The One-Pan Phenomenon

The counter: 11-11-17

A couple Sundays ago, Steve and I went to Barnes & Noble. We do this every once in a while to check out the progress, or demise, of the book industry. It’s kind of like checking in on American trends.

We spotted two unnerving trends since the last time we were there. One: there are now several aisles devoted to spiritual self help books. They run the gamut from spiritual health in the form of herbs, oils, yoga, etc., to spiritual takes on relationships, addiction, career, etc. And while these kinds of books are nothing new, it felt to us like the labels on top of the shelves had shifted in a way that “legitimized” some of these books more than they should have been. They were organized– and there were so many of them– in a startling way. Meanwhile, philosophy, which is what Steve had been looking for, consisted mostly of the ancient major philosophers, collected works only.

Meanwhile, over in the cookbook aisle, I was making my own observations. Mostly, I was noticing that paleo is way, way in, and that 1-pot cooking rules. A large part of the side wall closest to the in-store Starbuck’s is dedicated to cookbooks. Last January it been full of gorgeous books with artistic photos of interesting cuisines and restaurant-inspired dishes. Yotam Ottolenghi still ruled with his Jerusalem cookbooks.

But this year, there was none of that. None. Of. That. Every single book on the first half of the shelving was some variety of one-pot/sheet-pan/instant-pot cookbook. We want to cook fast. We want to cook with a gadget. We want to cook on sheet pans for some reason. We want to set it and forget it. We are too busy for farm-to-table. We want six ingredients and a pot that can cook 10 different ways.

I can sympathize–I really can. But I felt deflated. And that is even though I had recently bought one of those cookbooks! It has the ultimate name: One Pan & Done: Hassle Free Meals from the Oven to the Table. Yes! No more farm-to-table or forage-to-table. Oven-to-table!! That’s the best! I wanted to immediately buy this book for my sister (not my mother as she is vegan and this book has lots of meat dishes). And I was going to embrace the short-cuts in this book. It does tell you how to make biscuits, but it encourages you to use the refrigerator ones you crack open instead. Yes! I’m in!

I recently embraced a recipe for macaroni cheese that is made from: macaroni, sliced American cheese, evaporated milk, butter. And I was surprised when the New York Times recipe newsletter I get featured a recipe for “Middle-School Tacos.” It calls for hard shells but no McCormick spice packet.

But I am also, as the weather turns, cooking up a storm. In fact, yesterday and today I tackled a project. I made beef broth from marrow bones I got at the meat market and a bunch of vegetables from the garden and farmer’s market. It was something I wanted to do last year, when I read about it in The Cancer Fighting Kitchen. I got 5 quarts after 12 hours of simmering. And this stuff is gold. In addition to the marrow, it calls for sweet potatoes and for konbu, the seaweed used in miso soup. Carrot and potatoes and celery and onion of course, and garlic and peppercorns and allspice. Even a leek, which I had from the garden. I packed the quarts into my freezer, which is so full I had to take out a loaf of zucchini bread to fit everything. Which is no bad consequence.

The counter still has tomatoes and greens on it from the greenhouse. I’m picking the tomatoes now at first blush, and they still ripen inside over the course of a few days. We plan on continuing to warm it at night with the propane heater for one more week. That should ensure some fresh tomatoes on the counter for Thanksgiving, though what I really want are the eggplants. They are growing so slowly, I don’t have much hope for them.

I know this past year has been tough. We are tired. We need more comfort food than we did in the past. But still, there is such good comfort food to be found. I had some lamb in the freezer from the farmer’s market. I split it for two recipes.

The first night, I pulled out all the stops and made the Ottolenghi recipe for “Braised lamb, eggs, tahini, and sumac” (sans sumac) to which I added the baharat spice blend from the back of the book.

The next day, equally good, I opened a can of garbanzos and a can of coconut milk and made stuffed squash from the One Pan and Done cookbook that was an equally big hit. I added rice (and lamb), and it was not exactly one pan. But there’s enough of that one for tonight’s dinner, too.

Eat well. Eat warm. Eat real food. Those are the only rules.

