Avoca, Wisconsin – July 2019

The Avoca summer house backs into a hill on one side. On the other side, the deck juts into oak tree tops. A friend and I are eye level with squirrels. Equals. As if tree tops are our place as much as theirs. Given a chance though, Nature would push down the house and reclaim the landscape.

I don’t know the deep rhythms of the natural world, but for a few days, I’m immersed. Midwestern summers speak to me. Lush green cornfields exhaling. White daisies, purple crown vetch, and yellow bird’s foot trefoil cascading down hillsides and overflowing ditches. Ponds greening. Humming flies diving toward my head again and again. Gnats’ silent pestering.

At dusk, the day has barely cooled. Humidity blankets everything. The air is still. Near the edge of the gravel road, a doe startles then bounds off through a cornfield. Birds begin their call and response. When evening deepens to inky black, fireflies as bright as falling stars flash: Find me. Find me.

Nature’s abundance and persistence energizes and soothes. I know all is not right with the world, but for the moment it feels like it.

Squirreling It Away

I’m not a pioneer storing enough root vegetables to see my family through the winter. I don’t need to can tomatoes and beans or make pickles and jams that will last until next spring. Cub Foods is five minutes away, and they aren’t going to run out anytime soon. But the impulse to preserve the harvest seems to be encoded in my DNA.

Part of it is the pleasure of perfect ripeness—it all tastes to so good. Tomatoes, sweet corn, green beans, and eggplant are tender and flavorful. Basil, mint, and cilantro are at their fragrant best. Sweet juicy peaches and crisp apples are delicious. I want to save all of those fresh, wonderful flavors.

Everything’s cheap, especially at the farmer’s market. How can I resist? Truthfully though, my urge to preserve isn’t really about saving money. By the time I’ve driven to a few farmer’s markets to hunt and gather . . . well, savings isn’t exactly the point.

Some of it is pure celebration. So many fruits and vegetables—a feast! There’s joy in the bounty. Someone (not me) planted, watered, weeded, and protected the crops, and Nature delivered again. It’s very reassuring. If you do the steps, food will grow.

After rhapsodizing about the pleasure of harvesting and preserving, you’d think I must be in a canning frenzy this time of year, but no. I like the idea of it, but I’m lazy. I’ll probably make and freeze a small batch of pesto that has the exact right amount of garlic. I’ve already frozen about 18 cups of ginger peaches—my favorite fruit. I can enjoy them when snow is on the ground and spring seems a long way off.

Something about those efforts satisfies my innate need to squirrel away food before winter.

 

Ode to Sweet Corn

Truck farmers slowly drove pickups through the neighborhood where I grew up, sing-songing, “Tomatoes, peaches, peppers, melons, sweet corn.” Neighborhood moms stepped to the curb in white sleeveless blouses and faded Bermuda shorts, handing over a few dollars from their change purses.

Screen Shot 2015-09-16 at 7.59.52 PMBefore dinner, we kids ripped and shucked off the corn’s cool stiff leaves, crumbled dry brown corn silk from the top of the ears, and pulled clingy translucent green silk from the cobs. Then we snapped ears from the stalks and leaves. Sometimes milky juice popped from nearby kernels. In the already-hot kitchen, water rolled and boiled in a deep pot, adding steam, more heat, and the cabbage-y stink of boiling corn to the room.

At the table, we guided melting pats of butter with a knife across the bumpy kernels. Salted the ears. Bit into crispy yellow and white sweetness. Kernels crammed in my teeth but I didn’t stop. I just kept going around and around till the cob was bare.

Growing up in Toledo, Ohio, in the midst of Jeep, spark plug and glass factories, sweet corn was simple and wholesome, something we Midwesterners took pride in. There was so much sweet corn that we could eat it every day for six weeks if we wanted. Then it was done. The truck farmers disappeared. We never froze it or canned sweet corn. For my family, sweet corn was a summer-only feast.