Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Bottling Summer

I had a new experience this weekend, one that until recently I never would have imagined myself doing, much less enjoying. My husband and I converted 20 pounds of fresh tomatoes into tomato sauce and then bottled the sauce. We are as proud as little children who have learned a new trick. The eight pints of tomato sauce still sit in two neat rows on the kitchen counter where we can admire them.

The seed of an idea for this project came when I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle a few weeks ago. She makes living off the harvest of her garden for a year seem almost fun. The book includes a recipe for homemade tomato sauce, homey descriptions of August afternoons spent socializing with friends while putting up tomatoes, and even reflections by her daughter on how processing tomatoes results in a kind of mindfulness, where nothing else exists except for attending to stirring the sauce.

The opportunity came when I saw 20-pound boxes of ripe tomatoes for sale for $20 at the Carrboro Farmer’s Market. My husband bought a 3-gallon pot and glass Ball jars and we were ready to go. I will admit I was a little apprehensive about the work involved in bottling. I come from a line of women who viewed working in the kitchen as drudgery and had limited imaginations when it came to food. The comment about cooking I remember most often hearing from my mother was “slaving in the kitchen.”

But playing with the tomatoes was fun from beginning to end. They were beautiful to look at, red and firm, about the size of baseballs. We dipped them in hot water for 45 seconds to loosen the skins, then peeled them and seeded them. I felt like a little kid during this part of the process—there was something so satisfyingly tactile about peeling and then squeezing the tomatoes. We then pureed them, stirred together seasonings (following Barbara Kingsolver’s no-longer-secret family recipe), and cooked the sauce.

I had to stay near the kitchen during the three hours the sauce was simmering, to stir it and make sure it didn’t burn. It was a pleasure—an excuse to sit reading Arthur Phillips’ The Egyptologist, one of the better and funnier novels I have read in awhile, getting up from time to time to stir the sauce that smelled heavenly.

The Egyptologist, amidst its satire, is provoking in its reflections on immortality. It occurred to me that our project was in its own way an effort to cheat time. We took a product of summer--ripe tomatoes that would have been destined for compost if not eaten within a couple of days--and preserved them to pour over winter pasta or chicken parmigiana. This seems like a small miracle to a woman who has spent her life in suburbs and urban areas, dining out and making meals using factory-made sauces. We bottled summer.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Plant Rescue

I have never been so glad to see rain as I was Tuesday afternoon. I finally got some help in trying to keep alive the native plants my husband and I had dug up and transplanted this weekend, one day ahead of the bulldozers that are leveling most of a 70-acre woods to create soccer fields and a swimming pool at Southern Community Park. My hope that these plants would readily adapt to their new home was wilting as fast as the 98-degree afternoon sun scorched the leaves of two little dogwoods. (I know transplanting dogwoods in July was an act of either foolhardiness or optimism, but they would have died anyway, so there was nothing to lose.)

I had not expected to spend much of a brutally hot July weekend digging and transplanting plants. By mid-June, I was burned out after spring planting, as I am each year. I was tired of imagining combinations of plants in my garden and researching what might do well in part shade and clay soil while also being unpalatable to deer. I was tired of digging and amending the soil and mulching. I was even tired of watering and had been doing it somewhat grudgingly during the recent days of drought. I vowed I was done with planting until fall. Then I read on Saturday over breakfast about the plant rescue and decided I needed some Christmas ferns.

I adore Christmas ferns. They stay green year-round and thrive in the woods in Piedmont North Carolina. Deer don’t eat them, they don’t need special watering, and they seem to like our clayey soil. But despite their commonness in the wild, they are somewhat difficult to find in nurseries and are priced high, usually at more than $8 per plant.

On Saturday, when my husband and I arrived at the site, I was surprised not to find hordes of other plant enthusiasts competing for free plants. I half-imagined the woods would attract crowds of early risers, as would a closeout sale or garage sale. But we had the area to ourselves.

Despite the heat and humidity, we had fun hunting for plants. We dug dogwoods, what I think are arrowwood viburnums, and the Christmas ferns I craved. They lost many roots in being dug up, so we transplanted them immediately when we got home (ignoring the hot mid-afternoon sun), watered them, and hoped for the best. We enjoyed the experience so much that we went back on Sunday. This time we went to a different part of the site and ran into several others rescuing plants--as well as several handwritten signs saying “Tree Rape in Progress.” I don’t have anything against community parks, but I still feel sad for the loss of one more patch of Carolina woods.

Tuesday’s rain temporarily revived one dogwood, but today its leaves are just as crispy as those of the other two. I remain hopeful about the 18 Christmas ferns, although many of their fronds were flattened by the wind while they rode in the back of the pickup. One arrowwood viburnum looks likely to survive, and the American hollies are looking okay. The vaccinium immediately died, but surprisingly a clump of running cedar (supposedly difficult to transplant) has not yet wilted.

My garden burnout has evaporated, and I have resumed doing rounds in the garden several times a day to check on my plants’ health. My new plants don’t yet look enthusiastic to be in my garden, but once again I am.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Shopping Green

At last, recognition by a prominent mainstream media outlet of the contradictions inherent in the “Buy Green” movement. This New York Times article describes the limitations of green consumerism as a solution to global warming, while pointing out why many major environmental groups have been hesitant to criticize green products: they see them as a small first step in the right direction. “After you buy the compact fluorescent bulbs,” Michael Brune, the executive director of the Rainforest Action Network, told the Times, “you can move on to greater goals like banding together politically to shut down coal-fired power plants.” Let’s hope.