The Onion Van

A Foot in Both Worlds

I’m a recent transplant from the city to semi-rural life on Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay. For just a few seasons, I’ve lived in a place where the stars are visible every night, where the months of the year are discernible by the abundant foliage and what the waterman are selling, and by the prevalence of roadkill. My previous experience with roadkill was limited to squirrels fallen from power lines while attempting to cross the street, and I regularly drove on avenues named after positions in a royal court. Today, my daily byways and country roads have names like Swamp Circle and Muddy Creek Road, and I would like to believe the colorfully named Buck Fever Way is posted at the beginning of a long private driveway, rather than a public road.

In my new and less populated region, I occasionally feel like an onlooker with a foot in both worlds. Daily, I observe and absorb the details of a culture markedly different than what I’m familiar with. I’ve gleaned that there is neither a right or a wrong way of doing things, only different ways for different people. I have taken strides, albeit small ones, to assimilate myself since I have chosen to call the bay my home, however, there is still a wide gulf between my city self and a future self who might be mistaken for one of the locals.

Living on the bay, I’m regularly struck by the fact that my formerly urgent and spirited nautilus of metropolitan concerns was very small. In my new home, surrounded by unfamiliar local customs, I’ve found that the places where strangers say hello, where the roads are long and straight, and where the heavens are visible at night make up a great big world that is far, far larger than me.

My primary motivation for relocating to the water is namely the draw of coastal living and the opportunities for sailing; however, the expansive darkness of the night sky, and a nearby acreage perpetually housing baby goats and miniature horses have indeed sweetened the deal. In addition to the prevalence of knee-high animals near my home, we have produce stands and frequent deer sightings at dusk. I especially enjoy driving by fields of crops or horses bordered by wooden fences and the requisite barns, both abandoned and in use, and the equivalent number of vacant houses crumbling into scenes of picturesque overgrowth. Previously, all these things involved a road trip, and while they are now close to home, the novelty of seeing deer and viewing the stars at night has not worn off.

Although my new home is less populated than the city, it is not the backwoods of provincial stereotypes, being an hour as the crow flies from the large and thriving metropolis that makes the wheels of the world spin. Additionally, in thirty traffic-free minutes, I can be in the flourishing state capital with its towne centers and chain restaurants.

Closer to home, our principal thoroughfares are two-lane roads dotted in the middle to allow for the passing of slow-moving farm machinery.  Scores of formerly urban dwellers reside just off these country roads while maintaining jobs in the city and I count myself among these transplant commuters.  We travel daily to the glass, concrete, and steel metropolis, and many of us have similarly fled the city to escape the urban sprawl, to consume seafood as fresh as the breeze blowing off the bay, and to live every day like a coastal vacation.

Spring Chicken Supper

Along the scenic roads near my new home, fire departments and civic organizations frequently post signs advertising group meals, creating a bounty of foodstuffs set forth in town halls and church basements. As winter gives way to spring, the Fraternal Order of the Local Farmer hosts their annual Spring Chicken Supper. This is not a clever play on words. It is, in fact, a chicken dinner held in the spring. I’m unaware of whether the double entendre was intentional or lost on the association’s social director. Churches and other associations often sponsor pancake dinners in which families of all stripes can dine on traditional breakfast fare at night, and the vast numbers of organizations that sponsor spaghetti dinners make one ponder the hidden significance of pasta and meat sauce.

In urban areas, the best patches of grass for signage are on curbs and concrete islands at busy intersections. The most common signs confidently promise to help you earn fast cash with no selling, or offer to buy any junk car for $200, call now. There is nary a Spring Chicken Supper sign for many miles. Alternately, the ubiquitous signs at every crossroads near my home on the bay are friendly, welcoming, and you can always find a good meal if you look closely.

While I’ve never attended a pancake social or spaghetti dinner, I have an idealized vision of the first time I’ll get a craving for breakfast-for-dinner on the very day of the pancake fest.

Me: Have you seen those pancake dinner signs?

Husband: No.

Me: Are you hungry?

Husband: No.

Me: I have a twenty dollar bill. Let’s go get pancakes.

Husband: Can we bring the dog?

My husband and I will pile into his Jeep, sans dog, and drive the long way to the main road, passing numerous crossroads because I won’t remember where I saw the sign. We’ll pass signs advertising fresh cut hay, deer corn, school bus drivers wanted, and fill dirt for sale, and we’ll eventually locate the sign. We’ll then arrive at a nondescript VFW hall or Elk’s Lodge bordered by native flowers in mulch beds. Jeeps, pickups, and minivans will be parked in the grass, as the early birds will have already filled the lot.

I imagine that for the price of admission, ten dollars apiece at the door, we’ll be greeted with a smile so genuine I’ll assume my husband has been previously acquainted with the smiler. While we’re in line for our pancakes, hash browns, and a choice of link or patty sausage, I envision a woman standing next to us will strike up a conversation.  We’ll chat about the weather, the local sheriff’s election, and which of the volunteers has the best garden this season. “I saw Cynthia’s beans, and they were so much larger than mine. I bet she’s fertilizing with eggshells. My Bob drinks so much coffee that I’ve got the grounds coming out my ears, and grounds fertilize best in the garden for greens.” She’ll then lower her voice in a slightly conspiratorial tone and continue. “I’m not telling tales out of school, mind you, but you can do so much more with greens on the supper table.”