Posted in food, Greenhouse, recipe | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Greenhouse Effect

This year I feel like a different gardener than in years past. It isn’t about cancer– all that did was lose me a year of gardening. But I’m more confident about all the crops, more in tune with what is ready when, have a little more time to “experiment” with multiple plantings and new items, and also I’m finally getting a handle on the garden improvements.

This year I finally got a workable fence around the garden, thanks to Steve, and in the last two weeks I’ve put down landscaping fabric between all the aisles and around the raised beds, basically the first real weed barrier. It was a good six hours of “laying carpet” on my hands and knees, but now Steve and Jeff are going to do the hard part and cover all that space with gravel. I spent way too much time fighting weeds and complaining about them this year. I will still be using my friendly weed burner around the outside of the fence and salting the exposed edges. I’m looking to replace the hard-as-a-rock clay bed where I’ve tried to grow onions, potatoes, and winter squash. After nearly a decade of amendments, the ground still gave only a sad, small potato yield this year. I’m moving on.

Of course, the greenhouse has made the biggest difference this year. And now I’m really experiencing the benefits. Every October we experience the “first hard frost” of the year, and that shuts down the gardens. This year we had three nights of frost. I covered the lettuces and greens, but the tomatoes and peppers all froze. The Brussels sprouts and kale are fine, but usually this would be the beginning of the end of fresh veggies.

We did return to warm days, and plenty of cool but sunny days when the greenhouse needed to be opened up. Out there, I continue to have loads of tomatoes and, best of all, a good number of eggplants. Eggplants! I’ve always been lucky to get two or three before the frost. But We’ve already had three rounds, there is babaganouj in the freezer, and there are two medium and 6-8 emerging/baby eggplants still on the vines.

Also, if I get even half of the tomatoes out there, we’ll be eating tomatoes fresh and in sauces until Thanksgiving. Tomatoes don’t need sunlight to ripen, just heat and ethylene gas, so it just depends on the temps. We’ll keep going until the temps are freezing during the day or the ponds start freezing. At some point we’ll have to turn off the water. I’ve started clipping off new shoots with flowers on the tomato plants, to get more energy into the existing fruit. But it doesn’t seem like the plants will give out on their own!

Last night and today we’re getting our first snow! The chickens took one look out there and went back in the coop. Except Goldie, who is intrepid, and took a brief jaunt to lay her egg in her prairie nest (the only one I can find and thus source of my one egg a day collection!)

But, as someone pointed out, I have the ingredients for fresh ratatouille on my counter!

So the greenhouse has been a definite game-changer. I am becoming OK with the fact that I don’t grow a tremendous amount of food (I’d love to say I grow enough for all three families on the farm, but I just grow “some” for the other families and enough for meager gifts to family in Chicago at Christmas). Seeing the amazing way cucumbers grow in the greenhouse, and eggplant, I’ll do even better on them next year. I’ll provide more calcium early to help the tomatoes, and I’ll probably grow fewer varieties. I might leave the beets for outside, but I’d like to try cantaloupe again and keep an eye on the mites for more prolific plants. I also already planted some scallions that will hopefully pop up early in the spring.

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Women and Cancer

OK, enough with the pause (haha), I have something on my mind and some time to say it.

This morning I was reading a blog by a friend who just had her last (16th) chemotherapy treatment for cancer. She lives in Japan. In a Facebook group for women in midlife that I am part of, three of us have had cancer in a year. We were supported by women in this group who have not had cancer but also by several for whom the experience is clear and ever-present.

Last month was Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month (go teal!!) but on October 1, when the man whose wife has had three rounds of breast cancer put my chicken in a pink plastic grocery bag, I knew what month this is. Bring out the football players in their pink shoes and put on your pink ribbon pins, folks, cause it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Reading my friend’s post, where she wrote about ways she has changed this year– connections made, love experienced, a new openness and awareness of strength– and ways she knows she will continue to change and realize changes in the coming year, I thought that in a way “women” is different than it was because of breast cancer.

Last week, when Julia Louis-Dreyfus announced that she has breast cancer, she said: “1 in 8 women gets breast cancer, and today I’m the one.”

