seven weeks to go

The canner on the deck has been bubbling for days. In the rain the steam billows, and the hot jars sit on the wet wood, cooling and pinging. The top of the wood stove is clustered with warming jars. I like using the wood stove to warm clean jars, because the thickest part of the jar, and where fractures tend to happen from temperature shocks, is the bottom. On the mellow wood stove that part warms first, and I’ve never shattered a bottom using this method.

It’s really coming down this morning. The fields out the window are barely visible through the sheets from the eaves. Yesterday we filled three dozen jars and the dehydrators, today we are making ketchup and sauce and juice from 100 pounds of frozen tomatoes.

Freezing the tomatoes makes the skins slip right off as they thaw. Those skins, which are full of pigment and nutrients and sour tomato flavor, will be dehydrated and powdered for recipes that want tomato color and flavor but not the texture or water. I often blend it with dried pepper powder and cook it with rice in chicken broth.

There are seven weeks to go before Eat Mendocino 2023. I am half exasperated with myself, and half full of joy. A tiny corner of my mind feels like I am being held hostage by the tyranny of my past self. I was incredibly driven, I was idealistic, I was spending my energy like it would never run out, and I was deferring loans on my body’s limits that I am now paying back with interest. Young me was too much. Why should I obey past Gowan’s dictates and do this project again?

We tend the land in cycles. Most of us raised within an annual agricultural paradigm dictated by colonial systems think and work in annual cycles. I’m no exception, the months of the year are defined by tasks and harvests more than by their names. Some of us get to think in slightly bigger cycles, the lives of fruit trees and generations of cattle and rotations of pasture. This is a ten year cycle, a momentum still carrying me forward and I am as bound to it as I am to crop rotations.

My last box of cucumbers molded before I got to it. I ignored the fact that probably thousands of pounds of cucumbers have molded in the field or in customers crispers in my career. I ignored the memory of the boss I worked for who made us throw out all unsold day old cucumbers- insisting that their Russian customers wouldn’t buy any that weren’t picked that morning at 5am. (He was right, they wouldn’t, but that didn’t take away the sting of feeding 50lb bag after 50lb bag into the compost pile or to pigs.) That summer I canned every night and I still couldn’t make a dent in the waste. None of that mattered in the face of my failure to can that last box of the year, and I felt shamed.

This turning point of the season, when the apex of abundance and ripeness turns into soft grey mold and melts away is like grabbing at the sunset as it turns dark. We do get little sips of it tucked into jars, but never more than a slim echo, and it never feels like enough when faced with the long slow monotany of cabbage and potato and pumpkin.

The first time I did Eat Mendocino Sarah and I coined the phrase “soup fatigue” which is a phenomenon that occurs when the colors and textures of food have been too similar in color and texture, both soft and muted, for too long. Literally anything crunchy and colorful feels like a miracle after a month on that diet. The first radishes in February that I ate in the garden with mud and rain still on them felt like glowing jewels.

The pantry is well stocked with rice and beans and flour and pickles and salsa and onions and garlic and salt and herbs. The kitchen is exploded onto every surface, there are pumpkins literally everywhere, on every windowsill, on the tops of all the cabinets sitting on flat cardboard, and along the banister of the loft, and the big shlep of the season is almost over. The weight of all this preparation has been distributed on so many backs, from my partner plunging into the sea with buckets for salt, to my lifelong friends wielding their apple spiralizer, to the neighbors who show up with a box of pears. I have love and support and companionship that I couldn’t have imagined during the darkest days of death and isolation in 2020 and 2021, when my whole world felt like it had fallen apart. I remember people who had been close to me assuming that I wouldn’t do Eat Mendocino 2023 in light of the losses I had just experienced. What I felt internally was that what is left when everything else falls away is me, and that is enough to keep my promises. I went forward planning to go alone, but I had hardly been on the path for a step before I was joined by lovers and friends and colleagues and family. Sometimes just starting is enough to call the right people in. Sometimes letting go of the vision we wanted means more than we could have imagined finds us.

One thing that a life spent working outdoors has taught me is to accept being uncomfortable for a considerable length of time. When discomfort is embraced, opportunities expand exponentially. I remember thinking, in the middle of a rainy spring in 2013, that this project was both the most austere and most luxurious thing I had ever done.

Maybe Eat Mendocino 2013 was just the most austere and most luxurious thing that I have ever done… thus far.

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