Wednesday, April 22, 2015

spring surprises: the wild and the tame

In long dry spell, I touted my high expectations for spring 2015's showing of California poppies: "big drifts of California poppy seedlings have appeared in our cactus and succulent bed and, for the first time, in our parking strip. I have committed myself to keeping them alive until they can bloom and set seed for 2016." To meet this commitment, I have actually started watering our front garden beds for about 10 minutes, using city water from the hose when no saved rain water or 'gray' water is available, in any week when there has been no rain. That is, most weeks, but only ONCE a week!

On April 11, I returned from Idaho to find NO poppy seedlings in the parking strip and NO buds on any of the old or new poppy plants in our cactus and succulent bed. It was obvious that Steve had kept up the new watering regimen, for volunteer sweet peas were sprawling seductively over the phased-out freesias in our bulb bed and the struggling sweet alyssums in the parking strip.

I was not alone in my disappointment over the 2015 poppy season, but I did not know it until last weekend, which is when Antelope Valley's wildflowers are supposed to be at their peak of bloom and when the annual California Poppy Festival takes place. On March 17, a local television station had reported that acres of poppy blooms had been destroyed by a "record-breaking late winter heat wave."

Fortunately, California poppies develop a strong perennial taproot which enables them to survive an annual spring trampling by tourists, followed by a long hot summer when they typically go dormant unless they happen to grow close to the coast as ours do. I hope that at least some of my 2015 seedlings have made taproots and that 2016 will be a better year for poppies.

Meanwhile, I am enjoying my best-ever showing of volunteer sweet peas. I have not planted a sweet pea seed since 2011 but they continue to come up because I pick very few of the flowers and then use the spent vines (along with their mature seeds) as mulch. One might fear that sweet peas would be trampled in the parking strip, where people walk to and from their cars every day. No doubt a few have succumbed, but when they start blooming everyone (including dogs and toddlers) seems to give them a wide-enough berth, even if they're hanging out over the sidewalk to bask in late afternoon sun.

If you're interested in the history of my efforts to grow sweet peas, see you, gregor mendel (2013), paltry in pink (2012), a plethora of purple (2011), and perennial sweet pea (2010). In the oldest of these postings, I expressed the utterly misguided opinion that: "The frilly, fluttery annual sweet pea is a prima donna with a short, spectacular life. I expect her perennial cousin to be a somewhat frumpy but more dependable companion." So where have all the perennial sweet peas gone? Back to the east coast where they grow wild, I guess.

What flower seems tamer than a sweet pea? And yet it is going wild for me while the quintessential wildflower resists my attempts to tame it.
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P.S. (added April 23): I was so excited about sweet peas sprawling along the ground and encroaching on the sidewalk that I failed to notice one that had climbed up through the lower stems of a five-foot jade plant:

In the photo, the sweet pea blossom looks white against dark green leaves and crispy brown flowers (another heat-wave casualty) . It's actually a very pale pink. I'll deadhead the jade plant and everything will look better.

Monday, April 13, 2015

better mousetrap?

In spite of regular visits from a comprehensive pest-control service and a cleaner devoted to rodent control, we often find evidence of mice in our pre-WWI Idaho farmhouse. In addition to the professional interventions, Steve has stuffed openings with steel wool and spray foam. But with an unmaintained  five-acre field (former pasture) just south of the house, we should not be surprised by an occasional mouse, especially in the kitchen.

During my most recent stay in Idaho last week, I spotted a half-full bottle of canola oil sitting in a kitchen cabinet. I noticed that the bottle had no lid. Thinking that the oil must be rancid, I was grateful that I hadn't used it in the home-made banana-nut muffins I'd served at a get-together for in-laws and cousins. Then I sniffed it, and it didn't smell quite right. Finally looking down into the bottle, I saw two small mice snuggled into the bottom. (Maybe there were three, but who's counting?) 

