Benny's Grandfather
Was A Ditch Digger

Dateline: 17 July 2005
By: Herrick Kimball

And Benny's grandfather grew tomatoes

Benny is a guy I work with. He is of Italian heritage. He is a Vietnam vet.

We got to talking about garlic the other day and Benny told me his wife uses a LOT of garlic in her cooking. She uses fresh garlic in season and minced garlic from the store out of season. Benny eats out a lot but he never eats Italian out because no one makes Italian as well as his wife. I've had Mrs. Benny's pasta with the garlic and tomato sauce and it is good.

Well the conversation that day turned to Benny's grandfather. He was born in Italy, but came to American and lived in Auburn, NY. Benny told me his grandfather was a ditch digger. He hand-dug many sewer lines in the city of Auburn. If you've ever hand-dug a ditch (as I have, on several occasions) you can't help but have a lot of respect for someone who digs ditches for a living.

But that wasn't all Benny's Grandfather did for a living. It turns out he had a big market garden. It was in the city and Benny says it was a city block long. He spaded the garden by hand. He did not have a rototiller, or a tractor with a plow. Just a shovel. It was a city block long! If you've ever spaded a garden by hand you can't help but have a lot of respect for a man who spades his market garden by hand.

Benny's grandfather grew garlic, and scallions and tomatoes. This was, after all, an Italian family. The scallions and tomatoes were his specialty. He supplied all the little markets in the city. Little markets that, except for a single remaining dinosaur, have become extinct in the city of Auburn, NY. A couple Mega Supermarkets now dominate.

Benny's grandfather had a sink set up in his basement to prepare his produce for market. The tomatoes he grew were huge, says Benny, and he holds up this hands to show me just how big they were (and I wonder if Benny might be exaggerating just a little).

How did Benny's Grandfather grow such huge tomatoes? Chicken manure. He would get burlap bags of dried, crusty old chicken manure and dump them into big open-top barrels by his garden and fill them with water. He had a lot of these barrels. Benny says, "That s--t would ferment and he'd dip the water off the top and pour a ring of it around the tomato plants early in the morning."

I relate this story to you because I think it is a wonderful look a time when men worked for a living, when men turned the soil over by hand with a spade, when men grew food for their families and communities, even in the cities. It was a time when there were little markets in each community throughout the city. Was this an idyllic time? Yes it was. One definition of idyllic is "pleasing or picturesque in natural simplicity." It was idyllic.

Clearly, Benny's grandfather did not live an easy life. But it definitely had idyllic qualities. There is, without a doubt, great value in manual labor, in working the soil, in growing food. There is great satisfaction in such things.

I asked Benny how old his grandfather lived to be. The man was 97 when he died. Homegrown garlic, tomatoes, scallions, and hard work. How's that for a longevity plan?


Anonymous said...

My husband and I found you through Rick Saenz. You are very encouraging to us folks that are still stuck in suburbia.

Herrick Kimball said...

Thanks for the kudos, luma. I enjoy reading Rick's "Dry creek Chronicles" too.

Are you aware that you can be a suburban agrarian?

Best wishes--