Back from the supermarket, I remove the small tags from fruits and vegetables. I hate the tags; they’re artificial and glued to my food. Even worse, I can’t seem to get rid of them, unless I stick them on a jar, or a coffee bag, or the dishwashing liquid bottle. The tags will stay there forever, mocking me.
“They need to identify the food,” my husband says, patiently. “They need to keep track of where it comes from.”
Maybe that’s what bothers me: I don’t need my food to be identified. I know what kind of food it is. Or maybe what really bothers me is that the tomato that needs to be tracked could be from anywhere, from Turkey to Argentina, and has probably traveled farther than my grandmother did in a lifetime. I imagine the tomato in a box in the dark cargo area of an enormous truck or ship, maybe even a plane, and I expect it to smell like gas and exhaust, the vibrations of the engine altering the pulp of the fruit. Why would I want to eat a traveling tomato?
Back in Romania, in the eighties, we had a garden. It was in Cuvin, a village about fifteen miles away from Arad, our town in Western Transylvania. For something like twenty dollars a month, my father rented a small plot of uncultivated land at the foot of a hill. Over the years, we turned it into a lush garden, with a potato patch and a strawberry patch, rows of carrots, lettuce, peas, beans, cucumbers and zucchini, and the trifecta of Romanian summer cooking: tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants.
We also planted apple and pear trees, and a peach tree that blossomed the first year.
“Look at this guy,” my mother said, “so young and already trying to give fruit!”
She caressed the air above the small white flowers, too fragile even for the softest touch.
To get to Cuvin, we had to take a train that was one hundred years old, one of the first electric lines in Europe. The train had wooden benches and windows that opened and closed (or failed to do so) by way of a crank. It was called “the Green Arrow,” because it was painted dark green and it was very, very slow. The train also stopped frequently, every two miles or so, in every village, to gather the farmers and take them into town, for the Sunday market, and back home at the end of the day.
On Saturday evenings, sweaty after a day spent in the garden, we’d take the train home, together with wide hipped, middle-aged peasant women wearing dark, pleated skirts covered by long aprons. They covered their heads with brown scarves—that meant they were married—and carried big baskets filled with strawberries, sour cherries, tomatoes, or apples for the Sunday market. The smell of fruit filled the dingy wagon. Some travelers complained about the baskets taking up too much space.
Our garden didn’t produce enough for our family of four; we still had to go to the old market downtown. We’d see the same baskets there.
“Come,” the women would call, “let me give you some fresh strawberries!”
“How much?” my mother would ask.
“Three leis a kilo.”
“Oh no, that’s too much! Would you sell for two?”
“No, ma’am, look, I just picked them this morning, they’re fresh…”
“How about two kilos for five leis?”
I never quite understood how my mother, so emotional in the garden, became so calculating at the market. I loved the agglomeration, the noise, the tables laden with small, neatly built pyramids of produce. Most of the sellers were women. With their eyes, they would measure out a tiny bit less than the amount requested, then, with a definitive gesture, they’d throw in the last apple, potato, or pepper, tipping the scale.
Back then, fruit came from the hills of Şiria, which gave good strawberries; cabbage from Socodor, a village known for its growers; bread from Santana; raw milk cheese from a woman my mother knew, all within twenty miles or so from our town. Fruit came and went with the seasons, and the rhythms and smells of my mother’s kitchen changed accordingly. The slow cooking stews of the winter were replaced by the quickly grilled or sautéed vegetables of the summer. In the fall, the whole family was engaged in what seemed like endless boiling and canning, which resulted in massive amounts of carefully jarred compotes, jams, vegetable spreads, and pickles. There were no bar codes and no sticky tags, just a continuous flow, from the rain to the earth to a peasant woman to the market to us. Just food, and the woman with callused hands who had grown it.
I arrived in Buffalo, New York, in August 2001, for graduate school. I spent the first three days at a professor’s apartment, a penthouse overlooking Buffalo’s impoverished downtown. Once a booming city, comparable with Chicago (Buffalo hosted the Pan-American Exposition in 1901, on which occasion an anarchist assassinated President McKinley), Buffalo had been declining since the iron industry that had created its prosperity came to an end, back in the 1970s. It was a town of harsh winters; I spent five years there.
