Sunday, December 7, 2008

Winter light... add it and toss.

In winter when the fields are white,
I sing this song for your delight.

In spring when woods are getting green,
I'll try and tell you what I mean.

In summer when the days are long,
Perhaps you'll understand the song.

In autumn, when the leaves are brown,
Take pen and ink and write it down.

From Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.

December 21st is the first official day of winter but we've been feeling it set in around here for several weeks now. This being Georgia, there are still warm days but overall this fall has been colder than the past several have been and of course there's that particular quality to the light...

...and another learning phase in my gardening education has begun...understanding the importance of light. There is one thing that I know I'll do next year and that is, I will start earlier. I sowed kale from seed in October and planted Brussels sprouts seedlings around the same time. I have fine little plants growing, but that's just it...they're little. If I had started these back in August, I think I would have been seeing a harvest by now. It's an important lesson for me, this importance of day length.

Here's the strawberry pot. It appears that the plants have gone dormant.

Plants need a rest too. Some things are still doing well. The rosemary that I planted at the side of the house is thriving and the salad greens have done just fine. Here's the pot of micro-greens, a mix of mustard, cress, and radish greens . While not shade lovers, they are at least tolerant of less light.

Most salad greens prefer a cooler temperature to a hotter one, so we've had lettuce pretty steadily since October.

I love the color variations and ruffled leaves of loose leaf lettuces.

Here's a recent salad - mixed greens with dried cherries and toasted pecans.

I like to toss it lightly with this dressing:

4 TBS olive oil
1 TBS red wine vinegar
1 crushed garlic clove
2 tsp Dijon mustard
2 tsp ketchup (it's good!)
2 tsp sour cream
dried basil, thyme, or oregano...or all of them
salt and pepper to taste

Of course you can increase the proportions if you want more dressing. My formula departs from the classic vinaigrette ratio of oil to vinegar which is 3 to 1 but I like the less "bitey" taste it has when it's 4 to 1. As any good cook does, you'll be sticking spoon or finger into the dressing to taste it as you adjust the seasonings and add-ins. I have a glass dressing bottle that I use, but I've often made salad for one (me!) where I mix a dressing at the bottom of the salad bowl, pile my greens in and toss.

Yum...I know that salad greens are traditionally a spring vegetable and "tonic" but we get so few locally during our sauna like summers that it feels like a great treat to be eating them now. Maybe for me their soft sweetness is a "tonic" to the tomatoes and peppers that I love so much but that seem to avalanche us in the hot months.

Today's twist -

Lewis Carroll is the pen name of the English author and mathematician, Charles Dodgson, who was active in the mid to late 1800's. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1865, was an immediate commercial success which turned "Lewis Carroll", overnight, into a household name and turned Dodgson into a wealthy man. The sequel, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, published in 1872, was no less successful although it, in many ways, is a darker piece of work. The income and fame allowed Dodgson, who was socially ambitious, to move in more rarefied circles and to become a respected photographer. He is today considered one of the very best photographers of the Victorian period. Many of his photographs are of very young girls, but despite popular conceptions there is no solid evidence to prove that Dodgson was a pedophile.

The verse above is recited by Humpty Dumpty who is sitting atop his famous wall when Alice meets him. Their conversation is seemingly an odd debate concerning semantics. For example, Alice questions Humpty Dumpty's use of the word "glory"...

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "It means exactly what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less."

Although the haughty egg seems bent on convincing Alice that everything that she thinks is correct is, in fact, not, and is, in fact, idiotic and completely backward - he assures her that should he fall off the wall, the king will send all his horses and men, because..." he has promised me- with his very own mouth. "

Alice, who is unfailingly polite but always self-possessed, finally tires of Humpty Dumpty's convoluted insults and walks away. Behind her, a heavy crash shakes the forest end to end.

Needless to say, both Alice books remain among my favorites.

Sunday, November 2, 2008


Everyday they looked at that garden. It was rough and grassy because it was made in the prairie sod, but all the tiny plants were growing. Little crumbled leaves of peas came up, and tiny spears of onions. The beans themselves popped out of the ground. But it was the little yellow-bean stem, coiled like a spring, that pushed them up. Then the baby bean-leaves, and the beans unfolded flat to the sunshine.
Pretty soon, they would all begin to live like kings.

From Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Like many children, I adored the "Little House" series of books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. For me, there was something enchanting about the Ingalls family's sometimes hard, and always self-reliant existence. Ma and Pa Ingalls seemed to be able to do anything, from building a house to making cheese. Even Mary and Laura could churn butter. Of the series, I liked Farmer Boy well enough. but somehow the story of Almonzo Wilder's adventures on a prosperous farm, where there was always more than enough to eat, just didn't capture my imagination in the same way as did the Ingalls' ongoing struggles and joys carving out a life in the unpredictable but exciting wilderness of early America.

