Art of The Informal Italian Food Feast Garden

The Vegetable Gardens Grown by Italian Immigrants During The 50's and 60's. 
My personal recollections...

My earliest experience with Italian Food Gardens began with my grandmother's clay pot garden of 1 tomato plant and lots of herbs on her NYC fire escape. If you're not familiar with the city fire escape, it's a long set of rusty, rickety, clunking, shaky metal stairs facing an alley behind your apartment house with a platform for standing, and that is supposed to save your life in a multi-story fire. When fleeing from a fire via windows was not an option you wished to pursue. They weren't just for escape.... the firemen used them to reach the apartments and people on the upper floors in a building.

One set of stairs led to the one on the floor beneath, and then the one beneath, and so on until you jumped near the bottom (they never quite touched the ground) and landed on the sidewalk. Sometimes on your feet. Mostly not. That was supposed to be your escape. These were, and probably are still law in NYC. The escape was directly outside your apartment window. But, when New Yorkers weren't sleeping on them during summer heatwaves ala no a.c. and stifling, stale air in the apartment, we cluttered them up with pots of stuff and toys, and many times this stuff would fall from their platforms and bean someone on the sidewalk below. Just like in sitcoms and cartoons. Thank goodness there was never a fire to escape from, because there were big clay pots and buckets filled with water or growing things that would seriously impede your escape, even if you were the nimblest of gymnasts or a Flying Wallenda.

Grandma had emigrated from Italy with several family members, and it was just about mandatory to grow basil, oregano, tomatoes, or whatever-have-you wherever you could, so that they could make their Sunday sauce with fresh Italian herbs and ingredients. I've never seen my grandmother open a can or jar, unless there were anchovies in them, or hot peppers in the winter. She came from a farming family, working their olive grove they produced the olives for olive oil. Great Grandma ran the farm. In fact, most of the farming and cooking chores were done by the women. The Great Grandmas on both sides of my mother's family lived to the ages of 100 and 101. In those days of hardship, i consider that quite amazing. Although fresh air, sunshine, the Mediterranean diet, little or no preservatives, zero fast food, and hard work probably contributed to their longevity. I try to adhere to the Mediterranean diet myself, because I love that food. And it's pretty easy, because that was that diet that i was raised on. I still find meat to be too heavy and far inferior to vegetables and fruit. Calling it a meatball won't change my mind.

There were plentiful produce stands owned by Italians in the neighborhoods for those purists who lacked their own gardens. The small plants confined to pots were a poor substitute for the agriculture culture they left behind in Italy. But they made do.  Lots of would-be outdoor gardeners used these fire escape platforms and windowsills for mini gardens. When I visited, I had to see and smell those plants. I was allowed to pick a basil leaf, squish it in my hands and smell the oils from the herb that made Italian Sunday dinners Italian.. I knew i had to have a garden someday. I'm still obsessed with basil.... in the garden and on the windowsills in winter. I wouldn't dream of making homemade sauce and Caprese Salads without it. To this day, I never pass by a basil plant without taking a pinch, squishing it in my hands, and sniffing it.

I grew up in NYC, and always lived in apartments with no access to a backyard. That was reserved for your landlord/lady. I never experienced a real garden or gardening until i moved to Pennsylvania. To me, it looked like one big garden. As a child, I used to look down at our landlady's garden in Brooklyn, through the grimy kitchen window of the apartment, and wished i could be outside among the growing things, digging in the dirt and eating those bumper crops of figs. When I was still a child, we had moved to what folks believed to be the suburbs of Manhattan, across the river in Bensonhurst, south Brooklyn, near the not-yet-built Verazzano Bridge, which was quite an infamous Little Italy of it's own at the time. It was predominantly Italian and, and of course, there were lots of Italian gardens, big and small. 

