Monday, July 27, 2009

Discover if you have the grape de-seeding gene

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel July 27, 2009)

I got a call last week from friend and grape grower, Tommy Free.

"The grapes will be ready on August 1st," he said. "We got a lot of good rain this year and the vines seem to be producing even bigger grapes than usual."

Free has been producing purple muscadine and bronze-colored scuppernong grapes on the west side of Clermont's Lake Apshawa since his parents moved there from Ocoee in 1987. In the 18 years since our family has lived in south Lake County, I don't think we've missed a single August grape harvest. Picking grapes is one of my favorite late summer rituals.

After receiving Free's call, I e-mailed Jenny in Massachusetts and Timmy in Seattle.

"Tommy's grapes will be ripe when you visit," I wrote my two out-of-state children. "When you get home we can go over and pick them together."

Jenny has been hankering for Florida fruit. "Will there be ripe starfruit when we're there?" she asked a few weeks ago. I had to tell her no. Last winter's freeze severely damaged our carambola tree — commonly called starfruit because that's what the fruit looks like when sliced. Although new leaves have since formed, it is nowhere near harvest time. Ditto for the papayas, another of Jenny's favorite Florida treats.

"Figs and grapes," I told her, "that's what will be ripe when you arrive."

Timmy likes both but Jenny is not a big fan of the former. That's because, like her father, she has difficulty de-seeding certain types of fruit.

"How can you eat them that way?" Ralph always asks when I sit down to consume dozens of scuppernongs in rapid succession.

I have no idea. It's an unconscious act. That's not the case for Ralph or Jenny. I've always found it perplexing that both lack the oral dexterity needed to separate a seeded grape's individual parts. They have the same problem with pitted fruits like cherries and loquats. Are such abilities (or lack thereof) inheritable traits? Are some of us actually born with a fruit de-seeding gene?

If there is such a gene, three of our four children inherited it from me. Not only do I adore the sweet flavor of scuppernongs, I actually like the process of separating the tough skin and small seeds from the juicy flesh. Part of the fun in eating muscadine and scuppernong grapes is the process — pick them, pop them into your mouth, squeeze out the flesh, spit out the seeds and wait while an aromatic landmine of sweetness explodes in your mouth.

The best way to enjoy the amazing sweetness of a Florida grape is to pick them yourself. Fortunately, Free's vineyard is one of several local u-pick farms that have survived the economically unstable times. According to the Web site, there are eight farms in Central Florida, including Free's Lake Apshawa Farm & Nursery, providing u-pick muscadine grapes to the public. Like all small farms, it's best to call ahead before visiting for availability, hours and price.

Grapes grow on vines trained to twine around horizontal wires. This makes them easy to pick without much bending or reaching. Look under leaves for the ripest clusters and be selective. The softer, darker skinned muscadines and the more bronzy-colored scuppernongs are the sweetest. In less time than it takes to stand in the checkout line at the grocery store, you can fill a bag with golden and purple fruit, pay for them and be on your way.

Florida is famous worldwide for its citrus fruit and coconut palms but even many longtime residents are unaware that the Sunshine State also produces a distinctively flavored table grape.

Grape season in Florida is short — lasting only until the end of August — but it is a decidedly sweet period of time. Take advantage of one of the state's best-kept secrets. In the process, you might discover the possession of yet another secret…the fruit de-seeding gene.

(for more information about Tommy Free's u-pick grapes, call 352-394-3313.)

Monday, July 20, 2009

Parallel-less lives...

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel July 20, 2009)

My son and I recently met with his soon-to-be college roommate to discuss the logistics of first-time house sharing. After deciding who would provide what piece of communal furnishings and which pieces of shared cookware, we headed back to our separate cars.

It was pouring.

"Where'd you park?" I asked Laura as we stood beneath the building's sheltered overhang watching the rain.

"Way over there," she said, pointing to the far end of a large parking area.

"You're going to get drenched," I said. "Too bad you didn't park closer."

Next to the building was a line of cars — our minivan among them — lined one behind the other alongside the curb.

"I wouldn't have parked there," explained the college junior. "I never learned how to parallel park, so I always look for parking spaces away from other cars."

