Cultivating one’s garden

It’s that time of the year again when I wish I had a garden. Little pots on a fire escape give me regular sprigs of thyme and shiso and, if I’m feeling ambitious, I might harvest handfuls of Sweet 100s. It’s nothing, however, like watching tiny pea shoots unfurl into astonishing vines or digging up a stash of potatoes from beneath a dried-up stem.

I actually don’t like dirt (or, as my gardener friend keeps correcting me…“soil”), and I’m not one of those people who will ever trade my life in the City for a quiet, hard-won existence among fields. Yet, it’s impossible to forget the landscape of my childhood. My mom tries to assuage my asphalt fever with photos from her own garden, where she manages to transform a Midwestern blink of a growing season into a year of food for her family.

 Weblog Food Moms Jars
In my fridge right now: my mom’s apple butter, dill pickles and gooseberry jelly.

Her plot, which measures roughly 75 yards long and 25 yards wide, is no Victory Garden. Martha Stewart would immediately break out in hives if she ever saw my mother’s casual approach to organizing her plants. The fence that fails to keep out the rabbits looks like it’ll fall over with the next gust, and her compost pile would qualify as a public menace anywhere else. She stakes her plants with odd bits of lumber, letting rusty nails add a bit of thrill to picking tomatoes. She leaves the weeds in peace.

 Weblog Food Moms Garden
A helpful note on the back of the photo for her city-slicker daughter: “tomatoes in center (8 ft tall), on the right bitter melon (kho qua) on the left hot & green pepper and pumpkin (only one).”

Just like her document files (a pile of important papers kept in an old suitcase with a broken latch) and her refrigerator (where only the brave in my family venture), the rows and patches of growth in my mother’s garden have no sense of apparent order. Yet, she knows eactly where to dig for her horseradish, where this year’s mint will probably spread, where to push past the ragweed and buckhorn to find the garlic. To me, it looks like one giant jungle. To her, it’s as clear as it needs to be.

 Weblog Food Kimchi Veggies
A late summer batch laid out in preparation for making kimchi.

The ground is still frozen where she lives, but she’s already planning for the summer ahead. When the frost has finally left, she’ll push the banana plant outside for a few months of fresh air. She’ll consider ordering some chicks from the local hatchery, or she may decide that this year, she’d rather buy fresh eggs and chicken than worry every day about hawks and racoons. She always overdoes it with the tomatoes, but who can blame her? There’s no such thing as too many ripe beefsteaks when you have friendly neighbors and plenty of room for quart jars in the basement.

 Weblog Food Mom Catfish
Showing off the day’s catch with her “see what your mom can do” expression.

Between us stretch five wide states, three time zones and a cultural gap that often leaves us both befuddled. She’s trying to prepare herself for retirement, while I try to prepare myself for a family of my own. But food still connects us. I decided long ago not to fly home during winter holidays. Instead, I schedule my trips for pies from my mom’s prickly gooseberry bushes or dumplings from her squat apple trees, huge pots of sweet-spicy canh chua simmered with catfish from her pond or the tenderest of baby mustard leaves for banh xeo. Every morning that I’m home, I wake to the sound of her watering her plants before she heads off to work, and every evening we enjoy the fruits of her labor at dinner when she returns. We have an easy arrangement: she grows, I cook.

And we both eat.

 Weblog Food Carrot Top
This month, the row of plants on my kitchen windowsill include a carrot top sprouted in water. No harvest, but a growing reminder of my mom’s food.

Author: Thy Tran

San Francisco-based writer specializing in history and culture of food.

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