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Monday, November 19, 2012

Pumpkins and Pies…’Tis the Season…

cheese pumpkinsThe other day I wished our bank manager “Happy Thanksgiving,”a pleasantry which prompted her to share the fact that this year she and her husband decided to scale back their holiday fare. “Just the two us this year,” she said. “No fancy trimmings or anything like that.” “No turkey?” I exclaimed. “Oh, we’ll have turkey,” she reassured me, “but we’re keeping it simple.” “Certainly you’ll have pumpkin pie, though?” She smiled, “Oh, you have to have pumpkin pie!”Yes, you do, and I started preparations for this year’s Thanksgiving pie…well, about this time last year.

We are big on tradition in our household, and I can’t remember the last time we purchased store-bought pumpkin in the can. Pumpkins are easy to grow; it’s a poor gardener who can’t grow a few: two or three plants will easily yield ten of the big globes. A few for Halloween display, a grinning  jack-o-lantern or two, and the extras just sit out there in the patch twiddling their thumbs. It’s one of these leftovers we choose for our holiday pies. However, these are field pumpkins, the best kind for carving geometric grimaces intended to scare the little visitors who show up on your doorstep All Hallow’s Eve. Field pumpkins’ meat is stringy and coarse grained and must be pureed to prepare it for pie filling.

Again last fall we had an excess of pumpkin and so as not to let them go to waste, I thought I’d research some different fresh pumpkin recipes. As you might expect, pumpkin recipes abound on the Net: pie fillings, puddings, cookies, breads, soups…pumpkin sausage (?). Almost all of them called for “cheese pumpkin.” Huh? Cheese pumpkin? I’d never heard of such a thing. Back to the search mode for more information. Cheese pumpkins, I discovered, are a medium-sized, beige colored pumpkin noted for its high sugar content and fine-grained meat. Its name derives from its shape: flat and squat like a round of cheese. When the onslaught of seed catalogs started appearing in the mailbox, I excitedly turned to the squash pages hoping to find cheese pumpkin seed. Territorial Seed had what I was looking for: “Long Island Cheese Pumpkins.” Anxious to give this “exotic” variety a try, I ordered a seed packet and in the spring, I started a half dozen plants indoors.

My efforts paid off this fall when at the end of the season nine Long Island cheese pumpkins squatted  heavily out in the patch. Some, as promised, I gave away (I have friends who as I, are experimental gardeners, too).Cut the cheese pumpkin

In the past I have tried two methods of cooking pumpkin: baking and steaming. This year I selected a nice, ripe cheese pumpkin, halved and cored it, and steamed one half on the woodstove; the other I baked shell upwards on a rimmed cookie sheet for one hour at 350 degrees. Innards removed(The oven pumpkin half required an extra twenty minutes baking time.) Either way, the pumpkin is done when a sharp fork or knife slides easily through the skin. If you elect to bake your cheese pumpkin, you need to consider a couple of things: because of the sugar content, the rim of your pumpkin will caramelize and brown. I scrape this portion away, so there is some wastage. Also, I learned to my dismay that cheese pumpkins contain a lot of water and this surplus can’t be contained by a shallow-rimmed cookie sheet. I spent some valuable time sopping up and scrubbing the oven floor clean of scorched sugar water.

Steaming the pumpkin is perhaps the most efficient way of removing the meat from the shell. I’m not sure which method, baking or steaming, brings out more flavor, but the shell is all you have to discard if you steam the meat—and you won’t have to spend any time on your hands and knees with your head in the oven, either.cut to fit

When the pumpkin cools, scoop out the flesh and set it aside for pies, breads, cookies, soups…(sausage?).

One cheese pumpkin has already made its way into two pies and one tasty batch of pumpkin/raisin bread. The second is cooked up, pies pending. steamed









pie ready

I’ve always been one for innovation, especially where cuisine and the kitchen are concerned. This year’s Thanksgiving pumpkin pie is going to be “pumped up”: first of all, a cheese pumpkin for the new filling. Secondly, my “secret ingredient” this year comes from a tip I heard on the radio the other day. We did our Thanksgiving meal shopping today, and one of the items on the list was ginger snaps. Yes, the cookies. The tip? Crush a few ginger snaps and sprinkle them on top of the pie crust before you ladle in the filling.

