Wednesday, July 02, 2008


Every year, my mother planted her garden in the rich, black dirt close to the cow stables. There she tended her tomatoes, cucumbers and other vegetables that graced our table every day. I can see her now, with her homemade bonnet tied around her head to keep away the rays of the sun, clad in her old homemade, floursack print, housedress, wielding her hoe with an exuberance that chased the weeds away.

Today, we eat with some trepidation, hoping that the vegetables are not laced with all sorts of stomach-cramping bacteria or viruses, some of them deadly. There is something mighty undignified in a notice that says "patient was made ill by the effects of a poisoned tomato" or "patient was killed by eating a hamburger." One knows that dangers exist in this world. We risk death or injury every time we set foot out of our homes, and sometimes there are perils that exist within our homes. However, death should not lurk at the dining room table and we should have agencies that make sure this doesn't happen.

I don't really understand it all. My mother's garden, near the cowbarn, was gloriously green and healthy. She made liberal use of the cow manure, spreading it among her plants and raking it into the soil. There was no sprinkler system around, so the watering was left to God, who must have been on duty each summer, for the vegetables were plentiful and good. She didn't ask for help with her garden, but did all of the work herself, taking pleasure in the transport of harvest to kitchen like an artist reveling over a painting.

We never worried about bacteria, had never heard of e coli or salmonella or any of the plagues that hit our vegetables and meat today. Years later, when hoof and mouth disease hit our cowbarn, causing the destruction of the cattle, we learned of the devastation a disease can bring to human lives. After the cows were killed, we were not allowed to have cattle in the barn for a lengthy time. It was a blow that Pop remembered for the rest of his life. For a farmer to lose his animals is like chopping off his arms. From that moment onward, life lost some of its luster for Pop, but it didn't stop Mom in that garden.

Back then, it was not so unusual to have a family with twelve children. Farmers needed the boys to help in the fields and their wives needed help in the kitchen. That we were such lousy help and were absolutely inept in the kitchen was something unplanned. Mom would not allow any of the girls to labor over the woodstove, lest they burn the house down. What child could handle that stove, that fiery, belching, smoke blasting inferno that would shoot out huge tongues of flame when you lifted a cover with a tool that Mom kept on the shelf above the burners? It was a moody, bitchy stove....searingly hot at times and, at other times, refusing to cooperate and remaining only tepid. Mom would poke away at its innards and proclaim the problem to be the applewood Pop had brought up from the orchard.

"Applewood's hard," she'd say. "Hard wood takes a long time to burn. Looks like he'd know that!"

Blaming Pop for the problems was typical of Mom. She would excuse all of her children for any fault, but Pop wasn't allow to stray from the narrow path she admired. When he got drunk one night after fiddling at a square dance, he stumbled into the house and passed out on the floor. This is where he stayed, minus covers, violin laying beside him, as Mom walked over him preparing breakfast.

In the summertime, the woodstove puffed away like a steam engine, and the heat in the kitchen was unbearable. Bud arrived one day with a kerosene stove and he and Hubert carried it in and put it in the kitchen. So, Mom deserted the woodstove in the summertime for the delights of readily burning, if somewhat odorous kerosene. She was afraid of it. We were all afraid of it. When you lit it, a huge puff of flame blew outward, as though it was trying to outdo the woodstove in flaming ability. Mom would frantically move knobs around to control the flame and soon the pots were bubbling on the stove.

She served vegetables from her garden with obvious pride. There were rich, red tomatoes and other salad ingredients, made rather tart by a sprinkling of vinegar. Both Pop and Mom loved turnips and rutabegas. I refused to touch them and haven't touched them to this day, even though the community I live in was known as the Rutabega Capital of the World. This was changed, finally, because most of the people of today wouldn't recognize a rutabega if it were placed on their plates. No Fast Food restaurant serves rutabegas. There's no McRutabega. They are a vegetable that some folks like but, borrowing Crocodile Dundee's line, "They taste like shit, but they'll keep you alive!"

Not so the veggies of today! They might just keep you dead. So what should we do? One has to eat. We have no way of knowing whether some deadly problem lurks in the plates that hold our dinners. We depend upon a federal agency that obviously is sitting down on the job.

Not only are we in the dark about exactly where our food is grown and what the growing conditions are, but there is very little regular inspection of the food products from either foreign lands or here at home. We have water supplies contaminated with waste. We have products arriving at our ports containing lead or other disturbing chemicals. At the same time, our population has grown to 300 million upward. That's a lot of mouths to feed! These agencies might take a tip from my mother as she labored in her garden. Take pride in your work and do it well! If everyone followed this suggestion, we could eat without worry....even if it were a hearty helping of rutabegas.