How has the prevalence of reproductive cancers impacted female identity?

I hardly know how to answer, and of course to answer, is to answer how have reproductive cancers impacted the world.

Because this is America, we can start by the industry it has generated. I’m not talking about the treatment industry, which is in itself gigantic, and includes several options for implants and reconstruction. But if you don’t want breast reconstruction, there is a piece of the industry for padded bras/prosthetics. And the industry we’re talking about here is the beauty industry. Because: women. The industry tells you two things: you can (still) be beautiful and/or you can be/are brave. Beautiful and brave. Brave in your baldness– but with many beauty options. For me it is encapsulated in the American Cancer Society’s “Look Good Feel Good” event I attended in April 2016. What was interesting to me was that only one of us out of the five was actually there for the make-up. I gave mine to Steve’s aunt afterward. We were subjected to videos by a national make-up association and a fashion association with advice on how to buy clothes now and encouraging us that proper make-up could help us continue to look beautiful even as chemo took our hair. (It also severely compromises your skin, so using those cosmetics was out of the question for me.) The event was a way for several of us in treatment to meet each other, which allowed us then to check in with each other when we had treatment on the same days. It’s where I met my chemo buddy.

So, yes, we are pelted by the fashion and cosmetics industry. I did succumb somewhat. I bought some dresses and earrings in addition to lots of needed pajamas. (Once you’re finished treatment, you’re invited to celebrate by buying a new wardrobe!) I added the term “self-care” to my vocabulary. I had amazing and therapeutic “oncology facials” once a month during treatment– to call them facials is to completely misunderstand the therapy, which moved lymph and treated burning, damaged skin, and even once included a gentle abdomen mask(!!) And the caring attention from Amanda during and after the treatment was another relationship aspect– and deepened my understanding of and appreciation for therapeutic touch tremendously.

And that, I think, is the real area to focus on. If 1 in 8 women experience a year or more of discovering how strong their bodies really are (to fight it) and are opened suddenly to receive care and love from others, and to express love for others, all of which they continue to carry with them throughout the world, well– what does that do?

As more and more women learn that death is a part of life and that dying is a natural process, and learn to be with others as they die, to face death as well as life– what does that do?

 

When I was in treatment, my baldness identified me. I was approached by so many cancer survivors. We are in a world filled with cancer survivors. What does that do?

The “pink” has brought cancer survivors out into the open. And also the vast improvement to treatment– the anti-nausea meds particularly– that allow many women with cancer to be present in the world even during treatment. There is less stigma. And so we recognize each other and start to realize how many of us are in the world.

 

 

(*Photos of one of the sunflowers I grew this year. They are scary plants– like planting palm trees in your garden! But the results were surprising and great. I’ll have sprouts from my own seeds this February when nothing else to eat is green.)

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Pause

Dear Reader,

I started writing this blog back in 2008. I started it for a specific reason. I’d written an essay that I submitted to America magazine. It was a risky essay, and it was a nuanced one– about living in an imperfect church and in response to Barack Obama being heavily criticized for going to a church with a “radical” pastor. I got a response back from the magazine saying they would like to publish it in an edited form. The edited form removed the context (Obama) and was just my description of the imperfections of my own local church. I said no. And I really wanted to have an essay in America. To let them publish my essay in this eviscerated and seemingly gratuitous form was impossible– would have been immoral, actually.

So many times, in my relationship to publishing, I have felt pain– I’m not talking about rejection, I’m talking about the way my work has been treated by those who accepted it. And that experience with America was kind of a last straw. I wanted to write and get out to people what I was writing without going through that process. I started to blog.

At first I thought I would do mostly long-form essays. But I became a blogger instead. And I didn’t want to call my blog something clever, but just simply my name, a place people could find my work.

Soon after, I found cowbird.com, and I used that as a place for posting “creative” work. On the blog I wrote about life– which was more and more about growing food and cooking, and in the winters about movie and theater reviews. It was less what I was thinking and more what I was living.