Not in the least do I mind sharing this secret with you—especially since I’ve yet to try it; however, here are a couple more tips (perhaps you know them already):

1. A filling-topped crust tends to slop over when you slide the oven rack into place. For a clean piecrust,  pour only two-thirds of the filling into the crust before you place the pie on the oven rack. Pour the remainder into a smaller container. Once the pie is in the oven, finish topping it off with the rest of the filling.

2. Oh…and whatever number of eggs the recipe calls for, always add one extra. Your guests will thank you for the surplus.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Strange Death in the Valley…

before the stormThere is special providence in the fall of a sparrow.

Hamlet, V, ii, ll. 217-224

Does the same sentiment apply to crows I wonder…? I’ve seen some interesting things in the Valley, but yesterday the strangest thing happened….

The weatherman had predicted rain, snow, and wind for Thanksgiving week. Not one of those weather conditions bodes well for an old gent on a vintage Columbia bicycle. It would have been wiser, I suppose, to have stayed warm and dry by the woodstove and though a pile of thick, gray clouds marched along the southwest skyline, I thought I might be able to ride the Loop before the weatherman made good his prediction.

No such luck. As I rounded the corner on the Lower Loop road, the wind and rain struck. Then it was a struggle to sustain forward progress. To turn back would be to admit defeat, so I continued  chugging along with the consoling thought the return trip would be a “breeze.”

Sure enough Gladys got her second wind on the upper Loop road. We were spinning along quite handsomely, the spinnaker effect, as I call it, in overdrive. In no time at all we were rolling up on the Tualco Grange. It was then I saw a flash of black plummet from the top of the big maple tree that guards the southwest corner of Grange. A piece of shingle  lifting off the roof, I wondered? No, too black for that, blacker than a square of tar paper. There’s only one thing in the Valley that presents that color of black: a crow. “Ah,” I thought, “it’s swooped down to scavenge in the fallen leaves.” If so, it would be a swoop for naught: Gladys was sure to ting-a-ling the black forager quickly into flight.

The fallen object was sure enough a crow. But it didn’t take flight, nor would it ever again. I couldn’t believe my eyes. A crow falls out of a tree right before me and hits the ground dead. I continued on for a hundred feet or so, bewildered, I guess, by the weirdness of the event, bizarre enough I had to turn around and investigate.

The crow lay there, a sorry black heap among the fallen leaves. Its right wing was splayed out as if it were an arm in the air requesting permission to ask a question. Left wing folded against its flank. The crow’s beak, stout as a stick, was mud-covered at its tip—some recent probing obviously. Eye closed in death. My thought was it had died in the top of the tree, stuck there, and a gust of wind brought it down just as I was approaching. I lifted the splayed wing and the crow’s head lolled about; rigor hadn’t yet set in; time of death…just now, before my eyes?

By this time I was rain-soaked; yet I gave the fallen bird a superficial necropsy. The chest feathers were matted; the deceased had most certainly sustained some kind of physical trauma recently, a chest wound of some sort, it appeared. The wound seemed to have healed, though, scarred over, and the muddy beak showed that in spite of its injury the crow had been foraging. My preliminary finding pointed to homicidal violence most likely perpetrated by duck hunters.

Crows abound in the Valley. Flocks of them. Not a visit goes by I don’t see them but to have one fall stone dead nearly at one’s feet is very strange indeed.  As I continued on down the road, swept along by the wind, I couldn’t help think of John Ciardi’s poem “About Crows”:

The old crow is getting slow;

The young crow is not.

Of what the the young crow does not know of

The old crow knows a lot.


At knowing things, the old crow is still

The young crow’s master.

What does the old crow not know?

How to go faster.


The young crow flies above, below, and rings

Around the old crow.

What does the fast, young crow not know?


And what else does the old crow know?  I guess when  it’s TIME to go.crow no more

Friday, November 16, 2012

An Old-Fashioned Promise of the Unspoken Kind…

A Nov DayToday Gladys and I were weaving our way through a light rain, about to negotiate the corner by Van Hulles. The whine of a commercial jetliner caught my attention, and I watched it cruise along just below the cloud cover, its tail fin scraping the under belly of the overcast. Soon I was lost in a cloud reverie, pondering the strange way today’s clouds resembled the small pouches similar to the ones gravity shapes beneath your eyes. Two sharp honks behind me shatter my cloud fixation. Some rude driver, I fumed, having to wait for the two old timers to round the bend, impatient to burst free and speed on down the road.

