Monday, July 1, 2013


  Fingers digging down into dirt, pressing into the earth, black quarter moons wedged under nails. Dirt scattered across the floor paying no attention to the newspaper spread across the wood parquet, lumps chased willy-nilly, scooped up and pushed back into terra cotta pots. Irreverent. Tiny plants bursting with fragrant leaves, he grasps each bundle of roots tenderly and tucks them one by one into the holes he has fashioned. Basil, rosemary, thyme and chives cupped in the dirt, his long, tapered fingers gather the damp earth around the base of each plant and pat it into place.

 Basil, rosemary, thyme and chives just out the window, free for the taking. I only had to push my face down into the herbs to breath in the scent of the earth and feel as if I lived in the country. I pinch off branches and carry them inside, a fine dusting of dirt across the old, cracked cutting board.

 Potatoes, beets, onions, roots pulled from the dirt, the basis of the earthy cuisine of my ancestors. Old leather shoes slogging through the dust and mud, I can only imagine the picture, dirty shoes leaving traces on the dirt road. Baskets loaded down with vegetables, a cornucopia of roots in the colors of the earth, shades of brown, laden with dirt. Cabbage leaves rinsed in basins of water for soup, potatoes washed of debris and grated with bared onions for latkes, beets transformed into borscht… washing away the dirt of centuries of shtetl life must have been quasi-religious, redolent of symbolism.

 Turnips, radishes and carrots, heads of cabbage and baskets of spinach, roots and leaves the staple of my peoples’ diet. Yet with what joy did they dine! Carrot tzimmis, potato kugel, onion bialy, cabbage soup. Today I weigh handfuls of one or the other, feel the heft, years of dirt and tears. Today I gather these same ingredients and I think about the days and nights passed in Russia as I rinse away the dirt and prepare my own wealthier version of these ancestral foods and partake with joy.

 One old photograph of my great-grandmother dressed all in black, imposing figure, stern, steady, serious look on a face framed and graced by an elegant white collar. Her young daughter stands at her side, her innocence dressed in pale gray. Youthful, girlish bow perched atop her flowing locks. Staring into the camera, a much-too-adult gaze. The daughter leans against a small table covered in a lace doily upon which sits a potted plant and books, the signs of a comfortable, educated family. The wall behind is wood, stacks of logs form their house in that old Russian village at the beginning of last century. Family lore has it that they were wealthy mill owners, grinding flour and distilling schnapps. The children were well read and multilingual, even the daughters, which truly was a sign of their place in society, the ease of their life. Before the turn. Before it was all taken away. Yet under their feet in this fading sepia-toned photograph is dirt. A dirt floor pounded down and swept clean, a dirt floor upon which this stout, tough old woman could spit with abandon, as was her way. That dirt floor, a bit of my heritage, coursing through my blood.

 Used to the bright lights, the scrubbed and sterilized modernity and the rows of boxes, the perfect pyramids of waxed fruits and clean vegetables of American grocery stores, my introduction to the French market was nothing short of culture shock. Pushing my way through the narrow alley that was Rue Mouffetard in Paris on market day or through the throngs of people hovering between stalls in any other town, I stared at the blood red carcasses hanging behind butchers’ counters, watched uncomfortably as vendors scooped up fruits, bagged loafs of bread and cut cheese with their bare, ungloved hands and let loose a shrill shriek when I noticed that rabbits were sold with their heads still firmly on their shoulders.

 Once home, I would dump my purchases out on the table to admire the farm fresh quality of the peaches, the apricots and the tomatoes; I would breath in the cool, tangy odor of goat cheese, peel back the hand-wrapped white paper to release the nutty scent of a hand cut comté; an ahhh would slip from between my lips at the dense resistance, the crisp crackle of the crust as I imposed a gentle pressure on a just-baked baguette.

 I would carry the cool lettuce, une laitue, romaine or feuille de chêne over to the sink and begin to pull apart the leaves, images of a mixed salad dancing through my head, shiny red tomatoes and carrots lined up awaiting their turn. And I would be faced with what appeared to be an entire garden… black earth clung to leaves in clumps that apparently no amount of rinsing would loosen. And tiny black slugs or a thousand gnat-like creatures like fairy dust would be stuck body and soul to each leave. Soak, rinse, soak, rinse. Nothing seemed to work, even as the clear water turned cloudy with bugs, even as a garden’s worth of dirt sunk to the bottom of the sink, impossible to rinse away.

