Crazy for Produce, from Dad to Daughter

Jun 212010
 

On the prowl for food with my father, Moses Jacob, with me (on right) and my sister.

On Father’s Day yesterday, I thought about my dad, a food-obsessed poet and songwriter who loved produce more than anyone I’ve known.

It sounds funny to say that he was obsessed with produce. But my dad lived for it. He grew vegetables in our Vancouver back yard, specializing in a Chinese green called celtuce. All summer long he cut down the stalks and sliced them into juicy green batons that floated in a bowl of water in the fridge. While other kids ate Popsicles, I fished out those crisp, green stems for a refreshing treat.

In winter, he pickled turnips with beets and carrots, turning them hot pink in their tall Mason jars. We ate them at dinner with meat stews my mother cooked, brimming with bamboo shoots and peas, cauliflower or lima beans.

For dessert in spring, we ate artichokes, at least one for each of us. My father loved how, when he washed them down with a glass of water, his mouth filled with sweetness. For fall dessert, my mother roasted a pan of  sweet potatoes, cooked until the sugars wept out and caramelized in pools around the sides. They reminded my parents of Shanghai, where they purchased sweet potatoes from street cart vendors.

Even when we gathered around the television at night, my father appeared with a dinner plate piled with crisp wedges of iceburg lettuce in summer; slices of apples and oranges in winter.

When I was around 8 years old, my dad convinced a produce vendor in Chinatown to order a box of mangoes from the Philippines just for him. In the 1960s there were no mangoes in the supermarkets, and he ached for the fruit he remembered from China. Once the mangoes ripened in our basement, my parents covered the dinner table with newspaper, then brought in armfuls of ripe yellow fruit. We ate them with spoons, the sicky juice running down our faces.

My dad’s been dead for 28 years, but I carry on his obsession. He would’ve loved the farmer’s market I visited yesterday, overflowing with beets, peaches, cherries and lettuces. I’m still looking for celtuce, though. The last time I tasted it was in China,  maybe 8 years ago. It was a diamond-shaped green served in a breakfast dish, and when I bit down on it, all the memories of those stalks in the fridge flooded back.

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  36 Responses to “Crazy for Produce, from Dad to Daughter”

  1. Beautiful memories Dianne – thanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks for sharing this Diane. I can’t say that we had vegetables for dessert in my family but somehow I obviously got the vegetable bug. I hope that more people will catch on. Happy to have you amongst them.

  3. Beautiful memoir and photo Dianne! I didn’t know the plural of mango can be mangoes or mangos. Is that correct?

    • Thanks Rosemary! Yep, according to Webster’s both mangoes and mangos are correct.

  4. Beautiful memories Dianne. I especially love the mango story, our family has many memorable mango moments. Last week we had two cases in the kitchen ripening.

    • Oh my gosh. Doesn’t the smell drive you crazy? I could smell the perfume every day that I opened the basement door to see how the mangoes were doing.

      • The smell, the colour, the juice, the texture and the taste! I was just talking to someone today who freezes them and eats them like popsicles!

        • You mean the mangoes? Can also buy them frozen at Trader Joe’s, but I’m a sucker for fresh and unadorned.

          • I agree with you on the fresh mangoes versus frozen, it just never occurred to me to freeze them.

            Oh Trader Joe’s – we don’t have Joe up here. The person that can figure out how to get that chain into Canada will do very well.

  5. I remember eating roasted sweet potatoes from the carts on the streets of Beijing. They were the best! Especially on a frigid wintry day. The charcoal scent, the caramelly sweetness, the stick-to-your-ribs warmth they gave as you ate them. Nothing like it.

    • Yeah, that’s exactly how my parents felt, but you phrased it better. They liked the hot chestnuts as well.

  6. I love this! Such great memories. I grew up on canned green beans, so I’m envious of your fresh upbringing.

    Have you thought about planting the celtuce yourself?

    http://www.evergreenseeds.com/celtuce.html

    • Thanks! Canned green beans — I guess that was normal for the times. Hope you were not traumatized.

      I am thinking about getting the seeds, although so far planting food in our yard has not been successful. Between the squirrels and the jays, there’s nothing left. They are attacking my loquat tree right now. I can see them outside my office window.

  7. This was so touching. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Sounds fascinating…my father also loved his Pacific Northwest garden with everbearing strawberries that would ripen every two weeks and rows of corn that reached for the sky. Taller must must have definitely been better.

    I’m curious to know how long your dad lived in China, what brought him there, and what he did while he was there.

    • He and my mother were born there. Their families came to Shanghai from Iraq, through India, with the head of the Iraqi Jewish Community, who employed them all, first in his opium business, then in his real estate empire. Sir Victor Sassoon built the most famous hotel in China, the Peace Hotel on the Shanghai Bund.

      Thanks for asking. I wasn’t sure how much to put in.

  9. What a lovely, personal post. And an adorable photo to boot. I wish I had the chance to meet your father, Dianne. He sounds like quite a character. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for celtuce.

    • That’s sweet, Sarah. Got me all misty-eyed. He was definitely a character, adored by all my relatives for bursting into song at parties, throwing money around and inflicting practical jokes on unsuspecting cousins.

      I saw a photo of celtuce in the latest issue of Saveur. That’s what got me going.

  10. I smiled when Dianne posted this, because this was so far from my family and upbringing. A father and older brother, both very heavy through most of their lives (dad passed away, brother losing both legs to Diabetes recently) who knew only meat and maybe a potato, usually fried, or at best, baked, drowned in butter and sour cream, and topped with bacon bits.

