Saturday, August 18, 2007

Study in Black and White

It's not as if there are only white flowers in my garden, the place is simply awash with color, but for some reason it is the small white flowers that seem to get all the insect attention lately.

The larger birds head for the blueberries, the hummingbirds go straight for the beebalm, but the insects gather on the white blossoms of the garlic chives and the oregano. This is lucky for me since they are planted near the porch, the favorite vantage point of a lazy man.

It's also interesting that there are few bees about. The dominant insects right now are the cabbage butterflies and wasps.

The cabbage butterflies, unwelcome in those years when I plant that type of vegetable, are small and predominantly white with black wingtips and a black spot in the middle of their forewings.

The wasps, as far as my somewhat tentative examination of them reveals, are digger wasps, I assume, from some cursory research that they are a variety of the thread-waisted wasp. They are a steely blue-black.

The two types of insects cohabit the blossoms without any confrontation or irritation, each quietly moving in its own way around the clusters of white flowers. There seems to be no real instinct of territoriality either within or between the species.

Each type of insect provokes a kind of primal, visceral reaction. The fluttering, randomness of the cabbage butterfly seems somehow gentle and clueless. It is hard to think of the butterfly as any kind of threat. Dislodged by a gust of wind, it tumbles across the garden like a scrap of paper, rights itself, seems to shrug fatalistically and bumbles about to find another blossom.

The purposeful, powerful vectors of the wasps are threatening ... no, everything about the wasp is threatening. It's obvious why designers of fighter planes seem to take it as a template. It is a living metaphor for aggression. Its color and shape, the direct and purposeful vectors of its flight are danger incarnate. When the gust of wind dislodges its goofy butterfly neighbor, the wasp is unperturbed. It hunkers down, holds tight and continues to feed no matter how low a bow the flower makes to the wind.

Yet, of the two, the butterfly is the greater threat. Admittedly the wasp will sting if disturbed, but the solution to that is simple ... don't disturb it. It is a predator, but its prey is pestiferous insects that like to eat the same food as humans. The butterfly on the other hand, as gentle and passive as it seems to be, will lay eggs and let its children kill your vegetables and leave you hungry.

Brains and Brawn

In an earlier post I mentioned that we, here in the US, have the luxury of disgust. Our food is pre-processed to the point that we can no longer recognize its origins.

I have been engaged for some time in writing a history of Farmington, Maine in the year 1868, based on the diary of a young lady (who would eventually become my wife's great grandmother) who graduated from the 'normal school' or teachers' college that year.

In the course of my research I have learned a great deal about the daily life of the people I describe in the book. Recently I've been studying their cooking.

One of the books that I have found fascinating is a compendium of facts, processes, and recipes from 1889 written by Barkham Burroughs. I though that I would share some of this lost knowledge with you.

Clean a pig's head, and rub it over with salt and a little saltpetre, and let it lie two or three days; then boil it until the bones will leave the meat; season with salt and pepper, and lay the meat hot in a mold, and press and weigh it down for a few hours. Boil another hour, covering. Be sure and cut the tongue, and lay the slices in the middle, as it much improves the flavor.

That is not a recipe for people who sterilize their kitchens after opening a package of plastic-wrapped, skinless, boneless, chicken breasts.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Cardinals Rule

There is a crumbling cement birdbath in the shade of the white pine and the black spruce beside it. In the drowsy warmth of mid-afternoon I watch as a cardinal drops from the skeletal branch of another black spruce, a dead one that I have been too lazy to cut down.

The red dandy lands on the rim. He cocks his head from side to side checking out the neighborhood, but the old black cat is asleep in a puddle of sun, and the dog is too hot to be bothered.

After a wary moment he makes a quick hop forward into the small puddle in the middle of the dish. He flutters a bit with his wingtips low splashing the water about.

After a moment or two, his mate joins him. She stands guard on the rim as he bustles in the water. Then he hops back to the rim to stand guard as she takes her turn. She splashes briefly before a small cluster of chickadees, attracted by the movement, come plummeting out of another nearby tree. She hops back out to the edge, startling them into flight, but they don't go far. They land on the tips of the live spruce, making the branches bounce. They are little balls of black white and brown amidst the green needles like little ornaments.

They dive back singly from time to time, splashing quickly then zipping back up to their perches. Madam Cardinal is not amused and soon leaves the rim for the depths of the pine. Milord, however, stays for a while, seeming to enjoy playing 'boogie man' to the tiny chickadees.

It seems to be mutual, for when he finally flutters up into the branches of the dead tree, the small birds abandon the birdbath too.

The cardinal seems to settle in on his perch his plumage a brilliant contrast to the blue sky behind him and the stark brown of the dead branch. I wonder what he is doing. I get the binoculars.

He is preening, working all of his feathers with his beak. He sits there, grooming himself for at least five or ten minutes, unperturbed by a few visits from his mate who seems to have an "aren't you ready yet?" attitude.

I look away for a minute and when I look back he is gone.

I realize that my observations are simplistic and tend to humanize animal behavior, but I must say that I always admire the seemingly uncomplicated lives of the small creatures in our neighborhood.

An incident like this puts me in mind of a poem that I have always liked.

A lizard ran out on a rock and looked up, listening
no doubt to the sounding of the spheres.
And what a dandy fellow! the right toss of a chin for you
and swirl of a tail!

