I live with my 97-year-old grandmother Rena in the farmhouse she bought with my grandfather in 1963, as a place for them to retire. She cried the day my grandfather walked her over to show her the house due to its disrepair. She was a bit of a city girl in her younger days. When she met my grandfather she was working as a hairdresser in her sister’s beauty shop in Harvard Square. She compromised a lot to marry a farmer, and among other things had to get used to belts made from rope, pigs killed and cleaned in the barn and the trip up Middle Road to Beetlebung Corner, long before the roads were paved. Gaga, as she is known in our family, told me the other night as we sat in our kitchen that she liked “simple food . . . nothing fancy and no sauces,” this from woman who has lived through so many decades and wars, surpassing all of her friends and her husband in age. She is alone now and yet has family all around her, a 12-year-old Dachshund named Jake, and her house to putter around in, filled with old picture albums to look through. Great-grandchildren come to visit often and she shares meals with her children and grandchildren.
The other night we sat and ate at the table, a minute television serenading us with muted colors and background noise. We had lettuce straight from the garden dressed only with salt and olive oil. Gaga always talks with her mouth full and was spitting green orbs all over the place. She told me about marrying Pop and growing up in northern Maine. She told me about driving across the country with her aunt after her mother died. She had nine siblings; one brother was named Claire. She tells the same stories a lot, ingraining them in my memory to pass on. She loves telling me the story of Jimmy Morgan’s mother and her television, the only one in Chilmark at the time. They would get together and watch boxing matches, both of them yelling at the set. Mrs. Morgan was Scottish and when things got exciting she would leap off the sofa and shadow box, saying over and over again, “Kick his arse! Kick his arse!” Gaga eventually got herself a television set with money earned from a winter scalloping on Menemsha Pond; she was also the first woman issued a license to do so in the town of Chilmark.
We ate lettuce and I listened to all the same stories she has told me a thousand times, hoping that one would jog her memory to a new place and she would find something forgotten. She would stop, take a bite of salad, have a few chews and then keep going. She told me what it felt like to have a son in Viet Nam. She admitted how sad she has been since my grandfather died, but told me that life goes on and she needed to get over it. We shared a meal grown by me in soil prepared by my grandfather. His garden was meant to provide for his family, and almost one year after he died, it still provides for us. He built up topsoil, rich and sweet, deep enough to grow the best green beans you have ever tasted, and blue-ribbon shallots. This is what I love about farming: the idea that you can provide for someone that day, next week or for generations to come. My grandfather told the Island oral historian Linsey Lee in an interview that his favorite thing about farming was the anticipation. And even while he lay dying he was anticipating all that we would enjoy after he was gone.
Lettuce is a simple pleasure. Dressed lightly and sourced from the right farm at the right time, it is a perfect food. I have been dressing my lettuce lately with a little good oil, salt and a splash of red wine vinegar. The leaves are tender yet crisp, with a full flavor enhanced by simple fats, acids and salt. I have had my most compliments recently stemming from a simple arugula salad or bed of greens dressed in this manner. Someone told me the other day that my cooking has improved over the last year; I corrected them by pointing out that I am only growing better food.
If you want to make it a full meal with greens, just add a soft-cooked egg, or some flounder cooked gently in butter and a smattering of seasonal veggies each cooked to their own perfection. I love nothing more than eating my simple greens with a small piece of protein and then going to bed happy, knowing that I will wake up in the morning hungry and looking forward to breakfast. I dream of food after eating like this, of what tomorrow’s harvest may bring and have conversations in my sleep with my grandfather about the soil and what to plant next.
Mixed Lettuce Salad
1 bag Beetlebung Farm mixed lettuces
Good quality olive oil
Red wine vinegar
Lay out four plates. Place two to three leaves of lettuce on each plate, drizzle oil and vinegar over the top and lightly season with salt. Repeat the process until all leaves are used up, and you have a salad with some nice height to it.
6 stalks asparagus, tough ends trimmed off
1/4 shallot, very thinly-sliced
1 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon tarragon, minced
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Preheat an oven to 400 degrees. Cut asparagus into one-inch pieces and toss in a bowl with shallot and enough olive oil to coat them, and season with salt and pepper. Lay in a baking dish and place in the oven until asparagus has begun to wilt and gain color, about five minutes. Remove from the oven and place into a blender with remaining olive oil, the juice of one lemon, a dash of salt and pepper and 1/3 cup water. Blend until smooth, pour into a bowl and mix in tarragon and mustard. Taste for acidity and saltiness, add water if thinning is needed. Store in the fridge in mason jars with lids and use to dress your favorite greens!