Thursday, March 6, 2014

A lousy spring for impatient pessimists

If my first and middle names reflected my gardening instincts they would be Impatient—how long do these damn seeds take to pop out of the dirt?—and Pessimist—alright, so they germinated but probably a late frost, worms, rabbits or the Hand of an Angry God is going to take care of the tender shoots, so let's not get too excited.

Except this spring, which—so far—has been perfect. We had a couple of weeks of Seattle-ish weather at the end of the year, cool, cloudy and misty, but early in February the temperatures started to rise and the ubiquitous jarrilla bushes along the roads exploded with their smelly yellow flowers. They were followed by the more elegant blooms of the huizaches which for most of the year are thorny and nasty-looking bushes, the better to keep livestock from munching on them (except for goats, which if hungry enough will eat anything short of barbed wire). Now the huizaches are dressed in frilly green foliage topped with festive yellow buttons.

As we enter March the sun hasn't even blinked and clouds just scoot by as if on they way to a more pleasant landscape. I can't imagine what that would be. Aside from the perpetual sunshine, temperatures drop into the fifties at night and at noon reach only the high seventies or low eighties. Humidity is low. A pessimist would have a hard time grumbling except when the wind kicks up late in the afternoon and blows the dust around.

Gardening firsts this year are asparagus, a bit scrawny but with enough shoots to sauté for a side dish. Along the asparagus Félix has row of about fifteen garlic plants and six shallots, all looking happy and perky yet hardly ready for picking. Two grapevines that we thought dead came back with the warmer temperatures, though who knows which variety the grapes will be.

All the tomatoes we had last year—Black Krim heirloom; Grapes; Early Girl; Brandywine; and a variety called Sun Gold (?) also have germinated and are well along the way. A new variety this year is Cherokee Purple, which also is doing well. There are also two varieties of pimentos, one called Cayenne which sounds ominous.

Ready to boogie: One of the tomato seedlings.
A new variety of cucumber, Lemon Cucumbers, is doing well, along with thin French beans (haricots). Something else new for us are celery and rhubarb plants; I have seen the latter around here though never for sale at the store. Finally, some Turkish strawberries we grew from seed are beginning to produce tiny fruits that unfortunately don't taste very good.

Can't keep Mexicans from planting chiles so Félix planted some seeds he covertly saved from last year. We have Anchos; Rojos (tiny fellows that will burn a hole in the roof of your mouth); Habaneros (ditto); Jalapeños: Serranos and Chipotles, all doing great. Last year chiles accumulated on the window sill behind the kitchen sink like small meteorites Stew would not dare touch despite the colorful and informative Cooking with Chiles book I'd bought him. It may be time for a second book.

This year we're growing two separate crops of most everything, one in the raised beds next to the house and the other in the ten-meter-square milpa, or vegetable garden, we have at the edge of the ranch, with its own (primitive) irrigation rig.

Resurrection: Found abandoned by
the side of the road, this victim of a car
accident now flourishes. 
In the non-edible categories we planted pieces of a garambullo cactus, the multi-branch variety that look like candelabra, that someone had crashed into a mile down the road. I held no hope of any of these survivors taking root but the pessimist in me was proven wrong again. The bedraggled garambullos not only survived but amazingly, are covered with white flowers that the bees are fire-bombing.  We also planted three palo dulce trees, scraggly and ungainly, because they produce flowers the bees supposedly love.


Among the long-shots are our three olive trees, two Arbequinas (Spanish) and one Mission (from California). They been growing lustily for four years but have produced exactly three olives—one each. This spring the Mission seems to be producing tiny bunches of something: flowers that will later create actual olives? That would be novel.

The two peaches and the apricot tree are loaded with fruit though a small apple and two cherries look as scrawny and unpromising as ever.

What to do with all this stuff coming on line? I have secret plans to buy Félix a card table that we can set up at the Saturday Organic Market in town where we could sell some of our produce, much of it not available in stores. He owes me: despite all his marketing blah-blah he only sold three jars of his honey compared to the twenty-seven we sold to our friends. He'd better start selling, and not just chiles.

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Bonus image: San Miguel cobble stones. 














Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A loud hurrah for a sober Stew

Of all the suffering connected with alcoholism, the secrecy and the loneliness have to be the most painful. There are many people, I'm sure, for whom drinking is a harmless way to celebrate friendship and family, to mark life's landmarks, to share a joy. Not for an alcoholic, whose life becomes ever more circumscribed and isolated with every round of wine, beer, liquor or whatever his poison of choice.

Treatment professionals have assiduously labored to destigmatize alcoholism by labeling it a psychological or physiological disorder, perhaps lurking in a family's genes, rather than a moral flaw. But even recast as a disease rather than a sin, it's not one you want to talk about with friends over coffee. People may complain about rheumatism and migraines but not about incontinence or not being able to stop drinking once alcohol touches their lips. It's shameful. Normal people should be able hold their bowels as well as their booze.

The anniversary boy. 
You might mention how long ago your cancer went into remission or disappeared altogether but the length of your sobriety, measured in the number of years—or months or days—is not something that's easily shared except to others similarly affected or at an AA meeting. For one thing you're never really cured of alcoholism or drug addiction but merely learn to control it, to keep it at arm's length more or less easily depending on your own history.

