When I was a little kid we always had a garden. I hated it. It was a lot of work. When you are 5 the last thing you want to do is clean up weeds, pick ripe specimens and protect the growing crops from horn worms, flying things and the occasional 4 legged mammal. The garden was large, about a third of my backyard at its largest. That translates roughly into a 40×60 foot plot of peppers, radishes, tomatoes, zucchini, carrots, lettuce, blueberries, strawberries, eggplants, cucumbers and all types of herbs. To add to my misery, I found little logic with the garden and its yield. In the height of the summer we could barely the pick ripe fruits and vegetables fast enough, let alone eat them. This led to a weekly delivery service run by my parents with my brother and I as the primary delivery boys. We would bring crates of tomatoes and zucchinis to our neighbors on the block without as much as a dime. The occasional pat on the head and a “tell your mother she is too kind” was about as rich as we got.
As I look back now I see a completely different side to this ritual and chore. On Sunday’s it was the most noticeable. Supper would start early, usually around 10am. Sausage and braccioles hit the hot oiled pan. They were quickly followed by sizzling garlic. This marked the beginning of my mothers Italian sauce. By about 2pm we were making the salad and garlic bread. We would pull all the vegetables from the refrigerator, lay them out on the kitchen table and start chopping. The moment, the memory, is when we would be short a tomato or a cucumber. My mother would send me down to the garden to pick the missing vegetable straight from the vine. Back in the kitchen the missing piece was rinsed chopped and added to the bowl inside of 5 minutes. I took this for granted but always savored the taste of the fresh from the vine produce. I guess I was spoiled in a way. I didn’t know how good we had it. I thought every family cooked this way. As I grew up, I quickly realized this wasn’t true. I guess this is why everyone always ate at my house for dinner.
So today, as I run a version of this Sunday dinner on my back deck for 16 new friends each month, I see the impact this tradition had on me. The day before each dinner I travel to one of two local roof top farms in my ‘hood and see what’s fresh. I love to stand in the center of the “garden” early in the morning watching the farmer and his help pick, rinse and box the days harvest. I find myself briskly walking the rows of crops with the energy of a 5 year. My eyes shift rapidly back and forth between the rows noticing what is too young to pick, just right and done for the season. With each new section of crops my mind races with recipes I could make from the ingredients that are literally being created before my very eyes.
I settle down and meet up with Ben, the farmer, to pick up some tomatoes that I will be using in my next dinner. Fast forward to the next morning. I stand in my kitchen and begin to prepare my version of that Sunday meal for the 16 guests arriving in a few short hours. My knife slips through the flesh of the perfectly ripe, pesticide free tomatoes releasing a sugar into the air that only a just picked tomato can. I slice up a few more and then can’t help myself. I grab a plate, some olive oil and the pepper mill and make myself the simplest but most incredible snack you can imagine. As each tomato slice hits my palette the trio of ingredients augments the flavor of the other two with a simultaneous harmony. I smile to myself and finish my preparation and snack with complete content and joy.
It has been a long time since the days of “garden deliveries”. I am still not getting paid to supply people with these delicious treats but I understand the importance of this job much more than I ever have. In fact, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Watching a new guests sit at my table and bite into a fresh tomato or cucumber and seeing that puzzled but overjoyed look on their face is money in the bank.