This weekend a major self-cheering campaign was in order. Where to start?? Well, there is always some task worth doing, and always some person worth reaching out to for company.
Well, there’s our good senior neighbor who makes her careful way home every evening from the bus. She crosses two busy multi-lane intersections and comes down a dark street. There to avoid a broken sidewalk she steps off the curb, walks into the road around the parked cars against the traffic, and then back up on the curb. Whenever I catch sight of her I run to walk her home, and we stroll together chatting in a comic hash from three languages. It’s really been a nice ritual, women sticking together like a couple of wise pilgrims sharing the path and the lights to get home safe. Days are getting shorter fast and rain season is here, so a couple of weeks ago I had fun going to the work gear store and buying her a flashy reflective vest. It’s a copy of the one I always wear outdoors after sunset. I set up my new carry lantern too, with fresh batteries, to be ready for our dark evenings. Then for Friday night’s rain storm I surprised her at the bus stop, holding out the new vest so she could put it on. “Now we’ll match,” I joked with her. “We can start our own railroad crew.” The plan was, at her door I was going to give her a hug and say “Merry Early Christmas! It’s yours!” But she waved away the vest firmly. She also let me know that Honestly, it was really not necessary for me to walk with her this way. “I can walk it my Self.” And she means it, too. Maybe she felt beholden, or I was only in her way with my fussy safety ideas. I can certainly stay out of it. But I’ll miss our little walks.
On Saturday morning I stopped by the farmers’ market, to my favorite most informative entertaining display of all. The vendor is Ace at explaining his crops and his harvest, and how to grow and cook the roots and greens. He’s a few years older than I am, a super-fit handsome wholesome dynamo of energy and good nature. For about twelve years I’ve stopped to listen with avid admiration while he tosses advice and banter at passersby (with jokes to the ladies that he is single and earnestly looking). Between shoppers he and I have good talks about diet and health and social wellbeing. I photograph the vegetables, and one time printed up the best pictures and dropped them off with a thank you note (he hung them at the cash box). I read and keep all the bulletins that he sends to his customer list, about seasonal produce and recipes. A couple of times I’ve made up my own recipes with his produce, and dropped them off at the stall for him and the customers. Our neighborhood is right on his way home, so this time I loitered around until he had some down time with no one stopping by. Then after all these years I worked up the moxie to suggest that he stop by and see our raised bed before it’s tucked away for the winter. I was ready to bring a bite of lunch down to our picnic table. Then he could meet the Wings, people who truly know their stuff when it comes to plants, and we could all have a little visit.
Wellsir. In few words he indicated that I was not, shall we say, a going concern. He arrowed off into his produce truck and out of sight. He sounded upset and frustrated. Perhaps he wished that one of the younger customers had asked him instead. After a dumb gaping moment I backed away and left. At home I sat for a long time, pondering an email message to apologize and explain and to make sure that he was okay. (Luckily I did not write or send anything. There’s no need. He didn’t ask what I thought or felt. If he wanted to know he’d get in touch.) It’s a huge market, vendors everywhere with good turnip tops and beets. Now I would rather go shop with any of them instead. It’s sad though. Over the years, that was such a nice little sunbreak in the social fabric of a weekend.
This morning there was a pre-Hallowe’en community event for children over at the park. A Russian-speaking family from Canada was in town for the weekend, for some medical followup. A neighbor invited them to the event, and asked me to come interpret for the family so they would feel more comfortable. I had other things to do, and was shy of going to watch young couples with little ones interact with other young couples with little ones. But here’s the thing: when I go to a strange town, what’s the best most important memory? It’s not the architecture or the public events or scenery; it’s always when someone in that town goes out of their way to be friendly. Wouldn’t I enjoy meeting someone who speaks my language? Sure. So I dressed up and hauled on over to the park. There were the Russians, who smiled cordially when I said hello. But they absolutely froze when I kept talking, about sights worth seeing in our neighborhood when traveling with kiddos, and the logistics of getting around. Mom and Dad nodded politely and took the children away to mingle with the real Americans. I lingered around, looking pleasant, but the families talked to families and the Russians stayed out of my way. Finally I backed off and headed home. By the way, their behavior was perfectly appropriate for them. (I will get the same reception if I walk into a Russian Orthodox church anywhere and try chatting people up in their own language.) In a perfect world, our mutual acquaintance would have alerted them that I was coming, explained who I was, and introduced us. This statement goes out on a limb a bit, but in my experience Russian culture has a strong precedent for respecting privacy, leaving the neighbors in peace, and being careful of strangers. They’re not Midwest Americans, who have their own precedent of saying hello to everybody and bringing hot pie to their door.