Over the years, I've come upon dead mice in various stages of decomposition, but usually they have been dry and crispy. These were plump and artificially healthy-looking, rather like a friend who was on steroids to counteract the ravages of chemotherapy.

If I'd had a lid for the canola oil bottle, I'd have screwed it on before trashing the bottle and its grisly contents. Instead I improvised a lid with aluminum foil, tied the whole thing inside a small plastic bag and carried all the contents of our tall kitchen waste basket to the outdoor bin that would be picked up the following Monday morning.

In retrospect, or while experiencing "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" ala Wordsworth's Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, I was able to put two and two together. If mice liked canola oil so much that they would crawl into a small opening and drown in it (finding it "to die for" as people say), why could I not use an open container of canola oil as a mousetrap?

So it was that I set  a bistro glass half full of canola oil on our sink counter when I left the farm last Saturday. An attached note asks anyone who finds dead mice in it to empty and replenish the glass from the large bottle at hand. A stainless steel mixing bowl with about 2" of canola oil in it is sitting outside in a spot where our pest-control specialist has trapped a number of mice. Finally, I placed a small, half-full canola oil bottle between a heavily infested shed and the spot where we park our car.

If this is, in fact, 'a better mousetrap,' I welcome the hoards at my door.

Friday, April 10, 2015

bread pudding: an edible time machine

A couple of days ago I made some bread pudding. Here's a photo of it, as 'staged' for use in a workshop on re-purposing later this month:

For purposes of the re-purposing workshop, the idea here is that the stale bread on the left may be re-purposed into the bread pudding on the right via the recipe on the card. The knife has also been re-purposed. Steve's brother Al made and attached the hand-carved wooden handle after their mother partially melted the original plastic handle. I love this knife and use it often in our old Idaho kitchen. It fits my hand perfectly and feels much better than a plastic knife handle.

Now I have to admit that the photo is a bit deceptive. There's no bread in the 'bread pudding' on the right. The carb component consists entirely of banana-nut muffins I had made the previous week. They contained enough sugar and butter that I was able to cut back on those ingredients.

Whenever I make bread pudding, I think of my Grandma Talbott. As I learned years later, what she made was actually 'bread-and-butter pudding,' where the bread is not cubed but thickly buttered, and each slice cut into quarters before being placed in a pyrex baking dish and covered with custard ingredients (milk, eggs, sugar, vanilla) before going into the oven. Grandma performed some special twist of the wrist when she put the buttered bread into the dish, and every time I make bread pudding I visualize this ritualistic movement.

Grandma Talbott assembled her bread-and-butter pudding on an enameled kitchen table, where she also rolled out pastry and noodles. In retropect, I think Grandpa Talbott must have shortened the table's legs for her. She was 4'11" tall, and he (a six-footer) adapted many things to her size. These things included her car, where a carpeted wooden box, made to fit the space exactly, enabled her to reach the pedals.

These reminiscences of the 1940s are the first to come to mind when I make bread pudding, but they're not the only ones. During the 1990s I sang in a choir which offered a lavish dessert reception  after their annual Christmas concert. My contribution was usually a persimmon bread made with fruit from a neighbor's tree. Steve would slice the bread very thin and arrange it on a platter in beautiful concentric circles. One particular year, probably 1995, the bread began to curl as soon as it was sliced. By the time we reached the concert site it was absolutely inedible -- dry as a bone and hard as a rock. Retracing my steps, I realized that I had not put in any fat. I'm not sure why I didn't just throw the bread away, but later I was glad I didn't.

The day after the concert, I attended a committee meeting where I told some friends about my persimmon bread disaster. "Make bread pudding!" said Marilyn. She went on to tell about a recent visit to New Orleans where she and her husband had attended a cooking demo by renowned chef Emeril Lagasse. He told his audience that any baked goods (cookies, cake, biscuits, etc.) could be used in bread pudding along with fruit, nuts, chocolate chips, or whatever one had on hand. New Orleans being New Orleans, Emeril probably topped the pudding with a bourbon sauce.

