima beans, broccoli, squash with onions, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, and cornbread cooked with meal ground from our own corn and realizing that everything on the plate is fresh from the garden.

Gardening is primal. It’s healing. It’s hope. But it also takes over my life for about half the year. In the dead of winter, that’s a good thing. I need a break from winter’s tedium. But I have more in my life than gardening. At least I want to.

At this time of year, the garden is a demanding taskmaster. Food that isn’t harvested at the right moment gets tough and seedy. Failure to pick inhibits further growth. (Sometimes I could do with a little growth inhibiting, but it feels almost criminal to let it go.) Or it rots. Heartbreaking.

If it were only the hour or so of picking beans and squash, digging potatoes and garlic, pulling up beets and carrots, it wouldn’t be so bad. But that’s only the beginning. There’s the rinsing and scrubbing, there’s rearranging the fridge to find a few more square inches of space for the day’s gleanings, there’s the meal planning—what needs to be eaten right away and what can wait a day or two or three (when there will be yet another kitchen full of fresh produce filling kitchen counters), there’s the search for recipes to learn how to prepare that weird new veggie I just had to plant and for other recipes to keep yet another meal of green beans or summer squash from becoming boring.

There’s the pickling and root cellaring and dehydrating and freezing and canning so we’ll have food from the garden all year long. Cleaning the kitchen and emptying it of everything nonessential, because processing food takes a LOT of space. Getting out equipment and supplies and cleaning them. Filling huge pots with water and waiting for it to boil. Sweating in a kitchen that was hot even before I turned on the stove. Setting timers, watching pots and gauges, adding ice to already icy water to chill freshly blanched foods. Labeling freezer containers, filling them, and finding space in a freezer already bursting at the seams. Cleaning up. Putting away. There will be no time left today for those other things I hoped—or needed—to get done.

There’s figuring out how to distribute the excess. Harvesting on a day my donation spot will be open and able to take my offering, on a day I can afford to leave the garden and kitchen to make a delivery.

There’s postponing vacations and family visits until after gardening season ends and before it starts up again.

And there’s the refrigerator-full of vegetables crying out to be eaten. Squash and beans and tomatoes last night, eggplant and peppers and carrots tonight, beets and chard and zucchini and cucumbers tomorrow night. Yes, it’s all good, an embarrassment of riches for vegetarians like us.

But every once in a while a person just wants some chips and a ‘Not Dog.’

Breakfast Traditions

BREAKFAST TRADITIONS (another in my Blowing on Embers series)

Breakfast: the most important meal of the day, they say.

Always the first one up in the mornings, Mother made sure we had a good breakfast to start our school days off right. In those days before frozen waffles, toaster pop-ups, or smoothies, breakfast was a pretty big deal. And we never rushed out of the house without it.

Our breakfasts were varied. There was that old standard: bacon, eggs, and toast or similar combinations of protein and carbohydrates. Sometimes we had oatmeal and cinnamon toast; other mornings it might be Cream of Wheat; occasionally pancakes or waffles were on the menu, though most likely on the weekends. And sometimes we went into the kitchen to nothing more than dry cereal and milk. I was never much fond of cereal days—those were the days when my stomach started growling by mid-morning.

By my calculation, while we children were living at home, Mother prepared nothing short of 10,000 breakfasts. When my youngest brother left the nest for good, Mother made an announcement to our father: she was retiring from breakfast duty. From that day forward, before he left for work, Daddy made his own breakfasts (willingly, I might add) before Mother gave a thought to getting out of bed. If not for the cat pawing at her face on the pillow every morning, Mother might have remained in bed for a sinfully, but well-deserved, long time.

But back to breakfast. In addition to all that typical morning fare, there were two dishes in our breakfast repertoire that were, I believe, unique.

One was reserved for one day and one day only each year—Christmas. No one was allowed in the living room where the tree and presents were until we’d all eaten breakfast, and that breakfast was always the same: strawberry shortcake. I loved strawberry shortcake as a dessert and thought it was even more special as Christmas breakfast. As I look back on it, I think there were two reasons we were served this delicacy on Christmas morning. The first, and maybe most important, was that it was quick and easy. For one day a year, Mother didn’t have to get up extra early to have breakfast on the table.

The second reason was perhaps a little more wily. What kid wouldn’t be thrilled to have dessert for breakfast? If we were just as eager (or almost) for breakfast as for presents, and if breakfast was just as much a part of our holiday tradition as the rest of that big day, then there wouldn’t be any peeking under the tree before the parents were ready. There wouldn’t be any whining (well, not much, anyway) for everyone to hurry up so we could finally open the door to the living room. Whatever the reason, that strawberry shortcake breakfast was always a success.

The other unusual breakfast we had on occasion had a regional basis. Mother grew up in the Great Smoky Mountains of southwestern North Carolina, a place where blackberries grow profusely on the mountainsides. Along with her mother and three sisters, she spent many afternoons picking blackberries, so many that they were able to can plenty of jars for use in the winter. And one of the ways blackberries were served in her home was stewed with a little sugar and poured over homemade buttered biscuits. It was a breakfast treat summer or winter.

