Friday, September 30, 2011

Tomatoes, Wild, Tame, and Old

Today was a tomato harvest day.

The ones in the big clear glass dish are cultivated tomatoes. The ones in the smaller containers are all wild, that is, their parent plants sprouted from seeds germinating from last year's wild plants, "volunteers," if you prefer the term.

The cultivated tomatoes are the first decent ones we've had this summer; the oblong ones are Roma, the round one is Marglobe. An apple babysits them, hoping to get them to ripen to full redness.

I have never seen a shittier year for tomatoes than this one. The late coldness into the first week of June was followed by a hot snap that literally cooked the tops of tomatoes on the vine, and damaged the vines themselves, burning them yellow. My Shady Lady and Better Girl plants were stunted by the horrid heat, and their sun-baked fruit rotted on their stems.

We planted two Roma plants late, and I had a couple Marglobe plants come up from old seeds I had in the garage. These all set fruit, but it's a race against time for them to ripen. In the clear glass dish, on the right, is a Marglobe tomato, the only one to turn color so far.

Wild tomatoes have supplied our table, and I have to admit, they are truly tasty. 2011 has been Hunter-Gatherer Tomato Year.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Legacy of Lima Bean Pot Pie

Last week, Bernie asked me if I would make Lima Bean Pot Pie. I agreed to do so, recognizing the great power that I have, and wishing to use that power in a kindly manner.

You see, I could hold the pot pie hostage, demanding some sort of ransom, as in "Certainly I will make pot pie for you, Darling, but first you have to take me on a cruise to Hawaii" or even "You'll get the pot pie when I see the fall garden beds tilled."

Or cruelty, I could  use cruelty -- "You think all you have to do is ask for pot pie, and you'll get it? Go on, go find some other woman who knows how to make it!"

But no, I do not. If I hadn't ever wanted to be asked to make pot pie, I never would have introduced the dish to him in the first place. Because most people who have this thick, creamy, delicious, hammy and noodly confection once fall madly in love with it. Lima bean pot pie is right up there with fried chicken and macaroni and cheese in the Comfort Zone of food.

Sadly, by the time my generation is gone, pot pie may be extinct as well.

Even by the time I was in grade school, none of my classmates knew what "lima bean pot pie" was. They had already been afflicted by little green baby limas, the scourge of childhood. The big, soft mature bean -- butter beans -- were unknown to them. None of my friends' mothers made this dish; the closest anyone got to it was the chicken pot pie made with bow-tie noodles (store-bought) and sacrilegious chunks of carrot and potato. Horrid.

My mother was my heroine: she could make pot pie.

Now she wasn't above holding it hostage: she might ransom the food for chores to be done in return. And if she was in a bad mood, forget about it -- refusal to make pot pie was a mighty weapon.

My only recourse was to learn how to make it myself, and she was gracious enough to coach me, so long as she didn't have to do the work. Fair enough.

I thought about my father's grandmother today while I was rolling out the noodles, the woman who would have taught his Aunt Viola Quay how to cook. (Not his mother, she was too flighty to stay in the kitchen.) I also have Dad's grandmother's ironing board, and a wooden bowl and chopper that must have been hers. I think I have a few pictures of her, one as a young girl, and a couple as an older woman, but I know little about her. Still, working in the kitchen to make this simple bit of heaven, I think she and I would have had more in common than her grandson's mother or her grandson's wife. They found cooking a chore. Great-grandmother, at least, would have been fascinated by my Cuisinart, which makes the dough in 45 seconds, my tempered glass rolling board that cleans up like a dream, and my ceramic-top stove. And I think she might have sputtered with disgusted jealousy at the pre-cooked, spiral-sliced ham I dragged out of the freezer, but one thing I know for certain:

She would have loved this batch of pot pie.

