As I look outside, the thermometer is hanging a little below freezing, the wind is whipping through a sky of steely gray, a typical dreary midwinter’s day. Not too much to get excited about, it is kind of hard to think about much except staying inside and keeping warm. A good day for a nice pot of stew, some home-baked bread, a cup of cocoa and curling up by the fire with your sweetheart, or at least a good book. Then my eye is drawn to what is left of the garden, most of it turned under waiting for a spring planting that seems light years away, but that turned soil, with it’s current coat of frost calls to me with the promise of good things to come. Of course, this leads my random mind down the path to that first meal of the season made entirely of ingredients from our garden, that day is a big deal for a fellow like me who gave up the farm for more cosmopolitan delights, before discovering I had been living in paradise all along.
Although, I was born and lived “in the city” most of my life, we always spent lots of time on the family farm. As a wee monkey, I spent lots of weekends and summers at my grandparents, helping take care of the cows, repairing farm equipment with Pa and absolutely dreading having to work in the garden. When I was not there, I was at my great aunt and uncle’s dairy operation, playing in the fields and occasionally helping when it was milking time, but mostly just enjoying being a kid with hundreds of acres to play in. Even during my years in Central and South Florida, vacations and summers meant time on the farm.
I don’t mean to say I had an idyllic childhood, there were ups and downs, but on the whole I had it pretty good. Of course, as a teenager I rebelled against my upbringing, like we all do. I was ashamed of the fact that my Grandpa was, “just a farmer”, I studied language in order to minimize my “Southern” accent because one of my teachers at a prestigious South Florida private school made fun of it, and I did everything I could to hide my heritage, which manifested itself as a mocking superiority of my family. What can I say, I was a kid and I was stupid. My lack of confidence made me want to fit in with people who could not imagine what life outside the “safety” of the city could hold.
I think it is important to mention here that in my stupidity, I did not realize that my Grandpa had moved back to his family farm to retire in his 40’s after creating, running and selling a very successful shipping business. My “just a farmer” grandfather has literally lived the American Dream of rising from not much, succeeding in business by doing things honorably and then being able to retire early and enjoy the fruits of his labors doing the things he loves.
I am happy to report that things change and even this monkey slowly learns and grows. My family moved back to Tennessee and I was taken from the relative anonymity of the crazy club scene on South Beach in the late 80’s to a small town where the main form of entertainment involved hanging out in an old gas station’s parking lot, where everyone not only knew everyone else, but knew their entire family going back three generations. Talk about your culture shock. I did not respond well at first, but over time I learned to love the deep seated traditions of small-town life. Years passed and I moved away for college and a subsequent career in the arts, but I always found myself drawn toward home and the roots I had been so ashamed of. That is how I found myself at a crossroads, in a position where I could pretty well live, wherever I wanted. I had spent time all over the southeast, done some time on the west coast and had nearly decided to move to New Mexico, when my grandfather’s little rental farmhouse became available.
Four generations of my family had slept under the roof of “the green house”, and I had always loved it. It was built during the Great Depression from pieces that were salvaged from an antebellum home that partially burned on this site in the late Twenties. You can still see evidence of the brick path to the old kitchen and well in the yard. My grandparents bought this little decrepit farmhouse, with it’s outbuildings covered in brambles and honeysuckle in the late Sixties. They completely restored it with the help of my great-grandparents and covered it in it’s namesake green shingle siding in 1969. They lived there in the late Seventies, while they built their home and following that, I lived there with my parents as a child. The intervening 30 years including ten years of renters had taken their toll on the place, but I loved it. I made the decision to move back to the farm for a couple of years and put the green house right again. In the year’s since, I have never regretted that decision. Not only have I been able to enjoy the love/hate relationship that goes with restoring and living in an old farmhouse, but I have been able to reconnect with the land and my family. Living near my grandparents as they pass into their golden years has allowed me a great opportunity to learn from them and to be there for them when they need help. They have certainly lived a “life worth living” and I am thankful everyday for the gifts they have given.
