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Slayton: Seed Catalogs

01/18/11 7:55AM By Tom Slayton
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(HOST) It may be just good marketing, but commentator Tom Slayton says this is the perfect time of year for one annual sales pitch.

(SLAYTON) Despite the fresh snow blowing around outside, the mailman last week brought me a shipment of spring and left it in my mailbox: this year’s seed catalogs have arrived.

Spring can seem a long way away in January, when the days are short and the chill is strong. But whenever I leaf through these printed harbingers of the growing season, I move to an eternal springtime.

And who can resist, really, the brightly colored, enticing illustrations of Bright Lights Swiss Chard, Thelma Sanders Sweet Potatos, and Table Ace Acorn Squash?  They call to me from the page - actually, just about all the vegetables call to me from the page.

Like sweet corn, for example. I’m lured by the hypnotically beautiful pictures in the Burpee Catalog of Maple Sugar Hybrid Corn, Northern X-tra Sweet Corn, the wonderfully named Chubby Checkers Corn, Kandy Korn, and Peaches and Cream Corn.

And there’s a reason.

When I was a boy we would visit my Uncle Ernie, who farmed along the shores of Mallets Bay and offered gladioli, tomatoes and sweet corn from a tiny roadside stand. A big corn feed was part of every visit. Uncle Ernie and Aunt Edie would boil up a small mountain of Golden Bantam sweet corn on the woodstove in their summer kitchen - and we would eat and eat. Nothing before or since has ever tasted so good. It was the taste of summer, branded on my consciousness for a lifetime.

And there, on page 33 of this year’s Burpee Catalog is an alluring picture of two Golden Bantam ears, marked "heirloom variety." "Grows well in cool soils," it says. Good thing.

As I leaf through the pages of sweet corn seeds, thinking about the taste of corn, the smell of a woodstove in summer, I am a small suntanned boy again, eating dozens, scores, hundreds of ears of Golden Bantam Corn. The seed catalog brings those days back to me without fail every January.

Even though my garden is small and my seed purchases modest, I get several catalogs every winter - Burpee’s, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Cook’s Garden... I know summer will never live up to the promise of those brightly colored pages. I know there will be seeds that don’t sprout, bugs and weeds, and lots of shoveling and replanting ahead.

But for now... the catalogs have arrived, and for the next few weeks I live in an ideal world, a world of bright red-and-white radishes and glossy green zucchinis, and bulging blue Hubbard squash, of plump Italian tomatoes and impossibly huge red-globed Big Boys and Better Boys and more, a cornucopia of the mind.

The wind may howl outside and the snow pile up three feet deep. Inside, I sit in yellow lamplight and turn the pages, and ponder my purchases, deep in the spring to come, smelling the tomato vines, digging my fingers into the warm, unfrozen soil.
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