If men were as much men as lizards are lizards
they'd be worth looking at.

D.H. Lawrence

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

True Luxury

These days it must seem a luxury to have a garden, to have enough land to plant and harvest your own vegetables, fruits and berries, but it was not always that way. Not long ago, it was a necessity. Stores and markets were only for those foodstuffs that you could not grow yourself.

If you have an historical bent, and it is focused more on the people and how they lived rather than the big events, this will not be a surprise. Subsistance gardens were the norm except in the depths of cities. Less than 100 years ago, livestock was even found in urban environments with cows, pigs and chickens being raised in Boston, New York City etc.

There are still vestiges of this in the community gardens and victory gardens often found in these cities, although livestock is so uncommon that the appearance of a cow at an intersection in Los Angeles, recently, was a shock to the senses (although her date, David Lynch, might have had something to do with it).

The very idea of buying produce that one could grow was antithetical to the values of those times. Household economists avoided purchasing in favor of cultivating.

But as we became an industrial, then a service, and now an information economy, we have drifted further and further away from the earth. Our fruits and vegetables come from the supermarket with identifying stickers so that the cashiers don't need to identify the unfamiliar, our meat is packaged in plastic, our foods created in huge vats in factories to save us the effort of even having to look at the uncomfortably organic shapes.

So many things now are cookie-cutter; standardized, sanitized, de-scented, bleached, colored, sorted, all to achieve a kind of homogeneity that is not found in nature. Consistency trumps flavor. Sameness is king.

There is a new luxury today, and it is an expensive one. It costs us money, health, and pleasure. It is the luxury of disgust. As corporate farmers and food processors divorce us from our roots, they remove the knowledge of that which sustains our life and substitute a horror of dirt and of nature. The very idea that a caterpillar may have once crawled over the surface of a tomato repulses people. A bird landing on an apple tree makes many people reject the fruit. They should be more concerned when animals refuse to share the food. This is a luxury of deprivation, and I am happy to be deprived of it.

Today my neighbor and I traded produce. She is a sweet lady, in her late seventies, but still active, vital, and to my great benefit, an avid gardener. We both eschew chemical fertilizers and insecticides, so neither of us hesitates about eating the food fresh of the vine or bush. What a delight. She appeared at my door today with four large and gorgeous yellow pattypan squash, and four thin and warty cucumbers. After selfishly slicing a cucumber, adding just a pinch of salt and treating myself to an alfresco lunch on the back porch, I gathered a quart of ripe blueberries for her and left them on her doorstep.

These days many folks think that cucumbers are there merely for texture. They douse them with processed salad dressing to the point that one can no longer taste the vegetable. That is no great loss since the cucumbers one buys from the supermarket are tasteless to begin with. But those from a sun-warmed garden, inconsistent in shape, with warts and mottled skin, have a flavor, one not to be ruined by the violence of modified starches and ersatz "natural flavors" of a supermarket salad dressing.

Perhaps I've been spoiled. I lived in Southern Italy when I was younger. Gardens abounded. Refrigerators were few. You harvested the food for the day, or bought food that had been grown within a few miles. The travesty we know here as Italian salad dressing was nowhere to be found.

To make an Italian salad, one rinsed the leaves of the lettuce to remove the sand and any remaining insect life. You tore the leaves into the proper size, removing areas of brown where some creature had enjoyed a bit of it before you, and made one or two additions; perhaps some olives, some other greens, a slice or two of radish. To dress it was simple. A glug of olive oil a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of salt. Just enough additional flavor to enhance, rather than disguise the green, crisp, and slightly bitter leaves.

But here, in the US, a salad is most often a mess of sugary glop with chemical flavors hiding a tasteless mound of cloned leaves, genetically altered to repel insects and grow to a uniform shape for easy harvesting.

To me, the perfect taste of summer is the tomato sandwich I learned to make in Naples. Here is the recipe:

Early in the morning (5 or 6 am is best), you walk down to the local bakery and buy a loaf of freshly-baked, crusty Italian bread. Carry it home and put it on the counter to cool. You may want to cover it with a light dishtowel to keep the flies off.

At 1 pm, go into the garden and pluck two ripe sun-warmed tomatoes. Plum tomatoes are best, but they should be real ones, the type that are now called "heirloom" and fetch high prices because they cannot be machine harvested. While you are in the garden, pluck a stem of basil, and, unless you have some in the kitchen, you might as well grab a bulb of garlic.

Back in the kitchen, find the olive oil. Slice the tomatoes into thick slabs. Peel, crush and mince two or three cloves of garlic. Slice about five or ten leaves of basil into thin strips. (You don't need to bother wiping the knife off between jobs ... don't be silly.)

Slice the loaf of bread in half, parallel to its base and open it up. drizzle both halves with a good amount of olive oil and sprinkle the bottom half evenly with the garlic and shredded basil. Lay the tomato slices across it with the slices overlapping slightly. Take a pinch of coarse salt and scatter it over the red surface and place the other half of the loaf on top.

Cut the sandwich in half and place it on a plate. Put a handful of olives next to it. Pour a glass of mineral water with a squeeze of lemon (or if you prefer ... a glass of good Chianti).

Take the plate and glass out to the garden to the chair and small table under the fig tree.

Serves one.

That, my friends, is true luxury.