However you think of Garrison Keillor’s indiscretion, the one that got him dismissed from NPR, no bad behavior can eclipse his storytelling talent, and that is the truth. Who among us has never been lost in a news monologue from fictional Lake Wobegon, who hasn’t nodded along silently or smiled at a yarn about some character’s ill-wrought decisions and the unfortunate but hysterical consequences of them.
It was on one of these occasions I nodded along silently, swept up in Keillor’s descriptive language, and idiosyncratic voice, which tended to soften into a whisper near the end of a story for dramatic effect to be sure, but because by then he held us rapt and fully engaged and so a whisper was all we required. I’ve sat in a theatre for a live broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion, and witnessed this in the flesh, the storyteller perched atop his stool with a podium before him and a spotlight washing down on him, and I swear you could hear a pin drop in the packed theatre at that penultimate moment before his voice moderated and he chirped the familiar, That’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.
But I digress. On that particular occasion, the other one, I was standing at my bathroom sink in the rustic Vermont loft where I once lived on 180 acres in the middle of nowhere, with the radio flipped on to Prairie. The topic of the monologue was stewed tomatoes, and how in the dead middle of a Minnesota winter, when everything was frozen solid and the landscape was barren, you could sneak down into the basement where your mother had put up jars of stewed tomatoes back in late summer, and then grasping one, carefully and quietly pop open the seal on the lid, and sitting there with spoon in hand, eat the tomatoes right out of the jar. It was in that moment, he opined, that the flavors exploding in your mouth conspired to take you right back to the summer day when the tomatoes were plucked ripe from the vine and then found their way to the stew pot on the stovetop.
Or something like that, anyway. I’m retelling the tale the way I remember it and not quoting it verbatim. It was one of the first times I think I really grasped the seasonal significance of the stories about Lake Wobegon, because I had begun to respect winter in snowy New England, and to understand how it can kill people as surely as a tornado that rips across the Deep South can in the spring or summertime.
Which brings me to summertime in the South and cantaloupes. A few days ago, in the thick woods behind our coastal North Carolina home, whilst waiting on Scout-the-Goldapeake-Retriever to go on and do his doings, a bright green kernel on the forest floor caught my eye. Stepping through the groundcover, I swooped down and picked it up, flipping it over and over in my hand: A quick sniff test confirmed it was a fresh hickory nut, not yet ripened, still tightly sealed. This one little organic football sent me back decades to my grandparents’ modest home in Chattanooga, my dad’s folks.
In spite of her sometimes-intimidating demeanor, my grandmother found solid footing with me in the long, narrow yard behind the house. Mature hickory trees dotted the sides of the property, which terminated in a little brook that flowed or ran dry according to the whims of the weather. On our visits there during my early childhood she’d go inside the musty single-car garage and fish out a tiny wood wheelbarrow that had once belonged to my dad, and later on his brother, my Uncle Stan, and then beckon me to come out back and collect hickory nuts with her. There was no purpose in this exercise, as far as I could tell, beyond making the lawn a bit easier for my granddad to mow (because what on earth does anybody do with hickory nuts?). It was entertainment enough for me.
But the other memory attached to the green nut I kept sniffing and rolling around in my hand, is fresh cantaloupe, and I mean fresh: fully ripe, juicy, tender, and sweet like candy. Because some hours later, when it was time for supper, my granddaddy would stack a pile of telephone books onto a dining chair and deftly but gently lift me onto it, and then carefully rock the chair from side to side until it was at a proper distance from the table. And then my plate—in this case, a blue celluloid choo-choo train, each ‘car’ a small dish, and in place of the smokestack, a drinking cup—would be filled with kid-sized bites of ham, green beans, fried okra, and cantaloupe. Fresh, life-defining cantaloupe.
Do you think cantaloupe tastes like it used to? I put this question to The Chef after he’d eased the knife into a fruit we found last weekend at the farmers’ market right down the road, sectioned it, and chopped it into cubes. We each had our fingers in the bowl in short order, sampling it. He started shaking his head before the words came. No, he said, the cantaloupe I remember from my childhood had so much more flavor than anything you can find now.
Earlier that day, we’d spied a fancy cantaloupe at a pricey grocery store across town where we shop occasionally for particulars. It was featured prominently on a display table, each globe encased in its own netted bag. Those cantaloupes caught our eye because they were ribbed like cantaloupes used to be, unlike what you’re more likely to find now, which is fruit with a uniformly pale rind, and only a whisper of ribs. We agreed both the fancy bagged fruit and the farmers’ market fruit were good…just not good like we remember it.
Or maybe it’s just the memories connected to the food, and not the food itself. I imagine a solid two or three generations now, though, have grown up without the cantaloupe I can remember, or the watermelon, or the tomatoes. (Does anybody eat fried okra anymore?) Without a point of reference, who would know any better, but for this bothersome memory where I’m telling you point blank, fresh produce had better, more intense flavors back in the day.
Fresh food should have flavor, and sometimes it does. When The Chef and I watch high-brow cooking shows, we can but imagine the intense flavors being plated for the high-brow judges who taste and then opine about them. We’ve learned it’s better to watch those shows when we aren’t hungry.
Too bad we couldn’t have savored more flavors back in the day. Remember when you were a kid, I asked him recently, and your parents had the audacity to interrupt your summertime fun to make you come inside and eat supper? Yes, he nodded. My parents used to bargain with me, I said. Two more bites of broccoli and one bite of peas, and then you can be excused from the table. (In fairness to me, my busy ballerina mom was more likely to pop open a can of peas or beans than to serve fresh veg on the supper table.)
Not me, said The Chef. I always just loved eating.
Do you live to eat or eat to live? asked one of my colleagues way back during my grad school days. Definitely live to eat, I quipped without hesitation.
We could probably use a little moderation in this household, like the French seem to practice so well. My doctor recently brought this truth to my attention, and in the next breath suggested I am doomed because I live with a chef.
But that is a story for another day.