From my front porch, most of what I see is my family’s farm, if I want to see my grandparents or if they need help I am just a short walk up a well-worn trail to their home, when Laura and I cook in our kitchen we work at the counters and wash dishes in the sink that my great grandma, grandma and mother used and we store those dishes in cabinets that my great grandfather (who I am named after) and Pa built by hand, when I look out our den window I always remember breaking it playing football in the side yard and being terrified of getting in trouble, only to have Pa teach me how to replace a broken window. On the other hand, we are forever repairing the roof, fighting poor water pressure, shoring up the foundations and trying to insulate the perpetually drafty old farmhouse with it’s beautiful, but certainly impractical antique single pane windows, but I guess there is some trade-off for charm. Over the years, we have tried to keep it as original as possible, opting to keep our old windows, the awesome solid polar and oak doors and refusing to fix a crooked cabinet door because that is the way that great grandpa built it, so many years ago. We stripped the green shingles off two sides of the house a couple of years ago to reveal the original poplar siding and repainted our “green house” yellow and last year we replaced the admittedly rickety stone steps with a real step, but we did integrate the old stones into the construction, but other than that she is pretty much like she was in the summer of ’69. The outbuildings that housed my grandfathers workshop and tractors now hold our kayaks and jeep, we still have a picnic table under the huge Maple that I fell out of and broke my arm when I was 8 and the garden is still at the end of the path between the hickory trees where it can catch the morning sun and you can work in the afternoon shade.
As a bachelor I never bothered with putting in a garden. instead I helped Grandma and Pa with their garden and enjoyed the fruits and vegetables of our combined efforts. When Laura and I got married, we decided it was time for us to have our own garden, and with the guidance of Grandma, Pa and my father we have truly learned to love the process of growing our own groceries. The work on the farm that I used to most dread and hate is now one of my most relaxing and rewarding pastimes. Sure, there is a lot of hard work involved, but to plant a seed in a cup in your kitchen window in midwinter that will grow to a seedling you plant in the spring that will feed your family fresh tomatoes all summer and will provide the stock for Autumn’s canning that will be the base for next winter’s soups and stews, is to be a part of a process as old as time itself. It may sound silly, but just like hiking makes you appreciate the beauty and majesty of the great outdoors and want to protect it, gardening makes you appreciate the quiet spaces and the wonder that can be found, literally, in your own backyard. It also attunes you to the change of the seasons and connects you with the land and nature in a away that no other activity can. So, today as I watch the cold winds blow, I feel the promise of a spring, just around the corner. Where others see the desolation of leafless trees and dead grass, I see the earth sleeping, resting up, getting ready to burst forth with all the bounty we can coax out of it.
Which puts me in the mind for a fresh salad, picked minutes before it is eaten. Of course, that is not possible today, but all is not lost, there are several excellent hearty winter greens that will make a great addition to dinner tonight. So when you put on that pot of stew and begin baking bread for dinner, take a moment to put together a winter salad, and for an extra special treat, top it off with this excellent Hot Bacon Dressing submitted by Kimmie Z. This dressing has just enough bite to balance out the more bitter flavors of winter greens and it will warm you right up. Don’t save this one for winter salads though, it is excellent year round, but don’t trust me, make this one for yourself, it is quick, easy and one of the best dressings I have ever tasted.
Hot Bacon Dressing
5-6 slices lean bacon, chopped fine
2 tablespoons minced shallot
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1. In a large skillet, cook bacon over moderate heat until it is crisp, transfer it to paper towel lined plate to drain.
2. Discard all but 2-3 tablespoons of the fat, sauté the shallots until caramelized.
3. In separate bowl combine vinegar, sugar, oil and cornstarch and whisk together.
4. Once onions are caramelized add dijon mustard and mix together in pan.
5. Add vinegar mixture to onions and bring to a boil.
6. Once at a boil reduce heat and add bacon.
7. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve.
Serves 4-6 Store leftovers in refrigerator and use a double boiler to reheat.
This love of and connection with the earth that makes up my family farm is the greatest gift anyone has ever given me. My roots are deep in this soil tilled now by five generations of my family in good times and lean and no matter where I wander, this will always be my center, my home. I draw my strength from the shared experiences of family and the memories created here. In many ways, I am more of a steward than an owner. It is part of my life’s work to make sure that I take care of this patch of land to pass it on to those who are following me and when I watch our nieces and nephew out in the garden helping us, I know what they mean when they say we are merely borrowing the earth from our children. I am thankful everyday for the sacrifices made by my parents and grandparents going back for generations that make it possible for me to enjoy such bounty today.
I ask that each of you take a moment to look around and truly see the beauty that surrounds us all, that is my gift to you on this cold midwinter’s day.