06 December 2010

New Routine

Last Saturday saw the first significant snowfall of the season in Madison, Wisconsin.

It was not -- as you probably guessed -- conducive to garden-like activities or visiting the farmers’ market. (Our family did, however, pick up our Christmas Tree at a fundraiser sale to support the
Forestry Club at the University.) Nonetheless, the following piece is submitted for your consideration in the spirit of weekend gardening and fresh food shopping. It was written several weeks ago, in the early days of fall, while I was out on assignment for a journalism course.

* * * * *

My wife and I have been up since dawn with a toddler who doesn’t care that it’s the weekend.

A few years ago, we would have been shuffling around our tiny apartment in San Francisco, shaking off Friday night’s cocktails and live jazz. But we’re Midwestern parents now. The 1 p.m. breakfasts of our early twenties are gone. These days, Saturday morning starts early and outings – if they actually happen – center on farmers’ markets rather than hangover food. This is the social life of a parent.

So, as I have done on many other Saturdays, I shift the car into park. I hoist the stroller from the trunk. And we make our way across the parking lot. If nothing else, at least there will be other people here.

23 November 2010

Onion Pie

Personal favorites, family traditions, and local specialties; these are just a few of the themes that will shape the choices made across America as we prepare our Thanksgiving dinners tomorrow. Almost everyone adds something to the table, somewhere between the turkey and pumpkin pie, that has a special meaning or story. My father-in-law, for example, will whip up his famous wild rice salad recipe. Even though it is not a traditional Thanksgiving dish, my wife’s family has shared this savory grain salad for years and it has become part of their holiday ritual. It is a piece of their story.

For many gardeners, Thanksgiving will include a variety of dishes that represent a very particular story: the story of this year’s gardening season. In Wisconsin, this might mean a creamy casserole made with homegrown green beans or mashed potatoes and roasted carrots that were only recently unearthed from the backyard. Serving a Thanksgiving meal that you partially grew yourself is, perhaps, the ultimate expression of why many people love to garden: eating local, basing your diet on the season, and forming a personal connection with your food and the land (even if it’s just a small plot next to the driveway).

I didn’t put in a garden this year, mostly because we moved in the middle of the growing season. But I will be making at least one dish that honors the spirit of eating with the season and sharing food that has a story – onion pie.

15 November 2010

Peep This

I really dislike the notion of leaf peeping.

First of all, it is a ridiculous pairing of words. Simply forming the sounds and speaking them aloud makes you feel like a bumptious jackass. Meanwhile, it makes everyone within earshot agree that you are, in fact, a bumptious jackass. Don’t get me wrong. Good-hearted people are pleased to hear of a friend’s restful weekend vacation. Just… spare us the Martha Stewart jargon.

I want to be clear, though. I have zero problems with dedicating entire conversations or a whole weekend to the beauty of autumn. Mid-to-late fall is my absolute favorite time of year. I love it. The smells. The weather. The scenery. Love it.

My real problem with “leaf peeping” is the suggestion that it should be confined to a special, schedulable activity. A sane person in a sane world should be able to say, “It’s beautiful outside and I need a break… see you Monday.” No explanation and no itinerary necessary. Just go.

Thank you, preachy blogger guy. I thought you were in the middle of a series on gardening.

Yes, I know. I’m getting to that.

05 November 2010

Masters in Action

Master Plumber. Master Chef. Master Carpenter.

Like most people, I have a certain expectation that someone calling himself a Master Anything has a significant and verifiable body of experience to back up that title. But, the truth is, I don’t always know what it actually takes to become a master or what it necessarily means.

Well, thanks to the Wisconsin Master Gardener Program (which is run through the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension) I do know what it takes to be a Master Gardener in Wisconsin. And I’m impressed.

15 October 2010

Selling Spring

Last week I received my “Guide to Winter Warmth” issue of the L. L. Bean catalog. Since moving into a new apartment a couple months ago, much of our mail still arrives with yellow forwarding labels from the post office or it is addressed to someone else entirely. Curious whether the catalog was for me or the previous tenants, I flipped the glossy booklet over to check the address label. Sure enough, it was for me. No forwarding label. How do they do that?

