Free food

There is a huge apple tree in my yard that is at least 50 years old, and the tree, crooked and drooping, with an actual hollow trunk for leaving notes in, is famous in my neighborhood. Cars will pull in the driveway, and someone will get out and say, “I always come by for a bag of apples. I used to know the last owners — can I still have some?” 

And at first, I was like, “Dammit, this is MY tree, and I want to make applesauce, and what if I don’t have enough?”

And then I picked apples.

And then picked some more. And more. And finally got to the point where I just go do an insane apple-picking dance where I jump as high as I can, grab a branch, pull it as hard as I can, and shake it like crazy, avoiding the falling apples and closing my eyes. I get hit on the head a few times with each shake, the apples falling down around me and landing in the soft grass.

The horses across the road know this drill. When they see me doing the crazy-apple-lady dance, they line up behind the electric fence. At the very least, they expect the windfall. Did you know that's a real thing, windfall? It's the fruit that the tree drops on the ground because of wind. And the horses feel that the least I can do for them is throw apples across the street.

There were at least 1,000 apples on the tree -- possibly more. I lost count. But the apples are green and soft, and they're sort of mealy/mushy. They're not that great for eating. But the neighbors all said the apples were good for sauce, so I picked a bunch of apples, made some applesauce, and OH MY GOD it was good. Fabulous. Best applesauce you've ever had.

So, now I was on a mission. There is FREE FOOD in my front yard. We're trying to save money, right? And live on a budget, right? So clearly, the number one thing to do to cut down the budget is make applesauce. Not cut down on travel, not cut down our huge phone bill. Forget going vegetarian, or, God forbid, simply sticking to a budget. FREE Applesauce will do the trick. We’ll be rich in a month!

So, I've put up a bunch of applesauce. Like, 20 quarts worth. And I think, "There is no way in hell that I will ever eat this much applesauce. I don't even like applesauce. I'm done."

And my friend Sheila, who is more frugal than I am (well, hell, Kim Kardashian is more frugal than I am on a bad day, but really, Sheila is frugal,) says, "But if you have the applesauce in your pantry, you'll use it. You'll use in baked goods, on pancakes, in desserts. Put up as much as you can."

Fine, says I, and I wipe the sweat off my forehead, put my hair back up in the ponytail, and go back to work.

But then the blackberries become ripe. And there are acres of blackberries, surrounding the house on all sides. And these are devil-bushes that take over the entire yard, and I hate them, and all of the sudden, they're throwing fabulously delicious fruit at us. There are blackberries by the car door in the morning. They're over by the chicken coop. They're by the mailbox. And they're under the apple tree.

So, I have everyone pick blackberries, and I make blackberry wine, and blackberry jam, and I put up some pie filling. But they're hard to pick, because there are ton of sharp thorns on them, but they're tasty and sweet and it's FREE FOOD, I'm telling you, so I go and make more.

And then my neighbors come over and ask me for some apples, because of the magical, famous applesauce this tree makes, so I give them each a bag, and then I put on a trading list that I have extra apples, and someone comes over picks apples and gives me two jars of blueberry jam and some quail eggs and some duck eggs, and that's what finally gets me hooked, and I am on a roll: I must preserve food. I must make more applesauce.

So, by this time, I'm making applesauce in my sleep, and there are still more apples, and the blackberries are only beginning to come into season, and I'm starting to feel like it's the last week of school and finals are just around the corner and I'm wondering if I'm ever going to get done, because, you know, FREE FOOD.

And then the squash come in, and I'm like, "Oh, HELL no," and my son's friend comes over with four squash that are the size of my thighs, and let me tell you -- I do NOT have small thighs. And so I look that up, and it turns out you can't can it, and you have to freeze it, so I'm grating it to freeze it, when one of the ladies who picked apples says, "Hey, there's a plum tree up the road that needs picking," so I get in my car with my kids, and because clearly, I have lost my mind, we pick 64 pounds of plums.

Because, you know, FREE FOOD.

And of course, they're tiny, wee little plums, that are completely fussy and require all sorts of work, and I've still got the apple tree throwing apples at me, people are sneaking squash onto my porch at 2 a.m., and the blackberries launching themselves in my path to remind me they're still there, and while I was, just last week, thinking that it was so bountiful and amazing that the earth was throwing food in my direction, I'm now feeling like the free food is being hurled at me with great force and I'm not sure I'm going to be able to catch it all.

But I must.

