I have been blessed along the way with many different food influences, family and friends who have helped guide me down a path in a specific direction. My nana and my mother-in-law both taught me heritage cooking, while over the years my friends have contributed with Chinese, Italian, and even vegetarian cuisines. One strong influence, beginning in my late teens and continuing to this day, has been my godparents, Joyce and Max Sosebee. It is because of them that I cherish my annual garden, learned to can, and my children know the taste of fresh fruit eaten right off the tree. They, as well as their whole extended family, have helped to shape who I am in the kitchen. And today is the day to honor and give thanks for that.
Most people know little about their godparents. Bonded by ritual, the need for godparents has decreased in our society, where individuals live an average of 78 years. There is no longer that pressing need to appoint a spiritual or physical guardian for our children under the assumption we will die an early death. While the rite is still practiced, godparents don’t have the same role or meaning they once did. But that doesn’t make them obsolete or unnecessary. I recently witnessed a wedding where the godparents were intimately involved, not just in planning, but in the ceremony itself and it was touching. I, too, have been on the receiving end of generous godparents, and am eternally grateful to my parents for having brought them into my life. They have been a gift beyond imagination; an extra set of parents to guide me, provide counsel, and who taught me the value of food, the garden, and the joy of family.
Growing up, contact with my godparents occurred on holidays and birthdays. A quick few hours here and there, at our house, at theirs, and at my godmother’s family home nearby. In fact, it is at that home that I have the fondest of memories. It is a house I visited every Christmas as a child. We would drive up the road to the house, pull into the circular driveway and enter a holiday wonderland that was filled with family. And I do mean filled. Grandma and Grandpa, three daughters with their spouses and six children. Fourteen people cohabitating for several days under the auspices of Santa Claus. It made my own family seem so small by comparison. I loved all the activity, all the food, all the joy that was in the air. (This made me realize early on that I wanted my own big family, and I now have something that approximates that, although in truth many of these “relatives” are not related by birth or blood or marriage, they are family of my own making, but family nonetheless.)
As I got older, I began to spend more time with my godparents both in work and play. During one college summer I was hired on to work the swing shift at the family’s food business, Carriage House. Producers of high-quality jams, jellies, peanut butter, and pie fillings (among other items), I worked the line, enjoying the daily aromas of strawberry jam, fishing for pineapple “eyes,” making cute little individual jam cups for restaurants. I lived in their home, gained two brothers, and had my first real exposure to a home garden. Tucked behind the garage in what seemed to me a secret garden was a bounty of tomatoes and peppers and vegetables of all kinds. I was introduced to the world of canning. I saw tomatoes come right off the vine that at the end of the day made beautiful jars of tomato and pizza sauce. I ate my first homemade pizza with this sauce, on even fresher dough my godmother had made. I had my first taste of green-fried tomatoes, stuffed zucchini flowers, fresh chard, and other foods influenced by both my godfather’s Southern Tennessee roots and my godmother’s Italian heritage. It opened my eyes.
Not long after my own children came along, my godparents moved closer, back to the family home I had known only at Christmas. It was a suburban oasis, an acre and a half of fruit trees, multiple vegetable plots, and a glistening blue pool. From apples to figs to nectarines, almost every fruit was represented there. Some of the largest onions I have ever seen were dug out of this soil. We played horseshoes next to the artichoke plants, putted golf balls under the pomegranate, and played hide-and-seek among the apple trees behind the garage. My children learned to swim here, but more importantly they learned how food is grown, able to pluck a carrot out of the ground or a peach from the tree for a snack. When my godparents traveled, my children helped me water and tend to the garden. I learned about drip systems, rotating crops, and the joy of Meyer lemons. I made pies from the apples, curd from the lemons, pizzas topped with fresh vegetables.
I was inspired to plant my own garden and my own Meyer lemon trees in our first house, which my godparents helped us acquire. We had an herb box, a large vegetable garden on the side of the driveway, and even our own secret garden, hidden behind a fence in what was a narrow unused side yard. I began canning my own salsa, jams, fruits. The shelves in my small basement were lined with the offerings from both our gardens and saw us through some leaner times.
It wasn’t just my godparents who contributed to my development, as their own large family has also aided me on my journey to be a better cook, to make better food, to try new things. While I never did try my godfather’s fried okra, I had my first introduction to biscotti courtesy of Grandma Mary, my godmother’s mother. Loving the crunch and “dipability” of this twice-baked cookie, I began experimenting with different flavor profiles to suit my own tastes. I now regularly make four versions of this Italian treat: a somewhat traditional almond (no anise for me), lemon-pistachio, almond crunch, and espresso).
And then there is the farm. LJB Farms in San Martin, about an hour south of my home, has been owned and operated by the Bonino family for 92 years and is currently run by Judy (my godmother's sister) and Louie Bonino and their two sons, Russell and Brent. In addition to everything they grow, they operate a farmstand, in what is called "The Barn." This renovated barn is filled with the fruits of their labor, along with other local growers and purveyors. This is where I come to get my lugs of Blenheim apricots, Santa Lucia peaches, heritage tomatoes, strawberries, pickling cucumbers and anything else in season. Brilliant Daughter and I drive the 53 miles to fill up the back of the car and then spend the whole weekend trying to can as much as possible. One weekend last summer we went a bit overboard and ended up with 24 quarts of pickles, 43 half-pints of jam, 3 quarts BBQ sauce and 1 ½ quarts of salsa. Yeah, the produce is just that good.
The lessons learned, however, were not just about family and food. I learned the value of hard work, the need to treat people fairly, and generosity of spirit. I have watched my godparents persevere through the darkest of days and been amazed at their strength, dedication and sheer will power. I have shared with them life and death, joy and grief.
The path I have taken, both in my food and personal life, has been directly influenced by this generous family, by the love of my godparents, by their willingness to share their home, their heart and their heritage with me. For this I will be forever grateful and I thank them today, and every day for the blessings they have provided.