Eat Your Veggies

August 2008

Quelcy, Quelcy, quite, quite merry,
How does your garden grow?
With gourds and greens and buttery smells,
And judgmental nieces all in a row!

I left Paris early in the morning with accordion songs still swirling in my head and tapping from my foot.  Uptight French mothers in baggage checks became a lengthy queue of bitchy bumped passengers in Frankfurt and a long, long, only-one-general-TV-monitor-with-bad-sound-quality-at-my-seat plane trip to a bombardment of English, the language that had been lounging in the backseat of my mind for the previous six months.

The baggage carts were the special price of $3 for the elderly woman.  The baggage carts were the “special” price of $3 for anyone with a suitcase.  Welcome back to America Quelcy, where everything can be turned into a profit.

Customs radiated, prodded and squished the last sandwich lingering in my backpack while some suitcase meddler flexed his powers on an elderly woman in a wheelchair, “It’s not my job to make sure everything fits again.  You know how big the suitcase is.  And the next time I find something you ‘forgot’ to declare, I’m going to charge you $300, got it?”  I searched for the bus that would take me from Newark into the Big Pomme.  It was the destination I had chosen based on the escalating oil prices and the skyrocketing fees of travel to my real destination cities.

I had long since shed my suburban, high school notions of needing to live in New York in order to escape cul-de-sacs and two-car garage monotonies and to “make it”, but I had still excitedly anticipated this visit and staying with my New York friends…until I arrived at Penn Central Station with a huge red suitcase, duffel bag and backpack in the peak of rush hour.

Then I hated New York.  The icing on the situation was the older, upper crust woman on the bus, who probably took the bus just to say that she was “in touch with the people.”  She waited until her stop to “tap” my suitcase and tell me, “that’s a huuuge obstruction to people getting on and off the bus” as if I were thrilled to be carrying six months of my life on a city bus.  I would have gladly left it there at that point.

“What were you supposed to do, wheel it to the very back and run over everyone’s toes?” my college friend and now “New Yorker friend” asked me.  He spoke too soon.  The bus began beeping and lowering at the next stop, to pick up a person in a wheel chair, and the bus driver gave me an apologetic look and told me to move.  Toes beware!

Buses and baggage aside, the weekend in New York was an adrenaline rush to combat what would have surely been immediate jet lag had I gone straight to family reunions in Telford, PA.  The weekend was the entry into the Quelcy aspects of NYC that I had been missing on previous trips to see Les Miserable or high-kicking Santa assistants or even underwear-clad cowboys.

I walked.  I danced.  I drank coffee and judged pedestrians (clearly France does not wear off cold turkey), selected from the world samplings of a diner menu and took a taxi with more satellite options than the cockpit that had recently jetted me over the Atlantic.  Finally, I put my life in the hands of the Chinatown bus system.  Starved bank accounts call for desperate measures, and the Chinatown bus is a desperate measure.  I made it in one $12 piece to Philadelphia and entered phase two of the France-to-America transition.

I was too poor to wander the city while my friends worked real people jobs, so I merely took advantage of Sunday afternoon brotherly love offerings with an old friend and then met my dad for a ride “home.”  My buffers of metropolitans were gone.  Monuments, promenades, cafes and romance were never farther.

As I left the city for the suburbs, I comforted myself with visions of my parents’ garden; a grandparent-grandkid bonding experience was the theory for its foundation.  In reality, it was more so my mom’s nightly weed-pulling and cuke-collecting routine, but on one rain-threatening evening, we put the intended generations to work.

Despite all my interest in slow foods and farmers, my garden time card had barely been punched, so this was not only a good physical exertion and quality family time but a good learning experience as well.  Green veggies brimmed over the milk buckets as we squatted and pulled at the plants.  The mammoth zucchinis became babies for my niece’s imagination while I reminisced about my childhood “doll” Gourdan, who I loved until his insides began to mush.

The piles steadily increased on the patio until the question of “What the heck do you do with all that?” arose.  How amazing what one packet of seeds could produce!  If only more and more backyard gardens were sustaining families and neighbors instead of “food” stuffs in cardboard with color explosions and deceiving health claims (“whole grain” Lucky Charms, really?  Do I have to say anything?).

My answer to the question was simple:  A CAKE!  With nowhere to go (I had to be known already at the one coffee shop and had already put in a significant library loafing shift), no money to spend and my Parisian lack-of-cakes hiatus to compensate, an afternoon of baking and sculpting was a much-needed activity regardless.  I hit the books- the cookbooks!

My mom has shelves upon shelves of church cookbooks, farm magazines with mailed in recipes, recipe encyclopedias and even, as I discovered, The Microwave Gourmet cookbook that I gave to an anti-microwave friend as a joke.  She really has it all!  I finally settled on a clipping from some farm centric journal for carrot cake and took the harvest liberty of adding zucchini to the mix.

The carrot-zucchini fusion wafted through the house as it cooled on my mother’s baking stone, and I pondered the construction and icing phases.  How does my garden grow?  With brownie bits and carrot clumps and a need for flexibility in the process.  The obvious sculptural link was to make a carrot-shaped, carrot-zucchini cake, but as I was removed from my arsenal and still sticking to my natural guns, I couldn’t get the right orange color without resorting to chemical food colorants (the antithesis of the garden sourcing).  Thus, through some modifications of the non-genetic persuasion, my carrot became a parsnip poking through a soil of leftover Milk Gallon and crumbles of the cut away pieces of what had become Parsnips.

The family gathered for a big outdoor dinner with an Iron Chef style, zucchini themed, appetizer-off with my niece, the first of the corn-on-the-cob and grilled hamburgers from my father’s herd.  My nieces’ and nephews’ eyes widened, and they began dropping hints in that subtle way that kids do: “when are we going to eat the cake?!?!”  Then and there!  While little “sixteen-year-old” gymnasts competed for Olympic gold and glory, we dug a large silver blade into the blue-ribbon parsnip.

“It’s good.  I like the cake, but I’m not so crazy about the icing,” my newly, culinary-inclined niece informed me curtly.

“Are you saying that to help me or just to judge me?”

“To judge you,” she said without understanding the more negative implication of the second option.  She had been watching too many berating, criticism-based reality shows. She was also riding her high horse after “winning” the zucchini appetizer contest while I may have been riding the “she played the ten-year-old-card” denial horse.

From bending low and pulling, pulling, pulling at mammoth zucchs, to mixing and hovering over the oven, to stacking and icing, to eating and sharing, and finally to packing up the remaining parsnip pieces, I had to say that I was pleased with my performance even if I wasn’t America’s Next Top [formulaic television role insert here].

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