my german summer

The German appeared on the horizon like a subtle storm, exciting from a distance with all the intrigue and mystery of a tumultuous dark cloud. He came with his charm, his attitude, his quaint way of coloring outside the lines with the English language and a fascinating way of rolling cigarettes like the cowboys we’d seen in movies.

He refused to disclose his exact birthday and acted like a nineteen year old most of the time but his eyes and stories and balding head  betrayed the many years he had actually lived through. He had been every where and done every thing that was exciting and exotic and somehow ended up in the middle of corn country USA working on an organic farm in exchange for room and board and a chance to learn firsthand about America. The farmers he boarded with happened to be friends of ours and that’s how we met our German. I was 16 at the time and my brothers and I fell nearly head-over-heels in love with his grand adventures, foreign ways and delicious German food.

Unfortunately, in spite of his great size and athletic build that would have made him a top-notch farm hand, the German realized all too late that he really, truly, honestly and desperately hated to farm. He hated picking beans. He hated canning tomato sauce. He hated getting up early. He hated being hot and sweaty. He hated being in a small town where nothing happened. He did, however, love to cook and eat and swim and sit by a smoldering campfire and play mournful songs on an old guitar. The focus of his stay quickly became Food which meant he spent a great deal of time at our house in the kitchen with my mom, whipping up delightful things for us to eat. I do believe that was the only summer ever that I actually Put On weight instead of losing it. We had schnitzel and spatzle and creamy soups with brussel sprouts (or ‘Rose Cabbages’ as he called them), we made sour pickles in crocks and stomped sauerkraut with our feet using a centuries old secret family recipe he requested from his mother. At the end of the day, when we had finished our own batch of farm work and he had sung all of his sad songs by the fire, we ate thick slices of “Bee Sting Cake” while he told us what it was like to grow up on the East side of the Berlin Wall.

In September, the German left us – heavier and a little wiser about the world at large. No doubt he was glad to be heading back to his familiar life and I dare say we weren’t broken hearted to be getting back to ours. The only thing we truly had in common was our love of food and excellent after-dinner conversation. We had a small stack of handwritten recipes and he most assuredly never took his glamorous city life for granted again. It was a win-win situation.

This is one of our favorite recipes, absolutely the oddest thing I have ever eaten and you must try it before you judge it too harshly.

Soyunka (or, “Junk Food Soup”)

1 bunch of green onions, chopped

1 sweet red peppers, chopped

1/2 cup sliced mushrooms

1 20 oz can tomato sauce plus one can water

1 1/2 cups dill pickle slices *with* the juice

1 1/2 cup sauerkraut

2 Tablespoon parsley flakes

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 cup chopped ham, bologna, sausage… any kind of cheap meat

Don’t laugh – it’s no joke, these are actually the ingredients! Saute the onions, peppers and mushrooms in butter or olive oil until they are limp. Add to a large soup pot then throw in the remaining ingredients. Cook on medium for 20 minutes or so then serve with crusty bread. It’s out of the ordinary, slightly alarming and leaves a strong impression, almost like the combination of homeschooling Midwest farmers and a city-wise German, but you only live once, might as well dive in and taste it, right? Enjoy!

corn child

I heard the other day that there is now fresh sweet corn available in the area- it must truly be summer.

I grew up in ‘Corn Country’ surrounded by hundreds of acres of corn that were at least ‘knee high by the Fourth of July’. Most of what the farmers sowed each year was left to dry on the stalk. I’m not sure if it was just a rumor, but I know some people said that it was bought by cereal companies to make corn flakes. I remember scorching days when the clay the corn was planted in would split into a mosaic of cracks and crevices while the corn plants themselves would roll their leaves up tight in an effort to keep in their remaining moisture. They’d stand in their neat lines in the blazing sun while the locusts sweated on the roadsides, breathlessly waiting for rain with the rest of us. After a good, soaking sort of storm the leaves would unroll once more and the fireflies took up to dancing in between the stalks after dark.

Even though field corn was a rather common, every day and over-abundant part of life for us, there was still a little thrill of excitement and romance attached to the sweet corn harvest. Unlike the patient field corn that waits for its day to come in October, the sweet corn is a short-lived crop, needing to be harvested at just the right time and preferably eaten within hours of being picked. I think of it as one of those summer luxury foods that comes on and needs to be fully enjoyed while it can be gotten as close to the source as possible like peaches, melons and berries.

