Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Summer Garden Part II: Simple Gifts

Continued from Part I

my lemon basil

A friend gave us a bag of surplus from his beautiful gardens. Cucumbers (he had extra before my first were ready), green beans, peppers, jalepenos, garlic. Another friend had a potted lemon basil plant and asked me if I'd ever used it. I hadn't, so she told me to take a sprig and try it out.

These are the simplest of gifts, and yet again, somehow they feel decadent. Operating under the assumption that everyone else gets as much pleasure from their gardens as I do, I know it's not a small thing to share what you've grown. And, when I'm on the receiving end, it's not a small thing for me to accept such lovely offerings.

Like a transaction between associates of a members-only club, knowing looks were exchanged when the produce changed hands. Our friend knew I was going to enjoy the goods, and so did I. I was absurdly excited to present a pile of fresh cucumber rounds (skins peeled in stripes for effect) to the son who balks at most veggies but loves cukes. I could not wait to trim, wash and blanch the green beans, then quickly saute them with olive oil and garlic and serve them to my family as a wholesome, delicious accompaniment dish at dinnertime. And the gorgeous garlic - the bulbs sit in little, multi-colored, ceramic pots in the window above my sink. They are so pleasant to look at while they wait their turn to be used - so aromatic and deeply flavorful - in the next meal. And, I think of our generous friend every time I see them - a nice bonus.

The friend who gave me the lemon basil knows that I enjoy cooking, but she doesn't cook, herself. So, while she might not understand the joy I got out of those few leaves, I'm so grateful that she sent them my way. There's a dish that I make for only myself because none of the menfolk in my household like what's in it (I think they're crazy, and sometimes I'm glad because I don't have to share it). It's a mock-ceviche with shrimp, lemon juice, olive oil, avocado, oninons, kosher salt and basil. I thought I'd substitute the lemon basil in for the regular basil I normally use and it was phen.nom.i.nal. Appropriately named, lemon basil has a delicate yet intense lemon essence (in addition to being basil-ly). This amped up and deepened the flavor of the lemon juice to make the dish incredibly bright and sunny and the close-your-eyes-and-give-thanks-for-your-tastebuds kind of YUM.

I don't know about you, but I never felt this way about grocery-store produce. I know it's mostly my dramatic perspective, just me making mountains from molehills. But, considering that the final products came from little seeds and some dirt, water and sun, I think it's an appropriate outlook! Plus, I know my fellow growers personally (and am very fond of them). This makes it about more than just swapping a few veggies. It's about friends sharing a love of the experience, from humble start to glorious end. Simply wonderful.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Summer Garden Part I: It's Romantic

Is it just me, or is there something luxurious about eating from your own garden? It seems backwards to feel that way. I mean, there’s nothing particularly fancy about digging in the dirt to plant seeds and sproutlings, and nothing really glamorous about tending and weeding and watering most days. You can just trot down to the store and have things ready and waiting, any time. But to me, harvesting, prepping and savoring the literal fruits of my labor feels romantic – decadent, even.

I know exactly why. It’s because, 9 out of 12 months of the year, I feed my family out of convenience. I know it’s ghastly, but my normal weekly grocery list includes things like microwave-steamable veggies, 3.5-minutes-in-the-nuker mac-n-cheese, zapable, frozen, square, mini cheeseburgers, pre-marinated chicken breasts, a pre-cooked rotisserie chicken, tubed crescent rolls…the list goes shamefully on.

I'll hurriedly add that that’s not ALL that’s on the grocery list. You can even ask Hubby if I’m not a pain everyone’s ass all week long, trying to get them to eat healthy elements. "Fresh" veggies are a must at some point or another every week, although it’s always in the back of my head to worry about where they came from and if they’ve been handled properly. Ditto fruits. Sometimes I even buy those pre-packed (at least I insist that they’re packed in juice and not syrup). I do like to try to feed everyone reasonably well. It’s just that, more often that not, we use convenient, modern shortcuts to help us out along the way.

Lots of those shortcuts really keep you away from getting to “know” your food. The steam-bags of veggies don’t even let you SEE the food until it’s done cooking. Pre-marinated and pre-cooked anything denies you of an opportunity to be creative with herbs and spices. I guess, if you like to bake, you might feel like you’re missing out on something by buying cylindrical cans of raw dough – I don’t personally have a problem with that one though; I really hate baking. But you get the idea.

And then, 3 months out of the year, my garden, like a fair-weather lover, bestows on me the finest of fine things. I do my best to earn my gifts and wait patiently for them to be presented. While I wait, I am charmingly and whimsically entertained. I watch bright green, tender, new shoots stretch and lengthen and bear pretty little curlicues and eventually, flowers, which are a promise that the best is yet to come.

