Thursday, March 27, 2008

It's easy being green

I've been working on some green articles and stories and I keep coming back to the same thing; I don't remember having to take out as much garbage when I was growing up. No wonder couples argue over who has to take out the garbage all the time. There was less packaging then, too, which goes along with the increase in garbage. When did it all change and why?

Growing up, Carol and I spent about a month in the summer (when we were in town and not in some foreign country or other state, of course) staying with our aunt and uncle, Mom's brother and sister-in-law, at their house in the country. They had five acres and I'm amazed now that their five kids and us two could fit in a two-bedroom house, but we did. Uncle Bob had remodeled the basement to include two more bedrooms, but there was still one bathroom and it seems to me we took baths in shifts and used the same water with lots of Mr. Bubble that petered out after the second round no matter how much you put in. They had a well and the water was hard so Mr. Bubble didn't bubble very much anyway. But that doesn't have anything to do with the green part.

There was a big mound (almost a hill) of table scraps that rotted quietly in the sun, attended by crawling and flying insects until it was raked out and spread over the garden in spring when Uncle Bob tilled it into the soil to ready the ground for planting. Out of the five acres, I'm pretty sure the garden took up about 1-1.5 acres and things grew there in abundance: tomatoes, peppers (not the hot kind, they weren't popular yet), green beans, corn, carrots, peas, etc.

All summer long we grazed surreptitiously among the rows when we weren't scouring the nearby woods and dump for blackberries. As the vegetables ripened, we picked them and ate them for meals, but we also helped can and freeze the bounty, sealing in the sunshine and warmth and color of summer in glass jars that had been used and reused for decades, some of which were probably used by Aunt Lois's mother and grandmother before her. A few of the blackberries made it to the freezer, but not many; we ate them as fast as we picked them, saving just enough to share with our uncle and aunt. They didn't buy much from the grocery store, outside of bread and meat. Milk came in a great big tin milk can from across the road at Gallagher's dairy farm, where they also got eggs. The milk was raw and tasted different than anything my parents bought at the store.

My aunt and uncle lived in the country but they weren't really farmers and their place, in spite of the garden, wasn't a farm, although there were still farms in the area all around them. They lived just a few miles from Worthington which is a fairly good sized town and now nothing more than a suburb of Columbus where the upper middle and upper classes still live. Even that close to town, my uncle's place was heaven to me.

I didn't mind the work that went along with gathering and preserving the harvest because it never occurred to me I should think of it as work. After all, it was summer and I was on vacation. We didn't watch much television but we were never bored. There was always something to do, especially in getting ready for our annual beauty pageant at the end of our visit.

In town, Gram had a little garden in the back yard where she grew a few vegetables for the table and for canning and I spent many happy hours sitting next to her with a newspaper across my lap stringing green beans and shucking corn. We talked about everything and nothing sitting there in the sunshine our fingers busily stripping and snapping the bright green beans fresh from her garden, and I helped her with freezing and canning the bounty so the smell of beans cooking with onions and a bit of ham or bacon would fill the house even in the winter time to make the mouth water and the memory quicken. And Gram made jelly from the grapes on the arbor behind our house or gave me a bobby pin to pit cherries that would be cooked and preserved in glass jars for later. It wasn't until I was married and we were stationed at Hill AFB in Utah that I decided to try my hand at making jam.

A neighbor told me about a field where we could get fresh strawberries if we were willing to pick them ourselves. I was game. I bought two cases of jelly jars and a block of paraffin and washed the jars in the dishwasher. While they steamed and dried we drove over to the field and picked baskets of strawberries. I had a vague idea of what to do but it didn't take me long to find a recipe in an old cookbook that had traveled with me from Ohio to Arizona and back to Ohio before we came to Utah. It was so old and worn the dust cover was yellowed with age and ripped in a couple of places; Gram gave it to me when I got married.

I found the recipe and decided to make jam instead of jelly, stopping on the way home to buy a food mill and some sugar, and then at home I set to work cleaning and slicing the strawberries, eating a few along the way. At the end of a very long afternoon I had 24 jars of strawberry jam safe under their waxy seals, gleaming like rubies behind the pristine glass. We had strawberry jam with the biscuits I made for dinner and more strawberry jam in the morning on the breakfast toast. The boys couldn't get enough, but 24 jars of jam is a lot to get through even with three hungry boys.

I gave a half dozen jars to my husband to take to a couple of his single friends living on base in the bachelor barracks and they came back a couple of days later clean and begging to be filled again. The jam was a hit and the word got out that the best place on base to eat was at our house -- if you could wangle an invitation.

We weren't allowed a compost bin or heap outside the door on base so the food scraps went into the garbage disposal, but even then there wasn't much garbage. Either packagers didn't feel the need to waste resources on hermetically sealing their products or the packaging was flimsier, but there was a lot less waste. I don't have my canning equipment here, but I think it's time to start stocking up so I can fill my shelves with the bounty that waits just up the street when the Farmer's Market sets up business on the weekends.

I miss seeing all the summer colors and sunshine tastes that that I helped put into reusable jars sealed with Kerr and Ball lids. I miss the taste of homemade piccalilli and sun ripe tomatoes that didn't come from a hot house but grew on a vine amid the dirt under the warm summer sunshine. I miss the sweet snap of carrots and stringing green beans on the porch and homemade strawberry jam and grape jelly. I miss the feeling of being closer to nature and knowing where my food comes from and having a hand in preserving it for the cold winter evening when a taste of summer is just what I need to brighten up a meal. But most of all, I miss those carefree summers and not realizing that all the effort that goes into preserving the harvest is more play than work back in the days when no one knew what it mean to be green, they just were.

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