Sunday, February 13, 2011
I Was a Vegan and Didn't Know It
This week at The High Calling, our discussion of The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God covers three essays, one by Caroline Langston a former “Lapsed Southern Baptist” turned hyper-Presbyterian-turned Eastern Orthodox on fasting in India (I won’t attempt to unscramble all that); one by Suzanne Wolfe, editor of Image Journal, who writes about her eating disorder and her grandfather; and one by Thomas Maltman, who writes about a "famine" held at his church.
The mention of a grandfather was all it took. (And she tells a great story, by the way.) I veered from the serious, and these are all rather serious essays.
As a child, I would spend a week with my paternal grandmother in Shreveport. Those are some of my best memories of childhood, in fact. I’d either be driven by my parents from home in New Orleans (then about a six-hour ride) and fly home (on a real airplane!), or fly to Shreveport and then my parents would come pick me up after a week. I did this from the time I was seven to when I was about 14.
Those weeks with Gram were wonderful. We’d tool around Shreveport in her old Ford (with running boards) and inevitably the car would break down, usually in the “wrong” part of town. I’d accompany her on her “visits” to other elderly ladies, and they were always very formal things, with each of the ladies using the “Mrs.” to address the other. “Mrs. Young, would you care for more coffee?” “I do believe I would, Mrs. King.”
And something was always going on at her church, a short block from her house. It might be a revival, an ice cream social, a special concert (my grandmother sang solos and played the piano) or a picnic, but there was always something.
My father’s oldest sister and brother-in-law lived directly across the street from my grandmother (this was the aunt who made the heavenly biscuits, the recipe for which went with her to heaven). And in their backyard, at the very back of the deep lot, was the largest vegetable garden I had ever seen. My uncle was retired, and he loved growing vegetables. He also loved sitting with his rifle on the back porch and shooting the neighbor’s cats, but that’s another story. (They did have a lot of cats; they were also his oldest son’s in-laws.)
That vegetable garden was, to my child’s eyes, huge. Especially when, in the early evening when it was cooler but still daylight, we were all expected to “work the garden.”
That garden had everything: corn, radishes, several kinds of beans, tomatoes, squash, bell peppers, pumpkins, new potatoes, herbs, even a rather large grapevine. The four of us – my aunt, uncle, grandmother and me – would assemble after dinner. My uncle would give us our assignments and distribute any tools needed. I usually had to “pick” something – tomatoes or beans. Once I had the privilege of digging up the new potatoes.
When we were finished, my grandmother would be provided with a supply of fresh vegetables, and I’d carry the filled bushel basket back across the street.
Since something was always being harvested, we always had plenty of fresh, homegrown vegetables.
Every day, we would eat lunch with my aunt and uncle. And vegetables graced the table. Creamed corn. Sliced radishes. Cooked squash that I wouldn’t eat. Sliced tomatoes. Green beans. Snap beans. Lima beans. New potatoes in cream sauce. When the harvest was especially bountiful, we have fresh vegetables for both lunch and dinner.
But no meat.
The first few times I sat for lunch in my aunt’s kitchen, I was always looking around for the meat. After all, that’s what we had at every meal in New Orleans. But I was far too polite to ask. I decided that someone had forgotten the meat, and they would eventually remember.
But they didn’t remember. We ate vegetables. Lots of vegetables. For a week a year, I was a vegan and didn’t know it.
My aunt would notice me looking around, and usually pass another bowl of vegetables, thinking I was especially hungry. One summer she finally figured out what I was looking for, and she made sure from then on there was plenty of it available for lunch. After all, she said, she knew what people from New Orleans liked to eat.
And out would come a big steaming bowl of – rice.
To see more posts on the spirit of Food, please visit The High Calling.
Photograph: Harvest and Preserves by Kim Newberg via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.