The Garden that Grew Me

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In early July we spent a little over a week at my parents’ house near Pittsburgh, where I grew up. My dad, now 77, still has a 3500 sq. ft. or so garden, which was lush and green thanks to an excess of rain: 3.5” in the 10 days we were there. (This made the small creek in front of the house great fun for my six year old son.) The garden used to be even bigger, about 5000 sq. ft., and when I was a little kid it was accompanied by two other smaller gardens, which, if memory serves, were spring gardens for lettuce and green onions. The garden now has a fence all around it that’s high enough to discourage deer, but my memories are of rows of vegetables rising out of the yard and of being able to walk right in to them from any direction — as long as you were careful to stay on the approved paths! My parents canned and froze quite a bit of produce from the gardens back then. Now they freeze a lot of green beans, fresh shell beans, and corn, and they put onions and potatoes into storage, but not a lot else. It’s a treat every year to go back and see how much good stuff comes from this patch of ground. And to think that many of my own molecules were made from this same earth.

We were back again for a few days just before Labor Day. There had been maybe an inch and a half of rain total in the several weeks since our last visit, and it showed. The creek was narrow enough to jump across at points, the grass in the yard was nearly crispy, and the weeds at the edge of the woods were wilted and worn. But thanks to use of a heavy hay mulch and the blessings of the water table in the valley bottom where they live, my dad hadn’t had to irrigate his garden (in fact I’ve never known him to do so). Not all of the plants were happy about this, naturally, but the tomatoes, at least, were thriving. My dad grows two varieties: a hybrid slicer called Big Beef and an heirloom called Caspian Pink. I get a few of his leftover starts every year, and they always turn out good fruit, but this year my plants were pretty dismal and so my expectations were low when I went to visit. The baskets on the counter were overflowing, however, and the Caspian Pinks were without a doubt the best tomatoes I’ve ever eaten. They are usually a little sweeter than the Big Beef, which are themselves nothing to sneer at, but with a rich tomato-y flavor that rivals Brandywine and other famous heirlooms. This year, though, they had lost only a little of their sweetness but had added a nice layer of acidity, all of which was concentrated into flesh made denser than usual because of the lack of water. I’ve read that a dry, hot, stressful stretch is good for the flavor of a tomato (not unlike for wine grapes), and these fruit certainly bore that out. I managed to eat at least four or five every day, but I could easily have managed twice that. Along with the last corn of the season, fresh beans, and my mom’s somewhat overwhelming selection of meat (including her once-a-year fried chicken, made with some perfectly sized fryers I got specially for her from Blackberry Pines farm before we came), it was truly memorable eating. Making it even more special was the presence of a 94 year old cousin, who had babysat my dad when he was an infant, and her two daughters. Shelling beans while hearing about the recipes her mom had learned to cook for her Lebanese dad was even better than eating those perfect tomatoes.

Each year, as knees bend less easily and the August heat gets more draining, my dad talks about a smaller garden to come, and I know one of these years before too long I’ll be eating my last Caspian Pink from a plant he grew from seed. For now I gorge on them, turning as much of that Pennsylvania earth into me as I can.

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