Monday, December 3, 2012

Squashed Economy

We Southerners pride ourselves on living close to the land. We love to tell anyone within ear shot about how many acres Great Granddaddy Earl used to plow back on the home place, or how much ‘proppity’ came into the fambly when Aunt Eunice married herself a Quincey – one of them Montgomery Quinceys. 

True, these days the closest thing to tending the soil that many of our suburban neighbors ever do is toss barbecue ashes into the so-called ‘wild area’ of their subdivisions, or cut a check for the local lawn service to spread another springtime dose of Weed & Feed. But that doesn’t stop them from going all-out to celebrate the changing seasons with vivid displays of rural vegetation, so much that it looks like they all just come back up from a trip to the family farm. Even in the posh, manicured neighborhoods of the suburban south, this time of year you can count on finding rows of colorful fall produce lined up like movie props on the doorsteps of our cookie-cutter McMansions.

Starting right after Labor Day, as soon as the white shoes of summer disappear into the back of the closet, the front of every house is festooned with the fruits of somebody else's harvest. Indian corn, pumpkins and gourds are artfully stacked and propped against hay bales and dried cornstalks, accented with lacey arrays of mums in bushel baskets, and watched over by happy Raggedy Andy scarecrows with straw hats and hinged elbows. Yes, it’s Hoe-down time in the city, and if the zoning ordinances allowed for barns, there would probably be talk of a raising somewhere.

In times of plenty, it’s easy to tell how well the South’s economy is doing simply by counting the number and variety of domesticated squash lined up in neighbors’ doorways. And not just the Jack O’Lantern kind, either:  Giant Ironbark, Golden Nugget, Hubbard, Fairytale, Albino, Red-Stamp, Japanese Kobocha, Albino, Sugar Pumpkins and Lord Knows What-All pile up in bumpy, multicolored mounds as folks contend not just to keep up with, but to pull ahead of and leave the Joneses way behind. With price tags of up to forty-five dollars each (no kiddin’, I’ve looked), the toll for a porch-full of these ornate veggies can run up to two or three hundred bucks. Add another hunnert for a sizeable display of those teensy, puff-ball chrysanthemums - coiffed bubbles of color in bright yellow and autumnal rust, and shades of white & lavender seldom seen together outside of a beauty parlor, or the front pew in church on a warm Sunday. The price of the scarecrow is anybody’s guess.

In lean times, the displays are fewer and simpler, but the trend never dies out completely. A basket of mums sits lonesome out on the steps in front of the porch swing, or folks might get double-duty from a single pumpkin, mainly by avoiding the temptation to cut the traditional zig-zag grin and triangle eyes on the front. Instead, they use a magic marker to draw a face on their Jack O’Lanterns, scary enough to entertain the kids through Halloween. Then, on November first, they just turn ol’ Jack around to face the wall, and leave his orange backside to announce the arrival of the harvest season.

One thing is certain in good times and bad: No matter how much money and effort was spent embellishing the doorway, every piece of floral and vegetable d├ęcor is kicked out to the curb the day right after Thanksgiving. That's when the harvest hops to the rear-view mirror, and the city shopping season begins.

No matter that the pumpkins have already survived half of the season intact, and are built to last the winter as a stable source of supper – or that the mums are perennials, and will flower forever if they’re just poked into the ground. Today they’re trash, tossed out to make room for even more elaborate, internally-lit Christmas decorations.

Me, I’m just glad my Grandma ain’t around anymore to see it. “I’ll Swannee!” she’d say. “People throwing away perfec’ly good groceries, by the bushel at that. Might as well be pouring money down the drain!” Her idea of cutting up a pumpkin, Halloween or otherwise, was nothing more than the first step in making a pumpkin pie. She may have been citi-fied, but she knew how to recognize a mess of dinner on the vine, and she knew how to cook it, too.

Now I’m not sayin’ Southerners have forgotten how to cook – it’s just that nowadays most of our Turkey Day pies either come from a can, or directly from the freezer. Tell me who knows any more how to draw and quarter a sizeable winter squash, bake the slabs and render them into nutritious side dishes and desserts. Hardly anybody, that’s who.

But if anyone wants to stop over by our place for a visit, or a bowl of pumpkin chili, a slice of pumpkin bread or a big, thick piece of pumpkin pie, you’re welcome to it. Our house is easy to find – it’s the one with all the multi-colored chrysanthemums out front in the flowerbed.

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