Tuesday, November 9, 2010

How Foodies Get to Be Foodies

The new photo topping our blog was taken in November of 2006, not long after my father died. He was a vegetable grower, and this is his compost heap. You can see a squash lying there on the top, probably one of the butternuts he was famous for at the local farmer's market. Dad only discovered the farmer's market the year before he died, so he was only part way into his second year of selling vegetables there when he passed at the beginning of October that year. Before that, he tried selling them from a makeshift stand in front of the house, as a couple of other backyard growers did: hence the crudely-lettered and poorly spelled sign in the picture.

He did get customers, though. But also thieves. He had another sign on the stand where he left the vegetables and a coffee can for money, it read "Be Honste." But some people were not honste. They took his veggies AND his money. Dad just shook his head, more in sadness than anger, and said "I would have given them anything they asked for."

That generosity was what defined my dad's Pagan Foodie heart. Although a lifelong Catholic, though not always a dutifully-practicing one, his love of the outdoors, his avid activities that brought him out into nature (hunting, fishing, food gathering) made him someone who could not help but teach his children a love of nature. But he did not keep the bounty of his adventures for himself, oh, no. He shared with others. Gods help him, he nearly lost his life doing it, as when he slipped on the ice and fell and broke his hip one year, just a few months into his retirement, when he ventured out one morning to deliver (what was it? a plate of fried smelt? some Italian cookies he'd made?) a wrapped dish of goodies to a friend. It took him many months to recover and his health, already compromised from years of bad habits, was never as robust again afterwards.

I remember one mainstay of the winter holidays for Dad was going around to the homes of friends and relatives with plates of food. I ventured along on some of these trips, and sometimes I made the food: Dad got to the point where he always asked me to make the pizzelles (those thin crispy cookies you make in a special waffle iron) each year because, he said, mine always came out better. He also made fried smelt (which he often caught himself), scalloped oysters, and various things covered in his homemade marinara sauce. As Mom (who is also a fabulous cook) and Dad got older, and Mom's MS got worse and it was just the two of them at home most of the time, the cooking did not happen as often. But Dad still did what he could. He continued canning every year, even though there was hardly anyone to eat it, so again, there were gifts for others, with his hand-scribbled labels and the date. He also took to pasting his address labels on the jars.

After he died, I cleaned out the pantry and collected three jars of peach jam, and several jars of sauerkraut-stuffed banana peppers for a friend who loved to eat them right out of the jar. That recipe even got published in a local paper (although Dad had found it in a book somewhere). He had also become quite notorious for giving jars of pickled garlic to his fellow farmer's market vendors, who raved about it when I visited there and talked to them about my Dad. He probably would have liked to get licensed to sell his canned products there, but having looked at the rules, and having been inspected and licensed to make baked goods for farm markets, which requires far simpler standards than canning acidic foods, I can say Dad's kitchen may not have passed muster for cleanliness. Heck, I even found a small bug or two in my peach jam. Comes out pretty easy with a teaspoon.

I admired Dad for trying to offset his small income during retirement with his own business; I understand he did very well. The market organizer, a woman who worked for the local Cooperative Extension, said the "little old ladies" would line up every week for Dad's giant, unblemished butternut squash. And his sense of humor and enthusiasm helped him make some new friends there.

Dad had a gardening partner, Larry, who helped him do the work and shared in the bounty (he now rents my parents' house and still farms that garden plot). I once asked him if they sprayed the vegetables and he admitted they did spray some things prone to pests. So I told my Dad one day, you know, people will pay extra for organically-grown vegetables. And you can get special signs for free to put on your stand. It's more work, but, I reasoned, you won't have to buy the chemicals, either. I didn't get into the evils of Monsanto and that hullaballoo, but I did remind him that organics were also healthier for everyone. He didn't agree or disagree, kept weeding his cucumbers, and I didn't think he'd actually change the way he'd always done things. But right after he died, I ran into Larry at the house, working in the garden (pictured above), and we were talking, and that conversation came up. Larry told me that he and my Dad had been planning to go organic the following year. I guess he was curious to try it out and see if he really made more money.

I'd always thought it was me who had learned things from my Dad, who had learned them from his father (who had owned his own fruit stand, and was a marvelous cook, whipping up huge meals for our Italian relatives every Sunday, with sauce made from scratch the night before). But at that point, I realized he had learned something from me. I only wish we'd been able to enjoy the fruits (and vegetables) of this experiment together.


  1. What a lovely tribute to your dad. It's so true, the learning goes both ways between parents and children.