Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Sex in the Garden

Once upon a time, long, long ago, I knelt in the garden watching a bee wriggle himself up the flower of a foxglove and then back himself out again covered in yellow dust, where he seemed to pause on the lip of the flower, seemingly dazed, and shake some sense back into himself, almost as though he were sneezing. Then he flew to another flower and eagerly scrabbled in. In one hand I held the phone and described the whole process to my mother, who said, and I could see her lips pursing, “You can see sex in ANYTHING, Daughter!” Well duh, just roll the flower parts around on your tongue – pistil, stamen, ovary, anther – now where’s the stigma in that?

Now, as I say, that WAS a long, long time ago, and hormones were still wreaking havoc, at least periodically, in my body, but now that I’m a bit calmer – one of the very few advantages of getting older, but a generous one, indeed – I still see sex in the garden and on the table. Sometimes to such an extent that it makes me purse my own lips.

...the French Charantais melon...

Just the other night I came in from supper of creamed cranberry beans, potatoes and carrots – all fresh as rainwater – alongside grilled chicken, eaten on the deck from dusk into dark – days shorten so fast in this brilliant season! – and was redding up the kitchen when the tiny Charantais melon spoke to me from the counter. I answered that call and held it in both of my hands and smelled the sweet ripeness of it before I put it on the cutting board and took my cleaver in hand. With the first gentle touch of the blade the Charantais sliced open like butter, seeds spurting from the center and sliding down the cut sides, perfectly ripe, ready to be planted sweetly into my mouth or into the ground to grow again. It was at that moment that my lips began to purse – I was that startled by the voluptuousness of this innocent-looking fruit. I actually drew back just a bit before I took a spoon and had a mouthful of those seeds – they’re good for you, you know – before I scraped the rest of them into the compost. Then I sliced half the melon into slivers and ate them with no salt, no nothing. My goodness it was good! I believe that was the most perfect melon I’ve ever eaten. Peak ripeness – even a moment before or after may not have achieved the same perfection.

Prissily, I wrapped the other half in plastic and put it in the fridge, wandered around thinking about how perfect it was, looked around for Leo, who was nowhere in sight, went to the fridge, snatched the plastic from the saved half, and then ate it, too. Not the plastic, silly...

I do believe that whatever essences were in that melon will be good for what ails me even if I don’t get another taste for another year.

...the Pratico/Menduni tomato...

Again, years ago – but not so long ago that I could use the Once Upon A Time phrase – Claire Clarino gave me some seeds from a strain of tomato that her grandmother Menduni had brought from Italy and that Claire has nurtured all these years, saving seeds from the best of them and planting them year after year. She calls them “Nonni’s Tomatoes,” and they are also called “Chella,” after her grandmother’s home town in Italy.

Now, in my dark old house, I never got them to germinate successfully, but I’ve always wondered about them. And then the other day I was being escorted by Steve Chamberlain on a tour of his Dutchess Farm in Castleton, when he suddenly reached down and grabbed a long, tubular shaped thing that seemed to be a long pepper but turned out to be a tomato. About 2 inches in diameter and maybe 5 inches long, it was not tapered but more sausage shaped, not red, exactly, but a blotchy maroon– in the sex-appeal category I’d rate it a Kissinger – you might recall Henry Kissinger as the supremely unlovely person who was National Security Adviser to the Nixon Administration, a terrible and even ugly man, but who, nevertheless, was said to be very attractive to women, apparently because of his lovely balance of acidic and sweet.

About that tomato: “These are called Pratico tomatoes,” said Steve. “An elderly person came by my stand one day and gave me seeds for them, said he’d developed them, part beefsteak, part paste tomato, and he wanted them to continue. So I put ‘em in the ground and they’re pretty good. Here, take one.”

I immediately thought of Claire’s tomato seeds, and took the ugly thing with alacrity. I thought they might be the same tomato, developed or at least saved by two different Italian families who’d settled on Meadow Street, in the section of Rutland called “the Gut”.