I mean, look at the drama involved in a bean plant starting to produce its buds and all the anticipation involved in watching the plant's growth. I think I always related to that.

Kings indeed.

I enjoyed a fairly sheltered, mostly suburban, certainly happy and satisfied childhood, and yet (or maybe because?) the idea of self-reliance was incredibly alluring. Certainly, most of the "hobbies" that I've taken up in recent years (knitting and crochet, cooking, gardening, bread baking) or are considering ( cheese making, brewing and wine making, canning, sewing, weaving, bee-keeping, poultry) are really life skills. I've come to feel that we do too much shopping and not enough making and tending. If that sounds old-fashioned, so be it, but give our forebears credit...they got by. Plus, they had a certain measure of control over their living situations. I think we might have misplaced the importance of that in favor of an easier ride.

I'm no survivalist. I don't want to stake out a piece of land and defend it with a gun. The type of self-reliance I'm committed to is that which helps sustain community as well as oneself. Look out for yourself and your family, but do it in a community spirited way.

If you grow vegetables, you might think about starting a community "trade-off" . For example you make a deal with six or seven other gardeners, you grow all the tomatoes, another person grows all the peppers, another grows all the onions, etc. This isn't my idea. I'm borrowing it from Christina's wonderful blog A Thinking Stomach. Check out the link here:

Or, if you can't garden yourself, you can join a CSA (community supported agriculture). You're supporting local farmers and you benefit from the fresh ( and usually cheaper) produce.

Or you can patronize local farmer's markets. It may seem more expensive at first, but remember, you're buying better quality both in taste and nutrition. Buying local helps to insure a healthy local economy. And not to be a doomsayer, but I think the day isn't long coming when the illusion of cheap food will vanish. I say illusion because America's relatively cheap food costs have been partially bolstered for years by cheap and readily available fossil fuels. I think that pretty soon we'll find that the tomatoes shipped from California will be as expensive, if not more so, as the local tomatoes available at the farmer's market. In February, that California tomato is going to be even more expensive (if you live in Georgia like me). It will be a luxury item (although it still won't taste like one). So maybe we don't need to eat tomatoes in February? Or maybe you grew enough over the summer, or bought enough in August (from a farmer) to freeze or can?

We should pay what food costs. Times are tough and getting tougher and I worry about keeping and finding work, along with a lot of other people, but I am convinced that we need to make ourselves, and our communities, self-reliant. That means, in part, being very particular about how we spend our money, and how better than buying from someone you know or can get to know? Sure you can save five or ten dollars going to Wal-Mart, but, really, who are you helping there? You'll probably wind up walking out of the store with the "bargain" item plus a lot of other stuff you don't need and who benefits from that? Not you, and certainly not the community that you are a part of.

So you might ask, if I'm so green - and apparently so bossy about it - why do I do container gardening exclusively? I realize that I am enormously blessed in actually owning an home. Let me also just say that I am not a huge fan of lawns. I think a little lawn is great for its aesthetic value and if you are a fan of croquet nothing is better. Otherwise, it seems a little odd to me to use a large swath of land for one plant when you could be growing food. So why do I still have a lawn? Why don't I tear it out and plant vegetables? I have no weird neighborhood covenants to deal with and my actual neighbors are pretty cool. Well...

Here's my backyard.

Here's the front.

As you can see, there's lots of space, but not much sun.

Here's a - sort of - exception.

I'm thinking that I could put in borders of vegetables here that tolerate shade, mainly leafy greens, but true sun lovers like tomatoes and eggplants, and peppers are always going to be out of the question. So the deck is my garden for now. You do what you can. I've started herbs in the sunny strip at the side of the house and I might actually try a variety of asparagus there called Jersey King, reputed to perform well in heavy clay soil, which Georgia has in abundance. Of course with asparagus you have to wait at least two years to harvest, but after that the plant can produce a lush spring crop for twenty to thirty years.

That's what I call a good investment.

I'm currently dizzy with possibilities though. The election results have renewed, not only my faith in the democratic electoral process, but my own passionate commitment to community and maybe some increasing clarity around the fact that we live in a locality, but we also have a community that we are part of on the national and international levels as well. I'm especially inspired by Michael Pollan's recent manifesto to the president elect published by the New York Times on Octotober 9th and addressed to the "Farmer in Chief." This is a moving and eloquent document written, of course, before the results were in.

What is most striking, and I think what has many abuzz, is Pollan's recommendation that our new president turn part of the White House lawn into a "victory" garden. Please read this wonderful piece of journalism. It's long, but Pollan is such an engaging writer that it won't feel that way. I particularly love the image he suggests of the First Family engaged in tending the nation's exemplary vegetable garden. What a wonderful picture (and model) that would present for all Americans... and to the the rest of our community... the world.

