Living in Society

At a Potluck Dinner

Mixed cucumbers and squash, July 12, 2019.

I sliced fresh cucumbers on the mandolin and dressed them with a mixture of olive oil, homemade apple cider vinegar, salt and pepper for the potluck.

Not sure how much to take, I used all the Tasty Jade Asian cucumbers I picked in the morning. It made a generous offering.

The dressing took place on the hood of my car in the parking lot for the event. Didn’t want the salad dressing to break, and the possibility of finding more ingredients along the route to the potluck kept options open until the last minute.

An octogenarian friend suggested it’s important to put your name on a potluck dish. I made a card, wrote the ingredients on it, and signed at the bottom. What’s in the dish seems more important than who made it, especially for people with dietary restrictions, but I seldom question my friend’s potluck wisdom. I made my name legible.

On a warm, summer afternoon in a park in North Liberty we gathered and enjoyed each other’s company. The potluck was the July meeting of our county’s Democratic central committee. It was an official meeting, but very informal. This being Iowa, a good percentage of the group included young political organizers for presidential campaigns, the Iowa Democratic Party, and other campaigns. There are a lot of elections between now and Nov. 3, 2020. By the way, Democrats, like most potluck attendees, are a bunch of gossips, the author included.

If people believe the way to learn about candidates and their policies is to attend large town hall meetings, they are wrong. Whatever I learned and continue to learn is done in small bits over a very long time with people I’ve come to know well. I didn’t realize that until I was able to suppress my driving social style and actually listen to people. Most elected officials are real people with real interests of their own. If they come to a potluck at all, that’s a sign they are accessible… and human.

There was no real news out of the potluck. It was the kind of warm summer evening of which there are too few in life. Suffice it there were many positive interactions before I headed home along Mehaffey Bridge Road.

Kitchen Garden

Cukes, Zukes and Yellow Squash

This Year’s Last Seedling Trays, Zucchini, Cucumbers and yellow squash.

When I returned from the farm Sunday afternoon I transplanted a dozen broccoli plants in the garden. Reserving a couple to replace failures, I gave the rest to my neighbor.

Continuing the minimal tilling experiment, I placed broccoli seedlings in a plot where cucumbers produced in abundance last year. I didn’t remove the plastic and used the same holes. The plot is shaded by the locust tree, so I’m not sure how this will turn out. Fingers crossed and hoping for the best.

At the greenhouse I seeded cucumbers, zucchini, and yellow squash, which is likely the last starts. Most everything else will be seeded directly in the ground in May.

I brought home a tray of lettuce and spinach for transplanting.

I seeded,


Northern Pickling, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 48 days.
Little Leaf, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 57 days.
Marketmore 76, Ferry – Morse, 68 days.
Tasty Jade, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 54 days.


Raven, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, 48 days.
Elite, Ferry – Morse, 55 days.
Dark Green, Ferry – Morse, 55 days.

Yellow Squash

Dixie Hybrid, Ferry – Morse, 41 days.
Early Summer Crookneck, Ferry – Morse, 53 days.
Early Prolific Straightneck, Ferry – Morse, 50 days.

While inspecting the apple blossoms yesterday I spotted leaves growing from the stump where another apple tree was blown over in a straight line wind. I staked and put a cage around it to protect from being eaten by deer and from the mower. Not sure what’s next, but it was a very early apple and I may grow it to maturity if that is what it turns out to be.

The spring share for which I bartered at Local Harvest CSA begins today and runs for five weeks. I’m looking forward to a salad made with fresh, local lettuce and cooking greens for a pasta dish.

The next step in the gardening season is upon us.


Writing in Summer Rain

Monarch Butterfly on Milkweed Plant

Thunderstorms have been rolling over all day bringing needed rain and a chance to get caught up indoors.

I’m less freaked out about the amount of food processing ahead. There have been more cucumbers than normal and I canned the last seven quarts of sweet pickles this morning. That will be the last, I promise. I also canned pints of tomatoes, apple sauce and a jar of the same pickles. While the water bath was bubbling I made a pot of chili for supper with fresh tomatoes and Vidalia onions. We’ll cook the remaining sweet corn of the season. My retirement has had that effect — things are less freaky.

Tomatoes are next, although the plan is to eat as many fresh as possible. With only two of us at home, we can’t eat fast enough to keep up with the growing and cooking so some will be canned and turned into tomato juice and sauce. I’m taking it in stride.

Two weekends ago the orchard hosted our back to school weekend. A balloon artist/magician entertained children, and of course there were apples to pick and eat. It was a chance for parents to have one more family fun event before school begins.

Getting ready to attend grade school was one of the great pleasures of life. Each fall began with friends, new clothes, new pencils, and lined, blank sheets of paper. I needed new clothes after growing out of mine. I was first born, so no hand-me-downs. The sensation of hope and opportunity to begin anew is memorable, unlike anything I experience these days. It was something. I hope today’s graders feel the same way.

