Jul/Aug 2020  •   Nonfiction

A Memoir of Picking and Planting

by Peter Bridges

The Covid-19 virus pandemic has led a number of people to reduce supermarket shopping by growing vegetables at home. People are speaking of "victory gardens" for the first time since World War II. It reminds me how, in 1944 when I was 12, my father designated me Chief Gardener for our victory garden, which for the past three summers I had been helping to tend in the empty lot behind our house in Chicago.

I think back, too, to my picking as well as my growing. Six or seven thousand years have passed since my family turned to farming, after hundreds of millennia as hunter-gatherers who lived on the creatures they shot and the nuts and wild fruit they picked. But even in a modern century, it was enjoyable for this boy to pick good fruit on trees and bushes—although my first experience was a mixed one.

I was five, and my mother had taken my little sister, Bart, and me to live with my grandparents in New Orleans while my father went on a long business trip to Europe and Africa by ship, rail, and flying boat. One day my mother's sister, my beloved aunt Angela Devlin, known to all as Tete ("Tee-Tee"), invited me to come with her when she visited a friend. I loved figs, the friend had a fig tree, it was July, and the fruit was ripe.

I was wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and sandals. "Keep your shirt on," said the friend when we arrived, "The sap of my tree is very itchy."

They left me, and I climbed some way up the tree on convenient limbs. It was a hot day in New Orleans. I pulled off my shirt, threw it on the ground, and gorged on the sweet purple fruit—and soon began to itch. Badly, I itched. I clambered down and ran into the house, where Tete and friend were deep in conversation.

"Tete," I said, "I'm itching. I'm itching really bad. Let's go home!"

"Be quiet," said my aunt, who was not usually a cruel person. "Be quiet; we're talking." And while I writhed and scratched the ladies talked. Finally, after what seemed hours, we went home, Tete filled the bathtub, I dived in, and slowly came relief.

I never climbed another fig tree, but I got figs. I would sit in hot afternoon on the Devlins' screened porch, reading The Prisoner of Zenda or another of the novels from the 1920s I had found cached in a loveseat. And then I would hear the fig lady coming down Octavia Street, singing out "Figs, fresh fee-yigs! I got fresh feeyigs!"

I would run to get Grandma, she would buy a dozen or two, and now on the porch I had a double pleasure, Zenda and figs, and later a cold six-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola. I have good memories of New Orleans summers in the 1930s.

We went to war in December 1941, and the United States began to ration scarce goods, beginning with tires and gasoline. In the course of 1942, rationing of food products began, including meats, dairy products, canned and frozen vegetables, sugar, jams and jellies, and many other items. The Federal government encouraged individuals to plant "victory gardens," and Americans responded. By 1943 there were an estimated 18 million such gardens in the United States. By 1944, according to the US Department of Agriculture, our victory gardens produced an amount equal to all commercial production of fresh vegetables.

My father was a corporate executive, but he was also a farmer's son. He dug and fertilized a plot of around 15 by 30 feet, and when frost was gone, he planted it with young me helping and learning. Lettuce and radishes grew quickly, very satisfying. We grew a dozen or more tomato plants and provided them rough trellises to climb, and by July they were getting full of fruit. Squash vines soon spread along the ground, and by August we had butternut squash—which I decided I liked better to grow than to eat. Corn grew well, too. Yield per square yard was not great, but in that time when an ear of corn lost its sugar soon after it was picked, we enjoyed fresh sweet corn for dinner on many summer evenings.

Peas and beans grew well, but rabbits ate them. My father built an efficient rabbit trap, but after he had bashed in the heads of a couple of harmless creatures, my mother forbade more bunnycide and we turned instead to beets and carrots.

Victory gardening was winding down by our final defeat of Japan in 1945. When that summer ended, we were left with many dozen green tomatoes, which I picked and set to ripen in a sunny spot in the kitchen. They did not ripen. My mother found a recipe for green tomato pickle and put up many Mason jars of it. My memory is of a bowl of pickle—happily it was good stuff—accompanying every postwar dinner for a long time after V-J Day.

During the war I also picked cherries. At the back of our yard was an L-shaped, flat-roofed garage and adjoining small screened summer house. In the inner side of the L was a big cherry tree. It was easy to climb, and its limbs were also accessible from the flat roof. In late June it produced lots of tart red fruit, which Mother found made good pies. I picked, happily, with help: my cousin Sally, who lived in Minneapolis. Sally was just my age and very pretty, sent down to visit us in summer to escape an alcoholic father.

There was a family production problem. Sugar was strictly rationed: eight ounces a person per week, half of prewar consumption. In that era manufacturers had not begun loading breakfast cereal with sugar; you sprinkled your own on corn flakes or Wheaties. We restrained ourselves for the sake of Mother's pies.

Our cousins Ernest and Janet Sansum and their children lived near us. Ernest had a managerial job that paid well, but Janet had grown up poor and was forever thrifty. She came to my mother with a proposal. Wild grapes grew in the Cook County forest preserves. She would pick them when they ripened in August, and if my mother would contribute our family's sugar ration, Janet would produce grape jam. Which was done, but it was not good jam, so no more was made after one season.

During the war we always had enough to eat—but not too much. I look at wartime photos of Americans and never see anyone obese. Whoppers, all the lobster you can eat, and huge soda drinks came in later years.

A dozen years after the war and victory gardens had ended, my young wife and I were living in a small apartment on the south side of Arlington, Virginia. I had joined the Foreign Service and earned a very modest salary, which Mary Jane augmented by teaching soldiers shorthand at nearby Fort McNair.

