Recently, I have been reintroduced to wanting mind. You know, the voice in your head that says life would be glorious if the day were sunnier, if there were more space in the freezer, if he would call. Wanting mind is a tremendous source of suffering because when you are listening to its siren song that something different would be better you can miss the opportunities that surround you right now, at this moment. Wanting mind likes to whine about the small thing that it has focused on like a high-powered laser directed at a spot of brain cancer, but whereas the laser may do you good, wanting mind will not.
It does no good to whine about what you don’t have or what you wish you had, dreaming up imaginary improvements to the present moment. You can put those on the page or the easel: often I paint things to look better than they actually do: my favorite is inventing backgrounds so that I don’t have to paint the same walls and windows over and over — I create wallpaper, wooden counters, checkered floors never seen in my actual house. It is alright to imagine improvements that you can create, but it is better if they don’t depend upon the actions of others or require removal of reality: thirty years of wishing I did not have cerebral palsy did nothing to remove it; accepting that I have it has been much more helpful.
What could I find to want in the middle of glorious summer? The farmers markets are overflowing with peaches, corn, tomatoes, ripe strawberries, blueberries and blackberries. My beloved Gravenstein apples will come in in two or three weeks says the apple man. Frog Hollow Farm had a sale on “cosmetically challenged peaches” Saturday, three dollars a pound for organic gold, and I took home a big sack. Fresh green figs came in the Riverdog Farm box, along with tiny green beans, cucumbers, lettuce, the first orange cherry tomatoes, fresh basil. For breakfast this morning I could have peaches, ollalieberries, blueberries or all three.
So what am I complaining about? I’m not complaining, I’m making a point: humans can always find a way to wish something was different, whether it is the weather, the menu, the president. Corporations make it their business to supply us with everything we want, things we don’t want and things we hadn’t even thought of wanting. Do you want tomatoes in December? Someone will ship them across the world for you. They won’t taste good. They will vaguely resemble tomatoes. And then you will think what you need is fresh basil to go with them. But you don’t. What you need to do is wait for summer to taste the ripe, heirloom tomatoes on Deborah’s platter or pick them with Claire out of her allotment in England. Whenever summer comes where you live there will eventually be tomatoes and that is the time to eat them.
Seasonal eating is a voice speaking against the utterances of wanting mind. Seasonal eating tells you to go out and buy the peaches now because they will never get any better than on this July day in California. You eat them for breakfast with polenta cooked in milk and vanilla extract, sometimes a sprinkle of almonds. Seasonal eating says “Buy all of the ripe fruit you can eat — it’s better for you than other things, anyway.” The key is “ripe fruit,” whatever is coming off the trees and bushes in your neighborhood right now. If you are handy at preserving, you can buy extra and save some to freeze or can to tide you over in the winter months of potatoes, carrots, winter squashes and hardy greens. I always dry tomatoes. I never dry enough to last until the next tomato season, but I keep at it.
Two nights ago I took six bags of citrus peels from the freezer (We did need freezer room) and began the laborious process of scraping pith from them with a steak knife and a teaspoon. My hours of work will be rewarded with long-keeping candied peel from the lemons, oranges, limes and grapefruit we ate in the long winter months: the candied peel will enhance Christmas pfefferneusse, flavor muffins, serve as sweet snacks when this year’s peaches and berries are long-gone. This morning I took the thrice-boiled peels and scraped the white pith from them, watching the thin-bladed knife slide under the loose pith, left hand reaching into the pot for a new peel, right hand wielding the blade. And I realized I was out of time, that the only objects in the world were the citrus peels, the knife, the motion, the smell drifting up from the cutting board, that I no longer knowed or cared what time it was. This is the opposite of wanting mind and the cure: become absorbed in something simple.
The best way to make friends with seasonal eating is to visit farmers’ markets. Go every week for awhile to become familiar with what is in season now. Choose your foods and plan your menus around what is available. Or you can look for a CSA box, a community-supported agriculture program, that serves your area. For a flat fee, you get a box of fresh-picked produce each week, helping you to eat what is at its best now (My CSA also gives us some preserved things, precious bags of dried tomatoes and peaches during the winter or early spring).
Gardeners and farmers know that many things taste their best right out of the ground, warmed by the sun, eaten before the natural sugars can turn to starch. Nutritional studies now tell us that organically grown fresh-picked produce has more vitamins, minerals and micronutrients than produce that has been trucked across continents or oceans in refrigerated containers. Biting into just-picked local produce can even quell the wanting mind for a few minutes, stop it dead as it thinks instead “This is marvelous.” Unfortunately, its next thought will be, “How can I get more?”
Eating seasonally keeps me experiencing the pleasures that can be had on any given day. In the fall I might enjoy mushrooms. Every winter I make butternut squash soup with ginger. In the warm days of midsummer and early autumn I cannot eat enough Greek salads, enjoying the convergence of cucumbers, bell peppers and tomatoes. The first big treat of spring is strawberry shortcake. And we are all happier when we reach for the pleasures that we can have: when it is too cold to swim, light a fire and curl up with a book, bake some biscuits, make some gumbo, or get out a big pot and those citrus peels And when he is busy doing whatever he is doing it is a good time to pick up the guitar, the pen, the saucepan, the cookbook, the paintbrush — even the vacuum cleaner — and just do the next thing. He’ll call in his own time and the moment is about what to do when you feel that longing tugging at your sleeve.
Food Notes: As a bonus for soaking, scraping and boiling all of those peels, I got, besides the candied peel and the moments of peace, a lovely citrus-flavored simple syrup for cake, iced tea, baklava?
Painting Note: This week and last I have been participating in a new do-it-yourself artist residency, the Caerus Artist Residency, started by my friend Suzanne Edminster and her friend Karina Nishi Marcus. For a peek at my current sketchbook (including a slide show), please visit the Caerus blog.