Urbivore's Dilemma, Week 16: Food in a time of loss
Photo: Jennifer Prediger
It’s week 16 of my attempted journey from takeout lame-o to real-food goddess via a Community Supported Agriculture box, which I am chronicling in this Urbivore’s Dilemma series.
I’m riding Amtrak Regional train 133 headed to Washington, D.C. as I write. My mom called me yesterday to let me know my almost 89-year-old grandfather was dying. She wants me to be there.
I hate to admit I actually debated whether I should go for a few seconds. There were things to get done here, a work trip to take. It took a few minutes for the momentum of life’s busy-ness to quiet down enough for me to wake up. I listened when I heard myself saying internally, “Are you seriously thinking about sitting here writing emails? Go be with your mom.”
Photo: BAPI’m on my way now. But what does one do once one gets there? The last time I went to visit my grandfather, I brought a ukulele to play and, I imagined, cheer him up and pull from him the forgetfulness of dementia. A few notes into “Tonight You Belong to Me,” he said, “Who the hell are you? Get the f#%k out of here.”
Tough crowd! That’s my grandfather. A charming entertainer by nature, my dear Greek grandfather has never been one to shy away from an expletive. He had a way with four-letter words and memorable phrases. Once he was trying to get me to eat Greek wedding cookies. I ate one, then two. He kept offering them, as if somehow they’d help me get (unnecessarily) fattened up, get married faster, or something else he hoped for that was totally Greek to me.
“No thank you, Granddad,” I said.
“You people make me sick,” was his response. It is now my ironic mantra.
Naturally, I left the uke behind this time. I filled my suitcase with everything in the refrigerator from the CSA instead. I can’t tell you if I packed a toothbrush. And now that I think about it, I definitely forgot pajamas. But I do have tomatoes, soybeans, leeks, lettuce, summer squash, cucumber, and basil. (The plums and Concord grapes in the photo of last week’s CSA harvest vanished quickly into our mouths almost immediately after we picked them up on Tuesday.)
When I arrive, I plan on improvising with these vegetables. Maybe I’ll cut and sauté the squash and make some pesto. I haven’t thought that far. Whatever it is I do, I imagine the soothing, tactile vegetables bringing me comfort. Making dinner for my mom and aunt will make me feel useful. I can feed them and provide comic relief.
You see, I’ve never been known to cook in my family. They don’t trust me. They think I’m about to chop off my own fingers or set something on fire at any given moment. They’ve enjoyed a good laugh on many occasion thanks to my lack of cooking skill. Though I did impress them on that last uke visit when I made pasta sauce made of fresh spring vegetables from a farmers market.
Cultivating a more personal relationship with vegetables through my Community Supported Agriculture membership has been a recent enterprise, but vegetables are my heritage. If I’m a quarter Greek, I must be about quarter vegetable too. Not the comatose kind, more of the fresh variety.
My grandfather used to run a produce business in Washington, D.C. He delivered tomatoes and cantaloupe and cabbages to restaurants all over town in a white truck. He was the small, independent vegetable middleman. Vegetables sustained my grandparents during the Depression too. They always kept a small vegetable garden, a vestige of the days when they had Victory Gardens. My grandfather threw coffee grounds and eggshells and vegetal things into this enduring suburban backyard mini-farm.
As I write this I’m flooded with memories of my grandfather. Newspaper pictures of him after he won the Golden Glove. The way he sounded Sinatra-esque when he sang, “I can’t give you anything but love.” The two televisions stacked on top of each other he used to watch sports on sitting in a La-Z-Boy chair with a TV tray in front of him yelling, “Marie, where’s the salt?!”
As you probably guessed, Marie was my grandmother. Before she died, she said to me, “Well, we had some good dinners.”
In the great tradition of good dinners, tonight I will cook a suitcase full of produce. Wish me luck.
Dear readers, what foods have brought you comfort in a time of loss? Feel free to send along recipes.
With love and gratitude,