Monday, April 26, 2010

Sometimes pictures can speak louder than words.  After work, I drove 35 miles to the grocery store which is across the state line from my house.  That might seem a burdensome drive after a 9 hour workday, but the road was mostly unlined, narrow, barely two-lane and decorated with living breathing juvenile bald eagles, a groundhog, a rabbit, red-wing blackbirds, bluejays, a meadowlark, and whitetail deer.  In addition to the wildlife, spring is decked out in frilly pink redbuds.  Vacation is a state of mind.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


     Two weeks ago, the chiller in my trout tank died. My baby trout, better known as fingerlings at this stage, can’t live unless the water temperature is between 50 and 55 degrees, so the death of the chiller created a crisis. Within an hour the water temperature had risen to 57 degrees. We started an ice brigade, but the ice, sealed in Ziploc bags was melting almost as fast as we could get it into the tank. The temperature dropped a degree, but then rose again. Next, the cafeteria donated frozen two liter bottles of water which they use to keep coolers, well……cool. The frozen bottles helped and the temperature dropped to 55 again. Panicky calls to my Trout in the Classroom coordinators did not yield a replacement chiller, so I ordered a new one from California . Then I started trying to figure out how I was going to keep my fishy babies alive until the new cooling unit arrived. Plans that ranged from taking the trout home in a small bucket and icing them every four hours to bringing in a drink cooler and rigging some hosing to run through it were discussed and abandoned. Finally it occurred to me that we had a bona-fide trout hatchery right in town. DUH! I called them and they were quick to agree to fish-sit for us until the classroom tank was cold again.
     The babies, whose tank temperature was now perilously past their survival temperature, were gently spooned into a cooler with some ice bags and then loaded into the van for a sloshy ride to the hatchery. As I backed in to the basement door, I was met by Junior who was ready to perform trout CPR if necessary. Thirty three fingerlings found a pristine temporary home in the cool waters that rush through the basement of the hatchery. I could tell this was a far better thing that had happened to them than had ever happened before. A week later, the new chiller arrived and the trout, who were much fatter and happier than when I left them, came home. The students were overjoyed, the teacher was overjoyed and the fish were disappointed to be back in a smaller, glass walled home. They had forgotten what it felt like to have children staring at them. No longer our friendly swim-to-the-top-of-the-tank-to-say-hello-fish, they spent most of their first day hiding in the rocks. Finally, we tempted them back out with food, but they are warier than they were. Which, if you think about it, is probably a good thing considering they will be in danger of becoming lunch for a larger predator when we release them. So we’ll call this one a happy ending.
     Second homecoming. Tip the Cat had become too romantically inclined. He was travelling out to the main road in search of a furry girl friend. The last time I caught him prancing back up the driveway, I knew his time of manhood and dangerous assignations needed to end. I scheduled an appointment with my vet friend who teaches at a community college. Tip would get his little operation for free, but it involved a lengthy stay. I made Joe take him so my darling boy wouldn’t associate me with his lengthy abandonment. There would be no one to rub his head and I was sure he would forget how much he loved it (and me.) Three days later, Tip was home, seated on my lap begging for a head rub. Happy ending number two. (Tip might feel a little differently)
     Third homecoming. Scott was home for the prom. We didn’t see him much because it was a quick trip, and now that he’s back at Tech, the ghost of his happy soul is rattling around the house. It always feels that way when he leaves to go back to school, but in less than four weeks, he’ll be home for the summer. Then we’ll have happy ending number three.
     Homecomings are better than sunny days!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Saving Seeds