Beyond our apartment flowed a little stream, Four Mile Run, and beyond that lay a few acres left from a farm. The farmer plowed one acre of it and divided it into plots, which he rented to neighbors for five dollars a season. We took a plot and happily grew small crops until the State Department sent us to Panama, where we let others grow for us papayas, mangoes, and the delicious small bananas called guineos.

Skip forward another dozen years, and we are at the American Embassy in then-Communist Prague. The main embassy building is the Schoenborn Palace, an imposing 17th century building with four wings and three courtyards, which in the 1970s housed all the embassy offices and most staff apartments.

Behind the middle courtyard rose three levels of gardens, the highest being the largest, five acres topped by a big belvedere. This Third Garden had been elegant when before World War I it belonged to the Counts Schoenborn. When we came to Prague, the State Department had not funded its upkeep, and it was a wild place where Embassy kids played cowboys and Indians. I myself liked to ramble there sometimes, away from drab state socialism... and I found the remnant of an apple orchard, half a dozen old trees.

One Sunday at summer's end, when I had come back from a vacation in Italy and my family was still there, I hiked many miles through the Czech woods and then, returning to the embassy, went up to the garden and picked a dozen apples from the old trees. In the kitchen I found my wife's well-worn copy of Irma Rombauer's Joy of Cooking. It told me how to make pie and crust. I did so. It was perfect. I ate a slice every morning for breakfast during the following week.

Next Sunday, my family still away, I hiked, I picked, I baked—and the result was poor, to say the least. Since then I have left family baking to wife and children.

We also had a sort of victory garden in the Third Garden. The lettuce and carrots were good, but the best of it was to stand up after weeding and see magnificent Prague Castle and the spires of St. Vitus Cathedral on a ridge a quarter-mile away.

Alas, one Prague crop failed. We had learned to love finocchio, fennel, when living in Rome, and I bought a packet of Italian seed and planted it in our Third Garden plot. It grew, and I was happy—but it was of a sort that did not produce the delicious white bulbs we wanted. We were disappointed. But far worse things happened in that police state.

Besides our time in Prague, we spent two tours of duty at our embassy in Rome and many happy Sundays hiking in the nearby Apennines. One Sunday I was leading our son David and our dog Seumas along a mountain path above Guadagnolo, the highest town in the Lazio region. There were big blackberry bushes along the path and big ripe berries on the bushes. I stopped to pick and eat, and then looked behind me and laughed. David, too, was picking and eating—and so was Seumas.

I remember, too, our vacations in the Dolomites, and times picking a particular big patch of blueberries in that loveliest of valleys, the Val Gardena. Along the trails, too, we'd find little strawberries, but they were never abundant. It was the grand mountains, not wild fruit, that took us to the country of the Ladins.

Once came a happy Sunday outside Rome when we went after sloe berries under the command of Lady Bridges, the British ambassador's wife. Tom and Rachel Bridges were good friends, but not cousins. They and we and half a dozen Italian friends spent many Sundays climbing smaller and higher peaks within a couple of hours of the capital. This day we drove to Roccantica, a pretty and ancient village under a modest-sized mountain, Monte Pizzuto. We parked, started off on a good trail, reached the grassy summit ridge after an elevation gain of not quite 3,000 feet, enjoyed sandwiches and wine in the sun—and made our way down to the area where Rachel remembered seeing sloe bushes on a previous excursion.

I had once or twice drunk sloe gin, red and sweetish and, I thought, not very remarkable, though I didn't say so now to the Lady Bridges. She was intent on serving the gin as a liqueur at their residence and telling their guests they'd picked the sloes in the Apennines.

We found the low sloe bushes, full of small plum-colored fruits, and picked pounds of them. During the next couple of years the Bridges would not infrequently have us to lunch or dinner, and invariably we'd have a little sloe gin afterward and remember a happy picking Sunday. But I never got hooked on the stuff.

Some of the best family picking came in New Hampshire. I spent seven straight years working in Washington in the 1970s. Several summers I got two and even three weeks' leave that we spent in a comfortable old Victorian house on Lake Mascoma. Not a long drive away was Cardigan Mountain. From the parking lot below the mountain, we could lope in less than an hour to the summit: huge flattish stone slabs 3,200 feet above sea level. We sat on the slabs and gloried in the view of Mount Washington and other White Mountain peaks, many miles north of us.

Then we set to work. In the crevices between the great stone slabs grew many blueberries. In season we picked... and ate, too. Once I overstayed on the mountain, which occasioned a simple sonnet:

...We had to go, some guest was due below
In town; but there were bushes full of blue
Plump berries, and I lagged, to pick and eat.
They left me there. I watched the west wind blow
Gray veils across the world, and then I too
Came down with thoughts and fruit, both sad and sweet.

I must also mention our mushroom days in the Elk Mountains of Colorado, where we bought an old miner's house years ago. We have always been careful about picking mushrooms, since the time when son David nearly died of mushroom poisoning in Kazakhstan. We stick to three good sorts: boletuses, hawkswings, and chanterelles. There is nothing better than walking through the forests outside the town of Crested Butte and seeing a patch of small gold chanterelles strewn, half buried, along the ground... and they add a delicious woodsy taste to all sorts of dishes.

In recent decades our family's picking and planting has been that of amateurs and dilettantes. Our World War II victory garden was a more serious enterprise, and our hunter-gatherer ancestors picked and hunted in order to survive. I hope the ancient folk had good recipes, not necessarily for sloe gin.