At 2 a.m., my husband woke up yelling.
“What do you mean, the instruments aren’t running? What the hell happened?”
He sprung upright, cursed his (fantastic) intern, and made to get dressed.
“Jim, it’s over,” I soothed, trying to pull him back into bed without laughing. “It’s over. It’s done. Your experiment is done. You have data. You’re at home.”
It took a few minutes to convince him going back to bed was the best option.
This morning, he didn’t think it was quite as funny as I did. He reminded me that I’m normally the one who wakes up hawking jibberish. Last time it was something about sautéing the alphabet, which is a pretty accurate metaphor for my life, but still crazy.
After months of anticipation, we’re on the far side of what was undeniably the biggest week of our summer. But it’s over, all of it: Jim’s fieldwork, a carefully crafted plan that’s been in various stages of preparation for more than a year. My parents’ eight-day visit, timed around my 30th birthday, if I’m feeling selfish, or around my sister’s start at the University of Washington, if I’m feeling honest. Also done? Our Seattle not-really-summer, if the gloves I wore on our morning walk today are any indication, and my first real garden. (And, as it turns out, my oven. Again.)
It started with the birthday, of course. We had breakfast at Pete’s Egg Nest, our neighborhood favorite, then moved Allison into the most impossibly small triple dorm room known to man. Must have been quite the sight, twelve of us making sure three fully capable women had properly made beds, and enough hangers, and functioning dry-erase boards chock full of telephone numbers, should they all spontaneously combust and forget how to function without their mothers. Through all the bumping and sorrying and shy debating over what went where, I thought oh god, did I really ever live in one room with another person? I could touch all three of their beds at the same time, for goodness’ sake. The whole set-up seems ripe for head injury, not to mention emotional damage.
But they seemed happy as clams, those three, so we left them, and had me a little bit of a birthday party at Oliver’s Twist, with 30 of Seattle’s very best cupcakes. (Really – is there any contest? Might as well call each and every one of them a trophy. That’s why there were considerably more than one per person.) There was great wine, and the kind of crisp-edged, gooey grilled cheese sandwiches that make a person wonder why we eat anything else for dinner, ever. My mother got tipsy, and my grandmother said embarrassing things. Then somehow, later, there were margaritas involved, and tequila shots, without the mother and grandmother.
And then it was over.
There never was a big epiphany. (Believe me, I haven’t matured a hair.)
But there was one moment – when my friends were singing and sharing cupcakes, and my parents looked young and healthy, and I felt like a million bucks wearing a flouncy pink dress that matched my grandmother’s shirt – when I felt a little bit invincible. It’s been a good summer. I’ve felt physically stronger than I have in a long time, and between friends and food and family, turning thirty made me feel just plain rich.
But now, it’s over.
It’s always this way, after my birthday. September 1st comes around a dark corner without any headlights on, and by the time I react, it’s tucked back in my blind spot, where I won’t find it again for an entire year.
Yesterday, we decided to mark the end of summer with a harvest. We picked apples, all twenty or so from the wonky little espalier in the front yard. We pulled up the onions and beets, and gathered the cherry and pear tomatoes that have had enough sun to plump up colorful. It was bittersweet: Part of me smugged at how much I’d grown, my first year in that little plot in the back, and part of me sagged, realizing that now the apples and onions are in my blind spot, too, and that I’ll have to wait twelve more months to do what amounted to about eight minutes of picking again. I haven’t even begun to think about what I’ll do differently next year, but I’ll certainly plant more progressively. Sort of feels like I sent all my vegetables off to college at once. Besides those evergreen tomatoes, who’s left to mother?
And now, of course, there’s a different kind of responsibility. I can’t just go wasting a beet, if I only have 9 of them. I have to do the right thing, the first time. (Enter larger discussion on food values here. Summary: Growing your own increases awareness. Try it.)
My best garden surprise, and the crop that weighs heaviest with mustcookrightness, is a whole pound of sweet, crunchy carrots.
When my parents were here, my father asked how my carrots were doing. I’d failed to thin them out at the beginning of the season. I didn’t realize you had to, and then by the time their bushy little tops got about 4 inches tall, I felt guilty plucking them out of the ground, so I left them, and forgot about them altogether.
But Dad, he had to ask. “They’re small,” I said succinctly, and we moved on.
I was wrong.
Guess I thought carrots gophered their little heads out when they were ready. The greens had matured by yesterday, but since there wasn’t a speck of orange in sight, I’d assumed I had carrot threads, the babiest little specimens, instead of real vegetables. But they’re not baby carrots. They’re borderline adolescent carrots, or perhaps even real adult carrots, if the note on the package stipulating their expected stature can be believed.
Last night, we invited my sister over for Chinese food. (For practice, I should repeat my discovery: She’s not visiting. She lives in Seattle.)
It was quite a thrill, just picking up the phone in the middle of a bike ride like that, knowing I might very well see her two hours later. (Yesterday, I had my first-ever Power Gel. It’s been a long, long time since I tried to eat something without tasting it, but if I keep this biking thing up, I may have to get used to it. They’re vile. I planned our dinner in my head while we whizzed down Magnolia Boulevard, as a sort of atonement. Forgive me, for I have eaten notfood.)
Allison sat at the counter while I cooked, listening to me rant about the broken oven, watching me roll the carrots over and over as I simmered them with chili and garlic, willing their wrinkles to accept a spicy counterpart to their sweet interiors.
“Have you ever stir-fried before?” I asked. She’d helped me prepare beef and vegetables for a supposedly spicy Szechuan dish, and I caught her staring at my empty wok, probably wondering why I had the heat on but nothing inside.
“I didn’t even know it was a verb,” she answered.
I explained how it goes quickly, especially on a stove with oomph, and as she watched me dump chilies and garlic and ginger into hot oil, September felt a lot more like a beginning than an ending.
It’s funny, how we mark time with birthdays and months and seasons, when the ending of one only really means the beginning of another. Our apples are in a basket on the counter, and the tree looks awfully naked, but the possibility of pie looms large. My garden is empty, but my tomato neighbor has begun striking. My parents have left, but my sister stays here. (Which means I can invite her over for stir-fry again. Only next time, it will actually be spicy.)
So yes, maybe summer is almost over.
I, for one, am thrilled.
It’s not every day you meet a simmered carrot that tastes right eaten off a chopstick. But these babies – simmered with fiery chilies, so just a touch of heat finds its way into the vegetable’s nooks and crannies – are just that, carrots that feel right at home next to your favorite stir-fry and a pile of great brown rice. The heat plays best off sweet, freshly-dug carrots, which are smaller if they come from my garden, but you could also cut fat specimens in half crosswise, then cut the thick part in half again lengthwise.
TIME: 5 minutes active time
MAKES: 4 servings
1/2 pound garden carrots (roughly 1” around at the thick end), tops trimmed
1 small Thai chili, split lengthwise
1 large clove garlic, peeled and smashed
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
Place the carrots, chili, and garlic in a large skillet in a single layer and fill with water to just cover the carrots. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat and cook at a strong simmer, turning occasionally, until carrots are just tender when pierced with a skewer (about 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the size of your carrots).
Using a large lid, drain off any remaining liquid. Decrease heat to low, add soy sauce and sesame oil, and cook until liquid has reduced and glazes carrots, about 5 minutes. Serve immediately.
P.S. My oven is running extremely slow. The recipe for last week’s Ginger Shatters may require less oven time. If you give them try, please let others know how long yours take.