The emergence of young fruit brings excitement, but it’s not until they’ve plumped up and colored-in and hang heavy and lush and ready on the vine that the bliss really begins. There’s a certain thrill in the harvesting. When you go to pluck a ripened fruit and it gives way easily, practically jumping into your hand – you know you and your garden are intimately in sync.

Washing still-warm garden bounty is a joy. A quick rinse under cool water serves only to carry away the dust from the soil or the remnants of a dried raindrop. Worries about harsh, unnatural repellants or waxes don’t even exist on this plane; there’s a certain serenity in that.

Taking a few moments to look at, smell and touch the harvest is the tantalizing, penultimate experience prior to taking the first taste. Truly a feast for the eyes, the color palette is deep and rich, bright and vibrant; aptly, jewel-like, since these are, after all, the gems of the garden. The fragrance – that can only come from the newly-picked - is earthy with a certain perfume-y quality, compounding the allure. Holding and feeling (caressing?) the heft of ripened fruit, with its taut skin and firm yet yielding flesh, is a tactile delight. Even the bite of the knife is a satisfying feeling – the fruit offering the appropriate amount of resistance before giving way.

And then, finally, to taste. Richness of the earth, warmth of the sun, sweetness of the rain, freshness of the breeze. Sustenance the way sustenance was intended to be: pure and clean and good.

For me, growing a garden and reveling in its yield is an anticipated experience, an enticing affair. It engages my emotions and indulges my senses in the most pleasant ways. It’s romantic and seasonal - the quintessential summer fling!  And it's exclusive - not everyone gets to enjoy what a garden has to offer.  A luxury, indeed, and one that can definitely not be found in the produce aisle.

Continue to Part II

Saturday, June 29, 2013

A bit of despair

A corner was turned recently, though I can’t pinpoint exactly when or where.  Kind of suddenly, things seem to be on a different course than they were just a little while ago.
It started dawning on me when we were, after 15 years in the house, starting to haul out stuff that had been accumulating.  Toys and other activities were the biggest culprits.  It was easy to get rid of some of them.  Setting them out by the driveway with a “FREE” sign made quick work of several piles.  As I sifted through stacks of old workbooks and coloring books, I began to recall why I still had them.  It seemed not that long ago that I put them aside with all good intentions to get them out on some rainy day and have some wholesome, educational fun with the boys.  Maybe we didn’t have a whole lot of boring, rainy days between then and now, because I don’t think we ever did get back to those books. 
At some point during the purge, Hubby tried to get rid of our entire stockpile of crayons.  When I balked, he asked, very reasonably, “When’s the last time they used crayons?”  That triggered a follow-up question in my mind: When will they ever use them again? and the gut-wrenching, bitch-of-a-truth answer:  Probably never
Hubby was going through a spindle of DVDs and remarked, “Suddenly we have a whole bunch of movies that the kids won’t watch again”.  And he was right.  Transformers, Scooby Do and other once-safe favorites have been replaced by all kinds of other viewing, much of it requiring a pre-screening by us for appropriateness and some of it requiring a firm denial for being not appropriate at all.  Apparently, as evidenced by his word choice (he'd said suddenly), Hubby was feeling the abrupt shift in direction, as well.
The huge binful of Hot Wheels tracks and sets offered some brief hope.  I was all set to put it up for sale but when I checked with the boys, they said they  - mostly the youngest one - wanted to keep it and set up the tracks one last time. He was particularly interested in one set – a car wash system that used actual water and soap to spiffy up the cars.   The first time we played with it, I can remember that it was quite a production.  It involved cups of water and dishsoap and towels and a bit of effort, but he just loved it!  And then I can remember at least one time when I said, “Not right now” when asked to set it up again.  I’m hoping that it’s not a phantom memory conjured by a guilty conscience, but I think I can remember a few other times when he enjoyed that set…right?   And, oh no – please be a phantom memory of him playing with it in the driveway, all by himself because everyone else was busy doing something else.  Ugh.  Screech back into real-time: even though it’s only been a couple of weeks since he wanted to save his Hot Wheels, he has since given me the go-ahead to sell them. And we never got around to playing with that set again. 
And then there’s the office.  Within the last year, I saw a pic on Pinterest of a bright and cheerful room, decorated with kids’ art, with the daybed turned into a happy reading nook.  It has been my mission to transform the office into that place; a vibrant yet peaceful retreat for the boys.  Maybe they would come to enjoy reading (it’s usually like pulling teeth) in that room.  I even bought blank framed canvases on which they were to create original paintings to hang on the walls above the daybed.  Um.  When, since the first time I saw the picture and thought it would be perfect for my kids, did my vision for the room suddenly become out of touch, too juvenile for them?
Finally, I had to full-on acknowledge the truth I’d been ducking.  On a recent beautiful Saturday morning, I found myself watching what was to be C’s very last game at our little league park, ever, and I couldn’t really believe it was happening.  As if on a drive to an unhappy destination, I always knew where we were headed.  I had made the most of the journey, not focusing on what was ahead, but instead looking out the side windows and thoroughly enjoying the spectacular sights as they came and went.  Then, out of nowhere – brake check!   What, we’re here already?  The ride was so much fun!  How can we possibly be at the end of the line so soon?  But there we were. 
At the beginning, when they're babies, there are only open doors – open wide to the future.  As they go along, some of those doors begin to close.  Some close softly, without notice, like growing out of the last shoe size.  Some doors are closed joyfully – buh-bye, diapers!   Some close sneakily, because you’d probably have been able to keep them open a little while longer if you realized they were closing, like the kids taking tub baths together or pulling them around in the Radio Flyer.  And some doors are slammed shut loudly and abruptly, jarring you out of your reverie, sometimes even catching a few fingers in the jamb, because you weren’t quite ready for the finality and sometimes outright busting your nose because you stood stubbornly in the way.
I’m feeling like a lot of doors are closing around me lately, right in my face, rudely, without my permission or regard for my opinion on the matter.  Each time, I feel like I stand there staring at it, wondering if – and doubting that – I did the best I could before it was too late.  Was there really a lack of rainy days when we could have leisurely browsed through those neglected activity books, or did I waste so many opportunities?   Did I color enough with them?   Did we start letting them watch big kid movies too soon?  Did he get to enjoy his Hot Wheels car wash as much as he’d liked, or was I “too busy” too many times?  Why didn’t I get that reading nook together sooner?  In the end, a closed door means no going back, no matter what regrets or questions still remain.
Not one to wallow in a funk for too awfully long, I’m trying to buck up for whatever comes next.  I’m still feeling a bit of despair, but holding on to a few mementos and changing my mental tack seem to be helping.
I kept one big box of 96 crayons – just in case someone wants to use them.  I've noticed that the boys will still sit and watch practically any Disney movie on TV if they happen upon it, so  I think we’ll keep some of those DVDs around for a while longer.   I’m still planning to convert the office into a pleasant space for them, but with d├ęcor befitting young men.  I’ll take my cues from the art they create on those canvases.  Little league might be over for C, but there’s modified baseball and Babe Ruth to look forward to and besides, E still has 3 more years at the little league park.   And, perhaps by the hand of providence, that binful of Hot Wheels won’t sell.  I’ve lowered the asking price, but so far, no takers.  So maybe if I hurry, there’s still time to get in one last car wash.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Table

