Today I cannot write, I cannot write today breezily about beauty today. Today of all days. More black people killed by the police, a police force undisciplined, a citizenry complicit, a president stirring the volatile pot. Today I cannot write because the world is in turmoil, there are protests and riots all over the country over the death of George Floyd, including in La Mesa, just down the road. This turmoil recalls earlier uprisings, for instance after the Rodney King murder in Los Angeles. So why today? Today, alas, is not special, it is just one day in the life of this country, one day in the ongoing saga of legitimized daily deadly racism. One more day in which I turn to the garden to avoid the larger world.
A friend, younger than I, asks me, Did you know Lesley, have you ever encountered such hatred, such political evil? I have, I grew up in Rhodesia. But I still cannot grasp this or face up to it fully. I ask another friend, older than I: Where have they come from all the Trumpistas? She was a red diaper baby and answers me with a certain air of fatigue: the U.S. has always been two countries, this is nothing new. What is new, I think, is that Trump has lifted the lid and allowed free expression to the racism and violent hatred of that other country. Other, that is, to protected white liberals like me. But nothing new today.
Just one more day in the history of the U.S. of A.
40 million out of work, nearly 100,000 dead from the coronavirus, the economy crashing, police killing black people, cities burning in protest.
Just another day.
So I pull myself out of the morass of incapacitating despair, the oppressive sense of futility, grab the shears that have long blades, and lay into the Mexican sage. Its bloom is over, just a few stragglers popping purple. It’s energetic and exhausting work, but eventually the huge tuft is lopped low.
The edges still have to be wrenched out of the soil to prevent spreading, and the whole thing has to be cut lower.
And then in no time the stalks will grow back, the lovely greyish green foliage will emerge, softening the scene of devastation, like fur on a cat
and then, eventually, there will be new flowers. The white agrostemmas will hopefully reseed – they form a slow dancing partnership with the Mexican sage.
So this is why I garden. We live in dystopian times. I do not necessarily think there is hope, that things will get better in this country. But in the garden there is both the possibility of escaping and the simple fact of renewal. And writing? Who knows. To connect … that is an aspiration, and Tershia tells me, when we talk on the phone today, you write in order to find out what you think. But really who knows.
You garden and you cook things grown – knowingly or by chance – in the garden in order to be surprised. And because the seasons change. Sometimes those things, seasonal change and surprise, occur together. Like yesterday. Even though I had been peering at the cucumbers everyday I’d failed to see summer come barreling in – there were two kinds of ripe cucumber, two kinds of zucchinis, an orange tomato, apples, strawberries and shishito peppers (where were they hiding?).
From the garden to the plate, via the grill for some unfortunates.
The cucumber that looks as though it’s a pickling variety is actually the Row7 experimental, and after being grilled lightly was super tasty. The raw cucumber is green fingers, a small Persian variety. To eat super fresh cucumber, to bite into its crispness, well there is nothing like it, but it tasted simply of cucumber without the flavor of the experimental. The tomato is Flamme and the taste is heavenly. The grilled zucchini, cocozelle, loses its stripes when heated. Shishito – oh shishito we have been eating you frozen from last season and had forgotten how exquisite is the taste of fresh charred shishito tossed lightly in olive oil and salt. At the last minute I remembered basil, both sweet Italian and the zesty purple.
Luckily, earlier in the week I had made chocolate financiers (from a recipe given to me by Kristen Gallerneaux) though they are in the shape of small muffins. There was a little cream saved from the top of the bottle of Strauss milk I used to make yoghurt
so the strawberries did not have to fret and whimper, neglected and ignored
And what of the apples? you ask.
Well, it was not a great crop this year, they are rather small and the birds pecked away. But talk about juicy!
most of them, however, were lost to a villainous interloper who munched greedily, and after a bite or two, simply discarded its stolen meal, dropping it in the dirt
Who could it be? I put my money on The Squirrel, but it could equally have been The Rat or The Possum or The Skunk. Jeffrey laughs at the way I individualize the enemy, kind of incorporating them into the menagerie, along with The Chickens. I put my money on The Squirrel because it taunts me, enjoys sqaurreling, even poses, as though it were the Arc Angel Gabriel looking down on a world of paltry sinners, to have its picture taken.