That night I made bread pudding with my failed persimmon bread and it was wonderful. There was enough fat in the recipe to rejuvenate the dry persimmon bread, and there was enough spice in the persimmon bread to flavor the bread pudding nicely. Chopped nuts enhanced the texture. I shared the bread pudding at a holiday potluck the next day and received rave reviews. Re-purposing, indeed!

I have to say something about the word pudding here. Americans generally expect pudding to be a viscous dessert, always served cold in a small bowl, and usually made with a Jello or Royal pudding mix (instant or regular). Bread pudding is pudding in the British sense of the word, which, in the U.K., is a synonym for dessert.

So I've been enjoying re-purposed banana-nut bread pudding for breakfast, and thinking about the theme of my blog. It occurs to me now that the theme I've been belaboring in my recent series of posts on Chayote Chaos does not have to be my only theme. A wide range of topics can and should express a wide range of themes. I'm thinking about how things happening in the present so often evoke the past and how, when this happens, my blog becomes an evolving memoir with a focal point that shifts from present to past and back again.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

chayote chaos, part 4

In our last episode, I described my discovery that growing chayotes along an old and termite-damaged north-facing fence could destroy that fence and, possibly, a neighborly relationship going back almost forty years. In Mending Wall, poet Robert Frost has some ironic fun with the conventional wisdom that "Good fences make good neighbors," but I will stand by it (yes, pun fanciers, the wisdom and the fence).

A 1980 article in Mother Earth News showed me the error of my ways, and I am eternally grateful that MEN chose to put their back issues on line. But just think how much trouble and grief I'd have saved if I'd found the article last fall! Author Elizabeth S. O’Neill, a home gardener in California's central valley, has wonderful advice about sprouting chayotes:  
. . . locate a market . . . where chayote is sold in late fall. (It doesn’t matter if the fruit has been in cold storage and plastic-wrapped.) 
Buy several ... put them away in a dark, cool (not frosty) place . . . and wait. The seed sprout will emerge and lengthen in the darkness. By February it should be approximately six inches long.
 Then, if your area — like most parts of North America — isn’t yet frost-free, put the sprouted chayote in a pot . . . (Should you live in a zone, like ours, that usually stays above freezing in February, you can simply plant the germinated fruit wherever you want it to grow.)
So now it's apparent to me where I went wrong. I started in early (not late) fall, bought a net of three (not 'several') chayotes, and could not wait until February for the sprouts. Potting was totally unnecessary in our beneficent climate zone.

Oddly, O'Neill does not mention waiting for roots to appear before planting chayotes, but I learned about roots when I took my next step: transplanting the chayotes to a narrow strip of ground along a newer, sturdier redwood fence along the north side of our property. Steve had collaborated with our north-side neighbor in building this fence: digging post-holes to sink the four-by-four supports in concrete, attaching horizontal two-by-fours near the top and bottom of the four-by-fours, facing each section with one-by-sixes, and painting the whole with a wood preservative. No termites here, though they dominate an old wooden shed on the neighbor's side. Good fence, good neighbor. Good place to grow a bumper crop of heavy veggies.

BTW, O'Neill's article lists chayote's many names: 
They are known as christophine or mirliton to Caribbeans, chocho to Madeirans, pipinella to Italians, and pipinola to Hawaiians. (The plant’s scientific name is Sechium edule, but most North Americans call them 'vegetable pears.') 
Pipinella is my aesthetic favorite, but who wants to write or read about pipinella chaosPipinella pitfalls, perhaps, but I'm not going to change titles in midstream. Pipinella sounds more like the name of a female character in a Mozart opera anyway.

