9/24/22: Salutary Bitterness: St. Theophan and the Melon of Mystery

The big excitement around here today was a tour of a very unique international garden of food and medicinal herbs. The prettiest of them all were these scarlet runner beans.

scarlet runner beans

The inner prompting for this trip (Guardian angel? Maybe!) was, “Look sharp, and pay attention! There will be cultural riches, and also many people all around you with distressed lives.”

This tour was going to be a challenging situation anyway. The lifelong plot has been aspiring to put a best foot forward with other people, then discovering that the best foot (or either foot, best or not) can underwhelm or even annoy others. This time with this group I resolved to keep quiet, stop asking questions, stay out of everybody’s way, and give this activity one more venturesome try.

As moral support, especially afterwards for the train and bus ride home, there was a brand new purchase that I was eager to read. It’s the Russian classic The Spiritual Life with letters of wise counsel written by St. Theophan[es] the Recluse (Феофан Затворник), Bishop of Tambov, 1815-1894.

St. Theophan

The book came along with a Mason jar of water and some lunch for after the tour. Bringing provisions seemed wise. The neighborhood doesn’t have public rest rooms, so before setting out for the day it was necessary to abstain from eating or drinking. (That’s a good way to tune in to St. Theophan, who would have gone without food and water from Saturday sunset until after Sunday Liturgy every week of his life.)

So. The neighborhood. Historically, an exciting high-density area near the waterfront, of immigrants from a number of countries, packed with tourists and musicians and festivals and parades and little family food carts and window-in-the-wall eateries and tiny popup garden produce markets and blankets on the sidewalk with handcrafts on display and wholesale warehouses selling Sunday vegetables at markdown to the restaurant trade. It was always an educational place to purchase new types of produce and plants, to read and listen to different languages.

But that was then. Now it’s all suffered badly from the two years of lockdown and pandemic and heartbreaking incidents of xenophobic violence It was a real surprise to step off the train at 9:00 on a beautiful Saturday morning and see that every person on the central square, every one in sight, was experiencing distress to the point of being out of commission. There were only one or two frail elderly immigrant women from various countries struggling along with little shopping carts. The rest were young White men lying on the ground or searching in trash cans or pacing about shouting in turmoil. Everyone looked dissociated from everyone else. The exception was one very pleasant looking young man (20?) who held up what might have been a vaping unit, and asked very politely whether I could loan him a portable charger. I apologized sincerely to him, and he gave me good wishes and a lovely smile. As a chronic dental patient, I was sorry and concerned to see that his poor teeth were all worn down.

Around all this suffering there was splendid old architecture, faded murals and frescoes, ornamental wrought iron, beveled glass, decorative beadwork inlays in the pavement, boarded shops with bay windows and green copper roofing, broken statues and abandoned flower beds. The last 200 years brought in concentrated cultural riches from all over the world. Now many shops and residents are gone. There were no tourists in sight. It’s a credit to the remaining business owners that they are still soldiering along in such a valiant manner.

The members of our tour began climbing up to the old heritage garden, a true grassroots organization handed down for generations on a high steep hillside overlooking the water. The location and waterfront vistas are superb. The land was always much too steep for construction, so immigrants terraced many small steps of land and turned it all into an amazing variety of crops.

In our other city-governed community gardens, each gardener is required to weed and clean the bed, or it will be taken away; the composite beds form an eye-catching patchwork of color and textures spread out like a quilt. But this hillside was grandfathered in before the rules. It was understood that gardeners from other parts of the world might value weeds and thickets and brambles as sources of food or medicine, and they could raise what they liked. There was no pleasant open quilt landscape here; each gardener built high fences and cages from salvaged materials (or castoff junk) to keep out theft, and to keep the beds private. There was no clear view of any bed or its contents. Only rarely did a sudden turn or change in elevation allow a glance through a chink in a garden fence.

This was no casual stroll. For local people doing their best to cope out of doors and get some rest with their belongings on the benches, our traipsing through the park must have been a real intrusion. It seemed insensitive to be discussing among ourselves while standing in what was essentially their living quarters. And the keepers of these private gardens, unlike the usual run of garden folk, looked wary of our presence; these were not plantings to show off, but protection against food insecurity. The hill was steep, paths were narrow, and one had to pick the best footing around strategically placed cinder blocks and turkey wire and stakes and boards and roots and thorn branches and rat traps and garbage of all kinds. Despite the fresh lovely weather, there were heavy vapors hanging over some of the beds. Our guide explained that the traditional fertilizers include human products. (Wait, doesn’t that have to be seasoned first? For a long time?) Judging by the harsh smell, there might have been meat scraps or blood too. Whatever it was, the method must be working; the few plants we could see were large and lush.

