Josna Rege

341. Unexpected Fruit

In 1970s, 2010s, Books, Family, Food, reflections, Stories on August 23, 2015 at 12:14 pm

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It was late August, 1990, when we moved to this house, with the schools poised to reopen after Labor Day and the cicadas in full-throated chorus every night. Soon afterwards Andrew dug up the twin nectarine trees from his parents’ old cabin on White Pond in Concord and transplanted them in our kitchen garden. This year, twenty-five years later, I am tasting the sweetness of their fruit for the first time.

One day, years before Nikhil was born, we opened a nectarine and found its seed sprouting, sending up not one, but two shoots. Although I can’t recall the details, I think Andrew half-immersed the split seed in a jar of water as one does an avocado pit (here’s a video on how one man did it). In any case, he nurtured the conjoined twins until they were old enough to separate very gently and plant in the soil. When the White Pond house was sold and its contents emptied, Andrew couldn’t bear to leave them behind; the twin nectarines and the two saplings we had planted for his Grandma Olga and Grandpa Victor: they all came with us, followed shortly thereafter by some honeysuckle from my parents’ house in Newton when that too was sold.

But not all transplants take, do they? Salman Rushdie showed us that in The Satanic Verses, when Gibreel Farishta careened into madness. Grandpa and Grandma’s saplings grew sickly and died, while the honeysuckle ran riot through the garden, choking everything in its path. Although the nectarines dug in tenaciously and managed to hold their ground, something wasn’t right. Perhaps their growth was stunted by the massive Norway spruce looming overhead, perhaps the soil wasn’t nourishing enough; in any case, they didn’t flourish. Eventually they started flowering in the spring and we celebrated the delicate pink blossoms, but come late summer the fruit was disappointing; either it fell off while it was still very small, or it was nibbled and knocked off by squirrels, or it was pockmarked and scabby. Andrew tried picking the fruits early, but the hard, tiny nectarines were too small to ripen. He tried making nectarine pickle as one would with green mangoes, but nobody much cared for it and it was more trouble than it was worth. The trees were weak—perhaps because their separation in infancy had left them inherently lopsided—and needed tethering and propping up. After a summer storm, one of them tipped over and started branching up from the ground again. We ought to have taken drastic action, but somehow we didn’t have the heart: besides memories, these were all we had left of White Pond.

But inexplicably, this year, a year of travel and transitions when the garden has received the least attention it has ever had, not only have both trees, even the broken one, flowered and set fruit, but the fruit has grown and stayed on the branches. The little nectarines are larger and healthier than I have ever seen them before, and there are so many of them that they are bowing the branches down with their weight. After all those failed attempts in past years I had given up on the fruit altogether, but just last week I took a closer look and found them filled out and beginning to blush. Sure, they weren’t going to win any prizes at the county fair: some of them were split open, others were oozing a strange gelatinous substance, and most of them were freckled and pimpled like teenagers; but they were healthy and definitely seemed to be maturing. I decided to pick a batch before the birds got to them and see if they would continue to ripen indoors.

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An old man I met in the supermarket had once advised me to ripen peaches at home in a brown paper bag, so I followed his instructions and set them aside for a few days. Yesterday, to my delight, I found that several of them had ripened successfully. They weren’t flawless, but after some trimming they yielded a small mound: slivers and slices of delectable pinky-orange nectarine.

Only twenty-five years later. I wonder why the nectarines came to fruition this year? Was their profusion was a desperate bid for survival due to our neglect, or did they simply need more time? I will never know. But it just goes to show: things may bear unexpected fruit, sometimes long after one has given up on them.

