By Dani Walczak
Each year since I started farming I pack my bike panniers like Christmas stockings and head north to Unity for the Common Ground Country Fair with Ali.
On Friday after work, we meet in the Park-and-Ride of I-95 at the Augusta Mall. We head Northeast on our bikes. Stumbling through parking lots, roundabouts and deadened dumpsters until we get to Churchill Road. Here the roads grow quiet and we fall into a rhythmic pedaling. As the sun sets on golden tree tops, our shadows fall long on the tall grass lining the road where cicadas and others buzz.
September is when I feel like the wealthiest person in the world. My body feels strong, and still with enough sun to garner loads of energy. Crops are not yet giving in to colder temperatures but are mature enough to grow themselves, vines tangled around vines holding themselves up, together.
September is the calm in the middle — the relief after the height and heat of summer when the days grow shorter and thus more potent. As we spin on to China and through Albion the air grows cooler, and November lingers ominously. The month that presents the death of all our plant friends, the final push to gather all remaining crops out of the field in turbulent cold weather before Thanksgiving, when the body is ready to be held.
But for this moment — if we can stay present — the persistent tapping of the summer routine dances on and without 10-hour work days, this weekend feels more open for exploration. I stay up later, ride my bike more, try to cram it all in, dance every dance.
I feel incredibly at home this time of year, caught between two extremes: to lead the season or to follow. This is the time of year that is best to gather, celebrate and grieve.
In pandemic times, it feels hard to savor anything so without the in-person fair, like so many other traditions cut short, I started relying heavily on my ability to preserve. Unwrapping old notes, journal entries, friend’s memories like the unearthed treasures they are.
It’s like I can almost feel Fred’s giant grin when we arrive at the fair the next day by bike — bells clanging. Light glimmers off the bicycle-rim decorations. We are greeted fully and warmly as we are. Leaving our bikes in safe hands as we surrender to the moment — the hum of long-awaited greetings, Sweet Annie, ding of a bell, wood smoke, apples.
In the late afternoon, we head to our volunteer shift. The fairground starts to grow still, as dusk falls on the yellow and white circus-like tents. The social dust of the day settles and people tote their wagon-riding kids back to the parking lot, donned in flower crowns and arms full of vegetables. Still sweaty from the day, we throw on our first sweaters of fall and weave between pop-up tents to the light and savory aroma emanating from a screen door in the side of the Exhibition Hall.
Outside we pass a picnic table of people slicing peppers, wheelbarrows of compost waiting in the corner. Upon entering the kitchen, the door slams loudly behind us but then becomes a percussive beat to the organism that is the Common Kitchen. Oven doors crash open and close, pumping the scent of sage, basil and cornbread into the air. The kitchen sprayer blasts stainless steel to a sheen, knives thumping on cutting boards. Everyone is focused but fun. If you don’t get into rhythm quickly there’s probably someone walking behind you with a hot pot of soup pushing you along.
A friend summons me over to a vat of tomato sauce. “Come check what spices this needs.” I throw on an apron and embolden the soup with heaps of oregano.
As we work, familiar, nameless faces I see every year appear from the crowd. I share a smile and eye contact with the cutie I swung at the contradance the year before.
The calm kitchen manager calls the steps in this dance. Enough of us know them, we can pull others into the line. The kitchen manager tasks me and another volunteer with making cake, then cookies, then more cake. We all mingle and search sometimes fruitlessly for bowls, eggs and open countertops in this communal space, but feeding the fair volunteers with donated produce and goods from Maine always seems to work out. A feast of salads, rice curries, muffins laid out buffet-style on folding tables outside. We drink hot apple cider.
As the night settles in, we eat and share a quiet seeping of the day’s activities before heading across the fairgrounds to the volunteer guerilla contradance where that yellow-and-white tent is now filled with thick human air and warm light.
Fiddles come into tune as we gather in lines and breathe the smell of cooling, dewy grass outside. We all know the steps, so Maggie’s muffled microphone instructions aren’t required.
We pull partners in from the folding chairs that surround the unfinished wooden dance floor. Tucking in elbows. Spinning in open spaces. Leaning on each other in the tight ones, a familiar give and take from the home dance where creating space is a learned skill made easier with the right dance partner. Socked feet snagging but not sticking on the splintered floor.
