Geraldine was a friend whom I knew for more than twenty-five years. We both enjoyed cooking and would have dinner at least once a week at each other’s apartments. Geraldine was of Irish ancestry, and while she and I were both only children, her mom was the eldest of seven.
Geraldine’s mom, Moira found herself the head of the family at the young age of sixteen. Her father owned a warehouse and Geraldine and her siblings all began working there after school when they were ten years old. Her dad passed away when Moira was fourteen and her mother died two years later. Suddenly, Moira had not only the responsibility of raising six brothers and sisters but had to run the family business. Without either hesitation or choice she took on this unexpected responsibility.
Moira’s family and warehouse were on the south side of Chicago, an area that was, at that time, filled with first and second generation Irish immigrants. In the 1920’s there were no large grocery stores but only little neighborhood food shops. At that time, one of the conveniences that had been invented to help out the housewife was that fruits and vegetables were available in cans which could be stocked in a family’s pantry for use when needed.
This greatly simplified Moira’s life as she could turn to one of her brothers, hand him a grocery list and instruct him to pick up what the family would need for the coming week, thus eliminating her need to go grocery shopping herself and allowing more time to run the warehouse and to cook dinner for the large clan. Naturally, when she got married, many of the habits which she had acquired as a child followed her and it was in that environment that Geraldine was born and raised.
It was a beautiful early summer Saturday when Geraldine and I decided to take an excursion to Wisconsin. We were thinking about going to the Wisconsin Dells but there appeared to be quite a few others who had the same idea and we really didn’t want to find ourselves in a large group of people – so instead we just decided to take a drive through the Wisconsin countryside.
On our way back to Chicago we came across a large farm stand, filled with all kinds of in season fruits and vegetables. They looked far fresher than what we found at our local stores and so we decided to stock up with some fresh from the field produce to enjoy back home.
I was delighted to find fresh peas in the pod. I hadn’t seen them for years and they brought back one of my favorite childhood memories, helping Grandma shuck these into the large mixing bowl and then chewing on the pods to extract some of their sweetness. I quickly filled a medium sized brown paper bag with these delectable goodies and put them with my other selections.
When we returned home we decided to make dinner together. We unloaded our fruits and veggies and I asked Geraldine if she could give me a large bowl so that I could start shucking the peas. She found one quickly and I emptied my bag of peas into the kitchen sink. Geraldine looked at this harvest of sweet goodness and asked me, “What are those?”
That statement set me back just a bit. I thought she was kidding me. But I answered, “Those are peas.”
She looked at me, put her hands on her hips and with the air of an adult speaking in the tone of one admonishing a child for telling a fib said, “Don’t be ridiculous. Peas are round and they come in a can.”
As I was turning my compost pile this morning, enjoying the fresh smell which had come into being because of food scraps, shredded paper, coffee grounds and garden waste, I thought of this story. Geraldine and I grew up at a time when a person still could pick fresh produce from a roadside stand rather than buy it pre-packaged in styrofoam and wrapped with plastic.
We grew up at a time when the hanging scale, inaccurate as it probably was, served the purpose of allowing the grocer to compute the charge for an item and write the amount due on its brown paper bag with a black crayon. We grew up at a time when there were no stickers applied to each peach or apple which can only be removed by those who have long finger nails. We grew up at a time when you could tell the difference between a carrot and a stalk of celery by taste rather than appearance.
If, despite the availability of fresh produce when Geraldine grew up, she was surprised to find that peas actually grew in pods before they were processed, just imagine the confusion that younger generations must experience when confronted with fresh fruits and vegetables. Perhaps that explains why so many think that the height of gourmet eating is a burger and fries. I would not want to be the first to confront them with reality and dissuade them from their opinions. And I certainly wouldn’t want to dispel them from their belief, if they have one at all, that “Peas are round and they come in a can.”