My “Dad’s” Garden

Each Wednesday we share a classic post from the Eat Sunday Dinner vaults. This piece originally posted on June 17, 2010.

Zucchini, corn, and tomatoes in my parents’ garden. Credit: Winston Lutz

This morning my dad sent me a series of photographs of his garden and although I’ve seen his garden many times over the years, I was still pretty impressed.

Truth be told, this is not just my dad’s garden.  It is my parents’ garden.  They started it when my grandparents moved in with them and my grandmother needed something to do once she left the farm she had lived on for over 50 years.  My parents’ backyard was too small to plant a garden large enough to occupy my grandmother for any length of time, so they bought an empty house lot down the street and planted a large garden.

The garden is divided into two parts– one for vegetables and one for flowers.  The vegetable garden is my father’s domain.  Of course, my mom does a huge amount of work watering, picking, cleaning, and canning the vegetables that come out of it, but it is still under my father’s ultimate control.

The cutting garden at the front of “the lot” belongs to my mom and she uses it to grow flowers for flower arrangements. The flower garden up at the house is for show, but this is where she grows the bulk of her cut flowers.  It’s a wild little garden and it’s not meant to be pretty, although I like the strange mixture of plants that flourish there at different times of the year.  It’s the place my mom can grow plants that aren’t necessarily attractive in and of themselves, but produce beautiful flowers.

A second view of my parents’ garden. Credit: Winston Lutz

My parents occasionally have turf wars, and it always cracks me up.  I hear stories like, “Your father dug up the green beans yesterday because he was tired of picking them, but I wasn’t done with my canning!” or “Your mother wants me to extend the fence around her garden, but she doesn’t use all the flowers she already grows, so I’m not in any hurry to do it”.  I don’t know why I find these stories so hilarious.  Maybe it’s because “the lot” is such a good metaphor for my parents’ marriage (although I’m sure they’d both be horrified by this idea or any discussion of their “relationship”.)  Their garden is well-tended, fruitful, and a little crazy– but in an amusing and creative way.

For years my parents have raised a lot more produce than they can eat themselves and they always share their garden’s bounty with neighbors, friends, relatives, and the occasional “varmint”, as my father calls the creatures who eat his vegetables.  The gift of produce smoothes the way with difficult neighbors and encourages visits from friends and family… especially during tomato season.  It’s amazing to see how much comes out of their garden and how much they get out of the process.  I only have space for a tiny vegetable garden in my yard, but every year I find myself digging out a new little patch to grow just one more row of tomatoes or a few cucumber plants.  These experiments don’t always work out, but they do give us all something to talk about and get my family out into the yard, working together and hoping for the best.

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The Last Halloween Pumpkin

Each Wednesday we share a classic post from the Eat Sunday Dinner vaults. This piece originally posted on June 14, 2010.

Bye, bye, pumpkin! Credit: Susan Lutz

Well, it finally happened.  We had to say goodbye to the last of our Halloween pumpkins.  This one outlasted the others by a good six months, but nine months after we blew out the candle in our Jack-o-lantern, we bid a fond farewell to our last uncut pumpkin sitting on the window ledge.

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Choose Two of These Three Things

Each Wednesday we share a classic post from the Eat Sunday Dinner vaults. This essay originally posted on May 3, 2010.

When making Sunday dinner, you can successfully accomplish two of these three things.

  1. Prepare a delicious meal.
  2. Have a nice, relaxing time.
  3. Photograph your dinner.

I’ve learned the hard way that you can not do all three.  Or at least I can’t.  Yet.  I hope one day I’ll be able to produce a quick photographic record of our Sunday dinner meals without destroying the festive spirit of the day.  But I’m not there yet.  The time we set aside for Sunday dinner started out great.  We picked our first radish from the small self-watering planter we usually ignore because we put it by the side door we rarely use.  It was an exciting moment since the radishes were the first crop we planted from seed this season and Violet remembered putting the tiny seeds in the ground.

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Radish from our first crop in our Spring garden. Credit: Susan Lutz

We all played around in the back yard for a while and Tim found two beautiful grapefruits in the small tree wedged in the corner of our yard.  (Who knew that sad little tree could even bear fruit!?!)  The girls collected a wagon-load of loquats, as they usually do.  We didn’t even have too much trouble convincing Annabel that she shouldn’t shove whole loquats into her mouth as she collected them.

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Backyard grapefruit on our kitchen table. Credit: Susan Lutz

I thought I’d planned well for this meal by cooking a turkey meatloaf earlier in the week and freezing half for today’s meal.  I’d roasted onion and peppers to spruce up the leftovers and we made a really nice potato and green bean salad.  The girls and I had carefully selected new potatoes, string beans, and a bag of lemons at the farmer’s market the day before and I made a simple lemon and olive oil vinaigrette while Tim and Violet snapped the green beans.  It was the first time Violet had ever taken on this important task and it still makes me smile to remember how proud she was of the “work” she was doing.  Meal preparation was going well and it seemed natural that this good-feeling would build on itself.  Boy was I wrong.   I decided to take a couple of quick photos of our meal and that’s when the trouble began.

