Veggie Tales

I’m struck by the attentiveness demanded by the vegetables we are growing this season. I munch a radish in the truck, and am struck by its relative woodiness and blandness, compared to the same variety grown earlier in the spring on a different plot, under different conditions. Disappointedly, I hearken back to a memory of the spicy, snappy and vibrant red-skinned and white-fleshed creatures of the past. They are simply not the same.

The carrots, however, tell a different tale. Compared to last season, growing on different land, under different conditions, with more structure around germination and weed control, our carrots are a world of difference — sweet, large and lively. They simply rock. Their glory tells a tale of soil care, attentiveness, and weather-cooperation. I munch them with a satisfied smile. They are simply not the same.

Some of them look like top-heavy little people with long, crossed legs tapering off at the ankle. This throws off some of our market customers, and delights others. It’s the same with our tomatoes. Flashing with streaks of brilliance ranging from light orange to near black, they elicit responses as varied as the painting of their flesh and the flowery fragrance of their juices. They are beautifully and humanely real — wrought with cracks and bulges and gnarly twists. The enlightened of our customers handle them with reverent delight; the unaccustomed scoff and move along.

Which is a shame, because a real tomato can awaken something vital within a person — something critical. I’m often struck by the physical memory conjured in people faced with real food after a spell of consumed lifelessness. My neighbor, Kari, remembering her grandmother’s kohlrabi, a vegetable she hasn’t tasted in decades. A market regular, hearkening back to the heirloom tomatoes of her late mother’s garden. My friend, snapping a garden-fresh sweet pea for the first time in years.

A radish is not a radish; a carrot is not a carrot; and a tomato is certainly not a tomato. Not always, at least. My dad looks out upon the pigs and chickens at our farm and spins memories of his childhood home — where they raised pigs, chickens, and a large garden, and his mom always baked loaves and loaves of bread for the neighborhood, and kept a kettle of boiling something on the stove at all times. “If it was 90 degrees outside, it was 120 in the house…” I wonder if our bacon is going to be as good as John Sheffy’s heirloom Mangalitsa pigs’. Thick-cut and fatty, the grease yield off of a pound is insane, and it smells up the house for a solid 24 hours after frying. That’s bacon.

I think of the bacon I encountered working in foodservice — thin, lifeless and cardboardy; advertised as thick-cut. I think of how the last bar burger I ate was the same pre-shaped, 1/3 pound patty as the second-to-last bar burger I ate. I think of how delighted my soul is at the sizzling, nose-awakening reality of real bacon for dinner.

Bacon is not bacon. At least not for me; not anymore. Because I remember what the real stuff is like. I remember my uncle’s pigs, and the ones we raised on my neighbor’s farm. I remember my mother’s tomatoes, and the undeniable smell of her classic tomato soup — marking the coming of fall and beginning of another school year — kettles and kettles and kettles; quarts and quarts and quarts; another year of eating real.

I drive through southern Illinois, looking out at the world of corn around me, stretching as far as the eye can see. The Flaming Hot Cheetos I devour taste exactly the same as the last bag of Flaming Hots I devoured, and the first bag. The corn is all exactly the same height and stature. It tells a tale of uniformity and dominion over natural forces. The food is exactly the same. Corn is corn is corn. Cheetos are Cheetos are Cheetos. I drive by all the country houses that no longer have gardens with mothers and grandmothers growing mouth-inspiring tomatoes and juicy kohlrabi. I look at all the lifeless, uniform lawns, devoid of chickens and pigs and real eggs and real bacon. I think of our society, no more than a half-generation away from near eradication of real, physical food memory. I wonder what will become of us.