I was incredulous.

"Didn't you have to parallel park in order to pass your driving test?" I asked.

"No," interjected my 17-year-old son. "It's not part of the test."

Turning to Toby, I asked, "You don't know how to parallel park either, do you?"

"No," he said. "You never taught me."

He's right. I didn't.

I taught my son many things during his months of student driving — how to drive defensively, obey speed limits and use turn signals. I emphasized the importance of checking mirrors before changing lanes, explained how to merge safely into traffic and cautioned him not to ride the brakes. We practiced driving in fog and rain, on congested highways and on unpaved, bumpy roads. We drove into parking lots and repeatedly pulled into and out of parking spaces, but we didn't practice parallel parking at all. It never occurred to me to teach Toby how to wedge a car between two curbside vehicles.

If we lived in a city, this never would have happened. By necessity, city dwellers learn the ins and outs of curbside parking. We live in an outlying area. I can't think of anywhere within a 20-mile radius of our home where one would absolutely have to parallel park. Nonetheless, not having a need to do something regularly doesn't preclude the need to do it at all.

"You're going to have to parallel park when you are living in Orlando," I warned, but their returning stares said, "You poor, clueless adult."

OK, so maybe they won't need to learn. Perhaps parallel parking will become just as irrelevant as hand signals, driving gloves (hint: that's what glove compartments originally were designed to hold), hand-crank windows and — thanks to the Internet and GPS units — paper maps. I still need a key to start my car, but some drivers don't. In the future, I suppose, push-button ignition systems will make car keys archaic.

I feel torn. Even if it's seldom practiced, shouldn't all drivers at least know how to parallel park? On the other hand, if there are enough alternatives — multilevel parking garages and lots filled with acres of macadam — why put the effort into perfecting an unnecessary skill?

As my youngest child ventures out on the highway of life, I trust that the lessons he has been taught will serve him well. His education may not have prepared him for every situation, but with a good grasp on the basics, I'm confident the rest will fall into place. Until then, for those long walks from the back of life's parking lot, it wouldn't hurt to keep an umbrella under the seat — just in case.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Our family's fascinating bears fruit

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel July 13, 2009)

It doesn't get much better than this," Ralph said as he approached the bedroom with a heaping bowl of fruit.

We were about to settle in to our evening routine of pre-sleep TV watching, a ritual that includes — on my husband's part — some sort of after-dinner snack. Tonight his concoction was a large dish containing bite-size pieces of his three favorite fruits: apricots, raspberries and figs.

The apricots and raspberries were store-bought, but the figs were homegrown. Our small, gnarly fig orchard has been extremely productive this year. For the past week, in the late afternoon, Ralph has walked outside with an empty one-gallon black bucket only to return a few minutes later cradling the heavy pail with both hands. Inside are dozens of plump LSU purple figs, a nematode-resistant strain that does well in our climate.

"Do you see what I picked?" he inevitably asks, even though I saw it yesterday, the day before and the day before that.

"That's great," I say again, understanding his need to restate the obvious.

After years of longing for quantities of homegrown goodies, Ralph finds it hard to believe the harvest he dreamed about is finally here. I find his enthusiasm endearing.

As I watched my partner of 38 years savor his post-dinner snack, I couldn't help thinking what a fruitful family we are. That is to say, our pantry is always full of the season's freshest fruit. While others may stock up on canned goods or meat, our quantity buys tend to involve some sort of perishable produce. Right now, in addition to plates full of figs sitting on the counter in various degrees of ripeness, shelf space has been allocated to peaches, bananas (some homegrown, some from the store), mangoes, apricots, cherries, cantaloupes, watermelons and a South American delicacy called mamey sapote. In our freezer are enough plastic zipper bags of hand-picked blueberries, blackberries and mulberries to make several dozen pies.

Outside, edibles dot our property. There are wild patches of blackberries, elderberries and passion fruit in addition to all the fruit trees we've planted — figs, bananas, mulberries, loquats, starfruit, Surinam cherries, papayas, persimmons and assorted citrus. Two years ago, our oldest son planted a small orchard of peach, nectarine, pomegranate, guava, plum and avocado trees, and we added two cold-hardy mangoes. Timmy's fruit trees have all prospered, but our mangoes got zapped during last winter's freeze.