 I discovered that carrots were sold both cleaned and straight from the ground, encrusted with enough dirt to leave a farm’s worth on the bottom of one’s shopping basket, a trail through the kitchen, a nubbly heap on the counter top. Thick, burly carrots, not as pretty or as uniform as those plastic bags packed with the bright, even, symmetrical neon orange carrots of my American youth, some short and stubby, some bent at odd angles like witches’ fingers. Brush off the dirt, scrub under water, rub and scratch until the dull orange of a real carrot is revealed under all of that dirt.

 Improvised picnic on the side of the road, brushing grit and dirt from chunks of Camembert and the sticky flesh of peaches and waving away flies from paper cups of wine.

 Ice cream on the beach… sand or dirt? Feet hosed down on the front porch. Sticky fingers itchy with dirt.

 Little boys rolling around in the dirt on the playground or in the field that stretches out away from the house like hogs in mud. A trail of dirt accompanies them into the house, across the kitchen floor as they clamor for lunch. Standing on tip-toe, tiny hands under the running water, swirls of dirt eddy down the drain.

 Grandpère’s garden. 6 little boys trailing after their grandfather along the dirt lane between the old stone houses on one side, the lush green potagers, kitchen gardens, on the other. 6 little boys following in grandfather’s footsteps, skipping, dashing back and forth, kicking up dirt and dust, excited to be out in the country, hard to contain 6 little souls.

 6 little boys playing in the dirt. He shows them how to dig up potatoes, finding the ones that peep above the surface, scratching in the dirt and scooping them up one by one, plopping them into the old rattan basket, to be turned into frites or purée. He lets them squat in the dirt between rows of lush, low green plants and pull off the strawberries, only the red ones, mind you, one for the basket, one popped into the mouth, little boys worrying not one dot about the dirt clinging to the fruit. 6 serious little faces listen attentively as he shows them the green beans dangling from vines, explaining how to gather them. 6 little boys gathered around “the pond” used to water the plants, turning dirt into mud, laughing and jostling each other much to grandpère’s delight. Together they dig up onions and garlic, lettuce and carrots. They pick raspberries and snip herbs and chase each other joyously up and down the length of the garden plot, back and forth between rows of the food that grandmère will bring to the table as lunch or dinner, little hands helping in the kitchen.

 6 little boys trudge, tired and dirty, back to the house, this time pushed and carried and encouraged along by grandpère. Shall they be shuffled into the shower, one by one, or shall they just be allowed to splash and play in the plastic swimming pool, the better to rinse off the dirt, tiring them out even more and guaranteeing they sleep the night through? Popsicles all around, glasses of sticky grenadine syrup mixed with cold water, held in grubby, dirty little hands.

 There is nothing finer in the summer months than a cool, crunchy salad seasoned with a clean, tangy, fresh dressing. We love this raw salad, healthy and satisfying, as a light lunch or dinner eaten with the windows thrown open to catch the summer breeze.  Easy to prepare, simply bring in the best of the garden, slice and shred, toss with the dressing and enjoy. From dirt to table in no time at all. This salad also makes the perfect side dish for a picnic or summer barbecue.

1 serving, a sketch

1 cucumber
1 carrot
2 radishes
1 piece of cauliflower
1 tbsp sesame seeds, toasted if you are unorthodox

2 tbsp parsley, finely chopped
1 tbsp spring onion, finely chopped
1 pinch of salt
1 tsp vinegar
2 tbsp extra- virgin olive oil

   You need to use the finest shredder/slicer on a mandolin on all the vegetables; shred the carrot and cucumber finely and slice the cauliflower and the radishes finely. Put in a small bowl and mix.

   Mix the ingredients for the dressing and drizzle over the salad and dust with sesame seeds. Taste and season with salt if needed.


  1. I wish I had a garden! Dirty vegetables stay fresh longer and are so much more satisfying than the sterilized and scrubbed ones one can find in stores. That's why I love to go to the market whenever I can...

    I love Ilva's earthy clicks, Jamie's magnificent text and this deliciously summery salad!



  2. Fantastic point - Earth and Dirt in all i'ts manifestations has such memories - To me, the scent of Monsoon drenched earth with it's moist humid aroma takes me home to Pakistan - love this post x

  3. Best yet. You both made me cry. <3

  4. Stellar writing to stunning photography. I loved the description of dirt under the fingernails and I long for produce adorned with earthy blemishes. Brava ladies!