When I was a little girl, I would visit my godmother and help her work in her gardens. She lived in an old farmhouse; she had a barn full of animals, pastures for them to roam in, and a huge garden. In July and August, I would sit in between the rows of beans and peas with a bowl next to me for gathering my harvest. I was supposed to be picking beans for dinner, but instead I would just sit there and munch on bright, crisp green beans straight off the vine. I had never tasted anything like them. Later, standing on a stool in front of the kitchen sink, looking out the windows toward the garden, I would shell peas with my sister. With our bitty fingers, we opened the pods and swiped the pale green orbs into a strainer. At the kitchen table, my godmother stood in front of a basket of cucumbers, slicing them thinly and loading them into jars to become pickles.
In those moments, it was as if time stood still in the farmhouse kitchen. The early Vermont settlers who built that house were perhaps dairy farmers awarded one of the New Hampshire Grants back when New York and New Hampshire fought over the land that would become Vermont. Early Vermonters were unusual among colonial New England settlers; they were not interested in recreating the English social hierarchy of a landholding aristocracy lording over land-working tenant farmers (or, in the case of the southern states, plantation owners with land-working slaves). Vermonters would own the land they worked, and work the land they owned. It was a model of self-sufficiency, pride, and integrity that still defines the Green Mountain State.
My sister and I were only the most recent in a long line of children who stood at that sink and shelled peas. It could as easily have been the 1780s as the 1980s. My godmother–who is my mother’s eldest sister–was the most recent in a long line of women who grew, harvested, and then “put up” food for the winter in cans and jars. We entered into the dynamic energy of that kitchen, accumulated over time in the work, the laughter, and the love of farm families. In doing this, we created, participated in, and enacted our identity as Vermont women, a way of being forged centuries earlier and repeated in gardens and kitchens for generations. In those moments, my sister and I learned what it meant to be a part of that tradition.
We also learned that few things match the absolute joy of the harvest. Sitting in the warm summer sunshine, eating veggies straight from the vines, we learned what food is supposed to taste like. We learned what wholesome food felt like, smelled like, and looked like. We experienced the love and attention that gardening demands, made manifest in a bowl full of shiny green peas.
I remember all of these things when I work in my own garden, but the memories of my godmother’s farmhouse were especially vivd this week when I pulled the first little bunch of peas and the first cucumber from the garden. With childlike glee, I looked up at my husband, standing on the back steps, and proclaimed: “We have peas!!” I pulled our first carrot, and ran to him, “smell that,” I said, shoving the dirt-covered orange root into his face. “How amazing is that?” I pulled our first baby beets, “look at that color!” I couldn’t help but proclaim the greatness of each and every veggie to emerge from the soil or be plucked from the vine. My husband had never eaten a pea, raw, just plucked from the garden. He had never had a fresh garden cucumber or carrot straight from the ground. Even in our urban neighborhood, which is a far cry from Vermont’s rocky soil and mountain farms, I hope I can give him even a small glimpse of the joy I gained as a child standing at the farmhouse sink.
The joy of the harvest isn’t a tough sell. My husband is a city mouse to my country mouse, but he has become a quick believer in the virtues of gardening. Watching the plants grow, wondering what they will do, tending things while I’m away, he waits as anxiously as I do for the veggies to appear and ripen. He peeks under the huge zucchini plants looking for new veggies, ready to pick. He examines the cucumber plants daily, seeking evidence of little cukes among the mass of vines and leaves. When the green beans are ready, he and I will both eat them, straight off the vine, and be reminded that this is what a bean is supposed to taste like. I may never convince him to eat one of the many tomatoes that ripen daily, even in my best efforts to assure him they are sweet little nuggets of sunshine, but I think he’ll find joy enough in eating everything else.