Posts tagged ‘garden’
We have a lot of trees at our place – part of what called us to up and move to Maine. Hemlocks and Balsam Firs shelter the house from west and north winds, sugar maples lend their shade and shower us with color, white birches provide levity. Most of the trees are old, planted by a hand that has long withered, though I fear that we’ll be the ones to outlast them: the giant elm in back, the brittle weeping willow, the towering twin spruce which is well beyond maturity. The only youngsters are two fruit trees planted in the way back, an apple and a peach.
Hairy with suckers, branches stretching toward the sky, the peach tree looks like it has never once been pruned. This spring I prowled it, checking each morning for a hint of blossom, but it turned out barren. We hear that growing peaches on Midcoast Maine is hard.
The apple tree was planted by the previous owner; chosen for her daughter Cecily, she said, when she handed us the key. Hidden from sight behind a fat white pine and planted into clay, it’s small and crooked, growing at an angle. Without something to withstand the wind that always rises with the tide, it didn’t have much chance to turn into an upright tree. My wife and I continued to neglect it. There was so much to do, I didn’t even notice that Cecily’s Apple bloomed. When I finally paid attention, I was surprised to see that it was now supported by a strong, bifurcated stake. And it was bearing fruit. Ugly little things, greenish red, with rough, russet patches… I bit into one and spat it out. The taste was tart bordering on sour, the texture woody. I went back inside.
That was September. On this bright October morning I am greeted by a mound of apples, piled up in the big porcelain washbowl which centers our kitchen island. There are so many, some have rolled down onto the marble slab.
“I was worried about frost with the full moon coming.” My wife gives me her morning smile. “And don’t you think it’s time that you get to know St. Cecilia’s apples?” There’s a quick peck and she’s outside again.
I used to love the Saints when I was little, used to collect their gilded images like trading cards of cars. A Saint for every day, a Saint for each profession, gave me a sense of order and made me feel protected. I proudly claimed my own. I loved the incense and the music, flowers, candles, rustling vestments, I loved the pomp and circumstance. I loved processions, the voices of the congregation warbling in the open air. I loved my shiny Sunday shoes. But each time we’d say grace around the kitchen table I struggled with the words: “Come Jesus, be our guest and bless the food that you have given us.” I didn’t understand why I should thank him. I knew where our food came from.
I approach the apples slowly – they’re just as ugly as before; russet patches have been joined by warts. I choose one. Next to the stem there is a wormhole. Somebody liked Cecily’s apples, might as well find out why. I cut off a slice. Firm and juicy; all they had to do was ripen. They’re not so bad at all. And their acidity is now counterbalanced by an aromatic sweetness from that extra month of sun.
I measure six big scoops of plain rolled oats into my yellow saucepan, add water and turn the stove on low. Reach under the sink to retrieve the compost bucket and take out the breakfast bowls. While the oatmeal simmers, I prepare two apples just as I’ve done for years. Cut them in half, then into quarters and then carve out the cores. Only this time it’s much slower because I must deal with worms. Each time I think I’ve sliced away an underground canal, a new one opens up. Each time I take a cut, worm excrement, like coarse coffee grounds, spreads across clean apple chunk. It sticks to my fingers. I have to wipe it off. Sometimes I barely yield a sliver and yet, to me, it’s worth the work.
Cut, carve, wipe, slice – somnambulant, but focused repetition, much like a prayer or a chant, it is a rhythm from my childhood. This is what we did, my family and I, on countless summer evenings and well into the fall; we’d clean the mushrooms that we found that day. Chanterelles, boletes and morels, puffballs and young parasols, shaggy manes and chicken of the woods – each one was a treasure, each one had a history. This king bolete, redolent with the earth’s aroma, my father found it partially hidden under beech leaves, anchored into the mossy ground. How he had laughed in pride! Of course the worms had found it, too. These chanterelles I had discovered in a hollow, a family ring of a good dozen, pine needles tucked inside their whorly folds. Remember, this one housed a millipede. Those parasols my mother came across, right behind some birches where she went to rest her bike. Cream-colored caps dabbed with buff concentric scales and crisscrossed by the finest grass blades, each mushroom was a work of art. If we could at all avoid it, we wouldn’t rinse them so as not to water down the flavors. Instead we’d cut, carve, wipe and slice on newspaper spread across our kitchen table, the precious bits into a common pot placed in the center, mushroom refuse growing all around. It often took us hours to clean the fragrant finds, sitting around that kitchen table, my mother, my grandmother and I.