I round the corner and am jarred by two more honks. To my surprise a small white box truck slowly pulls alongside and I recognize the driver. She smiles, gestures ahead, turns into Bert Frohning’s driveway, and I know what’s going to happen next.

Last summer The Ripple posted about the dahlia plots out in the Valley and a certain fiery dahlia I coveted (“Lusting in the Valley…,” 8/27/2010). I memorized the row in which that variety grew. In October when the young Asian woman who gardens the patch was digging the tubers for storage, I happened by and asked if she’d share a tuber or two from the row. She kindly gave me a bucketful of tubers and this summer that burst of flame kindled in my dahlia patch. By way of thanks I gave her a bottle of Valley knotweed honey.

This summer another dahlia in her patch caught my attention, a spidery sunburst blossom of “dinner plate” size, a blaze of red ringed the perimeter, a globe of yellow exploded at the center. The next time I saw the little gardener, I asked her if we could do another exchange this fall. “You show me, “ she said. I pointed and she nodded her head. That was that until a month ago when I noticed the entire patch had been dug.  Ah, disappointment. “No dahlia this year,” I lamented.

Two weeks later out in the Valley I see the little white box truck parked by the flower patch and I ride up on the lady gardener. “I guess I’m too late for the dahlia tubers, then?” I ask.  She thinks for a moment and replies she has them all in storage but will bring some the next day. She is planting spring bulbs, tulips,  hundreds of them, thousands maybe. A half dozen bins of spring bulbs are perched on the tailgate (“two, three thousand dollar.” She nods toward the bins. thirty-five of them she’ll plant, she tells me).

That afternoon I dig two mounds of dahlias and separate some of the tubers I’ve promised her in exchange, and a little after ten the next day I drive out in the Valley. Sure enough there’s the little white truck and the little Asian lady hunkered down over a rill planting one tulip bulb after another. She looks up as I approach. When she sees the plastic bags I’m carrying, an embarrassed look crosses her face…my dahlias are in storage; she has forgotten them. “You be home tonight, five, six? I bring.” “Will you be here tomorrow?” I ask. She nods, “You come at ten.” I give her her tubers and a jar of Tualco Valley wildflower honey, this summer’s vintage, my gesture of thanks.

The next day I’m out in the Valley at ten. No little white truck. No little gardener. The tulip rills appear mounded over. Looks like the planting is completed. I return the day after and once more the patch is vacant. “Well, that’s that,” I tell myself. “I won’t see her again this year.” My efforts for a mutual exchange appear to have been for naught. But there’s just something about the young woman that makes me trust I’ll get my dahlias; she won’t…wouldn’t let me down, would she? Could she…? As the days passed, I checked the front porch every day thinking perhaps a bag of tubers would be on the doorstep. Nothing. After a while I stopped looking altogether.

The young woman steps out of the cab.“I have them now,” she smiles as Gladys and I roll to a stop behind the truck. She swings up the rolling door, reaches in, grabs a plastic bag and hands it to me. I look inside and a dozen plump tubers stare back. She has been carrying my dahlias with her all this time.

You know, in the scheme of earth shattering events, our little exchange wasn’t much; the larger schemes of things beyond our control we wisely let go—or should. What’s the use…let others tilt at windmills. Her dahlias for mine: there was no handshake, no contract signed in the presence of lawyers, no promises made. We are of different cultures, Va and I: she, Asian, me, Irish; yet it was a tacit agreement between us; across the cultural divide we shared a common value, one good turn for another. A favor for a favor.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Principled Science of Road Kill…

Darrell into heavy metalsWalking home from the Valley the other day on the shoulder by Swiss Hall I found a quarter. Tails, it was, as if I’d won the toss…someone’s portfolio twenty-five cents less…my gain, their loss. How it got there is anyone’s guess, rolled off the fiscal cliff, perhaps. In case you’re puzzling over the title of this post, I’d better explain.

One of The Ripple’s first posts entertained the idea of  road kill, not the dead skunk in the middle of the road/dead ‘possum variety (that’s “road pizza,” isn’t it?), but the numismatic kind: the gathering and collecting of lost coins. In that post (“Three Penny Walk,” 2/27/2010 ) I hinted I might treat the subject at a later date, and The Ripple always makes good on its promise. Here’s where you get your two-bits worth out of that quarter.

