By Lois Burpee
“How did you, the wife of David Burpee, become interested in vegetables?” is a question frequently asked me—as though I had become a traitor to my husband and his passion for flowers. I am expected to be a flower expert, especially of marigolds, not vegetables. “I just did” is hardly a satisfactory answer. So I got to wondering myself and concluded that perhaps the varied experiences I had with food as I grew from a child—with a child’s typical aversion to vegetables—to a homemaker on Fordhook Farms may have had something to do with it.
I was born in Tiberias, Palestine, where my father, a Scot, had founded a medical mission. But I woke up mentally in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1914, when we had to flee from Palestine at the start of World War I. The war limited variety in our food. Meats, sugar, and fats were strictly rationed. (I remember being shocked at a family dinner when an aunt was so bold as to sprinkle sugar on chocolate pudding. We all would have preferred it sweeter, too, but to be so extravagant was unthinkable.) It was a treat when my father, then medical director of the Oakbank Army Hospital, brought home some beef drippings, which we spread on bread as a flavorful substitute for oleomargarine.
The only vegetables I remember being served at dinner besides potatoes were carrots and turnips, and I thought that to like them one would have to have red hair. In a dish in the center of the dining-room table, tangy garden cress grew on wet absorbent cotton. It looked like a tiny forest, and the peppery leaves had a delightful taste. I have recreated this dish of cress many times. It’s ready to eat ten days after the seed is planted.
Early in 1919, we came to America to visit my mother’s parents in Hartford, Connecticut. Grandma made a delicious crispy pickle of Jerusalem artichokes, which grew in a corner of the backyard. We spent a fairytale summer right next to a real farm in the small town of Winchester. There was so much for me, my three sisters, and my little brother to explore there! Grandpa taught us what berries we could pick, and we walked miles to the best wild strawberry patches. The berries were pretty well mashed by our return, but were still good for shortcake made with hot baking-powder biscuits. We were introduced to corn on the cob, of course, and just couldn’t believe that we were really allowed to pick it up in our fingers.
In the fall of 1919, we returned to Palestine on a small steamer. My most vivid recollections of the trip are the flavor of café au lait—made with condensed milk, of course—and a storm in which the bathtub broke loose. The roll of the ship had got the best of me—I was lying in my berth, eyes glued to the porthole, through which I would sometimes see only sky, then the top of the waves, and, for an interminable length of time, only water. At last, with relief, I saw the skyline and sky again, but for far too short a time. A woman’s voice shrieking, “The bathtub’s broken loose, the bathtub’s broken loose,” broke the spell that the porthole held over me. Fear turned to laughter. We were told later that some of the ship’s cargo had also broken loose and slid off center so the ship could not completely right itself. When we finally reached port, it still listed to one side.
Arriving in Tiberias was a broad leap into an entirely new world—not only a new home, but new languages and new foods. I loved the fruits, but, oh my, the strong flavors of the food! Stuffed eggplant was cooked with tomatoes and both ripe and green olives, some of which were quite bitter. Everything seemed to be sour except lentils and bulgur. But the desserts, served only at feasts, were devastatingly sweet. The memory of little hollow doughnutlike balls full of syrup flavored with rosewater still haunts me. They were made from small balls of raised dough, cooked first in hot fat and then in the syrup. I’ve tried to make them but haven’t been able to get the syrup inside. Eating a whole cherry tomato reminds me of them—not the flavor, of course, but what happens in the mouth.
All vegetables that could be eaten raw—radishes, lettuce, carrots, and, of course, tomatoes—were grown in the hospital compound, where they would not become contaminated. The cress that used to grow in the dish on the table in Scotland sprouted in the garden overnight and was eaten in a few days. Then we replanted more cress.
I was miserable for a long time. Breakfast was the only meal I really liked. Of course, I had to eat what I was served. None of this business of “What would you like?” in those days. Gradually, some dishes became not too distasteful. Curiosity got the best of me. Why did people like these strong-flavored foods? Perhaps I would like them, too. I would find out only by tasting.
We children had a large breakfast with fruits and cooked cereal. Lunch, with the adults, was composed of Arabic dishes: stuffed vegetable marrow, which is like zucchini, cooked in leban (a form of yogurt); eggplant and tomato stew; boiled lentils or bulgur with ground lamb or goat; and occasionally stewed rabbit or chicken, which the family raised. We children had our early supper of eggs, bread, and olives. I learned to love olives and also lebanee, which is like cream cheese but more sour. It was kept in olive oil and spread on fresh Arabic bread, then sprinkled with zatre, a dried mixture of sorrel and winter savory.