In the years I’ve been writing this blog, I have also written many, many pages about the art of The Saint John’s Bible. I have written a collection of 100-word stories based on the oral histories of Benedictine Sisters I had the honor of working for from 2008-2012, called Habits. It did pretty well out there. I wrote another collection of poems, published in 2016, H is for Harry. I wrote an unpublished novel in several drafts, and began another I hope to finish in 2018.

When I received my cancer diagnosis in February 2016, all I could write for the next year was the blog. And through the blog I received tremendous support as people followed that way of living with me.

I’ve come out of chemotherapy and into remission, which I hope will be a long term remission. The longest. Sometimes I dare to ask myself– will I die of something other than cancer? As I meet and read about older ovarian cancer survivors, this seems possible.

I’ve also found myself in a big juggling act. I am slightly diminished in my mental and physical capacity. I am doing three small jobs, but they require me to change gears more often (or maybe my gears don’t shift as smoothly). I’m about to plunge into a major writing project (Religious Education curriculum) and know my fall will be full of that. I am still gardening and still cooking, and the greenhouse has added another layer to that activity. But I don’t find myself sitting down to write the blog entries– my camera fills with images I don’t post. Sometimes I don’t have my camera with me. The blog feels more like a burden than a delight.

I’ve been writing more poetry. It is a different poetry for me. It comes, I think, from working on poetry with children, and also from wanting to go other places in my imagination. I find myself not digging into my own life experience as much as casting out lines and seeing what strange things I pull into the boat. I’m publishing that on medium.com. If you’d like you can follow me there.

And I hope to embark on a big writing adventure in February, if I can get into a class at the Loft in Minneapolis and get back to that North Dakota novel I left behind in March 2016.

I’m thinking of also getting a clever handle on Instagram where I can easily post my daily harvest and my cooking projects. Oddly enough, I still go to this blog each year when I need my red pepper sauce recipe or my pickle recipe.

For now, it’s time to “close down” the blog, by which I mean just to stop regular posting. It will always be here, I hope, (though it might move again to WordPress).

Over these years, readers have come and gone. I’ve met new people online and enjoyed some who just dropped in (to tell me how their camel cooking adventures went, for example). I’ve also been able to more deeply engage with people I already knew. It’s been strange to visit with people in real life and have them know already what’s going on from the blog. Now I’ll get to tell the stories myself.

Thank you, dear reader, for your friendship and companionship these years. Keep in touch.

Love,

Susan

Posted in cancer, The Saint John's Bible, writing | 5 Comments

First Eggs

I’ve been really having a time of it with my chickens. I am really starting to resent them. They are just not laying eggs. I put in two nice brooder boxes for them, and every time I filled them with straw, the chickens pulled it all out. I thought they might want the boxes higher, so I stacked them. Mostly I just let them range and kept an eye out anywhere chickens might lay eggs.

Blackie, the last remaining Silver-laced Wyandotte, runs over every morning to the neighbor’s barn, where she lays her egg if she has one to lay, and where she hangs out with her friend “Old Red” until evening. We often see her ambling home across the Commons while we’re having dinner on the porch. At least she is entertaining.

My niece Dale came for a 3-day visit and we looked around for possible caches of eggs. I expected the four young chickens to start laying mid-July. That’s six weeks of frustration that has built up.

She left Tuesday, having made salsa and picked tomatoes and dug up one of the potato bags, and having eaten very nice eggs– from someone else’s farm. The chickens themselves didn’t come around and let her inspect them, either. They mostly hid beneath the pine tree by the pond.

But let’s back up. Everything was fine back when I had six lovely chickens, so adorable, often lining up on the garden cart. See how those Wyandottes all look alike??

The trouble began when we started hearing crowing. Definitely crowing. Starting at 5 am and continuing through the morning, afternoon, and into the evening. It bounced off the other houses back at us. But I couldn’t tell which of the Wyandottes (it had to be them) was the rooster.

Until I got a closer look at the tail feathers. And realized if one of these was a rooster, so was her sister. A few weeks ago we dispatched both of them while they were still tender.

I thought the hens might perk up and lay after that, but as of Tuesday, no eggs anywhere to be found. Then on Friday, I looked down next to the front door, behind the arbor vitae, where many things seem to fall, and found EIGHT green eggs!

