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Salad days



These are the salad days for the chicken coop.

Daily visits from the compost bucket and garden basket have the girls clucking and exclaiming loudly every afternoon. Tomatoes and cucumber skins this week, corn on the horizon.

"Yes! Ask your wife to make another batch of her gazpacho," they call. "We love those basil tips!"

The chickens go nuts over the kitchen prep leftovers. They're also enjoying improved digs, since the coop got a makeover this spring: 25-year-old barn board replaced; new chicken wire wrapped around the windows, a new skylight installed.

My new favorite plant is thriving due to their contributions. I splurged on giant pumpkin seeds, only five in the little bag. Never have I prepared a mound with such care. Two loads of chicken manure ringed the pumpkin patch like a donut.

Think Jack and the Beanstalk. The dark green vines are as thick as an infant's arms. They move indiscriminately across the garden floor, tendrils curling over the fence, wrapping watering hoses and solar nightlights.

The chicken coop's biggest event of the summer was the Spice and Herb Windfall Party.

My parents have been successively moving into smaller and smaller homes over the past 20 years, from a big house in New Jersey with room for all the kids, to a smaller house, then a move to North Carolina. Last month, my father moved to a perfect-sized apartment in Durham, with a one-person kitchen.

Each time they moved, memories and furniture were sorted, shared, boxed up, donated away. The spice racks always stayed.

This last time we cleaned out the kitchen closets, and tucked back behind the spice rack, we found the culinary artifacts of our childhoods. All the herbs and spices from our memorable Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners were there, in rusted tins, in glass jars with frayed, peeling labels. Such an aged collection of old world tastes and smells couldn't be tossed, shouldn't be donated.

For a week, the chicken coop smelled like a delicious Indian bazaar. You just could not believe you were standing in a rural North Carolina chicken coop. The girls were wary at first of the strange, colorful handfuls that dotted their landscape. Where was the cracked corn and greens?

They tiptoed around piles of curry powder, paprika and peppercorns, mustard seeds and nutmeg, and tiny hills of cloves and coriander. They were not shy around vintage caches of sage, oregano, rosemary and cilantro. Chickens being chickens, they started doing their chicken dance, tossing their own salads hither and yon.

I heard one exclaim, "You must try this cream of tartar from 1956!"

The chicken coop has a pair of 5-gallon self-service galvanized tin watering cans. They always get a good workout in a Carolina summer. After the Spice and Herb Windfall Party, they were more popular than ever.

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