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The Lilac Law

Lilacs bloom according to this algorithm:

1) Sum the squared mean daily temperatures (in Celsius) since the last frost.

2) Use an average of the past few years’ daily temperatures to predict the date when this sum will reach 4264.

Despite my distaste in math, I find this fascinating—not just that this law was figured out in the 19th century, but that it was figured out at all. But then phenology goes back centuries.

Phenology* is the study of natural cycles—how one influences the other, and how we can take cues from what happens. The first beech leaves that unfurl, the first flight of the swallowtail butterfly—every genesis reflects the fragile interconnectedness of soil, air, sunlight, temperature, and dozens of other natural factors.

Long before spreadsheets and calculators, growers created their own data by carefully watching and waiting for nature’s cues to sow their precious seeds. It was a question of survival, a much more in-your-face reality back then. With no Shop-Rite, and your nearest neighbor often miles away, carelessness meant rolling the dice on starvation.

Some of their data include:

When lilacs are in leaf, sow beets, cabbage and broccoli.

When lilacs are in full bloom, sow beans and squash.

When apple blossom petals fall, sow corn.

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Apple blossom.

Or, as Laura Ingalls Wilder writes in Farmer Boy (a biography about her husband Almanzo’s growing-up years on an New York farm in the mid-1800s), when the leaves on the ash tree are as big as a squirrel’s ears, sow corn.**

In the same book, little Almanzo eagerly awaits ‘the dark of the moon’ (new moon) in May so he can sow pumpkins.

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Another one. When you see these…

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(Bearded irises)

…set out transplants of these.

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(Melons. Clearly.)

I read that even Martha Stewart traditionally plants peas on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s father swore by ‘Plant turnips on the 25th of July, wet or dry.’

(Compelling story: He also went goose hunting one fall day in the 1880s while he and the family were living in Dakota Territory, and, utterly dumbfounded, returned home with nothing. It wasn’t because he was a lousy shot; it was because the birds were flying high above the clouds—he could hear them—but not one came down low enough to shoot. They were getting out of Dodge, and at breakneck speed. In fact, he said the entire prairie was still; every living thing was hidden away. Another day that same fall he said he’d never seen muskrats’ dens built so thickly. He got his family out of their rickety little claim shanty and into a sturdy house in town in a heartbeat. Can you finish this story—have you read The Long Winter? Blizzards slammed the mid west for virtually seven months.)

Do you sow, or act, according to any of these ancient rules? What successes or failures have you had?

Do you swear by any other cues?

Has the fairly recent wacky weather (here in NJ we had snow Halloween 2011, and snowdrops came up right after Christmas that year) affected what you’ve done?

Does anyone work with Project BudBurst, the environmental group that asks people from all over to record when plants start sprouting in the spring?

*Not to be mistaken with ‘phrenology’, a study based on determining one’s character by analyzing the bumps on one’s head. (I’ve had two concussions. For me, the smart money’s on ‘a touch clumsy’.)

**About 1/2″ in diameter. Don’t go chasing us to compare. –A PSA from the Squirrels Are Faster Than You Commission

wrongplanet.net/postt63638.html

budburst.org/

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I know Thanksgiving’s over. I also know you probably already have a favorite stuffing recipe—maybe a treasured heirloom, passed down through generations, or lovingly learned at your grandma’s knee, or clipped from Good Housekeeping, circa 1978.

Abandon it. This is all there is.

I could break down the elements of this stuffing to determine the science behind why it’s so yummy, how its unapologetically rich and salty ingredients come together to make it so addictive. But I think I’ll let it speak for itself.

My family used to make shovelsful of this stuff every year because we knew we were going to be eating it all morning and afternoon while we prepped the rest of the food. It sat in two enormous, low earthenware bowls on the oven’s warming plate, and we stuck our fingers into it every time we passed to watch the parade. To this day, I associate Mighty Mouse with the smell of toasted pignoles.

The greatest thing about this recipe, aside from the taste, is how quickly it comes together. It takes maybe half an hour, usually less. And it’s what Sara Moulton from Gourmet magazine would call ‘a dump recipe’, meaning it all ends up together and then you stir it and say ta-dahh.

My father invented this at least 40 years ago, and we have never, ever had any other stuffing. When I was a little kid I hated it because it was too spicy. Now I eat it like a stoned Rottweiler,  figuring it’s okay since I lost out on all of those years.

My sister wrote down the recipe for me maybe ten years ago. She was the one who made it in latter years. I’d come through my parents’ kitchen door and she wouldn’t say hello; instead, she’d walk up to me with a forkful of the stuff and say, ‘Tell me what this needs. I can’t taste it anymore.’ Once everything’s in the pan, you taste and tweak until it sings just right for you.

Go:

Semolina bread with sesame seeds, stale and broken into pieces, about 1.5 long loaves (I think it tastes better when pulled apart with your fingers rather than chopped, but we’ve established that I’m a heathen)

1/2 lb sweet Italian sausage with fennel seeds, uncooked

4-5 tablespoons Italian seasoning (it’s a bunch of dried herbs like rosemary and basil and others, all in one container. Get the kind without salt and pepper added.)

Parmigiano-Reggiano, 1/2 pound, grated

Pignoles (pine nuts), 1/4 pound

6 eggs

2-3 good splashes of olive oil

Black pepper

In a big skillet, on medium heat, break up the sausage and partially cook it. In a big bowl, mix the bread, seasonings, 1/4 lb cheese, and eggs, and mix to blend.

Throw the stuff into the skillet with the sausage and mix to let it start soaking up the sausage drippings. Let it sit a couple of minutes, then use a spatula to turn it. The underside of the mixture should be nicely browned, thanks to the eggs. Break it up and let it sit another couple of minutes, turning it as needed, until it’s all browned.

Taste and add whatever it needs more of. I find it usually needs more cheese, and sometimes more pepper. (It doesn’t usually need salt because the cheese is salty.) If it gets too dry, add more olive oil or a bit of healthful turkey stock (even though you’re about to blow it with the diet today). Turn off the heat.

Put your pignoles in a shallow, heavy little pan over medium-low heat. Watch them and shake the pan every 15 seconds or so until browned. Toss them into the skillet with the rest of the stuffing and stir.

This is pretty much an all-purpose recipe—good hot, good cold, good room temp. Delicious stuffed in a turkey, in which case it gets soft and tender, delicious even if it never sees the inside of the bird. Really really good the next day, per my family’s tradition, on one of those sandwich-sized toasted English muffins with cold sliced turkey, lavish amounts of mayonnaise, hot bacon cooked extra crispy, and cranberry sauce.

One New Year’s Day my parents asked me over for dinner. I was a little under the weather and declined. They called back a few times, and each time I said no. Then my sister got on the phone.

‘Mom made stuffing.’

There was a pause.

‘THE stuffing?’

‘Yep.’

What can I say? I grabbed my box of Kleenex and got in the car.

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