A VASTLY UNDERCONSUMED VEGETABLE

Photos by Lynn Christoffers

Despite the warnings that Jerusalem artichokes proliferate alarmingly, several years ago I planted a dozen plants that someone had given me along the back, west facing fence of the vegetable garden.

Jerusalem artichokes have nothing to do with either Jerusalem or artichokes. The plants are a type of sunflower and the knobby roots are what can be eaten. The name apparently morphed out of the Italian word girasole, meaning turning to the sun, and artichoke from its taste, which is vaguely like artichokes.

Flowers bloom on tall stalks
Flowers bloom on tall stalks
Blossoms brighten the September garden

Blossoms brighten the September garden

Sure enough, that first year they grew tall, healthy stalks topped with small, bright sunflowers that I cut for floral arrangements. The plants are native to the Vineyard, and the roots were an important food source for the Wampanoags.

We Vineyarders should be encouraged to grow and eat more Jerusalem artichokes, according to “The Martha’s Vineyard Cookbook” written by Louise Tate King and Jean Stewart Wexler. They’re “a vastly underrated and under consumed vegetable.”

Cynthia with basket of Jerusalem artichokes

Cynthia with basket of Jerusalem artichokes

Growing them is easy. In late fall, throughout the winter, and into the following spring, I dug into the general area of the artichoke stalks and in one shovelful would unearth a half dozen of the tubers. They came up clean, pest-free, tawny-skinned, and resembling three-dimensional fat gingerbread men.

It’s no wonder the Wampanoags depended upon them for food. You can eat them raw or cooked. They have a texture like water chestnuts and have a delicate, nutty flavor. Like potatoes, they can be steamed, baked, boiled, or fried. They’re good in stews, soups, and mashed up with another vegetable.

I dug up several bushel baskets of the roots the first year, that from only twelve plants. I read recently that one plant can produce anywhere from 75 to 200 tubers a season, and I believe it.

Knobby tubers freshly dug

Knobby tubers freshly dug

In some ways, they were ideal plants for the garden. They grew with absolutely no attention. Along the fence, they made a good screen against the drying west wind. They thrived. In fact, after the first year I was pulling them out like weeds.

They’re an excellent food source. About ten percent protein, they have no starch, no oil, and are an ideal food for diabetics, as they are rich in inulin, a substance that diabetics can tolerate better than other sweeteners.

But what can you do with bushels of Jerusalem artichokes?

They don’t store well, hence you don’t often find them in stores, and you really need only a few of the tubers to get you through a week of recipes.

After battling the enthusiastic growth of these native tubers, and tiring of a diet of Jerusalem artichokes in every possible guise, I decided to rid my garden of them. This was a multi-year project. After digging up every Jerusalem artichoke tuber I could find in the fall, the next spring thirty or more of the sprouts greeted me.

The spring before Howie came into my life, I figured I had won the battle of the Jerusalem artichokes. I was sure I had rid the garden of them.

Howie’s and my first spring, I was showing him the garden and the areas where the Jerusalem artichokes had grown.

He was interested. “Why the name, and what were they like?” He was leaning on one of the shovels.

I described them and explained how the Wampanoags depended upon them for food. I told him how I had finally eradicated them, and added, “They’re supposed to be a folk remedy for diabetes.” I laughed. “Actually, they really are known as an ideal food for diabetics.”

Washed and ready to cook
Washed and ready to cook

Howie was quiet.

“What are you thinking?” I asked, turning to him.

“I’m diabetic,” he answered.

The next day I checked the former Jerusalem artichoke patch again. And the next day and the next. Maybe, just maybe, I had missed one or two of the plants.

I had. The distinctive wide, bright green leaves of a young Jerusalem artichoke plant were sprouting among the young lettuce plants.

Jerusalem artichokes can’t be eradicated.

Now that fall is here, four tall stalks are growing along the fence, which means a multitude of tubers, which means when I dig under them sometime later this week, I’ll probably find enough Jerusalem artichokes to keep us going all winter.

The tubers are well known in Turkey, where my niece, Dionis, lived as a child. She gave me several recipes I’ve tried and will cook for Howie.


CREAMY SUNCHOKE SOUP

A native American vegetable, the sunchoke (also known as Jerusalem artichoke) is the tuber of a pretty yellow sunflower. The tuber itself is knobby and homely, but it has a lovely, mild flavor and a fantastic crisp texture when eaten raw. It also cooks very nicely — baked, boiled and mashed, or sauteed. In this soup, the sunchokes are cooked until they are very soft, them pureed. Texture is critical here, so make sure you get the soup really smooth. (A good blender will do this better than a food processor.)

