Photography by Carole Topalian
In the 1950s, my mother, Little Dove, spent a lot of time in the green kitchen of our house on the outskirts of San Antonio, even though she hated to cook. To encourage her in her often cheerless efforts, my father, Chief, bought her a special convenience: a self-standing roaster to be used primarily for cooking Sunday dinners. The rest of the week, it could double as a bread box. Chief liked versatile things that pulled their own weight. Money was tight, but if delicious meals were to be the result, he was willing to strain his budget to provide the equipment.
Little Dove liked the luxury roaster, felt emboldened by it, and in it, she perfected her famous pot roast and succulent ham. Even the Thanksgiving turkey went into the rectangular pot, as long as the bird was small enough for the domed lid to close. On Sundays, we were hustled off to church and Sunday school, secure in the knowledge that the meat of the moment, accompanied by its potatoes, was roasting to tender perfection. As long as we could demonstrate that we did not fight or snore during the sermon, we knew we could feast.
Once home from church, Little Dove prepared the rest of the meal—canned green peas and pickled beets, typically, with a salad of whitish iceberg lettuce.
We all sat down to eat together at the green table in the green kitchen. There was no television set at the meal. All of us kids were admonished to clean our plates, and if we didn’t do it in a timely fashion, we sat there until we either managed to eat everything or hide the undesirable portion in a napkin in our laps. We never quite figured how much time was proper for food consumption. Even though Dove, her roaster, and someone’s far-flung factories had spent a lot of time preparing the food, and even though my brother, Bill, and I would later spend a lot of time washing and drying dishes, the meal was often a race. Chief in particular ate at a rapid pace, which indicated, just as burping does in some societies, that he truly enjoyed the repast. My brother adapted to this model, which perturbed Little Dove no end. She wanted her food savored; she wanted wonderful conversation; she wanted our digestion to be tranquil. She didn’t often get what she wanted.
“Bill Junior, SLOW DOWN!” she’d say. He tried to comply, but he was a born speed eater.
Little Dove was ahead of her time in some respects, but she wasn’t into vegetable gardening. Chief had to work two jobs, which left her with little time for extra activities. That’s what she said, but I suspect it was just too easy to open a can. So, while the meat we ate was from Texas sources, the vegetables were from who-knows-where. Much later on, when I asked her why we’d eaten so much from cans, she rationalized—“we couldn’t afford frozen.”
I didn’t learn to cook from my mother. In fact, I didn’t learn to cook until 1982, when my husband Larry and I began to grow our own food at our first farm in Gause, in Milam County. The vegetables were amazing. Finally, mustard greens without the can! (Yes, those horrid-tasting, soggy strings always wound up in the napkin in my lap. Do you blame me?) And the first year we farmed commercially, we grew a lot of eggplant. I figured out nine ways to fix it, ruining any chance of Larry ever being fond of it.
“Again?” he’d ask, in disbelief.
“Well,” I’d plead, “we have to eat it—we can’t sell it all!”
Much of the food we grew we’d never eaten before, but we fell in love with something new at every harvest. I remember sautéing greens, chopped onions and garlic in an iron skillet, anointing them with balsamic vinegar, sprinkling them with feta cheese, and sitting back and sighing about how good it all was!
It was amazing the difference between something that was growing out back—minutes from the kitchen—and the normal, well-traveled, grocery-store fare. The vegetables we grew and ate in the 1990s were fresh, not weary. There was still a hum of life in them that transferred itself to our bodies, made us strong, gave us energy, and inspired us to grow more, for ourselves, and for our friends at the farm stand.
We were doing “slow food” and we didn’t even know it. The Slow Food movement, conceived by Italian Carlo Petrini as a curb to the explosion of fast-food restaurants in Italy, celebrates Early Girl tomatoes, sweet lettuce, organic strawberries, fava beans, Silver Queen sweet corn, grassfed meat and true free-range eggs, all from the immediate “food shed” of a community.
I’m glad that eating real food, from the community, is now officially considered a good thing to do. Makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing, for my body and my environment. I encourage eating from your own backyard—or from a farm stand or market—in season. Resist cardboard tomatoes that come year-round from somewhere else! Wait, instead, for the real flavor, the exquisite texture, the juicy ripeness of a tomato—the sun, basically, in a red fruit. To enjoy it during its time is an act of respect for what comes out of the earth in our immediate environment. And when you support those who grow it, you become a “co-producer.” Without local consumers, area farms will not survive.
Local food is gaining importance in the food scene, because consuming what is grown nearby in well-cared-for soil guarantees us the nutrition that’s available from the symbiotic relationship between plants and soil. To consume a potato hand-dug the day before is to experience a crisp, sweet, juicy tater that is two thousand miles better than the aged, starchy tubers shipped in from far away. You can eat a new potato raw. It’s that good.
Local and nutritiously fed is important for meat animals, too. Grass farmers’ slow-food animals eat a rich variety of plants growing in healthy soil—as nature intends—without antibiotics or steroids, and absolutely no corn, which is hard for cows to digest, and the primary culprit for the dangerous E. coli bacteria. Humane harvesting eliminates adrenaline (the fear/stress hormone), which negatively affects the taste of meat. It makes sense to eat this meat in smaller quantities, as a flavoring and as the perfect companion to vegetables.
In her later years, Little Dove continued serving her signature pot roast at family gatherings, although, sadly, she couldn’t obtain the meat from a local grass farmer, because there weren’t any yet. And in retirement, Chief finally had his little vegetable garden in the backyard, growing tomatoes and green beans. To this day, Larry salutes Dove’s finest culinary effort as one of the best meals in his memory. It was made with love, and, yes, he, Brother Bill, and Chief ate it rapidly, all the while complimenting the cook. And they always went back for seconds. I just wish I’d been growing baby arugula back then. I would have arranged South Texas grapefruit atop it, toasted some of our own pecans for adornment, and sprinkled it all with local Pure Luck feta cheese. It would have been the perfect fresh salad for Little Dove’s slow-cooked roast and Chief’s just-harvested green beans.
Surely that would have been the definition of slow food.