Mother kept this breakfast tradition alive in our South Carolina home. We didn’t have access to fresh blackberries and frozen blackberries weren’t to be found in the freezer aisles in grocery stores, but stores did carry canned blackberries. Not the blackberries in gooey thick syrup for pies, but just plain old blackberries packed in water. All Mother had to do was put them in a pot on the stove, add a bit of sugar and a little more water, and heat them until the berries were warm and the sugar dissolved. In my opinion, there’s just nothing better than a plateful of biscuits, halved and buttered, smothered in blackberries, and swimming in that purple liquid. Mm-mmm good!

Needless to say, we’ve maintained both of these breakfast traditions in our home. And nothing has tickled me more than to discover that our now grown children have done the same in theirs. No doubt, one day some child in generations hence will look up to a parent and ask, “Why do we eat blackberries on biscuits?” or, “Why do we eat strawberry shortcake on Christmas morning?” and the parent will have no better answer than, “I don’t know. We just always have. It’s tradition.”

And that’s just fine with me.

My Year in the Yellow House: Childhood Vignettes

My Year in the Yellow House: Childhood Vignettes (part of my Blowing on Embers series)

I was five the year we lived in the yellow house. My brother was two. Our little two-bedroom home in Florence, South Carolina, near Cole’s Crossroads, was part of a modest and sparse subdivision, if you could even call it that. There were no sidewalks, and grass grew erratically in the sandy yards. Roads in the development were nothing more than not-too-packed sand.

alan yellow house

My brother’s favorite place to play was on the sandy road in our neighborhood.

Our house sat on a corner of the neighborhood’s main road. Follow it for a block or so and you’d be on old Hwy 301/52. Directly across the highway was Edwin Turner’s Chicken Basket, a popular family restaurant and the favorite spot for our very occasional meals away from home. As the name suggests, the restaurant’s main fare was fried chicken, along with french fries and hush puppies,* served in brightly colored, paper-lined plastic baskets—the kind you now see in a few casual dining establishments, but a true novelty then. We usually chose a booth in the knotty pine dining room, and Edwin Turner himself would stop by to ensure we were enjoying our meal.

Out front was the sign proclaiming the name of the place. As I recall, atop the sign sat a large rotating replica of one of those famed plastic baskets. My brother could never keep the words for Edwin Turner’s Chicken Basket straight. He always called it Chicken Edwin’s Turning Basket. When you think about it, his literal rendering made perfectly good sense—as children’s name mash-ups often do.CHICKEN BASKET

From the Tichnor Brothers Collection, Boston Public Library, http://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/mg74r003g

We loved the Chicken Basket—for its tasty food, its novelty, the attention of its owner, its prominent role in our lives. In addition to special dinners out, Edwin Turner’s was a true landmark in the community. For us, it was the easiest way to direct friends and out-of-town family to our house.

But the restaurant is only one of many memories I have of that year. They are a mixture of good and bad. It was while we lived in the yellow house that my first real childhood friendships developed. It was also where I experienced my first significant encounters with sickness, trauma, and grief.

My childhood preceded the era of many vaccines in use today, and I was in bed with a severe case of mumps for what seemed like forever. The lumps on either side of my neck felt humongous, and the pain of swallowing was so intense that I demanded something to spit into so I wouldn’t have to swallow. Of course, it didn’t work, but I gave it my best, spitting several times a minute all day every day into the blue and white speckled enamel pan Mother placed next to my bed. To this day, I have an aversion to enamel cookware.

Glory (not her real name), with her white-blonde hair, lived across the street from us. She had a tumor on her lower back, just above her buttocks. Her parents’ religious beliefs prevented them from seeking medical attention for Glory, but the tumor must have been extraordinarily painful because Glory, who only wore dresses, didn’t wear underpants—the pressure would have hurt too much.

Neither Glory’s illness nor her family’s deeply held religious beliefs kept her from being a bully, though. One day when we were playing in my bedroom, Glory locked me in the toy cabinet and refused to let me out until I gave her permission to tear my doll’s hair off her head. I was terrified in the pitch black cabinet, and I was devastated at the thought of what was happening to my precious doll. Mother was in the kitchen just a room away, but the cabinet doors and the wall between us must have muffled my piteous crying.

My very best friend, Teddy, lived on the third corner of our intersection. We played together much more often than I played with was tortured by Glory. One of Teddy’s and my favorite places to play was in the abandoned excavated lot on the fourth corner of our intersection. We loved it down there where our imaginations could run wild.

Then Teddy had a birthday—his sixth. When I got the invitation to his party, I was inconsolable. Six was when children started school; it stood to reason that Teddy would start first grade without me. It took both my parents and his ages to convince me that I, too, would be six before school started. Teddy and I would still enter school together, they assured me. (It turned out to be a moot point, anyway, since our family moved to another state before the school year began.)

Celebrating Teddy’s sixth birthday—no longer afraid he’d start school without me

Another playmate—another Carol—lived on the far corner of our street. She rounded out our little circle of playmates. Carol and I shared more than a name. We were exactly the same age, born the same day. We were also both dark-eyed, dark-haired, olive-skinned little girls. We could have passed for twins. I can still see the heavy bangs that framed her round face.