1-1/2 pounds sunchokes
1 tablespoon butter or vegetable oil
2 cups minced onion
1 teaspoon salt (possibly more, to taste)
4 cups water
1 teaspoon sugar or honey
2 cups buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon white pepper (or to taste)
Mild paprika for the top

Peel the sunchokes, or just scrub them well with a stiff brush, and chop them coarsely.

Melt the butter or heat the oil in a soup pot or Dutch oven. Add the onion and salt, and stir well. Cover and cook for about 10 minutes over medium-low heat, stirring a few times. You want the onion to get very soft, but not brown.

Stir in the sunchokes, cover again, and cook for 5 minutes.

Add the water and sugar or honey and bring to a boil. Turn the heat way down, cover, and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the sunchokes are tender enough to be pierced easily with a fork. Sunchokes tend to cook unevenly, so test more than one to make sure they are all very soft.

Puree bit by bit in a blender, adding the buttermilk in batches as you go. Return to a clean pot, add white pepper to taste, and adjust the salt, if necessary.

Heat very gently (don’t boil), and serve hot, topped with a few croutons, if desired, and a dusting of mild paprika to give it a finished look.

Yield: About 6 servings
Preparation time: A little over an hour (15 minutes of work)
This soup will keep for several days if stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

from “Vegetable Heaven”
Mollie Katzen


JERUSALEM ARTICHOKE SALAD

This is very like a potato salad, but with a more interesting taste and not quite so mealy. It is served chilled and makes a fine summer supper dish.

1 pound Jerusalem artichokes
whites of 2 hard-cooked eggs
1 large red bell pepper
1 large dill pickle
green olives
pickled pearl onions
1 crisp stalk celery
2/3 cup fresh green peas, steamed quickly
salt and pepper

Steam the artichokes 10 to 15 minutes, peel, and then chop them along with the egg whites, the bell pepper, the pickle, olives, and onions (to your taste — I use about a dozen each of olives and onions), and the celery. Mix all the ingredients (don’t forget the peas!), and season with salt and pepper. Set it aside to chill while you make this sauce:

OLD-FASHIONED MAYONNAISE SAUCE

yolks of 2 hard-cooked eggs
1 Tbs. lemon juice
1 Tbs. safflower oil
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup sour cream
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
salt and pepper

Mash the egg yolks, alternately add the lemon juice and the oil — a few drops at a time — creaming until smooth. Now add the mayonnaise, sour cream, and mustard; mix well, add salt and pepper to taste. Pour this sauce over the salad and toss it up until it is well mixed, being careful not to mash the softer ingredients of the salad. Chill well.

Serves 6

from: “The Vegetarian Epicure”
Anna Thomas


ZEYTINYAGLI YERELMASI

Jerusalem Artichokes Cooked in Olive Oil
serves 4-6

Jerusalem artichoke is a root vegetable that looks similar to ginger-root although the flavor is very different — nutty and a bit like artichoke. It has beige to light brownish-red skin and white to beige flesh. This winter dish is from the western part of Turkey.

1-1/2 pounds Jerusalem artichoke
2 lemons cut in half
1/4 cup virgin olive oil
1 small Spanish onion, finely diced (1/2 cup)
1 carrot, sliced
1/4 cup long-grain rice
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh dill
Salt
Chopped parsley
Lemon wedges

Peel the artichokes and cut each on into 2 to 4 pieces depending on their size. Rub the pieces with the cut lemon halves and place them in a bowl of cold water to prevent discoloration.

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat and cook the onion gently until it’s softened but not brown. Add the sliced carrot and cook for 1 minute. Drain the artichokes and add them to the pan along with the rice, sugar, lemon juice, and dill. Season with salt. Stir the mixture well.

Pour in 2 cups water, cover the pan, and cook gently for about 30 minutes, or until the Jerusalem artichokes are tender. Add a little hot water if the mixture getrs dry before the artichokes finish cooking. Transfer the mixture to a serving plate and let it cool. Serve at room temperature with a garnish of chopped parsley and lemon wedges.

from
Ozcan Ozan
“The Sultan’s Kitchen”


MASHED JERUSALEM ARTICHOKES
serves 6
active time: 35 minutes   start to finish: 1 hour

You’re in the mood to cook venison or maybe duck. This is what you make instead of the usual side of mashed potatoes, when you want texture and something to absorb the rich meat juices. Peeling three and a half pounds of Jerusalem artichokes is not fun, but you will be rewarded by their nutty, elusive flavor.

