Winner of 2013 New Southerner Nonfiction Prize – published in December edition of the New Southerner…
My sister Ashley pots tiny lettuce plants in her livingroom. Black soil spills across the wood floor, mixing in and among the pieces of toys and clean laundry. They are making a farm and a family in the fields of Augusta County, Virginia. They grow tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, broccoli, zucchini, watermelon.
When I arrive, my four-year old nephew runs up to me before he even says hello and thrusts a yellow watermelon at me. “We are eating this,” he tells me. And we do, scooping the meat out with our fingers and licking the juices off our arms and out of the bends in our elbows.
Daniel, my brother-in-law, is a pragmatist. Right now he’s overwhelmed with his delicate heirloom tomatoes. Though they are all the rage at farmer’s markets and gourmet restaurants, he’s not convinced that, to the average buyer, they actually taste that different from his far more straightforward Sungolds. “I’m giving Amanda a taste test,” he says, doubting I will be able to tell the difference.
We have been bent over the heirloom vines all afternoon, picking them gently. These are the tomatoes I was thinking of last week in Los Angeles as I picked through a box of some like them at my neighborhood farmer’s market. My father had been telling me about helping Ashley and Daniel plant them. He had never heard of an heirloom. Raised in The Depression, my father considers food merely sustenance – a tomato is a tomato. But on the phone he was telling me how beautiful these were. And how people seemed to love what my sister had grown. And as I stood there, at that market, three thousand miles from my family, those California heirlooms, striped in old ways, made their way through the relentlessness of things.
Now I am holding the ones my father spoke of, but Daniel is convinced they aren’t worth the time. These we pick are overripe. And there are hundreds more green ones. By the time they get to pick those, they too will be overripe. There are only the two of them to farm here, this first year. They can’t afford to hire any more help. My sister is skinny. Tall and thin, she’s still skinnier than I’ve ever seen her.
So I close my eyes and hold out my hands to Daniel. He places chunks of all the different tomatoes he grows in them. I report my findings as the afternoon sits still for a moment. That one is a little sweet. That one has a tang. That one tastes like I expected. That one like fruit. That one acidic. He gives me the last two again. But I can still tell the difference. The acidic one is the Sungold. The fruity one is the heirloom Brandywine. It is delicious, like plums. Still trying to disprove me he says, “Yeah but with a little salt and some olive oil and fresh mozzarella, it wouldn’t matter.”
But it would. It would matter.
It matters that tomato doesn’t mean one thing.
It matters that I picked it, here in this field.
It matters that in each row there is a different variety growing.
It matters that someone knows how to grow each one of them.
Driving endless miles on the Los Angeles freeways, the radio keeps me company. Recently I heard director Jason Wise talk about making his documentary Somm, about people trying to pass the Master Sommelier Diploma Exam, perhaps the toughest exam in the world. The reporter marveled at this. But Wise framed it this way: “think about it. I’m not going to need to consult an expert in real estate or accountancy every day. But I’m always going to want a bottle of wine and I want the person selling it to me to know exactly what he is talking about.”
Yes, I thought as I searched for a parking spot. My poet heart has always loved to hear wine lovers parse out the red into earth and smoke and cherry; the white into straw and lemon and honey, as if those things are really in that glass – distilled essences from great alchemy vats.
Just as at my favorite coffeeshop there are six different roasts of espresso listed on the board. When I asked the barista about them, he offered the most sumptuous descriptions. And I forgot which was which, I just listened to all the words that described the thing I drink every day that I thought I knew.
That matters. It matters that someone knows what he is talking about. Not an economist or a military strategist or a conflict negotiator – just a guy who makes coffee. We used to be a world where everyone knew everything about what they did every day. Where we chose what to do with our lives because we were good at it and we had learned our trades working beside our fathers in the waning afternoons.
Now it seems we do what we do because we can make a living with the least amount of effort. Home Depot doesn’t know anything about me. Target doesn’t care about adjectives and the way flavors dance. At Starbucks a button makes the coffee.
But it matters that someone still knows how to run the espresso for exactly the right amount of time, to steam the milk until the steel pitcher is hot to touch and not a second more. It matters that the guy selling me wine can also tell me a story.
It feels as if stories should always be tucked into our days, where we are not expecting them. It feels as if we should always want to place what we grow into someone’s hands, stretched out in August sunlight.