My professor had warned me to avoid the nearby “bad” area, but I’d noticed a neighborhood food store at a street corner, and I wanted to thank my professor for her hospitality by making her lunch at her apartment. The store was dark, with sloping floors covered by ancient linoleum; the smell of harsh disinfectant made me sneeze. The store sold mostly canned and prepackaged items, although a few dusty carrots and heads of broccoli wilted in a bin in the back. I couldn’t find anything I could cook, so I settled for some eggs and cheese, thinking I could at least make an omelet. The cheese turned out to be Monterey Jack. It was dense, like a brick, and it tasted as if a whole salt mine had been dumped in it. I couldn’t eat a single slice.
That was my first experience buying American food.
Soon I found a room in an old house shared with other graduate students in the American Studies program, and my new life began in earnest. School was going well, and I soon developed a reputation for being an adamant poststructuralist. Everyday life, however, remained a challenge. It was the food that bothered me the most: it tasted foreign, in a threatening way. The milk tasted watery and unnatural, like powdered milk. At first I liked it, then I started to hate it. Bread was also different, a choice between the prohibitively expensive baguettes and the prepackaged stuff, too sweet and without a crust, that I kept trying to eat untoasted, stubbornly looking for a texture that just wasn’t there. Where were the regular bakeries that poor people (and graduate students) could afford? And why were tomatoes so expensive? They were poor people’s food back in Romania! And why, despite their outrageous price, did these tomatoes not have any flavor, only a pale color and a slippery, hard texture, like mussels?
Out of desperation, I started cooking. If I could make food taste like home, I thought, I could perhaps tame this aggressively new environment. In the kitchen I shared with three other students, I made vegetable soup, mashed potatoes with dill sauce, and caramel cream (a version of crème brulee), trying to summon the tastes of my childhood. My South American roommates and I shared meals, foreign accents, and distant homelands. We never shared our overwhelming sense of not belonging here.
I was beginning to get used to these new circumstances when, three years into my Buffalo life, I met my husband at a party thrown by my grad school friends. Charles was wearing an orange motorcycle jumpsuit, and I didn’t see much of his bearded face, except for the friendly smile that gathered in the wrinkles around his blue eyes. I liked the sound of his voice, sad and caressing and a bit vulnerable too. He sat next to me and listened while my friends and I talked about empire and war. Then he gave me a motorcycle ride home.
It was April, and a long Buffalo winter had just ended. The long awaited spring lured us into taking long walks together and the summer brought endless backyard parties, including one when we got soaked by the warm summer rain that started unexpectedly and kept falling through sun rays as we refused to go inside and kept dancing, giddy and in love.
Soon we moved in together. We spent the night making love or watching movies; in the daytime, we took long walks and cooked together. He made pancakes with fresh fruit compote in the morning, and I would wake up to the smell of berries boiling on the stove and of the coffee brewing in the French press. In the evening, I cooked pasta with tuna, capers, and tomato basil sauce. Friends would visit us, bringing wine, and we’d stay up late into the night, talking about literature and politics. We got married at City Hall a year later. I was about to graduate.
I defended my thesis in June 2006. I already had a job offer from a university, for a two-year contract. I was happy to move to Houston and leave Buffalo’s long winters behind. Watching the palm trees, the jacarandas, the Spanish moss hanging from live oaks outside our apartment complex, and the grass growing so thick it made me think of cabbage, I felt exhilarated that the world could look and feel so different. Charles joined me a few months later. We reasoned we could live on one paycheck, and he could find a job later on.
It took him almost two years to get a job in an exhibits department in a museum. By that time, my contract with the university was about to end, and I’d already accepted another two-year teaching contract, this time in Grand Rapids, Michigan. We were in a long-distance relationship for a year, but that didn’t work out too well. Away from each other, we were growing apart, and working full time didn’t allow us time for travel. I didn’t like my new job, and unlike Houston, Grand Rapids was economically depressed, with cold, wet winters. It was like Buffalo again, the Buffalo before Charles. There were few foreigners in Grand Rapids, and wherever I went, hearing my accent, people immediately asked me where I was from and why I had left my country. I realized I’d been in the United States for nine years, and I didn’t have a home or a family or even a steady job. I started thinking seriously about going back to Romania.
I visited Romania that summer, after an absence of three years. The country had changed. It had joined the European Union, and supermarkets and malls were opening everywhere, driving down food prices to a point where local farmers couldn’t compete. Imported strawberries, large and meaty and tasteless, were everywhere. Local ones, soft and small and with a sweet and tangy taste, went unsold.
