We’re having the longest heat wave in the history of recorded weather in Japan. Today is Day 50. For many of you who have visited Japan, this may not sound odd since Japan is always sweltering in August. Typically the Japanese summer is characterized by hot humid days with barely a breeze at night to give relief. Clothes and body are uncomfortably damp from morning ‘til night, a reality that I had a hard time accepting twenty years ago when I moved out to the countryside as a foreign bride to my Japanese farmer husband.
We live without air conditioning, not intrinsically a problem for me, as I am not fond of forced air, though we do rely on fans to circulate air. But the first couple summers in our new house were fairly miserable and I fought the icky sticky weather with all of my spirit. I took a lot of showers and changed my clothes constantly, silently cursing the suffocating blanket of muggy heat. Year Two, I had newborn Christopher, and continued to drip unpleasantly as his body was melded to mine. Finally, Year Three I put on a bathing suit and t-shirt and jumped in and out of Christopher’s rubber pool, thus circumventing the troublesome shower and change ritual. I just stayed wet all summer.
But then Year Four came along.
In December, I had lost a baby at 24 weeks gestation, I couldn’t get pregnant again, and life just seemed too damn hard. That summer, I gave into the oppressive heat because in juxtaposition to what was going on personally, there was no comparison. And with that acceptance came a small sort of peace with my life in Japan. I still continued to butt heads through the eventually pregnancies and births of Andrew and Matthew, but I never fought the summer again. And that has come as a huge personal relief.This year is testing my forbearance however. Fifty days of temperatures in the mid-90s (36ºC) is hard to withstand, especially when the field needs attention and cannot wait for the cooler weather to come. What is unusual about this year is the blinding sun that beats down on the earth. The typical Japanese summer sees a rash of rainy days in June on into July, and then intermittent showers and hazy days during August. We normally don't get many of these burning-hot, bright sunny days.
At the beginning of the summer, for the first time, I was excited to weed and also determined to stay ahead of the monster weeds. Tadaaki alerted me when the little babies appeared on the field and advised me to hoe the surface to dislodge their shallow roots before they could take hold. I did so. I also brought the SSU! kids to the field and they helped since this is a fun and not so difficult task. I made squares on the field and had the kids take turns doing a square. There wasn’t much that could go wrong on this operation. But I turned my back for a week (or was it two?) and the next thing I knew the weeds had come back and were about 2 feet tall. I had to give up trying to weed the whole area and concentrated on weeding around the struggling summer herbs and vegetables. A row of chives had survived from two years before, despite being located in the middle of a swatch of wheat. I weeded them first because I love chives more than any other onion-like allium. In fact I crave chives, though don’t often have them. Recently they’ve been weeded out accidentally by well-meaning assistants or Slow Food volunteers. Tadaaki cropped the wheat while I was gone in June and uncovered the row of chives (that I had thought long gone). And discovering them on my return to Japan made my month.
My varietal thyme patch had survived and flourished for more than three years, so it was low on the priority list. The fraises du bois had been robustly healthy in early June when I last checked, so I turned my sights to the pressing need to weed around the newly planted summer shoots: basil, summer savory, marjoram, parsley, lettuces, tomatoes and scallions; and also the corn. Tadaaki cut the by then 4-foot tall weeds and I finished my weeding a little less itchy than I would have otherwise. But stupidly, I did not remove the cut weeds that had fallen on the fraises du bois, though finally did a few weeks later. My gorgeous wild strawberry plants had almost melted and I cursed my lack of energy and inability to have pushed myself to get them weeded earlier.
The truth is, going out to the field is like a daily mountain to climb. Once I start, I cannot stop because there is so much to weed. Because of the lack of rain (and the fact that my tomatoes were engulfed in weeds until recently), the tomatoes aren’t producing much. So except for the herbs, scallions and chives, my field is fairly sparse (except the weeds).
When I go to Tadaaki’s field I try to weed his tomatoes and peppers, but leave the eggplant, okra, and cucumbers to him. There’s a limit. He’s got a couple thickets of 12 to 18-foot tall weeds that I dare not tackle, despite the fact that one patch is casting a shade on my precious peppers. Tadaaki says he’s thinking of using these monster weeds as poles for the fall green beans, though that sounds like a messy nightmare to me. Tadaaki seems to love that style of dense planting. Maybe it doesn’t bother him like it does me because he works on the field in long pants and boots, unlike impractical (imprudent?) me in flip-flops and shorts. Jungle planting notwithstanding (or perhaps because of it), Tadaaki’s vegetables are always healthier and tastier than mine.
How does that work? I grew the shoots.
Tadaaki planted some on his field and I planted some on mine with the kids. After Tadaaki’s tutelage, I painstakingly laid down straw under the plants so the tomatoes would not get fungus from touching the dirt. Yet, my Sun Gold tomatoes have little flavor and Tadaaki’s (planted on his field from my shoots and no painstakingly laid straw bed) are bursting with that warm juicy distinctive “tomatoey” taste. It’s disheartening.
I talk a lot about putting love in the food, though I’m still learning how to put love in the field. But when I do, maybe then I can at least call myself a part-time farmer.
Eggplant Stir Fry with Shiso: Peel a small piece of ginger with a sharp knife and cut into about 1 tablespoon of slivered matchsticks. Stack about 10 shiso leaves together, roll and slice crosswise into fine tendrils. Slice 500 grams (a bit over a pound) Japanese eggplant down the middle lengthwise, then diagonally crosswise into slightly less than ½-inch (1 cm) slices. Heat 6 tablespoons high quality mild organic oil such as rapeseed in a large skillet over high heat with 2 or 3 dried red peppers torn in half (japonica or arbol). Throw in eggplant and ginger. Toss over high heat until glossy and soft, but not falling apart. Sprinkle with salt (or soy sauce), add shiso tendrils, toss one more time and serve in a medium-sized pottery bowl. Eat immediately.
Summer Vegetarian Dinner: Garden lettuce salad vinaigrette with chives--chopped cucumber, Sun Gold cherry tomato halves, and sliced hot pepper salad lemon vinaigrette—late spring harvest squash tian with thyme—skillet-roasted eggplant slices with pistou