Wednesday, February 6, 2013

My Grandfather's Garden

 “The sacred is in the ordinary…to be looking elsewhere for miracles is a sure sign of ignorance…everything is miraculous.” Abraham Maslow

We spent Super Bowl weekend traveling to my paternal Grandparent's house located in my former hometown of many years, Clovis, California. I love how excited my son Icaro (aka, "Ico"), always gets when I tell him we are making the trip; he adores them both, and boy do they adore him. It is in this place, the living heartbeat of our entire family, that the parents, children, Grandchildren and now Great Grandchildren (12 of them!) are all safely Home. To say my Grandparents have always been a fountain of unconditional love in my life would be an understatement, and to be truthful, I credit all that is good in me with their continuous example of how to treat others, both blood family and extended Kin. My Grandmother is, in my eyes, a living Saint. She is the type of person who, throughout most of her 70's and 80's refused to use her husband's handicapped placard to park the car, simply and emphatically because "Someone else needs it more than me". I'm going to blog about my Grandmother more in time, there is much to write about, but for now, this particular entry is more about my Grandfather, James Parisi.

There are many stories to tell about my Grandfather. Some are terrifying, like how the core of a man's character will be tested in the bombed foxholes of WW2 New Guinea. Some are just awe-inspiring and miraculous, like how dolphins in the South Pacific pulled his downed-pilot buddies safely to shore. And then there are some that are, well, just kinda' funny. This weekend, I was once again reminded as to why I will never get a tattoo. This is something I really wanted to do, twenty five years ago. I remember quite clearly, the day I showed up at their house feeling energized and empowered to draw on paper the only ink I had ever known growing up, a "heart and thorns" design on my Grandfather's arm. Memories of being by his side, marveling at the mysterious symbol so permanent and resilient, had come to represent what my Grandfather meant to me. Consistency. Truth. Strength. Safety.  How awesome of an idea it was to transfer his ink to my own arm, as way to keep this memory alive and interesting, throughout my life, and maybe even as a gift to my own Grandchildren as well. Nice intention, but….He laughed when I told him my plan, and begged me to look at the design with a bit more focus on the details. Sure enough, the only ink I'd ever admired (heck, even my rock star heroes don't do it) was a cover job hiding some woman's name that was definitely not my Grandmother's. Ah well. In that very moment, my desire to permanently mark myself died a swift and mostly humorous death.

But the story I really want to tell is about my Grandfather's garden. He's almost 93 now and sharp as a tack, capable of carrying on extraordinary (if a bit crotchety) conversations on just about any subject. He's one of those guys who tends to know a lot about a lot. But his true expertise, through a lifetime of practice-makes-perfect, is in the arena of gardening. Gardening for food, specifically. Having been alive through both World Wars and The Great Depression, my Grandfather has spent his entire adult life making sure that, if necessary, he could provide for his family by living off the land. Having only one leg has not slowed him down much either, as he has made his own specialized tools to build and tend his garden from the confines of a wheelchair. Did I mention he is also an expert carpenter and welder? 

This weekend was sunny and temperate (rare for the area) and we all spent a good bit of time outdoors in the garden. While my son and nieces played, I casually inventoried the fruits and vegetable crops harvested every year on my Grandparent's relatively small piece of land. The list was enormous: Oranges, grapefruits, lemons, peaches, apples, pears, zucchini, squash, eggplant, olives, walnuts, almonds, pecans, grapes, figs, tomatoes, kale, onions, various bitter greens, a variety of herbs, and about 3 or 4 different kinds of peppers. Amazing…and I missed a few, I'm sure.

So if you know me personally, here's where the story gets yummy. My Grandparents do a fair amount of processing and canning of their harvest, especially the Italian "staples" like tomatoes, olives and our family's pride and culinary joy, Grandpa Parisi's Italian Bread Salsa. That's what I call it anyway, everyone else just calls them "Grandpa's peppers". Now, I'm not one to brag but lets just say, there are some things far beyond what money can buy, and this particular Italian delicacy is one of them. So good, in fact, that an Italian chef from San Francisco called them, "one of the most delicious appetizers I've ever tasted". If you know La Vie' here in Santa Cruz, you may also know the owner, my yoga buddy Yeyen, who also sang the praises (while fighting for the last bite of what was left). As a family, we have enjoyed this dish during nearly every collective lunch or dinner, and our friends will attest, this is one of the tastiest Mediterranean bread toppings on the planet, so rich and dense with flavor, just one bite fills the senses with OMG, Oooooh and Aaahhhh. There's nothing else like it.

And now, for the first time ever, I am going to reveal the full list of ingredients for all to know, in their entirety. This is a big deal, so hold on tight, here it goes. Seriously folks, this is like winning round-trip tickets to Italy, I swear. Ready? Ok…

Tomatoes. Peppers. Olive oil. Salt.

There you go.  Now you to can enjoy Grandpa Parisi's Italian Bread Salsa.

So, yes I'm teasing a bit, but here's the point: When the intention is clear, and knowledge is integrated with heart, the simplest ingredients create the most beautiful experiences.

Integrity. Passion. Loving care in what you do. Respecting what you have. Giving from the heart. These are the priceless intentions that transform the ordinary into the Extraordinary, and money can't buy a single one of them. These days, so many of us surround ourselves with more and more options, gadgets, toys (guilty!) as a method to expand our horizons, as apposed to refining and perfecting the life we already have. I like to think that maybe, like my Grandfather's garden, which starts with nothing more than dirt, seed and a deep love for family, I might be able to create something amazing in this life, beyond the sum of its parts. The simple trick is to take the time and really see the potential for what is here and now, engage with a full heart, and be patient for the sweet fullness that's waiting to be revealed. The grass is always greener where you water it. This is the legacy of my Grandfather, the real tattoo that I wanted, all those years ago.

This weekend, James Parisi announced that he may not plant his garden come spring. This would be a first, and not one that any of us is looking forward to. He is going blind, becoming increasingly less agile and is more accident prone. It breaks my heart, as I know it breaks his, to finally meet his match in the form of a deeply worn body. He's one of the toughest men I've ever known, and his admission that the garden he loves so much has become too difficult to manage at 93 years old just makes even stronger. This is not an ending however, but hand-written chapter in the autobiography of a life well lived.

It reminds us, his family and the Harvest of His Garden, to step up and step in to the sacredness of our own simple miracles.

1 quart of Grandpa Parisi's Italian Bread Salsa:

32 ounces of peeled, cored organic tomatoes.
32 ounces of mild chili-peppers (the long skinny ones) cut into halves, ends removed.
Jalapeno peppers as needed for heat, cut into halves, ends removed.
    (note, the larger the Jalapeno, the less heat it will contain)
1 pint of extra virgin organic olive oil.
salt, as needed

Heat a small amount of olive oil (just enough to cover the bottom of the pan) to a simmering boil.
Add halved chilies, and fry like bacon strips…remove when browned on both sides and place on a plate with absorbent towel underneath (to catch excess oil)
Do the same with the Jalapeno peppers, only fry as many as you think you can handle in a quart, but at least one is recommended.
In the same pan, add tomatoes and about half of what's left of the olive oil. Slow simmer to a boil.
Cut peppers into 3-4" sections, and add to tomatoes.
Simmer, stir, and add the remainder of the olive oil in small amounts, for about twenty minutes.
Keep some good sourdough bread nearby and dip to taste….add salt as needed.

Best eaten fresh of course, but Grandpa Parisi's Italian Bread Salsa can be stored in a glass jar and reheated.

Bon Appétit

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