     I’m working magic and miracles this week. That’s how I always feel when seed planting time comes. Last week I started some flats of tomato, cabbage and pepper seeds (yes, you readers of my earlier columns, I succumbed and bought some Peter Pepper seeds.) The first sprouts are uncurling themselves from their seedy homes and stretching out to the sun. Every day is like Christmas. I run to the window to see what new plants are presenting themselves for their first inspection. This morning there were enough green shoots that I could take off the protective dome and allow them to bask in the full strength of the sun.
     In addition to the seeds that I bought, I have also started some heirloom seeds. In the fall when we eat tomatoes and beans and squash, I always scoop out some seeds to dry on paper towels. Then they are labeled and sealed in envelopes to wait for spring. I also do this with marigolds (which my five year old Scott used to call “miracle-golds”) and zinnias. My grandmother always hung bouquets of flowers upside down in brown paper bags at the end of the season. By spring, they had dropped their seeds to the bottoms of the bags. I follow her example and always think of her when my zinnias bloom.
     There is a real joy and satisfaction in saving seeds. When I married Joe, one of the things that came with him was the “Dr. Stover Bean.” The first Stover Bean was given to my mother-in-law by her family physician, whose name was… guessed it….Dr. Stover. The beans produced by this seed are flat-podded and grow on a bush. They stay tender all the way through the big bean stage which is the way my family likes them and they don’t have any strings. I’ve never found anything in a seed catalogue that matches. Every year, I plant an extra few feet of beans just so we will have seed for next year. Joe’s brother does the same and if by chance the harvest is slim in my garden, then I can call him for seed next year. Justin is dating a girl whose family grows a very similar bean which they call the Refa Bell Bean. Like us, they carefully hoard the seed each season to ensure next year’s crop.
     We also love a sweet tomato that’s marbled with red and yellow. Geneva had seeds for that as well, but after she died I couldn’t find them and I don’t know what it was called. I’ve tried Old German and Mr. Stripey and this year I’m trying one called The Hillbilly tomato which originated not too far from here. When I finally grow one as sweet as Geneva’s original, I will save the seed for my children and grandchildren. Their inheritance will be found in little glass jars full of seeds, carefully labeled and stored on the cool shelves of my root cellar. I like to think that, like me, they will feel connected to their past, as the first sturdy sprouts of Dr. Stover beans poke their heads out of damp soil beds.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Where the Wild Things Grow

     Mother Nature is hosting her annual free food party. The first course is dandelion greens, gathered fresh and tender and served with a warm dressing of vinegar and eggs. My mother-in-law called dandelion greens her spring tonic and the first time she put them on the table I was pretty skeptical. In the city I was taught that anything that grew in your yard was toxic. I guess maybe with all the chemicals used on a lawn that’s true, but apparently in the country almost anything green is fair game. Next there’s poke, which like dandelions must be gathered in its infancy. Poke has to be boiled a couple of times to remove the bitterness but then it’s pretty tasty. Sort of like turnip greens. I like mine topped with homemade cucumber relish.
      Ramps appear next. They are a cross between a wild onion and wild garlic and grow in green patches on mountain slopes. They are considered a real treat, but because onions don’t agree with me, I’ve never tried them. When I first started teaching, students used to eat ramps so they would be kicked out of school. If you eat them raw, your body exhausts the pungent odor through your skin cells. Kids knew that most teachers couldn’t stand the smell, so they would eat them and laugh as they were sent home to stay until they smelled better.
     After ramps come fresh asparagus. Spring isn’t really here until the peepers sing and the asparagus appear. I have discovered a secret wild asparagus patch where the spears are as big around as my thumb. It’s in one of our meadows where the sheep feast on it until the end of March. When they are moved out to pasture, it’s mine. Planted by the birds and tended by God, those asparagus are far better than the ones I grow in my yard.
     At the same time that we pick asparagus, we also start hunting for morels. The first time I ate one of these wild mushrooms, I lay awake all night because I was sure I would be dead in the morning. I grew up on mushrooms wrapped in cellophane, and I wasn’t sure a wild one could be trusted. But, I lived to tell the tale and now I’m an avid eater. Morels are pretty safe to hunt as there aren’t any other mushrooms that resemble these brainy looking fungi. They grow in abandoned apple orchards and old growth ash groves.
     Last spring, my friend Lori and I grabbed some walking sticks and paper bags and headed up the steep side of her family’s mountain where a grove of ash trees clings. We only managed to find one morel because a scoundrel neighbor had beat us to the patch. He was trespassing and when he saw us he skedaddled. He was carrying a pretty bulgy bag, so we gave up. We were angry, but really who could blame him? I am a terrible mushroom finder. I don’t have mushroom eyes like Lori and my oldest son, Justin. Morels disguise themselves by looking just like the patches of withered leaves where they grow, but still I love the thrill of the hunt. We like them dipped in batter and deep fried, or sautéed and scrambled with eggs.
     When the morels are finished, it’s time for the rhubarb from the old patch in Geneva’s abandoned garden. It’s also time for the wild strawberries that grow on the brow of my hill. These two spring foods sing in gustatory harmony when baked in a pie. Once the wild strawberries are done, then the party is over. It’s time to look to my own tame garden for lettuce and peas. While I love to eat things I’ve grown, my heart will always be with food that comes from God’s hands to my mouth. I love to eat where the wild things grow.