Monday, October 5, 2009

How do you know...?

How do you know something is good for you? By the taste.

Our garden food tasted good. All of it.

There was no such thing as a child saying he didn't like something, if it was from the garden or the goats or the chickens. It was all good.

I firmly believe taste is the way we know something is good for us. Good flavors come with other good things, the things that build healthy bodies.

Our garden was full of good things, and so would we be as we ate our way through the harvest bounty. Such were the blessings from all the work.

The work was a blessing too. It felt good. That's how we knew it was good.

Such statements beg for an acknowledgement of God. But at the time we were between Gods, so while we had appreciation for all the wonder of good-tasting food and work-hardened bodies, we didn't know where to direct our thanks. All that was yet to come...

The color of harvest...

The colors fell into piles leaving stark branches behind. I could almost smell the burning leaves of my childhood, now made illegal because of pollution. How I had loved to be in charge of the burning of leaves at the curb! I earned the privilege by showing how carefully I added just a few more rakefuls to the pile and didn't allow the flames to rage.

But now the only flames were in the color of maples, and their glowing cinders slowly drifted until they were slowly extinguished on the ground, getting ready with the help of the snow to merge with the loam beneath them, slowly, slowly....

And in the stillness and crispiness of it, we scurried like squirrels to bring in the last of the harvest. The light went from somber-bright to slanted to shadowy to dusky all too quickly, and we had potatoes left to dig and squash left to cut. Everyone scurried. The wheelbarrow was filled to the tipping point and run up to the porch. Boxes were topped off, then couldn't be lifted. Small arms were filled while small legs ran for the kitchen.

Frost was coming. The great white steed of the north was about to blow out his ice-breath. By morning the grass would be crunchy-white and the squash plants droopy-black.

The goats looked on, munching mouthfuls of alfalfa and timothy to keep warm with. The bacteria in their guts happily stoked up the fires of metabolism when fed such fine fodder, and they would not be cold.

But our noses reddened and we wondered where last winter's mittens had gotten to.

Gradually the dark took over, and the feeble porch light shed no glow on the garden. It was time to quit. As we moved the piles of veggies from the porch to the kitchen, we looked over our shoulders toward the darkened plot and wondered what we had abandoned....

Inside we went about our business: homework, practicing, the cooking of supper. We had turned the heat on just the day before, and we were toasty. Clumps of earth stuck to everything, squash, children, shoes. Later we spread newspapers on the floor and lined the harvest up on them. Hands on our hips, we stood in a circle and smiled, and then got back to work.


Sunday, October 4, 2009

Root cellar?

Our house happened to come with a storage room in the basement, one without shelves but an actual room not designated for anything else. It became our root cellar as the first overflow of harvest began to take over the kitchen counters.

Root cellars are cool and moist because they have earthen floors. Dirt floors. This room of ours had concrete floors just like the rest of the basement. So it failed as a literal root cellar, but it reigned supreme as a-space-to-store-things. John built shelves.

Winter squash were the first inhabitants. They had hard skins and looked durable enough to survive for several years as storage foods. We had vast numbers of them.

The shelves were about as wide as a good-sized squash, so we lined these winter ingredients up in a single rank side-by-side.

We also had potatoes to store, and sunflower heads. We cut these off at the neck and placed them seed-side-up on the shelves. Apples were piled up on a side away from the potatoes, because their smells intermingle and I thought I might not be fond of raw-potato-flavored apples.

I think we had a few turnips, too.

Green beans went into the freezer, which was in another part of the basement.

Tomatoes and eggplants stayed in the kitchen. Their sheer abundance overwhelmed us, but even our amateur thoughts about storage were not so naive as to expect them to survive on their own for long.

I had thoughts of canning, but no time or expertise. How pretty the shelves would have looked with jar after jar of tomatoes! But it didn't happen.

We just ate them as fast as we could, on sandwiches or in the pot for dinner, whatever it might have been.

Soon a hard frost would hit and put an end to the bounty. But for now it threatened to overtake us, and we were glad to have some place to put it all that was for the most part out of sight.


