I am so used to being a vegetarian that I forget how extraordinary it is that no meat or poultry has passed my lips for 20 years. Both in San Francisco and in France, my shopping largely involves hitting the farmer’s markets or the produce aisles in grocery stores.
But this is hardly my family’s history and tradition. I spent my childhood in central Alaska, where the winters were long, the trees short and the vegetables few and costly.
In my hometown, there was one general store that carried a range of products from woolen shirts to magazines to bear traps to food products. But don’t go thinking leafy greens. The food products had to be trucked up the unpaved Alaska highway and were of the durable sort: most of them came in cans and cost a lot.
My parents found and signed on with E&E Meats, a company that organized freezer trucks to carry frozen foods to people living in central Alaska. My mom would order in spring and by the time fall arrived a few months later, the big E&E Meats truck would be pulling up our road and unloading our order.
Carrots in Cubes
As is indicated by the name, the main product sold by E&E Meats was meat, and frozen meat constituted the largest part of my family’s deliveries. My mother was a devotee of Adele Davis, a popular food writer at the time who espoused the virtues of meat at every meal. Most people in town would also hunt moose and bear to supplement their meat supply.
As we got older, my sister and I were charged with moving the contents of the E&E boxes into the giant freezer in the garage. The family favorites were T-bone steaks and Polish sausage, while mom balanced the budget with large orders of liver which was featured at breakfast pretty much year round as “liver steak.”
What of vegetables? There were packets of frozen peas and cubed carrots, so I like to think of carrots and snap peas as the crops in my garden reflecting my family history and tradition. In all fairness, I should add that for special occasions, my mom would invest a large sum in a head of iceberg lettuce from the Piggly Wiggly market in Fairbanks. She would section it into quarters and serve one to each of us at Christmas and Easter.
My Vegetable Garden
I feel incredibly lucky to have been exposed to California cooking when I was still young. California brought regular vegetables into my life. Cubed carrots gave way to whole carrots and frozen peas to snap peas, and I learned to love “exotics” like artichokes and avocados and rainbow chard. Thanks to California veggies, when I moved to France and gave up meat altogether, it didn’t feel like such a stretch.
So if carrots and peas and lettuce are a part of my family history and tradition, they are well-reflected in my own personal vegetable garden. I grow lettuce year round in San Francisco, (not exactly iceberg but large and leafy), as well as peas of all different kinds. My carrots have never done particularly well, and tend to grow in odd shapes like little gnomes, but in soups they work perfectly.
It is sad that my parents’ choices were so limited and I know my mom felt she did the best she could for her family. Sometimes when I make a big salad straight from the garden, I wish she was still around to try a different way of life.