The Gardening Ethos


My grandmother Penny, born 1900, was an instructor at a women’s college in Michigan in the 1920s.  Her subject?  Home economics.  Back then, this really meant something more than the classes that I and so many others had to sit through for a quarter credit in Junior High.  It meant calculating, organizing, and putting into action a plan for feeding and supporting your entire family for the whole year, including getting through the barren winters, which can be colder than a witches’ tit in Michigan.  Her old textbooks include advice on harvesting, canning, butchering, making cheeses, sausages, and everything else that we no longer know how to do.

But there is a movement in the West to re-learn these important human skills.  A friend of mine makes his own sausages.  Another has chickens in a back-yard coop. Here in Levanto we are less inclined to run around after swine and poultry, so we have dedicated ourselves to the art of canning.

Not like we’ve discovered acqua calda, “hot water”, as the Italians like to say.  Throughout the Cinque Terre all of the little hilltop towns are full of older generations who are still doing all of these things.   In my grandmother Ida’s basement, I remember rows and rows of jars and canning equipment, all of which had a musty smell and an eerie sense of being somehow foreign.  But I never saw any of it in use, so the canning practice is new for me.

So far we have canned a no-longer-countable number of jars of orange marmalade, plum jam, sour plum relish, cherry jam, apricot jam, cherry tomatoes, green tomato relish, pickles, and tomato sauce.  On our horizon is eggplant and zucchini in oil, and apple butter.  And all of it comes straight from our land, dug, planted, husbanded, and harvested by us personally.

What do we get from it all?  Aside from food that you know exactly where it comes from and a supply of vegetables and jellies that lasts an entire year, we get satisfaction from it all.  But even better, we learn something very old but for us very new: a connection with the land and with traditions that is healthy for body and soul.

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