I think the badge of honor was the fig tree growing from the cuttings many of the immigrants smuggled in from italy just for the possibility of planting it in a garden they planned to have, should they get to own a home. As tiny as backyards were in the city, the fig tree was squeezed in, if at all possible, and it became the centerpiece and king of the Italian garden. I remember the pruning and over-wintering rituals performed on small trees before winter, when the man/men of the family dug trenches, bent the tree and branches, almost upending them, and laid the fig trees down, covering with dirt and burlap. I never asked why and never figured it out. I'm sure it had something to do with survival. I also remember that tree-staking apparatus that almost all city trees were propped straight up with, that looked like cables with a rubber hot dog on it, and the burlap shrouds on all the garden trees and shrubs.

If the fig was king in the garden, the grapevine was queen. My persistent sneak-thievery told me that everyone who had grapevines were growing the red or purple grapes that had those inedible and annoying seeds. But that fig tree..... our landlady would bring up a big bowl of them after the harvest. I was absolutely hooked on them. And I admired the fig tree's strength in making it through nasty northeast winters, air pollution and city grime and still faithfully producing a whole lot of sweet fruit.

As i was growing up across the river from Manahattan, we still spent lots of time in  grandma's apartment, and i always visited the clay pot garden, until they moved to the "suburb" called Queens, and grandma got her full-sized garden. An enormous amount of food with their Italian names like "finocchio" (fennel) and "broccoli rabe" (pronounced Broccoli Rob) and Cima Di Rapa, another cousin of broccoli, was growing on every inch. The city garden wasn't large, but it was Eden compared to the fire escapes and windowsills. I am quite sure that anything that could possibly be cooked in olive oil and garlic was grown in the gardens.

I saw many Italian gardens, and everyone seemed to grow traditional Italian vegetables and herbs. If they could grow cows, pigs and chickens on a shrub or in a clay pot, they would have. And they would have been totally self-sufficient, just as they were on their farms. I never witnessed a small Italian in-ground garden. If you were going to grow a garden, you went big. They were all over-stuffed with food. Their methods of gardening were interesting, as well. They didn't baby anything, but they did beat the weeds senseless with a hoe before ripping them out, putting an Italian curse on them, and putting them into paper bags for trash. I never saw chemicals being used. The Italian Garden i speak of is not the beautiful eye candy you see in photos of Mediterranean Gardens. Or formally geometric, like the French Potager Kitchen Garden. It was not meant to be decorative, it was purely functional. It was all about the food.

They always over-planted. Always.
Sometimes, i think it was on purpose. I saw many an older Italian  lady shlepping big paper shopping bags (one in each hand) filled with extra produce and herbs stuffed into jars of olive oil, sauce or vinegar, to give away to neighbors and relatives. That food delivery ended with a sit-down and a very verbose visit, which included peculiar Italian sign language spoken with flailing hands for punctuation. Fall produce took the place of the obligatory hostess gift of Italian pastries whenever you were invited by anyone for coffee, cake and gossip in the evening. 

I saw a lot of jars of the remains of crops on cupboard shelves, but not once did i see the proper Ball canning jar with the seal to prevent poisoning. A lot of stuff was crammed into recycled barrel pickle jars or commercial sized jars of who knows what came before. I passed on taking or eating those.... but they did eat them, and apparently weren't murdered by botulism. I guess most of the food was meant for eating regularly and eaten now. So into fridges or cold cellars they went. Nobody I knew froze their produce, because every meal was a feast for many, and a food marathon you had to train for. Freshly made, and cooked all day. And if anything was still sitting on the table or on your plate after a gigantic meal, the Italian Matriarch hostessing your dinner would be aghast and highly insulted. You didn't want to be the person she spotted with food still left on the plate. You were guilted into obesity and dyspepsia.

Seeds from the garden were saved for the next planting season. The gardeners believed that everything they grew successfully was a past or future heirloom that needed protection from extinction. Many Italians brought seeds of their best plants over from Italy.... the ones that belonged to vegetables that had decades of successful bumper crops. Some seeds were descendants of a century-old plant. Hoarding of seeds was encouraged. I clearly remember Italian ritual of bestowing favorite seeds upon you, if they liked you. Out pops a damp napkin with mystery seeds enclosed. And a promise that they were the best seeds you'll never get your hands on otherwise. Gifting was as ritualistic as the Queen bestowing knighthood upon a peasant. Lots of seeds made it over from Italy hidden in pockets, undetected by nosey customs authorities. I never knew an Italian who purchased plants when I was growing up. I don't remember ever seeing a garden center within the city. Although many gardeners had been given extra plants by their gardening friends and family in the suburbs to adopt and try them in their clay pots or gardens. Seeds waiting for the end of winter grew in clay pots in the basement near a boiler, or on a tray over a radiator to warm them and get them ready to turn into the plants that went into the garden at the proper time in the spring. 

