For The Love Of Produce

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When I was growing up, my grandparents hatched mangos.

At least, that’s what it seemed to me: When I was 8, they added freshly sliced mangos to our usual brunch repertoire. It was my first time tasting the sweet, slippery fruit and I finished the entire family-sized bowl.

While my mom schooled me on sharing, my grandparents made sure that from that day on, I always had a healthy supply of mangos. They’d buy them in bulk, coddle them like dinosaur eggs until they were perfectly ripe, and then gift them to me. When I went away to college, I’d come home to mangos. In my 20s, I moved to New York City, and I’d come home to mangos. Even now, with two kids of my own, my 94-year old Poppa is always sure to have a mango in hand. (To admit aloud that my fondness has quelled would break more than one heart.)

It’s said that relationships help nourish the soul. If that’s true, my Grandma and Poppa provide a very literal example: While my parents devour their grandchildren with kisses and cuddles, I don’t remember my own grandparents being huge on hugs. They always showed their love through food.

It makes sense when you consider their beginnings. My Poppa’s family owned the produce department in the Dexter market in Downtown Detroit. As the story goes, my Grandma was sent there to buy garlic for her mother. It was the early 1940s, and because she was just a teenager, she was thoroughly embarrassed to ask the handsome, blue-eyed son of the owner where she’d find such an unappealing vegetable. Apparently, my Poppa was undeterred: He presented her with the garlic and his love. They would have celebrated their 72nd anniversary in June.

My Grandma passed away a year ago. My Poppa lives alone now, but like an ancient relic, a butter-yellow refrigerator still wheezes in their garage. It used to be packed tight with USDA prime steaks and sesame bagels; stocked with Vernors and Diet Squirt —  always on the ready for an impromptu family meal. It’s empty now, but if excess love could be stored like leftover food, I imagine that’s where it would live forever.

Just past the refrigerator, a door in the garage opens directly into my grandparents’ unassuming kitchen. Straight ahead are white Formica countertops that, to the casual observer, appear to be nothing special. But to a more trained eye they represent the passage from conception to consumption —  where simple ingredients transform into something as abstract as love.

Grandma and Poppa (aka Norma and Phil Layne) picking strawberries in the mid-1980s

They are where my Poppa devoutly chopped and peeled bushels of freshly picked apples  —  each one a prize  —  for my Grandma. He would climb to the tops of the trees to pluck them, even after he was too old to be doing such things, even after my Grandma was walker-bound and had to wait for him in the car  —  because (he was sure) the prettiest, biggest apples were the highest ones. Accepting the pale, fragrant slices from her devoted sous chef, she would bake them into flaky apple pies for Rosh Hashanah and cinnamony apple sauce to serve with latkes.

My Poppa’s adoration for good-looking produce was second only to his adoration for his beautiful wife. Nothing makes this more clear than the three giant boxes stuffed with the love letters they sent each other during WWII. The letters remained untouched in my grandparents’ dusty basement until my Grandma passed away. Only then did my Poppa finally let his children read their private thoughts. Letter after letter they professed their faithful, long-distance love, doted over their engagement, daydreamed about married life and planned their modest wedding  —  which took place during furlough, with only their mothers by their sides.

Recently, I was looking through the fragile pages, mindful of my Poppa’s longing as he waited to see my Grandma  —  knowing he must feel the same way 72 years later, now that they are apart once again. Mostly the letters read like this:

Dec. 14, 1943

I love you terribly. It’s tough to get back in the grind (knowing) that I’ll have to wait at least three months before I see you again. Gosh darling, I love you so much. I never thought that I could ever love one girl  —  as much as I love you  —  and I’m all yours my darling … Dearest we can’t neglect ourselves because we have such a beautiful future in store. So dearest, please take care of yourself…

                                   ~ Your Phil

I stopped and read again when I happened upon this passage:

 April 16, 1944

My Beloved One,

Well here’s your own guy again … Say! The mess sergeant wants me to become a cook. It all started when I asked if I could prepare the salad for about 200 fellows  —  and they gladly let me do it. I had swell ingredients, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, radishes (made roses out of ’em) and green pepper. It was “rally fawncy.” The fellows couldn’t believe that they were in the army. I was told I’d make a fine wife  —  da noive! (i.e. the nerve!) I’ll be a wonderful husband. And once in a while, I’ll help you to prepare the salad.

Norma (Reisig) and Phillip Layne (in uniform) in the photo used for their engagement announcement

It was all there, in that one little paragraph nestled between I need you terribly and Well honey, I’m going to close now. My Poppa, ever the nurturer, lovingly prepared a meal for his family of army “fellows.” Even when he was a young man of 20  —  even in the most unusual of circumstances  —  he was showing the people closest to him that he cared in the best way he knew how: through food.

Nevertheless, he turned down the opportunity to become an army cook  —  instead, when he returned home he opened a very “fawncy” (and successful) shoe store Downtown.

Over the years, he kept his promise and then some: He helped my Grandma prepare many salads  —  not just for his doted-upon wife, but for his four children, and then his eight grandchildren and now six great-grandchildren, too.

And I savored it all: I learned to score cucumbers with a fork before slicing them, so that they look like pretty ridged rings. I learned to garnish with nasturtium  —  delicate, edible flowers. I learned the difference between mineolas and tangelos, when to tell if a cantaloupe is ripe and how to slice a whole pineapple so it looks like four yellow canoes. But above all, my Poppa taught me that love can turn radishes into roses.

Sara Stillman Berger  Special to the Jewish News

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