In her excitement about seeing the freshly pulled radish, Violet tried to snatch it off the table just as I was taking the photograph and I snapped at her to “leave it alone!”.  This started a flood of tears and I felt terrible about squashing her excitement about our home-grown produce.  Tim insisted that I continue to take photos and as sweet a thought as that was, it didn’t turn out to be a popular idea.  Annabel joined in the crying game and by the time we sat down to dinner everyone was grumpy.  Lesson learned.

NOTE: Seven years to the day after I originally wrote this piece, I still cannot accomplish all three things, but I have gotten better at sneaking in a photo or two during meal prep.

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My “Secret” Recipe

Each Wednesday we share a classic post from the Eat Sunday Dinner vaults. This essay originally posted on June 22, 2008.

People think I have a secret recipe. I maintain that I do not. The recipe is for “Coconut Cake with Seven Minute Frosting”. It came from my Grandma Willie, who lived in the Shenandoah Valley, and anyone who’s tasted its magical fluffy goodness wants the recipe. I have a strict policy that I will not give anyone the recipe because I know people will have trouble making it and call me to complain. So I tell anyone who asks that the “secret” is in the frosting and that they can look up a recipe for Seven Minute Frosting in any cookbook made before 1960. If the person is insistent, I politely say that I don’t give out the recipe, but that they can come over to my house and I will show them how I make the cake. In the decade that I have been making this cake, nobody has ever taken me up on the offer.

The real secret to my “secret” recipe is that there is no secret. It’s just that Seven Minute Frosting is no longer popular and most people have never tasted it. It isn’t hard to make once you’ve seen it done, but somewhat challenging to learn through a written recipe. I watched my grandmother make her coconut cake for 20 years before it occurred to me that I should try to make it myself. It took me an entire day, several batches of droopy frosting, and numerous phone calls from LA to my grandmother and mother in Virginia before I finished a version of the cake that was edible. My grandmother and mother are patient women who love me, but I realized I didn’t want to be on the receiving end of these phone calls now that I was in on the secret.

There is an art to making this cake and after ten years of trial and error, I can now make my grandmother’s coconut cake without thinking about it much. It’s easy for me to bake the cake after a long workday and ice it the following evening. (I do it this way because the cake is perfect when it’s made 12 to 24 hours in advance. Any less and the icing doesn’t have time to work it’s magic. Any more and the cake starts to get soggy.) By Day Three, I’m ready for any Birthday Party/Christmas Meal/Easter Picnic. But it was a long road to get there.

There are some things that cannot be explained in words. Baking a coconut cake is one of them. It is something that needs to be witnessed to be perfected. There are many ways to make a good cake. Each recipe is particular, often a little peculiar, and delicious, as most things made with love and a certain level of obsession tend to be. So if you want my secret recipe, it’s yours. Just tell me when you want to come over.

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Our First Loquat Crop

Each Wednesday we share a classic post from the Eat Sunday Dinner vaults. This essay originally posted on March 28, 2010.

Loquat tree in our backyard. Photo copyright Susan Lutz 2010.

Over the weekend my husband decided we should harvest our first loquats.  I’d seen them up there in the trees and thrown a few into the bushes when the girls started tripping on them, but it hadn’t occurred to me to eat them.  (I’m from Virginia and the loquat is not a fruit I’d ever seen before we moved into this house six months ago.)  Once he mentioned it, it did seem like a fun family activity, but I never thought it would lead to the discovery of my youngest daughter’s favorite food.  Turns out, Annabel loves loquats.  And she couldn’t get enough of them.  Tim spent 20 minutes peeling and seeding these tiny fruits for her, and when we thought she’d had her fill (or more accurately, we didn’t think her tummy could hold any more), he stopped and tried, unsuccessfully, to distract her with her favorite purple ball.

Loquats abound in our backyard. Photo copyright Susan Lutz 2010.

Annabel would not be deterred and ran around the yard picking up whole loquats and happily shoving them into her mouth, turning her back to us to hide her prize.  (Incidentally, a loquat contains four large, hard, slippery seeds which are just the right size for a 1 year old to choke on, so I was a little concerned when I realized what she was up to.)  My older daughter was having such a great time collecting oranges and watching her father’s death-defying avocado collection techniques that we let Annabel run wild for a while.  But watching my husband stand on his toes on top of a rickety chair wedged precariously into a raised garden bed while waving a fully extended fruit picker over my daughters’ heads was eventually too much for me.  We finally had to go inside to keep everyone safe and nobody was happy.  But until that moment it was an idyllic morning.  The sun was shining, a gentle breeze was blowing, and our backyard was yielding it’s bounty.  Even the wild parrots came to enjoy the harvest with us.  Sadly, wild parrots do not like being photographed when they’re searching for food, and having a 3 year old clinging to my leg didn’t help the photographic process, so there’s no visual record of this amazing sight.  You’ll have to trust me.  It was a great day.