3-1/2 pounds Jerul\salem artichokes, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 pound boiling potatoes, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch pieces
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups whole milk
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
Freshly ground black pepper

Combine artichokes, potatoes, salt, and milk in a 5-quart pot, add water to cover by 1 inch, and bring to a simmer. Simmer, uncovered, until vegetables are very tender, about 25 minutes.

Drain vegetables in a colander and return to pot. Using a potato masher, mash vegetables with butter and salt and pepper to taste until smooth.

The dish can be made up to 3 days ahead and refrigerated, covered. Bring to room temperature before reheating, covered, over low heat.

from “The Gourmet Cookbook”
Ruth Reichel


SAUTEED JERUSALEM ARTICHOKES WITH SAGE

Also called a sunchoke, the Jerusalem artichokes is not really an artichoke at all — it’s a small lumpy, brown-skinned tuber that resembles gingerroot and grows from a sunflower. The name is not a reference to the city of Jerusalem, but comes from the Italian word for sunflower, girasole. Butter, lemon juice, and sage flavor the vegetable simply and elegantly.

6 servings

3 pounds Jerusalem artichokes, peeled
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
4-1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage or 2 teaspoons dried rubbed sage
1 lemon, halved

Steam Jerusalem artichokes until tender, about 20 minutes. Cool slightly. Cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices. (Artichokes can be prepared 4 hours ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)

Melt butter in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add sage and saute 1 minute. Add artichoke slices and saute until heated through, about 5 minutes. Squeeze juice from lemon halves over and toss to coat. Season artichokes to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to bowl and serve.

from “The Bon Appetit Cookbook”
Barbara Fairchild

 

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THE SWING

Red-tailed hawk

Red-tailed hawk

The Torrey pine Howie planted that shaded his swing

The Torrey pine Howie planted that shaded his swing

Howie's San Diego swing overlooked Tecolote Canyon

Howie’s San Diego swing overlooked Tecolote Canyon

 

 

From his back yard swing in San Diego, Howie could watch red-tailed hawks soaring on the air currents over Tecolote Canyon searching for jack rabbits, rattlesnakes, and other prey. He could note the subtle changes of the seasons, the flowering and fruiting of lemonade berry, laurel sumac, toyon, and ice plant, and savor the scent of sun-warmed coastal sagebrush. In the evenings he listened to the yip-yip-yip of coyotes and their pups down in the canyon, heard the twittering of doves in the great Torrey pine he’d planted which now dominated his back yard, shading his swing. He’d written to me about the Anna’s hummingbird that had flown within inches of his face. He’d made a soft sound with his lips, and the hummingbird had approached him and hovered for a brief second.

He gave up everything, including his canyon, to move to the gentle topography of Martha’s Vineyard and the Cynthia he’d known as “Cynner.” Namely, me.

We had to have a swing in our Island back yard.

 

 

 

Coastal sagebrush

Coastal sagebrush

blog toyon

Toyon

Lemonade berry

Lemonade berry

Laurel sumac

Laurel sumac

Blog ice_plant

Ice plant

Blog Anna's hummingbird

Anna’s hummingbird

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A swing meant having a porch to set it on, and that meant adding a bathroom extension to shelter the porch and the swing. Catherine (Cat) Finch, an architectural designer by profession, was up to the task. Cat is one of the Cleaveland House Wednesday Writers who urged me to get together with Howie.

“He won’t have a canyon to study,” said Cat, showing me the plans for our new extension and porch, “but he’ll have the fish pond.”

Cat's drawing of the new extension, center of the main house, with porch to the left

Cat’s drawing of the new extension, center of the main house, with porch to the left

 

We found a swing at Ace Hardware identical to his in San Diego, and two husky grandsons assembled it. Peter Huntington, an artist whose medium is shingles, had sculpted a red-tailed hawk in the newly shingled wall to soar perpetually over Howie and me.

Peter Huntington creating a red-tailed hawk in shingles

Peter Huntington creating a red-tailed hawk in shingles

Kevin and Duncan Green assembling the swing

Kevin and Duncan Green assembling the swing

Cynthia and Howie and the swing photo by Lynn Christoffers

Cynthia and Howie and the swing
photo by Lynn Christoffers

One morning when we were sitting on our swing eating breakfast, a red-tailed hawk swooped down low over us and soared off over the roof of the adjoining woodshed, almost as though we’d conjured him up. Howie started his bird list. A red-tailed hawk. Then downy woodpeckers, song sparrows, Carolina wrens, mourning doves, a red-bellied woodpecker.

