I grew up around gardens. Northwestern Wisconsin with its short growing season was always the format for the battle to produce something from the soil that was good to eat.
The first garden of my life that I remember very vividly was my Ukrainian grandparent’s garden and specifically my grandmother working in that garden. Head scarf (babushka) and sweater, long skirt, and an apron, she would stand with hoe in hand for hours. She would grow: cabbage, rutabaga, lettuce, cucumbers, potatoes, carrots, radishes, kohlrabi, turnips, tomatoes, beans, peppers, beets and a seemingly endless array of herbs. (In addition, she had enormous flower gardens. They were scorned by her husband, who believed that if you couldn’t eat it you shouldn’t grow it.) But the growing was only a part of process, after came harvest, then canning to prepare food for the winter months.
When cabbage was harvested you could smell sauerkraut for miles, as crocks full of cabbage cured. The root cellar was filled with potatoes, carrots, rutabaga, turnips, and apples picked from their small orchard. But the most interesting thing to me as a kid was watching my grandmother make pickles. Lots of pickles! She would pickle beets, peppers and, for me, my favorite, cucumbers, turning them into the marvelous tastes of sugar and spice. My favorite pickle was what came to be called “chunk pickles.” These curious delights were small cucumbers cut into chunks, placed in a crock and then cured for a week, first with hot water and salt, then with a daily addition of sugar, with pickling spice and ginger added. Then these pickles were canned in quart jars, endless quart jars. I could never wait so I would sneak into the kitchen where the crocks full of pickles were curing and lift one of the weighted plates and put my hand in to sneak a pickle even before it was done. My mouth would explode with the flavors of this pickle delight. To this day, when I make pickles, I can’t wait and I always sneak a taste before they’re done.
Do you have gardens in your life, past or present? Do you have stories to tell of canning and making the delights of your childhood? Do you still keep the old tradition of recipes handed down from one generation to another? I hope so!
Every spring when the garden is prepared for planting there is a sense of expectation, a sense of wonder, and a sense of mystery when seed and soil, water and sunshine combine with small seeds to grow the food we eat. I never cease to be excited by this and I always stand in awe of this mystery of seed, soil, sun and water.
Each time I remember the gardens of my life I remember the way in which the harvest was produced and shared. Each time I remember my grandparents’ activity in canning; I remember that it was a community event. Everyone produced and everyone shared.
City folks in the midst of our pandemic have, in fascinating ways, returned to the soil. With small plots of ground tilled and planted, patio pots crammed full of tomato plants, folks in the cities have started loving the soil, attempting to grow and harvest their own food. Part of their quest is the desire to grow something, but part of the quest is a demand for hoped for self-sufficiency. People who have never planted a seed in their lives are trying to grow food. It is a sense of returning to the simpler things. Almost everywhere I go I hear folks talking about planting seeds or young plants.
Perhaps in the midst of the death of the coronavirus, the desire for life in all of its forms demands our attention. Animal shelters are nearly empty because people are attaching themselves to a new pet, perhaps for a hug, perhaps to simply model and celebrate rescue.
So, animals are brought into our homes, gardens are planted, old family recipes are resurrected from the back pages of a grandmother’s cookbook, and simpler things are loved once again. In the process families plant gardens and tend to new pets. Life and love once again center us in our relationship to each other.