It feels so far away right now. How we mix these experiences — traditions — into movement in a post-pandemic world is difficult but September, somehow, makes it all feel possible. All those feelings of nostalgia don’t drag us blindly into the past but present an opportunity to remember how to live.
So perhaps, despite myself, I can again rely on my ability to preserve a moment in time. Even during the pandemic September triggers a seasonal shift and my body starts performing its yearly routine. The familiarity of this urgent tradition is comforting. The coping mechanisms return: moments feel more pressing and nostalgic. I long to take back the days that I didn’t savor long enough and I begin freezing tomatoes.
I remember the first time I canned tomatoes I grew. Bringing flats of overripe tomatoes to Melissa’s house where she and her mother (who taught her) taught me to make canned salsa. The late September light catching in the steam off a boiling pot of canning jars. When we were done, we shared a glass of wine to the sound of lids popping in the kitchen, indicating a good seal.
Or the time Digory and I reduced red wine and added it to our sauce. We drank the rest of the bottle while water boiled from our sauce until the tomatoes were mahogany and thick. Learning time is often the best way to make something delicious. And those moments you spend chopping onions and garlic, picking basil off the stalk, you spent together and are now captured in what you consume.
I did a lot of digging this year. Life won’t be like it once was but perhaps we can start with some familiar steps, relying, for once, on our traditions — those good teachers.
To save September, it is best to save tomatoes— overripe on the vine. With simple steps they can transform us into something deep — even bold. The abundance can be turned into sauce that stores well in the freezer and is suitable only for the coldest of times, something to thaw later. Serving as a memory of what being warm, lush and unencumbered feels like.
The magic of a tomato is that it’s whole.
A tomato from the moment it’s picked, contains everything it needs to be delicious. I think the perfect tomato is one that sits softly in your palm, one that weighs enough to make the wrist aware of its need to support. One that is eaten ravenously like an apple.
When the sun still hangs high and warm in the sky but later afternoon imbues a deep sense of foreboding, it is time to gather tomatoes.
I am drawn to capture them all, tucking the especially delectable ones neatly wrapped in my warm layers in my backpack or wedged gently between the dashboard and windshield of the truck to give to friends. Later, watching their faces glow in the reflection of a Pineapple Premiere or smile as they cup a Brandywine close to their heart in gratitude.
A whole tomato does not need much to transform it into a delicious meal. Slicing a tomato with slabs of mozzarella, a basil leaf, a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt is as satisfying a meal as a bowl of hearty pasta with tomato sauce.
In a year when gathering together for meals became off-limits, I trusted only in the wholeness of a tomato to convey a meal to a friend. What it means to eat together.
The tomato reminds me that bursting open with excitement, spilling my passion over everything — when it is ripe — is not required, but necessary. When the moment comes, I suggest you let it consume you; it’s well worth the release. Save restraint for cooking.
To freeze these tomatoes, I roughly chop them and roast in a deep baking dish with basil (if available), whole crushed cloves of garlic, salt and pepper, and a bay leaf at 450 degrees. I try to do this on a night when it’s cooler and roast as many tomatoes as possible. I roast them for hours, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes have reduced in size by about half. If you care about seeds and skins you can remove those before roasting, which will also reduce the water content that needs to be cooked off. Once cooled, I fill old yogurt pints and place them in my freezer door, but plastic bags work well too.
I like to chop things as roughly as possible so when thawed they still resemble the plant they came from. In winter, when I begin simmering the frozen tomatoes back to life, usually to make the sauce (although just cooking the roasted tomatoes a bit longer and pureeing them is more than acceptable as a sauce), my kitchen is transformed. My house is filled with the essence of each ingredient. The tomatoes, of course, but also the dusty days of pulling garlic. The way it sticks to your skin. The sweetness of basil, reminding you of when the mornings were light. It’s like that one bite you save on your plate for last. But with tomato sauce you save it for six months.
By not doing much to the tomatoes now, you are allowing them to transform once more in your kitchen and tie up some loose ends from the summer.
Growing the vegetables is not easy. Nothing about getting to this point in this year has been easy, but now reliving the good parts in simple meals can be, at a time when something easy feels more palatable, manageable, digestible.