Oranges and avocados from our backyard trees. Photo copyright Susan Lutz 2010.


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Shattered

Every Wednesday brings you a classic post from the Eat Sunday Dinner vaults.  This essay originally posted on June 21, 2011.  

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This post has been a long time coming— mostly because I’ve been so heartbroken that I haven’t wanted to think about the “unfortunate incident”, much less write about it. But here goes…

About a month ago I broke the lid to my grandmother’s favorite Guardian Ware pot with tempered glass lid. She used it to cook every meal I ate at her house and I think of her every time I cook with it. I inherited the pot just after she died ten years ago, and I’ve always known that I was putting the glass lid at risk by using it (especially since I live in earthquake territory). But I believe in using family heirlooms (in spite of the Sugar Bowl Tragedy of 2010.) I figured it was better to enjoy using my grandmother’s pot and thinking of her on a daily basis than to keep it it packed away “for safekeeping”.

My grandmother’s pot has an amazingly thick bottom and it’s a pleasure to cook with. I sometimes fear I shouldn’t use it because it’s aluminum, but then I decided that it’s magical cooking properties make it worth the possible risk of cooking in aluminum (which nobody can seem to agree on anyway). Until I started cooking with this pot I was unable to make rice without burning it. I know I could get a rice maker, but that’s just one more piece of equipment to clutter up my kitchen and I already have a box of pots and pans in the garage labeled “secondary cooking equipment”. I haven’t opened the box in almost two years and I don’t miss anything in it.

I think the real reason that I was so upset about breaking the lid is that I know it was an accident that could have been prevented if only I’d been paying attention to what I was doing. I remember the exact moment I looked at the glass lid on top of my microwave and thought, “Huh- I should move that. It’s going to get knocked off and break.” Five seconds later, it did. I knew before it hit that there was no way it would survive the trip. I burst into tears the second I heard the crash.

I was miserable and I lunged for the phone to call my mother even before I cleaned up the broken glass. This is not normally my natural reaction, but I figured that if anyone would understand how bad I felt, it would be my mother. After all, the pot had belonged to her mother and my mother had given it to me. I felt guilty about breaking the lid and telling my mother was kind of like confessing. Through my tears I told my mother that I couldn’t believe I’d been so careless. At that moment I realized that although I was upset at losing the lid, it was my own lack of attention that was really upsetting me.

Normally, I am very good at paying attention. In fact, it’s a character trait that I value highly in myself and appreciate in others. You learn a lot when you pay attention to the things going on around you and to the people and objects that you value. Only a few days earlier I’d given my photo students a lecture about paying attention in class. I told them that understanding and analyzing photographs was simply a matter of paying attention to what they saw in the frame. I described what I saw in a single Cartier-Bresson photograph for a full twenty minutes. (I could have gone on longer, but decided I’d made by point by then.) I also told them that their open-book final exam would be easy if they had taken good notes throughout the term and PAID ATTENTION in class and when doing their reading. Then I proceeded to give them 90 percent of the answers on the final exam they’d be taking in two weeks. I figured if I was going to give my students a lecture about paying attention, I’d better make it worth their while.

This lecture ran through my brain as the lid to my grandmother’s pot fell to the floor. I knew I could get a replacement lid. The old lid was chipped anyway, so it wasn’t such a bad idea to get a new one. What was really bothering me was the fact that I hadn’t been paying attention. I was feeling lazy and tired and in pain when I put the lid on top of the microwave. I’d been in the middle of cooking the first meal I’d prepared since injuring my shoulder several weeks earlier and it was harder than I thought it would be. My shoulder ached as I lifted a cast iron skillet off the stovetop and put it on top of the microwave next to the lid. My arm dropped unexpectedly with the weight and the jerk of this unsteady movement led to the demise of the lid. On some level, I knew that this was a stupid thing to do and yet I did it anyway. I was too tired and lazy to behave responsibly. And this made me crazy. It’s been weeks since the accident and I haven’t made a decent batch of rice since then.

One of my least favorite character traits is that I have trouble making allowances for myself that I easily forgive in others. And I have trouble letting go. But my parents have just arrived for a two-week visit and my five year old is clinging to my mother’s neck as I type these words, saying “I’ve been waiting for this moment!” I guess it’s time to let go. To forgive myself, forget about the broken lid and enjoy the visit.

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