Years ago about town I would see an elderly gentleman groping the coin return cups in the local phone booths. He would move from one booth to the other fishing for any change a previous caller had forgotten to collect. These were pre-lottery days in Washington State and no doubt this was the old fellow’s pastime. (I’m sure by now he’s been summoned by The Last Calling or I’d see him in front of the lotto kiosks caught up in a scratching frenzy. Besides, in this age of cells and I-Phones, the telephone booth is an endangered species.) The old guy, I’m sure, knew the location of every phone booth in town and like the postman, went on his rounds daily.

When I finally escaped from the world of work, I vowed three things: first, I’d not take up golf; next, I would not purchase a metal detector and cruise abandoned parking lots or sites where public gatherings were recently held; and third, I’d not become the old coin-pilfering fellow’s successor.

But I have scooped up considerable “coin” over the years.You might say, in fact, my vigilance for dropped, misplaced, lost coins borders on compulsion. Monetary “Road Kill,” I call it. My obsession grew during my teaching years when I would spot small change in the school hallway from time to time. By the time I left the profession, I had gathered enough loose/lost change to fill a pint jar. A penny found is a penny earned: nickels, dimes, quarters…so much the better. ( The Ripple’s “lost coin” post cited the  fact if it takes you longer than six seconds to snatch up a downed penny, you’re making less than minimum wage.) My quest for displaced coins prompted a thoughtful Christmas gift from my mom a few years back: a Mason half gallon canning jar, the glass the color of that antique bluish-green. I fitted the jar with a ring and seal into which I sliced a coin slot. My Road Kill jar, I call it, and over the years in my attempt to fill the jar, not only have I become accustomed to scanning the ground for coins, but I believe I have taken this pursuit to such a level I can truthfully call it a “Science,” The Science of Road Kill,” and I’m willing to pass it along to The Ripple’s readers:

Likely places to find coins…parking lots, of course: the expanse of territory makes for prime hunting ground because of the traffic that uses them daily. Where there are vehicles, there are drivers who fish their car keys from their pockets or purses and in the process spill out loose change. Shoppers seek parking spots closest to the store and most coins will be lost in this area, roughly the top third of the lot: the farther from the store, the less the likelihood of finding downed change. There’s an exception, though, to the coins/proximity to store ratio: handicapped parking spaces;  I can’t recall finding coins in a handicapped spot because those parking spots experience much less traffic than the parking lot proper. Also, the smaller the parking lot, the less chance one will find coins. Note: park across the lot from where you wish to shop, especially in the mornings when the sun glints off the surface of  lost coins. Besides, striding through empty parking spots means extra exercise: no RK coinage, after all, will replace your health.

Gas stations. Until Prius, Smart Car, and electric vehicles are the rule, gas stations will be high traffic areas. Again, drivers fumbling for keys proliferate coin spillage. Gas station/convenience stores double your chances…two parking areas in one!

Vending machines. Many require change, so some is bound to slip through the fingers of the customer. Check the ground around the outdoor soft drink stations, especially in summer. Supermarket change stations. Because of the frequent exchange of cash, coins often end up on the floor in these aisles. Customers in a hurry scoop their change from the coin returns and disregard the occasional coin that slips to the floor. (An observation: it’s surprising how many people won’t bother to stoop and retrieve a lost coin.) Coin Star kiosks (not all the change dumped into the machine rattles through  its works; every so often a coin or two ricochets off the hopper). And not all the change makes it into the tip jar at Starbuck’s either.

Out and about. It’s surprising how many coins end up alongside the road. Years ago I visited a friend in Hayden Lake, Idaho, and spent a couple of nights in a motel in Coeur d’alene.  On an early morning walk, I found nearly a pocketful of change in the gutter along my route. Pennies, I suspect, some people just toss from their cars to rid themselves of  the weight. Discarded nickels, dimes, quarters, have me perplexed: would you discard your change  just to save the fabric of your jeans?

