Summer brings its own special horrors like sunburn, poison ivy and feature articles about the mayor of Ocean City. High on my list of summer traumas is dining at the home of anyone whose hobby is raising vegetables.
Here in the Washington area, it seems, back-yard gardeners feel compelled to tell every step of the painful process of getting their produce to the kitchen. These may be persons whose 9-to-5 activities involve steering the course of the nation, defending the western world, or saving mankind from disease. Their dinner-table conversations consist of the life history of each and every vegetable reclining in the casserole. I'm sure the veggies in the local supermarkets have similarly sordid pasts, but Safeway and Giant are mercifully silent on the subject.
In the metro area, those with back-yard vegetable plots can be divided into two groups. In the first is the gardener who believes the du Ponts were pikers when it comes to better living through chemistry. This person exhibits with pride a garage bulging with containers bearing skulls and crossbones. Dinner guests are regaled with tales of how, while bravely disregarding warning labels, the stalwart gardener blended a bit of this and a tad of that.
The resulting mixtures, the guests are assured, not only spur the growth of acromegalic vegetables capable of careers in professional wrestling, but also cause every bug within a two-block radius to clench its little toes and expire. These stories are especially unsettling when the clever chemist is a former English major who fulfilled college science requirements with courses like Alchemy--The Good Old Days. Dinner guests depart nervously wondering why the tomatoes had that interesting tang and why the household cat spent the evening huddled in a corner, coughing.
In the second group is the gardener who proudly eschews all chemical fertilizers and insecticides. This is the person who thinks nothing perks up guests' appetites like a preprandial hike to the compost heap where each pungent layer is cheerfully exhumed. Camouflage techniques of various crawling creatures are this gardener's favored dinner-table anecdotes, along with vivid accounts of luring slugs to death by drowning in beer-filled pans. Guests spend a grueling evening watching for movement in the salad and rigorously prodding each forkful of broccoli.
As a hobby, raising vegetables does have its virtues. Unlike jogging, it doesn't risk the practitioner's being splattered over several square yards of commuter roadway; in contrast to frequenting the Kennedy Center, it doesn't necessitate a second mortgage. Most important, gardening seems to fulfill a deep-seated desire to be a farmer. This desire may be based on the fact that farmer is an instantly recognizable occupation--something enviable in a city filled with analysts and facilitators. Or perhaps it is merely an attempt to emulate what is perceived as a simpler, more attractive life.
I believe what most Washington-area back-yard gardeners need is the opportunity to fulfill their urge to play farmer without disrupting the digestive tracts of friends and neighbors. Here are some suggestions.
Sitting up with a sick cow: In this exercise, the gardener places a cow in a closet, which simulates a stall, and then spends the entire night anxiously checking the animal's breathing. Real cows are available, of course, in outlying areas, but they tend to become surly when pressed into service by a back-yard gardener.
Horses from local stables are more acclimated to the vagaries of human behavior. Costumers carry papier-ma che' clip-on horns that easily convert a horse to a cow. To feel most like a real farmer, the gardener should carry out this exercise before a particularly demanding workday to prevent spoiling the effect of total exhaustion with a midday nap.
Tractor tilt: There are many interesting things to do with tractors, but most require more space than is generally available in Washington's environs. One exception is a variation of a pastime that originated in Vermont among those owners of hillside farms who attempted to mechanize. When the rented John Deere is delivered, the would-be farmer sits in the driver's seat while several burly college students (hired for the occasion) tilt the machine until it turns over. To be pinned under a tractor gives you empathy with a true tiller of the soil.
Foreclosure auction: This is similar to a yard sale but requires disposing of most worldly possessions, not just nonfunctioning small appliances. For the sake of authenticity, a professional auctioneer should be hired and sternly instructed to keep all bidding down to a few cents on the dollar. Now that banks are trying to recoup some of their losses on loans to oil-producing countries, it may be possible to persuade a banker to make a personal appearance for a reasonable fee--so long as the auction is scheduled for a nonholiday weekday from 9 to 2. Since many farm foreclosures involve multigeneration homesteads, children (rented if necessary) and parents (flown up from Florida) are a must.
Perhaps one or all of these exercises will help satisfy the farmer fantasy of Washington-area back-yard gardeners. These folks can then chat about their work with Congress, the Pentagon or the National Institutes of Health as they serve guests anonymous vegetables they purchased wrapped in plastic--as the good Lord surely intended.