Crazy for Produce, from Dad to Daughter

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.