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Volume 16, Issue 7 - February 14 - February 20, 2008

The Winter Vegetable of
Grumpy’s Content

How cauliflower reforged my granddaughter’s link to the land

Miracles do happen, yes they do, and one occurred up here in North County on the 9th of February, 2008. Six-year-old granddaughter Grumpy, aka Mackenzie Noell Boughey, and I picked the cauliflower we planted nearly 10 months ago.

We didn’t plant it from seed. It was a small plant among a Home Depot assortment, and we had high hopes.

My plan was to keep Grumps tied to the Burton family roots. We’re dirt farmers from way back, and I hoped to teach her the pleasures of watching and later eating the results of toil in the soil. We planted a tomato plant, a hill of lima beans, three pumpkins and the cauliflower, her favorite vegetable. She was enthused. She had pipe dreams of selling pumpkins for Jack-o-lanterns, pies and muffins — and of eating mashed cauliflower with lots of butter.

No need reminding you about the weather of last summer. I chose to go back to gardening in about the worst year possible. The weather was compounded by some weeks I spent in the hospital. As the plants withered away — no pumpkins; several tomatoes; only one bigger than a golf ball and a cauliflower being eaten by pesky bugs — Grumpy’s enthusiasm waned. She had worked without rewards.

How am I gonna keep her down on the farm after she’s seen gay Disneyland to the south and watched ice cream being made at Ben & Jerry’s to the north?

On the Watermelon Rebound

She didn’t say it, but Grandpop had let her down. I knew the feeling.

When I was a kid, several times Grandma Burton made a pitch to get me interested in gardening by setting aside a small patch in her big garden for us to grow watermelons, no small task in New England. A few years we had small watermelons that didn’t ripen; one year none. Watermelons weren’t a local crop; they had to be shipped from the South at no little cost.

Grandma had failed me. The only watermelon for me would be a slice at the Fourth of July parade. Or maybe at the pre-harvest picnic in the woods late summer, when Uncle Jack returned to the farm to help with the garden. Then Aunts MiMi and Caroline and Grandma whipped up a few dishes, and we roasted hot dogs. A few times, Uncle Jack went into the village and bought a watermelon. That was a big treat back in the Great Depression. The Burtons were frugal; dirt farmers had to be.

Then, bingo, everything came together and about a half-dozen watermelons of moderate size ripened in my part of the big garden. I could have all the watermelon I wanted. I was like Grumpy today with her cauliflower: eagerly awaiting the feast.

When Grandma thumped on the melons and decided their time had come, she took two from the vines and had me take them to the house. Then she headed for the potato patch with her hoe. I took a watermelon under each arm and went through the gap in the stone wall, heading for the farmhouse. I walked on air: These were my watermelons, and Grandma said I could have all I wanted. I was about 10. I was impatient, and Grandma would be hoeing and weeding until lunchtime.

Outside the stone wall surrounding most of the garden was an old apple tree. It didn’t bear much fruit anymore; it was a relic from the days when Grandpa was alive and raised peaches, pears, cherries and apples for market. It was my favorite shady spot on the farm; I would lie there on a hot day and fantasize as I studied the clouds passing by. I was too young to do anything but some weeding, so when the sun got high, I was allowed to retreat to the shade of the old apple tree.

At the apple tree, I set the watermelons down, thought things over and, sans melons, went to the house. There I got the big Chicago Cutlery butcher knife from the kitchen and returned with it to the apple tree. Grandma wouldn’t mind if I had a small slice of melon. Besides, she was at the other side of the stone wall and couldn’t see me.

Even though the melon retained little of the coolness from overnight, it was the sweetest, most scrumptious thing I had ever eaten. Then came a second slice, a third … and you know the rest. I didn’t stop at the first watermelon. Soon the second was gone. I was in hog heaven — until I got a queer feeling in my stomach that wouldn’t go away. Then I was in agony.

The sun was overhead, and I knew Grandma was soon to leave the garden to make lunch. I hid the watermelon rinds and just got back from returning the knife when she arrived and told me I could help her make lunch. Just the thought of food made me feel worse.

I barely kept my stomach down while I mashed eggs for egg salad sandwiches. Then I was expected to eat one. Eat one when a teaspoon of anything would bring up two whole watermelons. I was known for my appetite, and wise Grandma figured things out. Thankfully, she knew I had learned my lesson, and nothing was said. Until this day, I can’t look at a watermelon in the market.

Grumpy’s Small Feast

I need not worry about Grumpy doing the same with her cauliflower. After surviving two snowfalls and nights in the low teens, the plant’s head is no bigger than a coffee saucer. Once again, we’re talking about this year’s crop with enthusiasm. But I’m hoping this year she doesn’t suggest her favorite fruit of all: watermelon. Enough said.

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