Well, what to try next? There’s a nice recipe from “Off Grid with Doug and Stacy” for crispy homemade baked potato chips and beet chips. That would be something good to bring to church. So I thin-sliced some baking potatoes and beets, mixed a big batch with a little coconut oil and Redmond salt and and ginger (with black pepper for the taters, and cinnamon for the beets), spread them in baking pans on parchment paper, and baked them at 350 degrees. Those chips baked the whole afternoon. The centers stayed soft and didn’t crisp up no matter what, though with the first test bite a hard baked potato skin cut my gums. A teething Malamute would have fun tossing them around, but I can’t serve these to anybody.
Okay, next plan. Maybe clear out the garden? The sweet potatoes didn’t get enough sun this summer to produce any roots (well, two potatoes turned up today; they look like “pinkies” — the hairless newborn mice you buy frozen at the pet store to feed your snake). We had our first chilly morning, and frost will kill off sweet potatoes. So I pulled up half the vines and cooked a batch of leaves for lunch. (Safety alert: Don’t eat leaves from real potatoes. Those are toxic nightshade leaves, not fit for human consumption.) I’ve munched on sweet potato leaves all summer, but it’s easy to see why they are not a commercial commodity. They wilt the minute they are picked, shrink down instantly to nothing when dropped into simmering water, and have a mucilaginous mouth feel and blander-than-spinach taste. This time I added some goat cheese and garlic oil, and resolutely munched them down.
That still left several long thriving vines. In jars of water on all the windowsills, the vines can grow indefinitely for use over several meals.
In the afternoon we had a fleeting sunny break, so I decided to pull up the whole bed. From now on, it will be dark and raining after work. More important, bedding the garden now will save Mrs. Wing the work of clearing my stray sweet potatoes vines out of her own patch. So I pulled them all, brought a much bigger pile of leaves upstairs, and washed them thoroughly. When gathered in such a large quantity, they gave off a very bitter fragrance. A careful inspection of the leaves showed that yes, all the leaves were heart-shaped with a rich green color. All in order there. Still, was something wrong with the vines, to give them that sharp creosote smell? As an extreme plant amateur, my rule is “When in doubt, throw it out.” To be safe and cautious I stuffed the leaves in batches into the Cuisinart, ground them up for the compost bucket, then scrubbed the Cuisinart three times with soap and baking soda. Downstairs, I spread the summer’s worth of ground leaf pulp over the patch.
Mrs. Wing, who sees all, rushed right outside with a pleasant smile and wave. With a little trowel she quickly but gently began turning over the newly cleared soil. “Looking for roots,” she cheerfully explained. With tender care she combed through each spoonful of soil, extracting fine white fibers about six inches long, and laid each one aside. When she had a handful of them and found no more roots, she showed them to me. “These are our medicine.” She waved goodbye and went inside.
Then, it dawned on me. Whoa dearness. Last spring, Mrs. Wing brought home a tiny plant. She set it in their patch, and kept a fond watchful daily eye on its welfare and growth. She was so happy when her plant put out its delicate white blossoms. Captain Wing explained that this plant is prized in the Chinese materia medica for its roots, a valuable wintertime cough medicine. Mrs. Wing cared for this rare little plant all summer as an investment in her family’s good health.
By summer’s end, the lovely white blossoms had died, leaving only greenery. Meanwhile my happy sweet potato vines spread everywhere, a ground cover of root suckers and vines all along our raised bed. Now while clearing those vines, in one stroke I had disturbed the precious white roots growing under the plant’s leaves — which just happen to be heart-shaped and rich green. The beautiful website “China South of the Clouds” at this link
calls it Fish Mint, or “fish-smell herb”(鱼腥草; “yúxīng cǎo”). In Yunnan cuisine, the heart-shaped leaves are a salad green, and the roots are a prized delicacy for their piercing saponin-bitter taste. So that astringent flavor would have done me good. It posed no health hazard in my kitchen. The only hazard today was me, ransacking the wrong plant.
(Update, 10/29: that sharp bitter smell was really nasturtium leaves. I’d thrown in a handful, because the round leaves are edible, and taste milder than the flowers. Still, a bit goes a long way or longer.)
Here’s a little fan video of film scenes with a song. Is it viewable here? Let’s find out. If not, the YT title is “Scott Krippayne (While the days are young).” The film is “Old Fashioned” with Rik Swartzwelder. Among the critics on the Rotten Tomatoes movie site this film earned a remarkable 17% out of 100 on charges of being sexist and saccharine, but I’m fond of it and even fond of the lighting. Finding this little clip cheered me up. I’ve been playing it on repeat, singing my heart out for the past hour while typing all this up.
Okay, time to give up and let this whole weekend go. Clean the roots out of the sink. Take out the compost. Do the dishes. Pack some sweet potato leaves and root jerky for work tomorrow. Monday’s a new day. Night.