My mother loved the new supermarkets.
“Remember how we couldn’t find anything at the store during socialism?”
“You don’t know how lucky you are, to have the old marketplace.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” my mother replied. “Why would I pay more for the same food?”
A lot of people felt the same way. At the marketplace, the women had cell phones, and there was a new section where people sold imported goods of all sorts: clothes and household items. Sometimes, you’d find imported tomatoes sold at the market, under the pretense that they had been grown locally. Perhaps the country I’d missed so much didn’t exist anymore.
One night I called Charles, who was still living in Houston.
“I want to come home,” I said.
I paused. I realized that home meant somewhere back in the United States, somewhere with him.
The New Garden
Then we got lucky: Charles found a job as a caretaker on an estate in New Jersey. He would take care of the owner’s old house, whose many original features needed constant maintenance, and we could live rent free in a nearby cottage, on top of a hill. From outside of our house we could see other hills in the distance, sometimes grey, barely there, like the thin clouds above them, other times deep purple, boldly delineated against the pale sky. I started teaching part time at a neighboring college. From the previous caretaker we inherited a house full of furniture and an old garden, where rhubarb and the occasional stalk of corn still grew.
The next spring, I planted carrots. To my surprise, they started growing in thick.
“You have to thin them out,” my mother advised over the phone.
I had a hard time choosing which ones I would let grow, so we ended up with plenty of carrots, only two inches long and gnarled, not straight and pretty. It took a while to clean them, but when I stir fried them with scallions and peppers and a bit of ginger, adding a bit of soy sauce at the end, they took on an intense orange color and a sweet and earthy taste.
“So much better than the stuff from the supermarket!”
We said that over and over again throughout the summer.
Out of a small envelope of zucchini seeds, which I bought at an organic coffee shop, a whole patch of plants grew, by themselves, and offered an abundance of long, thick fruit. In the next row, the cucumber plants’ tendrils crawled over the ground, blossomed, and produced pickling cucumbers, which we tried to pick before they became too big. I would dredge the zucchini slices through a mix of flour and spices, then fry them in a little oil, on high heat, and serve them hot, with bread and tomatoes. They were crunchy on the outside and sweet and soft on the inside. I’d also make cucumber salad, simply tossing together sliced cucumbers, vinegar thinned with water, a bit of sugar and salt, and plenty of fresh dill.
Charles tilled the garden in the spring, brought a truckload of rabbit manure (which we’d learned was best for organic farming) from a farm in southern New Jersey, and weeded our rows faster that I ever could. He took pictures of the garden, of the abundance of produce we had, and ravenously ate my food. I loved him for that. We were closer than we’d been in a long time.
We planted heirloom tomatoes, which grew into tall hairy vines, as thick as my thumb, carrying pounds of fruit. We had Cherokee Purple tomatoes, whose yellow seeds were set off delicately against the dark flesh; yellow Brandywines, like glowing spheres; sweet red and yellow cherry tomatoes; and the hearty beefsteaks, whose pale pink flesh released juices that reminded me of the gardens of my childhood. For the first time in years, that summer I ate tomatoes with everything: with omelets for breakfast, in salads for lunch, as side dishes for dinner, or with a slice of bread, as a snack, any time.
I spent that summer in New Jersey, waking up at five in the morning, catching one or two hours of cool air before the sweltering heat of the day. With a cup of coffee, I’d walk into the garden, where I quickly took off my shoes to start weeding or tilling, morning dew wetting my feet. Hours would pass without notice. In the evening, I watered the garden, watching purple clouds edged with gold float above rolling hills.
In the fall, I saved the tomato seeds for the next year. In March, I waited anxiously for the alchemy of water, soft earth, and warm temperature to turn the seeds into small, barely noticeable seedlings. In April, I watched the first real leaves grow, then potted and repotted the seedlings as they grew taller and extended small branches. In June, I transplanted them into the garden and waited anxiously to see if they survived. All of them did. They were now at home.
Our gardening was haphazard and fitful, experimental and surprising—I was surprised that our plants grew and thrived, not to mention fed us—but I learned that I could repeat the experiment. It didn’t matter that we would never own the land. I knew that wherever I went, I could start a garden. On top of a hill, on a community plot, in a backyard, thick tomato vines could grow and nourish me, and Charles too. I had travel companions now.