Summer’s bounty brings with it some of my favorite foods to eat: sweet corn on the cob; globular peaches with tender, dripping flesh; tomatoes fresh from the garden; and watermelon – beautiful watermelon bursting from its hull, golden where it has rested on its place in the soil in the hot summer sun.
I do very little to prepare these seasonal treasures, the lack of preparation itself a secondary, but no less important gift from summer. I eat tomatoes like apples, except sprinkled judiciously with salt. If the peaches are ripe, I dispense with napkins altogether and slurp their juices on the back steps with no condiment save for the grin on my face. Corn is boiled in water seasoned with equal amounts of salt and sugar. (My grandmother believed sugar was essential to cooking corn, and I am disinclined to disagree.) I love to eat the cooked corn with salted butter, salt, and pepper, as does my family, whose sighs of appreciation I savor.
To me, watermelon is a luxury, money well spent… and sometimes a meal unto itself. My husband, who grew up in Florida, where watermelon is as ubiquitous as barbeque sauce and collard greens, disagrees. I look for watermelons with golden bottoms and a hollow sound when tapped, feeling a rush like the Sweeney Todd of produce each time my knife slices into that first inch of watermelon rind. I cut off the root end, which gives me a flat surface from which to work, then I ease my knife down along the round periphery, cutting the rind away in pretty arcs. Slice the meat into quarters, the quarters into flat slices that are easy to hold and devour, and voila! Instant dinner.
Summer reminds me to appreciate my food. Due to a long, wet winter, I didn’t start the family garden until July this year. My tomato plant, with its aphrodisiacal leaves and fuzzy stem so full of promise, took that month to slowly pale and shrivel in its plot, despite the water and attention we gave it. Now it is too late in an already-short growing season to start another plant. I am heartbroken for the ghosts of those homegrown garden tomatoes. The Farmer’s Market helps, but only a little (it only lasts as long as the growing season). For the rest of the long year, I’ll have to rely on the grainy, cardboard-like shams of tomatoes sold in the supermarket. The prospect makes me very sad.
The Unprejudiced Palate is a post-WWII food treatise written by noted culinarian Angelo Pellegrini. “…The average American enjoys inexhaustible abundance,” observes Pellegrini. “His means are not adequate to satisfy the needs which a prodigal environment has made habitually extravagant, while even during those annoying periods of economic recession… he has infrequently known the meaning of real scarcity. He is not impressed by the assurance that, compared with the starving millions in Europe and Asia [and Africa, I would add], his pantry is a gourmet’s paradise. He appraises his stock of worldly goods in terms of America’s fantastic wealth, and he is not satisfied with less than what he considers his proper share.”
Pellegrini immigrated to the US from Italy as a child in 1913. In the Italy of Pellegrini’s youth, luxuries were dear: sugar scarce, coffee hoarded. Children roamed farms and fields in search of cow patties – precious for fueling stoves. “I had known scarcity, had lived on intimate terms with its agonizing reality,” he writes. “The discovery of its opposite, its annihilator, was an experience so maddening with joy, so awful and bewildering, that I am not yet fully recovered from the initial shock.” The Unprejudiced Palate, first published in 1948, was, I imagine, Pellegrini’s coping mechanism – an affirmation of his frugality and the sense of purpose derived from toiling in the earth, a celebration and true appreciation of good food shared with good company. Pellegrini gathered his own wood, cultivated a formidable garden, and scavenged and hunted the things that grew and lived in the forests around his home (he once lost a potential paramour after hunting, preparing, and consuming a plateful of “succulent meadow larks” at a family dinner). He kept a cellar full of wine that he made and bottled himself. He was a man who believed in complete self-sufficiency and bully to anyone foolish enough to disagree. (In the book, he tempers this occasional bristle with otherwise delightful prose and lovely, evocative recipes and descriptions of meals past.)
As an adult, Pellegrini witnessed firsthand the suburban swell that followed WWII, and the rise of the supermarket as we know it today. This critical shift gave Americans access to a higher level of variety in foodstuffs than they had known before, bringing with it the gradual demise of ‘mom and pop’ shops and specialty grocers, like the green grocer and the butcher. According to The 1950s by William and Nancy Young, the post-war surge of rising incomes encouraged consumers to raise their food budgets. “To accommodate this increased spending for food – and to adapt to changing demographic patterns, especially the growth of suburbs – new, more modern supermarkets sprang up across the land,” write the Youngs. “By 1959, they [suburban supermarkets] claimed roughly 70 percent of all sales, and yet still comprised only 11 percent of all grocery stores.” The level of abundance that awed Pellegrini, then, was relatively new to the American lifestyle, though it quickly became the standard and, Pellegrini argues, the expectation. With this new consumerism came ‘easy-prep’ foods, a phenomenon that immediately and irrevocably changed the American diet and presented a culinary alternative that stood in direct contradiction to Pellegrini’s farm-to-table philosophy. The smug consumerism of the American psyche perplexed him. I would argue that this is human nature – it is easy to take the status quo for granted during times of plenty – but, since I am an immigrant’s daughter, I understand his frustration.
My mother grew up in the Ukraine during WWII, so she, like Pellegrini, was well acquainted with scarcity and real hunger. She immigrated to the States in her late 30s in order to give her daughters a better life, earning US citizenship at age 40. In many ways, reading Pellegrini evoked memories of my mother and helped me truly understand some of the behaviors that I thought were so weird with mom. She never went so far as to hunt a common pigeon in the park, pluck it, roast it, and call it dinner, but she lived very frugally: saving and reusing things that others would discard; savoring every last morsel on her plate, bones, giblets, and all. Mom ate simple breads and soups, unadorned vegetables and fruits, and seafood only rarely. She seldom purchased “bigger” meats like pork or beef, and she knew how to make a boiled chicken last all week. Mom expressed an immigrant’s appreciation for the well-stocked shelves of the American grocery store, but she never forgot the reason that she immigrated either, living resourcefully within (if not below) her means and favoring a diet that she could procure somewhat reliably – primarily fruits and vegetables. I am what results from this dichotomy.
I have been intensively studying texts about food and food production for the last few years and I am only just beginning to understand how modern food systems work, particularly in regard to the damage they do to the environment. I’m trying to become more mindful about where my food comes from, who makes it, how it is grown, and where I choose to make purchases with money that is hard-earned. I try to remember that I am blessed to have year-round access to cardboard sham tomatoes. I owe at least that much to my upbringing and my mother’s resourceful frugality. I owe at least that much to my children.
In the meantime, we all have to eat to live and it is summer, that most bountiful of seasons. So tonight, I’ll raise a phantom glass to the spirit of Angelo Pellegrini, pull some veggies from the garden for a nice salad – and maybe a hunk of bread and a small piece of good, stinky cheese, and embrace his most essential philosophy: appreciate and enjoy the food before you, savor every bite, and share the meal with those you love best.