(“Scarecrow, Florence, Colo.” by Myron Wood, May 1976. Copyright Pikes Peak Library District. Image Number: 002-2990.)

The Middle Distance 5.20.11: Pushing Through the Dirt

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

photo by Sean Cayton

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, past mid-May?

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.

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.

 

4 Responses to The Middle Distance, 5/20/11: Pushing Through the Dirt

  1. murray ross says:

    lovely column! You must come for a waffle some sunday and bring your wonder beans. Waffles and beans, old Ross family tradition from the highlands. Unbelievable.

  2. Rose Enyeart says:

    I’m gonna go ahead and plant my beans, today, this very afternoon. Yummm

  3. Nancy says:

    Got my Medicare card today, so I figure a batch of rice pudding is the least I can do to celebrate. It just came out of the oven. The vanilla fragrance alone is worth the trouble.

  4. hannahfriend says:

    The City was offering discounted compost bins today at the demonstration garden. The parking lot was jammed. Organic gardening (old-fashioned gardening) is back in style.

News

NASA
October 24, 2014 | NPR · AR 2192, the largest sunspot seen since the beginning of the current 11-year cycle that started in 2008, is producing strong solar flares.
 

MPR News
October 24, 2014 | MPR · If you live in Rochester, Minn., you’ll get used to seeing wheelchairs left in odd places. The city is home to the Mayo Clinic, after all. But some of those wheelchairs venture far afield indeed.
 

NPR
October 24, 2014 | NPR · New research suggests that curiosity triggers chemical changes in the brain that help us better understand and retain information.
 

Arts & Life

Bill Franzen
October 24, 2014 | NPR · Earning honors for fiction, nonfiction and young children’s literature, respectively, the writers are the first to win the award. Also: The Bronx’s bookstore returns, while the U.K. shows off doodles.
 

Other Press
October 24, 2014 | NPR · Reporter Giuseppe di Piazza’s debut novel, The Four Corners of Palermo, follows an unnamed young reporter during the brutal early days of the mafia’s conflict with the Italian government in the 1980s.
 

Thomas Dunne Books
October 24, 2014 | NPR · Historian Peter Ackroyd’s new book surveys the history of England from the end of the Tudor era to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 — almost a century of war, debate and transformation.
 

Music

Tinnitus Photography
October 24, 2014 | NPR · Our recurring puzzler for careful listeners, this week featuring a selection of handpicked fills from Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss. Hear the drum fill (or intro) and match it to the song.
 

Courtesy of the artist
October 24, 2014 | NPR · Recorded with Liz Harris’ voice, a piano and not much else, Ruins achieves striking intimacy, its emotional heft commanding attention throughout.
 

October 24, 2014 | NPR · NPR TV critic Eric Deggans looks at the new documentary, Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown, featuring rare and never-before-seen footage. The film premieres on HBO Monday.
 

Get the KRCC iPhone App

The Writer's Almanac

Radiolab