I hope you sense that a happy ending will follow closely upon my description of transplanting the chayotes to a spot where they can thrive. Part 5 of this lengthy narrative will, I hope, bring closure and satisfaction.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

chayote chaos, part 3

Remember when I was talking about the theme of getting things right, in part 1 of this series? Now you're going to find out how my experience with chayote squash made me question whether it's ever possible to learn the truth about anything.

Having watched a youtube video about how to sprout chayotes, I felt quite confident when I set two of them -- purchased at a supermarket, not stolen -- in a sunny spot to sprout. After waiting for weeks and then buying two more chayotes at Downtown L.A.'s Grand Central Market, I decided it was time for more research. Trying the same approach with the second pair, I reasoned, was something like throwing good money (79¢) after bad ($1.98). And so I went back to youtube and watched someone put a chayote into a brown paper bag and stash it in a cool dark place, coming back in a few days to find a bag full of leafiness. Aha! Here was a new approach I must try. Not having a paper bag of the right size to hold all four chayotes, I located a cardboard box that was just right for three. It fit nicely on a shelf in our cool dark linen closet. This was the point at which we ate one of the supermarket chayotes.

"Where are the links to those two youtube videos?" you are probably asking. Ordinarily I like to give my readers a lot of helpful links, but obviously these two were not helpful. In fact, I didn't see or read anything worth recommending until after the three chayotes were planted in the garden.

So . . . back to the linen closet. I think it's time to simplify this narrative by naming the fruits. ONE of the chayotes starting sprouting nicely after about a week; let's call it C1. Another (C2) showed no signs of any change, but one of them (C3) was seriously shriveling. I looked at more youtube videos, hoping to see something about how chayote roots were supposed to develop. What I saw was chayotes being put into pots with their flat, unsprouted sides down and soil drawn up around them. Most of the top sides were uncovered.

It must have been late December by now, because this was when I announced on an on-line forum that I had put two of them (C1 and C3) in pots and put them on the back porch where they'd get some sun and possibly put down some roots. I don't remember whether C2 stayed in the linen closet or not.

On January 8 or 9, according to my forum, I planted C1 next to my neighbor's fence. It was gratifying to see that a long tap root had developed and was supplemented by lots of hairy feeder roots

C3 was set out a couple of feet from C1 on January 13, while C2 remained in a pot on the bathroom window sill until February 2.

Meanwhile C1 was reaching for the top of my neighbor's fence. This fence, which starts where our chain link fence stops, runs along the south side of our property. Her ex-husband built it at least 20 years ago out of wooden two-by-fours resting on the concrete walkway to their back yard. He finished the fence on their side with a stucco covering painted to match their house Because we wanted to grow vines on our side, we covered it with white plastic trellis through which we can see some termite damage which, though it has been treated by an exterminator, has weakened the fence to a certain extent.

It was AFTER all the chayotes were planted along this north-facing fence and AFTER I'd proudly told our neighbor that they would soon come spilling over the top (fortunately she likes chayotes), that I found an article in Mother Earth News of November/December 1980: "Growing Chayote." According to a teaser right after the title:  "Growing chayote is a great option if you live in a warm or tropical climate. Once established, a single plant can bear 50 to 100 fruits a season." The article also states that individual chayotes fruits can weigh up to a pound each. In other words, I was about to subject an old,   weakened fence we didn't even own to a potential load of 300 pounds, plus the weight of the vines. What was I thinking?

Chayote chaos indeed!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

chayote chaos, part 2

After the explosion of fluff described in chayote chaos, part 1, I decided it was time to go out and actually buy a couple of these beautiful veggies. Chayotes were being sold for 99¢ each at an upscale supermarket nearby. I chose the ones I judged most likely to sprout soon, though the blossom ends of all the chayotes on display were pretty tightly closed. 

Returning home, I set my chayotes in the same spot where I'd cleared out the pile of unwanted fluff from my stolen pseudo-squashes and, once again, waited for nature to take its course.