All sciences need an ethical balance, and this is true of the Science of Road Kill. Just what qualifies as “road kill?” My general definition is any coin that finds its way to the ground, floor, or in the case of my quarter, on the shoulder of the road and lies there cold. It is poor form to scoop up a rolling coin (unless it has escaped your grasp). Change in coin returns is Not the ground; the coins absentmindedly left in the return receptacle by the customer ahead of you, leave them for the clerk or deposit them (conspicuously, if possible) in the charity jar on the checkout counter. In the  pure Science of Road Kill you let the coins find you, not the other way around—certainly not by scouting every change receptacle in town. And if for some unknown reason you feel inclined to tack back and forth across parking lots with a metal wand in your hand—especially if you’re a man my age—please do it under cover of darkness. Now young Darrell, pictured above,  in this era of weak economy, gets a pass from The Ripple.

Then there’s the currency RK…you find it, too. What dollar denomination goes beyond the ethics of RK? A dollar bill, a fiver, a ten spot, a “Jackson?” Where do you draw the line? Years ago I found a twenty dollar bill in a bank parking lot. In those days, before twenties spent like fives as they do nowadays, a twenty to most people was a considerable sum of money.  Obviously, a bank customer had lost the bill.“The right thing to do,” I thought, “is turn the money in to the bank manager.” The manager thanked me, put the money in an envelope, wrote my name on it, and said if no one claimed the bill in a month, it was mine to keep. (I believe I ended up with the money.)  Half a dozen years ago I found another twenty dollar bill in a mall parking lot. A dozen or so businesses occupied the mall and trying to find which shopper might  have lost the bill seemed futile. “Legitimate RK,” I told myself as I pocketed the money; the bill, now buried under several layers of change, still nestles in the half gallon jar of RK. I have yet to find a bill larger than a twenty, so  I’ve not had to reexamine my RK ethics (excepting the $1,500 I found in the Valley April 1, April before last.)

Now say you’re a disciple of the Science of RK but a timid and self-conscious one. You’re in the checkout line. Your hypersensitive coin radar goes off. There’s a coin, a penny (not shiny, but drab), nearly trod upon by the customer checking out ahead of you. An abandoned coin…ON THE FLOOR and well within the ethical parameters of RK; however, there are three people behind you. If you stoop for the likes of a penny, all three, including the clerk about to wait on you, will see you bend and scoop up the coin. What will they see, you fear? That same old scrounger going from phone booth to phone booth fisting out change. Even though the author Annie Dillard said she’d hate to meet a man who wouldn’t stoop to pick up a penny, you feel their gaze on you, impressions whirling around in their heads. I have the answer—a Science of RK solution. As the two feet straddling your prize shuffle off, step forward, take your car keys from your pocket, and “accidentally” drop them next to the downed penny of your desire, and in one deft swoop retrieve keys and the coin simultaneously. Who, after all, hasn’t accidentally dropped his car keys? Instant empathy—and you are one penny richer!

I weighed my RK jar the other day and it tipped the scales at 16.4 pounds. The pile of change is now level with the neck of the bottle; add a few more coins and they’ll no longer drop through the slit in the lid. Back to the quarter I slipped into the RK  jar. It was one of the state quarters, those coins the U.S. Treasury designates “collectible” so Americans will save more money. Mine was a 2000 New Hampshire quarter, abused and abraded by vehicle tires, as most RK is. The New Hampshire “Live Free or Die” quarter may very well prove to be the most collectible of all the state quarters because of the geologic formation featured on the reverse of the coin. “The Old Man of the Mountain,” a  famous New Hampshire landmark on Profile Mountain, slid off the cliff May 3, 2003, and no facelift will be able to restore it.N.H. State quarter

At this point you may feel you’ve gotten too much for your two-bits, so I’ll wrap up my RK post with one last anecdote: this one tinged with a little irony. Three years ago a stray cat showed up on our neighbor’s porch and in keeping with her love of animals, she set out a bowl of milk and dish of cat food and that sealed the deal. The cat was jet black. “Midnight,” our neighbor named him. For a year Midnight was a regular on our properties…main courses on the neighbor’s porch, appetizers at our bird feeding station. One morning as I was leaving the driveway, I saw a black mound on the fog line in the northbound lane of SR 203 and decided to investigate. The mound was Midnight, of course, lying just three feet away from the safety of the shoulder, a whole new world to explore just one yard away. I thought I’d spare my neighbor the grisly sight—certain sure she would see the cat when she left her driveway—of what once was Midnight sadly now was road kill. I lifted the cat’s  mangled body from the pavement, carried it down the bank, and gently lofted his carcass into a thick covert of blackberries to his final resting place. Now here’s the irony: on my way up the bank I discovered a damp ten dollar bill lying  in the weeds—Road Kill.

