Thursday, March 25, 2010

Mary Mary Quite Contrary

Grandpa Tony, my Sicilian grandfather was a produce man his entire life. He started out helping his own father deliver produce to his village in a horse drawn wagon. He and his family immigrated when he was young boy and settled in Portland. As a young man, he and two Italiano partners opened a produce store that maintains a storefront today--no longer a produce market, but the structure is still there.

When I was a child and Grandma and Grandpa came to visit, I was embarrassed to be seen with these people, my family, at the airport baggage claim--had they no cooth travelling with worn produce boxes wrapped in tattered cords? There was no escaping it. Today, I might follow an old Italian home for what that box contained--home grown citrus, tomatoes, and braids of garlic. The peppery salami was the piece de resistance and would become the subject of my dad getting schooled in the value and technique of the thinnest slices possible. The education came with plenty of tastes and no doubt a few icy brews along the way, not a bad trade.

Grandpa was the vegetable man and Grandma had gorgeous flower beds. So proud was she of those gardens, she posed with them and sent photos to us on a regular basis. I thought it curious. I also found it curious that my grandfather recorded the day's temperature everyday, probably for decades. My parents also had gardens, my interest in which was so minimal, I don't know which of them was the gardener or if it was a shared hobby. I suspect they manned their own plots. I do remember my mother announcing on a semi regular basis, or maybe just once, that all of the tomatoes and cucumbers in the evening salad were products of our own garden. Whatever, I wasn't impressed; seemed a little bitter if you asked me, but nobody ever did. I was a delightful child.

Vegetables became only slightly more interesting as I entered adulthood. Once I had my own house, non-vegetable related working in the yard became a relaxing hobby. I mostly tended what was already there, though once I tried to grow tulips--from bulbs. Did I mention that I like immediate gratification? Yeah, that, combined with my ineptitude as a gardener did not give me a bed of candy colored blooms by Easter, or ever, for that matter. First, I couldn't determine which end of the bulb was up, then I couldn't decide if I should plant them consistently, or just toss them in willy nilly and hope they would figure it the hell out. My anxiety over the whole matter became more and more clear when I made it my job to dig the damn things up every chance I had. Were they growing? Were the roots growing down and the sprouts up? What about the temperature and moisture level of the soil? Yeah, that didn't work out too well. Incidentally, I'm pretty sure I have some odd disability that turns images around in my befuddled brain, dyslexia you say? Maybe, but it doesn't happen so much with letters; tulip bulbs and turkey breasts, yes. The few times I have cooked a bird, the simple instruction to place the bird in the roasting pan breast side up has given me great pause. Perhaps my organic birds have not been pumped up to Pamela Anderson proportion, or maybe after I've manhandled the poor things in the sink, they're a tad misshapen, but still. Do you think it's typical to conjure the bird back on it's feet in order to figure out where it's chest is? Frankly that method isn't even fool proof, and the fact that they shove the chopped off neck in some random other cavity, is downright confusing, but I digress.

For Nathan's second birthday, my parents gave him all the accouterments for his very own garden. Tools, container, soil, plenty of seeds...the whole thing. We planted and tended this miniature plot and even saw sprouts come up. I didn't insist that he maintain the integrity of his garden and if he wanted to rake it all up, replant it a hundred times and water it fourteen gallons of water per day, that's what he did. He was two.

Three years later, Nathan and I were working in the teeny tiny bit of soil we have in our current back yard. We were pulling weeds and cleaning up his smidge of a gardening area. In and amongst a fist full of weeds I pulled up a little carrot leftover from the endeavor of years gone by. I may as well have found a winning lottery ticket or some such treasure, the excitement I had for this ordinary root. Let me just say that no carrot has tasted better, ever. From that point, it became my mission to plant a garden with the sincere goal of harvesting actual food from it. Recognizing my limitations, most of our crop is intended to grow above ground, lest I can't control myself to check the progress of the carrots before their time.

I may never get the fixin's for an entire dinner salad from our newly planted garden, but already, there are things growing; sweet things, crunchy things and savory things. If only I can get Nathan to quit eating all the basil and cilantro directly off the plants, we may have a chance yet.

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