Today's Twist

Laura Ingalls Wilder was an American author born in 1867, She is best known, of course, for her "Little House" series of children's books, the first, Little House in the Big Woods, being published in 1932. Wilder had a career as a journalist prior to this, but there is still some controversy over the true authorship of the the novels. The consensus seems to be that while Wilder actually wrote the stories, her daughter Rose, (also a writer) edited them, perhaps re-writing them to a certain extent. Laura and Rose were both strong-minded women and their collaboration couldn't have been an easy one. Nonetheless, the result of that collaboration has provided generations of readers with great pleasure.

Laura Ingalls Wilder had, by many reports, an independent character (dare I say, self-reliant?) notable for the times and certainly evident in the young Laura presented in the books. Apparently, she was also competitive. In her late eighties, she declared that she would live until 90 simply because her husband, Almonzo Wilder, had and he wasn't going to beat her. Sure enough, she made it. Three days after her 90th birthday, Laura Ingalls Wilder died on Feburarary 10, 1957.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Stay tuned...

Hi everyone. I may be away a little longer. I am job hunting and spending every spare moment on that. I promise I will be back as soon as I can. Stay with me...

Friday, September 26, 2008


"...because the salmon are running up that river even as we speak and they're running in the millions. You dig smoked salmon? Anybody here dig smoked salmon? And the blackberries. The cranberries. You never saw anything like it. You want to know how we're going to eat? We're going to eat the land because it's one big smorgasbord. There's nobody - I mean - nobody to stop us."

Sess walked her around the place showing it off. He demonstrated the clarity of the Thirty Mile where it crashed into the opaque Yukon, which ran heavy with its freight of glacial debris, showed her where he planned to build a sauna and a workshop, lectured her on the garden that was already showing green against the plastic he'd laid down for heat retention. He was growing cabbage, cauliflower, turnips, kohlrabi and Brussels sprout, potatoes, onions, peas, lettuce, Early Girl tomatoes, basil, cucumbers, squash.

From Drop City by T. C. Boyle

The 49th state. The Borderlands. The Frozen North.

I've been thinking a lot about Alaska lately. I mean, really, who hasn't? Most of it, of course, has to do with Sarah Palin's advent onto the consciousness of the public. While considering who she is and what I think of her, I do what I often do when presented with thorny, controversial issues...I read a book!

...or actually re-read. Drop City has to rank right up there as one of my favorite novels. Wonderfully evocative of a particular time, the 1970's in Vietnam War era America, and peopled with characters written with razor clarity, Drop City has repaid me with the deepest of reading pleasure time and again. (I'm one of those people that re-reads Pride and Prejudice every year. When I love a book, I really love it.)

The novel presents two groups of people who are, on the surface of things, galaxies apart.

One of the groups, is Drop City, a free-wheeling commune based in Northern California where the Love Bubble is about to burst. The speaker, in the first quote above is Norm Sender, self-styled "pasha", and founder of Drop City who is trying to convince the members of the commune to move to Alaska after the group has run afoul with the local authorities. He has inherited land there, a cabin on the Thirty Mile river, and seems convinced himself that Alaska will be a land of plenty.

The other group is represented by Cecil "Sess" Herder, a young fur trapper and homesteader who has grown up in Alaska and is deeply familiar with both its ravishing beauty and its harsh truth. In the section quoted above, he is showing off for Pamela, an Alaskan city girl who is eager to get back to "the bush" and become self-sufficient. She has taken the practical approach of advertising for a husband (Pamela is an old-fashioned girl) and Sess wants her to pick him. Sess really has nothing to worry about. He is a perfect match for the feisty Pamela and he is nothing if not schooled, in a way that makes a real difference in this wild, gorgeous, often brutal, part of the world.

"Everything has to be in the ground by the first of June," he was saying. "Though you risk a frost, which is why I keep that wood stacked up over there, just as a precaution because we get a growing season out here of maybe a hundred-five days or so, what with the river keeping everything a tad less frigid, and every day counts, believe me, and round about February you'd kill to have a little pickled cabbage or stewed tomatoes with your thousandth serving of moose."

From Drop City by T. C. Boyle

Pamela and Sess's counterparts in Drop City are Star and Marco. Star is a drop-out from the Midwest, with a heart for justice, whose intelligence and compassion sometimes surprise her more laid back compatriots but serves, nonetheless, to provide a sorely needed anchor. Marco is a draft dodger who actually loves his parents. He isn't rebelling so much as fleeing from certain death in Vietnam. He possesses solid values - he respects hard work and loyalty - and he practices what he believes.

In the book, Alaska seems to represent both a real place and a metaphorical one. It's a place where you can re-invent yourself, or become more yourself. It's a place where you can "live off the land" but it's definitely not the Land of Cockaigne that Norm Sender pictures for his naive followers. One survives, and thrives, here by building and hunting and planting..with the seasons in mind.