During his first winter ever, snow drifted over our swing, insulating it with a white quilt. The fish pond froze. Trees etched skeletal branches against the ice-blue sky. Howie never mentioned it, but he must have been dreaming of his canyon and the even-tempered San Diego weather.

From the swing, the fish pond, iced over

From the swing, the fish pond, iced over

But bright cardinals and blue jays, chickadees and goldfinches appeared at the bird feeder, and his bird list grew.

Spring. Rainbow drops melted from the icicles that festooned the roof gutters. Our guinea hens squatted on the circle of melted snow above the septic tank, crying, “Go back! Go back! Go back!”

The guinea fowl find a warm spot over the septic tank

The guinea fowl find a warm spot over the septic tank

Crows. A chimney swift, white-breasted nuthatch, dark-eyed junco. The Canada geese flew over us in their tidy V. A single mute swan flashed overhead.

The maple trees’ chartreuse blossoms dropped onto the carpet of new grass. Drifts of snow drops appeared in unexpected corners. Crocuses.

Ice on the fish pond melted. The seven fish had survived under the ice and ravenously gulped at every insect within reach. A frog hopped into the pond. A snapping turtle appeared. The beech tree we’d planted at our Buddhist commitment ceremony spread out its new green leaves.

We agreed. It was warm enough to have breakfast and lunch out on the swing overlooking the fish pond.

Sitting on our swing we’ve watched the resident cats, the guineas, our hens, skunks, squirrels, and a chipmunk. One warm spring day, the air bright and fresh, a soft breeze blowing, the sun projecting sun coins through the new maple leaves, I saw something flash past Howie’s face, then return and hover in front of him before it darted away again.

I turned to him. “What was that?”

“A new bird for my list.” He moved his binoculars off to one side and smiled. “A ruby-throated hummingbird.”

Ruby-throated hummingbird

Ruby-throated hummingbird

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THE EXPLODING COMPOST HEAP

One of my favorite passages in an early Victoria Trumbull mystery never made it into print.

Victoria, my 92-year-old poet protagonist in the Martha’s Vineyard Mystery Series, has some of the most exuberant gardens on Martha’s Vineyard. A lifelong Island resident, she attributes her gardening success to decades of composting.

She has four compost heaps behind the Norway maple at the end of her drive. The heaps are bounded by wooden forklift pallets. Every day she empties the compost bucket that she keeps under the kitchen sink onto whichever heap she deems is still brewing, and then covers the dumpings with leaves or grass clippings or dirt to discourage skunks. In cool weather, you can see the steam rising from Victoria’s brewing compost. Into the bucket under the sink she dumps not only the normal coffee grounds, eggshells, and orange peels that most composters recommend, but chicken bones, bacon fat, and rusty nails.

My favorite passage came about one morning when I looked up from my computer screen in astonishment. I had just written that Victoria’s compost heap had exploded.

How was I going to explain that to readers?

My story, up to this point, involved a villain who dabbles in drugs and explosives. I pondered on the odd happening of the exploding compost heap, and finally decided on the following: What if the villain takes a bag full of zucchini from his own garden to the DEA agent who was onto him? The villain has hollowed out one the zucchini, filled it with contact explosive, and carefully buried it under a couple of intact zucchini. The unsuspecting DEA agent, the would-be victim, removes one of the top zucchini, cooks it, and eats it. However, enough zucchini is enough. So he carries the bag of remaining squash to the house of his friend, Victoria Trumbull. She’s not home, so he leaves the bag in her entry.

But Victoria is away for a couple of days, and the zucchini begins to rot.

The tenant who lives in Victoria’s garden shed, a fastidious guy, notices the bag of limp zucchini in Victoria’s entry, and knowing Victoria won’t be home for another day or two, carries the bag — gently, as the bottom of the bag is oozing rotten zucchini juice — to the compost heap.

Because Victoria puts meat scraps and bones in her compost heap, a family of skunks, a mother and five babies, comes out every night and paws through the day’s goodies.

Victoria returns. That evening, while she and her granddaughter, Elizabeth, are eating supper, they hear a loud detonation and smell a strong skunk smell. When they investigate the next morning, they find the compost heap has vanished and a skunk tail is hanging from the antenna of Elizabeth’s convertible.