Friday, September 23, 2011


In those days
at the equinox of the Late Summer Year
the heat rose again as in July
and the people did once again
dip in their swimming pools in luxury
and lament the waning hours of daylight

Two months of summerlike weather
did the people lose that year
two months of gardens growing
two months of sending children outdoors
their tans were lousy
unless they went to a tanning salon

Summer dresses and sandals
tank tops and shorts
the people wore them even though
the sun and the earth declared autumn
"No, Summer will not end!" they cried
"Extend it the two lost months!"

"This cannot be done," said the Lord.
"The sun and the earth have their own agenda
as they must
for the sake of the rest of the world
yet I will help your acceptance blossom
and feed the nimble-tongued toad as well

Thus the Lord
allowed the flies of September to flourish
in their hundreds, in their thousands
flies which knew that Summer ended
and which coveted the houses
and the dinners of mankind

Like a second job
the people took up fly swatting
massing mounds of carcasses
in their kitchens and their porches
in their bathrooms and their dens
and turning their many minds

And so the people stopped their whining
heaved sighs of relief at early sunset
they looked to the skies for tell-tale hints of rain
and began to hunger for the chilly nights
the wearing of sweaters
and the demise of all the filthy, bloated, obnoxious and frantic flies.

The flower in the picture is cyclamen, which is winter color around here. It's begun blooming early, for reasons I don't know. We got two decent tomatoes from cultivated plants, finally, and while I welcome our current hot spell, I have indeed begun to wish for real autumn weather to slow down all these damned flies. They hang on the doors and sail in any time someone comes through; they ride on people's backs like they were on a bus and enter the kitchen to wallow on counter and dishcloth and mashed potatoes.

Ripening tomatoes, or the demise of flies? Well ...

Friday, September 09, 2011

Works in Progress

The last few days I've been fiddling with three canvases, all very small, all very simplistic.

The first one is in the center, three hills and three towers. The second is the trees against the sky on the left. The third is the farmstead and fields.

None of them are done. They need finesse-ing -- and I don't mean detailing, I mean addition of highlights and dark contrasts, a little fine-tuning. But the good news is, I was actually out in the studio for hours, painting!

After seeing my post-it note on my desk with the ideas and the inspiration for the works, Bernie began nagging me to start work on them. It worked: I went out to the studio to avoid his prodding, set up for the project, and got after it.

This is my worry-stone, a piece of seashell. Was it from Cape Hatteras, where I long to be every day? Or was it something I found on the beach at Santa Cruz, wandering along and thinking of my Port Laughton novels? I don't remember. It's just been on my desk or in my jewelry box forever.

One day, I thumbed it, and was struck by the suggestion of towers on a hilltop, against a russet sky. And then I turned it, and and saw a forest, with odd constellations in a sky. One more turn (imagine 90 degrees to the left) and visualized a barn, and farmhouse, with fields.


It's art, if not "good" art, and I let my imagination run with a limited palette of oils: Naples Yellow, Burnt Sienna, and Cadmium Orange.

The undercoat of the three little canvases was a leftover from a semi-fictional painting of Mission Buenaventura, an undercoating that was so richly orange that I fell in love with it. I had just enough for three 10 x 8 canvases ... just enough. That was two? Three years ago?

No matter, I feel that I'm off and running with these three little abstracts. I want to add touches of Titanium White and evilly dark Alizarin Crimson to each painting to complete them. The tree-picture will have constellations in its sky to correspond (approximately) to the dots on the shell ... but everything has to dry a bit before I go on. Wet on wet oil is fun only up to a certain point.

I'm thrilled to be painting again, and bemused to find that the paintings I enjoy the most are abstracts.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Art Will Cost You, You Poor Bastards: I

A bit of an eye-opener today.

The family went to the Haggin Museum in Stockton to see a Salvador Dali display of his illustrations of Dante's Divine Comedy, and a display of native plants that native Americans ate -- in this area. Now, I admire Dali for his bravado and willingness to follow his own drum-beat, but I was most interested in edible plants in Central Valley California, as I live here, and God alone knows when the other shoe is going to fall and people are going to have to figure out ways to eat that are not dependent on SafeWay.

