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Jack Zaleski, Published September 29 2012

Zaleski: The splats and laughs of veggie wars

Years ago when my family lived on 20 beautiful acres on the north shore of Devils Lake, N.D., we had a huge garden. I mean really big. We had room to grow whatever we chose, and we tried a lot of stuff that wasn’t supposed to grow so far north. One year, we even brought off a decent picking of okra and sweet potatoes.

In their younger years, the kids were great helpers – endlessly fascinated by the garden’s miracles. It started with harvesting early peas, green beans and radishes, moved on to the wide-eyed discovery of new potatoes in the rich, sandy loam, and eventually to an explosion of color and flavor on undisciplined tomato vines, bowling ball-like cabbages, blood-red beets and taller-than-the-kids corn stalks.

Frost and the finality of a killing freeze came early in those climes – often the first week of September. A last sweep of the cold-bitten plants yielded bushels of veggies for freezing and canning, but a lot was damaged and unusable – for food, that is.

An additional and anticipated garden chapter for us came at the end of the growing season, when freeze-rotted tomatoes, softened five-pound zucchinis, rubbery football-sized cucumbers and spear-like golden corn stalks became ammunition and weapons for fall “garden wars.” Warm late afternoons would find the four of us gathering up the mushy missiles and zinging them at one another as we dashed and ducked among the blackened tomato vines, tall bug-ravaged Brussels sprout plants and wind-bent corn rows.

The kids donned oversized football or hockey helmets and teamed up against my wife and me. Our son had a hell of an arm and could whip a tomato some distance to the target: Mom or Dad scampering for the cover of a heap of old straw bales. Our daughter was small enough to hide among the withered plants – a stealthy, tactical opponent who could get close before we knew it. She had a good arm, too.

By the end of an hour or so, the four of us were splatted and matted with every manner of rotten veggie innards – and laughing so hard in the fading autumn sunlight that even the ripe/rot smell, the slimy mess on our clothes and hair and the sting in our eyes could not dampen the fun. Sometimes we’d get a second wind and go another round until darkness closed in.

The garden was a source of marvelous food, of course, but it also was ritual, from preparing soil and planting seeds in spring to the final bittersweet cleanup after the rotten veggie war. The “war” produced no winners but, then again, maybe we all were winners. Good times. Good memories for the kids – and especially for Mother and Dad.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at (701) 241-5521.