My Father's Garden
DescriptionBrooklyn, New York, 1948. My immigrant father, Francesco Pietanza, a merchant steward and cook from Mola di Bari, Italy arrived at Ellis Island on the S.S. Coronado in search of his younger brother. Despite the racketeering longshore waterfront and the underlying discrimination that peppered the streets of his chance destination of South Brooklyn, he was able to see the potential for opportunity and growth, all that was required was hard work. A growing vision of his life as an American caused him to reconsider returning to Italy. And while he strived and succeeded to assimilate as a naturalized American citizen, it was his skills as a young farmer back home that was the driving force behind much of his lifestyle and survival here. His entrepreneurial nature, creativity and stamina were a motivating and influential force in our lives as his children and we couldn’t be more grateful for his everlasting gift of gardening to us.
Probably the first indication that I, personally, ever had in my own young life that my father’s gardening was going to be an integral part of my entire life is when I was assigned the relentless task of watering our garden as a little girl while he was at work. Each spring day I came home from school, I hauled the hose from its concrete pavement as it unraveled behind me until I stood in the center of the garden. I aimed the nozzle as high as I could to cover the spread of newly sprouted plants.
As the plants grew in the summer months, my father instructed me to aim the gentle shower mist directly into the dirt, creating an irrigation method so that, as he put it, “the roots can drink.” The hose had to be moved in sections to cover the entire garden. This time-consuming process took place in the backyard of a six-family apartment building that was owned by my parents in the now trendy, gentrified section of Brooklyn called Red Hook, home of maritime industry and Italian immigrant longshoremen, of which my father became one. He worked long hours unloading crates of merchandise from all over the world, yet he still found time for his garden, a passion that even exhaustion could not stop him from enjoying.
My father grew many vegetables, but his favorite was string beans, specifically pole beans that were long and tender. In America it is sometimes referred to as shoe-lace beans, but in Italian it has been referred to as “stringa a grano bruno”, or fagioli Americani, though it is known to be Chinese in origin. My father, like most Italians, loved these beans because they pair well with pasta. Typically we cooked them up with spaghetti and fresh red tomatoes and garlic, where the light juices of the tomato tenderly coated the pasta. Still one of my favorites. Because these pole beans grew as vines would, he spent hours staking trellises that he attached together in the shape of Ts, creating multiple rows of them. He ran the stringed bean tendrils to the top of the trellis, giving them ample room to roam. By mid-summer these plants were so full that we could walk in between their many aisles, as if in a maze! That was fun. The foot-long beans hung down, some visible, others not so visible, so it wasn’t unusual to find us pushing aside tendrils and leaves, reaching far into the bushy plants to find hidden beans waiting to be harvested.
As the years went by, my father’s garden grew bigger as he planted dwarf peach trees in the garden that didn’t interfere with his valuable vegetable beds. As he re-seeded through the years, his garden included tomatoes, eggplant and zucchini, swish chard, dandelion, cucumbers and more. On occasion he went to visit his hometown of Mola in Italy. He would come back with seeds firmly hidden in his clothing somewhere, and eagerly stored them for planting the following season. That crop was then re-seeded for future growths. These seeds generally included Barese dandelion or chickory (cicoria) and tomatoes that were indigenous to Mola, but look much like a variety we commonly see today called Campari tomatoes. Their unique salty-flavored taste made it a sought after crop in many areas of Italy.
