Garden in a Bowl
It was the middle of August, 1971. I was seventeen and had enjoyed a classic East End day off from my summer job at my father’s hardware store. The sky was clear; the air was dry and the ocean waves smooth. I spent it close to home at Cryders beach in Southampton, alternately napping and body surfing. Late in the day, when my mother was home from golf, she let me take the car. Cruising the open road in her aquamarine Cadillac convertible was heaven to me. With barely any traffic on route 25, it took only a few minutes to get to Bridgehampton where my best friend, Loie Williams, lived. She was not yet home from her job at the Candy Kitchen, but her mother Flo was. And, I did love visiting with Flo. I parked in their driveway and finished my cigarette as Bob Dylan sang his last seductive lyrics, “lay lady lay, lat across my big brass bed”. I sat back for a moment and looked at the blue sky.
Turning my head toward the Williams’ back walkway, there stood Grandpa Williams. A big blue and white striped chef’s apron stretched across his ample torso. He proudly cradled an arm load of vegetables. Behind him, on the back stoop, were buckets brimming with organic tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, beans and onions.
“Hello, Grandpa! What are you up to?”
“Just helping Flo with some cooking.”
“Can I take your picture?” I had my camera in hand.
A huge smile creased the leathery wrinkles across his beaming face. Click! A classic image of summer on Halsey Lane was recorded. That was the summer I learned about organic gardening and had my first taste of Flo’s gazpacho.
Although Southampton and Bridgehampton are only seven miles apart, in 1971 they were still worlds apart. Southampton, a wealthy summer resort, saw uniformed chauffeurs stand next to black limousines on Main Street and Jobs Lane. It wasn’t just about chauffeurs, Southampton was almost a small city compared to Bridgehampton. There were two beach clubs, Southampton Hospital, Southampton College and a bustling business district with two Five and Dime stores.
Seven miles east, in Bridgehampton, farming was the backbone of the community. Their main street was and is route 25, Montauk highway. Then, as now, the Candy Kitchen and Bobbie Vans were there, as were two grocery stores, the Bridgehampton National Bank, a few filling stations, a couple of bars, and four churches: Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopalian. There was a modest, unadorned quality about it.
My family life centered around church and community as did the Williams. But there was just a little more formality and pretension in our social circle, unlike the Williams’ whose back door was continually creaking with the sound of friends and family dropping in, unannounced, to visit.
It was unlikely Loie and I would have crossed paths had we stayed in our hometowns. By good fortune, we became lifelong friends our junior year away at boarding school in Massachusetts two hundred and sixty miles north.
After taking Grandpa Williams’ picture, I knocked on the screen door. “Is that Hilly? Flo easily guessed as most likely I was the only friend formal enough to knock. “Come in dear.” I stepped in to the smell of hot baked bread. “Would you like a piece of bread? I just pulled it from the oven”.
Flo was dressed, as always, in a printed cotton apron buttoned down the back and covering her front like a large sleeveless backward shirt. Blue sneakers and Bermuda shorts completed the outfit. She cycled about the galley kitchen from refrigerator to stove to sink to refrigerator. The buckets of vegetables on the back stoop were continually being refilled and those that did not get made into soups, pickles, casseroles, salads or pies were freely offered to friends.
Loie’s dad, Hal built the red clapboard ranch house on Halsey Lane near the IGA. There, they raised four children and took care of friends and relatives. Most days, Miss Nelly, Grandpa Williams, Grandma Rogers, Grandma Fordham and Grandma Acker sat around the living room in comfortable arm chairs and rockers, an early version of elder day care. Flo was caretaker, bustling in and out from the kitchen to check in or announce visitors.
Hal was a builder by profession, but his passion was organic gardening. His huge garden occupied a triangle of Gurdon Ludlow’s farm field between Jobs Lane and Mecox Road. Instead of the typical potatoes or cow corn, the large patch was filled with rows of bright red tomatoes, peppers of all colors, and cucumbers dangling on a freestanding fence. Green beans, onions and squash along with all sorts of other vegetables spilled and spread along the ground.
Once, when I waited for Loie to get home from scooping homemade ice cream and serving hamburgers at the Candy Kitchen, I looked at Organic Gardening Magazine in the living room. An article caught my attention. It was about toxic bug sprays and how to make your own safe ones. I had sold some garden bug spray that morning in the hardware store. I didn’t know it was harmful. Yet, I recalled my friend’s father, a farmer from Water Mill had become deathly ill from exposure to potato spray.
On Friday evenings we played bridge at the Williams’. The group included teenagers, parents and old folks. Weekends, we partied at the beach with Loie’s Bridgehampton friends or mine from Southampton, depending on who had the family car to get to either village
One evening in early August, before Loie and I were to meet up with her friends, Flo served gazpacho for supper. She took a large covered soup tureen from the refrigerator and asked me, ‘Hilly, can you set this at Hal’s place?” The tureen was ice cold. What is she doing with cold soup? I wondered. Soup should be piping hot.
When everyone was seated at the dining table, Hal said grace. “Bless this food to our use and us to Thy service in Jesus name we ask”
“Amen” we all responded.
Loie passed me a bowl filled with raw tomatoes, peppers, onions and cucumbers in tomato juice. Chopped chives and parsley floated among small dots of oil on the surface. A delightful aroma surges up ward.
What would this taste like? I watched Hal pass the bread down the table waiting for him to dip his spoon so I could follow. Sweet, spicy and fresh: the fusion hit my taste buds in unison with the crunch of cucumbers and peppers. The tang of vinegar was the exclamation point on the liquid and solid dance. It was delicious: A GARDEN IN A BOWL!
The following year Loie and I went on to a small Boston college. There we became vegetarians mainly because the food was homemade in small batches for just a handful of students. I took up running after junior year in college, quit smoking and moved back to Southampton after graduation.
By then, the Williams had discovered Grafton Village Cheese, a small batch cheese. They periodically ordered a fifty pound wheel of it Vermont and sold five pound pieces at no mark up. They had inspired many to appreciate quality regional foods.
I started organic gardening in 1985. I think of Hal and Flo while I am out in my garden, and how they cultivated my passion for organic living and gardening.
August is the start of Gazpacho season at our house. Flo gave me her recipe nearly forty years ago. Well into September, a large mason jar of this refreshing summer soup stands prepared in our refrigerator. For Flo’s recipe the tomatoes should be slightly soft when lightly pressed. The cucumbers and peppers must be just off the vine crisp and bright. Yellow sweet onions are best, but any will do. These days, I gather ingredients from my own garden and enter my kitchen to make it for seemingly the thousandth time. My newest version adds milky sweet kernels of barely cooked corn, sliced off the cob. It adds color and crunch.
Hal was likely the first organic gardener on the east end of Long Island, now a Mecca for young organic farmers and entrepreneurs. He passed away several years ago in Florida, where they had retired. Missing her hometown, Flo returned to live in the red clapboard house until she had her last meal there in 2012. Making Flo’s delicious gazpacho is my homage to her and Hal. Each time, someone is bound to say, ‘this is the best batch you ever made.”.
Recently, Loie called me from her home outside Boston, Massachusetts. A busy professional, she shops for organic produce at Whole Foods or farmers markets these days.
“I am making the gazpacho” I chirped, setting the phone down and pressing speaker so I could continue to chop cucumbers.
“Ah, Hilly, I love the gazpacho.”