I’ll initially be taken aback by the genuine camaraderie, and my knee-jerk response may be “Hmm, so what do you do,” because this rote statement has been ingrained into my adult meeting-new-people repertoire. If this practiced but meaningless remnant from the city makes it past my lips, I’ll be met with hobbies, family obligations, and anything but work. I’ll be struck once again that there are those who live to work and others who work to live, and it is not hard to speculate on which set also enjoys pancakes.

Our plates will be mounded over with the fluffiest pancakes of all, and my husband and I will search the room for two seats together as we slowly carry our plates through the hall. Initially, we’ll find no seats available as we pass the rows of long, scuffed cafeteria tables and tan metal folding chairs. However, we’ll begin to notice kindly diners making room for us as we pass. Once we find seats, we’ll be welcomed with smiles from around the table. There will be genuine greetings through mouthfuls of home fries, and nods and introductions between sips of rich steaming Folger’s Crystals.

Nary a dining companion will inquire about our jobs. Instead, they’ll want to discuss our dog, whether the fish are biting, and this early in the season, can you believe how the weather’s been? As we finish our plates in the bosom of our new flapjack fellowship, I’ll imagine that we’ve been accepted and received without pause and we’ll gladly accept an invitation to the upcoming Chops & Potatoes Luncheon.

In the city we’ve left, the roadside signage generally promises fantastic opportunities for untold wealth with no selling in only a few short days. These incredible claims do not come with pancakes, but if they did, we would surely not be invited. One must pause to consider that there are areas today where a sign for pancakes can bring hungry citizens together as a community, and other areas where the signs boast of empty promises, and breakfast for dinner rarely includes your neighbors.

The Turkey Shoot

Last fall brought a large sign to the busiest local crossroads advertising a seasonal event, a turkey shoot, with another form of meat prominently listed as the featured menu item. It bears repeating that despite my pancake family fantasy, I’m not yet well versed in the cultural minutiae found beyond that of my former city limits. Culture aside, I was taken aback the first time I saw the colorful, festive sign depicting an exaggeratedly smiling cartoon turkey and the urgent, excited red bubble lettering spelling out, “Turkey Shoot.”

I drove home imagining a sad and crushingly similar interpretation of shooting fish in a barrel in which dozens of turkeys were put into a field. For the price of admission, I envisioned these birds made into living targets for those who fancied themselves cunning hunters yet wanted no part in spending the day in a hunting blind covered in deer urine. Please be reminded that I am still making efforts to assimilate myself into Chesapeake Bay culture; the fact that I not only took special notice of the Turkey Shoot sign but became incensed by it does nothing more than to peg me as an outsider who drives around mesmerized by common roadside signs.

Although I am open to learning about local ways, I could not help feeling this event was somehow wrong. In my growing disdain of the turkey shoot, I imagined not wild turkeys capable of minimal flight, but rather, fat, round butter balls with giant breasts. These rotund and juicy beasts surely would not have the strength to heft their girth from the ground. I followed this contemptuous train of thought by imagining these very turkeys with clipped wings, further adding insult to the inevitable injury sure to follow in the upcoming affair. Due to the ubiquitous local hunting culture, this distasteful form of shooting turkeys in a barrel was something I reluctantly yet tacitly agreed to disagree with the local populace about. I could not, however, resign myself to accept the most unforgivable detail; turkey was not even featured on the menu.

As I’m wont to do when faced with unfamiliar concepts, I queried the internet for the most likely yes or no answer: “Do they shoot turkeys at a turkey shoot?” With relief, I learned that a turkey shoot involves shooting at paper targets with frozen turkeys bestowed upon the winners. Now, this was something I could really get behind! Shooting paper targets for sport occurs daily at gun ranges, yet frozen turkeys are rarely awarded as prizes. Here at my very own crossroads, between the sign showing in removable numbers the county’s annual opioid death and overdose count, and the adjacent sign advertising the preparation of freshly killed deer into jerky, sausage, and steaks, was an event featuring the centerpiece of a traditional holiday meal as the coveted prize. I carried on smugly, knowing that my new and resounding approval of the turkey shoot would put me one step closer to understanding the culture of the bay.

The Onion Van

Last spring I stopped at a thriving, expansive farm stand, the type one would expect to offer not only a variety of fruits and vegetables but also a wide selection of ancillary homemade favorites. There is no comparison to the convenience of one-stop shopping for a bounty of colorful pick’t-fresh produce, baked goods, and jars of local honey, dilly beans, and chow chow, all laid out on broad, sun-warmed, chipped wooden tables.

I stopped at this farm stand not because my pantry was bare but because I was running an errand nearby and had few remaining commitments that afternoon. Additionally, a pint of local berries would make me feel less like I was wasting the farm-to-table culture than if I’d purchased them from the grocery store. Unfortunately, the chipped wooden tables were sparsely laden with hothouse cucumbers and tomatoes, and a host of late-season winter greens and root vegetables. The seller gloomily informed me that the growing season had begun late due to winter’s multiple and insistent encores of unseasonably frigid weather.