I know it’s not a great picture, but it does constitute evidence. And talking of not-great pics there is another one but I’m going to risk posting it, because it made my heart crumble
the tiniest green bean emerging out of a purple flower
It is not so easy, though, to capture the crumbling of a heart
Nor to convey the anxiety attending scans, scanxiety we call it. This week I had to go to the hospital for scans for both the CLL (chronic leukemia) and the lung cancer. I more-or-less know what to expect from the CLL scans as blood tests have been a guide to how the disease is progressing. I know that new treatment is on the cards. But what really frightens me is waiting for the results of the lung cancer scans, I’m terrified of it returning like the creature from the black lagoon. And while my other hospital visits have been orderly and pretty stress-free the waiting room in radiology was a nightmare of disorganization. Although there was some tape on the floor it didn’t make any sense; social distancing seemed like a game of chance, many patients oblivious of the rules.
Unlike Jack the Dog in Tucson, who seems oblivious of the rattle snake in his garden, but is actually alert to distancing protocols
So a special mollifying treat was in order after the scans – something both luxurious and comforting. Risotto of course. We had two gifts waiting to be pulled out of the freezer: fish stock made by Heike, and some scallops from William next door, Mrs Tam’s grandson. Add to that a lurking lobster tail (from whence that hails I know not), and some chives from garden
and you have a seafood risotto
and water cress (from our farmers box), pear and walnut salad
The squirrel is not the only interloper. Every garden is full of things-out-of-place, most obviously weeds and marauding critters. But sometimes you can be taken by surprise. Imagine my astonishment when I went to check on the white foxgloves and saw this
A foxglove this color grew in the bed before it was a white garden and perhaps a few seeds have been lying dormant all these years and with a little cultivation sprang to life. Or perhaps I planted three, not two foxgloves, and by mistake a nursery worker included this beauty though at the time it was just a little green plantlet.
And what about fennel? Fennel totally lack discrimination, cannot be confined to a single bed, will lay down with any other plant – foxgloves or salvia or even tomatoes. One of the things I didn’t mention when I indulged in a fennel rave a few blogs back is that fennel supports the Anise Swallowtail, a large black and yellow butterfly with orange eyespots and blue markings on its hind wings. In the warmer southern parts of its range, such as in Southern California, the adults can be seen year-round if they have suitable plants to feed on. While it is relatively easy to keep the adult, or butterfly, happy with many kinds of suitable flowers, the caterpillar is much more picky. It will make do with carrots and parsley, and sometimes citrus trees if nothing else is on offer, but its absolutely favorite food is fennel.
And then there is the itinerant pumpkin. Or maybe it is a squash. It started growing next to the compost bin in the vegetable garden and draped itself over the bin (so Jeffrey was unable to get at the compost) and started twining its tendrils around the grape arbor. I tenderly repositioned it to get a bit more sun and to have its own path rather than sharing with humans so now it is going along the back of the shishito bed, in front of the apples, and I anticipate it will then go back on the ground and wend its way toward the Greek fig.
My fervent hope is that it will turn out to be a kabocha which i grew two years ago, but more likely is from some seeds in the compost, perhaps butternut squash which would not be such a bad thing. That’s if it survives at all. When these orphan seeds start growing they do not think about how large they will become and how hard it will be to find the amount of sunlight needed.
All week, as we worked away in the garden, as we went to the hospital, as we muttered in fury and wept in despair about the state of the nation and the planet, we were looking forward to the weekend, to the moment of unwrapping our farm duck. At last that moment came. This time I tried David Tanis’s recipe for roast duck with orange and ginger. Apart from the cooking method and time I followed his instructions and it turned out crispy, succulent, and flavorful. But just as pleasurable as the eating was
the experience of being in the kitchen as the duck cooked, of inhaling the scents, especially the smell of Chinese five spice.
Tanis suggested mashed butternut squash to go with the duck and as there was a good half of one in the fridge I complied. I love to mash this squash with walnut oil and smashed up walnuts
and since the sage in the garden is abundant and begging to be picked i added a good handful. It went very well.
The next day I made stock from the bones
and used some of this together with the left over glaze to make a sauce, which we had with the remaining duck on polenta
Finished up with a light cleansing salad, using the rest of the delicious experimental cucumber, slices of apple and avocado, festooned with borage and canary nasturtium flowers.
The poor climbing canary nasturtium is being crowded out now by the yellow grape tomato, and many of the weedy nasturtiums that grow everywhere are fading. They are almost by definition out-of-place, and yet you might think that every-place is their-place, even the kitchen. You can eat them, leaves and flowers, or just plonk them in a vase and feel, for a moment, happy.