We woke this morning to a warm breeze and it struck me yet again how fortunate we’ve been that the weather has been warmer and drier than usual for autumn. Here’s hoping it continues for a while longer–it makes everything more bearable.
I haven’t done a proper blog post for weeks. Life’s been more than a little weird.
It’s been strange to see everyone posting on social media about all the baking and cooking they’re doing in lockdown and to feel completely separate from that. In normal times, I’m baking all the time, the cupboard never without something delicious and homemade in it. In normal times, I’m often spending two hours preparing even an ordinary weeknight dinner. In normal times, I bake scones or muffins for breakfast every Sunday. In normal times, weekends are for bread baking, jam making, preserving …
But these times are far from normal. Even ignoring Covid-19, we’re living in a shed. I’ll admit, I’ve been moping a little. A camp stove in the back yard is a poor substitute for a full kitchen and bread oven.
But we also have rigged up the microwave and an electric kettle in the shed. And there’s the grill, too. It took a little time, but now that we’re settled in, creativity is again blossoming.
We’re learning to cook in the microwave—something we’ve never done. Apple crisp, blackcurrant crisp, fudge, frittata, porridge—I realise now we haven’t even begun to explore the possibilities of microwave cooking. It’s not the same as using a conventional oven, of course, but when a conventional oven is unavailable …
We’ve also been making excellent use of the food we preserved before the move—pesto, vegetable soup, apple sauce, pickles, olives, dried tomatoes, dried fruit, frozen fruit … there’s no shortage of excellent ingredients.
And some of the simplest meals are some of the best—potato soup, chilli, lentils and rice, risotto, risi e bisi—none of these requires more than one pot on a camp stove.
Cooking is weather-dependent—rain and wind both make cooking outdoors impossible (or at least really unpleasant)—but that just adds a little extra challenge. Maybe it will inspire a little more creativity.
What I know for certain is that I’ll appreciate the new kitchen even more when the house is finally done.
But working in the garden is warm work, and we’ve been doing a fair bit of it–the blank canvas of the new property is starting to fill in.
And I’m still quite enjoying the laughter and smiles as people stop by to read the daily poem. So many other lovely things have been happening around the community, too–Easter eggs in windows and hanging from tree branches and fences, encouraging messages and jokes written in chalk on the sidewalk, rocks painted with good wishes tucked in the grass where walkers will see them. We may be physically distant, but folks have definitely come together as a community to pull through this. Kia kaha everyone!
So far I have ignored the elephant in the room in my blog posts. I’ve focused on the little joys—canning vegetable soup, baking cakes, making pasta. It has been a struggle to do so, some weeks, and today, hours from New Zealand’s total lockdown, it is impossible.
Today our house sale was finalised. Today we officially moved to our new home. Except our new home sits unfinished in the midst of a muddy, rubbish-strewn construction site. It will likely remain so for some time. We have crammed ourselves and all our possessions into the shed we built on the property last winter (when we foolishly believed we might have a new house by February).
As you can imagine, it is cramped, a bit smelly, and very cold (last night was down to 4ºC). We had hoped to alleviate our stay in the shed by going out for dinner a lot, traveling a lot, spending time visiting fun places. That won’t be happening now. I had planned on doing my laundry once a week at the laundromat not far from work. That won’t be happening either. Today I hauled the washing machine to the back yard and hooked it up to the garden hose and an extension cord in order to wash a load. Every meal will be cooked on a camp stove outside.
We will spend the entirety of our lockdown essentially camping as we edge towards winter.
Much of the time it will not be fun.
And yet …
Nearly thirty years ago, my husband and I lived in rural Panama with no running water, no electricity. To get to the nearest phone took a half hour of walking and an hour’s bus ride. Our roof leaked, and and the cockroaches and rats living with us in our one-room mud house were legendary in size and number. I washed clothes in a 20-litre bucket, and used the same vessel to carry water to a small palm-leaf-and-stick stall for bathing. We cooked our meals in one pot over a three-rock fire. We dug our own latrine. The weekly shopping run took an entire day. By the end of each week, we were down to eating nothing but rice and whatever vegetables were coming out of the garden. In the evenings, I would write letters to family back home. Sometimes the letters didn’t make it to their destination, sometimes they were delayed by weeks. If I was lucky, the letters took a week to arrive, once I’d managed to post them. A full conversation could take months, and was usually irrelevant by the time the first letter arrived.
