Saturday, July 26, 2008

Beginner's Luck

I’m in trouble with these vegetables. It’s only July and I’m already giving them away. Every night we have tomato and green pepper salad and I’ve made my special zucchini spaghetti three times. Going on eight if you count the leftovers.

This is the recipe: Fry zucchini in olive oil and garlic. Add sliced black olives. Pour it over spaghetti and mix it up with garlic salt and fresh parmesan cheese. That’s it.

That meal, though not what one thinks of as a traditional country meal, such as chicken and biscuits, reminds me of being on a farm in the summer. When I was a little girl, my mother’s friend, Alice, took me to her sister’s farm in upstate New York. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Madelyn, the sister, let me do farm things. She gave me a bottle to feed a baby goat. She let me pick out a cookie recipe from her black-and-white composition notebook where she kept them all hand-written inside and let me make a batch myself. (Two pages were stuck together, and so I followed two recipes, unbeknownst to me. Somehow, they still came out delicious. Perhaps it was the dumb luck of a beginner.) Madelyn also sent me out to the garden to pick zucchini and the other sister, Jeannie, made the zucchini spaghetti. They served it out of a big dented aluminum pot to all of us kids and now summer is not summer to me unless I make it.

The problem is, that’s the only thing I know how to make with zucchini and my vegetable drawer is stuffed with them. Plus there are three more big ones waiting to be picked as we speak and no gang of kids to feed it to. Even the tomatoes. A dozen ripen every day. More than we can eat. And there are a hundred green ones waiting their turn. My mother is always wanting me to make fried green tomatoes. I think she got that from the movie of the same name. But why fry a green one when you can eat a red one or fry up some zucchini or eggplant? If gas wasn’t so expensive, I’d take the vegetables to some soup kitchen or homeless shelter but I’m not going to spend seventy-five bucks driving to the city to hand over a bag of vegetables. It’s not like you can make it worth your while and save them all up and bring a truckload of veggies, which is what it looks like I’m going to get when all is said and done. If I had the room to save vegetables, I wouldn’t be in this predicament.

I don’t know who I could give my vegetables to. I don’t see many people on the farm. The UPS guy comes once in a while. The ladies down at the Minute Market when I have to go and get milk. The bank lady. That’s about it. I asked Kurt to bring some to work but being a guy who hates sissy-Mary vegetables like zucchini, and most things green, he said, “Nobody wants that stuff.” The neighbors are no good because they all have their own gardens—big plots of red earth surrounded by wire fence reinforced with various methods to keep the deer out—aluminum pie plates rattling and spinning in the breeze; strips of neon orange tape fluttering and wiggling; scarecrows in worn-out overalls and straw hats with broken brims; electric wire; baby powder. People will try anything to keep the deer out. But they don’t need any of my vegetables even if the deer get through and munch on theirs all night long. I couldn’t shine their shoes as far as gardening goes.

Pearl moved one of her gardens to a different spot this year because the deer were having a hay-day and she wanted to throw them off the track. This was the one that was next to my driveway. I’d asked her what she was doing with it because June was already here and nothing was planted. She said, “Oh, do you want to use it?”

I almost had a heart attack. It’s about an acre big.

“No, no, I just wanted to know what you were going to do with it,” I waved my hand and backed up.

It’s nice to know Pearl has a lot of faith in me. But it is obvious she doesn’t really understand just how much of a real city girl I am. How I recently learned gardening tools are not for tying in a ribbon and hanging on the wall like in Country Living magazine. Or how I just learned how to weed, deadhead, prime the pump, identify a black widow, back the truck up to the loading dock at the feed store without hitting the hitch, that Sevin isn’t a number and gathering wood isn’t romantic.

Still. It appears I have a green thumb. You’d think I have a big garden with all this surplus stuff. You’d think I was using Pearl’s acre next door. The neighbors are suspicious. Truth be told, I have given them some of my vegetables before their own, in their big plots of land with their professionally tilled up dirt and spinning discs like round mirrors keeping the deer out, came in. Effie raised an eyebrow when I handed her a Wal-Mart bag full of tomatoes and zucchinis. “Debi, where are you gettin’ this stuff?”