I was fascinated by what went on in the outbuildings behind the hospital. In one, the washerwomen did the laundry in huge built-in caldrons. They often brought in plants to nibble on, whatever was growing on the hillsides. So I began to look around the compound grounds and take them all sorts of plants to see if they would eat them, too. Often they ate only the succulent inner part of the stem. Some plants, like a daisy-type one, they said were too soapy.
Two other buildings were the hospital kitchens: one for preparing food for the Moslem and Christian patients and staff, the other a spotless kitchen with lots of shiny pots on the walls where meals were prepared for the Jewish patients. My excursions to these were only in the late afternoon on Saturday, because our days were quite regulated. I watched, fascinated, and sometimes tasted the tidbits offered me. Gradually I sort of got to like Arabic food. Years later I had a yen for the flavors I remembered.
Another Saturday pastime for us children was cooking. We had one of the little buildings along the compound wall for a playroom. Among the few toys we brought with us from the United States were little cast-iron stoves. We each had one and used charcoal for fuel. We were permitted to use anything that grew in the garden as well as eggs from our chickens. We tested the things the washerwomen ate and roasted all sorts of seeds to see if we could make imitation coffee. I remember clearly one day when I got some salt and added it to the potato and egg mess I was cooking. I proudly announced that salt made it taste better. My older sister squelched my pride by responding, “Melani [the cook] always uses salt!”
After my father’s death we came to America again in 1924. By this time Grandpa had retired to the old family homestead in northwestern Connecticut. His occupation now was tending his vegetable garden and one row of sweet peas, which we children had to pick faithfully every other day to keep them blooming. His garden soil was sandy and the season short, but what wonderful vegetables he could grow! And, to my surprise, they were good to eat. Our meals were such traditional New England dishes as fresh peas with young carrots lightly seasoned with a slice of salt pork fat (not smoked) and desserts sweetened with dark molasses. I can still visualize Grandpa poring over the Burpee seed catalog in the winter, planning his next year’s garden.
When mother took over the kitchen, she had to relearn how to cook. There was one huge white cookbook to which she often referred, and the food order was phoned in to the one butcher and one grocer in the town once a week. To save time (or maybe it was an old custom), one large piece of meat was ordered. We had it hot on Sunday, cold on Monday, and what we children called third-day roast on Tuesday. I have followed this tradition in some ways, but have the hot roast on Saturday and the cold meat on Sunday, as I find a day of rest from cooking quite relaxing. The old New England custom of having hot baked beans and brown bread on Saturday and eating them cold on Sunday is really not a bad idea. Instead of cold baked beans, I do something with all the leftover vegetables in the refrigerator, such as making a casserole with a cheese cream sauce.
Grandma made the gingerbread. This was important because Grandpa had to have the gingerbread every night for supper. She baked it in a large blackened pan about three inches deep that was almost as large as the oven.
My two older sisters took over the few times when Mother was not home. They objected to my being in the kitchen because they said I was always washing my hands and getting in the way. My oldest sister usually made a cake. One day they were also away. I was to be in charge of preparing dinner (a cold meat day, of course). This was my opportunity to show my cooking prowess. I decided to make a sponge cake, which would not need frosting. I had Grandma’s gingerbread pan in mind for cooking it in.
So I got out the one big cookbook and looked up the recipe. It called for one cup of flour. How could that possibly make enough for eight people and have some left over? I decided to triple the recipe and increase the amount of lemon extract, as it seemed much too little. I put my batter in the gingerbread pan and placed it in the bottom of the hot oven to bake (I didn’t know how to raise the shelf). Soon there was a delightful aroma—then one of burning. I peeked in the oven. The cake was flowing over the edges of the pan. Oh, well I thought, let it bake anyway. I did know that I should not disturb a baking cake. The burning smell got stronger and stronger, but it was not yet time to take the cake from the oven.
When the time did come, the cake looked fine on top, but the oven was a mess. All the family returned for dinner, and I proudly served the cake in the large pan. My oldest sister facetiously remarked, “Are we still eating this cake?” Of course, it was burnt on the bottom, and the lemon flavor was overwhelming. I was so disappointed. To this day, I can’t stand synthetic lemon seasoning, and I seldom bake a cake.
To be continued.