When I was a child, we planted the entire vegetable garden at once, over Memorial Day weekend. Finally it was warm enough to start thinking about planting, and it was a long weekend.
Warm enough, you ask? Indeed. I am talking about 45 years ago when there could be snow in Connecticut in May. Frequently there were killing frosts. So Memorial Day weekend was not only family time, for being together and honoring those who had made sacrifices for our country, but it marked the true beginning of the summer growing season.
Asparagus season is upon us
We’re in the thick of asparagus season. I don’t have an asparagus bed in my garden, so this is the time I go begging — or buy it fresh at a farmer’s market. It is no big secret that the best asparagus is that which has just been picked. So I tend to eat it only when it is in season. Amanda Hesser tells us to look for tightly braided tips and stalks that are less than one-half inch in diameter. Don’t buy asparagus in tight little bundles, as the bands on the bundles tend to bruise it. The base of the stalks should be slightly moist, not woody. With young green asparagus, you can snap off the lower part of the stem (saving the discarded bottoms for soup). You can prepare the resulting spears in a variety of ways.
I attended a wedding this weekend where we were served spears of blanched fresh asparagus and fiddle head ferns with a dipping sauce. Delicious combination!
My favorite way to eat asparagus is the simplest. Snap off the bottoms of the spears, and with a peeler, lightly scrape off the skin. Roll the spears in olive oil. Sprinkle with rock salt. Put under the broiler. You may have to turn the spears once or twice. Watch carefully, and cook till lightly roasted. Eat immediately.
My friend Molly does the above recipe, but she adds garlic that has been squeezed through a garlic press.
Another option is to fill a sauce pan with water, toss in some kosher salt and bring to a boil. Lay the prepared asparagus spears in the boiling water and simmer gently till just barely tender. Cool by plunging into bowl of cold water. Drain and pat dry. Serve with a vinaigrette dressing.
I grew up smack in the middle of New York City, but once it was warm enough, we traveled weekends to the northwest corner of Connecticut, where my family rented an unheated barn that had a simple kitchen built into one wall, three bedrooms and a bathroom fitted into the old hayloft, a stone fireplace that threw no heat but looked warm, and a low-ceilinged backroom with a small woodstove in it. My first studio was in that back room by the stove.
The barn opened up to the roof, one huge dark wood room with hand hewn beams, that sheltered, among other things, bats that swooped in the evenings, a large milk snake in the fireplace that came out when the hearth warmed, plenty of mice, and a variety of large and small insects and arachnids. In fall, as soon as it got cold enough that the pipes might freeze, the lease came to an end and all padded furniture was squirreled away into wire mesh cages, so no animal could choose to winter over.
At the highest altitude in the state, the barn was located in Norfolk, the “icebox” of Connecticut, the town that received the most snow, and certainly the place with the record for the coldest temperatures. My future husband, as it turns out, was born and raised there (but that’s another story).
The vegetable garden was a short walk, usually barefoot, down a dirt road turned mostly grass, all parts of an old estate. My mother, an elementary school teacher, was determined that we would know how to garden and understand where our food came from.
By Memorial Day, Norfolk was also the land of mountain laurel blooming into millions of inverted white petticoats, swaths of lilacs, and orange and yellow thickets of azaleas humming with bees. Later in summer, there were wild blueberries and raspberries (and an occasional bear), birds singing up a racket in the woods and meadow, fields of milk cows, vegetables that came up out of the ground, and milk that was yellow, not blue. “Country milk” was not only a different color, it came in bottles with cream on top. And it tasted different.
The vegetable garden was where we learned about patience, life cycles, and weeding (which is also about patience, life cycles, and then more weeding). There was the attempt to furrow straight rows, the planting of seeds, the setting in of tiny plants, the building of trellises, and the waiting. And then the weeding. That was when my brother and I might feign a back- or head-ache, evince a desperate need to lie on the grassy paths between the beds to look up at the clouds, or discover a cluster of garter snakes knowing my mother would be terrified and wouldn’t mind if we ran off with them.
Oddly enough, I love weeding now. With all the rain we have had the past few weeks in Middlebury that is almost all I have been doing. My garden is “behind,” but the weeds are happy. The rain has rendered the soil heavy, especially the in-ground beds. The raised beds drain nicely, but even so the planting of the garden this year has had a different rhythm: snatched moments when the conditions are right, 15-minute increments here and there, lunch breaks, after dark. I worry the potatoes will rot, the overall damp will bring in blight, the tomatoes (of which I have planted many varieties) might never take off, the squash plants might never pollinate. I worry things will not grow. Will there be enough time for fruits to reach maturity? I worry.
It is a prize-winning year, though, for tearing out the invasive weeds on the perimeter of my in-town lot. The ground is so saturated they not only pull out easily, but as my friend Jane observes the clumps of dirt in the roots shake off easily. Dandelion roots come straight out for once, and I have an opportunity to plant some ground covers to help crowd out the invasive species.
Meanwhile south of here, but in a colder spot, Norfolk, my friend Vint is just putting in his tomatoes this week on Memorial Day. Back in April, he gave me some tomato seeds he’d collected and I did what he does: plant the seeds inside on April 15, as soon as the taxes are in. Then he sets them out in a tiny greenhouse instead of under lights (“where they tend to get too leggy”). He puts them in the ground on Memorial Day.
It’s Memorial Day as I write this. Middlebury’s parade is at 9 o’clock this morning. I am going to meet up with my aunt, who asked me to bring her a chair to sit in. I will honor our families and our soldiers. The sun is shining, so I will finish planting the garden, including the tiny tomato plants from Vint’s seeds, and then I will go pull more weeds.
Folks, it is officially summer!