That was one of the greatest passages I’d ever written. I printed it up and submitted it to my editor. My editor returned my manuscript with this comment: “It’s taboo in mysteries to kill off children and animals. Especially baby animals.”

I intend to resurrect that passage. In the new version I’ll have the villain paw through the compost heap and it will be his toupee that ends up on the antenna of Elizabeth’s convertible.

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THE HIS AND HER GARDENS

Ten-foot-high fence keeps deer out of Cynthia's garden

Ten-foot-high fence keeps deer out of Cynthia’s garden

Howie and I have two gardens. Mine is a sprawling vegetable garden, some 900 square feet in area. His is 90 square feet.

Howie at work on his pyramidal strawberry bed

Howie at work on his pyramidal strawberry bed

I invariably start gardening long before winter is over, poring over seed catalogs, starting pots of seeds I’ve saved from previous years. And invariably the plants sprout, thirst for light, grow spindly, and droop away, long before I can put them out in the garden. Even though I know this will happen, every spring the urge to

get my hands into the dirt is too strong to resist.

This past winter, Howie’s first winter ever, he presented me with a plant stand, complete with growing lights. The plant stand and its growing lights worked. When spring arrived, we had seedlings to plant in our respective gardens — tomatoes, peppers, parsley, basil, and kale for me, a dozen zucchini plants for Howie.

Howie watered and weeded his zucchini this dry summer. One plant has been known to supply a family of five with zucchini. He had twelve plants. We’ve eaten zucchini in various guises every night since mid-July, and have frozen enough to get us through the winter. Remarkably, we don’t seem to get tired of zucchini.

My garden suffers from my enthusiasms. Every year I fall for the same trickery of the colorful garden seed packets. I’m always convinced that my produce will look like the enticing photos. I plant way too many vegetables — peas, spinach, kale, beets, Swiss chard, carrots, tomatoes, melons, cucumbers, potatoes, parsnips, okra, dill, parsley, basil, onions, garlic, eggplant. I’ve probably left something off this list. Between the too-close rows I plant nasturtiums and marigolds. Cherry tomatoes self-seed from years before, and so do borage and black-eyed Susans.

Mid-summer and Cynthia's garden is out of hand

Mid-summer and Cynthia’s garden is out of hand

Weeds self-seed, too.

By late summer, Howie’s garden is still tidy. He sets out a lawn chair and weeds and waters diligently from a seating position. He’s able to predict when the next zucchini will be ready. He constructed a pyramidal strawberry bed that is the focal point of his garden. Living in San Diego most of his life, it’s difficult for him to think of seasons when nothing will grow. He keeps hoping for the strawberry plants to produce berries, but they won’t bear until next June. Intellectually, he knows this, but he keeps hoping to see the strawberries burst forth.

Early in the season we feasted on spinach and peas. Then on beets and carrots. Then tomatoes and Swiss chard.

But the main produce from our gardens has been a steady supply of Howie’s zucchini.

By late summer, my enthusiasms wane. I know I should be pulling up weeds before they produce and drop the seeds that will populate next year’s garden, but somehow I don’t get to it.

Weeds heading for the compost heap
Weeds heading for the compost heap

This  morning, a glorious October day after three days of soft rain, I attacked the lush growth of weeds that have grown over, under, and around my less rugged crops. I’d filled the garden cart and was ready to take it to the compost heap when Howie came out with water for me to drink and to let me know it was lunchtime. It will take me a week of fine mornings like this to clear out the weeds, which is about the amount of time it will take those weeds’ seeds that I’ve been knocking into the moist soil to sprout.

Emerson described a weed as “a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” The only virtue I recognize is that pulling weeds is satisfying. At least, when I finally get to the task.

The zucchini we’ll dine on tonight will be sliced lengthwise, lightly steamed, arranged in a two-person casserole dish, topped with grated cheese, drizzled with ketchup, and placed in a 350 degree oven for ten minutes, until the cheese melts.

Yum!

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THE ESSENTIAL JEANS

Duluth Trading Company
Women’s Workwear
PO Box 409
Belleville WI, 53508-0409

Dear Duluth:

I am returning to you the jeans I purchased from you. I don’t expect a refund because I wore and washed them four or five times.

I wanted to like them. I’m a six-foot tall working woman, and love both your catalogs and your understanding of working women. I also love the fact that I can buy pants long enough to cover my ankles.

So I really tried to like the jeans.

