Cool as a Cucumber–In This HeatBy Jason Peters for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
Rock Island, IL
The birds that land on our bird bath have their beaks open all the time. There’s a look on their otherwise inscrutable visages that says, “what the …?”
And the squirrels, who only two days ago were going bat shit crazy with what appeared to be an orgiastic mating ritual, now sprawl motionless on whatever oak limbs they can colonize. And their repose isn’t some opaque version of post-coital rodent exhaustion. I don’t see any squirrels smoking cigarettes. These poor creatures are miserable. I can assure you as one who speaks Squirrel that they are all saying the same thing: “Jesus, take me now!”
At four this morning, when the devil decided I shouldn’t sleep any more, the air temperature was eighty and the humidity at least eight per cent. By nine-thirty, when I couldn’t produce another word on whatever it is I’m trying to write, the air temperature was more than ten degrees warmer. We’re promised at least a full week of temperatures above ninety-four—here, at Interstate 80, a line that God himself drew!
There is a reason I left Tennessee in 1983 and Virginia in 1996, and, brother, this is it.
And I’ll tell you another thing: Here’s one Front Porcher who is ready for God’s season: winter.
Are you people who like this weather serious? Are you not in fact deranged? Mental? Ausgespielt? Snow (as in, “though your sins be as scarlet they shall be white as snow”) is what the soul desires most of all—and not one second after the dog days arrive, which, let me tell you, they have.
I was in Riverside, California, once waiting to cross a street. The temperature was 113 degrees Fahrenheit. There was a local fellow standing next to me, also waiting, and I turned to him and said, “Is it always this hot here?” He looked at me and said wrily, “this isn’t hot.”
Then what in the name of the mother of God is hot? Jordan Baker cried dismally, “Imagine marrying anybody in this heat.” I’ll one-up that bad driver of Fitzgerald’s imagination: imagine being anybody in this heat.
Not to mention all my Romas are getting a blight, which they are. I’ve tossed at least twenty young green—and partially black—tomatoes into the ravine, which I’m sure the sodding groundhog is greedily fattening himself on. (Little does he know that I’ve tried groundhog, and I know for a fact that it isn’t much different from pot roast. That fat bastard had better watch his back.)
Well, under these conditions, there’s nothing to do but reach for the cucumber.
That’s right: the first cuke of the year, and also the first tomato of the year, plus some feta cheese and what I like to call “anti-social amounts of crushed raw garlic.” (Eat it the night before an early morning dentist appointment or a meeting with an administrator. See what kind of response you get.)
The garlic, too, is fresh from the garden. In fact, we’re nearing the end of the harvest. Once again last year we planted too little of it.
Ah, garlic! How much easier it peels when it’s right out of the ground. How moist! How full of “buzz off”! Is there anything it can’t do?
Now listen and hear and attend, O Best Beloved: Here is one of the best ways to enjoy the fruits of summer while pining for the stark beauty of God’s season, which seems as if it will never get here.
(I admit that it helps if the two older urchins have been pawned off on the grandparents, which they have, and if the little missus is at work keeping you in gambling and heroin money, which she is. But these instructions are foolproof.)
Tonight it’s just you and the youngest, who’s picky in his way but easy to please if you know what you’re doing. And you do.
Observe, for example, with what alacrity and good taste you choose the music—Manhattan Transfer, The Christmas Album—and the working libation—a scotch, no ice. Ah, winter in July. If you were Richard Nixon you’d crank up the AC so you could have a fire in the White House fireplace. But the sweat rings under your arms don’t quite reach Nixonian proportions, and this isn’t the White House (you pay the bills, for example), so the Transfer and a fireside tumbler will have to suffice.
You notice there are a couple of pieces of link sausage in the freezer. Jackpot. The boy will relish them. You’ll chop them into bowtie pasta and make a variation on bacon (oh, bacon!) carbonara. He’ll think you’re father of the year, which you are.
Out back to cut a couple of sprigs of parsley. Quick! The Wicked Witch of the West (East?) melted faster in air half this hot. (They weren’t in Kansas anymore, but Kansas can’t be this hot. Can’t be.) Who—who—can countenance such heat? Adam and Eve would have hung a “gone seal huntin’” sign on the gates east of Eden and headed to the arctic circle had the Garden been this inhospitable to human happiness (human flourishing be damned and double damned; we’re way beyond flourishing).
If you can’t stand the heat, get back in the kitchen. Ah! Locum refrigerii! Into the pan over low heat go the sausages; into another, also over low heat, go water, olive oil, and salt. Why low heat? No hurry! People who hurry when they don’t have to should be sent elsewhere, like hell, which, as their luck would have it, isn’t this hot.
Okay. Sing along with “Snowfall.” Damn, these cats can harmonize. And what pitch!
Chop the parsley and set it by. That’s what, sixty seconds? You’ve got sixty seconds to give to your third-born and the Manhattan Transfer. Crack an egg one handed and drop the yolky mess into something cylindrical. Scramble with a fork.
Wash the season’s first tomato. Ah, what a beautiful thing! And how it fits the lascivious hand! Cut it up into several small spoonable pieces in the way you like best. Into a blue bowl they go. Do you smell that? It’s a tomato, and if it smells like a tomato you may eat it. If you cut into it and don’t smell anything, it isn’t a tomato. It’s a red thing you bought in February or a blushing rock shipped in from far away. Feed it to the groundhog, who (you never know; times are tough) might later feed you.
And now for the cuke. Feel those spikes? This isn’t like those store-bought cukes, smooth and suggestive. This is a real cucumber.
Skin it in your preferred way—knife, potato peeler, makes no difference to me. Just be sure that all scraps go into the compost bucket and that none goes into the garbage or down the drain. We must pay our debt to the soil. We must build soil. From the compost bucket into the compost, thence to the ground, thence into next year’s growth, thence into your belly. This is how life works. Death into life, life into death, death and resurrection, on and on and on.
Slice the cuke lengthwise down the middle, then half the halves. Chop up the quarters into spoonable sizes and add them to the tomatoes. Then crumble in some feta and reach for the fresh moist garlic.
Ah! Peel and press. Tomorrow all kinds of people will ignore you. And this, you think, is a perfect plan. Who needs other people? L’enfer, c’est les autres.
Into the mix goes an anti-social amount of pressed garlic, plus crushed black pepper, plus salt, plus—damnation! Almost forgot the fresh oregano. Back outside to cut a few sprigs of fresh orgegano. Jeebus, it’s hot. Into the bowl goes the fresh oregano.
And into all of that goes the most local olive oil you can find. Italy might have to do.
Ah. The Illinois version of the Greek salad. Add or don’t add kalamata olives. I’m good with the salad as I’ve made it.
But shee-it! The boy!
Whew! His sausage isn’t burned, nor are his noodles overboiled. Remove the sausage and slice it. Strain the pasta. Count thirty and add the egg. Stir. Add a couple of spoonsful of cream; add the sausage chunks and chopped parsley, and stir again. Supply him with a few pieces of salted cuke and some feta. The tomato, you know, he won’t touch. The boy’s good to go. He’ll read to himself tonight. Call him to dinner.
Oh, the heart aches at the sight of him as he rounds the corner. What a boy! What a creature! He washes, settles into his chair, and, at the site of his plate, produces a smile a mile wide.
Despair is everywhere these days but not at your table tonight. You offer gratitude where gratitude is due and partake of earth’s goodness. May the Earth cool soon.
Which it will, whereupon you’ll ask winter to delay itself just a bit—at least until all the tomatoes ripen and the whole family is at last restored to the table it belongs to. Soon you’ll all be cool as cucumbers–and soon enough as cold as the grave.