The Middle Distance, 4.25.14: Pushing Through the Dirt
The soil is really not warm enough yet, but who knows when it will be? It’s the nature of late spring/early summer here in Colorado that whatever progress is made by the sun’s warming rays during the day will be negated by chilly nights. There may or may not be a monsoon. Could it snow yet one more time?
You can’t wait for the sight of a bean emerging from the ground, its little hump back pushing through the dirt until it uncurls its question-mark self, releases frilly leaves and finally sends out feelers, ready to vine and climb. So yesterday you fixed the Kentucky Wonder seeds with nitrogen and pulled out your planting stick, a tree limb with a pointed end that stands leaning in the fence corner, ready to poke holes in the soft plant bed, just the right depth and width for a bean. Now you settle down to wait.
You are seduced by more recipes and more information about food than you can take in on a daily basis. This morning the New York Times reports on the problems with internet search engines designed to find the best recipes using specific ingredients — literally tens of thousands to sift through and choose from. You search almost daily for a recipe to fit the ingredients you have in your refrigerator, and find that everyone and his cousin has a food blog, touting the sweat and toil of developing the perfect recipe for dishes both exotic and homely. In your inbox this morning, an invitation to throw a Thai dinner party, complete with recipes, an ingredients list, and the history of satay. Scrolling down, a mass-emailed treatise on spoonbread.
In your lifetime, food, your daily bread, has evolved from what your family eats to what the world eats, available at the fingertips of anyone with a computer. In every supermarket, fish sauce, chipotle in adobo, Israeli couscous, and three or four brands of imported balsamic vinegar. You love trying new dishes from foreign cuisines, but remember very few of them. Like popular songs, they linger in the senses just long enough to be consumed, then poof! They are gone.
What remains are the smells and tastes imprinted by genetics and history. In your family, raised for generations on small dirt farms in the American South, that means cabbage simmering slowly on a back burner with just enough liquid and maybe a piece of salt pork; a skillet of simple cornbread — no sugar or jalapenos or cheese — just cornmeal, salt, baking powder and soda, buttermilk and an egg, poured into a sizzling pan of bacon grease; at the height of summer, okra and tomatoes fried with fresh corn and onion, seasoned with lots of black pepper. You know how to prepare these dishes with knowledge buried deep in your bones, but you know that your children don’t. You were one generation removed from the country; they are fully removed. In their lifetime, food has become a smorgasbord of international delights to be tried at least once. They will eat and cook wide, but not deep.
All your life, your mother has coached you in the foodways of your people. Some recipes, complicated ones like Aunt Ida’s jam cake, reside on thin sheets of paper, scripted in your mother’s precise handwriting. But most of her recipes reside in her mind, their flavors refined over time and recollection. All your life you have longed for just one of Aunt Lily’s teacakes — a mythical treat your mother has kept alive for 80 years, in full sensory detail.
A pretty little girl plays in the corner of Aunt Lily’s big kitchen, pretending to cook on her miniature iron stove, an exact replica of the massive black wood-burning stove that dominates the room. It is summer, so Aunt Lily doesn’t keep the fire burning all day, but keeps a pail filled with dried corncobs and shucks nearby for a quick, intense fire. She rolls and cuts the dough into thin disks. By the time one sheet of teacakes has browned, the fire has gone to ash. Aunt Lily wipes her hands on her apron and sits down to share a plate of teacakes and a glass of lemonade with your mother, a motherless girl who will never forget this kindness.
In your garden, a Colorado garden, you wait for summer’s heat to call the beans from the soil. If you are lucky, you will have a pot simmering on the stove by late July. You will not need a recipe.
[Note: This encore edition of The Middle Distance originally appeared in May, 2011.]
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.