Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Mother and the Farmers' Market

Here's my March East Village Magazine column. Whenever I'm going through periods where wrestling toward happiness becomes an issue, she comes to mind. Of course. It's all so primal.

Flint Farmers Market at harvest season, September, 2009

In the last few years of her life my mother ate almost nothing. She had had colon cancer and for a tortuous few months bore a colostomy bag. Then they unhooked it and reconnected her digestive tubes and she lived another couple of years. But food was a problem the rest of her life, and eating deteriorated into a thorny, bedeviling process, a lifelong pleasure lost .

But not before she left her mark on me. This is an essay about food. That is why it begins with Mom. Born exactly a hundred years ago this year, she grew up in a family that assumed itself upper middle-class -- white, Protestant -- morosely inhabiting a big, drafty Victorian house in Findlay, Ohio.

Their status wobbled in the difficult Twenties. My traveling evangelist grandpa, by some accounts a brilliant but erratic man, usually spent most of the take from his intineracy before he made it home to the Painted Lady on North Corey Street.

My grandmother took in roomers and fed her five kids Sunday night -- my mother remembered with a mix of melancholy and wounded nostalgia -- suppers of stale bread softened in warm milk, green onions poked in like swizzle sticks.

From then on, my mother cared deeply about making sure there was enough nutritious food on any table over which she presided. In college, she majored in that quaint, painfully proto-feminist curriculum, Home Economics. She could talk, not that anybody usually wanted to listen, about the chemistries of canning and rising bread dough.

In the Tara-like nursing home where she lived her last four years, she clung to some of her cherished food rituals. She held court at the head of the table in the dining room when we came to visit, folding and unfolding her cloth napkin and taking in tiny spoonfuls of creamed spinach, or pureed sweet potatoes, maybe a microgram of butterscotch pudding.

As always, she admonished her children, children’s children and various hangers-on to eat slowly, use our silverware properly, orchestrate reasonably small bites and chew discreetly with our mouths shut, one hand in the lap.

More important, even, we were supposed to converse. We were supposed to smile and be grateful, attentive to the sensory gifts of the table, and we were supposed to report on our lives and say interesting things. Nobody was excused before it was over. That concept -- children being cut loose for other, more entertaining activities -- struck her as uncalled for and indulgent. Everybody was required to stick it out for the whole shebang. That was The Way People Behaved.

She was a passionate gardener and food aesthete, often declaring upon hailing her guests to table with a little Chinese bell, that the meal was based on “good concomitants,” and pointing out her often ingenious selections of color and taste: sweet corn with Kentucky Wonder beans and pickled beets, eggplant with the carnelian tomatoes, the gooseberry with the rhubarb.

These days I think, what a waste, that her talents weren’t more noted and praised. She was an intelligent woman who never found an audience quite worthy of her devotions.

Yet I am healthier today, as my own old age sets in, because of my first 18 years, those daily “three squares,” of wonderful food she conscientiously and even joyfully provided.

And that leads me, all these decades later, to a sweet little miracle of downtown Flint, the Farmers Market.

This is what I'm talkin' about

Entering my sixties, it is more important than ever to me to find the corners of the world where I can be happy, where I can pursue the sanguine concept my mother never called “wellness,” where I can find both audience and stage for the goodness of life and share it with others.

And there is Dick Ramsdell, the market manager, up on a ladder in the middle of the big aisle, counting patrons. And there’s the Hills kid at the cheese counter, helping me decide between the English and French cheddar. He offers me an aromatic slice of the latest Stilton on a square of parchment and announces my favorite butter, wrapped in blue and white checked paper and tucked in a miniature straw basket, is in from Vermont.

And there are piles of glowing gold butternut squash and red potatoes, tangerines and pears, feasts of carrots, cauliflower and cabbage gathered by the Penziens and Coykendalls. And the fresh-cut chicken, whole roasters and Rubenesque ducks at Ron and Linda Howard’s stall.

At the bakery, Nancy & Costa Anagostopoulos bustle around behind glass-covered pastry cases. My nose flares at the fragrant yeastiness, and my husband buys his favorite lemon croissants.

At D’Vine Wines, I stock up on Leese-Fitch Cabernet and Protocolo, greeting Karen and Maria, and my husband picks up fresh milk in glass bottles. On the way back down the aisle, we buy hummus and tabbouli from David and Ani Jawhari, say hello to Todd the book guy, buy some Patty Warner cards, and pick up another pair of colorful hand-made socks from Soozie Q’s.

We culminate our Farmers Market visit by climbing the stairs to Steady Eddy’s, where Ted devours the BLT and I have the South of the Border omelet, mild.

I’m longtime buddies of Kim, Lisa and Chris, who serve me espresso in my favorite blue cup, and I am extravagantly smitten that “Daddy,” Lisa’s late father Mike Lord, overlooks the cafĂ©’s goings on from a squat urn on a shelf behind the take-out counter.

My mother would approve of the Flint Farmers Market, where we take our time, selecting “good concomitants” for our week and chatting amiably at our Steady Eddy’s meals.

Like the spirit of the irrepressible Lord, a friend whose life I celebrate with every sip of thick espresso, my mother’s plucky ghost goes with me when I act in my own behalf, like when I linger contentedly over the good life of the Farmers Market.

“It’s about time to get happy,” I imagine her – or my dream mother -- saying. “Life is fleeting – savor it all.”