Whoever said a black cat brings bad luck.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Wind Walking…

The Valley after cornIf there’s one thing Gladys hates, it’s wind. Even in the slightest breeze she balks, has trouble tracking straight, does her best to come to a halt and leave me stranded. On the days a fall wind slices across the Valley, Gladys is best left behind in the garage. I’ve left her there today and am now on foot leaning into the gusts. I’ve switched my ball cap backwards so it won’t kite off my head and sail out into a berry or cornfield. A school bus heads my way and before it passes, I’m tempted to spin my hat bill forward so I won’t be mistaken for some truant high school kid though there’s hardly any danger of that happening.

As I try to keep my hat from parting company with my head, I’m reminded of Dickens’ novel The Pickwick Papers and a passage in which the narrator discusses the indignity of a gust of wind separating a man from his headgear:

There are very few moments in a man’s existence when he experiences so much ludicrous distress, or meets with so little charitable commiseration, as when he is in pursuit of his own hat. A vast deal of coolness, and a peculiar degree of judgment are requisite in catching a hat. A man must not be too precipitate, or he runs over it; he must not rush into the opposite extreme, or he loses it altogether. The best way is, to keep gently up with the object of pursuit, be wary and cautious, to watch your opportunity well, get gradually before it, then make a rapid dive, seize it by the crown, and stick it firmly on your head: smiling pleasantly all the time, as if you thought it as good a joke as anybody else.

Certainly a man playing tag with a windblown hat—or a windblown anything for that matter—is cause for great hilarity to anyone looking on.

My age demographic is of special interest to the healthcare industry. At least once a month our healthcare group mails a pamphlet containing tips on things to do to keep one healthy and wise (note: I’ve omitted  “wealthy” from the familiar phrase; “wealthy” pertains only to the healthcare industry, not those requiring its service—especially once the service has been rendered). One of these glossies arrived just the other day encouraging those of my “demographic” to keep the ol’ body in motion—“exercise,” I believe  is what they called it. While touting exercise as beneficial to one’s physical health, our provider suggested a departure from the “fitness club” routine, the indoor churning away on a treadmill, inhaling the fumes of perspiration from the treaders to the left and right, a goulash of others'  bodily exhausts fouling the nostrils. The title of the piece, “Cold Weather Workouts,” proclaims: “Your body likes a change of pace; you have to increase your exercise pace to stay warm outside in cold weather; your mind could use some fun.” Take it outdoors,  the pamphlet suggests,  the fall winds may howl, the rains may pour in earnest, the chilly air pinch the nostrils…. Outdoor exposure not only offers a new view, a changing landscape to stimulate the senses (so different from the grip bars of an exercise torture machine… ): the sounds, smells, sights the Valley offers…the tread of feet on pavement and gravel.

So here I am, leaning into the Valley breeze (it’s exercise enough just to keep my hat on my head). Neal Peart in his memoir Ghost Rider recalled a moment from his youth when his mother, tired of her kids being underfoot, told him: “Son, go outside and blow some of the stink off you!” This day of wind I’m trying to do the same thing; however, sharing the Valley as I do with dairy cows, there’s the chance I might fail in this attempt, substitute one form of stink for another. But the Valley gulls are aloft, spinning in the currents, mewling with contentment, adrift on the wind. Grasses and trees bend in the wind. My footsteps patter the pavement, crunch the gravel. No grunting or groaning of flesh and muscle to my right, no clatter, clank or whirr of machinery to the left. I’m on my own in the Valley. I hear only what the wind wants me to hear. No walls hem me in, only Valley fields. No ceiling, just the clouds scudding overhead, both of us bound in fealty to the wind. Wind walking….

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Walls Do not a Prison Make, Nor Iron Bars a Cage…

In lockup“The Prisoner of Chillon,”  George Gordon Lord Byron

Tell that to a pumpkin, squash, gourd,  shock of corn, or apple residing at Kurt’s Vegetable Stand these days. Yes, this fall Kurt’s  produce stand looks like a minimum security prison, fruit and vegetables incarcerated like felons. Felonious vegetables? A pumpkin that grew lopsided? A squash that suffered a moral lapse and committed a little cross-pollination with the pumpkin next door? Or a  trespassing gourd, perhaps, snaking its way into the corn patch, the corn filing a formal complaint? I guess I’ll have to read the police reports for the particulars.