The oatmeal bubbles softly. I rinse my hands and dry them off. I like to catch it at the moment of perfection, a little gooey, but still liquid, enough to slide from pot to bowl with ease. I top each bowl with Cecily’s Apples, sprinkle on sunflower seeds, a tablespoon of golden flax and, finally, dried cranberries. Just as I pour on maple syrup, my wife comes back inside, her arms filled to overflowing with sunflowers, the last of her beloved crop.
Silently we eat the oatmeal. It’s good and solid, nothing fancy, like our life in Maine. As I savor sweet and creamy, enhanced by nutty and balanced out by tart, I cannot help but ponder the gratitude of middle age. And when I finish, when spoon meets bottom of the bowl, I turn to my wife and say: “Maybe next year, with the proper pruning, the peach tree will bear fruit.”
It’s beautiful outside, crisp, clear and sunny; the birds are full of song. You got up early, snuck out before I had a chance to make you coffee, and by the time you’re back, exhausted, sweaty, I’m on my second cup.
You sink into the wing chair in the corner, staring at the air above the stove. “I am so hungry I don’t know what to do.” A streak of dirt crosses your cheek and you’re still breathing heavily, a rhythmic huff so loud it’s drowning out the birds.
I laugh and rise, rinse out my mug. “Go, take a shower, breakfast will be ready by the time you’re done.”
The situation calls for serious protein. I stick my head into the fridge. I know there is a chunk of bacon, smoked twice until it turned a mellow brown, the color of strong tea. To my delight I found this staple of my childhood – and an array of other German treats – when I discovered Morse’s down the road, home of the famous Morse’s Sauerkraut. I cut the bacon into generous slices, easily a quarter inch. Each cut releases a briny, smoky fragrance that fills the air with memories.
With the bacon slowly sizzling on the stove top, I stroll down to the kitchen garden. All that protein needs to be lightened by some fresh green herbs. Three, four, five stone steps and around the studio corner, I enter into paradise.
This is my first time planting veggies after a break of twenty years. Life in the city hampered growing – not enough sun, not enough space and never ever enough time. My first time living in the country. In early June, the start of planting season, I went wild. Tomatoes, carrots, beans and peppers, parsnips, eggplants, collard greens – the more I planted, the more I craved. Beets, lettuce, cauliflower, arugula, radishes, Swiss chard, and anywhere I found a corner I planted marigolds and herbs.
Meandering through the twelve raised beds of sparkling green and gold, I listen to my inner palate to match up eggs with herbs. I pass by the cilantro, the stronger stuff like tarragon and dill, in favor of a bunch of chives and parsley, but right before I step inside, I catch a glimpse of the perennial stand-by’s we planted near the door, bend down and add a snip or two of thyme, a leaf or three of sage.
The aroma that awaits me in the kitchen is all it takes to make me salivate.
I turn the bacon slices and crack six eggs into a bowl, each yolk a sunny smile. They’re local, laid by chickens that get to live a life that’s not confined. Then I add kosher salt and grind up pepper and whisk the eggs into an even yellow, chop up the herbs and mix them in.
The bacon’s done; crisp, meaty slices that retained their heft. I let it rest on top of paper towels, push down the lever for the toast just as you come back down, all scrubbed and shiny and your hair slicked back. Immediately, your eyes turn to the paper towels. Three steps, your hand is reaching out. You glance at me. I smile and nod.
There is no better bacon than the slice that has been stolen.
I fire up another pan to melt a tablespoon of butter, the secret of good scrambled eggs. In German, they’re called Rührei, stirred eggs, and that’s the second trick. I turn the gas on high and stir, never letting up, until the bottom sticks. At that point I remove the pan, and continue stirring, scraping the sides and mixing until the eggs are done. Light and creamy and severely herbed, this is completely different from the usual diner food.
When you put down your fork your face is lit with pleasure and, just at the clink of silver on the edge of porcelain, the birds resume their song.