However, the below-the-waist fit means the jeans don’t stay just below the waist, they keep slipping down. Every time I bend over, they slip further down until I start tripping over the extra length that I was so delighted to have. I need jeans that hug my waist and stay there.

That’s partly my fault. I ordered the wrong style.

But there’s more.

It has to do with the stretch fabric. In the morning when they’re freshly laundered and I’m only half awake, I have to squirm into them like wriggling into the body-shaping corset my grandmother wore. I don’t want my body shaped by some stretchy material. By mid-morning the stretch relaxes, and by late afternoon the stretch is gone and the jeans slip down whenever I move. See above.

But the real impetus for returning the jeans is the pockets. What on earth possessed you to provide such stingy pockets in the jeans of working women?

I like to put my hands in my pockets to warm them. Sometimes just to give me a comfortable position for thinking about things. But I can barely squeeze the first two joints of my fingers past the stretch fabric. Two finger joints is all that will fit in those skimpy pockets. I need to put stuff in my pockets in addition to my hands, like my knife, a measuring tape, twine, my gloves, and a paper towel. Knife and measuring tape are essentials.

The precipitating factor in returning these jeans to you was after my knife slipped unnoticed out of the inadequate pocket never to be seen again.

Did you design those pockets to save money? Surely, they can’t add more than fifty cents to the price. I can’t believe it’s a matter of style in working women’s pants.

Anyway, those are my reasons for sending your jeans back to you.

Cynthia Riggs

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WHIPPED CREAM

“Hot date tonight?” Libby, our niece, greeted Howie as he was leaving Cronig’s Market. He was carrying a dozen long stemmed red roses and two cans of Cabot whipped cream.

Well, yes, but it was the roses that contributed to the hot date, not the whipped cream.

Howie has an insatiable thirst for whipped cream. I learned of this lust of his when we were newly married and decided to show my affection by whipping up bowls of it for him from scratch. That lasted for one pint-container of whipping cream.

Only Cabot can keep up with him.

Typically, he squirts it onto sugar-free instant chocolate pudding, but almost any dessert that will support a snowy cloud of whipped cream will do. Pumpkin pie, of course. Applesauce, bread pudding, tapioca, ice cream, stewed pears. His coffee. I’ve seen him eyeing the whipped cream can with regard to split pea soup and Boston baked beans. The other night we had meatloaf. . .

While main courses tend to be speculative bases for whipped cream, dessert is a given. It’s an après dinner ritual to bring to the table two bowls of chocolate pudding, a can of Cabot whipped cream, and three spoons.

Howie leans back, shakes the can vigorously, and calls out, “Kitty, kitty, kitty!”

Claws scamper across the front hall, through the dining room (where we don’t eat), through the kitchen, and into the cookroom (where we do eat), and Daphne, our calico tabby, halts next to Howie’s chair.

She looks up at him.

He sets the third spoon on the floor and squirts a dollop of whipped cream into it. She laps it up and looks up at him again. This is repeated until Howie waves, her signal that there is no more.

Howie, Daphne, and the Cabot's whipped cream

Howie, Daphne, and the Cabot’s whipped cream

How would whipped cream taste with Fancy Feast chicken and liver?

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TITLES

On Saturday, September 27th, The Ambassador to the United States from St. Vincent and the Grenadines came to Martha’s Vineyard to sign a Memorandum of Understanding as part of the Sister Islands Initiative, and Her Excellency La Celia A. Prince, stayed here at the Cleaveland House, the bed and breakfast Howie and I run.

We don’t often get visitors of such high rank. Our clientele usually runs to poets, writers, artists, and other creative types who don’t mind an ancient house with shared baths and no TV.

However, this is the time of The Derby, the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, and housing on the Vineyard is as scarce as hens’ teeth.

So a few days ago, the Dukes County manager, Martina Thornton, called. “Do you have a room for this Saturday, one night? It’s for the Ambassador of Saint Vincent.”

All of our B&B rooms were booked. We have only three. “Ambassador?” I repeated.

“There are no available rooms on the Island,” she said.

Of course. The Derby. “Well,” I said after thinking a few seconds, “there’s the Woodshed.”

“Oh?” A significant pause.

“It’s actually the former woodshed,” I explained. “My husband, Howie, prefers to call it the Garden Room, because that’s where all my plants are.”