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340. Coastal Connections

In Family, Inter/Transnational, Nature, people, places, Stories, United States on August 2, 2015 at 11:07 am

Anna and I had managed to get away for three whole days and were finally on the road, heading up the Maine coast and on to Monhegan Island. We planned to spend a quiet overnight in New Harbor and to catch the first ferry out the next morning.

midcoastMap

Maine’s mid-coast region has a number of peninsulas that sprout from the mainland like fingers and reach towards the sea. Driving up from Portland we passed a succession of signs for small towns: Brunswick, Topsham, Bath, Boothbay Harbor, Wiscasset, Georgetown, Damariscotta, Pemaquid, all known and loved by my brother-in-law Charles, who had just died right here, much too young, after a long and painful illness. It felt strange for me to be in his old haunts, while he himself was gone. When he was with us, Charles almost never left Maine; he was ill at ease anywhere else.

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Passing through the little community of Bristol (formerly Pemaquid), only a mile from our destination, we noticed a handmade sign announcing an “Artisan’s Reception” in a barn next-door to a tiny public library. My sister-in-law Vera has worked in the Maine public library system for years, most recently in Brunswick’s Curtis Memorial Library and prior to that in the children’s room of Bath’s beautiful Patten Free Library. No doubt she knew the Bristol Area Library as well. We stopped on a whim, thinking to browse for a few minutes and perhaps buy a gift or two before checking in to our lodging and going out for dinner. But as it turned out, we were not to emerge until two hours later.

printed at Saturn Press, Swan's Island, ME

printed at Saturn Press, Swan’s Island, ME

We did browse the collection of handcrafted work by area artisans: weavings, pottery, fine printing, feltwork, handmade clothing. We bought letterpress-printed cards from Saturn Press on Swan’s Island, and I found a felt bird’s nest with two small felt eggs to go in it for my friend Cylla, whose two daughters had miraculously made her a double grandmother in the space of four days just the previous week. Then we moved outside to the generous reception in the garden, and a series of encounters that made me see why Charles and Vera loved this part of Maine so much.

We met a young dress designer whose clothes, we had been quietly telling each other, were outrageously expensive. But then we met her, modeling one of her creations beautifully, and so open and vulnerable as she spoke of her struggle to market her clothing. Her boyfriend was an artisan, too, she said, a skilled worker in metal and wood, who always sold himself short though he did wonderful work.

may-coverWe had a long talk with an earnest and articulate young writer and editor at Maine’s Down East magazine, who had recently relocated to the area from the Midwest with his wife and baby. He talked about the upcoming issue focusing on the islands of Maine, and said that they themselves had almost moved to Isle au Haut, which was encouraging couples with children or of childbearing age to “build a sustainable year-round population” and keep open the school, whose “enrollment ha[d] fallen to the single digits” (Town of Isle au Haut Comprehensive Plan). This story recalled my favorite Isle au Haut Lullaby, and also Two Thousand Acres of Sky a British television series I used to enjoy about an odd couple who did just that, moving from inner-city London to a tiny (and fictional) island in the Scottish Hebrides.

asian-university-for-womenBut for me, the most astounding encounter was with the young woman whose ancestral origins were here in Bristol, but who had been born and raised in Bangladesh. As we were talking to her, her mother came over and introduced herself, and we learned that she and her husband still lived and worked in Bangladesh, running a school for slum children and a music academy. When I told them that I had grown up in West Bengal, they began speaking to me in fluent Bangla—who would have thunk it, in the wilds of Maine? But that was not all; the daughter had just returned to Maine from a stint of teaching at the recently-established Asian University for Women in Chittagong, which I had intended to visit during my sabbatical last year, but had not managed to get to. She even knew my dear friend Sartaz’s sister, who is AUW’s Vice-Chancellor. We exchanged email addresses—we will surely reconnect—and I came away abuzz with energy and ideas.

When Vera first moved up to be with Charles—since Charles would never have dreamed of leaving Maine—she found it a cultural wilderness, without the diversity of the Boston area, whose universities draw so many international students. But after they married and she committed herself to the place, the region began to change, and she herself was probably one of the agents of that change. There was an active Japan Society in Portland, and she served on its board, helping to organize cultural events and hosting visitors from Japan. She promoted international education and awareness through her programming at the children’s library, and became deeply involved with a growing and multigenerational network of peace activists, many of whom lived spartan and sustainable lives in houses that they had built themselves. Charles and Vera themselves lived off the grid for several years on a tiny island, having to hike three-quarters of a mile to the cabin from their car in the winter, lighting the way with headlamps and carrying their groceries in backpacks.