Fruits have always been one of our main family themes. I can't count how many times we gathered up the kids when they were young en route to one you-pick farm or another. Family vacations centered on farm stops where we could get out of the camper and stretch our legs while filling up baskets (and mouths) with fresh-picked edibles. In season, we've garnered quantities of blueberries, blackcaps, raspberries, strawberries, grapes, apricots, lychees, wineberries, apples, pears, figs and various nuts. From the time our kids were big enough to walk on their own, we taught them how to pick only the ripest, juiciest, plumpest fruit.

Although our children are no longer little, fresh fruit still excites them.

"We have been enjoying all the great fruit that comes ripe this time of year," our daughter in Massachusetts, Jenny, wrote in our family's monthly newsletter. "Twice we've gone and picked strawberries to eat, eat more of, and freeze the rest. The blackcaps are ripe here, too, and we have some big bushes within a short walk, and even a few great ones right in our back yard!! It's fun to take a walk early in the morning and gather berries for breakfast (and just eat some, too)."

Passing on an appreciation for nature is a worthy legacy. As I sit in bed watching my husband savor his after-dinner treat, I see much more than a single serving of his three favorite fruits. I'm looking at a family history flavored by the sweet taste of fresh-picked food. For almost four decades we have planted, picked, sorted, frozen, baked with and shared our harvests with others. We've known both the satisfaction that comes from growing your own and the pleasure derived from discovering new sources of homegrown goodness.

Ralph's right. It doesn't get much better than this.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Breathe in...breathe out

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel July 6, 3009)

Breathe in ... breathe out.

We do it about 20,000 times each day. That's more than 7 million times a year for every year of our lives. From the moment of birth until the instant of death, people process the world through the act of respiration. Good air (oxygen) comes in. Bad air (carbon dioxide) goes out. Breathing is an action so automatic — so second-nature — that most of us are barely aware it's happening.

Not me. For as long as I can remember, I've been attuned to how well (or not well) my breath is flowing.

I was one of those kids with allergies — dark circles under my eyes, a constant stuffiness-runniness in my nose and a soggy, white tissue permanently affixed to my clenched right hand. I never went anywhere without a supply of Kleenex wadded up in pants pockets or tucked into the side pouch of a backpack or purse.

Things haven't changed much for me in adulthood. Although I've figured out which allergy medicine works best and have successfully managed to avoid dairy products (a major allergic trigger), I still find myself tethered to a clutch of tissues. And those dark circles beneath my eyes continue to elicit the occasional crass comment.

"Who gave you the two black eyes?" some witless twerp will inevitably ask. As a child, I found such thoughtless remarks devastating. Now I give them the attention they deserve, which is no attention at all. I find myself annoyed more by the offender's lack of sensitivity than by the words themselves.

Despite a lifetime of labored breathing, the situation during mid-June became particularly severe. Allergies, however, were not the culprit. An injured rib affected my breathing, making it extremely difficult to get a good breath.

"Just one breath — one long, deep breath. That's all I want," I murmured to myself. And when that breath finally came, I inhaled so gratefully. Fresh air — oxygen — was all I wanted. It was the only thing that mattered. Life was complete.

I promised myself that when I got better — when my bruised rib healed and I could once again breathe with relative ease — I would treasure each moment, each inhalation, each release. I'm at that point now. The hurt that caused my chest to feel like a compressed squeeze box has finally abated. I can catch a breath easily. I'm free of aches and pains. Even my allergies seem to have improved.

Sometimes it takes an injury, an accident or an illness to make us realize how much we stand to lose. Little things become significant when threatened or compromised. I'm not pleased to have allergies or a bruised right rib, but I'm glad for the insights those ailments provided.

Life is nothing if not full of surprises. None of us knows what tomorrow will bring — what problems, what joys, what pleasures, what woes. In light of such uncertainty, the only thing to do is to live each day fully and appreciate the little things that make life worthwhile. Simple things like breathing that we tend to take for granted.

Breathe in ... breathe out. It's what life's all about.