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Posts Tagged ‘gardening’

I just heard about a new show that’s debuting on the Food Network called “Pioneer Woman.”  In it, an Oklahoma home schooler and rancher shows you how to make chicken fried steak with white gravy and mashed potatoes with cream cheese and butter, while herding kids and cows.

It should have been me on the screen.  For years, Ben has jokingly referred to me as Pioneer Woman, particularly while we go camping.  I love to go hunting for stuff that’s edible in the area where we camp, and frequently come back with treasures:  wild blueberries, raspberries, wild garlic, and more (we will not mention the time that I found poison ivy berries and thought them a delicious edible, and chastened, was sent to the stream to scrub my hands with sand!).

There’s something just restorative about being in a raspberry field (from which I just returned, with nearly two pounds of gorgeous, organic raspberries).  Later today, these berries will be turned into jam, which we – and my catering clients – will feast on all fall and winter and spring.  Tomorrow I’ll probably be back in the field for more, which I’ll turn into a crisp, or mix with gooseberries, currants, and blueberries to make four-berry preserves.

Doing all this reminds me of the years when we walked my grandparents’ farm, picking wild strawberries or potatoes, as we ran after the horse-drawn plow…or days spent near Glacier Park with my friend, Connie, harvesting huckleberries or picking cherries from trees growing on the Flathead Reservation.  It’s an incomparable delight – the combination of being in nature, harvesting the goodness that the sun, wind, rain, and soil provide, and knowing that we can provide for ourselves and our families with what we harvest.

And my pioneering adventures in campgrounds have brought other memories to mind.  I like to jokingly say that I won my husband’s heart on a camping trip.  It was our first together, and I was not about to settle for beans and franks (although we like them) or something out of a can.  I produced appetizers, chicken with a peach-sauternes sauce, rice pilaf, a hot veg, salad, and some dessert I can’t recall.  Ben, and our daughter Emily, were snowed.  On another trip I made a complete lobster dinner at the camp site, and then followed it the next morning by providing blueberry pancakes (picked in Acadia Park) and sausage to the family, all during a driving rainstorm.  And I loved doing it.

I travel with a camping kit that I wish was stored in a chuck-box…but I make do with a couple of stackable totes, and bring a complete array of spices in small containers, olive oil, worcestershire, and all the condiments you’d need to produce really good camping food.  And it all comes out hot at the same time – four or five dishes.

I know all this started when I was a tiny girl visiting my mother’s Uncle Arthur and Aunt Laura, on their farm.  The low blueberry bushes kept me busy and fishing for sunfish and catfish in the pond did as well.  So even though my mother would have none of camping (“too low class,” she sniffed), I come by this yearning for the preparation of food in an outdoor setting honestly.

Yep, I’m the real Pioneer Woman, at least in our family.  And as for that new TV show — well, it should have been me.

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My grandfather, Frank Racine, was a farmer.  He had taken up this career after being a school principal and deciding that it didn’t really fulfill him.  He wanted instead to be a dairy farmer, and so late in life he bought an old farm in Cuddebackville, New York and became one.  I can remember visiting my grandparents, getting up after he’d had his first breakfast, and watching him from the kitchen window as he came back toward the house with a small milk jug in hand.  In the cooling house opposite the barn, I knew there would be several very large cans of milk, immersed in cold water, waiting for pickup to go to the dairy.

After a break and review of the local papers in his sitting area (in the basement near the coal furnace) Gramp would go out again to shovel manure, plow the fields, and tend his vegetables.  Some of them would go to a local market, but others were for us.  In the fall, I loved to go out in the field with Barney, the farm dog, and walk behind the plow picking up freshly turned potatoes.  I’d be sent to the field in back of the house with my cousin Linda, to pick wild strawberries (the best strawberries for shortcake and whipped cream), or out to the field with my mother to get corn for supper (“We’ll get the water boiling;  if you fall down on the way back, throw that corn away and pick some that’s really fresh”).

This was how I learned about gardening, down in the valley of that little Delaware Water Gap community.  And for many years, I wanted nothing to do with it.  But in my late twenties, that changed.  I got tired of lousy fruits and vegetables in the store.  Then the organic movement revived, and I started to wonder about whether I could grow some of my own veggies, pesticide-free, without going to the store.  And then I decided to try it.

I got the owner of the apartment where I lived to let us dig a little garden plot in the back yard.  Another resident also wanted to garden, and we had a great time planting and harvesting, in view of Long Island Sound in Stony Creek, CT.  When I moved to Massachusetts, I still had the garden ‘bug.’  At our first house in Lexington the neighbors had an asparagus bed, and I eyed it enviously.  A couple of doors down, a woman named Brenda was into gardening in a big way, and I lusted after her raised beds and netting to keep the birds off the raspberries. Our house did not have an ideal landscape for much gardening, but when we moved to our current residence, with a very large back yard, I knew what I’d be wanting to do.  So Ben built me a raised bed garden with a fence around it (we abut a stream and conservation land, and are regularly visited by turkeys, coyotes, rabbits, squirrels, and sometimes, deer) and my future was written.

Too often, I haven’t gotten out to that garden till June.  And by then it’s been too late for some of the lovely early crops to produce.  A couple of years, I didn’t get out there at all, and sadly mourned my inability to do that which made me happy. Not this year.

With some extra time at my disposal, I asked Ben to turn over a quadrant of the garden early…and so on April 7, rakes and hoe in hand, I marched out and set to work.  The spring has come early to New England this year, and I planted peas, radishes, spinach, and a new asparagus bed.  My garlic plants (a gift from my friend Margy), planted last fall, have sprouted, and several herbs made the winter:  borage, lovage, and of course chives, catnip, spearmint, and garlic chives.  I also found that some parsnips and carrots wintered over, and the rhubarb has come back beautifully.

Today, if the rain holds off long enough, I’ll be setting in onion and shallot sets, along with lettuce.  And I went to New Hampshire last week with my friend and neighbor Joyce, to a nursery that had an Earth Day plant sale.  Heirloom and plum tomatoes, pineapple sage and several other herbs, and broccoli plants will all be going in shortly.  And then, more seeds.  Along the side of the garage, where there’s another garden area, Ben and I planted three new blueberry bushes yesterday, I trimmed the raspberry canes, and set in lupine and hollyhock plants.  All the strawberries are being relocated to the vegetable garden.

Max Coots, in his Prayer of Thanksgiving, named the blessings of friends “gorgeous as eggplant” and “elegant as a row of corn”.  I find that gardening makes me appreciate my friends and family more…in fact, appreciate life more, too.  I love being out and digging in the dirt, making things grow, and knowing that I’m doing something that will feed my family and cut down on environmental waste.  And I love thinking about how to nurture those seeds and tiny plants, to make them grow into something fabulous.  Yeah, my muscles ache after I’ve been out there for a few hours.  But it’s a good ache, and it reminds me that I’ve done something good for me and for my family.

On Earth Day and at other times as well, I’ll take the friendship the earth offers…an enduring and sustaining friendship that calls to me, as it did to my grandfather, and offers up rewards blessed by the sun and the rain.

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