We have a long growing season here in Georgia. Long as in 365 days a year. You really can keep something growing here just about all year round, and that's got me thinking.

Do I want to? Keep growing?

Here's a recent haul from the deck.

I stuffed and baked some of the peppers and froze the rest. The tomatoes we ate, although more are coming in everyday. September is the big tomato month here and I know I should be grateful since they are my favorite...and yet...and yet...

...more peppers coming in everyday.

I feel the allure of putting a garden to bed. Let everyone get a rest. At the same time, I feel this urge to keep growing all and everything I can...for as long as I can...

one of two very robust cherry tomato plants that I put in just a month ago. They are just starting to ripen.

...some of it is coming from the deep shock of witnessing my latest grocery bills, but that's okay, it only hardens my resolve to be as home-grown and local as I can be... of the last of the slicing tomatoes. Melancholy me. Oh well, the best pleasures sometimes have boundaries around them.

...which of course means continuing to grow my own and supplementing from the farmer's markets, which now don't seem as expensive to me. Food has been falsely cheap for us Americans for too long I fear.

Here's the mighty, stalwart, leafy green of the southern garden, Swiss chard. It's pretty bolt-resistant, not to mention the vegetable version of stained glass.

For fun, I'm going to try peas and see how they do over the winter. I know they are considered a spring crop but I just love them. Lettuce too. I've started radishes, carrots, and beets again and I'm going to try Brussels sprouts. Gosh, writing about it actually re-energizes me.

Who knows...with the rate of global warming, there may be a time when I'm only growing tomatoes and eggplants here and no lettuce or peas at all. Get it while you can...and enjoy it while you do.

Today's Twist

T. C. Boyle is the author of many wonderful books including World's End which won the PEN/Faulkner Prize in 1988, one of my favorites Budding Prospects, and the provocative and very interesting The Inner Circle which was made into a movie with Liam Neeson and Laura Linney. He is also the author of a fabulous book of short stories, Greasy Lake, which I guarantee will change your mind about language - specifically the English language and its capacity for nuance and ravishment.

And then there's Drop City.

It may not be Sarah Palin's Alaska, in fact, I'm pretty sure it isn't.

But it might be yours. Read and enjoy.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Just to let you know...

This is a very basic post to let all of you know that I've put the blog on Technorati as a way of connecting to more of the folks who are interested in the green, sustainable, urban homesteading life.
Coming up...Alaska!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Mothers and Daughters

The girl had taken a PhD in philosophy and this left Mrs. Hopewell at a complete loss. You could say "My daughter is a nurse," or "My daughter is a school teacher," or even, "My daughter is a chemical engineer." You could not say "My daughter is a philosopher." That was something that ended with the Greeks and the Romans.

From Good Country People by Flannery O'Connor

I once had the feeling I would dig my mother's grave with my writing too, but I later discovered that this was vanity on my part. They are hardier than we think.

Flannery O'Connor writing to a friend. From The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor

Maybe every woman has an "I'm becoming my mother" moment. For me it was when my mother saw our house for the first time. She looked around and said, "The light is wonderful. I like that you left most of the windows bare." At once, I remembered the planning stages for the house that my parents built in south Georgia. Everyone was to get one thing that they wanted. My father's wish was that he would never have to mow another lawn. The house is way back in the woods and the "landscaping" is pretty much what grows wild. I forget what my wish was, although I suspect it had something to with the green carpet in my room which was different from the rest of the carpeting and which I grew to dislike pretty intensely. My mother's wish was that she would never have to cover a window. She paints and has an artist's appreciation for the quality of natural light. I guess maybe I have that too because since we've lived in this house, I've resisted window treatments except where concessions to modesty or privacy make it necessary.

As a teenager, I wasn't crazy about living in the country and I'm still a committed urbanite, but when I visit my parents now I find myself filled with a deepening appreciation for their choice. It's peaceful there and there's a sort of quiet delight in being able to look out any window and see an unfiddled-with landscape.

So maybe I am turning into my mother and I too will someday live in the country but for now, my adventures, gardening and otherwise, will remain of the urban variety.

Here's my strawberry pot.

What you see here all came from a single plant! Strawberry plants have some very interesting qualities one of which is that the "mother" plant which in this pot is the plant at the top -

- sends out runners, or "daughters".

You can propagate more plants by taking the daughter and locating the node with the plantlet -

- then pressing the plantlet to the soil and securing it down with a u-shaped holder. There are clips manufactured and sold for this purpose, or you can do what I do and use a paper clip. Unfold the paper clip and reform it into the proper u-shape. Once secured (and properly watered and fertilized) -

the daughter will root and grow into a new, viable plant.

Pretty neat, huh?