The three staples of herbs in any Italian garden - parsley, basil and mint - were also a part of our garden, basil being an integral ingredient for its use as pesto, which we made in large quantities - with a mortar and pestle - for preserving. At one point my father decided that he just didn’t have enough room for the volume of produce he was looking to yield, so he broke up our patio and created four cinder block garden beds, at least twelve feet by ten feet in size. The herbs took up occupancy in those beds, and created significantly more room for his vegetables. My mother almost cried when she saw him taking an ax to the patio. She insisted that he at least plant some flowers in the herb beds to have “something pretty to look at” to make up for her loss. He was resistant to that idea at first, but gave in eventually, bordering his new herb gardens with vibrant pink and white carnations! One would have to understand why he would resist this in the first place, though, which is this: if it doesn’t produce something to eat, why plant it? This principle of thought was the same for landscaping bushes and trees as well. In any event, during this particular digging excavation my father uncovered a brick foundation of a long-ago demolished building, which one might think would put an end to the project altogether. Not so. Meticulously, he recovered each piece from the earth as he patiently chipped each brick free of dry, aged mortar and dirt. He saved them all insisting there would be a use for them someday. Some years later they became part of the driveway in my newly purchased home as a young wife.
Despite the physical and strenuous days of a longshoreman, my father often spent his first hours at home in the garden before taking his place at the table to eat. Thinning, pinching, weeding, staking, pruning, mulching, and harvesting were the first order of business. Afterward, he would come upstairs to our apartment with his shirttails bulging like a sack in front of his stomach, overflowing with freshly picked vegetables! We ate like kings with abundance; we feasted like royalty with flavor. Zucchini that was lightly fried and marinated in a dish with garlic, freshly chopped mint and vinegar (which he made also); Swiss chard sautéed with garlic and fresh tomatoes with bread; caponata, an eggplant appetizer that was an almost daily lunch item for us in school; ‘Cardoncella Barese’ escarole with creamy, garlic-y fava bean puree; and minestra, oh, Lord, the minestra . . . all of his garden vegetables chopped so finely and simmered ever so slowly in a tomato and butternut squash sauce. I’ve never eaten anything like it anywhere, and my kids can’t get enough of it today when I cook it for them. The peaches we harvested were cut up for desert, and later in our lives, put into our wine glasses to enjoy with our meal.
Canning went hand-in-hand with the beginning of school and included vegetables grown in our garden, like tomatoes for sauce, but it also included items that my father foraged elsewhere, like wild mushrooms from upstate New York, and vegetables that he bartered in bulk - namely, red peppers from New Jersey. Foraging mushrooms was an all day affair that neither I nor my sister were generally included in, until my father came home with three or four large canvas bags filled to the brim with them. We knew we had our work cut out for us with the cleaning, cooking and preserving, but our reward was getting to the bottom of those bags and finding FOREST TURTLES! We played with them for hours and then released them into our garden’s habitat for the sake of humanity.
The work required to keep up with the volume of my father’s garden that fed us daily and held us through our winters was nothing compared to, however, the time my father decided to buy a piece of property in Staten Island. This property became an extension of our backyard, though it involved a bit more traveling than two flights of stairs and a walk through the cellar to get to. Initially it required a bus, a ferry and a train. Then it was a bus across the newly built Verrazano Bridge and a train. Eventually, it became a ride in his car, which he invested in not just to travel to his property, but to his new job in New Jersey as well, where the flow of containerized shipping jobs moved to in the seventies, leaving Red Hook desolate and despondent during that decade. Through Red Hook’s continuing demise - earning the name of Life magazine’s description of it as the “crack capital of the world” - my father’s garden still prospered.
The “proper-a-ty” as he affectionately always referred to it, was on a fairly large hillside, sandwiched between two homes and surrounded by a lovely neighborhood in a town called Pleasant Plains at the southern end of the Island. His cousin, Luca Pietanza, a gentle soul with enormous kindness and delicate blue eyes, religiously helped my father to maintain his miniature farm. The two labored side-by-side, harmoniously cultivating and nurturing a virtual field of greens without even speaking to each other for hours on end. For us, my sister and I, it was a bit awkward arriving there on Saturday mornings as we joined our father to do the harvesting while the neighbors, mostly white-collar workers, looked on through open windows. What went through their minds we’ll never know!
