In many ways, I had an idyllic up-bringing. My parents loved each other, my brothers and sisters were (mostly) fun to be around, and my grandparents were retired farmers. You would think that what your grandparents did for a living before they retired would have very little bearing on your life. But when that occupation is farming, well… There’s really no such thing as a retired farmer.
When I was a child, my grandparents had a small garden. It took up about half the space of their small yard; I think the plot was probably about 12 feet wide by 30 feet long. When I was young and spent days or nights with my grandparents, we of course spent time in the garden.
There was a working pump next to the plot, so we pumped up buckets of water for the thirsty plants in the drier days of July and August. We pulled a few weeds (although my grandparents grabbed most within moments of their appearance). We wanted to pick strawberries as soon as they showed the tiniest blush of red, and pulled back the tiny plant leaves regularly until Grandma said they were finally ready. We watched her use a spray bottle to dissuade small pests away from the underside of leaves. We watched her pick bigger bugs off plants with her bare hands and shook our heads a vigorous “no” when she suggested that we do the same for the tomato plants.
We picked green beans and snap peas. Tomatoes, strawberries and lots of different lettuces. We dug up small and large and oddly shaped potatoes. We pulled and cut rhubarb by the basketful, even though I myself didn’t care for the jelly or pies that were made from it.
The point is, all of that food tasted spectacular. It tasted like earth and sun and sometimes it tasted a little like the warm water from the pump. We ate these fresh foods at my grandparents table, but also at home, since they would bring bags of fresh-picked food every Sunday in the summertime. My mother made salads with a warm dressing of bacon, vinegar and sugar, poured over the sweet leafy greens.
I knew that some foods got sweeter the longer they stayed on the vine, and others got more bitter (sort of like people). You didn’t have to tell me that a tomato is technically a fruit, because it has seeds. I knew that a tomato was a fruit, because the ones in my grandmother’s tomato patch tasted like it.
Lately, I’ve been rereading two food classics: “Savor”, by Thich Nhat Hanh, and “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver. Reading about wonderful flavors, started me wondering, “why does so much food taste so bland?”
About ten years ago, I lived in Paris for a short time. While I was there, I was fortunate to live in two different neighborhoods well known for their food markets. The vegetables I bought there invoked the taste-memory of my grandparents garden. Fresh. Sweet. Intensely flavorful. I ate lots of that food raw, and some just lightly blanched. One day, I was looking at some mangoes, which were slightly outside my selection expertise. The fruit vendor came over to help, viewed the stack, picked one up, tossed it in the air and caught it with a resounding “thwack” on his palm. I took it home, sliced it, ate it, and still remember it as one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten.
Here’s what made me think of it. In “Savor”, which is mostly about mindful eating, we’re reminded to really experience our food. The book advises that if you eat an apple, really focus on the sensation of eating it, the taste, the texture, the smell.
I’m not sure mindful eating is for me, but mostly because the tastes, textures and smells of produce from my local grocery store sometimes disappoint me. When I go out to eat, I often seek restaurants using local ingredients, because the food just tastes better. Our local Safeway seems to have a decent selection most days. The apples have flavor, the asparagus “snaps” instead of “sags”. But that produce still makes a long journey to my table, and the length of the trip takes away from the sweetness that could be gained from an extra day or two on the vine.
It’s better than it used to be. When I first came home from my time in Paris, I was sad and homesick for the food. Not just the cuisine of the region’s world-class restaurants, or even the everyday cafes and bars that serve delicious fare. It was the chickens I bought from the butcher on the corner, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. It was the cheese hacked off a block created by the country cousins of the shop’s proprietor. It was, mostly, the remarkable fresh fruits and vegetables that smelled and tasted of the fragrant earth.
I’m getting hungry just thinking about it…
photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/22439010@N04/19837507222