Wednesday, September 23, 2009

All the County is a Fair in Lancaster

Harvest time is here – bright pumpkins dot the rolling hills, fields of mums stretch through the farmland. Farmers are busy cutting down corn, drying tobacco, and bringing in the last of the tomato crops.

There’s a busy-ness as a touch of fall starts to turn the leaves just a bit…you can feel it in the early morning mist…things are changing. This is a time of celebration, and Lancaster County sure knows how to party. There’s a change in the air….a distinct aroma….could that be….funnel cakes?

From one end of the county to the other, Lancaster Countians have Fair Fever. State routes are closed for days at a time, streets are jammed with vendors selling every imaginable kind of greasy food, hawkers entice you to try your hand at games of chance, and midway rides thrill the young. Kids get off from school, every non-profit organization is involved in some way, and you’ll make it to your appointments only if you plan a little extra time for detours.

Inn guests have long enjoyed these fairs, with their vast array of contests – from scarecrow judging to cake decorating competitions. Guests can sense the strong community support here. They’re impressed by all the parades – babies in the morning, pets in the afternoon and at night the Homecoming Queens, dozens of marching bands from around the state, and local businesses transforming tractor/trailers into floats.

Guests are also surprised and delighted by the skills demonstrated in the apple balancing race and the water-balloon throwing contest. (These may not be listed on anyone’s resume, but they sure make for good entertainment. And most of it is free – from the musical groups to the local radio broadcasts.)

All of this is impressive, to be sure. But what my guests comment about most are the chairs.
Yep, just ordinary lawn chairs.
People put them out on the sidewalk to reserve a “spot” as early as noon on the Sunday before the Thursday parades. Kids walk to bus-stops and ride their bikes by them. No one moves them or would dream of stealing one, for this is a long and respected tradition. Welcome to small-town America at its best – with the respect of another’s property and your neighbor’s right to claim a good seat.
So, if you are planning a trip to Lancaster this September or October, pack your chairs and, you too, can get a good spot to see the parades and enjoy the fairs. It may be your last chance to take in the sights, sounds and tastes of late summer.

For a listing of fairs, schedules, and directions see

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The summer of Two Tomatoes in Lancaster County

Bruce thought we should plant tomatoes. I looked at him, and said “why?” Our bed and breakfast is in a great little town in Lancaster County, surrounded by the richest non-irrigated farmland in the country. These farms produce a bounty of the best foods - just outside our door - at unbelievably fair prices. Why on earth would Bruce, an artist and big fan of staying indoors on hot summer days, want to grow tomatoes? The answer was as good as any, “I just want to”.

And so off I went to the nurseries. I looked at all the different kinds of plants, mostly heirloom. This is shear torture in April - as you begin to salivate just reading the description…your mind wanders back to summers past and the bright red meat of perfect tomatoes. I picked out five tomato plants, knowing that this would produce way too many tomatoes for the inn, but thinking that I would make sauce out of the rest, as I have done for the past ten years.

After a rainy spring, I got behind on planting and so the tomato plants went in late.

Then there was the issue of watering them. It seems both of us forgot – even when reminded – and after a week away, I returned to find them gasping. A little digging by Bruce produced the old tomato baskets that I had used long ago when I had a real garden – now we just hoped the plants would someday grow into the cages.

But I’m afraid we just got too busy to pay much attention to these plants. And, let’s face it – tomato plants are not the prettiest sight in the garden. So I didn’t want them in my flower gardens where guests would see them. Their location in the herb garden by the side of the inn tends to get overgrown but hopefully most guests don’t ever see it. It doesn’t get all-day sun but I had hoped that it would get enough to make them happy. I put them next to the basil, thinking that they should get to know each other as they most surely would meet again.

I have fond memories of my dad in his garden, tending to the plants, pinching off the suckers, training the branches, tying white cloth to help bear the weight of the fruit,. His garden was planted in straight rows, basked in plenty of sunshine and watered consistently. Weeds didn’t have a prayer of surviving. Our tomato plants could only dream of such care.

And so it is now the end of summer and time to harvest our bounty.

Both of them.

There is hope that there will be a third, but it is pretty small and still green.

But I’m grateful to be a neighbor to these farmers and support them. They produce crop after crop, one as delicious as the next. As I look at the box of tomatoes in the kitchen, I know that the sauce (or gravy as they say in New Jersey) they will produce will be so much better than anything I could buy in a jar.
Lancaster County farmers are safe for another summer - there’s no competition here!

Here is how I roast my tomatoes.

Sundried Tomatoes:

Cut thin slices of fresh tomatoes, remove excess seeds and place on a silpat (or parchment paper) on cookie trays. You can place them close together, they will shrink a little.
Sprinkle with a little of your best olive oil and a small amount of kosher salt.
Bake for about 2 hours in a cool oven – about 175 or 200. You don’t want them to completely dry out but this will really concentrate their flavor.
You can freeze them, store them in the fridge for a week, or serve – I like to top them with a nice Parmesan cheese and serve them at the inn with an egg dish. Bruce has been known to eat an entire tray while standing at the kitchen sink…..hey, maybe that’s why he wanted to grow tomatoes!