Steve and I celebrated immediately by making a good veggie scramble as a side dish to the Friday ribs and although ribs are my favorite meal, the eggs were better.

Now, poor things, they are spending the weekend in chicken prison. And I am a fierce warden. Water and feed, well, and when I’m feeling bad for them a sleeve of very stale Ritz crackers, and this pumpkin they had already started eating when it was on the porch.

The idea is to get them to bond or at least accept that they must lay their eggs in the new brooder box. I had to do a lot of whining to get this thing, and Steve worked hard on it. Look at this deluxe piece of construction. Rain roof even. Cozy spots.

But so far they are avoiding it. No one has even gone inside to press down the straw. They’re busy dining on crackers. And when two finally broke down after 36 hours and lay their green eggs, they did so in the coop.

So that’s two eggs of the three Americaunas. I’ve yet to see a brown one from the remaining Wyandotte, and Blackie, well, she can just get to know these girls better. Wouldn’t hurt her to be a good example and lay in the brooder box. But I’m not holding my breath on that account.

 

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Epic Eclipse Road Trip

Eclipse photos by Narrah Kansas Palmquist

These are photos taken by my friend Narrah of the total eclipse in Queeny Park in Ballwin, Missouri.

I saw it from about 40 miles from there, another well-named place, Herculaneum, Missouri. In a park that had a good spooky name, Bates Memorial Park. I didn’t take many photos of the eclipse itself. I was “experiencing” it, and also the iphone-through-the-glasses trick didn’t work well for me.

It did get dark, but more like twilight with a 360-degree pink sunset. It did get slightly cooler, but since it was in the 90s and humid as heck, not that noticeable. Totality looked like a hole was punched in the sky. If I was an ancient person, I would have been freaked out, but I think I also would have gotten over it when it stopped after 2 minutes and nothing else happened. I would probably have wanted to record it in a cave drawing. That was the level of excellence of the experience.

The main thing, though, was the great road trip. I drove to Waverly, Iowa, on Saturday and stayed with friends Sarah and Tom Scott, who have a wonderful large farm home, 360 acres, some really pretty cows and a large, mixed flock of chickens. I think the biggest difference between Iowa and Minnesota is the willows. They have a gorgeous, giant weeping willow, whereas we have those floppy, not very interesting willows. Our signature tree is the oak.

The Rada Scott House in Waverly

Oh, and a peacock and a peahen with three chicks who is staying in one of the four bird buildings. (*more bird photos at the end of this post because I’m obsessed…)

Sunday we picked up their friend Lucy and went down to St. Louis, where I met up with Todd Oberman and Laura Davis. Two of their children came down from Chicago for the event, and it was great to meet Nina and Josh and observe some first rate parent/young adult interactions. As “spy in the back seat” to the eclipse and back, I got the inside scoop.

Then it was back to Waverly, and the next day home. I stopped in Northfield to have lunch at Hogan Brothers with the owner, my brother-in-law Greg, and two nephews who were working in the kitchen. And on the way out of town followed this truck full of corn.

truck full of sweet corn

Saw a lot of corn (Iowa corn and Missouri corn do not look the same) and had some great eats (ham steaks from last year’s pig in Iowa, and a fabulous quiche and peach pie by crust-maker extraordinaire Laura Davis, as well as an excellent taco, guac, and agua fresca at Mission Taco, in St. Louis.

Was it worth it? Oh yes it was. Grateful to all who took me into their homes and cars and shared this experience with me.

OK, now the birds…

hard to see in the sun, but this is a complex of four buildings, each painted in pastel colors, all housing birds, including the dovecote with homing pigeons.

The pigeons, though, were hanging out on this barn roof watching the cows.

full flock

Sarah has a mix of chickens who breed freely with each other. She has guineas, and silkies, and the crazy “naked neck” Turken chickens, and more.

Here’s a beautiful bantam rooster and a turken hen.

And here is a mixed up rooster for sure– lovely bantam feathers in back and a mostly naked neck in front.

