Everything seems soft in the spring. The breezes, the rains, the ground as it thaws underfoot, the low murmur of birds returning to the trees, the gleam of the sun overhead which managed for once not to move from frigid to overpowering over the course of a single afternoon, even the way the light flows from low winter angles that barely warm to a gentle glow encouraging early blooms from beneath the soil.
After spring, the summer unfurls, baking the earth for long days until it fades slowly into fall. Fall. Fall feels full, an overwhelming time of bounty, a new richness, a ripening, a reaping of those seeds of spring. The sun slants deeper, more intense, the air lies heavy and warm over the ground.
Spring seems too early for things to sprout, especially in the shadow of the mountains, but every year surprises me, my imperfect garden sprouting in bedraggled rows, spinach seeding over from the year before, onions greening at the tips where they have survived the frost and chill, herbs budding in their bed in untidy bunches. Nothing in straight lines, no semblance of pattern or placement, but instead a springing forth, a bounty unexpected.
Fall seems to come quickly as well, and I have no answer for why I am always surprised by the passage of time, by the way days seem to spin so sweetly into weeks and months and years, the way change continually bewilders and astonishes me.
It seems the tomatoes have barely had time to ripen before the vines begin to wither and fade, and the lettuce and peas have long since wilted in the summer sun by the time the corn and squash and beans hang their heavy heads over my patchy beds of soil.
My garden is a haphazard thing, an ever-changing space where neat brick-laid paths are soon overtaken by the tangled and twisting vines of zucchini and cucumber and pumpkins that we hope will grow large enough to harvest before the frost.
Early in the season it is all about the salads, the tender leaves of radicchio, endive, and kale. The hesitant curl of parsley pushing its way out of the earth and unfurling in the still chill mornings, the lettuces—Bibb and Boston and Butter—delicate green in shades of sage, jade, kelly, moss and mint.
Later it will be squash in ambers and red and oranges, the colors of harvest, great round golden fruits with names like butternut and honeycup and crookneck, names that describe sunsets, like autumn gold and gold rush and even Guatemalan blue.
There is a timeliness to gardens, as in all things, and despite the complaints of my children I have taught them that spring is a time for salad, just as summer is for jams and jellies, ripe fruit gathered and preserved, sticky with sugar and spread on warm bread, the way fall is set aside for roasting and canning, thinly sliced zucchini seasoned and grilled, carrots and beets and potatoes prised from the earth, washed and diced and buttered, roasted in a pan until tender and crisp at the edges, for soups and stews and broths, the remains of the growing season mingled in unexpected combinations that nourish and warm and last long into winter.
But spring. Spring is for salads. For wandering through the rows, bowl in hand, clipping leaves here and there, for plucking aphids and lady bugs and gnats off plants, for gently washing and drying and chopping, for dressing and tossing, for the endless combinations that can be created with patience and persistence and imagination.
There is a metaphor in that, I think. For the way we feed ourselves. A way to describe the bounty and abundance that happens sometimes because of, and sometimes in spite of, the care and attention we visit on one another, the plans we make, and the paths we choose. For the spaces and the places dedicated to growing and preparing and nourishing. Lessons we find in gardens and kitchens and dining rooms, gathered around tables, sharing the products of our industry and our creativity and our hunger.
It always seems to be an event, doesn’t it?
The way we eat. The way we cook. The way we feed each other.
The way we offer of ourselves comfort and care.
Ordinary moments overwritten with effort and use and the dust of the day, elevated through the ritual of gestures we have made a thousand times or more—the sprinkle of salt and pepper, the setting of the table, the calling in of family or friends. A remembrance. An observance.
One way to think about food, and there are many—food as nourishment, as devotion, as metaphor, as allegory, but one way to think about it is this: a process through which raw ingredients become more flavorful, palatable, nutritious, and digestible through the deliberate actions of a cook or chef. Cooking has so much in common with chemistry and biology; it is an ancient alchemy through which ingredients are rendered not only edible, but strangely compelling. Delectable.
When I cook I use recipes I have collected over great stretches of time—those same days, months, and years that seem so fleeting in the garden. More than a record of simple ingredients, recipes are a record of experience. A way to map the events of my life, a remembrance of the people I have grown close to and the ways we have been nourished, together.
Recipes are curious things. The best recipes are informal, handed down through generations, scrawled on bits of paper or in the margins of books and then altered over and over again. They are not commandments set in stone, but rather an annotation of events. A record of happy accidents, adventures, and creative experiments. Trial and error made delicious.
Bread dough is forgotten until it has fermented too long, producing a pleasant tang to the finished loaf. A dish of milk is set aside and congeals into creamy yogurt or cheese. Fruit overlooked on the vine dries and concentrates into sweet raisins and dates.
The best of foods, the most fulfilling, seem to be byproducts of living full and busy lives, of things set aside for later and transformed by time well spent. The satisfaction of things we don’t look for, but find anyway.
Part of the appeal of cooking is deviating from a set recipe and indulging in curious impulses. It is less about rules and more about attention to the moment, an ability to focus on the details that elevate a walk to a journey, a meal to an experience, a simple pastime to a science or an art.
Everyone can follow a recipe as laid out by someone else. More of us need to learn how to create.
I am not sure when I learned to cook. I know it was before I started high school, because I remember making dinner for my parents and siblings by following the recipes that my mother would jot down on scraps of paper, or dictate to me over the phone while she was working. Cooking was easy, and came naturally. Take a handful of ingredients, chop and slice and dice them, add water and heat and time and suddenly you have a tasty casserole, or stir fry, or salad.
Cooking was one way I found to negotiate the world. Baking for friends and coworkers, gathering my family around the table for dinner, taking a dish to the church potluck; cooking was a way to express love and affection, compassion and care.
When my daughter moved to the other side of the country she called often with questions and requests. “How do I make this,” “What is the recipe for that one dish,” or “What is this supposed to look like, smell like, taste like.”
In answering, I realized how much of our recipes, of our lives, are not recorded, documented, or cataloged. How much we rely on the feel of something, on the way it comes together, on our knowledge, informed by our experience. On the memories and connections we have forged. On our own internal sense of what’s right.
On trusting ourselves to create something beautiful through the work of our own hands. On our appetite for the world around us, as it springs up in glorious greens and reds and ochres; plenty found as we tend to the earth while it warms from a harsh, unforgiving winter into gentle springs, and the heat of endless summers, until finally reaching the bounty of the gathering, the harvest, the fruiting, the miracle that is fall.