Vandergrift, Pennsylvania when I grew up had a decidedly Italian presence. It was even more so when my parents were kids, and probably even more when my grandparents settled there, but still, when I was young, Vandergrift was pretty Italian. Even to this day they have the Festa di Italiana once a year, so the presence hasn’t completely faded. But I digress…
There were a lot of things I looked forward to in the summer, but one thing I hated as a kid. Gardening. There would be weeding and planting and peat-mossing. And then the picking. And picking. And picking.
Italians plant everything. We have huge gardens. We have to have parsley and basil, those herbs are staples, and they will take over your garden in a nanosecond if you aren’t vigilant. Of course we plant tomatoes. Can’t make sauce without those. Probably different varieties, too, because you use different ones for different things. Lettuce, zucchini, peppers (also different types), onions, garlic… heck, my dad even planted corn. We planted melons, too, and even tried pumpkins. Many Italian homes had grapevines (needed those to make the wine), a lot of us had one or more types of fruit trees or bushes, and at least one person in the family seemed to have a fig tree (my grandfather grew the best figs). What we didn’t grow ourselves we probably traded for; someone we knew would be growing what we wanted and wouldn’t have something that we’d have in abundance.
On that rare occasion that we wanted something no one grew, we’d go to an orchard or farm and pick it ourselves. There was no reason to get bruised produce from the store when we could get what we wanted cheaper fresh from the vine. I spent many June weekends in Erie picking cherries right off the trees.
Many of my friends growing up were Italian, so they worked in their family garden, too. Everyone ate zucchini twenty-eight different ways all summer long. If you’re Italian, you know what I mean.
My friends today don’t understand. My kids barely understand. We don’t have a garden where we live, but we try to get the freshest produce we can. Meanwhile our friends and the kids’ friends are eating frozen dinners and sauce from a jar, or, even worse, just getting take out all the time. When my kids have friends for dinner, I always make sure to have a home-cooked meal instead of letting them order pizza (the pizza here isn’t great, anyway). At first my kids were mortified, but their friends loved it, and now everyone looks forward to eating here. They don’t get food like this at their homes.
Who knew fresh tomatoes were for more than sandwiches and salads?