I'll admit that I bought the mother strawberry under a bit of duress. It was early summer and our local garden center had a couple of pots of leggy plants on display and drastically marked down. Lola pretty much insisted that I buy one. With container gardening, you usually buy a transplant as early in the spring as you can and you get a small one so it has time to develop some strong roots before it flowers. This plant had a lot of flowers on it and I think Lola, who I'm sure had visions of home grown strawberries within a week or two, was dismayed when I made it my first act, after potting the plant, to snip off all the flowers. It feels barbaric when you do it, but, just like thinning a lettuce bed, it is essential for the ongoing health of the plant. Most container gardeners treat strawberries as an annual, buying new plants every year, but I have something different in mind. I'm going to winter-over the pot and let it flower again next spring. I'll bring it indoors if it gets really cold, but it should be fine most of the time. By propagating daughters from the mother and then propagating off those daughters as they become mothers, I hope to create in this one container, an entire strawberry patch...urban gardening style!

Today's Twist

Flannery O'Connor was an American writer who published 2 novels and more than 24 short stories between 1950 and 1964. She was born and raised in Milledgeville, Georgia and returned there in 1951 when she was diagnosed with lupus, a disease which eventually claimed her life, but more than 10 years beyond the time that the experts had initially given her. O'Connor had a lively, curious mind and a keen sense of the absurd. She was also a devout Catholic living in the very Protestant Deep South. Most of her writing has to do with characters, often self-described atheists or fundamentalist Protestants, who experience a sudden moment of divine presence or revelation, usually through an ironic twist of plot. Sardonic and unsentimental, O'Connor was by turns amused and exasperated by the public and critical response to her fiction. Her view was that she was writing realistic stories, specifically stories that embodied Catholic realism, and the fact that these were seen by some (and still are) as "grotesque" was both humorous and frustrating to her. A master of style and character, her writing remains fresh today even as we in the South struggle with different issues and (perceived) realities.
O"Connor never married nor had a long term romantic relationship. She was a prolific writer of letters and the bulk of her intimate relationship was with her visitors, correspondents, and with her mother, Regina Cline O'Connor, who devoted herself completely to the care of her daughter when she returned home after the diagnosis of her disease. O'Connor was equally devoted to her mother. In a letter to her dear friend, Sally Fitzgerald, she writes that her greatest fear is that her mother would die before her. "I don't know," she writes, "what I would do without her."

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Benign Neglect (and a little rough handling)

"One must allow that a certain amount of carelessness in one's nature often accomplishes what the will is incapable of doing."

from Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

Here's what the non-paved side of my house looks like.

...and like this.

Yuck! Lola and I joked when we moved in that we probably were never going to earn the neighborhood award for best looking yard. As much as the two of us like plants, we've never been big on yard work.

...and yet...

I find myself looking at parts of the yard now and thinking of things I could do. Most of these fantasies involve ripping out the lawn (more on that soon), but on a smaller, more realistic scale I ponder the side of the house.

My neighbor's side strip faces ours and hers is so beautiful. She has it planted with huge rosemary plants and lavenders. Smart choices for our sometimes droughty periods, and the plants look dramatic and unconventional. For all my container vegetable growing chops she is, I think, someone with the truest of green thumbs. She told me once, in an earnest manner, that "everything grows well here"...which I know is not true since north Georgia is pretty notorious for having very heavy clay soil. Maybe she amends it? I've got to ask her...

...then to the shovel! I have to admit to feeling nervous. Potting soil is one thing. Actual dirt is quite another.

Anyway, I bet that those particular plants do grow well, once they get into soil that they like. Herbs are the hesitant gardener's best friend and benign neglect is what they enjoy.

Here's the pot I'm growing.

That's a rosemary, a couple of basils, thyme, and oregano. All have done really well. I give them some water but they really don't seem to require much else - unlike my very pampered tomato plants. My theory is that these Mediterranean type herbs originated, and thrive, in parts of the world that are hot, dry, rocky. They don't like fertilizer and they certainly don't want to be fussed over. They just want to get down to the the job of growing...

...and growing! I've had to harvest often over the summer just from the one pot. I've used plenty of fresh herbs in cooking, but I've been able to dry a lot too. I actually prefer the flavor of dried oregano to fresh and fresh thyme, though its scent is bewitching, is nothing compared to the dried in taste.

To dry herbs, wash them, and lay on a flat surface that can remain undisturbed for several days. I use a cookie sheet lined with a dish towel covered with paper towels. I put the whole thing on top of the refrigerator. The important thing is that they stay well-ventilated. After about a week, this is what you'll see.

You can shred the dried leaves off of the stems into clean glass jars. Label and store for future use.
This method seems to work best for the more "woody" type of herb that has small leaves. (I'm sure there's a better way of saying that, a formal, botanical designation that I don't know. Yet.) I've found that basil, with its big, floppy leaves, doesn't take as well to flat drying. So I devised this little coat hanger dryer that I put in the kitchen window. Here it is right after I hung it.