A Dad walked into the sales barn at the orchard carrying a young child on a backpack and a two-year old on his shoulders. He looked very fit. After they picked apples the toddler helped me transfer apples from our basket to a bag. “Do you want to count them?” I asked. At two, children aren’t really sure what counting is, or how exactly to do it. He just pick up one apple after another and let me do the counting after one and two.

I can see why people return to work after retirement. When we’ve worked our whole lives in stressful situations there’s no slowing down. It will take work to settle in more comfortably after 50 years in the workforce. What I once thought were extra things — cooking, gardening, reading and writing — are now life’s main event. Not sure how I feel about that. I won’t be for a while.

August is the last month to cover editorial duties at Blog for Iowa. I’m not sure what will be next. We’re moving quickly through the procession of apples, Red Gravenstein, Sansa, Akane and Burgundy this week. We have family Friday events through the month of September, so with work at the home, farm and auto supply store time will fly — almost like I’m working again.

Not really. Living one day in society at a time as best I can, hopefully with enough money for seeds in the spring.

Kitchen Garden

Bowl of Summer – Cucumber Salad

Cucumber Salad

Cucumber salad is not even a recipe.

Peel them, slice and put them in a bowl. Add thinly sliced onions, extra virgin olive oil and your favorite vinegar, then salt and pepper to taste.

Mix gently then serve. It’s summer in a bowl.

When the garden produces them, we eat a lot of cucumber salads. This year I mastered the art of cucumber growing with a couple of simple things. First, I mulched as soon as I planted the seedlings. Then, I made sure deer had no access to the plants. I also put up cages and a fence for the vines to grow upward. The result has been abundant.

Other than in pickles, cucumbers don’t preserve well. They must be enjoyed in the moment, and sometimes that’s as good as it gets.

Kitchen Garden

Going Without a Share

Fermented Dill Pickles

The change in our local food ecosystem from last summer to this is hard to fathom.

We let go of the summer share from the Community Supported Agriculture projects to rely on our garden.

It was a big step and I feel much less stress from over abundance. Some days I’d like more lettuce, and some of the specialty crops, but there is plenty from our garden to fill the gap. Now that tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant and peppers are beginning to come in, I don’t forecast any gaps.

What is hard to fathom is why the transition has been so easy. Maybe I’m getting to be a better gardener. Maybe I was due to go on my own.

Tornadoes tore through Marshalltown, Pella and Bondurant yesterday as I got off work at the home, farm and auto supply store. It doesn’t appear anyone was seriously injured or died, although damage to the communities was substantial. Photos and video posted on social media depicted a horrible scene. The Marshalltown Times-Republican newspaper got an issue out the next day despite the storm — practicing journalists they are.

Are these storms due to climate change? I don’t know. What I do know is the seasons are out of wack. A late spring, early high ambient temperatures, and more frequent storms make our climate exceedingly weird. We adjust, accommodate, but something’s different.

Ben Santer, an atmospheric scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, led a study of four decades of climate data that concluded human activity is disrupting our seasonal balance. That is, the seasons don’t proceed through time the way they did. It may be confirmation bias, but I doubt it. Eric Roston at Bloomberg wrote a more accessible article about the study here.

In the kitchen it’s cucumber day! A batch is sweating over a bowl and the crock is full of sweet pickles to be water bath processed tomorrow. The dill pickles in the photo took 13 days to ferment. It was worth every minute.

Kitchen Garden

Summer Harvest – 2018

Cart of Kale

It has already been a good year for our garden. We’re just getting started.

Yesterday I picked first broccoli, along with cucumbers and cilantro. The ice box is jammed with garlic scapes, greens, beets, turnips, lettuce, sugar snap peas, celery, herbs and much more.

Yet to come are pears, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, zucchini, and lots more. The challenge becomes figuring out what to do with the abundance through cooking, preserving and giving it away. It’s a nice challenge to face.

For dinner I made a simple salad with oddly shaped cucumbers from the garden. The recipe is easy: peel and chop cucumbers from the garden, four small ones; one cup Greek yogurt; two teaspoons finely chopped fresh dill; salt and pepper to taste. Combine ingredients in a mixing bowl and gently stir until fully incorporated. Refrigerate until dinner time. Served with a simple pasta dish, the flavor was excellent, the meal satisfying — perfect summer fare.

Our news is we found a plumber who fixed our ailing kitchen faucet. After 25 years of normal use the brass ring where the lever hooks to the valve had worn out and we couldn’t draw water. I examined the problem in the morning and determined since the pipes were soldered together, fixing it was beyond my skill level. I made three calls before getting a live person on the telephone. The plumber arrived within a couple of hours.

“As long as there is indoor plumbing there will be work for plumbers like me,” he said.

Once the repair was completed, we admired the new faucet… for more than a little while. It’s small things like running water in the kitchen that make our lives better. A brief interruption in service brought with it an appreciation of things we take for granted.

It rained overnight, vindicating my decision not to water the garden last night. Rain nourishes the landscape and can wash away our problems if we’ll let it. Knowing how to go with the flow of rainfall can be a source of constant joy.

