Garden in a bowl
Late July is Gazpacho season on eastern Long Island. Farms and gardens are full of the essential ingredients: crisp cucumbers, peppers, onions and plump tomatoes. Gazpacho, the tasty cold summer soup, is served either chunky, blended smooth or sometimes blended smooth with chunks. My favorite recipe was given to me by Flo Williams, who lived in Bridgehampton her whole life. She passed away in 2012 at age ninety-two.
I am a native of Southampton. Bridgehampton and Southampton are only seven miles apart, but in the 1960’s, before I met Flo, and before the east end became one big Hampton, everyone pretty much stuck to their own villages. Once, when I was seven years old, my grandmother took me to Sag Harbor to visit friends. It was a big day, including a very long car ride beyond Bridgehampton. We arrived late morning. I had no idea where we were. Seriously. We stayed the whole afternoon.
Flo and I might never have met, if not for boarding school in Massachusetts. It was there, in 1970, that I met her daughter, Loie. We became best of friends sharing clandestine dorm escapes, discussing boys, smoking, and homesickness.
Back on the east end, Loie and I had summer jobs. She served hamburgers and scooped homemade ice cream at the Candy Kitchen in Bridgehampton while I waited on customers, made keys and mixed paint at my father’s hardware store in Southampton. Bridgehampton and Southampton were still seven miles apart, but we had driving licenses and by then the new, straight stretch of highway linked us. That is, as long as one of us could borrow the family car.
I liked going over to Loie’s. Her family had a house on Halsey Lane one block south of Montauk highway. Hal, Loie’s dad, was a builder and had constructed the red clapboard ranch. Low ceilings and pecky cypress paneling made it cozy and warm. Stuffed chairs, wooden rockers, the television and a built in L-shaped couch in the corner completed the main room. Most days the chairs were filled by four to five elderly friends and relatives being cared for by Flo. The creaking screen door in the kitchen announced friends followed by Flo’s greeting, “Come in, come in. Come say hello to….” and she ushered us into to visit the old folks. I loved Grandpa Williams who chatted enthusiastically with me, a teenager. I was more cautious with Miss Nelly. She was somewhat frail, being the oldest person in Bridgehampton at nearly a hundred years old.
Although a builder by profession, Hal’s real passion was organic gardening. On the coffee table in front of the built-in couch were several worn Organic Gardening Magazines; some were the earliest editions. One afternoon, while waiting for Loie to get home from work, I sat down and picked up an issue with a photo of onions on the cover. An article about toxic bug sprays caught my attention. I had sold some bug spray that morning in the hardware store. I didn’t know it could be harmful.
Hal’s organic garden bloomed on a triangle of Bridgehampton loam dividing Mecox Road and Jobs Lane. The land was the corner of a field belonging to his good friend, potato farmer Gurden Ludlow. Passing by, it was obvious that something besides the customary potatoes or cow corn was growing there. An assortment of green foliage punctuated by yellows, reds, orange, purples, whites and green shapes spread across the ground or reached for the sky on staked fences. Tall tomatoes, string beans, onions, corn, carrots, zucchini; an orchestra silently trumpeting their robust health, visible to the passer by.
At the Williams’ house, large pails of the day’s harvest stood by the back door waiting for Flo. She was captain of the kitchen. Her uniform was shorts, shirts, blue ked sneakers and cotton aprons. A big pot for canning, stewing and soup simmered on the stove. She circled about the galley kitchen from refrigerator, to stove and sink, cooking up fresh chowders and soups from the day’s harvest. Flo beheld the delivery of vegetables and the arrivals of visitors through the screen window over the sink. She always greeted each guest with a cheery offer of whatever was fresh from the oven or stove. “Hilly, would you like a piece of bread with butter?” Of course I would.
A photograph of Grandpa Williams from 1970 sums up summer on Halsey Lane. He is eighty plus years old and dons a big blue and white striped chef’s apron. He stands on their back door walkway with an enormous smile, leathery wrinkles creasing across his beaming face. He is Flo’s cooking assistant this day. Behind him, on the back stoop, are the ingredients for gazpacho; buckets of organic tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and onions grown by his son, Hal.
I had Flo’s Gazpacho for the first time one August evening, before Loie and I were to go out with the Thayer girls from Sagaponack. Right before we all sat down for supper, she handed me a large cold soup tureen. “Please set that at Hal’s place, would you, Hilly?” she asked. Did Flo know the soup was cold? I wondered. The only soup I’d ever had was always piping hot.
Eight of us gathered around the table that night: Grandpa Williams, Hal, Flo, Loie, her older brother and his wife, her younger brother and I. When everyone was seated, Hal said grace. “Bless this food to our use and us to Thy service in Jesus name we ask”
“Amen” we all replied.
A bowl was passed to me. It was full of raw tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic and cucumbers in tomato juice. Chopped chives and parsley garnished the surface. There were tiny oil dots floating in and among the herbs. It looked mysterious and inviting. A slight sweet vinegar aroma wetted my taste buds. I was eager to taste it.
I waited for my hosts to take the first spoonful as my mother had taught me. First, Hal passed the homemade bread before dipping his spoon into the bowl. Without hesitation, I followed. Sweet, spicy and fresh flavor embraced my taste buds in unison. The crunch of cucumbers and peppers followed. The herbs and hint of hot pepper punctuated every spoonful. It was chunky goodness, one of the most delicious things I had ever eaten; a garden in a bowl.
Now, over forty years later, I gather ingredients from my own organic garden to make it for the umpteenth time. The tomatoes must be slightly over ripe and the cucumbers crisp, right off the vine. Flo’s recipe calls for green peppers, but I use a mix of green, yellow and red. Yellow onions are best, but any will do. My newest addition is milky kernels of barely cooked corn for a sweet crunch.
I never saw Flo use a food processor to chop the ingredients. Neither do I. The result seems more gratifying after all the hands on work. The first step is to dunk the tomatoes in boiling water until the skins split. Place them on a cookie rack while chopping peppers, cucumbers, garlic and onions into bite sized pieces. Once cool, the tomato skins slip easily off. They, too, get chopped into pieces. I use a flexible cutting pad where the tomato juice puddles. Holding it cone shaped makes pouring all the tomatoes and the juice into the bowl a cinch.
Next, I slip out the door into my garden and move toward the chives and parsley, ready to snip them for the soup. Along the way, I get distracted observing things that call for help. The baby sun gold tomatoes need picking, the beets need thinning, borage is taking over, nasturtiums cascade into beans and swiss chard. A vole hole is near the carrots. I remind myself to fetch the herbs for the soup.
Hal and Flo are in my thoughts when I garden. He was one of the first, if not the first organic gardener on the east end in the 1960’s. The Williams opened their organic home and life and shaped my future. In the early 1970’s, I began to eat organically. Ten years later, with my own property, I planted my first organic garden.
Back in the kitchen, I chop the parsley and chives, inhaling the clean scent. Flo added red wine vinegar, but my choice varies from balsamic to seasoned white or combination. Top grade olive oil balances the vinegar. Lastly, vegetable juice, salt and a dash of hot sauce or cayenne adds depth.
Every time, my husband responds to the first spoonful with “This is the best batch you ever made.”
Recently, Loie called from her home in Boston, Massachusetts where she now shops for organic produce.
“I am making the gazpacho.” I chirped, setting the phone on speaker so I could finish chopping cucumbers.
“Ahhh, Hilly, I love the gazpacho.”