Here it is yesterday. Please note that some of my neighbor's rosemary is visible outside the window.

Crumble the leaves into clean glass jars, label and store.

What a comfortable feeling it is to know that deliciousness is preserved and just waiting for you. And with so little effort! Herbs are truly giving, and forgiving, plants. My mint plant is an example of the latter quality (and yes, I know that I'm guilty of committing the pathetic fallacy, or something like it, all over the place here). I planted it with a tomato because, somewhere, I read that it made a good "companion planting". Perhaps it does... if your tomato has co-dependency issues and doesn't want to change. The mint was huge and gorgeous. The tomato was quailing. I had to do something, so I dug the mint up and shoved it into a pot. I didn't think it would survive such rough treatment. After all, I left pieces of root behind, but so far it's thriving. It's so lush that I'm thinking about dividing it and giving a mint plant to my friend Heather who is about to have a baby. Lola has been raising desert roses from seeds and the first seedling is also going to be a gift for the new baby. I love the idea of giving a gift that will grow as the child does.

By the way, the tomato recovered just fine.

Today's twist

Jane Bowles was an American writer who published in the years between 1943 and 1953. Although her output was small; a single novel, several short stories, and a play; many of her contemporaries, including Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, considered her to be one of the finest and most under-rated writers of the time. She was married to the composer/writer Paul Bowles with whom she had a loving, often long-distance, and very complicated, relationship. In spite of her marriage, her sexual and emotional relationships were primarily with women. Her novel, Two Serious Ladies, is, in my opinion, a vastly under-read modern classic. The two ladies of the title, Mrs. Copperfield and Miss Christina Goering, are both, rather frantically, seeking salvation, although neither seems to have any sort of religious talent or calling. Mrs. Copperfield's path is one of abandonment to dissolution. Miss Goering's is a severing of all that is comforting and comfortable. She deliberately puts herself where she is most fearful and uneasy. Of the two, Miss Goering, seems the most high-minded and moral, and yet she is thwarted over and over, perhaps because she can't, unlike the sentiment that she expresses in the quote above, ever allow herself to be truly careless.
Two Serious Ladies is an intriguing and puzzling novel and worth reading for the beautiful, askew, yet strangely illuminating dialogue if for nothing else. Jane Bowles' stories are just as brilliant and, if you're interested, I recommend the collection My Sister's Hand in Mine as well as Out in the World, a collection of her letters. Like many persistently blocked writers of fiction, Jane Bowles' output of letters was copious and the letters themselves are pathetic, newsy, incisive, and frequently hilarious. Also essential, for fans, - or anyone interested in the fertile literary and social scenes of New York, Europe, and North Africa after World War II - is Millicent Dillon's sensitive and illuminating biography A Little Original Sin: The Life and Work of Jane Bowles.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Audacity!

"Try a chili with it, Miss Sharp," said Joseph, really interested. "A chili," said Rebecca, gasping. "Oh yes." She thought a chilly was something cool as its name imported and she was served with some. "Water," she cried. "For Heavens sake, water!"

From Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

So I've been watching the Democratic National Convention...oh wait, I'm mostly listening to the Democratic National Convention - television ablare while I goof around in the kitchen or scrub out a toilet, or whatever I feel like I need to be doing in a multi-tasking fashion - and I think about the the wonderful title of Obama's book The Audacity of Hope and it makes me think about...peppers.

You see, I have two containers of peppers growing in the back deck garden. Here's one.

Looks pretty good, I think. I bought transplants at the nursery for this one. I have a jalepeno, a pimento, a chili red, and a cayenne. The plants have produced steadily all summer, giving me smallish but reliable fruit, and I've been harvesting 3 to 6 peppers a week lately.

Here's the other one.

This one came about in a fashion that can only be described as pretty fast and loose. I planted some seeds in a couple of spare pots and forgot to label them. Then I bought this container and decided to dig up the best looking six plants, put them into the container and hoped for the best.

Well...the nerve! Conventional wisdom says that fruiting plants like peppers should not be started outside because the growing season isn't long enough. So what's going on here? Why are my hussy plants so big and flamboyant? (and productive - after a week or two of heat forced dormancy they are blossoming and fruiting like crazy!)

I have two thoughts about this. One is that the growing season in Georgia is long, probably longer than it used to be, but temperatures reach the 70's in early April and continue to do so until late October and even into November some years. The other thing that appears to be a factor in this flauntish foliage is the type of pot that the larger peppers inhabit. It has a trademarked name but I'm going to call it a self-contained watering system which is a pot that has a resevoir filled with water that the roots grow into instead of soil.

My guess is that this kind of container replicates, for a container plant, some of the same conditions that a really happy "in the ground" plant has. I'd been hearing about these containers for years and had sort of dismissed the plaudits as hyperbole, but I think I'm convinced now. I'd love to retro-fit my existing containers to be self-watering. Does anyone have experience with this?

