Saturday, August 08, 2009

Love and Vegetables

My grandmother’s fingertips always smelled like onions.

I think of this now, today, as I pluck a sweet vidalia from a basket at the farmer’s market. Its perfume settles into my nose and I feel a tug backward – as if all it would take was a small stumble, and I’d be back in her little green kitchen again.

I’ve been craving vegetables lately. I like the way the colors look lined up in my fridge, like a painter’s palette. And I like to think of myself as someone who knows what to do with food, a person with a favorite olive oil and expensive balsamic vinegar for special occasions.

But that’s not the way this romance started – me and vegetables.

My grandparents grew a hearty garden steps from their back door. Each summer we’d harvest corn, tomatoes, black eyes peas and speckled butter beans, all coaxed from the black Earth with the care and attention only old people seem to spare for the things they love.

This morning I circled the farmer’s market with a plastic green basket, choosing only the vegetables we used to grow. I picked up cucumbers, eggplant, green peppers, and squash, radishes, tomatoes and Silver Queen corn. I paid for them, brought them home in two bulging plastic bags – and laid them out on my counter.

That’s when I entered unchartered territory. Because I may talk a good food game -- but when the veggies hit the kitchen -- I’m a woman with two dozen cookbooks who can barely fry an egg.

I have witnesses, too. Last week my friend Marie had me over for dinner. She broiled lobster and served it with lemon butter, tossed greens with homemade dressing, and plopped a steaming ear of corn onto each of our plates.

I called her last week to ask how long she heated the corn.

"You are so country, Kelly," Marie said. "Here I made you lobster and all you can talk about is that damn corn."

"Well, the lobster was very good too," I said. "But I loved the corn."

Lobster is grown-up, which fork to use, what do you do for a living, who made your purse. Corn is childhood, slathered in butter, sprinkled with salt, eaten with sweet iced tea in your favorite pair of shorts.

Grandma and I ate corn for lunch every day with nothing more than sliced tomatoes, looking out over the tall sunflowers in her back yard.

Unlike me, she could cook anything, without guidance, without a recipe. She’d stand in a cloud of steam, over a big pot of vegetable soup, made with the bounty of her own hard work, mopping a sweaty brow because air conditioning was just for company.

Late one morning I rapped on her door with a sunburned fist and showed her a stretched and stained shirttail full of wild blackberries. And it didn’t amaze me then, as it would now, that by the time we’d finished dinner – she’d turned those blackberries into pie.

I peel the eggplant and begin to slice. I intend to wrestle it into a meal whether it likes it or not. I search my cook books, but am intimidated by the long lists of ingredients. I am craving simplicity. So, I toss the eggplant cubes with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper. Then I spread them across a cookie sheet and bake at about 450 degrees for 30 minutes, or until the edges of the eggplant turn a pleasant brown.

I let the small, golden cubes cool, and then gingerly take a taste – pinching off an edge with my front teeth. I’m surprised. It’s edible. Simple -- just what I wanted.

Strive for simplicity when it comes to love and vegetables. Save the laborious steps. The energy is better spent committing it all to memory.


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