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Green Beans

I don’t want to leave those squash bugs at the top of the feed any longer than necessary! I’m headed off to experience the eclipse near St. Louis, so won’t be posting for a few days. I’ll just share a happy garden moment.

Over the years you may have noticed that I am not a big green bean fan. When I first moved to the farm, the only thing Steve grew were tomatoes and green beans. He had a long, low fence along which he planted green beans– tons of them. And he had another raised bed for tomatoes. Those were the original two beds that quickly became three, then six, then twelve, then fifteen…

I’ve moved the green beans around and tried some fancy supports like those expandable bamboo tipis (mine broke off in the wind at ground level). I finally settled on a tall pea fence. But I’ve always overplanted. By August, my bean fence is almost always swaying back and forth or leaning in one direction and needs to be propped up and staked with rope.

But not this year. This year I planted six bush plants (saxa french beans) that produce a great multitude of sweet, thin beans, then give out. I also planted six and only six climbing bean plants, three purple and three green. The purple beans also started bearing early and then got swollen and stopped. They’re coming back now, though, for the usual late-season run. The pole green beans, though, have been– and I never use this word for beans– lovely. Just lovely. I want to say it with a British accent. The leaves are lovely and the vines are lovely and the beans are absolutely lovely.

I haven’t gotten overwhelmed, either. I froze a couple bags of them for winter stew and soups, but otherwise I’ve just had enough to cook up now and then with butter and salt and serve alongside things. Things like our roasted rooster. (Oh, I probably didn’t tell you we killed our two roosters. Did I even tell you two of our chickens turned out to be roosters? They were pretty and not very aggressive, but they were also really, really loud. And not just at dawn but every hour on the hour from 5 a.m. until noon. No one misses them. But I’m mad at the chickens, who have still not laid a single egg, so let’s not talk about them.)

Beans. The beans are what you’d most want them to be. When they’re immature they are slightly sticky. They lose that when they are full length. They hang down in full view. I only get a handful a day, which I slip into a bag in the fridge until we eat them. I still don’t like them raw– I mean, let’s not go crazy. And I always reach for a cucumber or tomato first. But the beans this year, really. So lovely.

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Race to Ripeness

The garden has been a real battle this summer. I’ve focused on the weeds, and yes, I did have to resort to the nuclear option (Roundup) to finally kill the four large burdock plants and some extra-resistant thistles (only around the garden fence, not near the food). Even salting the earth wouldn’t kill them!


I always have some bugs in the garden, usually Colorado potato bugs that I deter with an organic spray that kills the larvae and eggs and drives them away. At the end of the season I also usually see bugs I’ve always called squash bugs but they are actually cucumber beetles. Cucumber beetles are cute little bugs that look like lightening bugs but black with yellow stripes. By the time they arrive, things are mostly wrapped up and they have never actually killed any of my plants.

So nothing in my lucky decade of gardening has prepared me for the arrival of true squash bugs, the Anasa tristis. Seriously. These things arrived in squadrons earlier this summer, starting in on the zucchini. I squashed them as I could and particularly worked to rub out the eggs they lay in clusters on the underside of leaves. I was familiar with that tactic from the potato bugs.

But when I was on vacation, Steve sent me a photo of the winter squash patch that broke my heart. The squash bugs had moved on to them and clearly were doing more damage than I’d be able to manage. It is a true infestation.

But one thing that has surprised me is the ability of the plants to survive this kind of thing. Out in the greenhouse, my cucumber plants and eggplants were infested with spider mites. I tried to control them by spraying water on their webs. I had thought when I returned from vacation I’d have to pull up the cucumber plants, which I’d left in because despite the damage they kept producing good cucumbers! When I got back I also learned I could spray them with “tomato tea” made from pulverizing green tomatoes and their leaves and diluting with water. The mites wanted nothing to do with the tomato plants, so it seemed like a good remedy.

The cucumber and eggplant vines hardly seemed to need it, though. In addition to new growth, even the infected vines seemed to be rallying and gaining green. There were fewer mites and the eggplants were putting out more flowers. I sprayed and keep at them with the hose, but I’m so heartened by the way the plants have survived the attack.

