I fell to earth in the American South, some time ago. I watered the garden of my childhood with a Virgoian technicolor imagination. It stretched me, grew me, nourished me with stories, juicy watermelons and the sultry sounds of dove and whippoorwill.
I grew radishes and plucked them from the soil in early morning light.
They were ‘fucia illuminata’ and from that moment I was hooked on what grows in the ground. An awakening: the sunlight shining on this magic thing that I pulled from the earth was something that I planted from a seed, watered and cultivated. Trapped inside that tiny, pin-head seed was a form beyond comprehension. Perfectly round, this 2 x 3 centimeter ball of pungent juice was captured within crunchy white cellulose walls, intelligently held together by a thin, red skin.
The ball was elongated in the bottom-center as if it were a mouse with a tail. This root added a dimension of curiosity. On the top, cleverly connected by a tightly woven cap, was the pad from which the leaves sprang into shapely green action. Five leaves in perfect ikebana ‘living flower’ composition.
I was 14 years old and felt as if I had just discovered the secret quantum theorem of the universe, in the intelligent form of a raw vegetable.
I fell in love.
This carefully harvested work of art was carried to the kitchen with other carefully harvested lettuces, whose thin transparent leaves were still wet with morning dew…naturally occurring moisture that mysteriously appears out of emptiness, as if Mother Nature had spritzed Herself.
I had walked around the garden as if in a trance, in anticipation of the next chance meeting with something extraordinary, and found a few ripe cherry tomatoes hiding in a cluster. My father had made a wire fence for them to climb on, and climb they did—but not out of my reach.
I washed them carefully and stood looking at them on my cutting board. I did not want to touch them. I wanted to stare at their beauty and fresh ecstasy, as I knew that was the moment for which they were grown, the highest expression of their essential nutrients were being offered up in sacrificial display. I felt humbled. I knew I was to honor them by tearing the lettuce into manageable pieces to fit in my mouth. The radishes were begging me to slice into them, aching to expose their lily white flesh, the cherry tomatoes wanted to be cut in half, their juices to mingle with that of radish and lettuce…and the orgy began.
They were there, naked and ready…for salt. Not just any salt, but super sunlit-charged, mineral-rich salt from the sea that came sailing from the far islands of the Mediterranean to find these gods and goddesses of the vegetable kingdom. Like a swashbuckler, said salt sprinkled himself worthily over the bowl and the salad broke into a sweat. And yet…they couldn’t move. Hanging in suspended animation, they breathed in and out a prayer for oil…olio…olio extra virgine di oliva…and he came valiantly and proudly pouring himself, a king, over the gathering. The conversation began, and the sum of the parts had become an orchestral salad of exquisite composition and culture. Poetic. Distinguished guests. I prepared the table. The place where public and private conversations merge over the act of eating.
Wanting to eat only with my hands, I put down a napkin and some toothsome bread. I sat down and closed my eyes. I gave quiet peaceful thanks for the gift in front of me. Words escaped me, yet the feeling of gratitude was tangible and radiated out in a 360 degree radius as far as the garden.
With clean hands, I picked up my first piece of lettuce, fit it sweetly into my mouth and licked my fingers.
Skin picks up the subtle nuance of flavors, unlike a fork. Salty, sweet, pungent, bitter melodies played on my tongue in pure delight. I heard them. I tasted them. I celebrated them. And the concert went on.
There was no separation between my mineral content and theirs. I was made of this. I cleaned the bowl with my bread, left not a trace. I completely ingested the entire angelic aria, with something like abandon. I sat for a moment, stunned, when it was all over. No encore was necessary.
I was thoroughly touched, content to savor the deep communion that I had just witnessed with simple, earthy, life giving vegetable virtuosi.