All of which makes months living in an unheated shed during a global pandemic seem like glamping, rather than a real hardship. Rather than thinking about what I don’t have, I’m enjoying what I do have—a vermin-free home with a concrete floor and sound roof, electricity (even if it is limited by what we can do with an extension cord), instant communication with loved ones far away, nearby grocery stores for when the rice and vegetables run out, and a mobile bathroom with a real shower and flush toilet.
And that is how I intend to pass every day as I navigate through the chaos of the next 12 months or so—thinking of what I have, counting my blessings, being thankful for those little things.
No pandemic hoarding here, just the usual late season batch of Summer Soup. I’ve written about Summer Soup on numerous occasions (2015, 2016, 2018, and twice in 2019). We’ve been making it annually for at least a decade, and it has always been a family affair. In the early years, the children’s vegetable chopping efforts were more symbolic than helpful, but as their skills improved, their input became critical to the relatively rapid production of vast quantities of soup.
This year, with our upcoming move, the garden output is less than in many years, and there’s so much to do, I wasn’t sure we would have a chance to make Summer Soup. In the end, I did it alone. Starting at 7.30 am, with many interruptions to help move furniture and tools, I began picking and processing vegetables. I pulled the final jars out of the canner shortly before 11 pm.
I listened to music and podcasts while I worked, and I got some brief help from my husband, but it wasn’t the same without the rest of the family there. Neither was the output—13 quarts of soup and 4 quarts of stock.
I’m not disappointed—thirteen meals plus flavouring for four more will be lovely in the coming weeks and months—but I look forward to getting back to the family production of Summer Soup next year. It’s not just soup; it’s a celebration, and not nearly so much fun alone.
I picked the first melons of the season the other day—a lovely watermelon and a small cantaloupe (rock melon). The watermelon could have used another couple of days on the vine, but it was sweet and delicious anyway. The cantaloupe was perfectly ripe and fragrant.
In fact, it was the smell that clued me in that the melons were ripening—I couldn’t even see this one amidst the tangle of foliage.
I’ve blogged previously about the smell of melons and the memories it evokes. Along with the odour of tomato and corn plants, it is the essence of summer. More than a seasonal fruit, melon is the season, all rolled into one fragrant ball.
So even though melons don’t start ripening here until it’s almost officially autumn, summer for me lasts as long as the melons do.
Our apple trees struggle against the macrocarpa hedge shading them and sucking away nutrients and moisture from the soil. I’m sure many years ago, when a previous owner planted them, they seemed far enough from the hedge, but today, without aggressive pruning, the hedge would engulf the fruit trees. So we rarely get large harvests of apples, and most years we eat them all fresh, long before they go wrinkly with age.
This past summer was different. We had extra apples after accepting a big box of them from a friend, and then realising our trees held more than we thought. There was no way we were going to use all of the apples before they dried out, nor did I want the kitchen and dining room littered with baskets and bowls of apples for months. I filled the last of our empty canning jars with applesauce and still had more fruit. So I made a large quantity of apple pie filling, cooking the apples just enough to soften them slightly and release some of their juices. Then I froze it in pie-sized quantities. We enjoyed apple pie all through autumn.
We thought we’d finished the apple pie filling off, but the other day, my husband found a container of it on the bottom of the freezer. To find that pie filling on a cold and rainy weekend was a beautiful gift. A gift from our summer selves and from the freezer itself, which hid it until the need was greatest.
So while rain streamed down the window panes, I made a pie, filling the house with the warming smell of baking cinnamon, apple and pastry. We enjoyed the pie warm with whipped cream by the fire on a dreary night—a wintertime decadence to make us forget the damp and cold.
Thank you, freezer, for the wonderful winter gift.