Because there were days, when I was the age Sander is now, that there was no food.

There were days when there was one pot on the stove, with pea soup in it, and a couple of ham hocks, and we had that for dinner three nights in a row, and scrambled eggs for breakfast, and school lunch. And on the third day that we had pea soup for dinner, out of the same pot, while the soup grew thicker every day as it congealed, my mother cried because we deserved better, and went to the store to write a check for groceries out of a closed account.

And I was so glad to eat something besides pea soup that I did not care one bit that the potato salad and rye bread and deli-sliced ham were technically stolen. And I knew that I would not have children until or unless I could provide food for them.

And now, it seems, with three children in the house, it seems that I can’t stop providing. If the Earth is going to throw food at me,  I’m going to catch it, dammit. And I’m going to make sure it will last us through a long, cold winter, whether the winter is metaphorical or real.

So today, I finally changed my jam-stained clothes, took a long overdue shower, cleaned up the kitchen and went to the county fair with Mark and the kids.

And we had an absolute blast. How could you not? Tilt-a-whirl, the dairy barn, quilts on display, curly fries, and both boys had a wristband for all the rides they could ride in a day.

We went on a mission to find out as much information as we can about local 4H clubs, and to ask questions about raising pigs for meat, and about how to show animals at the fair.

I have this idea that we're going to have pigs for meat, and maybe raise chickens for meat, and we bought three turkeys last week, and we need to see if we're brave enough to eventually murder them, or if we'll end up with turkey pets.

So in the dairy barn, we met up with a woman who we know from Boy Scouts. Since everyone in Whatcom county knows everyone else, I'm going to call her Nellie Olsen. Nellie's a homeschooling mom who has a passel of children, and she is as nice as she can be, and she is as diametrically opposed to me as is possible in just about every area, except the fact that we're both American, homeschoolers, female and live in Washington.

Nellie's one of the moms whose family is leaving Boy Scouts over the fact that they're going to let gay children stay in Scouting. She believes it's wrong. I've also seen her give the Cub Scouts a good scolding because they weren't saluting properly when they had a flag-folding ceremony, and she gave them a lecture about "how people have died to protect your right to fly that flag." Which is true, but people have also died to protect their right to not have to respect it as well.

And she has a license to carry a concealed handgun, which tells you something. I'm not sure what it tells you. But I know I wouldn't want to mess with her dairy cow at 2 a.m.

So, the kids and I ask Nellie questions about 4H (as much as I want to hate her for being so close-minded, she's really quite pleasant to talk to and friendly to my kids and me,) and off we go to the exhibits.

This is what I really want to see: Where other people who have been infected by this insane disease of putting up food are now showing it off to the world. There's a whole bunch of fruits and veggies on plates, all of which have ribbons on them, and now Sander wants to show veggies next year.

At this point, we want to enter our chickens, our turkeys, our tomatoes and apples, Sander's collection of "cool stuff," because he saw that a collection of Beanie Babies had a ribbon, my knitting, and perhaps some pickles.

And I have now completely had my brain taken over. Because really, how, exactly, am I saving the world by entering pickles into the county fair? How is this good for me, or for my family, to take my knitting and have it held up for judging? What the hell century is this? What am I teaching my daughter about feminism and equality by putting up applesauce and holding it up for inspection?

Just as I am contemplating how silly, really, all of this is, in an age of internet and international travel, for me to even contemplate entering plum jelly, I see it: The rows of jams and jellies with ribbons on it.

There's only one applesauce entered, so it has a blue ribbon. One blackberry jelly, so it won, too. One corn salsa. In fact, there are a ton of jams and jellies and sauces, but one woman was clever enough to enter things into categories that no one else entered, so that she ended up with EIGHT blue ribbons.

I'm sure you can guess who it was.  Yep. That gun-totin', gay-hating, dairy-cow owning bastion of homeschooling motherhood. Nellie Olsen.

And all the way back to car, like some pod person, I ranted. "Next year, I'm entering applesauce, and pickles, and a turkey, and jam, and a chicken, and we're going to show that Nellie Olsen who's boss. Next year, it's MY turn to win eight blue ribbons!"

This, people, is what it looks like when nature has hit you in the head with blackberries and apples one too many times.

Clearly, I need a dose of fast food. Or a job that involves wearing clothes and leaving the house.

In the meantime, however, I'm going to fantasize. Next year, Nellie Olsen, those blue ribbons are MINE.

Meagan McGovern