August is also a time I call “the race to ripeness.” Usually about now blight starts on the tomato plants. If not bugs, then wilt usually starts spreading through the squash field. The hope is that the fruit will ripen before the plant dies.

squash vine borer

 

I pulled out two of the four zucchini plants, but the other two are still hanging in there, producing new leaves and new flowers. The two I pulled out were foul smelling (I hear anasa tristis give off a foul odor when disturbed) and had evil squash vine borers in the core of their vine. I popped their little heads off. The other two vines look healthy so far. (The web also says that squash bugs give off a bacteria that causes yellow vine disease, which I seem to have in the winter squash patch.)

 

Out in the winter squash field, I harvested the small squash that were ripe– the beautiful Hokkaido/red kuri squash are a bright, deep orange red. I’ve already made a delicious dip out of one of them. There were nearly a dozen ripe delicata.

The pumpkin might not make it. The other late ripener is the butternut squash, which just set fruit a few weeks ago. But I read that butternut squash is the most resistant to anasa tristis so maybe some will ripen before the vines die. They are the only vines still out there setting a lot of flowers and growing out into the grass and up the fence.

I’ll work harder on my “garden hygiene” for next year. I’ll drag out the dead vines to the far edge of the field. I’m hoping to lay landscaping fabric between all the beds this fall. In the spring, in addition to killing the weeds more quickly with my blow torch, I’ll keep an eye out for earliest signs of those evil squash bugs. I’ll give my vine plants more room to sprawl. In the greenhouse, I’ll control the mites with Neem oil or tomato tea before they get a foothold. Because these guys may have won the battle, but they’re no way going to win the war.

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What Makes Poetry

I think about poetry a lot. Particularly what makes a poem. In this time of free verse when it seems few of the tools of poetry are being put to good use, I still know a poem when I see one. Lately I’ve been reading poems (and essays) that gather their materials up front, do a little roaming around in them, and then completely fall apart. Right when it’s time to make a point or give me something I can be happy going away with, they collapse. I’m not saying I’m immune to this, which is why I want to pay attention when a poem is a poem and hits its mark.

Recently I picked up Nancy White’s book Ask Again Later. We were in graduate school together and I’ve always admired her poems. I was surprised to find the book is a collection of poems based on biblical stories. The approach is feminist and makes postmodern moves like writing beyond the ending (“Aging Eve”), changing the story by taking a female character’s point of view (“Jael”), bringing female characters at the margins to the center of the stories (“Moses”), and putting characters into discussions with contemporary feminists (“Betty Friedan Reads to Eve Who’s Sick in Bed”). It’s a hard thing to do well. What I like most about the poems in this book is that they don’t try to retell the story– if you don’t know it, look it up– and they are spare, pressing you to bring what you know to bear (about the Ten Commandments for example) to add richness to the poem, not just handing you some message or theological twist.

And I gotta tell you, the first poem stopped me in my tracks. It is “Noa,” the name of one of the five daughters of Zelophahad who argued successfully for inheritance rights given that their father had no male heirs. She’s an obscure figure of the Old Testament, to be sure. I actually do know a young woman who was named Noa by her Jewish attorney parents (who also had no male heirs!), but it’s more often a boy’s name, after that much more famous Noah. The poem goes like this:

 

Noa

     by Nancy White

She stumped us, the flinty
glitter of her tale,
her koans blunt and rubbly.

What to call her, how
to explain? And no one asks
for her anyway.

One more bird by the side of the road,
a high note dropped when
we just can’t hit it.

 

I had to read it twice. But the brilliance of the last stanza’s analogy made me say “yes.” This is the kind of connection, of opening up, I want my poems to do. We all recognize that experience of not being able to hit a high note so dropping a third to an easier one. Or we’ve heard it. And what happens when we drop that note? It is lost. And the song changes. The song becomes less difficult, and though it may keep its resolution, though it may satisfy just as much as the other one, though we don’t actually miss the other note after a while, we probably should.

I spend a lot of time thinking about metaphors and similes and other forms of figurative language. Asking myself: What is that like? What can this be compared to? But I never thought about that dropped high note before.