Home Life Kitchen Garden

Garden Update July 2013

Brussels Sprouts
Brussels Sprouts

LAKE MACBRIDE— The summer weather has been as good as it gets, a reminder of what it was like as a child, with endless days to play in the sunlight, safe and without worry. This summer has been unforgettable. Besides the weather, it has been a different and somewhat tribal life after turning to those with whom we live out our lives in the neighborhood.

A quick garden update. Removing the green caterpillars with a medical grade forceps did the trick of removing the pest, and the new leaves are growing bug free. The white butterflies are around, so there may be more, and I lost one plant, but the new growth looks great.

Cucumber Seedlings
Cucumber Seedlings

Today, I harvested the rest of the green beans, composted the plants, and planted a row of cucumbers from seedlings. I planted the seed in pots on July 13, so they are two weeks from seed to seedling. The benefit of growing them this way is with the wet root ball, they can tolerate diverse conditions better to get off to a good start in the ground. They bring their own moisture with them to the initial planting. I watered them well and mulched. With my newly developed pickle addiction, I may plant more before summer is gone. There were some seedlings leftover from planting a row, so maybe next weekend.

Three Rows of Lettuce
Three Rows of Lettuce

The current crop of lettuce is suffering. Not from the heat, or lack of water, but from disappearing. There used to be three full rows here, and some plants are missing. Not sure what is the pest, but it seems doubtful deer are jumping the fence as there are no deer footprints inside. Perhaps a rabbit, or something else. Whatever is left, will be enjoyed by the humans. The leaves are big enough to pick, so when I return from my trip, we’ll bring some in for a tasting.

Green Tomatoes
Green Tomatoes

Finally, the tomatoes are maturing and three varieties have begun to ripen: two cherry tomatoes and Roma. Tomatoes have been the continuous crop in our garden, since the first duplex where we lived after our wedding ceremony. Perhaps there was a gap in Cedar Rapids, but not much of one. This year’s crop was the first I planted as seeds, and based on the results, I’ll do that next year as well.

Roma Tomatoes
Roma Tomatoes

The primary concern this year is to finish processing tomatoes before the apples come in. There are a lot of apples. I know what I want from the tomatoes: 12 quarts and 12 pints of tomato sauce, the leftover juice, 24 pints of diced tomatoes, and maybe a dozen pints of hot sauce using the cayenne and jalapeno peppers. Knowing how to approach it is half the battle.

Tonight for dinner, I made a pizza. Thin, wheat crust with tomato sauce I canned in 2011 mixed with fresh basil and salt. Toppings were half an onion from the CSA, thinly sliced zucchini, diced green peppers, sliced green olives with pimiento, halved cherry tomatoes and 6 ounces of mozzarella cheese. It is out of the oven, so I had better go sample.


Anaheim Peppers and the Cucumber Plants

Lake Macbride
Lake Macbride

LAKE MACBRIDE— The advantage of a kitchen garden is when a cook needs something, it is a short walk to the food supply… and it’s ultra-fresh. While making red beans and rice for lunch, I remembered there were large Anaheim peppers in the garden so I went to pick a couple to dice and add to the dish. While there, the cucumber plants were droopy, meaning they wanted water in the hot sun. My policy is watering cucumbers and squash twice a day is all I’m willing to do. If they can’t make it here on that— well tough toenails.

Perhaps it’s a little harsh, but drought is an ever-present reality in Iowa. The pattern of average annual rainfall makes it possible to grow crops in abundance without extensive irrigation like they have on Nebraska’s Ogallala Aquifer. It’s part of what makes Iowa Iowa, but that may be changing.

While early summer has been as good as it gets, we need rain now. The few extra gallons I may sprinkle on squash and cucumber plants will not deplete the Silurian aquifer, yet frugal dispensation of water is one way I am adapting to climate change. The county actually studied the aquifer and found there is plenty of water to meet current and future needs.

There have been and will be plenty of cucumbers. I started my third fermentation of dill pickles this morning, and yesterday planted new cucumber seeds in trays for the fall harvest. Schedule permitting, I’ll plant a couple more rows directly in the garden as July wanes. These actions, with a supply from the CSA, and there is no need to preserve the current cucumber plants by abnormal watering. In any case, they still might make it.

Black Raspberries
Black Raspberries

It has been a busy day in the kitchen. In addition to dill pickles and red beans and rice, half of the black raspberries were made into a thick dark syrup to use on biscuits, toast, pancakes and other applications. If I had pectin on hand, I would have made jelly. The syrup is so good and can be used in other applications, so the pectin was not missed.

One other item for my wheat-free friends. We had a pint of pasta sauce on hand, and instead of pasta, I got out the mandolin, purchased for a buck at a household auction, and using the finest blade, cut a long yellow squash and zucchini into “noodles.” I brought a pot of water up to a boil, cooked them four minutes and served like pasta. Very tasty and gluten free. Also one more thing to do with the abundance of squash.

Now off to the kitchen for the perpetual cleaning up.