Early Summer 2009
“It’s gonna rain today.” My Japanese farmer husband just slides that out of his mouth so easily. “It’s gonna rain today.”
Do you know what that means? It means, “Nancy, you should plant those seeds/seedlings or whatever is waiting to be planted before it rains.” And if I don't, if I miss the rain, I’m a “bad farmer.”
Well, the truth is, I’m not a farmer. But I’m trying.
I’ve been helping in the fields (sporadically) since I was married. A little less when the babies were small. Although peaceful, I won’t deny that fieldwork is tough. And in the summer, even picking vegetables is hot, sweaty work. If you go in the afternoon, you’ll also be eaten alive by mosquitoes (which is always a treat). And the knee-high (or taller) weeds leave your legs itching for a cold wash-off. Sometimes, we just can’t keep up with the weeds that grow faster than the crops, so the vegetable plants melt into the field as they are engulfed by weeds. But sometimes, there’s a limit to what we can do and we have to accept that and move on.
The thing about growing your vegetables is that you learn to really, really respect them. It’s like the first time you clean a chicken. I bet that after going through that cleaning process, you will eat the chicken meat way down to the bone and gnaw off every single little errant thread of meat in every little crevice. When we were first married, I started inviting families of friends over for long summer lunches under the shade of our chestnut trees. Cooking a meal with three small children underfoot is no mean feat. Picking the vegetables for that meal puts a whole other twist on the equation. The blueberry bushes harbor little bright green stinging caterpillars so sometimes I’d palm off that job on my high school babysitters. I wasn’t good at avoiding the caterpillars. But the girls would watch my boys while I went to the field to pick the vegetables. And as I got progressively itchier, wading through the weeds, stepping carefully between the creeping tomato vines, I kept up a refrain of, “I hope they appreciate this, I hope they appreciate this.”
There is a custom in Japan to serve lots of different kinds of foods to your guests. The food doesn’t really need to be homemade, and these days, often is not. The variety is what is important. What happens, though, is that people lose a sense of value in the food. It’s easy to throw prepackaged food away because it’s so anonymous. But if somebody you know grew it and then somebody you know cooked it, it would be heartless to throw it away. Before those long summer lunches, I always explained what was in each dish and where I got the ingredients. And in those days I was much bossier, so I always made the parents eat the kids’ leftovers. I could not stand to see the food thrown away. But the amazing thing is, those kids, now grown up, love to come back and eat our food. I guess the itchy legs were worth it after all.
Last year, I took my yearly trip to visit family and friends in California. My father had died the year before, so for the first time I didn’t have the run of his vegetable garden. I also didn’t have access to CSA or farmers’ market vegetables, and the only alternative left was buying from the health food store or supermarket organics. Neither was good. The brussel sprouts were woody, the potatoes turned orangey-brown as soon as I peeled them, it was disheartening and my desire to cook evaporated (or at least dulled).
I returned to Japan newly resolved to become a better field hand. But in another turn of events ended up starting a school garden on one of my husband Tadaaki’s fields.
So the first time Tadaaki said those words to me was last year, in the early spring. I was very busy that day, and not ready to start this whole planting extravaganza. I knew though, I could not let the chance slip away and I wanted to prove I was serious about the garden. I couldn't choose the perfect time, the weather did it for me. It was time to plant.
We walked the first group of eager planters over to the field and were preparing some rectangular planting areas radiating out in a flower formation when Tadaaki cruised by in his van. He stuck his head out the window and yelled at us to get off the field. Apparently we were supposed to have waited until the sun had dried the recently rained on dirt. Oh. Could have said that one along with, “It’s gonna rain today.” But that would have been too easy. Or maybe I just should have known. And now I do. You don’t walk on the newly plowed, soft loamy field after a rain because it packs the dirt down. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
Last year I did an OK job on the field. The teacher who taught the afternoon classes didn’t really love vegetables. In fact, he hated vegetables until coming to our school. He trotted the kids over to the field every day, but his heart was not really into the growing process. I tended my babies: the herbs and lettuces. They flourished. The tomato variety we planted was not tasty. The vines produced a lot, but the tomatoes were insipid and flavorless. This year I planted from seed and am putting love into the field. This year will be better.
Sliced Tomatoes with Sea Salt and Olive Oil
Before dinner one night in California last fall, we stopped by for a glass of wine at my friends Rayneil and Michelle’s house. Rayneil cooks at Chez Panisse. He served us thinly sliced blood red tomatoes, glistening with a fine film of fruity olive oil and sprinkled gently with some sort of wonderful sea salt. This was early October and these were his last two or three precious tomatoes from a vine that had not been prolific anyway. Have you ever had someone give you such a rare and generous gift? My 8-year-old food-loving nephew, Nicky, could barely keep his hand from reaching out for yet another slice. I had to stop him to save some for our hosts. But don’t bother to serve these unless you find tomatoes that send shivers through you as you lay a slice on your tongue. Don’t bother if you are thinking of using a so-called “vine-ripened” tomato from Trader Joe’s. Just don’t bother.
Tadaaki teaching tractor skills