Friday, September 9, 2016

Saving Summer

In these early September days, as summer meanders toward autumn, I am savoring the passing season. After a short first week of school, the kids had a long weekend, with perfectly summery weather, and we packed in as much more summer fun as we could: hiking with friends, afternoons on the water, campfires and roasted marshmallows. With the mornings and evenings dropping toward downright chilly, and the colors of fall steadily overtaking the more boisterous hues of summer, spending the days in shorts and t-shirts feels like sweet, borrowed time.

A handful of summer goodness
That’s how I feel about the summer treasures of berries and veggies I am packing into the freezer at this junction of seasons, like I am scoring some bonus bounty that will show up during darker days to feed both belly and soul.

In the basement of my childhood home, tucked around the corner from the washing machine, there was a chest freezer. By the end of each summer, this was filled with gifts from the garden: Ziploc bags of yellow and green beans, broccoli florets, and garden peas. For months after the garden was put to bed, my mother would send one of us down to the cellar to pluck a bit of summer from the freezer to add to dinner.

We don’t have a large freezer dedicated to garden overflow now, and beyond the occasional inspired foray into canning – one year it was dilly beans, another apple pie filling – I am unlikely to stock the pantry shelves with home-grown, painstakingly preserved food. Mine is not a Yankee farmer’s pantry containing enough canned sauces and vegetables to make it through the apocalypse, but rather a small space filled with modern conveniences: store-bought, kid-friendly staples like peanut butter and crackers and granola bars. And without a root cellar, I plant only enough carrots and potatoes to feed us during the growing season.

But I always try to stash a bit of summer’s flavor into our refrigerator freezer, small batches of goodness to be savored some later time.

Each year there seems to be a different overabundance. A few years ago it was green beans, another summer shell peas. One year we had a freezer drawer filled with wild berries and basil pesto. Sometimes the summer bounty stored in the freezer is gone by the time we reach Halloween, but some years I can still find a bag of blueberries hidden in the back corner the following spring, months after we crouched in a hot summer field to gather them.

This year, it is the tomatoes that have flourished to abundance. I don’t know if it was the hot, dry summer we had, or the new compost-manure mixture I added to the garden, or the combination of heirloom tomato seedlings I planted, but even as the lanky stalks have grown wilted and tired-looking, they hang heavy with ripening fruit. Through the summer, the tomato plants have produced small green orbs that swell – sometimes so large they split near the stems – and ripen through the colors of a sunrise: pale yellow to subdued orange to bright, look-at-me red.

While my youngest child will eat cherry tomatoes by the handful, popping them into her mouth sun-warmed and straight from the vine, I am the only one who eats the fresh, full-sized tomatoes. The others prefer theirs in the form of pasta sauce or ketchup. So I have gathered the excess, plopped the whole tomatoes into a quick boiling bath so the skins slide off, sliced them and pushed out the slimy seeds, and frozen them in chunks.

What will they become? Perhaps soup. Possibly pizza topping, Probably sauce. For now, the tomatoes share freezer space with shredded zucchini and plump blackberries. If I’m lucky, I’ll forget they are there, at least for a while. Then on some dark, cold afternoon, when the garden is blanketed in icy white and I’ve forgotten (again) what the landscape looks like when it is filled with lush green, I’ll peer into the freezer, wondering what to make for dinner. And I’ll find a bit of summer there, just waiting to add a flash of color – and perhaps a memory or two – to a winter day. 

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the September 9, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.

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