Up On the Sun

I wish you could smell where I live once the Summer Solstice arrives, and I do mean that in the best way. The scent of high summer in the Midwest, especially during a sunny, hot, and humid summer like the one we’ve been having since late May, is its own heady cut-grass-and-clover beast. Or its own pungent warm-dill-breadseed-poppies-and-horse-manure beast. You pick.

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I love that about 1 mile away from 909 and our very cute neighborhood, we can see these guys in something approximating a natural habitat.

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Orange: It’s the color of joy and creativity, of warmth and determination… of FUN! No wonder it’s been Jim’s favorite for decades.

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O, these sunflowers with their pale-yellow petals and chocolate-brown centers against that as-yet-unhazed summer sky.

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Summer also = international tournament/cup soccer. I’m off today, having myself a little Solstice-fueled vacation, and I’m eagerly awaiting my family’s arrival home from work in a bit so we can prepare to watch the US Men’s National Team take on Argentina. 909 is all about the flags at cup time.

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I was thinking today: Why is the phrase “real life” or “the real world” or “reality” so often used pejoratively? My daughter is working a fast-paced restaurant job this summer. Oh, that’s good, that’s a bit of the real world for her. Really? Hm. Sure, I guess. But… what IS the real world? I mean, I say shit like that, but this morning I was examining some of the things I say and I thought, well, that phrase, used that way by me, has GOT to go. I’m defining “real life” differently this summer. Real life can include working and earning money and enduring stress and trauma and stupidity and traffic and people being assholes and being tired and wondering IS THIS ALL THERE IS?, but it’s certainly not SOLELY or even PRIMARILY those things.

Thunderstorms are beautiful and terrible and necessary, and they are real life. Beautiful, hopeful weddings are real life, and, sadly, death is also real life. Ripening blackberries are real life; so are the thorns we have to deal with to get at them (unless you have the thornless kind, which I do not, but am still eternally grateful to Tim for letting me dig some up at his old house). Enthusiastic discussion with Lilly about filling out her proposed schedule for college – just a couple of months away – is real life. So is pondering the unverbalized question what will it be like when you’re away at school? And… so is admitting I’m afraid to find out.

The backyard at 909 is my real world. So is driving along listening to this interview with two absolutely awesome guys (twins!) in Ireland. So is sitting down every morning to write and watching difficult truths emerge. Vacation and daydreaming with Jim are real worlds. So is working at my desk at my job. It’s all real… but some realities seem to have the wrong weight attached. Recalibration is required.

Welp. I’m going to go smell some tomato plants and basil leaves. More soon.

The Teaches of Peaches (and Corn and Basil)

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Organic peaches from Prairie Fruits Farm in Champaign, IL.

I look forward to stone fruit season the most. Every summer when I was a kid/teenager, my mother told me I ate too much stone fruit and that my habit cost too much, so I could only have 3 pieces a day. Does that mean 3 pieces a day of each kind, or…?

I still eat a lot of stone fruit and and invite my family to do the same, which they do. Straight up. With shortcake. Over ice cream. In yogurt. Whatever. It’s expensive, yes, but it takes a lot of work to grow stone fruit (some seasons there’s no crop at all, due to weather), and I’m glad we can support that. Also, the season is short – we only get to eat Illinois-grown for about 8 weeks.

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“Nirvana” sweet corn from Schottman’s in Effingham, IL.

I’m also delighted every summer by the appearance of Mark Schottman’s red pickup truck at the local farmers markets; it means there is delicious sweet corn aboard. I’ve been buying corn from him pretty much exclusively for well over a decade. Why is it the best? I don’t know. The corn is really damned good. I also just really like the guy; it’s clear he respects his customer base and enjoys seeing all of us during sweet corn’s regrettably short (8 weeks, if it’s a good year, 10 if it’s exceptional) season. He’s one of the farmers who always asks me how I’m liking my new job, even though it’s been almost 3 years since I managed the Market.

