By Edward Schneider
I’ve said before that it gives me a thrill to pick and immediately cook produce from my father-in-law’s garden in the UK. I’m a city boy and the son of city folk: my father was born on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and, although my mother’s parents kept a few chickens in their yard outside Czestochowa, Poland, their emigration to Brooklyn when my mother was twelve marked the end of animal husbandry for them. So, I am innately ignorant of tilling the soil. My limbs, like those of Mrs. Sullen in George Farquhar’s 1707 comedy The Beaux’ Stratagem, were not made for leaping of ditches and clambering over stiles. Much less for hoeing and weeding.
But I’ve long harbored the illusion that, apart from die-hard Londoners (who are just as bad as us New Yorkers), Britons are universally garden-mad and raised to be familiar with small-scale agriculture centered on a quarter-acre behind the house or in a public plot (an allotment). Some of you who have read more than a few of my posts will know that Jackie’s father has always been an enthusiastic horticulturalist whose big garden yields everything from fennel to rhubarb to elderflowers. Granted, when he bought the house, back in the 1950s in a then-new suburban development, he picked the one with the largest garden, but all the houses in his neighborhood sit on pretty substantial parcels of arable land.
So, I naturally figured that everybody on the block was digging for their supper every summer’s day, and that their kids were so used to home-grown produce, in season at least, that they wouldn’t raise an eyebrow at the sight of a raspberry bush or zucchini blossom. Well, it ain’t necessarily so.
One day earlier this summer, Jackie was teaching me how to dig (or “lift”) potatoes – i.e., she was doing the work and I was taking pictures and pretending I might give it a try someday. A while later, Katy, the best next-door neighbor imaginable on so many counts, came to visit with her two small children and a playmate of theirs. We took them on a garden tour, looking at berries and herbs and summer squashes and apple trees bearing immature fruit and beans and potato plants and spinach and onions and one beet that had apparently established itself through spontaneous combustion. They were enchanted, and I realized that, of course, not everybody in the neighborhood is retired or otherwise able to find the time necessary to grow some of their own food.
The hit of the tour were the peas. This was in late June, and the vines displayed fruit (yes, fruit) at every stage of its lifecycle, from pretty blossoms, to tiny incipient pods emerging from the flowers, to young pods with remnants of the flower adhering, to recognizable peas at various degrees of maturity. Even knowing nothing much about botany, Jackie and I found it pretty easy to give a plausible and not overtly fictitious kindergarten-level lesson on the development of Pisum sativum (nothing more scholarly than “See how the little green pod comes out of the nice white flower?”).
And we gave them some young, tender pods to taste. I swear, it was as though we were handing out Tootsie Roll Pops. These were very polite kids, and they’d been taught not to be greedy or to ask for things that hadn’t been offered, but you could see that they wanted to keep eating peas (especially when we rubbed some mint leaves on their fingers, which let them smell the mint while eating the peas – very El Bulli in a rudimentary way).
You can draw your own conclusions from this, and none of them will be new discoveries. You’ve heard it all. If you have kids – or have access to any over whom you can exercise some influence – let them see where their food comes from. You may not need to start by taking them to the local live-chicken market (though this didn’t do me any harm when I was little), but a tomato maturing on a backyard plant may be more interesting to a child than one brought home in a plastic bag – maybe even interesting enough to eat, and maybe even after the novelty wears off.
As for Jackie and me, it was potatoes for dinner – and I can tell you that, to this city boy, potatoes fresh out of the ground are a novelty that will never, ever get old.