“Right there,” I turned and pointed to my little garden. It’s only about two feet wide and runs the length of the garage, turns the corner and runs the width. That’s it. One row. Actually, I wasn’t even planning to make it that big. Last year I had a hard enough time managing the tomatoes. But when I saw the pepper plants at the feed store, I thought I should at least get a package. I don’t know what they’re called. It was a container of four. Peppers are eighty-nine cents a pop in Wal-Mart and half the time they’ve got little soft spots on them. So I thought I might as well pick up a package of four and save some money. I got a package of four tomato plants as well. You have to have tomatoes. There is nothing more glorious than a juicy tomato still warm from the sun.

Half the garden is a strawberry patch. It overflows onto the lawn. We planted that last year with a couple of seedlings we bought from the 4-H club for a fundraiser. It has now run amok. I’ve gotten a couple of pints of sweet strawberries out of it and though the strawberry farms in the area have closed for the season, my strawberries are still coming.

I thought I was all set but then Kelly came home from school with some sweet potato plants they started in ag class. So we planted them too. On the last day of school, she stepped off the bus with two more packages of tomato plants. The teacher was unloading everything in the greenhouse. I gave half to Pearl. I should have given her all of them. And then the next time I was in the feed store I thought about zucchini spaghetti up on the farm and so I picked up a package of zucchini plants. That’s how the garden ended up going around the back of the garage.

What do I do with all of this? Last year Pearl got me freezing my tomatoes. I can’t can them because I have a smooth-top stove and you can’t can on those types of stoves because the heat will break the glass. Well, that is neither here or there because I don’t know how to can anyway, plus if I did, I wouldn’t, because it sounds like too much work. So Pearl turned me on to freezing. It’s pretty simple. Just boil the tomatoes, slip the skins off when they’re cool, and put them in Tupperware containers. The problem is, I still have tomatoes in my containers in the freezer from last year.

Even if I could handle Pearl’s acre next door, it is apparent that I don’t need it. I have a green thumb all right. Or just the dumb luck of a beginner.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Hurting Jersey's Feelings

My friend from up north thinks I’m picking on my home state. She said, “We’re not all mean, you know.” Duh. I’m from there. Well, I’ve been known to get mean when somebody eats the last of the Chunky Monkey or takes my favorite spot on the couch. She’s from there. She’s definitely not mean.

Let’s call her Jennifer. Jennifer complained that I depict New Jersey in a bad light. She’s never had a driver shake a fist at her or give her the finger. I don’t know what New Jersey she lives in. All the northerners who have read my stories about getting the finger because I was too far in the road with my horse or hesitated when it was my turn to go at a light, commiserated and shared their own stories about the same thing happening to them—many times. We shook our heads. And then we laughed.

Everyone has a story to tell about rude behavior on the road up there. There is even a term for it when it gets really bad—road rage. That’s how common it is. In fact, I just read an article in the newspaper about how Belmar, N.J. is trying to make a new law banning all obscene gestures—aka finger flipping—it’s gotten so out of hand. Sounds like a lot of it is going on if you have to make an actual law about it. Go here if you want to read the article:

I, myself, have probably been given the finger dozens of times in my forty-three years of life in Jersey and I’m a good and polite driver—I’ve never even had a traffic ticket. Down here, all I’ve gotten from other drivers is a nod or a wave. I wonder when was the last time a stranger coming from the other direction on Route 537 waved hello to Jennifer as they passed each other?

But I don’t think it’s simply a matter of a difference of opinion about the existence of mean people in the north and disappointment over my lack of loyalty to my home state. No, there is more to it than that because after Jenny insinuated that my experience with finger-flipping couldn’t have happened in the friendly state of New Jersey, she added that she often goes strawberry-picking or peach-picking and for my information, she has a porch to sit on too. With a view. Ut oh. That’s when I knew there was more going on here than me outing the mean people and possibly hurting New Jersey tourism.

This was not the first time she shot me down for bragging about my new life in the country. One time I tried to tell her about how I got peaches right from the orchard and was making homemade cobbler. This was all new to me, these country things—making cobbler, picking strawberries, growing tomatoes, buying jars of sorghum molasses at bluegrass jamborees. Simple things. But things I’ve dreamed about my whole life. And I wanted to share it all! Especially with my friend. But every time I tried to tell her, she would say something like, “We have strawberries here too.” Like I don’t know there are strawberries in New Jersey. Like my strawberries canceled her strawberries out. She stopped me in my tracks. I wasn’t allowed to gush about how I love it here without getting into a competition.

