We’d torn a burner out of an old hot water heater and suspended it with wire beneath a hastily welded angle iron table; it formed a sort of makeshift stove. Then we set the whole thing outside. Hooked it up to a propane cylinder. Now a great cauldron sat steaming above a hissing palm of flame.
Three figures sat at the picnic table, beneath the old silver maple tree, bent in concentration over wooden cutting boards. One board lay mounded with freshly peeled garlic cloves, white and seemingly naked without their purplish-brown skins. The next board was stacked high with cucumbers in the manner that one stacks cordwood. Razor-sharp knives flashed before the afternoon sun and the produce yielded to the blades. Hear the sound of knife on wood, the idle chatter, late-summer bugs humming in the tall grass. See the freeranging chickens – rhodies and silkies and a juvenile bard rock cock – all of them poaching cull cukes and discarded garlic paper from the pile of debris on the ground.
Yet another heat source sat on the wooden deck – a dual-burner camp stove holding two aluminum vessels that steamed like twin try-pots on an 1800s whaling schooner. A figure held forceps aloft and dipped mason jars one by one into the clean-water pot on the right; in the other, an acidic amber potion rolled to a boil. The jars slid into the boiling water bath and were withdrawn and held aloft to reflect the sharp September sunlight. Then into a wooden crate.
The screen door of the house slammed open and hands – just hands – appeared through the mouth of the door to grab the crate and whisk it inside.
Inside the house, the kitchen reeked of dill and bitter cider vinegar, the bouquet sweet then sour, a whiff of cider then alcohol. More pots boiled on the kitchen stove, including a heavy cast-aluminum pressure cooker that exhaled a thin scarf of steam through a vent hole – shaking – the little pressure nut bobbing up and down tremulously, until the pressure built and the nut shot true with the sound of metal hitting metal. Beside the pressure cooker another great vat of salty vinegar broth prepared to roil, the bloated garlic cloves within shuttering, guided by some invisible turbulence.
On the north wall there were twin sinks in which 14 sterile mason jars shone against the stainless steel. Pleasant colors in the jars: black peppercorns, pumpkin-orange habeneros, and mounds of pungent, hazel-colored dill seed. More laborers, shirtless in the heat, packed vibrant green cucumber spears into each jar. The workers whirled around each other to accommodate the cramped space, as if in dance. The kitchen was cluttered with industry: cases of jars stacked on the woodstove; barn boots piled near the worn mudroom linoleum; dried flowers suspended from exposed ceiling beams swirling in the steam’s convection. The gray cat scampered underfoot, his eyes wide with the energy of the moment.
Outside, rows of processed quarts sat shining in the sun. You could smell pigs on the late summer breeze. Round bales lay in the north meadow where just that morning 23 wild turkey pullets picked bugs from between the dew drops. People drank from mason jars full of maple lemonade and brown beer bottles full of rich, malty head. Oh, and there was music. Alison Krause’s sweet tenor cutting that sharp, vinegar air. Pretty Alison Krause, singing: “Somebody said they saw me, swinging the world by the tail...”