Indeed "falling off the wagon" is an apt metaphor: One day you're riding along carefree and the next you're back on your ass in the mud again. Look at a megastar like Philip Seymour Hoffman who quit drinkin' and druggin' at age 22 only to relapse and die from his multiple addictions twenty-four years later. But the fragility of one's recovery has nothing to do with fame. Through my own travels through AA—I stopped drinking seven months after Stew—I've met many Joe Nobodies who have proudly announced their years or decades of sobriety only to run into them staggering down the street a few days later. If there's one thing you learn in AA is not to brag.

That mixture of shame and fear of relapse keeps recovering alcoholics from making too much of their anniversaries to non-alcoholic friends or strangers. To announce your years of sobriety at a table full of people probably will bring polite applause and congratulations but also some uncomfortable fidgeting—do we need to hear this?—particularly if one of your friends is secretly grappling with his own problem.

In this posting I'm violating all those taboos and perhaps even Stew's privacy. I want to congratulate him on thirty years of sobriety, almost half his life. He quit drinking on February 1, 1984. Well done, love.

Typically, he didn't mention his anniversary until two weeks afterward and then only casually.

Like most recovering substance abusers, Stew's sobriety was no epiphany but a series of fumbles and stumbles. He was in a thirty-day treatment program in 1983 but walked out after a week and resumed drinking. Back into treatment the following year, he made it through the entire thirty days after which he never drank again. I'm sorry to admit that my own continued drinking, even as Stew was trying to quit, may have contributed or prolonged his struggles.

Whatever. He quit drinking and eventually so did I. And if there's any one key to our staying together for forty-two years it's our continued sobriety.

So again congratulations Stew. To celebrate I will brew two hair-curling cups of espresso macchiato in our new coffee machine, right after you fix lunch.

Sorry, pal. Sober or not, I'm afraid you're still stuck with the cooking.

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Saturday, March 1, 2014

Birth of a Salesman

For all his laudable personal qualities—honesty, first-rate smarts and a willingness to work, among others—our gardener Félix' prospects in life are dampened by the fatalism that pervades most Mexicans in the campo or countryside.  Life is but a torturous trek and you just pray something really awful doesn't happen along the way.

It's not a worldview that engenders creativity or entrepreneurial leaps of faith. At best it prompts desperate runs for the border to seek work in the U.S.  Félix has done that twice.

Which brings us to the thirty-five-plus jars of premium organic honey extracted last week from Félix' beehive which has buzzed away in the ranch for the past year. Yesterday, amid an epic mess in the kitchen, he and Stew strained about five gallons of honey that they then poured into jelly jars fresh from the dishwasher, ready for labels I'd created on the computer.

Two days ago I'd said to Félix that I'd try to sell some of the honey to our friends but then he'd have to figure out how to market the rest. His reaction was a shy smile followed by confusion and ultimately disbelief, as if someone had announced it was time to put on the spacesuit because the rocket for Mars was leaving shortly.

"But how am I going to sell the honey?" he said sheepishly.

"Dunno. That's for you to figure out."

Stew got into beekeeping about two years ago and took Félix to a series of classes sponsored by a chaotic outfit with the grandiose name of "San Miguel Apiculture Collective." Part of the plan was to get Félix to raise and sell his honey. At the end of the training he received his own beehive which he installed about three meters away from Stew's.

Sometime last year Stew's queen bee lapsed into a menopausal torpor and his hive produced little honey. Félix' nearby hive almost exploded. When all the panels returned from a centrifuge last week Félix became the owner of almost five gallons of honey.

Stew received a measly quart. He expects a new queen soon but then the dowager has to be killed first. No details yet on the method of execution, whether by hammer, folded newspaper or careful decapitation with an X-acto knife.

I hope the unceremonious regicide doesn't provoke thousands of pissed-off bees to angrily swarm the ranch attacking humans, dogs, cats and other mammals like they did a year ago when Stew and Félix clumsily tried to peek inside one of the hives.

Beekeeping certainly hasn't been a profitable venture for Stew who assumes all the expense but none of the profit. He has had to buy two beekeeper suits, the hives, smokers, and much additional paraphernalia. To break even he'd have to peddle honey to the bears in Yellowstone by the truckload.

We have encouraged Félix with all aspects of his mini-enterprise, including competitive pricing (we checked other types of organic honey sold in town); marketing (this is not the usual honey sold at roadside stands, often adulterated with water and sugar and packaged in scuzzy plastic containers); and have worked up alluring profit figures (if you sell thirty jars at eighty pesos each, that's a nifty $2,400 pesos which you can use to fix your car or pay for your daughter's upcoming baptism!).

The last argument has had the most impact and he's gradually working up a pitch for selling his product at the local food markets. I mentioned that if someone bought several jars he could negotiate a discount. Félix liked that idea.

So far he has sold a jar of honey to his mother and another one to the woman who cleans our house. A tentative start it is but hey, he's been in business for only two days.

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