Yes, I know there are farm products in New Jersey. It’s not called the Garden State for nothing. But since she brought it up, agriculture is on its way out up there. Only twenty percent of the land in New Jersey is still farmland. Chemicals are the number one industry in Jersey. Other important manufactured items are oil refineries, pharmaceuticals, instruments, machinery and electrical goods. Agriculture is the number one industry in Virginia. It is followed by tourism. Maybe she has never been here before. Anyone who has visited both states can see with their very own eyes that Virginia is mostly farmland and New Jersey is cities and suburban sprawl with a few farms left people are selling off in bits and pieces because they can’t afford to pay the property taxes anymore. Or they’re cashing in big time, taking all the equity and…coming down here.

But I am not writing about New Jersey. Other than the occasional anecdote to illustrate a point—whether it’s the bad behavior that makes me appreciate being here, or simply to show why being here is like being on another planet, both of which give me colorful material to write about—I am writing a love letter about Virginia. I am talking and writing about strawberry-picking down here because this is what is going on right now. City girl gone country. This is what my stories are about.

And yet, I admit, Virginia is not perfect. There’s good and bad in every place and in my defense, I think I’ve written about some bad things in Virginia even though that’s not what the subject is. If anyone was eavesdropping on Kurt's and my conversation with the tack guy at the barrel race the other day, they might have thought we hate Virginia. We complained there are no good bakeries down here and I cried, “I’d kill for a real cannoli.” Then we snickered about how everything’s on a biscuit. We followed that with complaints about how they nickel-and-dime you to death down here and agreed that nothing is cheaper except for real estate and car insurance but the pay is a fraction of what you get up north, so, in reality, you are behind the game. We continued with jokes about hunting season, rants about Wal-Mart, and bewilderment about so much religion going on. Then we said how much we love it here.

I’m not sure why it bothers Jen so much that I make fun of my home state. Like she said herself, she has a porch to sit on too. Maybe she’ll feel better when she reads the story I am writing about how I think all the women down here let themselves go. (Not really all of them, lest I offend someone else, let me clarify—I am only exaggerating for effect.) Of course, since I am infatuated, in new love where the lover can do no wrong, I find that a plus—there’s freedom in not caring if one has a muffin top or make-up on.

I guess in a way I’m like Larry the Cable Guy who makes fun of himself and the south. I make fun of where I come from. Gosh, if you can’t laugh at yourself, who can you laugh it? I want to tell Jenny, lighten up. Everyone else laughed or nodded knowingly. Plus, I honestly don’t think it makes a bit of difference what I say about Jersey. People are leaving in droves without my help. In fact, there’s a bumper sticker up there that says, “Will the Last One Who Leaves NJ Please Turn Out the Lights?” Ha! I guess I’m not the only one who hates the finger-flipping. And the ones who somehow have never gotten an obscene hand gesture, like Jen, or who don’t care because other good things are more important, are staying up there and enjoying all the culture, the shopping, the jobs, the open-mindedness and yes, the cannolis.

Perhaps in another post I will talk about what I learned in sociology about why people are meaner in cities so that no one thinks I believe New Jerseyans are inherently bad. And to be fair, I will also write about some wonderful things in New Jersey. Things that I miss. Like the smell of creosote on the docks and salt in the air, Bruce Springsteen, Italian people, the New York skyline. But for now, it’s time to go and get a piece of peach cobbler, still warm from the oven.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Racket on the Farm

There is no getting any rest on the farm for the city girl. My niece Erin, who has come to visit, has dark circles under her eyes and yawns more than any normal American sixteen-year-old kid has a right to. And it’s not because she’s used to the clamor of the city—horns honking, bottles breaking, laughter and tinny music coming from the alley, and this is dead quiet. Too quiet. That’s not it at all. In fact, it’s just the opposite. She claims Spot the Donkey hee-haws in the middle of the night and wakes her up. I hear nothing. She said a wild animal of some sort, something very big and ferocious, perhaps a grizzly bear, or even Bigfoot himself, woke her up after Spot was done with his shenanigans. Then The Big Stupid, who recently found his voice and whose bark is deep and full-bodied like what would come from a very large breed such as a St. Bernard (we don’t know what he is, adopted from the pound, he’s like a potluck supper), spotted deer encroaching on my garden on the side of the garage and he ran from window to window barking at them. I imagine he was thinking, “Hmm, this bark comes in handy,” amazed at himself. I went down to pee and let him out. He can’t catch the deer but he’s good at scaring them away.

