The joy and burden of vegetables

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Yesterday we celebrated my step-daughter’s birthday, which included a visit from my parents bearing vegetables–tomatoes, mostly.  Just before their arrival I’d gone up to tend to the garden of a friend who’s been away on vacation.  “Tend” here roughly meaning picking the hell out of her vegetables so that her garden would keep producing.  It is one of the strange ironies of much of the vegetable world that if you stop picking things, the plants will stop producing.  Our eating trades on the trickery we practice on plants, stealing the fruits of their labor so that they’ll start all over again.  The question is, what do you do once you’ve stolen those eggplants, cucumbers, summer squash and tomatoes?

I like to think of the first year of our community garden plot as The Attack of the Pattypan Squash.  My husband, not a gardener and lacking even the slightest hint of a rural background, innocently suggested that we plant a third pattypan squash.  I can remember literally opening my mouth to say, “That’s not such a good idea,” and then closing it, thinking, “What the hell?  How many pattypan squash can one plant produce?”  Oh, a loaded question readers, and one to which in my heart of hearts, I knew the answer.  Because the answer is, a shitload of pattypan squash.  That’s how much one plant can produce.  So much pattypan squash that you find it turning up in the unlikeliest of places for months and months.  So much pattypan squash that you find yourself contemplating squash smoothies and squash tea and squash cocktails.  Why not?

So you can imagine my mother’s horror when she visits the community garden and sees that one of our fellow farmers has planted TWO ROWS OF SQUASH!  In a plot that is 22′ by 50′ feet!  They have planted 100 feet of squash!  My mother asks to visit the garden each time she comes to visit because she is burning to know what happened to the people who planted 100 feet of squash.  Did they survive, or are they buried somewhere in their garden under a pile of zucchini?

Luckily for me, my mother is a canner and a freezer who has passed some of her knowledge along to me.  And I have a job that gives me a great deal of freedom during the prime summer months when the preserving should happen.  So on the first day of August, I look forward to a month of some serious canning and freezing of mostly tomatoes.  I don’t know what those folks from the garden are going to do with their zucchini; I know that they could probably provide the whole of Jefferson County with zucchini if they wanted, and ignoring the fact that much of the rest of Jefferson County are probably dealing with their own squash crisis.  I remember reading somewhere about folks in small towns across the Midwest locking their cars during the summer, not because they were afraid they’d be stolen, but because they were afraid someone would deposit a bag of zucchini in them.

My mother swears this is her last year for freezing corn.  This is the most labor intensive process, much worse than canning beans or tomatoes.  The corn must be shucked and silked.  Then you cut off the kernels with a knife and run the knife along the cob to extract the milky juice.  Packed into freezer bags, you have year-round creamed corn of for Thanksgiving, corn pudding.  But preserving the corn almost killed my grandmother one year, and my mother’s back can’t take it anymore.

Like many things, canning and preserving have become luxuries rather than necessities in today’s world.  I don’t have to can tomatoes in order to survive the winter.  I just prefer the taste.  I don’t even think in the end that canning saves me any money, which was largely my grandmother’s motivation.  I like the idea of eating locally and seasonally, and so I can.  I like the connection to previous generations, that I’m doing something my mother taught me and which maybe someday I’ll be able to teach to my daughter.

But mostly what I think about as I get geared up to start preserving the August bounty of vegetables is:   thank god I don’t have to do this in order to survive.  My family would not make it.  Because sometimes just thinking about all the vegetables in our garden makes me tired.  And I have the luxury of letting it all go to hell, of throwing away the tomatoes instead of figuring out how to make every last one count.  Of course the women of previous generations led a different kind of lifestyle; growing and preserving food was their job and their most important job.  Canning for me is just a strange kind of hobby.  But hats off to them all the same.  When it spelled the difference between a hungry winter and full bellies, I’m sure they planted as much squash as they possibly could.  But I still have to wonder, what did they do with all that squash?

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