Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Agricola Suburbanus

Despite all the annoying Turnpike Exit jokes, they call New Jersey the “Garden State” for a very good reason, the reason being the rich fertility of its soils.  Most people don’t think of the state as a particularly fluvial place, but in fact it is a network of medium and small waterways that have for eons been banking up flood plains obviously designed by God to be truck gardens.  The divine plan has not yet been entirely frustrated by “developers” hawking macmansions—only mostly frustrated.

            In my back garden the vegetables are on the march as though in audition for important roles in a Stephen King novel.  The tomatoes, somewhat stunted by a premature heat wave as they were being put in, are only now beginning to ripen.  Very few are presenting themselves as early candidates for even a red ribbon, but they do promise succulence.  The other ingredients of the ratatouille, however, and especially the squash, are astonishing in their profusion and in the speed with which the fruits appear and expand.  I put in two kinds, an ordinary green zucchini, and a yellow “summer” squash (both cucurbita pepo).  I always forget just how large these plants grow in rich soil, so that I now have considerable trouble treading among them to gather the harvest.  This must be done on a daily basis to get them at their young and tender best.  I will now also be harvesting the green peppers (capsicum anuum) and eggplant (solanum melongena) on more or less the same principle.

            Fruiting is all about the sexual reproduction of the plants, which in squash is done in a particularly spendthrift fashion, with each individual vine producing enough seed-filled fruit to produce, with agricultural help, a thousand offspring.  But agricultural intervention can arise from differing motives—as suggested by our phrase “nipped in the bud”.  We have only recently discovered just how delicious is the squash flower, very lightly battered and delicately sautéed: squash family planning with a gastronomic reward.  Of course every form of the squash is delicious—roasted, grilled, baked in casserole, blended into a scrumptious soup.  My young neighbor Anna, a high school sophomore, shared with me her great recipe for zucchini bread—if you can called a baked good with two cups of sugar in it anything but “cake,” that is.

            One of the peculiarities of this year’s growing season has been the combination of extremely hot, dry periods, and occasional downpours.  We got a real sousing on Saturday afternoon, when at least five inches of rain fell over a period of about three hours.  There were the usual phenomena of flash flooding in these parts—roads under water, cars drowned in underpasses, popping manhole lids, and the intermittent collapse of various parts of the electrical grid.  Wind had blown the metal cover off the top of our fireplace chimney, so that we got a gallon or two of sooty water oozing into the living room; but we were on the spot and combatted it successfully.  Later I received an email from the University Librarian with the alarming news that my office, which is in the library, was inundated, with a so-far undetermined loss of books and papers.  I went over and checked the office out the next day, but it was practically empty, most of the books having been removed to a special drying room (which sounded good) and the most badly damaged to “Conservation” (which didn’t).

I suspect the aberrant rainfall pattern accounts for the very poor performance of the wild raspberries this year.  We still have many jars of last year’s jam.  This year I haven’t been able to beat the birds to enough berries to make a single pie.  I went out for a final try just before dinner the day after the big rain.  There is an historically rich spot across the street, not fifty yards from my front door.  I thrashed about long enough to get wet and scratched before giving up.

What you lose on the roundabouts you make up for on the straightaways.  Returning the short distance from the berry canes empty handed, my pessimism confirmed, I had to cross before reaching the street a patch of moist greensward.   The grass, over which the University’s mowing machines had passed but a few days ago, was already in need of cutting once again.  In this grass I stumbled upon a scattering of small white blobs, so insignificant that I spotted them only when I was walking among them.  It was a colony of infant field mushrooms (agaricus campestris).  About half were still in the button stage.  Those that had opened had caps about the diameter of a nickel and the thickness of a dime.  Their gills, which in older specimens would have been a rich dark brown, were still a pastel pink.  They had probably sprung up that very dawn following the drenching.  Joan was just about to prepare the first course: sautéed zucchini flowers.  I was just in time to add the baby field mushrooms, fresh and fresher.  A great combination, for which I intend to file a patent.