Friday, July 3, 2009


JSL was a professor at MIT in those days. He often took the Wellesley College shuttle bus in, so I'd drive him to it, about 5 miles from our house. Other times he took the car all the way through Wellesley to the MTA station in Newton, and then rode the Green Line downtown and tranferred to the Red Line, which would take him to Kendall Square. It was at least an hour each way.

MIT was an interesting place. Everyone there was of course the brightest of the bright. The professors taught intense classes, and did intense research, and many did consulting for corporations besides. In fact, MIT arranged it so that every professor worked 4 days a week, leaving the 5th for consulting.

And they paid according, about 80% of the salary a high-quality professor might earn at another prestigious university, or even at a state school.

So JSL often was away on consulting trips. And that left me with the goats and the milking and the chauffeuring and shopping and cooking and gardening, and the three children and dogs and cats. But the extra income made his trips worth every effort. And except for when the heat was horrible, I managed ok. And the kids were helpful and cost-effective and supportive.

But the consulting began to dry up with the wretched economy. He was home more often, and that was a great help, but the diminishing income drained us in pocketbook and spirit. We began to despair.

And now in the fall of 1977, with our oldest child 11 and starting 6th grade, our thoughts turned to college expenses, and we realized we were in big trouble. The University of Massachusetts would just not do, but what else could we manage? We had 7 years to put away enough money for the first child, and the second was just a year behind him. And at that moment we were not putting anything away, we were just barely keeping a hold of our house.

MIT did have a plan for teachers' kids: they would pay half the expenses at any accredited institution in the country. It was just a matter of coming up with the thousands of dollars we would need for the other half.

And that seemed as likely as the economy improving. The very thought left us feeling hopeless.


Saturday, June 20, 2009


As the end of August arrived, we had a better mix of heat and cool, including a few truly chilly mornings. Maples were showing signs of turning to fall colors. And young goats were coming into heat.

Meanwhile, we were enjoying a bounty from the garden. Tomatoes were inundating us, as were zucchini. Our favorite bounty, though, came in the form of purply shiny-skinned eggplant, which we used at virtually every meal but breakfasts.

There was of course fufarah, now full of green peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, and big chunks of eggplant. We also had eggplant sandwiches made of fried eggplant slices, goat cheese, and fresh-picked lettuce. But perhaps our favorite was babaganoush, a mixture of cooked eggplant and sesame tahini, mixed with lemon juice, garlic, and a bit of salt. The fact that all this sumptuous eating was for free was hard to comprehend.

Another garden treat was jerusalem artichokes. We had discovered these in the food boxes we got each week from the coop, and though it was expensive to plant them instead of eat them, we were reward by a long row of tall sunflower-like stalks with small flowers on top. And all we had to do to add a sunchoke to the meal was to dig about their roots and pull up as many as we wanted.

We had to learn a few tricks about cooking them: to saute them in oil takes a while, until they give up and soften, then brown. Before they brown, they taste like oysters, while afterward more like potatoes. They could also be steamed and eaten like potatoes, or mixed with potatoes and mashed. But our potatoes were still in the ground, and we were happy enough to cut the sunchokes in discs or strips and add them early to the pot that would sooner or later contain all the components of fufarah.

So we ate well. A slice of our beloved pure-white goat cheese went on the top of almost everything. There was never a food as glorious as our homemade whole-wheat bread toasted, a thick slice of tomato still hot from the garden added along with lettuce, the bread spread with butter or good mayonnaise, and then goat cheese in its 1x3 inch slices aligned across the top so that a knife-cut would not disturb it. It was a bit messy to eat, but accompanied by mint 'tea', it made a 100% satisfying lunch. Or we'd just eat it in hand, or crumbled into fufarah or onto a garden salad.

So harvest brought a lot of joy, and it was just beginning.


Much to think about

By the end of August my thoughts were full of four pressing and painful issues:

1. What to do about the neighbor Nancy.
2. The meaning of my father's passing.
3. Whether to try for another baby and risk more sorrow.
4. Money.

