As I pick ripe tomatoes for one of Kate’s gazpachos (see last week’s column) and slow roasting, I think of the story my father-in-law tells of sneaking to his mother’s tomato patch brandishing a salt shaker spirited from the dining table, then squirreling himself inside the bower of sweet-earth smelling vines to devour tomato after tomato, warm, salted, sublime. It’s tough to imagine a disease brought on the wind marring this image or wiping out full crops of tomatoes and potatoes. But that’s what late blight does and it’s back in Vermont.
Last year I detected late blight as it whispered into my garden’s ear. Although only a couple of leaves showed early signs, I pulled out the tomatoes, heavy with unblemished green fruit and cooked enough chutney to feed half the state. Ironically it was a stellar batch of spice and tang, sweet and hot, the best I’ve ever made. Like Judy, I safely harvested the potatoes, too, as the first telltale spots crept onto their leaves.
As I scan the garden for signs of blight this season, I think of my Irish ancestors who came to this country in part because of this disease. They had little warning or recourse, and no other crops to fall back upon when the spuds rotted in the fields. I think, too, of my father’s Irish palate and how foreign it is to me. Give him potatoes, fish, soup and ice cream — lots of ice cream. My mother had to slip in garlic and insist on raw vegetables. While he loved to order salad in restaurants, he didn’t much like salad or restaurants. What he did love was to be asked what kind of dressing he wanted: French, Italian, or Russian. “Irish, of course,” he’d reply. “No dressing. Plain. Irish.”
My mother said he had no capacity for complex flavorings because his mother had murdered the beautiful vegetables that tumbled from her extensive garden and into her unfortunate pot. My grandmother’s cooking bordered on the criminal, according to my mother, except when it came to sweets, which had nothing at all to do with gardens and fresh ingredients. Then she was a wizard, conjuring up the most extraordinary pies, candy and cakes. When I lived in Ireland in the ’90s, I found the same delight in treacle-y sweets and plain hearty fare heavy on the potato, light on non-root vegetables. No surprise that my father loved to visit us there.
Right about now, as fall feathers quietly into full summer, my grandmother would start making fruitcake for winter. No one, of course, admits to liking fruitcake, but tasting hers, after months and months of basting in Irish whiskey, was like chewing a fine, fruity cognac. My unimpressed brother would snort that a loaf lasted forever because the thing was embalmed.
Last year, in solidarity with my Irish ancestors after my brush with late blight, I tried my hand at making the fruitcake. My mother whispered good luck when she handed me the yellowed index card, my grandmother’s slanted handwriting outlining loose measurements and directions to “prepare a stiff dough” and “cook in a slow oven.”
Several of my old cookbooks and preserving guides give similarly vague instructions. I once thought those writers withheld their secrets. Now I appreciate their insistence on finding one’s own balance of flavors, on gaining kitchen wisdom over time. When my husband organizes the spice shelves alphabetically, I rearrange things according to how they’re used (chervil has no business being next to cinnamon). My shelves carry a trail of my cooking history and guide my next adventure — ah yes, grinding cinnamon with coriander and allspice worked wonders with garlicky spinach.
Indeed, only when I departed from strict recipes did I learn how to cook.
Good cooking, just like good gardening, means paying attention — to the conditions, to the signs with more than just the eyes. Dried herbs from the grocer are usually much paler in taste than the ones I grow and dry, and so amounts need to be adjusted accordingly. How can I squeeze lemon into a salad dressing before tasting the fruit for tartness and flavor? One lemon might be juicy and sweet, another dry and with more pith than flesh. When people ask me for a recipe, I usually shrug and say I don’t exactly have one, at least not one anyone could easily follow — it all depends...
And so I welcomed my grandmother’s approach to recipe writing. I thought it would be a snap to conjure up her full Irish loaf if I heeded the interplay of ingredients, the chemistry and the alchemy. But my fruitcake was the stuff of bad dreams. Inedible. Criminal. Blighted. I’m not quite sure what went awry apart from not enough or the wrong whiskey. Sometimes disaster floats in on the wind.
I’m thinking of trying again. I replanted potatoes and tomatoes this year, and so far so good — more slow-roasted tomatoes than chutneys are coming out of the kitchen right now and that’s as it should be. I should, then, also find the thread back to my family’s fruitcake, if I just pay attention to the telltale signs, learn how to read them and have a little luck.
For more information about late blight, see Cornell University’s site, www.nysipm.cornell.edu/publications/blight/