“You Can’t Spoil It”

I canned seven pints of piccalilli today, following two old family recipes. As with most family recipes, they make no sense. But after a bunch of roundabout instructions, random amounts of ingredients and other “be sure to’s,” there’s a line at the bottom: “You can’t spoil it.”

True enough. This stuff has enough acid, sugar and salt in it to survive World War III.

IMG_20170910_140325

The base for this sweet and sour relish is green tomatoes, as piccalilli is meant to use up all the veggies from your garden at the end of the season. I picked all my Roma tomatoes yesterday, saving anything red or almost red for one last batch of spaghetti sauce. The rest went into the piccalilli pot, along with a green and a red bell pepper, a couple of onions, and some broccoli stalks. Everything took a whirl in the food processor, before being salted, drained, and boiled in white vinegar with more salt, what seems like way too much sugar, a pickling spice sack and a generous palmful of mustard seeds. I hot-packed the relish into sterilized pint jars and processed them in a boiling-water canner for 10 minutes.

They’re sitting on a beach towel because after they’re processed, I swaddle them in a heavy towel so they can cool very slowly.

I learned to can at my great-aunt’s knee. She had a kind of subsistence farm in rural New Hampshire, where growing and canning food was a matter of survival. I’d visit for two weeks every August to help her harvest, process and can her food. She had a special set-up in her basement with a giant hand-crank Foley Food Mill and some pressure- and boiling-water canners. It was hot, dirty, dangerous work. I loved it.

One time, we worked all day and went to bed early, only to be awakened by the sound of smashing glass. In the basement, we discovered that a jar of tomatoes we’d canned that day had exploded, in turn smashing several others around it. We’d forgotten to swaddle the jars and had left the basement windows open, letting some damp cold mountain air invade the space. We cleaned up the mess in our nightgowns, glass crinkling underfoot, the stinky tomato guts all warm and slimy.

I laid awake for much of the night, convinced that more jars would expolde.

The next day, my great-aunt inspected all the other tomato jars and decreed that the exploded jar was defective. She sent me home with several jars of what we’d put up, and I was afraid the whole long ride home that another explosion was imminent. To this day, I swaddle my jars overnight.

Some years, I don’t get around to making piccalilli or canning anything else. For one thing, a freezer is a much better option for preserving food nowadays. (We rarely have power outages; Every winter she’d be out of power for at least a week.) For another, I really don’t need to do this time-consuming, archaic chore. I don’t live off my food I grow or even care about it that much. But then I look around my home and think about all my blessings, and think about where I have come from and where so many of my relatives still are – scraping by, yearning for the past, feeling like a stranger in the here-and-now. I and so I make some piccalilli, using the old recipes, for Christmas gifts that are truly appreciated.

 

Advertisements

The $5, 15-hour Cucumber

My reluctant garden finally turned out some produce. Behold! The $5, 15-hour cucumber!

IMG_20170713_124638

Are you saying to yourself, “This looks like every other cucumber I ever saw?” Well, yes. But this is a magic cucumber. It’s magic because I put some seeds in some dirt and out it grew.

Now, are you saying to yourself, “Um… Duh… Isn’t that how all cucumbers grow?”

Again you are right. It wasn’t magic. It was horticulture.

Happy now?

I estimate this cucumber cost me $5. I bought a packet of seeds. I also bought some mulch. So those are my raw materials. We don’t count wear and tear on other things, such as gloves and tools. We won’t count the soil in my raised beds, since that’s been in place for a while. We also won’t count the cost of water. What do I look like, an accountant? Let’s just say $5 and call it square, OK?

I estimate it took 15 hours of labor to grow this cucumber. The “stick seed in the dirt” bit takes 10 seconds. But you know what takes hours? Weeding, watering, shoveling, tilling, screening the soil, making compost and digging it in. Also peeking at the cucumber vine to see if it’s coughed up anything yet.

So that’s my fabulous cucumber. I’m going to eat it with some hummus. I may get another one next week.

The Competitiveness of “Making”

Why is “making” things such a big deal?

I went to a dinner party Saturday night and got all snarky with friends about the glory of “making” vs. “buying.”

I happened to be wearing my tablecloth dress because these friends had shown an interest in the past about my sewing projects. It glams up pretty well with some cream-colored rope-soled wedges, a Kenneth Cole bag in sage green and some gold and jade jewelry inherited from my grandmother.

So when a friend asked if I made the dress, I said “yes.” Actually, I said “Is it that obvious?” She assured me it was not obvious at all, but she knew I sewed and so she always wonders when she sees me if I’m wearing anything me-made.

The guys at this party – my husband and two friends (husbands of the women) – had looks on their faces as if to say, “Please don’t let this mixed-gender conversation turn into a female-only discussion about sewing.” Clearly, most men don’t get it. They understand “making” something they enjoy, like baking a cake or painting a picture, but sewing women’s apparel is beyond them.

What’s a gal to do but to get a bit snarky?

One of these guys happens to have a pretty big garden. “Why grow your own vegetables and flowers? Why don’t you just buy them?” I asked. One guy homebrews beer. “Why do that? Why not just buy beer?” Hmm?

Clearly, I hit a nerve. I didn’t get much of an answer from the guys, beyond “it’s just a hobby” and “I’ve been doing it forever” and “I invested in all this equipment already.” Shortly after this little discussion, the guys decamped to the kitchen to talk, leaving the women in the living room. We shifted our conversation elsewhere.

