One of my first memories of Papa Pete, besides his yellow toronado which was a real thrill to my mother (yellow being her favorite color and a custom made anything demonstrated a picture worth many unspoken words),this was the first time mom schlepped us over to his house in Grand Ledge Michigan. He was going to cook us dinner. This is really how he removed my mother from the available list after her divorce so they schemed it would be the most successful way to snare me and my brother into their plot to spend the rest of their lives together (which they are doing). It worked that day, and what I learned from him continues to be one of the ties to Pete I will forever be grateful.
He had a bitty ranch house with a vegetable garden like a farmer’s, he was even nicknamed ‘farmer pete’. It was summer when we first visited and I admit being a stubborn teen firmly set to have my family revert to pre-divorce ways I was reluctant to engage and be happy about it. But it was my first experience with a vegetable garden. I never liked vegetables because they were grey green, mushy and came out of cans. Not at Papa Pete’s house. They were firm, gloriously colorful, and bursting with flavor after minimal cooking. Especially the corn, oh is he a proud corn grower. It must be harvested while the water is boiling. We shuck it and drop our ear in for only a few minutes. There really is no better delight for the tastebuds than that.
He has a philosophy about food and it’s simple: it must be fresh, whether it’s meat, bread or vegetables and fruit. That was my first lesson. I also learned food tastes better when you participate in growing and harvesting it. The first time I picked strawberries is a memory I’ll never allow to dull in my mind. I had the largest tupperware bowl on the ground and I sought the plumpest reddest berries. I could have spent hours harvesting but I did what all good berry pickers do, I ate as many as fell into the bowl, so when the bowl was full so was I and I needed to sprawl on the lawn chair to let my digestion take over. The smell of fresh picked strawberries is an addictive drug. I never forgot the pleasure of it and it is exactly why I grow strawberries in my ownl little plot of garden today.
Moving to up north Michigan didn’t discourage the gardener in Pete. Someone let him use a plot of a field which he turned into a grand garden and so the saga continues: fresh food is best. My boys helped papa harvest green beans for one of our first dinners here. Today we are going to harvest more so he can freeze them for the long winter ahead. (I’m jealous, I can barely grow enough for a few dinners) Yesterday I visited the garden with my mom so we could cut some flowers for her friend who just had hip replacement surgery. She’s a thoughtful and kind lady, my mom. She muttered something about arranging the neighbors to take dinner for a few days as she navigated the bumpy dirt road to deliver the pretty vase of sunflowers.
While she carefully arranged the country flowers, I harvested a few zucchini and yellow squash and yanked as many carrots as I could. A fresh display of raw cut vegetables to serve with hummus I bought at the farmer’s market is my idea of a perfect dinner. A fresh carrot doesn’t taste anything like the ones that come from the store. Nothing like it. I sought out the progress of the pumpkins. They are already bigger than my head, and dark green. He grows them just to give to the neighbor kids in the fall at holloween. They used to have big pumpkin carving parties with caramel apples and fresh cider, but those kids are all going to college now! But, still, he grows them for whoever would like to make a jackolantern on their back porch.
Later in the evening Papa asked me what I thought of his garden and I wished it weren’t so chaotic at the time so I could tell him everything his garden means to me. He apologized for the weeds, but that’s not what I saw at all. (a weed is a plant that can do everything but grow in rows) I love his garden because it is an extension of him. That’s why I wrote this because I know he’ll read it and if it makes him choke a tear he won’t have to do it in front of me, being a man and all. In the thirty years Pete has been a part of my life I have wanted to learn from him how to grow food. He’s instilled in me the innate belief that fresh food not only tastes better but is what the body needs.The time and work involved are in the end worth it. That’s what you can’t read from a gardening book or watch on a tv cooking show. It’s necessary to observe someone do it over and over happily with good results to believe yes it’s worth the effort. I also learned to cook by watching his methods, which he never ever take short cuts. He’s committed to the right way to prepare food. Mostly though I have learned that one of the best ways to show love is to give good food and enjoy sharing it together. I learned that the first time I was dragged to his house, and I’ve been coming around all these years to continue my lessons. My kids are learning it too, which makes me think their kids will not miss out on the value of home grown food either. Thanks Papa Pete for all the love.