A longer silence on the other end of the line.

woodshed 092014
Woodshed, The Cleaveland House
photo by Cynthia Riggs

An explanation was in order. My great grandfather added a woodshed to the original house around 1850. That was where the family stored wood, coal, and miscellaneous things that didn’t belong in the house. A century later, around 1950, my father enlarged the woodshed and made it into a garage for their 1954 Willys Jeep and a workshop for the interminable house repairs. A half-century later, I enlarged the woodshed still further, replaced the deteriorating south-facing wall with windows, and replaced the roof. I intended to use the space as a getaway for me when my children moved back to the Island. I left all the evidence of woodshed, garage, and workshop. Old tools and worm-eaten beams. In the meantime, the Woodshed, now spelled with a capital “W”, is where I store my books and plants.

I explained all this to Martina. “It’s rustic,” I said. “The ceiling is bare boards, and the floor is cement.” I paused. “But it’s spacious and private and has its own bath.” I paused again. “I’ll send photos.”

I could imagine what was going on in Martina’s mind. Members of the diplomatic corps are not usually offered housing in rustic spaces, even ones with their own baths. “I’ll contact the embassy,” said Martina.

Apparently, the ambassador was willing to rough it. The next correspondence was from Sharen Wynne, Attaché of the Embassy: “This is to confirm that Her Excellency La Celia A. Prince will reserve the Garden Room for the Saturday, 27th September, 2014. . . It is an honour for Her Excellency to be able to stay at such an historic location in Martha’s Vineyard.”

Her Excellency arrived. A very young, very beautiful woman wearing jeans and spike heels. “Rustic is good,” she said after my apologies. “I’m tired of hotels.”

Ambassador Prince 2014
Ambassador La Celia Prince
photos by Lynn Christoffers

The afternoon of her arrival, Howie and I attended the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding, where we not only learned about this Sister Islands Initiative, but learned a lot about our own Island. The initiative links the two islands with an exchange of information on such vital issues as fire prevention and firefighting, emergency response, education, economic development, tourism, agriculture, fisheries, and the arts. Also, it means a possible exchange of teachers and students from one island to the other.

Two of our Vineyard firefighters, Glenn DeBlase and Tim Carroll, described their visit to St. Vincent to learn what we, on the Vineyard, could do to help firefighters on St. Vincent. Breathing apparatus, was a first critical need, and our Island’s firefighters assembled 35 breathing devices that will make their way down to St. Vincent.

“We’re working on a way to transport them,” said Glann. “It’s about four-hundred pounds of equipment.”

Her Excellency left this morning after donning flip-flops to inspect my overgrown garden. True to our new Sister Island Initiative, we compared our gardens’ plants, the ones we have in common and those unique to each island.

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I continued to call her “Your Excellency” throughout her stay. It’s a lovely title and one she’s earned.

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GRAPE JAM

This year we had a bonanza crop of grapes.

The grape arbor is next to the small studio where Lynn Christoffers, our resident photographer, lives and works. She’d been watching the grapes progress from blossoms to green marbles to fragrant purple gems. Yellow jackets were moving in to dine on the overripe ones.

“We need to harvest them soon,” she said.

She and a bed and breakfast guest went to work, clipping off bunches of lush grapes and by mid-afternoon, baskets of grapes covered every available surface in my kitchen.

Outdoors, grapes attract yellow jackets. Indoors, it’s fruit flies. I had to do something with the full baskets and their mist of hovering fruit flies before I had room enough to prepare supper. I was in the throes of a deadline and in no mood to deal with a mountain of grapes. I felt mildly resentful of the fact that Lynn and my guest had spent their time outdoors chatting and snipping in the glorious September day and had now saddled me with this monstrous project, and one I couldn’t put off. Procrastination meant multiple generations of fruit flies.

I don’t claim to be a cook. I don’t really want to be one. Several years ago, I’d tried making wine. The bucket of grape squeezings is still down in the cellar and I haven’t dared open it. In the past, I’d never had success making jelly and jam. Results invariably were unusable — too liquid for bread-spreading, not liquid enough for juice.

Nevertheless, something had to be done, so I plunged into jam making. First step was to bring out the lobster pot. This particular pot has held a half-dozen lobsters with space left over. It held only a third of the de-stemmed grapes. Into the pot, onto the stove, and boiled down until they were nothing but skins and seeds. I mashed them through a strainer, poured the resulting juice into the white plastic containers saved from Mermaid Farm Yogurt, scraped the seeds and skins out of the strainer and set them aside for the hens, cleaned everything up, and covered up the remaining two-thirds of the unprocessed grapes for the next session.

Howie, who knew better than to show up during the preceding process, came out of his study/lab to comfort me. “Would you like me to buy you an apron?” he asked, checking the purple splatters on my shirt.

