For your enjoyment, here’s a short story I’d written a couple of years ago that was printed in Green Prints magazine. Jim and I were very, very green as far as gardening was concerned when we first started out. Maybe some of you can relate.
Get closer to the earth. That became our mantra when our first son was born.
We made rules—healthy, smart, earth-friendly rules. No more pesticide-laden food for us. Away with vegetables produced with slurries of artificial fertilizers. Bah to store-bought bread made from amber waves of grain, grown in fields of depleted soil. It was time to make changes—to live off the proverbial fat of the land.
With the baby settled in for an afternoon nap, Jim and I slipped out into the sunny backyard of our rented house in Ocala, Florida. Shovels in hand, we scoped out the best location for our vegetable garden and began the backbreaking task of clearing the sod and breaking up the virgin soil.
“June is kind of late for planting a garden, don’t y’all think?”
We uncoiled our spines, wiped the sweat from our brows, and turned toward the voice.
“I’m Lela Mitchell,” a small, elderly woman said. She jerked a thumb in the direction of the house behind us. “My husband Jack and I are your neighbors.”
Jim offered a dirt-crusted handshake and introduced himself. I stepped forward and did the same.
Hands clasped behind her back, Lela started a slow walk around the freshly dug perimeter of our hopes for a nutritious future. She stopped on the far side and cast a glance at us. “Where’re y’all from?”
I speared my shovel into the ground, laced my fingers, and hung my hands on the wooden handle in front of my chest. “Bronx, New York, originally.”
“Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. I see.” She gave a slight nod and sauntered onward until she came full-circle and stood before us.
“The ground ’round here is mostly sand. You’ll need to add some compost to the soil before y’all plant anything.”
Jim and I glanced at each other, then swiveled our heads to look once again at the old woman. “Compost?” We asked in unison.
Lela’s lips curled into a small smile. “Yes, compost. You know, a mixture of leaves, grass, vegetable and fruit peelings. It’s like magic fertilizer.”
Magic fertilizer of the organic kind—a dream come true. Excitement coursed through my urban, Yankee veins.
Our new neighbor stepped back and said, “Nice meetin’ y’all.”
The agricultural goddess turned and ambled across the yard toward her house. She climbed the wooden steps onto her back porch and vanished as the screen door creaked and closed behind her.
Jim wasted no time searching the shed for a suitable bucket. We put the washed and rinsed galvanized pail under the kitchen sink to use as a catchall for onionskins, eggshells, and potato peels—anything we could use in the garden. Every day for a week, we turned the soil and waited for the bucket to fill.
Late one Friday afternoon, I decided it was time to tackle the task of making bread for the first time in my life. I chose a recipe and assembled the ingredients: stoneground whole-wheat flour, sea salt, yeast, honey, water and a little oil. Simple enough.
I measured everything into a large bowl and mixed with a wooden spoon. Little by little, I added more flour, just as the recipe instructed. The dough started to come together and form a sticky lump. I consulted the book for the next step.
Turn dough onto floured surface and knead until smooth and satiny.
Knead? I flipped to the back of the book and looked for a glossary of terms. There wasn’t one. I was going to have to wing it and hope for the best.
I floured the counter and dumped the dough onto it. Fingers coiled, monster style, I pounced at the warm blob and clawed at it like a cat tearing the stuffing from the arm of a tweed sofa.
Jim came into the kitchen. “Whatcha doing, babe?”
“Kneading the dough, I think.”
His eyes lit up. “Can I try?” He washed his hands, and I moved out of the way.
“Hi-ya!” Jim started with a karate chop to the center of the dough. He pulled, stretched, and wadded the dough back into a ball before picking it up and body slamming it to the counter. Thwump. A poof of flour spread across the Formica surface like a dust storm in the desert. Nothing was safe. I figured I’d find flour in cracks and crevices for months to come.
I took over and folded the dough over itself a few times. Lo and behold, the surface took on a smooth, satiny sheen. With a satisfied grin, I greased a bowl, put the dough in it and draped a damp towel over the top.
“What’s next?” Jim asked.
I scissor-clapped the flour off my palms. “We let it rise until it doubles in bulk, punch it down and knead it one more time. After that, we put it in a bread pan, let it rise again, and then we bake it.”
An hour later, I took a peek under the towel. “Hey Jim,” I shouted across the house. “The dough’s doubled in bulk. Come take a look.”
Things were working out just as the recipe said it would.
I balled up my fist and punched the dough. We hung our heads over the bowl and took a deep whiff as the dough deflated. Noxious gas hissed into our faces. We jerked back and fanned our noses. Jim gagged and I thought he’d barf on the spot.
“Whew. That smells terrible,” he said. “I think it went bad.”
Jim picked up the bowl, held it at arm’s length and headed for the back door.
“Where are you going with that?” I asked.
He looked back. “It stinks. I’m going to bury it in the garden.”
I opened the cabinet and grabbed the bucket from under the sink. “Wait for me.”
In the soft glow of the evening sky, I held the smelly bowl while Jim dug a hole in the center of the garden area.
“Bombs away,” I said, and then dumped the doughy torpedo into the hole.
Jim covered it with dirt and stomped it down with his foot. For the next few moments we stood in the twilight with Jim’s arm around my shoulder, and mine around his waist. Before we turned to go, I handed him the bucket and he hauled back and broadcasted the contents into the garden.
Jim and I went inside and later went to bed, feeling much better with the putrid monster dead and buried.
The next morning we awoke to Lela’s voice, yelling outside in our yard. “Jaaaaack! Come out here. You gotta see this.”
We jumped out of bed and threw on some shorts and T-shirts. By the time we got outside, Jack Mitchell was standing in the middle of the garden, and with the toe of his shoe, was poking a mound of dirt that jiggled every time he touched it. “What do you reckon that is?” he asked, looking over his shoulder at Lela.
“I got no idea,” she answered. “You’re gonna have to ask the Bronx Farmers.”
Jim and I stood next to Lela.
“It’s bread dough,” I said. “We punched it down after it rose, and it stunk like crazy.”
Lela bent forward, slapped her thighs and burst into laughter. “It’s supposed to smell that way, silly.”
Banana peels hung over the white strings Jim had strung to mark the rows. Onion skins, eggshells, slimy tomatoes, and potato peels lay scattered about, making our little plot of earth look more like the city dump than the garden we’d envisioned.
Jack and Lela could barely stop laughing. But, when they did, they took us under their wings, overlooked our big city ways, and taught us the basics of gardening, including how to make a compost heap that would decompose into rich, fluffy material to add to the soil.
The only thing that grew in the garden that summer was friendship. But, it was nourishing, organic, and grown in the fertile soil of our hearts. And that, my friend, is the best fat of the land ever grown.
Copyright © 2016 Irene Onorato, all rights reserved.