By some miracle of engineering you can now buy sweet corn in the grocery store at all times of the year, but that will never come close to being able to acquire it in season from a local provider – they’re practically two different foods! I think there is something about the local harvest that adds a sweetness and depth to the food you eat like nothing else.

One summer my brothers and I volunteered to help one of our farmer friends work the local Farmer’s Market by going out with him at 3am to harvest sweet corn to sell later that morning. “This is the way you do it, fresh as possible. It’s the right thing to do.” He was not a man of many words and the ones he did use weren’t often very shiny or complicated, but he usually meant what he said and punctuated the statements that he felt the most strongly about with the phrase, “…it’s the right thing to do…”

This is how my family and I ended up in a pitch black sweet corn field out in the middle of nowhere’s nowhere – we were doing the right thing. I have to admit that I never felt so much like a raccoon as I did that morning, slipping between the corn stalks that towered over my head, enjoying the cool of the damp darkness and the occasion bite of raw sweet corn from an ear that I picked to keep my stomach happy while we worked. The kernels burst in my mouth, each one filled with sweet, milky goodness that couldn’t be found in corn that had been grown ‘away’ and was tired from traveling across county in a truck. Sweet corn is one of those foods that likes its home and gives itself most graciously to those who are willing to make the extra effort to keep it there. The farmers and gardeners who brave the weather and soil and before dawn harvests are able to offer the best there is to their families, customers, and community.

It’s sweet corn season in Vermont and you better believe I’m going to take advantage of it! I may not be in the field at 3am picking it, but I’m sure there are some local producers who will be doing their share of ‘the right thing’… be sure to enjoy it!

wilted beet salad

One summer, when I was much younger, my family stayed on a farm way out in the country for a couple of months. We had been living in an expansive trailer park that was more like a factory farm of metal boxes lined up on cement. Going from that broiler oven to being surrounded by luxurious fields, a huge yard filled with trees and secret places to hide away in and visit with fairies and other imaginary friends was nothing short of miraculous. I was enchanted – there were raspberry bushes and strawberry patches and mulberry trees, swings and chickens and a *gigantic* woodpile that was reborn into a magnificent fortress that my brothers and I defended form the wrath of the two angry geese who patrolled the back yard.

One day I remember Jan (for that is the woman of the place’s name) telling me that men don’t often notice cobwebs behind doors, but most women do and that’s why you must be careful to always dust behind the doors. We were preparing for a Tea that she was hosting at the farm and she and my mother were busy cleaning and cooking and getting things ready for the afternoon. I was so excited, being under the age of ten and longing desperately for the prestige and privilege of a grown up woman, I had been included in the Tea. Mom and Jan were always willing to involve me in their womanly activities, letting me sit up with them at night and talk about the deep things in life over tea while the lightning bugs filled the fields like fallen stars and crickets serenaded us from under the porch windows. I felt grown up in all the ways that mattered to me at the time and it satisfied me tremendously.

I don’t really remember how the Tea that we were preparing for came off, my young mind fixed on one dish in particular that was being mixed together in the big, old kitchen and everything else remains a happy blur.  This was the first time I had a Wilted Salad. I haunted the kitchen even then, feeling that room contained all the important business of the house. Jan mixed together a warm salad of greens, bacon, vinegar and sweetening and it tasted like heaven to me.

Over the years we have repeated her recipe, adjusting it and adapting it to different greens and not always saving it for special occasions! This is an excellent side dish to throw together for any summer dinner. It tastes like that sweet and tart time in life when I was so young and yearning to be so much older.

Wilted Spinach and Beet Salad

3 red beets (with or without their greens)

1 lb  raw spinach

1/4- 1/2 lb bacon (depending on how much you like)

1 medium onion, sliced

1/4 cup cider vinegar

1-2 tablespoons of honey, brown sugar or maple syrup

Firstly, cook the beets and their greens if you have decided to use them. I like to boil mine in their jackets. Once they are cooked, slip them out of their coats and chop them into bite-sized pieces. If you are using the greens (which should be boiled with the beets until tender) chop them up too.

In a *big* skillet, fry up your bacon until it is crisp, drain most of the fat away then add the onions and let them cook until they get slightly clear. Add the vinegar and sweetener and let it all simmer together for several minutes before dumping in your chopped beets and their greens. It’s really starting to smell good now!

Wash your spinach and drain it,  then pile it on top of the dressing in the skillet and cover for about five minutes. The heat will start to wilt your spinach and then you can begin to mix everything together. Turn off the heat and stir until the dressing has completely covered the spinach. The spinach shouldn’t be soggy and cooked, just wilted.

Serve immediately and Enjoy!