By Leigh Lockhart
I have planted a garden every season for 13 years. The first few were motivated by a simple desire to grow some of my own food. I rented a farmhouse in Hartsburg and just started digging. I still remember how it felt (and tasted!) to eat that first radish I had grown myself. As any gardener can attest, some seasons were better than others, but regardless, I was hooked. The physical labor, being outdoors, the delicious rewards all made gardening a labor of love.
When I opened Main Squeeze in 1998 I tried to grow at least some of the produce we served at the café. I concentrated on the things I did well: tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, zucchini, beans. I bought a house in town and began tearing up more and more backyard to dedicate to garden space. When I tell a customer that the produce they are enjoying came from my garden, grown in the café’s composted food waste, well, that’s just the best, best feeling.
In 2008 my gardening efforts turned more serious as the economy worsened. I planned that season’s garden more carefully, fearing that for the first time, the garden HAD TO PRODUCE. With the help of friends that summer we had a great garden, even had enough tomatoes to sell extras at the cafe. We love to support local farmers, but providing produce from my garden helped the bottom line so I began planning for the following season, bigger and better than ever.
When my dad died suddenly in December 2008 and the economy had my business teetering on the brink, I considered my next garden. I didn’t even want to do it. Growing $500 worth of tomatoes wasn’t going to save Main Squeeze and frankly, after losing dad, I couldn’t see the point in the labors of gardening, or much else. All winter I paged unenthusiastically thru seed catalogs, but failed to order any. Or do anything else to prepare for the upcoming season. With the help of friends I managed to put in tomatoes, cucumbers and beans, but most of it rotted on the vine, a metaphor for how I felt about losing dad. I couldn’t envision the day when I would want to garden again.
As a hospital chaplain and grief counselor Daddy knew how to offer the deepest kind of compassion and comfort, the kind that really healed people. So I relied on his words to help pull me out. “Time, tears and talking” he would say, and by this spring I was buying seeds. I spent many solitary hours digging in the dirt this spring and it seemed with every new bed built, every seed planted, every plant staked and trellised, every tomato harvested, I felt more and more my old self. As the plants grew taller I could feel myself healing, even having moments of joy, like the warm June evening when a neighbor played Amazing Grace on the bagpipes. I felt Daddy right there beside me in the dirt and it was magical.
You can bury a lot of troubles digging in the dirt, that’s for sure. Next year I will grow beets. Lots and lots of beets because these were his favorite. I will roast them, top them with Goatsbeard Farm Moniteau Blue Cheese, maybe some crushed walnuts and lemon. I will serve them with ice cold buttermilk, cornbread and tomatoes. Closer to daddy and heaven never will I be.
Leigh is a culinary wonder and owner of Main Squeeze Natural Foods Cafe in Downtown Columbia
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