Here's a typical haul from both pots.

What you see here are a mixture of jalepenos, cayennes, anchos, and hungarian wax peppers. What to do with them? I could chop them up and freeze them for later, but what I feel like doing is making pickled pepppers.

Rinse a good couple of handfuls of peppers.

You could leave them whole but I split and seed them because, in terms of heat, seeds are your wild just never know.

Blanch the peppers in boiling water for 2 to 3 minutes and drain. In the meantime simmer together -
3 cups of vinegar - I used a half and half of rice vinegar and white
3 cloves of garlic peeled and smashed
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon regular sugar
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teasspoon whole black peppercorns
small onion sliced

Put the peppers into a glass bowl or a very clean (as in, run through the dishwasher or washed in very hot water) glass jar. Pour the vinegar mixture through a strainer into the pepper container.

I put a couple of cayennes into the jar. I also used too big a jar and had to do up some extra vinegar solution so I would recommend really stuffing those peppers into something smaller than a jar that once held spaghetti sauce.

This is not a preserve! These pickled peppers are meant to be refrigerated and eaten within one to three weeks. This is not a hot bath canning recipe so I would recommend discarding the pickles if you haven't finish them within the time period indicated.

Peppers are native to the Americas but they are excellent travellers. They've been embraced and cultivated all over the world ever since Christopher Columbus landed on the shores of what was dubbed at the time Hispaniola. So giving. So delicious. So, dare I say, audacious?

Today's Twist

Vanity Fair
is a much over looked classic. It features an enormously attractive heroine, the very audacious, Becky Sharp. She overcomes many obstacles, time and again, to gain a comfortable place in life. As she is written by Thackeray, she also seems like a classic example of a sociopath. I think industrialization might have set genuis writers like Thackeray and Dickens, his contemporary, toward portraying examples of this sort of unnerving individual. Input? Anyone?
In the quoted scene, Becky has, in the lingo of the time, "set her cap" for Joseph Sedley, a boring and bluff, colonial who has no idea what he is up against.

The pepper served to Becky was probably pickled as the fresh chili pepper was a garden novelty at the time.

Thackeray himself, a product of a family who helped to colonize India, had a propensity toward heat. His love for peppers was well documented and described. He died of a stroke at 53.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Do I Dare?

"It was one of those exuberant peaches that meet you halfway, so to speak, and are all over you in a moment. "

from - The Talking-Out of Tarrington by Saki

We have a peach tree in our back yard. It came with the house and it sits at the very back and under a good bit of shade. I don't know how old it is but my guess is..old. One thing that we like about this neighborhood is the old growth trees and the shade and beauty that they provide. I want to think that whoever planted the peach tree did it years and years and years ago before the other trees around it grew so tall. Peach trees need full sun and ours isn't getting it.

Still, this valiant tree bears a lot of fruit every year. The problem is that as the fruit grows it starts developing rusty brown spots. The spots actually look very pretty against the blushed yellow of the fruit, but even I, in all my neophytness, know that they shouldn't be there. The little bit of research that I've done indicates that this might be some sort of virus and that there isn't much to be done. Of course, this brings out all my stubbornness of which, believe me, there is an almost inexhaustible store. I want to save this tree, I dare? I wonder if I would be taking on more than my still slim knowledge and skills can supply. In the spring I did prune out some water sprouts and cut away some of the wisteria and rambling rose vines that had invaded. The tree seems happier but I know that this isn't enough.

In the meantime, the squirrels love the ( fallen) peaches and I love the flowers. In the spring, it seems that you just look away, and when you turn back around more blossoms have burst out of the air and settled onto the branches, each one a visible promise which fulfilled or not, provides a moment of pure pleasure.

Georgia, in spite of its moniker "The Peach State" doesn't supply the best conditions for growing peaches. Most fruit trees need a yearly dormancy period and our winters just don't stay cool enough for long enough to supply it. Still, something went right this year because the local peaches were wonderful. I bought bags and bags of them from the farmers markets.

I wound up freezing most of them.

The ill fate of much of what I've frozen in the past is almost too sad to contemplate, but happily, the freezing of the peaches coincided with a new purchase.

I was standing in the frozen foods aisle at the grocery store. All I wanted was some vanilla ice cream for a dinner party and I was trying to decide between the most local product (Tennessee) versus the product with the least unpronounceable ingredients (California). I kept picking up cartons, studying the label and putting them back, Opening doors and closing them. Arcticish air swirled around me and I saw that I was drawing glances from other shoppers who I decided were probably annoyed that I was compromising the quality of their own frozen treats by selfishly opening and closing and opening and closing the freezer.

"I should just buy an ice cream maker," I thought.

