As a city person living on a farm in New Zealand, it seems I’m always trying new things. I suppose this is honorable: I’m expanding my horizons and acquiring skills. The problem is that novelty so frequently ends in disaster.
There was the “let’s try raising a rooster” phase, resulting in an 18-inch bird pecking furiously at my legs. There was the earnest attempt to “get this cow back in her paddock,” ending with the cow in a neighbor’s garden, eating roses and (I am certain) having a laugh.
After various misadventures with animals, I decided this year to start vegetable gardening, and now it is clear I may die by zucchini. Not realizing just how fertile these sluts of the squash world can be, I planted six varieties and sat back hopefully, anticipating summer luncheons of ratatouille and zucchini tarts.
The resulting zucchini torrent brought me to the brink of collapse. They surged from the garden, some slender and demure, most wide and menacing as a cudgel. We baked, grilled and fried them, and when we could eat no more we tried feeding them to the cow, who glanced up critically but refused to cooperate. They sprang up overnight, sometimes a dozen in a day. At night I lay awake, certain I could hear them growing then slithering, Triffid-like, in the dark.
Then there was the matter of the sorrel. I planted this weed with fond thoughts of France, remembering a classic soup from childhood. I’d blend it with stock from the turkeys we’d raised, and smooth it with eggs from our chickens. I imagined the soup bright green, bursting with sunlight and flavor from the garden I’d planted myself.
Just picked, the leaves were beautiful, as springy and vibrant as I’d remembered. But in contact with heat they faded, the green leaves surrendering to grey, then capitulating to the muddy consistency of pudding.
I persevered, straining the soup, tempering the cream, smoothing and correcting the seasoning. And though the resulting flavor wasn’t too terrible, pleasantly citrusy if a bit strong, I couldn’t get past the look of it. This soup just looked like a swamp.
“That’s all right, I’ll feed it to the chickens,” I thought, comforting myself with the wisdom that nothing is wasted on a farm, that the chickens would turn this culinary failure into good eggs for our family.
But even the chickens wouldn’t taste my crappy soup, and the next morning I found the bowl untouched in their enclosure, while my hens pecked for beetles in the grass.
Meanwhile, I’d turned my back on the garden for an entire day, and the result was zucchini anarchy. These plants have oversize leaves, large enough to hide a toddler or, in this case, the most perversely large squash I had ever laid eyes on.
This zucchini was nearly four feet in length, far beyond the pornographic specimens I’d contended with in the past. When they get that large, they’re not even called zucchini, but rather “marrow,” reminding me uncomfortably of the human bones they might suck if they ever grew teeth.
A New Zealand friend named Zane came round to commiserate, and when he saw my marrow he laughed out loud. “You can’t eat that,” he told me pointlessly, as though I would have dared to attempt such folly. “You can make a rum, though.”
At this, my ears perked up. “Make rum? To drink?”
“Yep, my grandmother did it, when times were tight. Hollowed out the inside of the thing and packed it with sugar, then hung it in an old stocking over a bucket. Stuff that drips out is a real strong alcohol. Marrow rum, they called it.”
Every now and then, as I try out new things, I learn something great: like how to turn a monster into a cocktail. And so I no longer pick my zucchini. Instead, I let them grow large and luxurious, ballooning out into the glorious rum vessels I now know them to be. Come fall, I’ll hang them from the rafters, each packed with sugar, until they release their essence, drip by delicious drip.
And in a few months, I’ll have marrow rum, enough to make everything better—the angry rooster, the obstreperous cow, this life in the country where we constantly stumble and fall. Maybe, if I drink enough of it, that marrow rum will improve the taste of sorrel. Or at least, I won’t worry about it, one way or the other.
Read more faming life woes in Dirty Chick, which chronicles Antonia’s first year of life as an artisan farmer. Having bought into the myth that farming is a peaceful, fulfilling endeavor that allows one to commune with nature and live the way humans were meant to live, Antonia soon realized that the reality is far dirtier and way more disgusting than she ever imagined. Part family drama, part cultural study, and part cautionary tale, Dirty Chick will leave you laughing, cringing, and rooting for an unconventional heroine.