The Blessing of the Hard-Working Man and the Produce Truck: A Food Memoir


Last Sunday, I ventured out with my family and a wonderful friend and her children to Washington D.C.’s Eastern Market, an open-air market filled with handmade jewelry, specialty pickles and at one stand, $150 purses that have been made from recycled library hardback book covers (um, no thanks, unless a portion of the proceeds are going back to the library (which they weren’t)). One of the more prominent areas of the market was, of course, the local fruit and veggie section.

While strolling through the fruits and veggies, I wanted to stop and buy so much, too much—the big, misshapen eggplants, the individual Shitake mushrooms, the fresh-from-the-earth carrots. My refrigerator just doesn’t have enough room and with the busy weeks both past and present, I knew better than to purchase the zucchini that I would just neglect until it was a shriveled mess.

One thing, though: I just couldn’t pass up the tomatoes.

I fished around for three hearty-sized, plump, red tomatoes, no bruising, and proudly marched them over to the vendor, a short and stocky man presumably in his mid-30’s. Standing between two produce scales and a big ol’ white, refrigerated produce truck, he looked like he’d been hard at work all day. Still, as I approached, he looked directly at me and offered a smile. “How ya’ doin’?”

“Um, I don’t have a bag for these.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it. I’ll get you a bag. I’ll get you a bag,” he kindly insisted. “We’ll just put them right up on the scale.”

I gently handed them over like I was passing over three fragile flowers. He placed them on the scale. “$5.30,” he flashed another friendly smile.

Expensive, yes, but worth it.

If I passed on the tomatoes, I’d be passing up the memory of my daddy.

I can still vividly recall those days when my daddy and I hustled down to the New Orleans French Market in a white, refrigerated produce truck. We’d cross over the Pontchartrain Bridge into Metairie from the North Shore and merge onto I-10 to get downtown New Orleans, where the outside of shops constantly bore a thin layer of dirt, where folks from all over the world weaved in and out of tourist-driven shops, where people stood frozen and painted silver, just for a dime, on sidewalks that had been built and settled over a hundred years prior.

Back on the North Shore, my dad and his best friend, Reuben, grew and sold their own watermelons (and other things they could get their hands on) for a short time, and when it was time to haul them over to the French Market, my daddy would command, “Get in, Kid. Daddy has to go somewhere and you’re coming with him.”

In the years surrounding these short-lived entrepreneurial bouts with produce and other odds and ends, my dad was “the white-bearded man who drove the 18-wheeler.” He drove for years upon years, around Louisiana, around the Deep South, around the United States. Sometimes I’d get to go with him for a week or a summer at a time, and at every stop, he’d always introduce me as “My Daughter, Mee-chelle.” As any child might do, I’m sure there were times when I drove him bonkers, but when he’d introduce me, he always did it with a certain amount of pride that only a parent could do. He always introduced me, too, even to people who clearly showed no interest; I never stood around as the unknown girl.

Both my mama and my daddy were always hard workers while I was coming-of-age. They didn’t question work (in front of me, at least, or not that I can remember); they just worked, but my daddy always worked like a slug climbing a steep mountainside. When he took me on cross-country road trips, he drove down long, black corridors for hundreds of miles to ensure we’d reach our destination by his boss’s deadline. There were a few times when snow or interstate crashes prevented us from making the goal but only a few. Many times, when we’d finally arrive at our destination, no men were around to unload the freight. My daddy would set me up with food, the CB, and the A/C. He’d then carry what had to be his around 250 pound, out-of-shape frame to the back of the trailer. There, he’d spend hours unloading literally tons of freight, sometimes by hand, sometimes, if lucky, with a forklift, often with the help of only one other warehouse guy. That was his cross-country life.

Every once in a while, he’d quit that cross-country life hoping for something better, easier, closer. This is when he’d capitalize on his entrepreneurial spirit and what he knew about produce . . . and take me on some of his work-related ventures. On the days when it was time to market his produce, my daddy loaded all of his fruits and vegetables into the back of his produce truck and set forth, even though he did not even know if the vendors would want his product.

On one overcast morning, after one-and-a-half hours of driving, he pulled up to the side of the French Market and directed me to “sit and wait, Kid.” We’d already discussed on the way there that he hadn’t yet sold what we were hauling and that he didn’t know if the people would even want it. They’d have to have the need and inspect it first.

While he’d go talk to the vendors, I bit my nails and shuffled around, tossing the radio dial to and fro. I could be waiting as few as five minutes or as long as twenty. What if the vendors didn’t want my daddy’s hard work?

After some time, my dad climbed back into the truck and didn’t say a word.

“Well?” I asked.

He swiftly put the truck into reverse and began to swerve the steering wheel. He looked over and smiled, “Yeah, Kid. They want it. Not all of it, but we sold some.” I must’ve looked relieved. “What? You thought they wouldn’t? Daddy knew they would. You don’t need to worry, Kid.”

Of course, years later, I feel confident that he didn’t know. There was so much he was clearly never sure of while working in any of his professions—whether his watermelons and other produce would yield, whether his next paycheck was arriving on time or at all and whether he’d make it over the next bridge safely. He could be sure that he’d be doing whatever to maintain his pride. My dad’s pride was in his work ethic. He made a number of poor business decisions, but he always took a chance and worked hard at it, no matter how wonderful or dismal that chance was turning out to be.

Last Sunday, I was lucky to be able to get out into the open air with good family and friends and to have time enough to do something as casual and as innocent as strolling through produce on a Sunday afternoon. When I saw the plump tomatoes, the hard-working vendor and the white, refrigerated produce truck, though, my casual stroll conjured up a lost memory. Lucky no longer would be the right word to use. Rather, I’d have to use meant. I do believe in fate.

What one food item brings back a memory of one of your parents? Share it in the comments section. I’d love to hear it.

Sliced Tomato (recipe provided to you by Tongue-in-Cheek)

Ingredients:

  • Fresh tomato (In all honesty, the freshest ones are produced in the summer time. See below for fall fruits and veggies and get inspired to eat some of them raw as well.*)

  • Salt and pepper, to taste

LET’S DO THIS!!

  1. Slice your tomato into medium-thick slices using a sharp knife.
  2. Sprinkle with salt and pepper
  3. Eat!

Happy Eating! Happy Cooking!

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