One day Carol was hit by a car. She was hospitalized for a few days before dying from her injuries. We didn’t have a telephone and Mother didn’t drive, so she had no way of delivering the terrible news to Daddy. When he came home from work that day, he found Mother crying in the kitchen. She blurted through her tears, “Carol died today.” It was Daddy’s shattered look that made her realize he thought she meant me.

You might expect Carol’s death to be my big trauma from those days. But the truth is, I remembered nothing about it until my mother recently reminded me of it. I was either too young to understand what was going on or I was, in fact, so traumatized that my memory blocked the whole experience.

From time to time a few other random memories of our year across from “Chicken Edwin’s Turning Basket” flutter through my mind. Late one night, we were awakened by sirens and flashing lights. The whole neighborhood stood and watched as a nearby house burned to the ground, its occupants standing alongside us in their pajamas, watching helplessly as their house went up in flames.

The image of them, pajamas now the only clothing they owned, was indelibly seared into my brain. Ever since that night I’ve thought losing my home and its treasured contents to fire would be one of life’s worst tragedies. All these years later, when coming home from an out-of-town trip, I reach the bend our house is just around only to realize I’ve been holding my breath for the last little bit, waiting to be sure our home is still there, still intact.

My brother and I shared a bedroom in the yellow house. Our parents were awfully concerned about his incessant thumb-sucking. Afraid his habit would cause future dental problems, they tried every remedy they could think of. I remember his thumbs being heavily wrapped in adhesive tape. That didn’t work. Neither did the last desperate measure our parents employed: swabbing his thumbs with the latest advance in thumb-sucking cures. My little brother was unswayed. He stubbornly sucked away, bawling all the while because his mouth was on fire with hot cayenne pepper, the “cure’s” main ingredient. More than sixty years later, Mother feels guilty about trying that remedy.

We moved back to Florence a year or two later with another brother in tow. In one of those interesting twists of fate, he later became fast friends with Edwin Turner’s son, also an Edwin. Over the years, they shared quite a few adventures of their own. Misadventures, too. But that’s a whole other story—and his to tell. Or not.

*For the hush puppy recipe from Edwin Turner’s Chicken Basket, check outhttp://www.familycookbookproject.com/recipe/3394125/edwin-turners-chicken-basket-hush-puppies.html.

Easy, Breezy, Beautiful Quiche

Easy, Breezy, Beautiful Quiche

Quiche, anyone? If you’re like me, quiche seems like a pretty elegant dish. Lots of folks confuse elegance with complexity, but quiche proves that simple can be elegant, too. I was reminded of this when I was at my first Mother Earth News Fair (more about this event in a future post) where a presenter was providing tips for easy, cheap, and green living.

What got my attention was when she told us quiche was her go to dish whenever she had dinner guests. She went on to explain that since she raised chickens (we don’t), eggs were usually in strong supply and that quiche was a really simple dish to prepare, especially if you go crustless. (I don’t—more about that in a minute.) And it never failed to wow her guests. Sounded good to me.

You’d think proportions would matter with a dish like this. But I’ve seen recipes with anywhere from four to eight eggs. Some recipes call for cream, some for milk. And the amount of cheese varies significantly, too.

About that crust. The easiest thing of all is to skip it. Just be sure you spray or butter your baking dish well. I like a crust, though, for the added texture. But I’m no pastry chef. My attempts at making piecrust from scratch have usually been pretty dismal, and I find those in the refrigerated section of the grocery story—the ones in the red box with the puffy dough boy on the package—do just fine. I almost always have a package in my own refrigerator, just in case. You could use frozen, too, but I’d suggest you go for deep dish.

The neat thing about quiche, I’ve discovered, is that it’s more method than recipe. When I come across something as simple as this, I keep the ingredients and oven temperature info on a 3 x 5 index card that I stick inside a kitchen cabinet for quick reference.

Here’s my favorite take on this deceptively simple dish.

Preheat oven to 375 F.

If using a crust, lay it in your pie pan and crimp the edges. (If you’re making it from scratch, you’ll have to seek out your own recipe.)

2-4 cups veggies of your choice (We like a combo of mushrooms, onion, and Swiss chard or some other leafy green. Broccoli and bell pepper—red for color—are other favorites.) Lightly sauté or steam your veggies, depending on which ones you’re using. Remember,they’ll keep cooking in the oven, so you don’t want to overdo it.

1 ½ cups grated cheese (Again, your choice. Cheddar, Swiss, Gruyere, whatever tickles your fancy—or whatever you have on hand. A mixture of different cheeses works well, too.)

Mix the following together:

4 eggs, beaten
1 cup milk
1 tsp salt, or to taste
½ tsp pepper, or to taste

Place prepared vegetables in pie pan. Cover with grated cheese. Pour egg mixture over all. Bake for 45 minutes or until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean.

Add a tossed salad and a side of fresh fruit and you have an easy and sophisticated meal.

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