Spring bounty

~~ Originally printed in Carrboro (NC) Free Press, April 2009 ~~

I’m not a farmer. I don’t garden. I couldn’t grow kudzu on a bet. Even houseplants die on my watch. Query: Has anyone—I mean, anyone—else ever neglected a philodendron to its death? And I’m talking dead-dead, not ooh-that-looks-pretty-bad-dead. I never even succumbed to the Chia Pet craze, instinctively knowing at a tender age that Chia Puppy was doomed to malnutrition and mange under my feeble care.

This is not to say that I don’t appreciate the beauty of plants, though. I want cut flowers on the table, and various potted greenery by the windows, that I can make my children water or dispose of and replace. Tomato vines and lettuces and irises and peonies and sweet baby rosebushes in a garden? Oh yes. Sign me up to… Well, sign me up to enjoy it all. But don’t think for a moment that I will voluntarily plant/fertilize/water/weed. It’s not that I refuse—I’m just not aware of what the hell I’m supposed to do.

Maybe I was supposed to be one of those women, with a gardening service, who sits on the verandah and sips mint juleps out of an icy silver cup while gently sighing and contemplating the bougainvillea. Or maybe I was switched at birth. That’s it. I just know there’s some poor woman who longs to garden, to toil lustily in the dirt, but is instead forced to look out across Paris from her penthouse, gently sighing over her very cold Champagne.

Eh. Maybe not.

More likely, there is just something wrong with me. I read Women Who Run with the Wolves. I understand the archetypes and mythology and how I’m supposed to have a primal connection to the land, a driving compulsion to plunge my fingers into the dark earth and cultivate a pungent, glorious bounty.

But I don’t. At all.

I do, however, have that million-year-old instinct that drives me to want to plunge my fingers into flour and milk and butter and roll out a batch of fluffy biscuits. That’s got to count for something, surely.

My black thumb makes me weary that I’m out of touch with Mother Nature. But there’s hope for me yet. I like to eat. That makes me a regular at our local restaurants and farmers’ markets. And it’s hard to miss the cycles of seasonality surrounding what’s available. I can connect with my aboriginal self through good local food.

In the cold months we have collards, winter squash and sweet potatoes. I like the greens cooked with fatback. And I like acorn squash cooked with butter and bacon and a little brown sugar. Hey, that’s how my mom always made it. And sweet potatoes are fine with those little marshmallows, but my brother has taught me that they are far, far superior with the addition of pecans and habañeros. Of course, winter also brings hot chocolate, candy canes and Christmas cookies.

And everyone raised in the South knows what’s in store when it’s hot outside. Summer is the perfect time for anyone expected to put dinner on the table. It’s a no-brainer: some combination of summer squash, field peas, green beans and corn on the cob, a plate of sliced tomatoes and a dish of Mimi’s bread and butter pickles, with a skillet of hot cornbread and plenty of sweet butter. For dessert, peaches or strawberries. I don’t have to know how many hours were spent shelling the purple hull peas to know a meal like that is akin to ambrosia.

But spring? I’d never really associated any foods with springtime. Hyacinth and redbud, sure. Hot cross buns, maybe. Pizza delivery—with extra banana peppers—during ACC basketball games. Colored eggs and jelly beans? It could be because I partake of certain springtime goodnesses year-round: lettuce and carrots and onions and garlic. I take them for granted. They’re on my grocery list every time. But what about other seasonal delicacies: Arugula and leeks and beets? Bliss. Those aren’t foods I grew up with, so it’s taken some time for me to fully understand that they pop up around here at the same time every year for my good pleasure.

It’s a treat to walk around the Farmers’ Market in April and see stacks of radishes, turnips and onions with their dirty, bulby, rooty ends. I get a certain thrill that can never be matched by, say, seeing plastic  packets of pre-chopped veggies in the cooler at Trader Joe’s. Filling my basket with baby lettuces, spring onions, beets and perfect tulips at the Market, I can experience all the bountiful glory of this season with nary a speck of dirt under my fingernails.

So. I’d like to say, “Thank you,” to all the farmers out there. And I hope, sincerely, that you can’t write a lick. It’s only fair.

I’ll crush the ice and muddle the mint. You go hunt down the julep cups. Sigh.

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