This time of the year it’s switch out the summer begonia pots in the entryway for  fall chrysanthemums. Add A few corn stalks from the garden. Tangle in a few strands of faux leaves from Ben Franklin’s crafts department. Select a nice garden pumpkin, a squash or two—different colors and varieties for contrast. Round off the display with a few strange and exotic gourds. And for the gourds I always head for Kurt’s stand.

Gourd season pretty much marks the tail end of  local produce sales. As Halloween approaches and folks have rounded up their pumpkins, Kurt’s customers dwindle and there’s no need for the staff to man the scales, take the money, return the change. All the years I’ve sought gourds at Kurt’s, I’ve been able to select a variety from a vegetable bin right out there in the open. Usually there’s nobody around to take my cash, so I slip a fiver in the iron pipe Kurt has customized for payment by the honor system. I always try to leave more than I think my produce is worth just as I do when I pay Kurt’s employees. “Keep the change,” I say. Or I’ll  pay a couple dollars more for whatever produce (usually garlic or dill) I select. It’s not that I’m particularly generous; when I hand over the cash at Freddies or Safeway, I pay my bill and not one penny more. Kurt’s Vegetable Stand is a Valley institution in my opinion and there’s nothing like being able to select produce from the Valley, fresh, usually picked that morning. Anyone who knows Kurt understands  he and his staff work very hard for their money, and it’s worth it to me to pay a little extra just to keep an institution that provides a Valley service up and running. “You work hard for your money,” I tell them when I part with a little extra cash.

The last couple of weeks it seems every time I drove by, Kurt’s was abandoned, the customer separated by lock and key and strong wire.  As usual when our fall display went up, I made a trip to Kurt’s for our gourd complements. The gourds were there, an entire bin of them, held prisoner along with their squash and pumpkin cousins. I waited a while, looked around for the prison guards, but the only sign of life was a motion sensor spotlight that winked on and off whenever I shifted position. I returned home ten minutes later empty handed and a little glum. We finished out the display with a few winter squash in various stages of maturity from our own garden.seasonal display

On the way home from town the very next day I passed the vegetable stand. Parked in the driveway was Kurt’s Valley brown Ford Taurus (with its distinct red side mirror, passenger side). The wire webbed entry gate, I noticed, was swung wide open. “Wonder what Kurt has to say about all the new security?” I thought, quickly unloaded the groceries and headed back down to hear his side of the story.

No Kurt when I returned, but the stand was open—or so the sign read; however, not a soul in sight, except the gourds, pumpkins, and squash and they looked nervous. Just as I was about to take my leave, Rosario, Kurt’s second in command, appeared from the jumble of the place. I greeted her and gestured to the wire enclosure. “You no like?” she asked. I shook my head. Rosario and the English Language are still becoming acquainted, so I’ll pass along what I gleaned from our conversation. The sum of the situation is this: the cash receipts lately don’t seem to match the inventory leaving the stand. More the issue: after years—decades, even—it seems the honor system has been dishonored and is honored no longer at Kurt’s. Nightly Rosario had to haul the produce into the stand’s office which had a locked door. Locking up the vegetables before closing the stand every day was a tiresome inconvenience. Besides the little office couldn’t accommodate all the inventory. In her halting English Rosario lamented that certain caches of vegetables just seemed to disappear. Some of her beautiful hanging baskets vanished, too. Last Christmas, she told me, a large wreath went missing—all unpaid for. Thus the wire citadel now surrounding the stand.secured

Doing business with the little fortress was just an inconvenience for me, but the stand is Rosario’s livelihood, and to think that there are thieves taking advantage of Kurt’s time honored honor system is downright disheartening. Thievery itself is bad enough because of the theft, but when it affects the honest customers who have patronized Kurt’s stand for years and makes doing business there an inconvenience, the thieves have won a double victory. And there’s the uneasiness of doing business with a merchant whose trust has been somehow compromised; you yourself feel under suspicion when you’re on the premises. Yet again the honest are victimized. 

Whenever I pass by the hodge-podge that is Kurt’s Vegetable Stand these days, it’s with a tinge of sadness. Sadness because of change. Sadness because with a little bit of wire fencing, the Valley seems to have shifted a bit. Sadness because just one more thing has been locked up, lost its freedom. And mild irritation that no one has yet thought to post visiting hours. wired in