When I was growing up, my family never had vegetable gardens, because my mother was unlikely to serve a vegetable that didn’t come from a can. In all fairness, it was the era: In the 1960s and 1970s, food was supposed to come from cans and boxes, unless it was a frozen TV dinner, in which case it was supposed to come from a tin tray. Also, my mother enjoyed her calories most when they came from chocolate and scotch.
I’m honestly not sure I ever ate a pea that hadn’t come from a can until my girlfriend’s mother had me shell a bunch one summer afternoon when I was 18 years old, and staying with that family while working as a dishwasher at a restaurant near their home in New Hampshire. A few years later that woman would become my mother-in-law, and she always took great pride in the way she taught me to eat my vegetables. (At least most of my vegetables. She never convinced me there was any reason why Swiss chard should be granted space on my plate.)
Yet one of my favorite times of the year these days is that weekend in May when my wife and I plant our vegetable garden here in Vermont. The process for me is alive with Proustian associations that have everything to do with people in my life and almost nothing to do with the kinds of tomatoes we’ve chosen to plant or the varieties of lettuce we’ve selected.
For example, there is the section of grass beside the garden where, two decades ago, my wife and I placed our seven-month-old daughter, Grace, in a blue canvas rocker, and she watched us and cooed as we worked. We were planting peas, and I always associate the rows in that section of the garden with our infant daughter’s wide eyes and the way she seemed so happy in the May sunshine.
There is the corner of the garden where Clark Atkins – who had to be in his mid-seventies at the time – backed up his pickup truck, angled a few sturdy planks from the rear of the truck onto the grass, and carefully walked his rototiller down them and into the yard. Clark was the first person to till the soil after we moved from Brooklyn to Vermont. This was a quarter of a century ago now.
And while we no longer have rhubarb behind our house, we did once, and I know right where it was – and often recall Lida Cloe when I walk near the patch, because it was Lida who showed us how delicious rhubarb was when served with strawberry preserves and vanilla ice cream.
My wife and I take the process of planting our garden very seriously, but we’ve done it so many times now that we are very efficient. What took a weekend twenty years ago now takes a day. We rarely bother with grids and maps, because even though we rotate our crops, we still know right where everything is going to emerge. The carrots and the beets. The different kinds of peppers. The basil, the parsley, and the cilantro.
My mother, when she would visit us in Vermont, was utterly baffled when she would survey the garden. One August afternoon when she was with us, I pulled a carrot from the ground and offered to run it under the hose so she could enjoy it that very moment. “Unless that hose sprays chocolate sauce, I’m okay,” she said – though in all fairness she did eat most of her salad that night. The reality is that my mother opened her cans of vegetables with love.
In any case, it’s easy for my mind to meander as I garden, and invariably my associations involve family and friends: People I’ve learned from and people I’ve loved. I think that’s true for most gardeners, because gardening is about food. As a character in one of my novels observed some years ago, “Food is a gift and should be treated reverentially – romanced and ritualized and seasoned with memories.”
Indeed. And that’s probably true whether the peas come from a can or a farm stand or a garden in your backyard.
(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on May 25, 2014. Chris’s new novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” arrives on July 8. There are 18 appearances on the book tour.)