While I was growling at Howie about aprons and kitchen scullery, the guest appeared. I glanced up. “Such a lovely aroma,” she said, inhaling deeply. “How I envy your being able to do this.”

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Supper time, and I’d cleared enough of the stove top to prepare something requiring only one pot. Howie, who never complains, made a small witty comment about fruit flies.

This harvest promised to yield dozens of glasses of jam. Even running a bed and breakfast, one can use only so much jam — providing the jam jells.

Three days passed. For the first time in my history, my jam jelled. I’ve cleaned up the purple splotches on refrigerator, stove, sink, dishwasher, floor, and ceiling. The baskets are back in their places, hanging from the ceiling of the cookroom. The grapes along with a seasoning of fruit flies have been reduced to two cardboard boxes containing two dozen neatly capped and labeled jars of Cleaveland House Grape Jam, 2014.

It does solve the problem of who gets what for Christmas.

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HOPS

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“Hops?” asked Susanna Sturgis. “Are you guys making beer?”

Not exactly. Here’s the story behind our hops crop.

A couple of years ago, we cleared up the cellar for a visiting grandson who decided that once we’d gotten rid of the really spooky cobwebs, it was the perfect place to brew beer. He was ready to settle down to a steady life of beer brewing. Would we mind planting some hops?

So we planted two hop vines by the vegetable garden fence. “No other vine is faster growing,” according to Jung Seeds, where we bought the hop vines. “Plants can grow up to 20 feet in one year.” Time passed and we sort of forgot about them, since the grandson decided to go back to Ohio University and major in environmental geography. Jung hadn’t told us what a prodigious crop of hops two contented vines can yield. Something had to be done.

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Nephew Gary Montrowl came to our rescue. His pub of choice is Offshore Ale, a restaurant and brewery in Oak Bluffs, where they produce a dozen varieties of beer and ale. “Once a year,” Gary said, “Offshore Ale brews Hopps Farm Ale made with hops from local growers. You interested?”

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A bushel basket of hops later, Gary estimated that we might have provided as much as three percent of the hops needed for a batch of Hopps Farm Ale.

Our remuneration? In another two weeks, we’re likely to get two growlers of one of the finest brews there can be, made (in part) from our own hops.

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INTRODUCING MARTHA’S VINEYARD MYSTERIES

I never planned to become a mystery writer.

For 20 years I’d been a boat captain running tour boats on the Potomac River, a ferry boat on Chesapeake Bay, a sailing instructor at the Annapolis Sailing School, and a delivery captain, moving boats from one place to another. I returned to Martha’s Vineyard, where I have deep roots, to be with my mother, Dionis Coffin Riggs, and she and I started a bed and breakfast that, we hoped, would pay for repairs on this old house. Our ancestral home dates back to the mid 1700s. She was a poet, and the house was (and is) full of books and papers and interesting clutter. Not for everyone. So we decided to cater to poets and writers.

After her death, just short of 99, one of our guests, knowing that I liked to write, urged me to go to Vermont College and get my MFA in creative writing in a two-year low residency program. I resisted. She persisted. Finally, I applied, sure they would not accept me. I was 68 years old and my 1953 bachelor’s degree was in geology, not English. But Vermont College accepted my application and me.

I had no idea what I was going to write. This was a journey into an unknown world. A friend suggested murder mysteries, and that was it.

Most of my fellow classmates were the age of my grandchildren. All seemed to be writing significant literature. Not mysteries. All supported and encouraged me.

Several decisions had to be made right away. The setting of the mysteries was obvious. I was born on Martha’s Vineyard, have spent much of my life here, and know it well. A choice of protagonist, too, was obvious. My mother, a strong woman I’ve always admired, would have made an admirable sleuth. Since a 99-year-old sleuth is implausible, I made her younger at 92, which is where she’ll stay throughout the series. Time, I decided, would always be set at the time I’m writing.

A book, an entire book. I’d always imagined writing a book to be a monumental task. But the college demanded that we students write five hours a day, and the five hours a day made the pages pile up. By the end of the two-year program, I’d turned out four books. I’d also assumed that writing one book would use up all of one’s ideas. But here I am, eleven published books later, number twelve under contract, and working on numbers thirteen and fourteen. I don’t think I will ever run out of ideas. Each book seems to generate more. This Island and its characters could — and does — provide dozens of writers with inspiration.

My first book, “Deadly Nightshade,” was published in 2001. To me, its publication marked the beginning of the millennium.

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