from Fine Cooking #110, pp. 34-35
Essay by Gabrielle Hamilton
For a time, I had my ideal man. He held his pants up with twine, high on his waist, and his dusty shoes curled at the cracked toe. He was also missing some teeth, peripheral vision, and memory, but at nearly 90 years old, he grew and sold the most beautiful vegetables in town, and I was magnetically drawn to him.
He set up his stand under the shade of a large tree across from the bocce courts in a small seaside town in Puglia, where I’d been spending summers with my Italian husband’s family. He parked his dented, faded blue three-wheeled motor cart against the curb in the little square and very slowly unpacked his few wooden crates. Vendors on both sides of him pulled up in self-contained, state-of-the-art mobile stalls and popped open their awnings. From the gleaming interiors of these traveling stores, young Italian guys, glistening with hair gel and diamond-crusted Gucci sunglasses, sold all manner of cured meats sliced there on the spot, at least eight types of olives, and three sizes of capers in brine, as well as imported cheeses and yellow bell peppers from Holland. They rang up their sales on electronic cash registers.
Meanwhile, my soul mate over in the shade of the tree, bent nearly in half and with shaking arthritic hands, pulled back the burlap that covered the wagon of his cart, revealing grimy eggs, puntarelle, shell beans, potatoes, zucchini blossoms, and fresh figs from his own small plot of land, which he himself had planted and tended, picked and packed.
“How much for the eggs?” I asked.
“One euro for one dozen.”
“And the puntarelle?”
He shrugged. “One euro for one kilo,” he said as he began wrangling big leafy heads of the unwieldy Italian dandelion into a crumpled recycled plastic bag, which he dug out of the front seat of his battered cart. In the back of the wagon, my man’s few vegetables were tossed in next to a jug of gasoline and a coil of thin rope and some cracked plastic pails. I bought a huge bag of the puntarelle and all of his eggs. He tossed my coins onto the seat of the cab, and I practically skipped home, swinging my bags, like a girl with a crush.
For lunch, my mother-in-law, Alda, boiled the fat buds of the puntarelle in heavily salted water for a little longer than most of us would. When they cooled to room temperature, she drowned them—deliciously—in olive oil from her own orchards. I took the remaining leafy greens and made a salad, with a dressing lively and assertive enough to tame their rather austere bitterness. Fried bread croutons and a few cracklings of pancetta did their parts as well. And my vecchio boyfriend's eggs, with yolks as red as persimmons, gently boiled and set on top, seemed only right, since the dandelion and eggs had just moments before been side by side in the back of his wagon. I sighed dreamily. Possibly more than once, because at some point Alda said, “Che c’e?—what is there?” or more accurately, “What’s the matter with you?”
My attraction to the old man might seem immoderate, even weird, but I’d come to fear that he’d disappeared altogether, my kind of farmer. This worry had sprung up some years earlier, at a farmers’ market in New York, when a girl selling over-priced vegetables and wearing sparkly barrettes and perfectly styled overalls screeched at me, “Don’t touch the peas!” just as I was shoveling five pounds of them into a bag for my restaurant. Shamed and startled, I dropped the peas and walked away.
And from then on, I never returned. I so lamented the loss of the sturdy, unprecious workaday markets I’d grown up with. I remembered the rough and tumble Italian market in Philadelphia, where I used to bob and weave among giant provolones as big as me, which hung, unrefrigerated, from the rafters like punching bags (and stunk!), while my mother did her shopping. When I was a young cook in a restaurant in Turkey, I went to the outdoor market every week. There, the chain-smoking farmers piled their eggplants, peppers, and onions on plain black tarps, flicked their ashes wherever, and got down on their carpets in the middle of a sale to pray to Allah. To have all that supplanted by a new kind of unrecognizable farmers’ market, with a new kind of self-referential farmer—with hair gel or sparkly barrettes, who admonishes you for touching the peas—had left me with significant longing.
Of course I fell in love with the toothless guy with the beautiful puntarelle casually tossed next to the can of gasoline. He’s everything I grew up with. He’s the last of a time when we just grew it, cooked it, and ate it, and didn’t talk so much about it. A time when you could still touch the vegetables, and the farmer didn’t chase you away.
Gabrielle Hamilton is the chef-owner of Prune restaurant in New York City and the author of Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef. Read Denise Mickelsen's review of Gabrielle's book.