Money was the constant theme. How to survive, really. The economy was a mess: inflation was upwards toward 20% a year, more in some spheres. Taxes were up and up, as were groceries and gas. Everything but our income, which was not tied into the cost of living. We were slowly slipping into financial doom.

As for Nancy, I held a lot of affection for her in my heart. I thought she could be a neat friend. The strange things she had said and done were mysteries to me, and didn't stick well to her in my mind. I thought maybe it was all due to her husband, who was a strange character we seldom saw. He had set up a leather-working shop in the old carriage house, but when the kids were over there playing, they never saw him do anything but lie on the couch he'd moved in there. So as thoughts of Nancy went round and round in my mind, I alternated between feeling mystifed and loving. Very confusing. As for what I might do to ensure the better outcome, I had no idea.

My father's death caused me primarily to think more of my mother's welfare. She seemed happy enough, and in one way we were all relieved: she had much more freedom to come and go and visited us much more frequently, sleeping in our family room off the kitchen, where the kids loved to visit her. Of course she was not confined there but she carved out a little niche in that spare room and often had her knitting out and a cookie for the kids. So his loss was not ours, not in any immediate way.

But then there was the loss of my little ones. The tiny body I had held after my body ejected it caused a constant underlying ripple in my awareness still, after nearly a year, and that was just the first. I had wanted a large family, and somehow I was failing to fulfill that dream. I had failed to provide 9 months of nurture for these two eagerly awaited new members of our family while they built their little earthly homes deep inside of me, and it all seemed so wrong. The emptiness was filled with the doctor's ringing voice: you will never bear another child.

But I didn't feel that way. I really felt I could bring a new baby into the world, as I had 3 times before.

I was still in the 6 months of rest that doctor's partner had recommended before I should try again, that tumultuous late August, so I didn't need to make any decisions. But it weighed on me like poverty and loneliness and death.

So my mind was filled with much to think about, and my heart stood on the precipice of deep pain. There was nothing to do but keep doing, and loving those whose care I had successfully found myself entrusted with. Time would do something with all this...


Friday, June 12, 2009


Thunder is the sound of hope to me, of change and relief. It doesn't always work out, but usually thunder comes with rain and cooler air, blustery squally air, breathable bug-free air.

And so it was in August 1977 that with the death of my father and the unfathomable ways of my neighbor came blessed thunderstorms.

They heralded fall, and school days, and goats in heat. But more than anything, to me, they heralded hope.

I had made it through another summer, and though more hot days would visit us, they would not stay. There would be no more relentless stretches of misery.

Thunder also heralded watermelons from the garden, and a harvest of corn, which was waiting for us as we got back from the funeral.

And soon the squashes would be ready, and the potatoes big enough to dig for.

Life was good. The trials of spring and summer were yielding to the turn of the seasons, and I was filled with such optimism that I couldn't help but stand out on the porch and breathe deeply.

I searched the maples for signs of color and found tell-tale yellows dappling the abundance of green in their crowns as if the sun were shining on them.

But there was no sun. It was gone behind roiling black clouds that fulfilled the thunder's promise. I ducked back inside as huge drops soaked the porch in moments.

I shivered with delight and a welcome chill, and watched the barn disappear behind a sheet of steel that connected the silvered earth with the steely skies. The children poured in soaked and huddled with me, their puddles mingling with mine till the kitchen was flooded. The thunder rolled and rolled and rolled. The lightning smashed against us, bringing the dogs to tremble against our legs. We sighed and shivered until we were actually cold, then ran for towels and dry clothes. The thunder rolled away.

The garden leaned. The beans looked beaten, and the potato vines dashed to a pulp.

But then the sun came out, the air dried out, and the garden righted itself. It was time for harvest. Summer would no longer press against us with its thick white air and too bright yellow light. Tomorrow when the furrows were no longer filled with rain, we would reach into the ground and gather the goodness.

Our reward was a upon us. My hope was fulfilled.