A parents’ legacy – tomato diplomacy, sharing our bounty

Jul. 27, 2014 @ 11:40 AM

Some of my favorite childhood memories are of wandering in my father’s garden: beds of vegetables and strawberries dug into our suburban lot, next to my swing set. I was such a glutton for peas in the pod and berries that my father planted an extra row of each for me to consume raw. The rest were off limits until my mother sent me to pick whatever was ripe for supper. After we had washed the carrots, lettuce, or beans, I received samples. If I hadn’t been an only child, the rules might have been stricter. Or the garden might have been larger.

I grew up in the foothills of the Laurentian Mountains north of Montréal, where the growing season is at least a month shorter than Durham’s. My father’s garden produced little until late June. I followed the pea plants’ development from shoots to vines; celebrated the appearance of mauve-tinged white flowers; and kept a watchful eye on the pods’ burgeoning contents. Pick too soon, and the peas were too tiny to offer a satisfying crunch. Wait too long, and the fat seeds would be a tasteless shadow of their earlier selves.

My father introduced home-grown produce to our neighborhood of cul-de-sacs and strip malls. Our first spring there, as he was breaking ground, a couple of women from down the street came to talk to him. “We don’t keep vegetable gardens in this neighborhood,” they informed him. “I guess I’m the first,” my father replied. They pressed on: “But only immigrants from Italy” (of whom there were many in Québec) “keep vegetable gardens.” Thanking the ladies for their visit, my father returned to his rows.

My parents never tried to puzzle through our neighbors’ bizarre blend of ethnic and class prejudices, or refute them. It wasn’t in my father’s nature to argue. Nor would he abandon the garden that he had dreamed of through years of high-rise living. He found a third way. When his first tomato harvest came in, he walked our street with a basket of the vine-ripened fruit, knocking on doors and handing them out. The first recipients were the women who had complained. One of them soon asked my parents to help her plan her own vegetable garden. They even turned her on to composting.

That neighbor might be appalled to know that, 40 years later, I have no vegetable garden. What a waste of North Carolina’s long growing season. But I’m a sucker for wildlife. Our back yard contains seven bird feeders, and is a feeding ground for rabbits, squirrels, and the occasional fox. A vegetable garden would quickly become a salad bar for our furry and feathered neighbors, and my love for them has its limits.  

So my food production is confined to herb pots on the back deck, and fruit bushes that, when they mature, should provide nourishment for the birds and our family. Most of our food comes from the Durham Farmers’ Market, where my husband and I have been shopping since its establishment in 1998. We remember the early years, when the market’s few tables were picked bare an hour or so after opening. Now, we buy what we need for the week.

At the market, we contribute to the Farmer Foodshare program that distributes fresh produce to Durham residents. In a state where one in five residents -- one in four children -- is food-insecure, and even more have little access to fresh produce, Farmer Foodshare meets an urgent need. So do organizations like SEEDS, and the Interfaith Food Shuttle, which teach food production skills in cities and in suburban neighborhoods like the one where I grew up.

My parents died decades ago, too young. I think of them as I tend my herb pots and fruit bushes, as I shop in the market and as I buy food for neighbors whom I may never meet, but to whom I am connected. I know I was fortunate to have parents who delighted in feeding me fresh food, and who had the means and the knowledge to grow it themselves. They probably didn’t mean to teach me conflict management skills, but my father’s quiet campaign of tomato diplomacy is an example that, in my wiser moments, I try to emulate.

A thousand miles away, a generation ago, my parents showed me that food can bring people together. At the market I can feel them with me, urging me to dig deeper, to share more of the bounty I have been given.

Rhonda Mawhood Lee is an Episcopal priest and the author of  “Through With Kings and Armies: The Marriage of George and Jean Edwards."