    My mother would try an occasional vegetable, my sister and I would eat them, but not “the men” on the other side of the table. I guess, being rather thin most of that time, I was not considered one of “the men” in my mother’s mind.

    My brother, when we would eat out, would have to immediately remove the vegetables from his plate before he could eat, or be traumatized by their nearness to his hunk o’ beef. At home, no vegetable was ever placed on his plate. Today, laid up in a care facility recovering from loosing his legs, he will loose weight simply because he will not eat anything they serve.

    My dad, from Sioux City, Iowa, loved his corn, but seldom ate any other vegetables. Potatoes, corn, and carrots were as close as he or my brother got to veggies, and all three were drowned in so much butter, they were swimming!

    The only fruits we had growing up were Apples, Bananas, and CANNED peaches and pears, or the god awful caned fruit cocktail. As kids, my mother would make a “bunny rabbit salad” to get us to eat it: On a piece of lettuce, place a half of pear for the face, a half banana split down the middle for the ears, a half-cheery for the mouth, nuts of eyes, and cottage cheese for puffy tail. Scary enough, there are still recipes for these on the web today!

    But I must say, since marrying Dianne, I have eaten and learned about more vegetables that I never before heard of, and she keeps finding new ones. Can’t say I like them all, but it is fun discovering them with her.

    • What a sweet surprise to find this on my blog. Thanks O. Here’s to discovering more produce together. XXOO

  11. My father is still alive but my fondest memory of him is with his shirt off bending over in his vegetable garden. He would be hoeing and find a rock that he would throw into the field which was then inexpertly chased by our half blind english setter who always sat at the ready. Sunny day, Dad, hoe, garden, dog.

    Now he lives in an apartment with some lovely pots of flowers and gets his veggies from the market. I bet he misses that garden.

    Thanks for reviving that memory!

  12. I discovered celtuce at one of our farmers’ markets in Missoula last week. We have a large population of Asian farmers who grow all sorts of exotic green vegetables. Even though I spent my first eleven years in Shanghai, I don’t recall ever eating celtuce there. That’s probably because we lived with my Granny, and she always cooked Iraqi food. I asked the young Chinese man who sold me a stalk–it looks like a miniature tree–how to cook it, and he told me his parents peeled it and cut it up for a stir-fry. “What about the leaves,” I asked? “Oh, you can stir-fry those, too,” he said. The translucent jade green flesh of the uncooked stalk is crisp, with a delightful bitterness–if you happen to like bitter. After a brief toss in oil over high heat, the bitterness fades somewhat.

    • Fantastic, Greg. I have read about using it in stir-fries, but was not sure how to go about it. How ironic — in a good way — that you are discovering a Chinese green now in Missoula, after growing up in China.

      We always threw away the leaves! I recall them as tough. Re the bitterness, I don’t remember it being unpleasant. I must have grown up with bitter as a flavor, whereas most Canadians and Americans do not.

  13. Hi Dianne, I just wanted to drop in to see what excatly this site was about. I can see that you are very personable and that is really great. The fact that people admire your passion and success, probably brings a need to be a friend. I think that’s awesome. I was really surprised that I got a response from you in reference to the writing contest. Thank you again. I hope you don’t mind me stopping by sometime to say hi. I love to network and with gratitude, I love to to cook, talk, and write all about food. Everyday, my passion grows like a tumor on a brain, but in a good way. It has become a part of me and yes I’m aiming toward fulfilling my dreams. Thanks for listening. :)

    • Hey Mark, of course I’m going to answer you if you ask me a question. No problem.

      Your passion grows like “a tumor on the brain?” That’s hilarious! That’s a simile, you know. :-)

      • LOL…… yes I love to use different analogies. It seems to add a little humor, as it did capture your attention. ;)

  14. This is lovely, just beautiful. From the photograph to your words, your father sounds like he was a wonderful man and brought magic into your home along with that appreciation for produce. My father passed on his love of baking to me. A quiet man, I would watch with fascination as all of his passion and patience was concentrated on making a cake or cream puffs or his wonderful prune compote. Lucky are we who had fathers like these in our lives.

    • Yes indeed Jamie. I love it when I write something that reminds people of their own dads.

  15. Hi Diane, I love your post and totally empathize with your comments about your dad. The picture is wonderful. Growing up in Seattle my family was also produce obsessed. Years ago there was a produce warehouse in an old brick building down near the piers in downtown Seattle that had CAPELOTO Brothers Produce painted on it. I don’t know if it is still there. A few months ago I am sure I saw that vegetable in The Santa Monica Farmers Market. If I see it again I will buy some and try it! Linda Capeloto Sendowski

  16. Hi Dianne: I’m having trouble typing, as I have tears running down my cheeks, this photo captures the essence of your Dad. i’m sorry I didn’t appreciate all those “odd” foods lurking in your family’s fridge when I was so often over at your house when we were growing up. Thanks for reviving your Dad for me, always dressed with a shirt and tie, and always welcoming. I feel young again.

  17. What a touching tribute to your father, Dianne. It gave me a little lump in my throat and made me think about my Dad and his obsession with corn. Literally a corn-fed Indianian, the guy cannot get enough! Each year at the end of the season he’ll say ” I don’t think I got my fill of corn this year,” and we all laugh. Anyway, sweet share.

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