The main takeaway was how many fascinating plants we could see and admire, items we would not find anywhere else. To save space, the emphasis was ingenious vertical gardening, with high cages holding interesting gourds and beans. They grew right out of their plots, to twine overhead. Edible and medicinal weeds flourished right through the fences and all along the paths. Our guide explained in detail their origins, optimal growing conditions, and uses.

After the tour I went to an Asian market and bought four bitter melons, also called bitter gourds (kû guā). The cheerful young Anglo folks staffing the register asked me “How do those taste?” “Like gunpowder,” I assured them. “But it’s not like uh-oh pesticide bitter; it’s fresh green ice-bucket-challenge salutary bitter. The goal is to try saving the seeds to grow next year.” It’s true that they taste something like gallbladder bile. They also have a fine reputation for health benefits. I slice them lengthwise, scoop out the pulp, slice thin, drop them in simmering water for a couple of minutes, drink the broth, and eat the slices cold. For some reason, including them in a meal makes my system feel more content. (One website praised the vitamins in a “one cup serving.” It’s adorably optimistic to think that people would be munching down a whole cup of this stuff.) One sensible Chinese recipe is to soak them in brine, rinse, then saute with tender pork, spicy black beans, and pickled mustard greens with garlic and ginger.

On the way to the train, outside a cafe with a menu in Chinese characters, there were two older Asian ladies selling all kinds of unfamiliar green squashes. “Dù bu qî, qîng wèn,” I asked them. “Dzhège shì kû guā ma? Excuse me, please tell me: is this bitter melon?” That’s about all I can cobble together from my year of Mandarin in 2016. The two women were completely taken aback. Probably the quality of my Mandarin is a culture-appropriating insult, and they are likely to speak Cantonese instead. Their reaction though suggested that I must have accidentally demanded their business license. To smoothe over their astonishment I picked out a small melon, paid the two dollars, gave them a hearty thanks, and left them in peace.

What did I just buy??

Here’s the little creature. On the train I thought “What is this doodad? Am I about to cook and eat a loofah?” Hopefully these are not for bathtime use; those spines are really sharp. Holding it carefully by the stem end, I washed it several times in Bronner’s soap and baking soda and rinsed very well.

Here it is again, with the four Chinese bitter melons.

4 Chinese bitter melons plus our mystery guest

I got back on the train and was happy to take refuge with my travel companion St. Theophan. But I must not have capped the little Mason jar tightly enough. The drinking water was gone, and the new book was soaked. The book is warped but drying in the sun now.

The trip involved some additional encounters of pathos and bewilderment, though the main impression was those young men in the main square. The day also brought new customs to see and learn. It was a relief to get off the bus and home for some water and beans and rice, then go clear out the zucchini vines.

Incidentally, that fresh red-orange Gerbera Daisy in the picture above? That wasn’t there this morning when I left the house. There’s no telling who planted that in my patch. But there is a usual round of suspects, and all of them are named Wing. In fact, I’ll go give them some melons right now. They will know how to turn gunpowder into something delicious.

Update! Mrs. Wing recognized the melon right away. She very kindly pronounced the name several times. It sounded like “Foshou Gua” or Foshou Melon. But I couldn’t identify the tones or figure out what that meant. Then a loyal reader of this blog suggested in the comments section that I use a Google Lens function in my cellphone to identify the image. Hm… That gave me an idea. A Google search for “Chinese Gourds” turned up many many images, so I picked the closest one. That was called a Chayote, but it didn’t have prickles on it. So I did another search for “Prickly Chayote” (just making up a term out of thin air), and… Eureka. There really is such a thing. So in Google translate I entered “Chayote” on the English side, which gave me Mandarin fóshôu guā. Now to figure out what a Chayote is, and why people eat it… Live & learn. Thank you, Dear Reader, for the good idea.

Update 2: Captain Wing just told me that fóshôu translates as Buddha’s Hand. He explained that one seed can yield 400 fruits on one plant. I reasoned that just because he is a 1:400 gardener, that does not predict such success for anybody else.

About maryangelis

Hello Readers! (= Здравствуйте, Читатели!) The writer lives in the Catholic and Orthodox faiths and the English and Russian languages, working in an archive by day and writing at night. Her walk in the world is normally one human being and one small detail after another. Then she goes home and types about it all until the soup is done.
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2 Responses to 9/24/22: Salutary Bitterness: St. Theophan and the Melon of Mystery

  1. wendyrud says:

    Thank you for a great laugh and some really pretty photos. I don’t know if all cell phones do this but I’ve used google lense (I think it’s called) to snap a photo of something (a strange flower and some other unidentifiable things, then you click okay and it does a web search to image match—works pretty well.

    • maryangelis says:

      Eureka! Have not heard of Google Lens, but will check it out. Meanwhile, you inspired me to try a Google image search of “Chinese gourds” and found out this is a Prickly Chayote. Who knew??? Thank you!

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