Bathroom duty was in the form of an outhouse that my father built. It stood proudly erected at the bottom of the hill made of old plywood from our cellar that he had a surplus of from salvage lots. It had door handles and a lock, but we tried our best not to use it - especially under the watchful eyes of our intrigued neighbors. By morning’s end, we had filled several large bushels with string beans, lugged them into his car and then drove to New Jersey to a farm where he would barter his beans for red peppers, and where he also maintained a small section of land, courtesy of the owner, to grow some of his own tomatoes as well. His gumption was endless; his strength, unwavering. We would arrive home late on Saturday, and on Sunday, we would wash, roast and peel all those peppers to prepare them for jarring, while he tended to the backyard garden - often coming upstairs with an armload of zucchini flowers, which my mother washed and cooked the next day in the form of a fritatta. Heavenly.
There was so much produce coming from his garden and miniature farm that he had the brilliant idea one year to set up a scale in front of our house and sell some of it! We found out later in our trips to Italy how common it was to do this. As we walked through the narrow, whitewashed buildings and cobbled-stoned streets of Mola, there were random little chairs displaying vegetables outside of some people’s doorways. We watched our father examine much of the produce as we walked by. When he was smitten with something, he knocked on the owner’s door, and before we knew it he had purchased a kilo or two of that vegetable grown in the owner’s backyard or . . . at an off-premise piece of “proper -a- ty,” also very common in Italy. But my father’s generous heart moved him to give away a lot of his produce to co-workers, friends, relatives, and anyone who visited our home. Little apples that don’t fall far from the tree that we are, we have taken to sharing our own food with others as well. His second nature instinctively became ours.
Eventually, my father realized he needed a jeep, not a car, to accommodate us, Luca, and himself, plus all of the produce he was bargaining to acquire. The jeep proved useful, too, when he needed to routinely collect fifty or so burlap bags of chicken manure to fertilize our backyard and the property. Since his family was in the fertilizer business in Italy, he easily recognized opportunities to get free or low-cost fertilizing for his gardens here. His friendships with the numerous farm owners in New Jersey made this a lucrative deal - the chicken manure was ours for the taking . . . and the shoveling and hauling.
The manure was a familiar childhood smell to us in the early spring or the late fall as he prepared his garden for the winter. All year long, however, we contributed to our garden’s nourishment by giving back all the scrapings and peelings of our meals. The grape stems we collected from his wine making (ten barrels worth) were also lovingly incorporated throughout the garden beds. Nothing was ever wasted. We were raised to believe that discarding food waste anywhere but into the compost was nothing short of a sin.
In 1996, when the six-family apartment building in Brooklyn and the property in Staten Island proved to be too much responsibility, my parents sold everything and moved to the New York city-burb section of Staten Island, to a one-family home, and a new garden challenge. At the age of 76, my father, now making only one barrel of wine compared to his usual ten, made up for the loss of grape stems for compost by using autumn tree leaves instead. He was known as the Italian guy with the dog who went around picking up the neighbor’s bagged leaves on Mondays. In his eyes, one simply adapted to the environment to nurture his garden’s soil. Their house was a beautiful brick ranch home that had a huge above ground pool in the back, and a lovely landscaped front. Where the energy came from, I will never know, but he removed all of the landscaping in the front of the house and planted, for the first time, his beloved fig trees. One fig tree (or should I say branch, because that’s all that was needed for him to start it) was planted on each side of the walkway, smack in the middle of each lawn area, so it had plenty of room to grow to the heights he anticipated it would. As of 2012, before the polar vortex invaded our winters of 2013 and 2014, they were at least fifteen feet high and equally wide, taking up most of the front lawn, reaching the roof and covering the windows! If he were alive, those trees would have survived the frigid vortex.
