by Teresa Vanek
Forget all those pretty pictures you’ve seen of a farm family feasting in the orchard or grape arbor at a long table spread with linens and elaborate preparations of the seasonal bounty. When we stagger in from the fields for mid-summer meals, we’re lucky if we remember to stuff a fistful of anything green into our pockets. By the end of the day, we might be able to muster enough energy to cook a one-pot meal, but the chances of a salad getting made are slim to none (calories are king to us farmers), and any dinner invitations mid-season are strictly limited to potlucks.
Don’t get me wrong, while we don’t cook many vegetables—we eat plenty. I have a bad habit of eating a whole lot of green beans as I hunch my way down the rows. And who knew that a purple-top turnip just moments out of the ground is as crisp and sweet as any apple? Every year as our muskmelons and watermelons teeter at the edge of ripeness, Brent hops around the vines knife in hand, verifying the readiness of the fruit by sampling from up to a dozen. It sounds sweet, but this is a kind of purgatory for him; he loves a good cantaloupe but doesn’t care at all for watermelon.
When it comes to harvesting that first ripe tomato, we wait with as much anticipation as anyone. But for us, the love affair doesn’t last long. When you pick several hundred tomato plants at least a couple of times a week, your hands and forearms get so saturated with the yellowish-green resin that they start to itch and burn. You can’t wait to scrub yourself clean of that peculiar tomato plant smell.
But even when my tomato-love is at its lowest ebb, I still appreciate what a slice of the juicy, red fruit can do for that culinary classic that we seem to eat with embarrassing regularity during summer, the grilled cheese sandwich.
And now that we’ve added a cheesemonster, I mean toddler, to the family, a good grilled cheese is crucial. Toddler/ Cheesemonster dinner hour comes before anything reasonably healthy can be prepared and by 4:30 we are facing a melting boy who needs nourishment fast.
Out comes the 10 pound cast-iron pan, enough slices of bread for all three of us, some shavings from a hunk of cheddar that a cheese vendor at the market was kind enough to send me home with, slices of the red tomatoes we can’t get away from and enough pats of butter to grease the pan and the bread.
A little heat under the pan and ten minutes later we are all on the porch, legs dangling over the side, with dinner in hand. We watch the chickens dash about in their pen, we notice the garlic rows that need weeding, the carrot tops that are poking through the earth and I stare wistfully at the pear tree that might actually give us more than two pears this year as we bite into greasy pieces of bread and gooey cheese. The tomato juice runs down Milan’s chin and he wipes it with his shirtsleeve and I wonder where he learned to do that. Sated, he wanders off to torment the dog and we get back to work. It’s a gritty gourmet, but it’s still dinner and we ate it together. All hail the grilled cheese sandwich, that great unifier and savior of mealtime on the farm during harvest season.
Native Ithacan Teresa Vanek farms with her husband, Brent Welch, at Red Tail Farm in Jacksonville.
This article was first published in the Summer 2011 issue of the magazine