Well... I've fallen in love. My darling machine churns up a quart of ice cream in no time and that's just enough for a smallish dinner party or for Lola and I to dip into through the week. I've made delicious lime sherbets and a wonderful watermelon sorbet, but the best has been the peach ice cream.

Wait! There's some now.

Rita likes the extra mint garnish, but I like the chunks of peaches I add in at the last second of churning.

I've been using the recipe that came with the ice cream maker. It's delicious, but it's cream based, not custard based, and so has a sort of lingering fatiness on the tongue which I've dubbed the "smackiness factor". What I discovered with this last batch is that a tablespoon of alcohol not only cuts through some of that but also smooths the texture. I used amaretto and I swear that the faint almond accent brings out the "peachiness".

Mmmm. It's all over me.

Today's twist

The post heading comes, of course, from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T. S. Eliot a brilliant work with which I have many problems.

"Saki" is the pen name of Hector Hugh ( H. H.) Munro who was active as a writer of mordant, yet insightful, short stories in the years prior to World War I, roughly 1902-1908. He is considered by many (myself included) as one of the masters of the form. His stories often feature an aristocratic smart-ass whose target is either a conventional stuffed-shirt or some social- climbing parvenu. The speaker of the quote is the imperturbable Clovis Sangrail, a louche, yet lively-minded, young man-about-town. In the story, he effortlessly exhausts, via conversational derailment, the plentiful reserves of flattery and specious connection that the famously boring Tarrington attempts to employ.

With the start of WWI, Munro enlisted in the army. At 43 he was well over enlistment age. He was accepted. He qualified for a commission, due to his aristocratic family connections, but he refused it and became, basically, an ordinary soldier.

Clovis, in the stories does not suffer fools, and neither, I think did Munro. He was killed in a crater trench by a German sniper. His last words are reported to be "Put out that damn cigarette!"

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Tomato Revelations

Hence it was not unnatural that Mr. Mannering while in his bath should be full of the most exalted visions of the blossoming of his heart's darling, his vegetable godchild.

"Green Thoughts" by John Collier

If anyone had told me five years ago that I would become an avid gardener, I would have laughed. A lot. I used to mention my inability to grow plants in the same off-hand manner that some people mention that they don't cook, as a bald statement of fact followed by the unspoken question "and why would I want to?" Unlike the non-cooks though, I've always been interested in cooking (and eating!) and dedicated to good ingredients. I suppose it was inevitable that my passion for food would eventually lead me to the garden.

My moment came about seven years ago when Lola and I made our first visit to the Morningside Farmers Market. One of the farmers was selling the weirdest looking tomatoes I'd ever seen. They were dark brownish-purple and lumpy as hell, but they had an off-beat charisma and I knew I had to have some. The farmer told me that they were Black Krims, an heirloom, and that the flavor would knock me out. I didn't know anything about heirloom tomatoes at the time, but his enthusiasm convinced me to buy a bag. Later, after tasting one, my only regret was that I hadn't bought more. Like all he had. The essence of "tomatoness" burst through my mouth with each bite. It was ravishing and I was suddenly aware of a tiny thought, an alien thought.

"Maybe I could grow something like this."

I kept buying at the farmers markets, but put off gardening. We were living in a rented house with an uninviting back yard that got maybe two minutes of full sun a day. Three years ago, we bought a house in Decatur and one afternoon I looked out at the large, gloriously sunlit back deck. I smiled. Desire, long nurtured, had finally found its home.

I think I'm finally starting to get some things right. I started out the first year with two tomato plants in five gallon paint buckets and a single pepper plant. Nothing did very well, but I was as proud and pleased as any new parent with my scanty yield. The next year, I added more plants and used bigger pots, especially for the tomatoes. This year I had a spring garden (peas and lettuce mostly) which did well, but the summer garden is really taking off. Take a look.

Here's another angle.

And an arial view.

Now, I can't imagine ever living in a place where I couldn't grow something. That Black Krim tomato opened a door for me into a vital part of my spirit.

Today's twist -

The name of this blog is borrowed from a short story by John Collier, as is the quote at the top of the post. John Collier was a British author active in the 1930's through the 1950's. He began his literary career as a poet, but he's best known for his fantasy-tinged short stories, many of which appeared in The New Yorker. In later years, he worked as a screen writer in Hollywood sharing writing credits, most notably, for The African Queen and Sylvia Scarlett.

He was nothing if not modest about his talents. "I sometimes marvel," he said. "That a third-rate writer like me has been able to palm himself off as a second-rate writer." I think he sold himself short. Or perhaps he was deploying the same sly wit that makes his short stories so delicious. I'm a huge fan of his collection Fancies and Good Night and I devour it anew at least once a year. By the way, the story "Green Thoughts" concerns an orchid enthusiast whose passion becomes his undoing. So far, my gardening passion has brought me some frustration, but mainly pleasure as, I trust, has yours.