It Starts With the Garden

My great Aunt Mary was a remarkable woman. Intelligent and creative; a world traveler; a painter and a badass little Italian lady who took no crap from anybody. Aunt Mary was my mother's Aunt, the sister of my Grandmother, Josephine who tragically succumbed to ovarian cancer at age 46 (my mother was 17 at the time; and Aunt Mary really stepped into that mother role for her). She has been one of my life's inspirations and even though I lost her when I was 19 years old, the things she taught me are engrained in my mind always and forever. To this day when I cook I look back at the days spent in my Aunt's basement kitchen, the clang of the oversized steel pots ringing in my ears; the smells overwhelming my memories until I know I've gotten it just right.

Mary was a true believer in hard work and giving 110%. It was that truth that made it no surprise that people didn't mess her about anything. It wasn't because she didn't take crap and saw right through lies and bullshit (which she did); but she was simply the best at anything she did. As I mentioned before, she was a lot of things and wore many hats; but to me she was my Aunt who made the best food in the world. A person who excels at everything would of course be the best cook in my family. The smell of her tomato sauce was enough to hypnotize your senses and make you forget you had any kind of cares or worries in the world (at least for that hour or two); she was a true matriarch despite never having been a mother herself. Taking care of people was her calling and I am proud to have considered her more a grandmother than an Aunt and my experiences in her house are ones that have shaped me today. One of those experiences was learning and understanding the precious nature that is a garden. That the creation of life is precious and takes work. All of it, combined with the fact that flowers are really pretty, created my love for gardens and for food.

If you've never read The Secret Garden first things first, get your life together and go to the book store; it's a classic. If you have read it then you are familiar with the scene where she opens the door and emerges in the most beautiful garden that has ever been seen. A garden hidden from the world unless you held the key. This is what it was like to step foot into my Aunt's garden.

My family is from Baltimore and my Aunt Mary lived in a row home in Highlandtown; one of the neighborhoods in the heart of the city. Everything around her home was made of concrete which made that fact that she even had a garden that much more special. I can remember being in the basement; where we would always eat Sunday dinners (more on Sunday dinners later). Where the ceiling was too short for anyone over 5'6" and the pantry in the back of the house was dark, dank and for sure haunted; but just past the washing machine and deep sink where all the dishes would be washed (by my mother, aunts and female cousins; then eventually me when I was old enough to reach the faucet) there were five stairs and a storm door that led to the back garden. It was like opening the door to a dungeon into sunlight and freedom for the first time in a hundred years; every-single-time.

When you say the word garden, I promise that whatever image comes to mind doesn't even come close to what was happening in this tiny yard and garden. The garden was raised up on platforms that were filled with soil with a path that led from one end of the yard to the very back fence which connected to the garage. Just at the end was a full-grown FIG TREE. The garden beds were rotated each season, but one side always had flowers and the other a myriad of different fruits and vegetables that fed my Aunts dinner menus throughout the entire year. Zucchinis, tomatoes, green beans, peppers, herbs (rosemary, thyme, lavender, parsley, chives), carrots and more. The flowers ranged from sunflowers to rose bushes and once again, a fig tree. This garden was shear magic and I have yet to see another home garden that has ever come close.

My love for that garden was so strong that not being allowed to go into it was my punishment if I ever misbehaved at Aunt Mary's house (or on the way to her house). Going to the house and not being able to go into the back was the biggest tragedy of my young life so I always tried my best to behave myself, but kids are going to be kids so on occasion I would be disinvited from the garden. I felt like I was being locked in a tower on those days; especially when Aunt Mary would need something and ask someone else to go into the garden and get it for her. The wound is still fresh.

Though, as I've gotten older and began cooking myself, I've learned about the pride behind growing your own ingredients. How good it feels knowing exactly where the items came from that makes the food better. Fresh herbs will always be better than dried and the same goes for essentially any grown item. The quality of a dish stems first and foremost from the freshness of the ingredients. In fact, one of the best items I can remember from the table at Aunt Mary's house was the salad she served each Sunday with her roasted chicken and mushrooms (this dish always came before the pasta course) and the salad was always made with ingredients picked right from the garden. In fact, it wasn't just the salad. I ate things at that table that I would have never eaten had they been given to me by my parents because Aunt Mary would say, "It came right from the garden, how about a taste." And she would get me, every single time. When I was little, I hated fig newtons; I thought I hated figs. I adamantly would refuse fig-based items until I tasted Aunt Mary's scratch made fig cookies made with the figs from her tree. It was revolutionary. I hated mushrooms and would not touch them unless they were "Aunt Mary Mushrooms." This theme continued with several dishes and as a child I thought it was magic (that food just tasted better in her house) but now I know it was the use of those freshest ingredients that made the difference to me. The first lesson of being a great cook I ever received, and I never even knew it was happening; but that was my Aunt. Giving you her best even if no one saw what she was doing. I like to think I'm like that too, that I like to give more than I receive; that I would handle life the way she did after experiencing so much personal tragedy.

Honestly, I'm not sure that's true of me yet. What I do know is that cooking is my happy place and making people smile brings me joy, and that- I know she would be proud of.

I don't currently live in a space where it's appropriate for me to have a garden; but trust me I will one day be growing my own food in some capacity. Especially now that my Aunt is gone; because I think carrying on those traditions would be important to her. My hope is that when I purchase my first home that I will be able to make room for a garden; and who knows maybe even my own fig tree.