We started with the Dali display, and I pulled out my trusty camera with its low-light settings, and took about four pictures of the most interesting paintings ... and then a docent (museum employee) came up to me and said, "You're not allowed to take pictures in this exhibit."

Well, I knew that flash pics were prohibited throughout the museum, but no one had told me that any photos were not to be taken. But I was fine with that, I guess, and we deleted my pics from my camera while the docent looked on, and was satisfied. "You can buy a book of these paintings," she told me. "And if you want to take pictures of the other displays in the museum, you can sign a release form."

Now, the last time I was in the Haggin Museum, I took pics of the art, and so did numerous other patrons, many of whom used the forbidden flash in spite of the big sign at the entrance that said, "NO FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY." So this was a surprise to me. But hey, it was an important exhibition of an important work, so whatever ...

The display of native foods ... salmon, acorns, some flower bulbs, elderberries -- those were off-limits for photographs also, as you could buy a book about them downstairs. There were tablets of native food recipes for free hanging on the walls between photos of native Americans plying their cooking skills, but no photos of acorns or baskets or mussel shells were allowed.

"It's because someone might see your pictures and profit from downloading them," a docent told me, after suggesting I sign a release form that would permit me to take pictures of other things in the Haggin. "They might download them, and then sell those images for a profit. So you can't upload your pictures to any online site where other people might see them, not even just your friends."


Salvador Dali's works should never be seen unless someone pays airfare to come to Stockton in the next month, or to New Mexico, where the paintings are based, or they can cough up $299 to buy the book?

What does that say about art? Hey, Shithead, unless you can come up with airfare or big bucks, you can't see these drawings/paintings. That's ridiculous. Here, have a look at what you can already find online, you don't have to rely on some poor-ass tourist's photos:

I have more to say about free art, but that would make this post way too long.

More on this tomorrow.

Saturday, September 03, 2011


This was my view today as I floated on my raft in the pool today.

The sun was quite hot, the temps around 97; the water of the pool has already taken on that September chill that bit by bit cuts back on our swimming. My only agenda for today was to get as much floating/tanning time as possible.

The sky was utterly cloudless.

After about an hour and a half, the hamburgers and hotdogs were off the grill, and I came inside to eat. This may have been my last pool float of the year.

Thursday, September 01, 2011


It's been nearly 25 years since we last grew onions from onion sets.

At the top of my yard back East, I had a little garden for onions and zucchini. When summer was about done, and the tops of the onions began to wither, I'd dig them all out, dry them on a sweater rack, and then braid them into long strips. They would subsequently hang from hooks in my cellar stairway, looking lovely, nicely convenient to my kitchen.

Never having done onion sets before, Alex was sparing with how many onions she planted, but it was a pleasure to stand in the morning coolness today, letting my hands remember how to braid their dried tops together. Maybe the richness of this sight will encourage her to plant more next year.

My friend Cathy the Mad Horsewoman let us borrow her pickup truck this past week, and thus we got the winter's supply of wood in, too.

There is a strong satisfaction in putting things in order like this. Although stacking wood is hard work for my lazy shoulders, I love seeing the pieces fit together, examining each chunk to see the planes and twists, feeling the solidity of the properly done stack; greedily I still insist on being The Stacker, though I admit I'm glad I'm not the Loader or the Hauler any more. It does go much more quickly when Bernie and John and Alex are there to take up the wheelbarrowing.

In the same way, taking a pile of tangled, dried onions and making them into a neat cluster is heartening, watching the dirty outer skin slough away to reveal shades of shining brown and gold, feeling the strength of the braid holding together like magic.

Although a woodstack or an onion braid aren't great art, they are still creations of the hands that planted and hauled and braided and stacked. There is a part of me in this stockpile, in this onion braid -- part of Alex and John and Bernie, too, which makes these works so beautiful. The good will that went into the work infuses them with love, elevates them beyond just Vegetables or Wood.

I'll remember this when we taste black bean chili, or stand by the wood stove to warm up this winter.