So, even after my near orgasmic experience with the Charantais Melon, still unsurfeited, I slice into the Pratico. Oh. My. Goodness. The Pratico is a tube of fine, juicy – but not too juicy – tomato flavor, nothing mushy or plum-mealy about it. A fine gift from one of our oldest families. Though not beautiful, when you slice through its tender skin at the blossom end you find fresh tasting tomato meat separated by tender seeds and jel, and as you continue to slice toward the stem end it becomes somewhat more mealy, but still very tasty. I imagine the melding of the whole into sauce would be quite rewarding, but perhaps not so much as eating them fresh. You can eat only so many tomatoes, though, however that many may be, and when you cannot eat more, and more are left, then you must turn them into sauce. And what a sauce that would be, come February. Or even next week.

Thinking that my taste buds might just be in a good mood, ready to drool over any old morsel, I decide to test the Pratico toughly against the greenhouse-raised tomatoes – Buffalo, by name – from Dutchess Farm.

These are not exactly “greenhouse” tomatoes. They’re planted in soil, in a field, root-watered, with the amendments to the soil the rest of the farm gets – compost, composted manure, green manure from wheatgrass. Their only difference is that they are protected by a plastic tent, the sides of which can be rolled down or up, to regulate the heat and the cold. “Tomatoes aren’t usually a New England plant,” Steve says. “They need more heat; and, as well, under plastic the water doesn’t stand on the leaves, which prevents disease.” Plus, in this protected venue they get an earlier start.

Dutchess Farm has the earliest tomatoes at the market, and probably the latest into the fall. And the turnover is tremendous. There’s no way to grow heirlooms – the Pratico, the Brandywine, Green Zebra, Black Krim – in that number. They’re much more idiosyncratic, and are grown, a patch here and there in the crevices of the garden system and pattern. Thank the market gardener/farmer who still gives formal space to these wonderful things, and buy them, so they’ll keep growing them.

After tasting the Buffalo, good flavor, nice texture, juicy, and much prettier than the Pratico, I’m still blown away by the latter.

The following Saturday I arranged to meet Claire at the Farmers’ Market. She brought a bag of her Nonnie’s tomatoes. Were they the same as the Praticos? I was certain they would be. Eagerly I opened the bag, and my jaw fell. They were NOT!

Nonnie’s Tomatoes are a large plum shape and much prettier than the Pratico. Cut into, they are almost solid flesh, the absolute best, I’m sure, for a tomato sandwich or a thick tomato sauce. The taste is not as transparent as the Pratico, but superb in itself, with the texture of a classic plum – great for sauce. Claire saves seeds each year and grows them in her mother’s garden in Rutland, her ex-husband grows them in Key West where they climb to six feet or more, and a market gardener in Grand Isle grows large crops of them for sale. By spreading those seeds around Claire hopes to insure the survival of the Menduni.

Here we have two heirloom tomatoes brought from the old country a hundred or more years ago, entirely different from each other, nurtured by offspring and farmers, and they’re probably only two of many, right here in the Rutland area. Immigrants used to arrive on American shores with seeds concealed in the brims of their hats and sewn into the hems of their dresses. Thomas Jefferson smuggled rice seeds out of Italy and then wrote, “The greatest service which can be rendered to any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.” Countries and geographical areas create “banks” of seeds for the preservation of the species. When crop failures occur or the land gives out from growing only a few strains of Genetically Modified Seeds owned by a few chemical and drug companies on hundreds of millions of acres, perhaps the few people surviving will be able to find a few acres here and there on which to plant their heirloom seeds. For an interesting take on this phenomenon see John Seabrook, “Sowing for Apocalypse” in the August 27 New Yorker.

Thank you Claire, and thank you Steve, for saving the Mendunis and the Praticos.

... naked farmers...

RAFFL, with the Rutland County Farmers’ Market is putting out a full monte calendar featuring farmers in tasteful buff tending to their business, in order to get our attention about the amazing array of local farm products grown in Rutland County. It’s very, very cute and for a good cause. $15. Order several for gifts. Check it out at the RAFFL table at the Rutland Farmers’ Market or contact Mike Horner at

... more smut...

I had meant to talk about the amazing Sex Life of Corn, but space is dwindling, and I would merely be sensationalizing what Betty Fussell has already said in The Story of Corn, as well as Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pick them up if you are really craven. By the way: Corn smut is a disease of maize caused by the pathogenic plant fungus Ustilago maydis ... Wikipedia

...and that’s it...

Well, what did you expect? Lady Chatterley’s Lover?

First Published in the Rutland (Vermont) Herald on September 11, 07

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