With quality ingredients the flavor is outrageous

Every August we get a special package in the mail. It marks the transition between summer and fall when we get to start fresh with a new batch. We are always anxious to receive it. The box is filled with an ingredient our kitchen is never without regardless of the season. The contents usually last for several months before we have to restock from the grocery store. Nothing compares with the original batch we receive at the height of summer though. It’s not only farm fresh, but it’s the product of four generations of farmers.

The box is sealed with layers of brown paper and enough packing tape to keep the contents dry even if our mail carrier dropped it in a deep puddle (she wouldn’t do that though). It takes several minutes to unwrap and I’m growing impatient. I can’t wait to see the handy work of my favorite farmer – that perfect braid and the neat, tight bulbs covered in white flaky paper keeping the fragrance in and the vampires out. Yes, the mysterious gift is garlic.  Garlic may not sound particularly exciting. You don’t bite into it on a hot summer day. You don’t slice it up to stash in your back pack as an emergency snack. It’s a behind the scenes hero, but it makes all the difference in so many dishes.

As I write this we’re making Spaghetti Aglio e Olio (garlic and oil). It’s the first thing we made with our fresh stash of garlic this year. It’s the simplest dish but with quality ingredients the flavor is outrageous. I could eat the whole pound. Obviously, we have quality garlic covered. We also use super fresh olive oil that we get from a distributor in Brooklyn called Gourmet Cooking and Living.  The hot peppers we’re using come straight from the garden of our friends back home in Philly, the Carrelli’s. The story of the garlic however goes back much further than that.

It’s a skill and a passion she inherited from her dad

Way upstate in New York sits a farm in a small town with two main road and less than a dozen houses. My cousin Angela has lived on and worked that farm for at least 30 years. She does it mostly for her personal use, feeding her family and friends. It’s a skill and a passion she inherited from her dad, and one that he inherited from his mom. My uncle Bernard had a booming voice and a hearty laugh, and he was almost always singing something in Italian. He was a good teacher and a patient father whose bark was always worse than his non-existent bite.  He passed many traditions on to his six children, but I don’t think any of them took to the land like Angela.

Uncle Bernard grew up with my mom on a farm in a small town outside of Naples in Italy. By all accounts it was a happy life, but he dreamed of a better one here in the States. He didn’t want his mother (my nonna) to do farm work anymore.  She was a tireless farmer even with seven children. Her husband (my nonno) loved America. My uncle would certainly have his wish come true. He and the family left the farm behind for a simple garden in Syracuse NY. Wherever he was my uncle had to plant fruits and vegetables and tend to the flowers. Over the years his efforts grew, and he ended up with the most magnificent garden that fed not only his family but the whole neighborhood.

Being the nature lover I’m not, I didn’t really appreciate it fully when I was a kid. The vegetables just magically appeared on the table. My uncle was not only a gardener but a cook. He was exceptional at both. I remember big meals at his house with all of my cousins. We were all touched by it in different ways either as food lovers, gardeners or good cooks.

Living and loving an urban life as much as I do, I sometimes forget where I came from

My cousin Angela (our nonna’s namesake by the way) attained the trifecta. She loves food as much as her father did and she is also a fantastic gardener and cook. Her garden is a direct result of her dad’s garden. The fig tree was cut from his original tree. The roses and lilacs are cuttings from his flower beds. And the garlic was taken directly from his garden. Something about this makes me so happy. Although my uncle is no longer with us, he’s still feeding us. Angela has carried on his traditions for the better part of her life.

In July when Angela would pick and braid the garlic, she always had help. Her son Donald happily took on the responsibility of the next generation. He found great comfort in the garden and in raising animals that he wouldn’t allow Angela to kill or sell. He was kind and gentle and used nature to sooth his ills. Donald had schizophrenia and where some may have lost quality in life, Donald thrived. The farm was his solace. He used it to improve his life and in turn the lives of those around him.

Living and loving an urban life as much as I do, I sometimes forget where I came from. I don’t mean Philadelphia. I mean that I come from farmers, on both sides of my family. Donald passed away in July. It got me thinking of his life and struggles and all he endured. It reminded me of how he embraced this part of our family’s heritage in a way I never did.

I’m glad that my uncle’s talent didn’t skip an entire generation

I’m not going to leave New York and buy a farm. I know my limits. But that doesn’t mean I can’t learn from Donald and do my part in preserving our rich history. I can remember to appreciate nature a bit more.  I might not put my hands in the dirt, but I can hold dear those who do, honoring their efforts to produce the delicious food I love so much. My part might simply be to cook and feed people and write and share the story.

I’m glad that my uncle’s talent didn’t skip an entire generation. I certainly didn’t get it, but some of us did. Angela is her father’s daughter and Donald was his mother’s son.

In loving memory of my cousin Donald Stinson: January 6, 1983 – July 3, 2018

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