Did the appeal of “locally grown” pass us by while we were adding instant pudding to a box of cake mix and turning it into a dessert? I have concluded that perhaps it did skip a generation — the generation that was raising me. I grew up as a child of the Hamburger Helper Generation, the generation that considered Rice-A-Roni and anything made by Sara Lee a treat fit for company. Dinners that were packed into tin foil compartments — perfectly sized for TV trays — were completely acceptable.
But it went way beyond that. There was so much more decidedly not “from-the-earth-food” in our homes: Ho-Hos, Twinkies, and Ding-Dongs; airy, paper-white bread that bore no resemblance to a stalk of wheat; and (my personal favorite) Marshmallow Fluff. All of the food I grew up on was the greatest thing since sliced bread — including the sliced bread. But my generation has come of age, and we’re not so excited about sliced bread anymore.
We have born our own children and declared that they would not be raised on Cheetos and canned asparagus. We are the Wholesome Foods Generation, the We-don’t-want-our-bread-sliced-anymore, we-want it artisan Generation. To us, homemade bread is the new Wonder bread. Skip back past our parents and you’ll find my Nana’s generation. They knew all about homemade bread.
Although she barely cleared 5 feet, Nana could probably arm-wrestle Wolverine to the ground with the biceps she developed from kneading dough and rolling out pie crusts. If they sold “My grandmother can beat up your grandmother” bumper stickers back then, I would have bought one for my bicycle. My Nana didn’t live on a farm, but she was bringing food from her earth to her table every day.
A visit to her 200-year-old homestead on a dirt road in New Hampshire was a lesson in sustainability. There was a flowering fruit tree outside her kitchen window; she called it a quince apple tree. I was always rather foggy on what a quince apple was — in fact, I had never seen nor heard of one at anyplace other than my Nana’s backyard — but I was seriously impressed by what she could make with a bunch of them. The fruits were small, brown-speckled, rough looking things, and I never wanted to bite into one, yet she managed to transform them into flavorful jams and jellies every year.
Like every good Italian woman with a piece of earth or a pot of dirt, Nana grew tomatoes and zucchini, and like every good Italian, she did amazing things with them. She fried, breaded, baked, relished, and parmesaned zucchini, and even used it in chocolate cake. And she never made a meal that didn’t involve a tomato. Now I’m all grown up and raising tomatoes and zucchini of my own. She’d be so proud. It took me a few years to find a spot where they would thrive, because we’ve got a yard full of shade. I finally, on Mother’s Day, asked my husband and son to rip out the massive hibiscus bush growing behind our mailbox and transplant it — it was hogging the only sunny spot we had.
I put two tomato plants and one zucchini in its place, and I’ve been giddily bounding to the mailbox ever since. My father, he of the skipped-generation, saw my wayfaring tomatoes and menacing zucchini and remarked with a laugh and a shake of his head that well, Robin, you won’t be getting “yard of the month.” But here’s the thing — my neighbors aren’t complaining. They’re not bombarding me with nasty letters and pounding my door with pitchforks.
Rather, they are complimenting the mailbox garden and commenting that gosh, maybe they’ll try that next year, or they’re comparing it to their own backyard gardens — or they’re asking if they can pick a few things. It’s not quite so avant-garde anymore, growing vegetables at a mailbox; instead, it’s merely a bit kitschy and honestly quite acceptable. It won’t get me thrown out of the neighborhood, and it won’t keep me from getting yard of the month. My yard will keep me from getting yard of the month, but my tomatoes won’t.
Yes, I do believe that we have come full circle as a society, and everything old is new again. And I realize now that I am only a decade or so away from the day when my own children will call, asking for my mother’s treasured recipe for Harvey Wallbanger Cake.
Robin Jean Marie is a writer and Dunwoody resident who has recently replaced her tomatoes with broccoli, kale, and bok choy. She shares “Traditions and Tidbits from the Continent to the States” in her blog, www.BringingEuropeHome.com.