I was listening to On Being with Krista Tippett this morning on my way to church, and the interview was with Chef Dan Barber, who was talking about growing heirloom varieties of vegetables and eating according to the model of a sustainable ecosystem based on where you live. I don't want to go into too much detail because surely my retelling of the interview would be far more boring and far less eloquent than what you can find here.
What I want to write about it one particular phrase that he used when talking about growing carrots through the winter, which apparently can give them a great deal of sweetness. Look at what he says:
best root vegetables have to go through intense freezes to get the
sugar. To get the root vegetables that all of us adore, the beets and
the parsnips and the celery root, the carrots, for sure, these need to
be stressed under several hard freezes."
Barber investigates the sugar content of some carrots he grew, finding that they have 13.8 percent sugar, in contrast to other organically grown carrots his restaurant has used in the past, which had 0% sugar content. He is on a mission to figure out what's going on.
"So I finally got to a plant physiologist that I sort of fell in love
with. He's a part-time poet. And what he said to me was very poetic and I
think right to the point. He said, 'The carrot is converting its
starches to sugars because, in those hard freezes, it doesn't want ice
crystallization. Because if it gets ice crystallization, it dies.' Then
what he ended with is that what you're tasting is sweetness, but what
the plant — what [the carrot] — is telling you is that it doesn't want
I heard this and I started to cry. Like, waterworks crying, tears coming from a place I couldn't control crying. Don't-mess-up-the-makeup-on-the-way-to-church crying.
Why was I crying over carrots?
Because in the last significant conversation I had with my dad before he died, on the day (Monday) after Easter, I confessed to him that it had taken me until the day before to finally get it, that he wouldn't survive the leukemia. I told him that when he was first diagnosed, I thought it would be tough, but it would sort of also be a gift to us, the time when he was in the hospital and we would be able to visit together. I thought it would be like it was after he had his stroke back in 2000, and I visited him every day after my Spanish mini-mester in college.
I said, "I thought it would be a sweet time, but if you're going to die, then it's not a sweet time, it's a sad time."
And he said, tearing up, wiping his eyes with the washcloth he was using as a cool compress to soothe him in his fever, he said, "It is a sweet time. It is a sweet time."
And it was. It was a sweet time, because it was the last chunk of real, uninterrupted, dedicated time that he and I had together. I didn't know how sweet it was.
What we were tasting was sweetness, but what it was also telling us was that we didn't want him to die.
We didn't get our way, but it still was sweet.