Spring always brings back fond memories of times of great excitement for our family, particularly for Mom and Pop. It was the beginning of the planting season.
For days, the main topics were “how big a garden this year, what to plant and where to get the best seeds.” The early planting of onion, garlic and squash had begun in hopes that the “onion snow” had passed.
Many Italian families had gardens. It was a family thing. We had a small ‘orto,’ behind the house; Pop also had a Victory garden at work in one of the city parks. It was larger than the one we had at home and obviously needed more care. On weekends, the family hiked off to work the garden. Mom prepared a picnic basket filled with sandwiches of ‘prosciutto, capocollo, and formaggio,’ good crusty homemade bread, kool-aid, for the kids, and vino for Pop.
What a fantastic view it was to look at the neighborhood and observe the beauty of the gardens in bloom. There were rows of red tomatoes, hot and sweet peppers, string beans, leafy swiss chard, purple eggplants, zucchini and ‘cucuzza,’ squash with yellow flowers.
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There also were lines of garlic and onion plants, and a variety of herbs, ‘rapini’ and ‘escarole.’ Depending on the size of their lots, some families even put up grape arbors, and a fig tree or two.
Italians loved the outdoors ‘al fresco,’ nurturing the earth to produce fresh, wholesome food for the family table. They took advantage of every bit of ground. Their gardens were the epitome of eco-friendly planting using water captured in rain barrels, home-made compost, and recycled seeds.
Pop’s stash included seeds from some of the healthiest of last fall’s plants and what he swapped with friends. He also had starter seeds that initially came from Italy.
To prepare for the season’s planting, Pop prepared a cold box made of lumber and a glass top, to help germinate the select seeds. When the seedlings were right, they made their way to the full garden.
Fresh and hearty vegetables were used daily at the table. Sliced tomatoes on crusty homemade bread, mozzarella with a few basil leaves created a tasty bruschetta. ‘Escarole’ with mini-meatballs made a hearty ‘minestrone’ soup. The yellow zucchini flowers dipped in an egg and flour batter, then fried, made a delicious delicacy. Green bell peppers, fried or stuffed with a mixture of ground meat and breadcrumbs were always a treat.
At the end of the growing season, the tomatoes ended up in jars or made into a ‘conserva,’ a paste. Strings of long red peppers, and garlic, hung in the hot summer sun to dry.
A vegetable garden was an indispensable part of our life. It provided the fruit, vegetables, and herbs for the family.
Every plant grown by the Italian family was either eaten, jarred, dried, smoked, preserved, became a delicious sauce, or — last but not least — was pressed into wine.