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Genovese basil from my own backyard in Urbana, IL

I love buying food from other people – people I get to choose, people I’ve become friends with, people whose places I’ve visited – but I love growing it, too. I grow way less food than I used to. But every year I grow more basil than we need. I always talk about freezing it or freezing pesto and I never get to it, so we eat a metric ton of pesto every summer. My recipe for it is simple – basil, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil, salt, and Parmesan cheese – sometimes I go heavier on the garlic. This pesto (and, I assume, most pesto) is super-good on poached or scrambled eggs, especially if you have some fresh tomatoes just lying around, waiting.

Not pictured: The vast quantities of blackberries, beets, Swiss chard, lettuce, tomatoes, sweet peppers, and beans that we eat during the summer. We eat them because they’re ready NOW, in the gardens and the markets and the stores. But I also eat them to charge up for The Season Which Must Not Be Named. Food = sunlight. I’ll take it wherever I can get it – all summer long and into the fall.

Enjoy the sun, however you get it.

Caught Up

 

About a month ago, my basil started to die.

The untimely death of basil in my garden isn’t a new thing, unfortunately. It’s caused by basil downy mildew, and I hate it because it kills the plants, it ruins my pesto plans,  and because it interferes with my idea of what happens when; I have journal entries from ten years ago/five years ago/three years ago where the basil is still going strong well into September. The new reality of basil in our part of the midwest is this: We have to work harder to just have it. We have to plant earlier and more strategically, cut more often, start new plants while we’re cutting, watch for disease, and eventually replant for what ultimately works out to be less basil. It’s a scourge borne on the wind, and while not everyone’s plants get it at the same time, everyone’s plants succumb eventually. And if you don’t grow basil yourself, you’re sure to notice its early absence from markets. I interviewed a couple of experts and whine about it here.

 

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I reviewed Ava Chin’s memoir, Eating Wildly, for Backyard Industry Radio this week. I don’t review books very often, but this one called out to me from a pile of things I meant to read over the summer. It’s a fine memoir about gain and loss and looking around your world with a new set of eyes; with foraging, there is always uncertainty about what you’ll find and whether you’ll know it when you see it, and she captures that feeling well with her uncomplicated, self-aware prose. Before the book came out in May 2014, Chin had been writing a column, “Urban Forager”, about her experiences foraging in the city and elsewhere – and then cooking what she ate – for the New York Times.

In the book, she addresses the issue of the legality of foraging in the city. This column about daylilies from 2010 drew a vigorous response from readers on both sides of the issue – some were fascinated with the concept of being able to eat them, and others were upset with the idea that someone would not only forage plants in public parks, but would write about it, encouraging (many) others to possibly do the same, stripping the parks of foliage meant to be enjoyed by everyone. In the end, the City came down on foraging in public parks.

I have mixed feelings about this. I love my time at my local prairie preserve and am definitely not into it when I see people trouncing on other foliage to pick flowers there; however, black raspberries? I’ve been known to carefully take a few as I walk. [Maybe, sometimes, more than a few.] Mosquitoes make me crazy when I’m out there; I don’t even think twice about looking for and harvesting plantain to take the itch away. While I would never take produce out of someone’s private garden at the plots there or anywhere, I’ve definitely brought home a breadseed poppy pod or two when it hangs over the public path. Are seeds and weeds any different from flowers and fruit? Should lambsquarter and plantain and garlic mustard (a much-loathed invasive here) be left alone to go to seed and fruit and flowers left for the birds, instead of going to a few people curious about what’s coming out of the ground, uncultivated? I personally tend to subscribe to the Scandinavian concept of Allemansrätten: Foraging for wild foods is allowed in public parks and even on private land, as long as nothing is disturbed and the foraging isn’t happening on farms or cultivated gardens. They seem to make it work there. I’m not sure it’d work here.

[It did surprise me that, in publishing that column, Chin broke one of the cardinal rules of foraging: Never share where you find something special. Don’t tell anyone where you got the wild asparagus or morels or poppy seeds. I guess I also just broke the rule, but I’m not a forager.]

Closer to home here in the midwest, we have Nance Klehm. She’s been foraging and experimenting in the urban environment for ages, though I’m not sure she’s living in Chicago full time these days. Her philosophy? A little more countercultural and a little less “foodie” than Chin’s – check out some of her writing here.