This is our table.  As the focal point of our dining room, it's a disgrace.  

It's almost 13 years old.  I know this because I remember that the day it came
(unassembled, from the furniture company, I hustled to put it all together so Hubby would be surprised when he came home from work) I was about 5 months pregnant with C.  And C is almost 13, too.

Back then, we'd been in the house a couple of years already and had been making do with the teeny, round, brass and glass, garage sale-acquired table from our stint as apartment-dwellers.  We'd also been limping along with the old, semi-functioning, glass-top stove that came with the house.  Our means were limited, but we'd managed to save up a modest amount and decided it was time for some upgrades.  As we shopped, we immediately gravitated toward the beautiful cherry dining sets.  Something like that would cost us all of our savings, but how elegant and sohpisticated!   In the end, we went for economy and purchased both a new stove and a dining set.  We knew the new table wasn't the greatest.  It was good enough, though, for the time being and, surely, we'd eventually get something nicer.  But mostly, we were thrilled - our very own first set!  And, it came with a leaf.  More than just an auxilliary piece of wood; a hope and promise that there would be lots of people to accommodate around our table, and many occasions to do so.

Over time, plenty of validation was given to our suspicions about the quality of the table.  The thin veneer was no match for little ones transitioning out of sippy cups who repeatedly spilled their drinks, or a cat who had the unfortunate fondness for tipping over abandoned, half-finished cups to see what was inside.  Neither could the cheap finish defend itself against the ravages of arts and crafts.  Who knew that glitter could permanently embed itself into wood?  There might have also been a few times when oven-hot casserole dishes and pans didn't quite make it onto their trivets, adding to the surface damage.

For all of the cosmetic abuse it suffered, the table has done its duty.  It's been the undeserving recipient of rough poundings during boisterous family game nights.  It's been a perfect pedestal from which to display the occasional vase of flowers.  It's been a dutiful bearer of mail, schoolwork and other piles of miscellanea.

And so, it's time for a new table.  It's almost certainly past time to replace the one we have.  But I don't think we will; not just yet.  I'd like to think we're not yet done having the kinds of adventures that have left our table in its sad, sad shape.