When dessert was brought out, I could not resist another little dig. I knew darn well that my friend had not baked the peach tart that was put before us, but I couldn’t resist asking: “Did you make that?”

She said “no” and seemed embarrassed about it. Why? It was delicious and beautiful. We ate the whole thing. What difference does it matter if you make or buy? Are some things more worthy of “making” than others? If a man makes it’ does that make it more worthy?

Hey – if you want to make, make. If you want to buy, buy. No judgment.

“Women’s Work”

I’ve had these garden gloves for years. I never noticed the label: Womanswork.

IMG_20170521_153612

I love these gloves because they fit perfectly. No wonder – Womanswork is owned by a woman and many key staff people are women and relatives of the company’s founder. (For more info, see their Website.)

Wow does the term “woman’s work” get a bad rap. I have been watching this BBC show “Victorian Slum House” (airing now in the US), one of these shows where modern people try to live in historical times, and this old guy who probably would have been dead in the 19th century is all upset because he’s stuck doing “woman’s work” – making artificial flowers to sell to milliners. He tried “man’s work” at a bell foundry and put his back out.

I felt sorry for him, because back pain is horrific. But I turned sour at his disdain for the flower-making job. It put food on the table and kept a roof over the head of his whole family of five for a week. Why, is his mind, is making a bell more important than making an ornament for a hat? Is it because a bell is big and heavy and a flower is tiny and light? Because the bell costs more? Because a bell is “manly” in some way that a flower is not?

Both iron bells and artificial flowers are fripperies in life, one might say. Not necessary. Not important. One is not inherently better than another. But all work has value. All work matters and should be treated with respect, just as all workers should be treated with dignity.

A lot of young men find themselves out of work nowadays. That’s for a lot of reasons, but one reason is because of their disdain for “women’s work.” Health care is the largest sector of the US economy, yet it’s predominantly female. So is education; except at the collegiate level, female teachers and staff outnumber men greatly. Men need to get over this idea that only certain kinds of work are worthy of them. Or, they can stand back and watch the women continue to outshine them at every turn.

Me-Made in the Garden

I watered plants in the garden yesterday after work, while wearing my Tunic Dress from the Japanese sewing book Happy Homemade Sew Chic.

The dress is made of Japanese double gauze, which is very airy and comfy in hot weather.

The hanging plants in the background are hops vines. We’ll harvest the hops in the fall and give the crop to friends who brew beer.

Plant a Tree

I bought a tree yesterday. An Eastern redbud, variety “Carolina Sweetheart,” with red variegated leaves and dark pink flowers.

IMG_20170430_104421

We went to a fancy garden center to get it. Few places scream “distaff side” more than a fancy garden center. Farming is  a man’s world. The garden is where the gals go.

We no sooner arrived than the extras from Central Casting appeared: The skinny old WASP-y woman in khakis and tennis shoes, the tummy pooch from mothering 3 or 4 children, broad-brimmed hat shading her face, deeply lined from too much sun and too many cigarettes in her youth. The Earth Mother in jangling bracelets, who let it be known to all within earshot that she drove up from New Jersey that morning because she just had to have such and whatnot. The 30-something French-manicured mom who wants to rip out every living thing from her newly purchased property that she hates and replace it with other living things that she loves, for now.

Some male employees took them around, showing off the plants and listening to these women’s garden glories. The message was plain on these men’s faces, under their hipster beards: “Whatever you want, lady.”

I fled to the ornamental tree section and browsed the redbuds. A young woman who worked at the garden center asked if I needed help. She was maybe 5’2″ with dark hair clubbed into a short ponytail under a floppy sun hat. She wore black-framed glasses and sturdy boots and dirty jeans. Under the V-neck of her T-shirt I glimpsed part of a tattoo of a magnolia blossom (I knew it was a magnolia because under the blossom, “magnolia grandiflora” skated across in script). I also glimpsed a nest of curly auburn armpit hair.

We got to talking, and guess what? She lives a couple blocks away from me. She rides her bike to work in the garden center – at least an hour’s ride up some steep hills. She was funny and knowledgeable and confident. In short, I wanted to be her.

OK, not her exactly. She’s probably half my age, for starters, and no way do I want to be in my 20s again. But her life as I glimpsed it and assumed it to be appealed to me. How nice it would be, to do what I love on my own terms? I don’t know if I’d stop shaving my pits, but I’d love to wear my handmade clothes, eat my fill from my garden, write and just be, on my own terms, more often than I do today.

What’s stopping me? Fear of poverty, I can tell you that. I’ve always been driven to earn money and achieve more and more in my career. That’s brought me to a big job at a big company in a big city, living in a big house with big bills to pay. Has it brought happiness? Not really. I enjoy this life, for sure. But part me of always wonders what it would be like without it all.

When I was in my 20s I tried the bohemian life, but bolted for convention quickly. You marry, buy a house, get your first “real” job. Maybe you have a kid or two. You may want to go back to a simpler time, but you also need to be a grown-up, so you keep going.

Someone with a better sense of humor than mine once said: “If everyone actually did what they wanted to do when they were young, the world would have way too many ballerinas and not nearly enough garbagemen.”

True enough. So I will plant my tree, inhale its floral scent in spring, sit under its shade in summer, collect its autumn leaves, gaze at its naked limbs in winter, and think about what might have been.