Harvest in Howard Beach
An urban, vegetable garden cared by Italian New York immigrants by Anna Piussi Neerman
First published in
The Brooklyn Rail
Brooklyn (NY) Oct 2008
The only pedestrian on the clean-swept sidewalk, I feel lost in an American suburban landscape: rows of tidy houses with front lawns, chain-link fences, driveways, large cars, and ceramic Madonnas in the driveways. Howard Beach is an unknown territory barely visible from airplane windows as they land at JFK.
The Trinchesi family garden covers a large corner plot. The green wall of vegetation which surrounds it barely allows a glimpse of white house beyond. I press the doorbell nearly hidden by the climbing string beans which completely enclose the garden. Beyond the gate is an edible Eden. I spot eggplants, bell peppers, chili peppers and basil, overflowing from half-barrels, pots, buckets, and washtubs along the garden path. The elderly woman who lets me introduces herself as Gilda - she’s from Nola, near Naples, and my urban Florentine ears can barely comprehend her rapid-fire Campanian.
The garden feeds the family: “There’s fifty of us.” She ticks off her fingers her descendants: 5 children, 16 grandchildren, and 12 great-grandchildren with one more on the way. There’s a whole army of tomato plants, too many to count. Not an inch of lawn remains on this plot: all the available ground has been used to grow food.
He grubbed out the old sick trees he’d found and replaced them with fruit trees, turned the lawn into beds and started sowing vegetables
Opposite the vegetables, persimmon and fig trees grow in intervals, supporting a second crop of vegetables: cucumbers, zucchini, flat beans. The path leads to the driveway, which has been transformed into a patio covered by a glorious pergola dripping with grapes and the most extraordinary thin green gourds, some as long as three feet or more. “Cucuzze!” I exclaim. I’ve only seen them grow in Turkey and Southern Italy. I asked Gilda how to cook them. The ice is broken as she launches into a recipe requiring 7 ingredients and half a day, and takes me to see the biggest cucuzza, a 5 foot long monster snaking down the side of a sunshade.
The doorbell rings and she rushes off. I try to note down everything I’ve seen - the rows of fennel, the radicchio growing in a corner, the lettuce topped by sprays of flowerheads turning to seed, the last zucchini that has been left fully mature on a bed of padding atop the pergola. Except for a couple of roses by the front door, the only decorative plants are the pots of verbena surrounding a statue of the Madonna, on the patio. There are hanging red geraniums, but they are artificial, the colored fabric faded by the sun.
Greetings and the loud smacks of kisses on cheeks can be heard from across the house: Joey and Gabrina have brought their toddler Giuliana to visit her great-grandparents, her Nonni. I am introduced to Nonno Luigi, who, at the age of 83, has a handshake that could uproot a tree but holds little Giuliana as delicately as a china doll. The two bask in mutual adoration.
Gabrina acts as an interpreter of her grandparents’ dialect and I learn their story. The Trinchesi family arrived in America in 1965, where Luigi continued to work in contruction and Gilda raised five children. They moved to Howard Beach 13 years ago , where Luigi, retired at 70 from a lifetime of labour, set to work on the garden. He grubbed out the old sick trees he’d found and replaced them with fruit trees, turned the lawn into beds and started sowing vegetables. He brought back many of the seeds from his home town, and grows vegetables which I’ve never even seen in Tuscany like the cucuzza, the delicious Neapolitan broccoli florets, and a mysterious vegetable of steel blue foliage with the baffling name of “Minestra”, literally: Soup.
Nonno Luigi is a man of few, incomprehensible words, but hand gestures, hisses, and raised eyebrows communicate whole sentences to an Italian. We are both gardeners, so we dialogue by raising a leaf, touching a fruit, scratching the soil, or pointing. The soil is very sandy here, it sparkles between the filigree rows of fennel, yet everything is tightly planted and growing richly. I ask how he keeps the soil in good heart, and if there are good sources of manure nearby. Where is the composter?
It strikes me that I’m not really in a garden but on a small-scale southern Italian farm, in the middle of American suburbia.
They used to have rabbits to eat the green waste: “A few rabbits, only about 40 or 50,” until the neighbors complained. Luigi hides a smile, and I’m stifling a giggle thinking of how the farmyard smell must have sat in the sterile suburban street. Joey, who had been picking grapes like a happy Bacchus in a sports shirt, chimes in: “They also used to do prosciutto, and sausage, and capicollo.” “What?” “Sure! We kept the pigs in a farm upstate, we’d go butcher them and then take them back and Nonna cured them here.” Nonna winces recalling all the hard work involved in making prosciutto: curing the huge hams in salt, rubbing them down and turning them daily for a month, pouring out the blood-laden brine.
Pots of tomato sauce are stacked in the cellar, a sprig of basil pressed against the glass side. Nonna Gilda makes the sauce like it’s done in Italy: on a portable gas burner in the garden, in a huge vat. It takes days of cutting tomatoes—which sting your hands raw, pureeing them to remove the skins and seeds, and then boiling them down into a sauce. “I made 300 pots one year” says Nonna. Few women in the family can help her now--they have jobs, children and homes of their own, but they visit, and she’s proud to provide them with vegetables and homemade preserves. Luigi gestures to me, “come here, see the rest.” There are vats of red peppers in vinegar, preserved eggplants, even tiny wild mushrooms in oil. When I enter the main basement, I whistle in admiration: there is a small press, wood barrels, and demi-johns, it’s a fully equipped wine cellar.
At the end of the day, Gilda and Luigi send me away with a bag full of vegetables. The ‘kids’ give me a lift to the train station, and the young couple is so charming that I forget my bag in their car. I sulk all the way back home. For the rest of the week I pretend that I’m too international to feel homesick and lonely. My camera had been broken and many of my pictures were ruined. I ring up Gilda the following Sunday to see if I can visit again with another camera. She gives me an earful and I’m mortified because she’d been worried about me: that I’ve had nothing good to eat since I’d forgotten my bag of vegetables.
In the Trinchesi’s garden, a week has brought the end of summer. A couple eggplants are orange, a cucumber and a squash are held aloft in net bags—they’ve been left to ripen for seed. The tomatoes still stand in serried ranks, but already some green fruits start to show the rot that follows a heavy rain. The wild sprays of seed heads on the lettuce have been gathered, and their bed is clear, ready for the next sowing. The pergola has been picked clean of grapes, and the long pendulum of the cucuzza has gone. I realize that this is what I have come for: to sit and experience the change of the season. The broken camera had just been pretext.
I’m content sitting outside on the garden patio, in the flow of Gilda’s words. I can still make out very little of her tales of love, hardship and hope. It strikes me that I’m not really in a garden but on a small-scale southern Italian farm, in the middle of American suburbia. The plants are part of a chain: part of the Trinchesi family’s story. Luigi’s vegetables support 50 people but the story would not be complete without the rest of the clan rearing animals, preserving food, and raising children. It’s all part of the self-supporting nature of a farm where everything and everybody plays a part.
Outside the bean-covered fence of this family garden, the rest of this Howard Beach neighborhood seems acrylic, fresh out of a box. The evergreens by the front doors are kept pruned, the driveways swept, not a leaf has dropped since my last visit. In the suburban landscape there is nothing to mark seasonal change, no harvest to celebrate, it’s just another hot and humid day. I’m glad I came back to visit the elderly couple. Sitting on their patio I feel at home, in touch with the seasons. The last hot days at the end of summer are just part of the hard logic of the seasons, and we, in the garden, are part of the endless cycle of sowing, growing, reaping and saving seed for the future.