Despite the fact that today marks the official start of fall, and the mountainsides here in Sandy Mush are already showing the faintest autumn tint, I’m still clinging on to the idea of summer. It isn’t too difficult to do, considering our days are still in the mid-80’s (never mind that the evenings are dipping down into the 50’s). I’m making a last push to wear all my pretty summer clothes before they have to be packed away, and we’re making the most of the late summer tomatoes, peppers, and squash at the farmer’s markets. We finally went back to visit H & M, and got to harvest our late maturing watermelon. To our delight, they were perfectly red, ripe and sweet. Even better, since I had isolated and hand pollinated a few of the flowers, we collected the seed and can use it next year.
In the mindset of prolonging that summer feeling, I’ll take you back a few weeks to our attempts to preserve some of the late summer bounty. The main challenge for me in preserving food (other than that I’ve never really done it before and have no clue what I’m doing), is that everything seems to come to harvest all at once. Somehow I found myself all at once with dozens of ears of corn, late-harvest blueberries, several crates of apples, bags of basil, fresh field peas and butter beans, several heads of cabbage and bowls of over-ripe tomatoes, all needing to be eaten or preserved. This on top of moving boxes that still need to be unpacked, a fall garden that needs to be tended, lawns that need mowing, cars that need fixing, a dog that needs walking, laundry that needs washing, a closet that needs organizing…you get the point. Plus, (and I’m not complaining here), T and I both now have part time paid work (hoorah!) to fit into the mix. I’m not sure what possessed me to try to learn how to preserve food just weeks after a big move and with all this going on.
Enter our saviors, mom and dad, who generously offered to come visit for a “work weekend.” We planted seeds and flowers, built compost bins, mowed the yard, set up rain barrels, hung curtains, oiled garden tools, moved furniture, and best of all, filled our freezer and cabinets with soul food for the winter. We took turns shucking corn, chopping fruits and veggies, sauteeing and blanching, boiling and pureeing.
Except for the apples, which were canned as apple butter, we simply froze everything in big gallon-sized storage bags – pesto, tomato sauce, creamed corn, field peas, butter beans, and berries.
You’d think I’d have been satisfied with that. Considering that I’ve never put any food away for the winter, I should have been proud of the bit we’d done. But the whole experience made me over-confident and covetous. Another frustrating thing about preserving food is that what seems like a really large quantity of fresh vegetable cooks down to a pretty small volume. I was especially eager for more corn, since the local stuff we creamed was sweet and tasty, and would be such a treat in the middle of winter. The way I eat creamed corn, what little we had frozen was as precious as gold.
Knowing that the season was quickly drawing to a close, I jumped at the opportunity when I saw an ad on craig’s list for $3-a-dozen sweet corn at a farm about 45 minutes away. Yes, it would be a lot of work, but I reasoned that we could shuck and trim and scrape in the evening while watching a movie or listening to the radio. Then I could cook it all in batches the next day. I had big plans – not only more creamed corn, but blanched corn, pickled corn, corn relish, corn stock and chowder.
I badgered T into making the drive with me, even though we had several other commitments that day, resulting in not a little marital disharmony. That was the first mistake – convincing myself that a 45 minute drive was convenient. Mistake number two was failing to taste the corn before buying it – but really, after driving 45 minutes while arguing with my husband to get it, I didn’t want to know if it wasn’t sweet. Mistake number 3 was carting around 4 big crates of fresh corn while we ran errands all afternoon in the hot sun. Mistake number 4; the crates sat around in our house for a couple of days before the whole ‘shuck while watching a movie’ plan came to fruition.
Imagine my utter disappointment when I tasted that first batch of dry, sticky, utterly flavorless corn. I don’t know whether it was flavorless to begin with, or if the car ride and two day sit just zapped all the sweet out, but it was as good as feed corn, as far as I was concerned. We made a few attempts to salvage it, actually adding sugar and milk when creaming it, and making a relish with jalepenos, thinking the peppers would help. I threw the cobs in a great big pot and boiled them all day to make a stock for chowder.
I felt compelled to try to use it all, even though I was no longer having fun and I knew the end result would not be good. I should have just thrown the lot of it in the compost bin, but I couldn’t bring myself to just let go – the long drive, the argument with my love, the money spent, the time and sweat put into processing – I couldn’t let it all go to waste. I found myself shucking corn in the middle of the night, bleary eyed, coated up to the elbows in sticky sap, cornsilk in my hair and on my clothes, little bits of kernels spewed in a 4 foot radius of my work station, loathing every minute.
But then I remembered something my mom said to me when she visited. She encouraged us not to try right away to meet some ideal of frugal, eco-friendly, country living. After reading about the way we agonize over shopping, she thought we were being too hard on ourselves, and reminded us that these new ways of thinking and skills will come with time. Until then, depriving ourselves and working ourselves to the bone trying to achieve some internal criteria of sustainable living will only suck the joy out of the process. Its okay to occasionally do something that makes life a little easier, especially when you are in transition and just trying to get a new life on its feet.
So why was I causing myself to suffer, doing all this unpleasant work for a product that wouldn’t bring anyone any joy and only marginal nourishment? I’d only spent $15 on it, which isn’t really a huge loss. I hate to waste food, even bad food, knowing there are people who don’t have the luxury to restrict their diets to only the very tasty. But wasn’t my time and energy better spent doing something else? Maybe this corn would serve us better as feed for the neighbor’s poultry stock or biomass for the compost pile. In the end, that is just where it ended up.
So I’ve learned my lesson about biting off more than I can chew (har har) when it comes to preserving foods. Small batches, one thing at a time, and only when its pretty good food and very fresh.
On the up side, thanks in part to ‘parent work weekend 2010’, the garden that started out so pathetically, is full of beautiful fall greens like broccoli, mustard, lettuce and brussel sprouts. T has already blanched and frozen a bunch of collard greens.
We’ve got a growing compost pile in a sturdy bin, a chicken coop in progress, and functioning rain barrels. There are now curtains in the living room and bedroom and our mattress is no longer on the floor. So this little single-wide is starting to feel like a home.