The young editor told us that in the past couple of years the area had been experiencing something of a baby boom. As I cradled Cylla’s little felt nest in the palm of my hand I thought of Charles, with his deep respect for the land and tidal waterways preserving the best of the local traditions and of Vera, with her delight in international cultures teaching children and adults alike that nobody is an outsider. Their work and examples surely helped to make this cultural renaissance possible, and nurtured the loving community of friends who had stood vigil for peace at President Bush’s summer home in Kennebunkport and kept vigil at Charles bedside throughout the last weeks of his illness.

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In New Harbor that evening we lodged in an old house that had belonged to the proprietor’s great-grandparents and had fish stew for supper. As I lay in bed, I couldn’t fall asleep for some time; I was too wired. What connections we had made—and in a spot that didn’t even have cell phone or internet service.

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Rest In Peace, Charles King.
May Love comfort and sustain you, dear Vera.

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339. It’s the Way That You Do It

In Food, Media, Music, Stories on July 18, 2015 at 9:53 am
from Babies (2010)

from Babies (2010)

‘Tain’t What You Do
(It’s the Way That You Do It)
                                        sung here by Ella Fitzgerald (1939)

Of course the taste of our food is critically important to our enjoyment of it, but, as we all know, so is the texture; and it’s not only the texture, but the way we eat the food, and even the way we prepare to eat it, that makes all the difference.

Take bananas, for instance. There’s a scene in the documentary film, Babies (2010), in which a nearly-one-year-old baby takes great pride in peeling her first banana entirely on her own. What struck me as I watched it was the way that, after peeling back the skin strip by strip, she took hold of one of the stringy bits that run up and down the length of the banana (phloem bundles) and fastidiously picked that off as well. Mastery!

I had a similar thrill when I found out that a banana naturally splits in thirds lengthwise and learned how to do it. Preparing it this way changed my whole experience of eating it.

There are dozens of instructions and videos on the Internet describing and demonstrating different ways to peel a banana. Here’s one, and here’s another. Each of these is someone’s preferred method and gives that person his or her particular pleasure in the eating.

Just as the way that a person prepares to eat a particular food is unique, so is the way in which she eats it. It’s also a pleasure that is best experienced alone. When I eat a nearly-overripe mango by, first, rolling it around in my hands to pulp the flesh inside, then, making a hole at the top and, finally, squeezing and sucking out the sweet pulp, I don’t want anyone watching me while I commune with the essence of mango.

from leenaeats.com

from leenaeats.com

The last time I was in our family hometown of Ratnagiri with my son, he filmed our visit to the fish market. Later, when I watched the footage, I found that, while I had been watching my cousin bargaining with the canny fishwives, he had been filming a toothless old woman sucking the pulp out of a mango. She was thoroughly and unself-consciously enjoying the experience until she started to have a funny feeling that she was being watched. She kept pausing to look around suspiciously, then returning to her deliciously messy work, mango juice dribbling down her chin and an expression of bliss on her face. This part of the video became the most popular entertainment in the neighborhood for a couple of days, as all the children in the compound kept coming and asking to see it. I must say that I felt a little guilty at the pleasure that we all took from voyeuristically intruding on an experience that really ought to have been had completely alone, but told myself that it was a home video that would never be shown publicly.

In his youth my husband used to scoff at foodies (not that that term was yet in circulation), maintaining that he didn’t live to eat, but merely ate to live. However, the delight that he took in the art of opening a pomegranate belied his words.

We human beings are a ritualistic lot, however we may seek to deny it. A large part of our pleasure derives, not just from what we do, but the way that we do it.

(from jiminmontana.wordpress.com)

(from jiminmontana.wordpress.com)

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