One Perk of Living Here

(This post first appeared on Assist News Service in December 2014.)

Here in Western Ukraine, fall is gradually morphing into winter. We actually had our first snowfall back in October, and though it melted off with the return of somewhat warmer weather, it let us know that winter was not far away. The trees are bare, and the world has taken on that dormant look that comes after the autumn harvest is over and the plants prepare for the cold, dark months ahead.

In our family, the passing of the seasons is marked most vividly by the changing availability of seasonal produce. After a long winter relying on root vegetables, cabbage, shrivled apples, and imported citrus fruits, it feels like a holiday when the first strawberries appear in late May. We celebrate by consuming two or more quarts of the delicious berries per day until they disappear from the farmers’ markets about a month later.

Berries are by far my favorite kind of fruit and the definitive sign of summer for me. As the strawberries are going out of season, the huckleberries are coming in, followed by raspberries that linger on and on until the first snowfall. I have been known to take a one-quart tub of freshly-picked raspberries from somebody’s garden and happily polish them off in a single sitting!

In addition to the berries, in the summer months we also get apricots, peaches, plums, melons, grapes, and all kinds of vegetables and greens. In the autumn, we get pumpkins, butternut squash, pears, and many varieties of apples. The entire growing season feels like a parade of luscious produce, and we scramble to enjoy our fill while the bounty lasts and preserve as much as we can for the long, lean winter ahead.

When it comes to fresh produce, we feel very fortunate to be living in Ukraine. The population is still largely agrarian, with most city-dwellers maintaining a plot of land in a village somewhere. This means that our options for acquiring fruits and veggies are not limited to the produce section at the grocery store. It also means that we get a lot of produce for free.

As anyone who has ever had a vegetable garden knows, at the height of the season, it’s impossible to keep up with Mother Nature’s output, and you are hard-pressed to find ways to use everything before it spoils. Being extremely generous by nature, Ukrainians solve this problem by giving away the excess. We have been the grateful recipients of countless bags overflowing with cucumbers, tomatoes, root vegetables, and leafy greens. Besides being free, it’s also organic, because most Ukrainians are deeply suspicious of chemicals and are not about to spray them on food intended for their own consumption.

In addition to giving away their harvest, many Ukrainians sell their excess to make a little side income. We have farmer’s markets all over our city, ranging in size from the central one with hundreds of vendors to the handful of people on the sidewalk outside the entrance to my eldest son’s school. The produce you find this way is fresher and often cheaper than what you can find at the grocery store, plus it’s also likely to be organic.

This past summer, we froze around twelve gallons of organic strawberries. We bought most of them from a lady who swore she used no pesticides—and could show us the slug bites on her berries to prove it. At one point we bought a 10-kilo (22-pound) crate of strawberries from her for roughly $25. Imagine that—fresh organic strawberries for just $1.13 per pound! We also bought huckleberries and raspberries by the gallon for freezing.

We had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of a neighbor who keeps a vegetable garden outside the city and got in the habit of ordering greens from her. Sometimes she would even deliver them right to our door. She could basically supply us with as much as we wanted, so we would buy massive quantities of whatever she had, including lettuce, parsley, dill, green onions, spinach, fennel greens, and sorrel.

In addition, we frequently visited a group of ladies selling everything from fresh eggs and raw milk to homemade butter and homegrown produce in a parking lot near our neighborhood. They soon learned to recognize my husband and me and would cheerfully ask if we needed any parsley or sorrel or dill that day. Much to their consternation and delight, we usually bought them out.

People often asked what we needed with so many greens. I remember one man who asked if I ran a restaurant. I explained that I had a large family, and asked him if he knew what a green smoothie was. He did and immediately understood my need for the shopping bag stuffed full of parsley that I had just bought from him. But he was unusual, because most people who ask for an explanation have never heard of a green smoothie and have a difficult time imagining a beverage with lots of leafy greens in it.

As a family, during the months when produce is plentiful, we consume around two pounds of greens per day, and what we can’t eat right away, we dry and grind in our blender to create green powders to add a nutritional punch to smoothies during the winter. We have a food dehydrator, and this past summer it was running twenty-four hours a day, preserving greens, tomatoes, cherries, and plums. Our kids helped out by seeding the tomatoes and pitting the fruits, and my husband and I worked together most nights after the kids were in bed to prepare greens for drying.

We bought several buckets that we used solely for washing produce, and many nights you could find us working late hours in the kitchen, washing piles of greens, spinning them dry in a pillowcase that we whirled around our heads on our apartment balcony, stripping the leaves from the stems, and stuffing our dehydrator as full as we could manage. An entire evening’s work typically yielded only half a cup of powdered greens, but by the end of the season, we had managed to amass over twelve quarts of green powder, in addition to several quarts each of dried tomatoes, plums, and cherries.

It was a different rhythm of life, and as we stayed up late, night after night, working hard to prepare for winter, I would imagine what it would be like after the growing season was over and how much free time we would have as we enjoyed the results of our labor. It always made me feel like the proverbial ant, industriously storing up food during the harvest while the grasshopper played in the sun.

I was happy that we were able to involve our kids in the process, because I hoped it would give them a long-term perspective and an appreciation for the benefit of work. I think at least one of them caught the vision. All the kids were especially excited to watch our stash of dried cherries grow, and after the cherry trees stopped bearing fruit and we began to eat our dried cherries, my eldest son, who is 7 and had done most of the cherry pitting, started to come up with different strategies to slow our consumption of the treat so that our supply would last until the spring. He obviously had a grasp on how actions were related to consequences and an appreciation for how much work had gone into making his brothers’ new favorite dried fruit!

In an ironic twist, now that winter is almost upon us and we should be settling down to enjoy the fruits of our summer labor, we find ourselves facing an unexpected (although not unwelcome) two-month furlough in the United States. We will be taking some of our green powders and dried cherries with us, but the bulk of our dried produce will stay in Ukraine, awaiting our return towards the end of winter.

Despite this development, I don’t regret the work we put in this summer, because it made me more mindful of the long-term importance of the things we do every day. Last summer, my husband and I could have chosen to watch movies or while away the evenings on Facebook, but then we would not have the satisfaction of a pantry full of high-nutrient, low-cost dried produce to enjoy now. And while eating healthily and economically is important to us, that’s not the main point I’m trying to make here. The unusual couple time we spent together and the rows of bottles and jars filled with the results of our labor are to me a metaphor for how all the choices I make from day to day affect the ultimate outcome of my life. A life full of meaning and purpose is within my grasp; I just have to decide to pursue it with the choices I make each day. They may not be the most comfortable or convenient choices, but over time, they are the ones that will yield the sweet reward of lasting fruit.

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