Why can’t we go to the grocery store and get peaches?
My four year old is not whining, just curious as we stand in front of one of our favorite farm stands at the Saturday market. “Is it because they are from another country?”
“That’s right. We try to eat only the fruits and vegetables that come from near where we live.”
“My friends are from other countries.”
“Some of them are. But people aren’t vegetables.”
“But why don’t we want ones that come from far away?”
I gaze at the array of greens in front of us, while my son scowls at them. So many choices, none of them peaches. There are many answers to this question. We have political reasons and foodie reasons and humanist reasons, too, for why we eat locally as much as we can. But perhaps the truest answer to why is more spiritual than anything.
I pick up a frilly, leaf-green Savoy cabbage and hold it out to him. It is bright and cheerful, a ballast against the lead-gray of the sky. He takes it with a sigh, tucks it under his arm, slips his other hand into mine. No peaches, but we find oranges, and the very last jar of tart cherry preserves, and thick gorgeous collard greens. We race the raindrops back to our car, turn on the heat when we get in.
That night, we cut the cabbage into thick wedges. We roast them with olive oil and salt until the outside edges are crisp and thickly golden, the insides meltingly soft and sweet. The rain that pattered gently all morning pounds steadily on the roof as we slice warm bread and drizzle mustardy vinaigrette. It is dark outside, not yet five o’clock. We sit down to eat in a buttery pool of light from the chandelier, and the cabbage is warm and substantial.
Pink cherry blossoms line the Alameda that we drive on to get to the market, and our backyard apple tree is blossoming too. Everywhere we look we see green, green. Each day is a few minutes longer, and because of it the beloved hens at our CSA farm are laying abundantly again, eggs with shells in water-color shades of blue and green and brown and cream.
This is the third weekend that we find asparagus at the market. Rubber-banded into bunches, their bright green points tightly closed, their stems fading to purple and white and mauve, they are simultaneously crisp and fragile. Even though it is their third appearance of the year, even thought I am planning tarts and salads and roastings-with-pancetta, I bite off the end of a spear as soon as we are home in the kitchen. The fresh pea flavor of the raw shoots never fails to amaze me; the first time I had raw asparagus, picking it up unsuspecting, listening to U2 while I sat face to the sunshine on my uncle’s back deck in San Diego, I was astonished by it.
That night we turn the rest of the bunch into a dish modeled on a rumor, cooking from slips of remembered discussion about how Kyle’s grandfather likes his asparagus. We’ve been told that Big Pap prefers it cooked in milk, covered in brown butter, barely salted. We improvise, gently simmering just until the spears are tender all the way through, browning butter in a separate pan. The result is amazing, astonishing even. New and fresh and entirely unsuspected, despite decades of having eaten and loved this vegetable.
After dinner, as we clean the kitchen, I’m still thinking about it. “Have you ever heard of anyone else cooking asparagus in milk?”
“No. But my mom says it’s the only way Pap will ever eat it. He ate it that way growing up.”
I look at our kids, zooming each other around the back patio on a car that looks like a honeybee, their fingers greasy with brown butter.
The sun is dipping down now, filtering through the apple blossoms, almost gone but not quite.
I watch them, growing up, and think that I’ll buy more asparagus at the market tomorrow.
We have spent a long and lazy afternoon at the beach, digging in sand and dipping our toes in the bracing Northern California Pacific. We arrive home hungry, and within minutes the boys’ chins are dripping peach juice, their hands sticky with figs from the neighbor’s tree.
“We need green beans for dinner,” I tell them once they’ve recharged, and the little one yells “Wippee!”
They grab an old battered mixing bowl and head for the garden, for beans we habitually call green despite their range of colors from palest yellow to dusky purple-black. I follow after them slowly, up the walkway, watching them work.
Their fig-sticky, nimble fingers dart between the rickety poles that the beans are clambering over. The sun streams down and warms our heads, and I can see the crust of salt still clinging to the boys’ necks and arms from the ocean. The crumbly brown dirt of our garden calls to my two year old, and once his first few handfuls of beans have been picked he kneels to search for worms. The four year old is more focused, moving from one plant to the next, intent on finding the biggest pods.
We are not, as a family, master gardeners. We are not even very good ones, as the scraggly grow-back tomatoes and carpet of weeds attest. We forget to water things, let plants go to seed, have yet to grow a carrot that is either orange or straight. But despite this we persist, and mostly it is because the boys will eat anything that they pull or pick themselves. It is how our two year old became hooked on radishes and our four year old on tomatoes. They love arugula and beets and common purslane, an edible weed that they sometimes call parsley. When they come in from the backyard their breath smells like chives or mint or rosemary, and though each raggedy plant sets only one or two fruits, they have learned to leave the strawberries alone until they turn red.
When we head back inside for water with ice, we count our stash of beans (forty two) and make a plan. We will sauté them, with olive oil and miso and a little bit of soysauce. Nothing too involved, nothing that will heat up the kitchen any more than necessary. We make dinner that night of greenbeans and fresh bread and cold crisp watermelon, and afterwards we eat minty homemade ice cream on the porch because the sun is still high, their bedroom too warm for sleeping.
There is a length to the afternoon shadows now when we pick up our CSA box each Thursday. Shade slants over us as we walk down the hill to the porch. The box is filled to bursting, in the midst of these days of plenty. Apples have replaced strawberries, but no one at our house complains: they are crisp and tart and sweet all at once, each variety showing different sizes and colors and textures.
We unpack the box when we get home, examining each new discovery. Dried beans are met with the boys’ enthusiastic fist pumps, while cured onions merit just a shrug. When we pull out three delicata squash, each with a green-striped, buttery yellow skin, it is me who fist pumps. Our first winter squash from the farm, and from a field of strong contenders they’ve picked my favorite.
There are red leaves outside the kitchen windows, and I look at them in the fading light as I quick-soak the dried beans and start them simmering with a few cloves of garlic. I chop the onions, listening to the sound of one brother reading to the other, this magical new skill that emerged over long months and now is being honed on adoring ears.
The onions go into a pan to caramelize, and I turn to the squash. I remove the seeds for roasting later, then cut the flesh into slices to be seared and salted over hot cast iron. The boys will eat these pieces dipped in ketchup like French fries, while we adults go the route of hot sauce and corn tortillas. Out of habit I glance to the window, thinking of oregano in the garden, but the light is gone now. No matter. On the wall, we have bunches that the four year old hung to dry. I pull off a piece, inhale the clean earthy smell. I let the dry leaves crumble and drop through my fingers, into the pan of squash. Now, I think. This is right now.
“Good cooking … is born out in communities where the supply of food is conditioned by the seasons. Once we lose touch with the spendthrift aspect of nature’s provisions epitomized in the raising of a crop, we are in danger of losing touch with life itself.” – Patience Gray, Honey from a Weed