Most of the gardens i became acquainted with had the same types of vegetables growing in them. I remember taking my first bite of fennel.... i was the girl who loved the black jelly beans. The fennel reminded me of that and the anisette toast and anisette sponge cookies i dunked into any beverage.... Stella D'oro, of course.

Here's the plant list i came up with of the most common veggies and herbs I saw growing in all sizes of in-ground Italian gardens. If there was a way for these to grow in pots in city apartments, they were grown wherever there was a sill or shelf with just a beam of sunlight.

Artichokes, garlic, onions or scallions, parsley, oregano, fennel, Genovese basil, bell peppers, sweet italian frying peppers, hot frying peppers, pole beans, eggplants, melons, fava beans, radicchio (Italian Chicory),  Plum or Roma tomatoes for sauce-making (these days I plant San Marzano) ,String beans, lettuces, spinach, cucumbers, carrots, celery, and peas. And let us not even think about skipping that aggressive and eventually abandoned zucchini and other squashes (cucuzzi). 
Of course, grow figs and grapes, if you can. 
And some mint. 

But grow that mint in pots.
Because it only takes one slip-up to figure out that the mint you planted directly into the ground was going to grow its way into and over everything, including the dog, and ring your neighbor's doorbell if not contained. 
Take it from me.... Been There. 
I had seedlings constantly popping up in my driveway not anywhere near where i planted them in a separate bed of herbs at my door. I don't think i was ever rid of them.
I blame Martha Stewart. In the 70's I watched too many home and garden and DIY shows.
She made me plant it according to her guaranteed-to-be-eye-popping design plan for culinary herbs, including mints in a kitchen garden, along with unsuspecting, well-behaved herb plants. And i never really wanted to grow mint, anyway.
The invasion of mint is scarier than the invasion of unwanted super-bumper crops of zucchinis your over-planting neighbors try to foist upon you by sneaking a bag of them onto your porch, under the cover of darkness. Every year. 
Then they over-plant it again...

Something grew on or over every inch of the backyard and fences, and as the seasons changed, different batches of food were either planted or harvested. Winter in NYC was a major letdown and annoyance. So.... gardeners went back to the windowsills and grew their herbs.

I must add that i rarely saw a flower plant in these gardens. Mostly just the flowers that eventually became the vegetables. It wasn't meant to be pretty. But i thought the gardens looked stunning when fruits and vegetables were becoming ripe for the entire neighborhood of Italian gardens The garden was designed to bring the family together for enormous meals. A little bit of the Old Country was included in every meal and gathering. Those who were lucky enough to have a front yard, used that to grow a few non-fussy flowers. Usually around statues of saints or The Virgin Mary. Alongside the folding lawn chairs. The backyard was tended daily whether it needed to be or not, and for most of the day. It had a job to do, and the gardeners saw to it that they did it. I never met an Italian gardener who had a poor growing season. Or maybe they just didn't admit it. Tall tales of monstrous tomatoes and squash abounded.

The front yard was for neighbors to see when they stopped by to sit on the stoops or chairs on their walks around the neighborood after dinner. If decorations were used at all, they were used here. The backyard garden put food on the tables of large Italian families. I don't remember anyone having garden decor in that working garden.

Every time i sit in my garden these days, i realize how lucky i am to have the space to plant almost whatever i like. I could have been stuck with the windowsill or fire escape garden, and I'm sure i could have worked it to my advantage. I remember that the Italian immigrants created a food garden on a postage stamp, and I wish they could have experienced my space and freedom to grow food. And i really wish I could pick their brains daily for the old-school know-how that i didn't bother to absorb or can no longer recall. I'm still learning to properly grow a container vegetable garden. 
Those folks were clay pot superstars.


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