But summer? Ah, summer is different. How sweet are those little growing things that we buy at the farm market, fresh picked from the good earth from June to October? How delightful are my memories of childhood riding in the back seat of my Dad’s Pontiac on the way to the Asparagus Lady’s farm near Bird’s Hill, Manitoba to get our weekly supply of those fresh cut stalks gathered by a woman with the flabbiest upper arms ever known to mankind? Her name was Mrs. Small, definitely not in reference to her arms, but my Dad called her Mrs. Asparagus Lady anyway even though she grumbled about it. I didn’t like asparagus in those days. But my parents were obsessed with eating as much as they could while those green stems were in season. In fact, they were obsessed with eating summer’s entire crop of vegetables as exhaustively as possible during Manitoba’s uber-short growing season, which began with the asparagus. We would eat asparagus for lunch and dinner until the later stalks grew as thick and fibrous as wood planks. Asparagus with cream sauce, asparagus on toast, asparagus with lemon and butter. Asparagus accompanied steak, pork chops and fresh pickerel fillets. After a week’s worth it seemed like we had been eating it for a month and I’d gag on every bite.
Next, they’d reroute the Pontiac over to a farm on McPhillip’s Road where the farmer used chicken manure to stoke his crops, a method he claimed as the reason his crops were so superior. His specialty: Peas! Peas were clearly more fun than asparagus because they involved popping the pod and running a thumb along its length to extract the tiny, round, sweet morsels inside. I’d shoot a few to the dog who would scramble across the kitchen floor to chase them. Peas came in pods in my youth. Nobody had even heard of Sugar Snap Peas, which to me are not peas at all. They are pods and they are stringy at that. We ate sweet green peas swimming in butter at every meal for another couple of weeks, again with the steaks, the pork chops and the fresh pickerel fillets. Peas I liked. Also I liked yellow wax beans and tiny baby potatoes. Potatoes were my arch enemies the rest of the year in their mashed, starchy gumminess. But summer baby spuds with loads of butter? Nothing better.
Then we started in on the first corn of the summer – which wasn’t 21st century engineered-to-be-super-sweet-forever corn that you get today. Corn when I was a kid was sweet for about 5 minutes after it was picked before the sugars turned to starch. It relied on instant consumption and a lot of butter but it was glorious – until later in the season when it would get thick and mealy. Mother would say, "Oh, that corn's getting mealy." Other kids’ families talked about having “a good feed of corn” which always struck me as sounding so porcine in approach. I figure this meant that they’d eat numerous cobs in one sitting, unlike our family where it was rationed to one per day. I couldn’t eat more than one cob a day, anyway. My body has no actual use for corn.
The award for most creative use of summer vegetables surely must have gone to my Dad for his pride and joy: his Summertime Sandwich. On one thick slice of white bread he’d slather a generous spoonful of my Mum’s sweet boiled salad dressing (a cornstarch, vinegar and sugar concoction.) On another slice of bread he’d slap a thick slab of cold butter (in our house, butter came in two forms: so cold it would tear holes in bread if you tried to spread it, or melted, as in over hot vegetables. There was no softened butter allowed in our household. When I told my Mum about a family down the street where they put butter to soften on a plate out on the counter and it was so nice to spread it on bread, she said, "Fine. You can have your own butter if you plan to do that.") In between the bread slices, Dad piled a combination of sliced raw produce: radishes, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, green onions, celery and lettuce. It was more salad than sandwich. On your first bite, everything inside would fall out onto your plate.
Until I was about 12 or 13, we had never heard of vegetables like zucchini, red bell peppers, broad beans, Roma tomatoes and eggplant. Then the DeConto family, newly emigrated from Italy, moved in next door and turned their entire backyard over to a garden. How exotic that produce seemed to me then. How delicious it all was, once we figured out what to do with the zucchini and broad beans the DeContos gave us.
Things are different now. You can buy all variety of produce at any time of the year. Asparagus comes from Peru or Mexico in December and January, which is when I don’t buy it. Instead, I love watching for those signs of the approaching spring as the asparagus in the grocery store at last becomes available from California, then gradually advances further north and finally it comes from local growers. Then we head to the farmer’s market to buy it fresh and eat it every day for weeks. It takes me back to my youth.
Only, these days, cholesterol levels demand that we leave out the butter. What a shame!