The backyard was another issue and a most interesting aspect of gardening that I, myself, had never seen. He solicited the help of people to remove the pool, and spent two years cleaning and cultivating the dirt. When he had lived in Brooklyn, and was younger, he spent years overturning the dirt with a mere pitchfork, methodically ridding it of rocks and pebbles. But here he decided to speed up the process a bit, feeling anxious to plant in a timely way at his new home. He flooded out the entire garden area with the hose. After many hours, the water sunk into the dirt, and rocks of all sizes rose to the top as a result. He then spent days scraping off the rocks from the surface of the dirt with a little garden shovel, piling the rocks in sections and dumping them into pails. He repeated this flooding process several times, until the dirt was free of even a grain that was a twinkle in some pebble’s eye looking to become a rock at some point in its surely futile life on the Pietanza homestead! Meanwhile, he had been accumulating compost on the side so that he could start nourishing the soil when it was ready. There was no chicken manure in this garden. The dirt in Staten Island was mostly clay, a rich moisture-holding soil that was ideal for planting, which required less watering. He warned us all of this, too, adopting the rule of only a “cup” of water for his young seedlings, please.
In Staten Island, he planted two plum trees, both varieties that were common in Italy. The rest of the garden was lusciously filled with eggplants, string beans, Swiss chard, tomatoes, and some new plants, like melon, beets, broccoli rabe and arugula - the wild kind, never cultivated. He impressed us with a melon that he grafted from seed himself. The outside looked like a cantaloupe, but the flesh on the inside was white and sweeter than sugar!
On and off through the years, I tried to fashion my father’s gardening in my own home in the sandy soils of Long Island’s south shore, but it was senseless in a way, because my father had ten times more produce to offer me when I visited him. The busy life of PTA meetings, soccer games, religion, and music lessons consumed so much of our life as a family, that it was a God-send that we could go to Grandma’s and have wonderful home-grown meals and bags of produce to take home with us. Truthfully speaking, this is the quintessential rite of passage for most children of Italian immigrants.
My father’s garden inspired me to cook like my parents. It has also made me acutely aware of the quality of all produce as I shopped for my family throughout the years, and still do. His garden instilled in me the beauty of living off the land, producing the best grade of vegetables and fruits that can do nothing but good for one’s health. My father’s garden, in its own auspicious way, warned me of pesticides and interloping products that come from suspicious areas, or have gone through preservation treatments not suited to produce the ultimate taste or quality, which is, after all, the very essence of expression of every Italian gardener. Eating from my father’s garden inspired me to feed my own babies, not store-bought food, but pureed vegetables - much of which came from his garden. As I stroll through the produce sections of supermarkets today, I am visibly turned off by the amount of dull and lifeless, or modified foods that look so good they almost look fake. And his gardening didn't just demonstrate the art of eating well, it ultimately instilled strong work ethics, perseverance and tolerance.
Before my father passed away was probably the time I learned the most about his recipe for gardening, inherited from the many generations before him in Italy, where techniques were rooted not in science or manuals, but instinct and survival. When he suffered a stroke and could barely talk or endure the physical stamina of working in his garden any longer, we - my sister, brother and I - did it for him. For me, personally, it was the opportunity of a lifetime, having my father by our side giving us step-by-step instructions to plant his garden . . . for him. What a gift! He had us forming valleys of soil for certain seeds, puncturing the soil (with dibble sticks from Italy) as we planted seeds for others, and spreading root vegetable seeds with a rake that required much less attention. Even my oldest son, Joe, was able to work in the garden with us, learning some valuable lessons of love, inheriting a legacy that started in one country and was continuing in another. We fed my father meals from his garden for three years before he passed away in 2006. We promptly continued his garden the years following, the soil still dark and rich from his nurturing. My immediate family lives in his home now - two successive generations - gardening and caring for his plum trees and, presently, reviving the fig trees. We enjoy going out in the early sun-drenched mornings picking our breakfast from the trees, stuffing figs with goat cheese and prosciutto, biting into crunchy plums that ooze with juicy sweetness. And for my mother, who passed away in 1999, we re-planted beautiful flowers and landscaping plants (that vie to steal attention away from the fig trees), in order to honor them both and carry on their legacy right here in America, where two worlds have beneficially become one. -Story written by Mary Ann P.