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From the Land

Aug. 14, 2013

Max Brooks, as featured in The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family & How We Learn to Eat, published by Roost Books.

I garden to get fresh air. I garden to be physically productive. I garden to feed my family by means other than a paycheck spent at the grocery store. Most important, I garden to remember.

My mother always spent some part of her life laboring in the earth. No matter where my family lived, no matter what was happening with my mother’s busy, glamorous, Hollywood career, she never strayed too far from some patch of dirt. I remember her citrus orchard in our secluded, half-acre Beverly Hills home, and how as a little boy I used to snack on the French sorrel from the patch next to our front door, and how she would raise holy hell if I tramped through her rows of lettuce or string beans in the back of the house.

That was when I first learned the joys of watching plants grow, when I brought home a germinating pea in a plastic cup of dirt. It was part of a school project, the third grade’s attempt to introduce us to agriculture. That little pea went into our garden, along with a few beans and corn kernels. It taught me about the value of patience, and the anticipation of seeing how much progress each morning would bring. I remember nothing tasting as sweet as the corn that I planted myself.

I remember summers on Fire Island, where my mother and her sisters fenced off a tiny plot of salt-soaked sand between our families’ two beach shacks, and how they worked all summer with sprinkler hoses, sacks of soil, and seed packets, all so that for the last few weeks in August we could enjoy fresh greens with the fish my cousins and I caught for dinner. She taught me the importance of fish as fertilizer; how her friend Dom DeLuise christened her strawberry guava tree with a wheelbarrow full of fish heads.

She had grand plans for our new house in Santa Monica, which was finished in 1984, when I started the seventh grade. The sloping backyard would be terraced, irrigated, and lit for a day/night gardening experience. Every night dinner included at least one item “from the land.” I’m not sure if that line came from Dom DeLuise or Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. Either way, the phrase was as much a staple in our house as the chard and kale and radicchio served at our table every night. And after dinner my mother would lead us in ritual mass slaughter of our enemy, the nefarious cut worm. Flashlights in hand, we’d descend onto the hillside. My mother was an expert in counterinsurgency as well as hand-to-hand combat. Gleefully she picked off each squirming pest and, with her trademark theatrical “HHAA!” crushed them beneath her heel.

My mother didn’t believe in pesticides, or even chemical fertilizers. She liked to say that she invented the word “organic” long before anyone had even heard of it. She was the first mother among my friends’ families to pay attention to ingredients on food labels and to question what industrial farms were spraying on our store-bought produce. She always insisted that gardening was the only way to ensure what we were putting into our bodies.

My father had other ideas. While careful never to say this to her face, he made sure I knew that her ties to the land went back to her “Italian peasant heritage.” Maybe he was right. As far back as I can remember, my grandma kept a small plot of tomatoes and basil next to her little house in Yonkers. Her father had been a grocer during the Great Depression, and as a result, my mom bragged, they never went hungry. My mother used to talk about visiting her grandparents and the smell of basil heavy in the air. She once took a cooking class in which the scent of chopped basil – and the sense memories it conjured up – made her break down and cry.

Maybe it was nostalgia, maybe it was her heritage, maybe it was her way of counteracting an increasingly toxic society, maybe it was all these, but that hillside micro-farm in Santa Monica was her masterpiece. She was just as proud of it as of any of the little golden statues she’d won for pre-tending to be other people. By this point, however, I was quickly losing interest in the kind of growing associated with plants. I was moving into adolescence, and, in my mind, basil had been replaced by boobs.

For twenty years, I lived as an urban hunter-gatherer. Food was just something to keep me going during the day, and plants were just something old people cared about. Any interest in agriculture came from my general curiosity about survivalist culture (which I translated into my first book). Any connection to my Italian heritage came from learning how to make a decent marinara sauce (from canned ingredients), and that was only to impress the girl who would one day become my wife.

Then my mom got sick. A lifetime of label reading and organic food turned out to be useless in the face of uterine cancer. We were all living in New York at the time: my parents, me, my wife, Michelle, and our newborn son, who was lucky enough to spend a few precious hours with his grandmother. It was an artificial existence, and apart from nuclear subs or the international space station, I’ll be damned if any life is more removed from nature. The only places I ever saw trees were in the cramped, over-manicured, urine-soaked corrals that passed for parks. The only time I ever planted anything was in Valhalla cemetery in Yonkers.

A few years later we moved back to California, and while I waited for my new home office to be finished, I set up a temporary work space in my parents’ – my father’s – house. I figured it was a way to save the money I would have thrown away on renting an office. It was also a way of staying physically close to an eighty-year-old man who was alone for the first time in his life. From the attic window I could look down on the garden, overgrown now, neglected and brown. I’m not sure exactly when I picked up the mattock and got to work. I’m not sure when a one-time visit to Armstrong garden center became a weekly (sometimes daily) habit. I’m not sure when I started permanently wearing a Leatherman multi-tool on my belt or when I set up pots and plastic sheeting and grow lights in a corner of my father’s attic. Those three years are still very much a blur.

Gardening is now an integral part of my life, as much as it ever was to my mom. Tomato plants are growing again on her hillside, as well as basil and potatoes and sometimes a few more exotic crops like cotton, tobacco, and a lot of sugar cane. I also have a few coffee plants, one of which started as a houseplant I gave my dad for his bathroom window. It’s taken a few years, but we’re just getting our first big crop of beautiful purple berries.

As supportive as he was of my mother’s hobby, he simply tolerated it. But my dad now takes an active role in mine. Together we go through the tomato plants, picking the best for sandwiches and sauce. This season we’ve made sixty-two jars of marinara, more than enough for an entire year. My father has also invested in several fruit trees; last June we were drowning in peaches.

Neither one of us is particularly religious, so keeping my mother’s garden alive seems the best way to honor her memory. “She’d be real proud of you,” my dad says over a bucket of harvested Brandywines. “She would,” I respond, “but she’d be pissed about the mess.”

I won’t say I feel her presence when I’m working in the soil, but memories of her are never far when I’m digging a hole for fish guts, or tasting this season’s strawberry guava (we still have that tree!), or killing slugs in the small plot of my own house. Like her, I don’t use pesticides, and like her, every kill is personal. Sometimes on weekends my son helps me defend our crops. I explain to him, like “Grandma Annie” explained to me, that while it’s never good to kill, sometimes it’s necessary when protecting our food. Most of the time I go out alone at night, flashlight in hand, with the reverence of a religious ritual. I’d like to believe that there is such a thing as an afterlife, that a part of my mom still exists somewhere. I hope, as my dad says, that she’d be proud of me for continuing her tradition, and that maybe, just maybe, she watches over my nightly pest hunts, smiling at each theatrical “HHAA!”

HOMEMADE YONKERS, NEW YORK,
ITALIAN TOMATO SAUCE

Only the salt and olive oil are store-bought; all other ingredients are homegrown. Portions tend to be rough and peasant-y and depend on the number of people eating.

MAKES ABOUT 1 QUART

Roma tomatoes, roughly 4 blenders full
(I also like to mix in a few homegrown Brandywine and cherry tomatoes for flavor)
Basil, 1 fistful per quart of blended tomatoes
Garlic, 1 half clove per quart of blended tomatoes
Salt
Olive oil, 1 tablespoon per quart of tomatoes

Puree the tomatoes, basil, and garlic in a mixer with as much water as needed to allow for blending. Add salt as needed for taste. Add olive oil. Bring to a boil and boil for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat and cook, stirring, all day (yes, all day), until the liquid has reduced to a sauce

Either serve immediately or pour into jars and freeze.

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