With little to do but chat with the seller, I immediately mentioned living nearby and driving into town for my errand. I wanted to appear as someone other than an outsider who drove a long way to procure produce from the country. I bent to snuggle the small dog that bounded up to me, barked a tiny bark, and immediately licked my hand. “Oh,” I crooned as I scratched behind its ears. “You’re such a little puppersnapper!” The seller leaned against the counter and proudly told me a heartwarming tale of adopting the dog from the local high-kill shelter.  This led to a discussion about her husband, and we moved casually into her divulging salacious details about the nearby Amish farm’s winter tomato growing technique.

“The secret is to plant them in the ground, but you’ve also got to keep them warm,” the seller stated knowingly. I learned that only tomatoes planted in the ground are imbued with a real, honest-to-God homegrown taste, not like in the contemptuous raised plywood beds of her farm stand competitors. Oh no, these Amish knew their soil. “And you know how they do it?” she leaned in, lowered her voice, and in a tone akin to revealing dark secrets of the vegetable variety, pronounced that the Amish keep not one, but two wood stoves burning in their sturdy greenhouses all winter. “Not one, but two,” she repeated to emphasize the ingeniousness of the Amish. “You’ve got to keep the place warm and what with only one stove, with our winters here what would happen to the plants if it went out?”

Thus, the conversation segued to The Onion Van. I described a recent weekend drive into town when I’d driven past a series of roadside signs hawking onions. Onions and onions alone were advertised on each sign, and I quickly visualized the most delicious caramelized onion tart there ever was. This imaginary tart grew more scrumptious with each sign, and I resolved to stop at nothing to attain a large bag of farm-fresh onions from this single-vegetable vendor. Unfortunately, the tart of my dreams was dashed to pieces in the roadside gravel as I approached and subsequently sped past the seller who loomed menacingly on the side of the road.

The farm stand, if I may be so bold as to call it that, was nothing short of an unmarked forest green van, and to stress it’s threatening appearance, let me state that it had no windows. Little girls the world over are taught to recognize that “stranger danger” comes in many forms, and I can smell a dangerous van from a mile away.  A crudely lettered wooden sign leaned against the van with a single scrawled word, onions, and it was not even capitalized. The Onion Van was parked adjacent to a road leading deep into the forest, quite possibly the very primrose path that carries people to places miles from where anyone can hear them scream. I am worldly enough to know that caramelized onion tarts, no matter how deeply sweet and flavorful, are not worth a treacherous stop at The Onion Van.

I relayed my brush with imminent danger to the farm stand proprietress with enough melodrama and showmanship that I was sure she’d ask for my recipe and congratulate me for safely buying onions at the grocery store. Instead, I was vexed and humiliated when she recognized the van’s forest green color and morosely replied, “That was Mr. Wilkins. His wife died two months ago, and he’s been lost without her.” As I gracelessly and abruptly left the farm stand empty-handed and flushed with embarrassment, I realized I was not the type of person worthy of knowing secrets about Amish tomatoes and wood stoves.

I have been around the block a few times, and rarely do I get the opportunity to say, “Why yes, this is my first rodeo.” I am aware of my surroundings and rarely walk alone in dark alleyways; I am a woman in early middle age with no children, so I’m usually safely home drinking wine after dark. I am savvy enough to differentiate between the dangers found in fear-mongering forwarded emails and the legitimate perils that come from strangers, not going to the gym enough, and getting too close to unmarked vans. Unfortunately, the farm stand experience taught me two things; my innate, fundamental, and misguided cautions caused me to miss out on a heavenly bag of Chesapeake Bay onions. Additionally, I missed the opportunity to pointedly tell a local farmer that I, too, live nearby, as if to prove that I am not the outsider I actually still am. Primarily, though, the experience has conspicuously brought to light that my underlying suspicions are no longer the one size fits all mindset of my former city existence.

I have learned two additional lessons from the onion van; there is such a thing as gossiping at the farm stand, and no good can ever come of it. With the onion van’s owner humanized, it is apparent that instead of being spirited away in a cleverly disguised van with no windows, I missed out on a genuine human connection. Also, possibly, I missed out on a conversation about just what it is that makes an onion tick. Coffee grounds as fertilizer? Amish wood stoves? Good old bay air?

I now make strides to gossip about harmless local topics such as blue crabs, homegrown tomatoes, deer jerky, and miniature horses. I silently cheer for the grand prize winner of every turkey shoot in the region. I try to blend in, and one day soon, I hope it will come naturally. Additionally, I’d like to be less an observer of this new, foreign culture and become more of a participant because now, the bay is my home. In keeping with these efforts and desires, I can assure you that my latest caramelized onion tart, baked with only the finest local farm stand onions, was richer and more exquisite than I could have ever imagined.

This first appeared in the Maryland Writers Association 30th anniversary anthology, “30 Ways to Love Maryland.”

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