 

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Jersey Shore

Low tide in the channel

My sister and I recently returned from eight days (11 for her) revisiting the summers of our childhood in Southern New Jersey. We never took these experiences for granted– we always knew that being at the Shore and going crabbing with our grandfather and eating sweet corn and Jersey peaches at the height of ripeness was special.

Docking to eat at The Breezes. Order the crab cake.

As adults, it was especially great to drop down into the lives of our Uncle Eddie and Aunt Kathie and their children who still live in the “Pinelands”/Pine Barrens area right on the coast. We couldn’t see the ocean from their house, but we could smell it. And it was clear to see everywhere the way storms shape that place– particularly Superstorm Sandy, “The Storm.” My relatives should have evacuated but didn’t, and the water, or the surge, came right up to their door or into their garages. My aunt and uncle didn’t sustain any damage to their house– just a boat blown onshore and stacked with a bunch of other large boats at the marina. But even a few houses away they say 8-10 feet of water came into the houses. Now all the small houses are being raised up on pylons or rebuilt on raised platforms. It took me a while to hear “raised” instead of “razed” since my perspective is informed by growing up in tornado country.

This house, not my grandfather’s (which has gone through many changes) but on his street, most closely resembles the house we visited as kids. It backs up to a lagoon (which always made me think of “The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” especially at night) that is just a water road for boats.

That road leads to the channels, with a shadowy view of Atlantic City in the background, always pointed out to us, like the Emerald City on a far shore. The channels are where we put down our strings with large fish pieces, “lunkers,” on the end, and waited for crabs to pick at them. Once we felt the tug, we’d pull it up the two feet or so from the bottom, slowly but surely, until someone would dip in a net and capture the crab. This is what we did again, in those beautiful channels that smell of mud and fish, attacked of course by stinging greenheads (aka salt marsh flies or horse flies). It’s a singular experience and I do feel sorry for those who never get to do it. We caught 36 crabs that met the minimum size requirement of 4.5 inches (though there were some disputes about that later).

My sister Kathy caught this baby, which was thrown back.

 

 

 

 

These guys were not so lucky.

We ate them as part of a seafood feast– first picking the crab meat out with crackers and picks (associated with nuts in my everyday life!) and eating corn/cucumber salsa. Then came clams on the half-shell and 200 steamed little neck clams. And then, the main course, Jersey sweet corn on the cob, “Bubba Gump Shrimp” (a baked dish of shrimp, butter, onion and lemon), and an incredible number of scallops for my Midwestern self to see in one place. Once we’d downed all that seafood, we dug into the pie, hot that morning when we bought it, peach and apple.

higher tide in the channel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our hero, Kathie Sink, at the corn pot and oven filled with trays of stuffed clams and shrimp.

 

 

The vacation continued down the Shore where my sister and I shared a converted garage air bnb a mile from the beach in Cape May, and where we and our parents and sundry relatives on my mother’s side buzzed around a giant Victorian hotel at the beach, sitting on the rocking chairs, changing in the restrooms, visiting at the pool, and accessing the beach. There were breaks for seafood at regular intervals, and a final dinner of hot fudge sundae. I also feel sad for anyone who has not sat under a beach umbrella at 4 p.m. with their feet in the sand and the waves crashing and the luxurious sea breeze on your skin. (Oh, and especially when the lifeguards walk by, making their final rounds…)

 

On Sunset Beach in Cape May… just before the sun dropped.

storm clouds on the last night at the Inn of Cape May

When I got home, Steve had kept up eating the cucumbers and tomatoes (though he had not picked the zucchini!). He told me he had heard a wonderful interview with Garrison Keillor, where Keillor was expressing his love of the Minnesota garden tomato. What a world to live in where there are tomatoes like this. Just think of the people who never get to eat ripe tomatoes! While I’d been gone, the prairie had changed its clothes. It was coated with a thick blanket of grey-headed coneflowers, the Queen of the Prairie. And yes, I thought, what a special life I have and what a beautiful time to live.

Coneflowers, August 10 2017

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