Firsts Among Fungi

My husband and I have spent enough time morel-hunting over the years to border on embarrassing considering we have never found a single one. That is until now, or rather, our last week at our new home. Best or most ironic of all: it was in our own backyard. We had purchased a bagful at the Eugene farmer’s market the morning before.

We actually found two, both in burn pits. I had the highest hopes for finding morels among the charred debris and across the snarled land that was logged last year, both inviting conditions for the delicious mushrooms. I’m hoping that there will be many more in two weeks as people have been reporting their finds all over the Willamette Valley and at higher elevations.

My husband fried them up– along with our market specimens– in a bit of butter, and the flavor was unparalleled.

My daughter also picked her first mushrooms on that trip: dozens of puffballs scattered across a sunny field. She’s been with me as I’ve collected meadow and brown field mushrooms plenty of times, but these little white delights were all hers. Like a true fungophile in the making, she drank in their mellow mushroomy scent.

On a short hike up the road we also came across gatherings of gregarious Agrocybe praecox, which are pretty and interesting, but whose edibility is, according to David Arora, “mediocre at best; disgusting at worst.” We took enough for identification but let the rest be.

All those hours in the woods and meadows of the Pacific Northwest are never wasted, even when the disappointment over an empty bag is at its worst. I’m notorious for traversing the most majestic of landscapes with my back hunched and my eyes trained intently on the ground. The forest floors have so much to offer– orchids, trillium, violets; beautiful but toxic salamanders; and on a good day, the most intriguing of wild mushrooms.

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Childhood in the Garden

Last weekend I helped my mom transplant several rose bushes, butterfly plants, and bulbs around her property. The soil on my palms, the sweat on my body, even the blister below my wedding ring felt wholesome and reviving. It was a joy to allow my daughter to toddle through the flowers and inspect the kale and herbs, and it boosted my confidence– and my excitement– for the coming year in which I’ll be nurturing a vegetable garden and a child together.

Something about gardening evokes the curiosity of youth. You have to look closely, know the wild plants, the bugs, the root systems beneath the soil. I joined my daughter as she sat contentedly among the bright yellow sour grass. Just as I had done when I was young, and I could not resist doing alongside her today, she munched the succulent stems, and puckered and grinned.

Without thinking, the tart flavor still on my tongue, I lifted a nearby tile to discover what wild critters night be hiding. Salamanders? Potato bugs? Earthworms?

Gardening, particularly youth in the garden, feeds the inquisitive wonder of childhood for a lifetime. As delicious and healthful as homegrown fruit and vegetables may be, and as gratifying the harvest, this is one of the garden’s most powerful values and why I want my child to grow among the vines and leaves, with dirt under her nails and fresh air in her lungs.

Waning Winter

The first of the buds opened in January. Like a kaleidoscope of butterflies clinging to the silvery bare branch of the almond and plum trees, the blossoms arrived as a harbinger of the imminent spring.

It’s been warm here– unseasonably warm. Alarmingly warm. But at times, in the evenings while my husband throws the ball for the dogs and my daughter and I forage for salad greens, it’s hard not to enjoy.

On February 14th, a regular Saturday for us, we drove out to the local winery adjacent to a sprawling almond orchard, just for fun. Sipping glasses of pinot while our daughter toddled across the bare dirt, we walked out beneath the bejeweled branches. With each tiny wisp of breeze, showers of snowy petals rained down over us.

I was especially grateful that we don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day, because that afternoon became, with no expectation or urging, a celebration not of a calendar holiday but rather of a unique landscape and a season of our lives. February won’t look quite like this next year, but I know it too will be breathtaking in its own way.

Double Yolks and Wind Eggs

Among these four chicken eggs are three yolks. Can you guess how many each contains?

Double-yolk eggs are said to occur once in about 1,000 eggs laid. I’ve found many of these elongated monstrosities over many years of collecting eggs, and there remains a certain excitement to discovering one, from spotting the enormous shell to making bets on its contents to cracking it open and winning double gold.

Consumers of store-bought eggs miss out on this pleasure, because in the United States commercial eggs are sorted by weight and large anomalies discarded. Even normal-sized eggs with two yolks, which do occur, are culled after “candling,” a process of shining a light though the egg to examine its yolk and look for any undesirable matter. One producer in Pennsylvania is cashing in on two-yolk-inclined chickens, selling them by the dozen.

These were our first-ever wind eggs, though, laid two days in a row undoubtedly by the same pullet. Wind eggs are yolkless oddities resulting from a reproductive glitch, as are the double-yolkers. They’re also called cock eggs, dwarf eggs, and least charmingly, fart eggs.

Both extra-large and extra-small have histories of lore surrounding them, understandably. Unlike other errors of egg formation, wind eggs and double-yolks feel delightfully lucky.

With a Toddler’s Help

Yesterday my daughter and I went out to gather greens for salad and a spicy sauté. As I carefully selected leaves of mustard, dandelion, shepherd’s purse, mallow, nettle, chickweed and dock, Suzanna eagerly grabbed handfuls of grass and mixed greens and flung them into my basket, looking pleased to help. Her enthusiasm made any annoyance impossible.

In an “ah-ha” moment (or perhaps a “well, duh” moment), we returned to the kitchen to get a second basket for her own gathering.

Time and advancing communication and physical skills have made life much easier and more fun as she’s grown, and I’m gaining confidence about managing a garden, livestock, cooking and the rest with a toddler at my side (or more likely, racing off into the distance).

I find great comfort and inspiration reading the stories and seeing the accomplishments of homesteaders with young children, mamas who wear the tiniest ones through daily chores and let their toddlers go ahead and get dirty. I love knowing that so many others manage to accomplish so much while providing their kids with such incomparable experiences, skills and joys.

Nourishing curiosity, compassion, and good health are really what it’s all about.

Christmas at Nunu’s

We’re blessed to spend holidays in the surreally beautiful land of Sonoma County where I grew up. My husband and I say that my mom’s home is like Christmas year-round. It smells wonderful, flowers bloom throughout the house, and candles flicker in every nook. At Christmastime, this place is the picture of coziness and love.

Within moments of walking through the front door, our daughter was opening a Christmas Eve present of new rain boots and out to explore the garden we went. After a brief but torrential rain storm early in the afternoon, the weather had turned clear and crisp.

We all enjoyed a crab dinner with champagne and each opened a single present per the traditions that I grew up with and my daughter will as well.

Burlap Checkerboard and Tic-Tac-Toe

These make great gifts and are dirt-cheap to make if you have a little paint lying around. They’re highly portable with the stones tucked away in little burlap sacks, so they’re fun to bring out for a summer picnic or for a winter fireside game.

Light and dark stones hold down the burlap when it’s wrinkled, but sets of any little cone or trinket would do.

Just paint the checkerboard squares or a simple cross-hatch (#) for tic-tac-toe over a newspapered surface and let the burlap lie flat to dry. Pile the center with the appropriate number of different-colored stones (5 of each for tic-tac-toe; 16 each for checkers), gather the corners, and tie closed to gift or store.