Anyway, next to the address was another interesting trick of direct marketing. Right there, in a bold, dot-matrix-type font, the sales folks from L. L. Bean wanted me to know:

-8 F
Last winter, this was the
coldest temperature recorded in

Seriously? In some circles, pointing out facts like that means taking the risk someone will spit at you.

Alas, it’s an asskicker economy and people need to make a living. At L. L. Bean, that means selling coats and sweaters. And, I suppose, that also means selling the idea that winter is coming hard and fast. Bundle up.

Having taken up this project to explore the world of Midwestern gardening, I couldn’t help wondering how the change in seasons would impact the business of gardening. How, exactly, would a nursery or garden center cope with fall and the approach of winter?

09 October 2010

Free Food

Throughout my childhood, I moved easily between our house and the neighbors’. Later, after leaving for college, I often spent at least some of my trips home in their kitchen, drinking their coffee. And, after more than twenty years, I still come into the Miltons’ house, without knocking, and raid the homemade brownies.

As it happens, Sue Milton retired to Mayville – less than an hour away from Madison – which makes it fairly easy to continue visiting. Except, now that I’m older and supposedly more mature, I do what I can to make myself useful (or, at least, appear so) when we visit.

During spring, summer, and early fall at Sue’s house, usefulness necessarily includes helping with the garden. But, around here the true scope of gardening is a little ambiguous.

27 September 2010

Backyard Gospel

Driving on Highways 33 or 26, you pass through unassuming towns like Mayville, Horicon, Juneau, and Columbus, Wisconsin. In each town, you will find at least one church on or near the main road. Most likely, you will see several. There are Catholic churches built of stone and softened by delicate stained glass. There are wood-frame protestant churches with spires that house a single, authoritative bell.

At the same time, in the same towns, you can see that house after house has a garden – nestled somewhere between the backdoor and garage, sitting like a private chapel. Some households erect altars to the heirloom tomato while others build shrines to butternut squash. But each and every one of them conveys a sense of homegrown grace.

Comparing the rituals of church and yard work may seem a stretch. But it makes sense. Gardening is equal parts labor, service, and faith. Sounds a lot like church to me.

19 September 2010

Personal Produce

This is the first in a ten(ish)-week series that will take a look at our love of gardening and getting our hands a little dirty. Remember, dear friends, you were warned that unexpected tangents may arise here on Somewhere Between.

Stick around. Relax. You might enjoy yourself.

* * *

“Where are we going for pumpkins this year?” she asked.

It’s a fair question. A fair answer might be that we could get our pumpkins from the bins in front of Home Depot or the super market.

Yeah. Right.

There is something special about the autumnal ritual of visiting an actual pumpkin patch. Many of us look forward to ambling thoughtfully among the sun-dried vines. We carefully tread across the clumpy earth and pick the right pumpkin for us.

Pumpkin hunting – often accompanied by the first appearance of hot cider and flannel – has become such a common part of fall that few people would find it particularly odd to devote an afternoon to finding the perfect gourd. You have to do it right.

14 September 2010

Cable Culture

Dexter Morgan is a man with a code. He is good with kids. He is a loyal brother and a thorough scientist. He is also a merciless serial killer. Well, near-merciless.

My wife and I recently finished watching the third season of Showtime’s hit drama, Dexter, on DVD. Dexter, and the constellation of people who occupy his cable-ready version of Miami, already has a loyal following. He probably needs very little introduction. But, for those among us who don’t follow his exploits, here is a very quick overview.

Michael C. Hall (of HBO’s equally popular Six Feet Under) plays Dexter Morgan – an endearing, hard-working, and slightly creepy forensic specialist working for the Miami Metro Police Department. As of the end of season three (we haven’t bought our copy of season four yet, so don’t ruin it) he is very recently married to his long-time girlfriend, Rita. Rita is pregnant with their baby – his first, her third. On nights and weekends, Dexter hunts and kills people. But not just any people.