After that commotion was over, Erin said the cows were mooing. I didn’t hear that either. I’m not saying the girl is lying. But she’s got one set of ears on her.

After the cows, when she finally drifted back to sleep, she had a dream her cell phone was ringing and it was on vibrate. She jumped up and nearly hit her head on the shutter next to the bed. Turns out it wasn’t the phone at all but the rare king bee buzzing against the screen, dive-bombing it, trying to bust through. (In truth, there is no such thing as a rare king bee, as far as I know, but there’s a humongous bee around here, about as big as a man’s big toe, that we felt we were within our rights renaming, considering no one will know and we have no idea what kind of bee he really is. But he’s a monster.)

Throughout the night, the frogs croaked like this was the bayou and the resident whippoorwill called from somewhere in the black trees on the edge of the horses’ field. These noises I know were happening because I hear them myself all the time. Not only the frogs and the whippoorwill, but crickets and an owl. Erin said it’s worse than living over a tavern that does karaoke on Friday nights and has brawls in the gravel parking lot when last call is over—all the noises around here. I’m pooh-poohing that. You can’t compare the lonely sound of the whippoorwill! whippoorwill! whippoorwill! to a drunk guy singing “Taking Care of Business.”

When the first light came and I was on the porch having my morning coffee, I heard the neighbor’s rooster. That’s my favorite farm sound, a rooster cockadoodledooing. In the background, there was a cacophony of assorted bird songs, tweeting and twittering and whistling, starting their day, looking for worms and rotten cherries that dropped from the trees—easy pickin’s. Apparently, some of these birds hang out by Erin’s window and flutter against the glass up top. Flap. Flap. Flap. Maybe they’re building a nest up there, in the eaves or on the sill, I don’t know.

Included in the morning songs of the birds was a hummingbird, about the size of the rare king bee. He was like a miniature engine zooming around the purple flowers on my hostas. Not long after, Eldon came around on his tractor. He tipped his straw hat when he went by. Then Kurt’s alarm went off. That’s a whole racket in itself. That clock rings incessantly and shatters all peace and quiet within a two-acre radius for a good half hour every morning. I have to go up there myself and hit the snooze button at least twice and shake him and lie and say it’s later than it is and we’re all getting a headache from the ringing so please get up, before he will finally struggle out of the sheets and shut it off. Sometimes he curses. He’s been known to stomp. There have been occasions where I was outside with some service provider, the blacksmith for instance, and he’d look up and ask, “What’s that ringing?”

“Oh, that’s Kurt’s alarm clock. He’ll get it sooner or later.” Then I pretend I don’t hear it. And the blacksmith goes along with it and keeps right on nailing like he doesn’t hear it either.

But if you’re sleeping in the room right next door, or trying to, it’s no use.

Right around that time, MoJo the Siamese cat, known for being vocal, starts meowing. He wants in. He wants out. He wants in. I think he meows mainly to hear his own voice because it doesn’t matter what you give him; he’ll find something else to meow about. Sometimes he rubs up against the dog who innocently leans down and sniffs him. Then all hell breaks loose. “Don’t touch me!” He hisses and whacks the dog. The Big Stupid yelps and runs around in circles, skids across the floor, tail clamped to his butt, while MoJo screams at him, occasionally reaches out for another swat, and the dog goes faster, his nails clicking on the floor, until he crashes into the sink or rolls under the table knocking a chair over. In other words, the fur is flying and the sun is barely up.

Add to that the physical labor this city girl has been doing, chores she’s not used to—picking up manure, weeding the garden, sweeping the barn, carrying buckets of water…and this kid is pooped. Therefore she has been partaking in the afternoon nap, of which I myself am an aficionado of. She gets in maybe an hour on the couch before the afternoon thunderstorms start and it sounds like we are being bombed.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Still Here, Just Busy

It's been hectic. Restarting Kurt's horse. Getting Doc's feet fixed. Barrel racing. Riding lessons. Writing. Working. Gardening. And my niece Erin is here. I put the city girl to work. Here she is pulling weeds. You have to earn your keep around here.