I didn't record any dates for these activities, but I know that it was still early fall when I bought the two chayotes. When they hadn't sprouted by the middle of November, I started thinking that, like much supermarket produce, they'd been treated with some chemical that would keep them from sprouting. 

Throughout October and November, I was regularly visiting L.A.'s venerable Grand Central Market in connection with a yarnbombing project, and so I purchased two shriveled chayotes at one of the produce stalls. I was charged 99¢ a pound, and so these two chayotes, which looked like they might sprout any minute, cost a total of 79¢. While much of the market has been gentrified in recent months, the produce stalls continue to offer sad-looking produce at bargain prices.

You may wonder why I kept buying chayotes in pairs. Well, one of the things I thought I knew about growing chayotes was that there are male and female vines, and you had to have one of each gender to get the proper pollination. We happily ate the freshest-looking supermarket chayote, and I decided to try to sprout all of the remaining three. It made sense to me that a ménage à trois would improve our chances.

It was not until December 29, 2014, that I made this note in an on-line forum that I frequent: ". . . put two sprouted chayotes into pots, and put them on the back porch in hopes they'll put down some roots."

Why oh why had the sprouting process taken so long? Perhaps we'll get to that in Part 3 of this chronicle of chaos . . .

Monday, March 9, 2015

chayote chaos,* part 1

Theme (in the literary sense of the word) was the subject of it's cereus!, a post from August 2012 where I not only defined a theme for this blog but also illustrated the point by describing my astonishment at learning that a large cactus in our front garden was not a euphorbia but a cereus. (BTW, to understand the sheer gravitas of the piece, it helps to know that cereus is a homonym of serious.)

When I wrote it's cereus! I was reading The War of Art, a book about writing by the prolific novelist Steven Pressfield. Pressfield convinced me that I needed a theme for this blog. Not a subject, a theme.** After discussing the issue in detail, I made a sort of announcement:  "At last I think my major theme is 'getting things right.' Often this means simply learning something new, but it is the kind of learning that frequently requires discarding a preconception."

Last fall, when I started on a quest to grow chayote squash, I began to question whether "getting things right" is even possible. I had heard that chayotes were easy to grow in our climate, and I'd seen them sprout spontaneously from their blossom ends if they were not cooked in a timely enough manner. Little did I know that I was on the brink of vegetable chaos.

I had first eaten chayotes during the late 1950s, when my mother discovered them and quickly made them a family favorite: lightly steamed and served with butter, salt, and freshly ground pepper. Steve likes to grill chayotes after lightly brushing them with olive oil. Today I think this is the best way to prepare them, as it brings out their natural sweetness while cutting our intake of saturated fats.

In recent years I had seen chayotes growing locally on people's fences, and so I thought it would be fun to steal some, let them sprout, and plant them in our garden. Unfortunately I made this decision in the fall, and the fruit was substantially shriveled. The stems were tougher than I thought they'd be, and they exuded a sticky white goo that I'd never seen come out of a chayote. I furtively picked three and brought them home. Setting them under a skylight on our back porch, I waited for nature to take its course. It took a long time, but rather than producing a green stem, each one of them exploded into a mound of fluff. It was like dandelion fluff but the seeds and their silken parachutes were much larger.

At this point, I might have simply concluded that crime does not pay, but I chose to wade even deeper into chayote chaos.
to be continued . . .
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* I urge you to visit if you have any questions about how the word chayote should be pronounced. The plant, a native of Central America, was called chayohtli by the ancient Aztecs, upon whom the conquistadores imposed latinate orthography as well as so many other arbitrary standardsI must confess that the title of this posting is a silly attempt to imply an alliteration that is purely visual unless we want to think about how chaos should be pronounced in ancient Greek. Maybe some other time?

** The difference between subject and theme is dear to the heart of every serious student of literature, and is well defined in a brief document created by the National Park Service, of all people. Oh, that all government agencies would be so diligent in training their employees to understand language and culture!

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POSToccupations by Frances Talbott-White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License