In the unseasonable heat of mid-September, the yard’s many black walnut trees began shedding their heavy fruit. Now, a month on, the stately trees are bare of nuts and most of their leaves weeks earlier than any year I can remember. Does that suggest an early winter? A long one?
Time will tell. All I know is that the early crop also delivered a wave of red fox squirrels that, like a wheat threshing crew of yore, arrived just in time for the tasty, bombs-away crop before moving on to the next nut-carpeted farmette.
My mother ran by a similarly mysterious, known-only-to-her calendar. To her, fall arrived when a couple of us were ordered into the family’s drooping, yellow-and-brown vegetable patch to harvest what she called “the last of the garden.”
And it was truly the last and least table-worthy produce from of our huge annual garden. It included small, tough green tomatoes; a few handfuls of case-hardened beets; bunches of tough, small carrots and leathery green beans; a thatch of Swiss chard; a couple of worm-riddled cabbages and whatever else had survived the summer’s heat, humidity, and wayward Holstein.
Although none of it fit any U.S. Department of Agriculture grade we knew of, all of it passed my mother’s test. Soon after my brothers or me handed over the three-gallon—and in some years, five-gallon—bucket of misfit vegetables, Mom had washed, sliced, diced, and packed all into pint jars for a boiling water bath.
Hours later, when all had cooled, she would place a piece of butcher tape on their sealed tops that read “last of the garden.”
To me, the label should have read “the last thing to eat before starvation” because the boiled tangle of toughness tasted like a batch of undercooked insects and unwashed socks. Whenever it was served, everyone chewed it quietly and swallowed it quickly.
But we did eat it because, of course, there were starving children in China and anything short of a sparkling clean plate was a slap at them and the gracious Lord that had provided what might be our last supper.
Besides, flavor wasn’t the key ingredient in my family’s meals; energy was. Mealtime was refueling time. We ate five times a day to gather enough energy to carry us from 5 a.m. milkings to 7 p.m. suppers. The meals usually featured meat, potatoes, bread, butter, a variety of home-canned vegetables, our farm’s milk, and coffee.
That standing menu did not mean my mother didn’t make memorable meals; she did. But this rural Julia Child could not abide one leaf of lettuce going to waste. Each had to be collected, canned, and consumed if we were to have any chance against a long winter or the Infernal Region.
That belief was seeded, I later learned, during her Depression era childhood in rural Nebraska. Her family, she once told me, often lived on “flour pancakes, molasses, and garden cabbage.” Only on Sunday, she added, did they feast on one of their flock’s skinny laying hens.
That hardship gave her a hardness against waste of any kind. Hand-me-down clothes often featured patch upon patch. (I was third in line; I know patches.) I once watched her dye her only pair of high-heeled shoes to match a dress she had just sewn. She created her own Sunday hats and admiringly taught me how to darn socks with a light bulb to hold the holey heel in just the right place.
Of course the light bulb no longer worked; who would throw away a perfectly useless light bulb that might be a key element in some other penny-pinching enterprise? Not my mother.
Nor did she waste one leathery carrot, one tough red beet, or one bug-riddled cabbage to wind, winter, and wildlife. If it was in the garden in October, she claimed it, cooked it, and canned it and we ate it in grumpy silence.
We never did learn, however, if the starving children in China knew of our great sacrifice.