My friend is dead. Might this have cured her?
I don’t know why my mind went to cancer, of all things, as Sal Gilbertie navigated a friend and me through the expanse of raised wooden beds overflowing with tiny sprouts.
“You know, this all goes back to a massive flower-growing operation here in Westport,” he said. “My grandfather and his brother came here for the work. 300 employees. Of course, this was early 1900s, before the war, so you could only buy fresh flowers locally….”
I should have been writing it all down, what Sal was saying. At one point, Sal actually recommended that, if I wanted to play local reporter, I might consider investing in a pen and a legal pad for taking notes. But I couldn’t stop thinking of my friend, one of the funniest, smartest people I’ve ever known. Leukemia. She was here one week, in a hospital room in Minneapolis overlooking one of the skinnier sections of the Mississippi, and then the next day she wasn’t. Then I reminded myself of a cousin who had another form of leukemia. I would love to have his talent at art. But not the bone marrow transplant. Or the graft-vs-host disease. Or the kidney failure. Or the feet hardened into wood. Or the regularly scheduled toe amputations.
“That cement mixer is mixing up our proprietary soil,” Sal said. “We don’t do hydroponics. The plant gets its health, its complexity, from soil. We use organic fertilizer, perlite not vermiculite, and compost from the farm. We’ve got four acres in greenhouse space and another six acres outside for growing….”
Cancer is such an ugly word. It comes from the Greek word for crab, because the swollen veins that feed tumors looked, to the ancient Greeks, like the legs of a crab. It’s ugly not just because we know—most of us, personally—the height of cancer’s ambitions, its cold efficiency. But it’s also ugly because of the way the word cancer sounds. Keyser Söze. Darth Vader. Lex Luthor. Hairless bad guys’ names, with all those hissing s’s and growling r’s, serve as an expression of what naturalists call aposematism, like the bold florescent markings on the back of a poison dart frog telling passersby to back off, it’s a warning of danger, death advertising itself in a mesmerizing way.
Shark. Snake. Spider. Tiger. Tyrannosaurus Rex. Cancer. Say the words out loud and you might be struck by how effectively the sound of the word instructs you to be scared, to stay clear.
“We let beneficial predatory insects control the pest population in here.”
As Sal Gilbertie strolled us between the tables of the most impressive of his greenhouses on the some twenty-seven acre Gilbertie’s property, a riot of colors set against every imaginable shade of green, all I could think was, Cancer must hate this place. I felt infused with health, and not just for the obvious reasons: First, there was the man himself, Sal, who seemed sprite and athletic and, judging by his handshake, tough. Then there was the staff quietly tending to the plants and, seemingly, enjoying it, their strong hands pressing seeds into a furrow and then sweeping them gently under a thin blanket of soil. Then there came a soft rain outside, a barely audible susurrus playing down from the ceiling of Sal’s glass cathedral. The bustle of workers moving crates of delicate little plants (“petite edibles,” they call them) from one table to another, rearranging growing beds of unruly, barely tamed, vegetative growth—there was something very Zen about the whole affair.
What’s that great word we always forget? Salubrious. It felt like Willy Wonka’s paradise, except that, unlike Wonka’s candy-coated landscape, everything growing around me represented the very opposite of sugar: the cure for, as opposed to a major contributor to, chronic metabolic disease.
In the regrettable remake of that classic movie, Jonny Depp says to the visiting children, “Do you like my meadow? Try some of my grass. Please have a blade. Please do!”
That actually happened to me there, at Gilbertie’s.
“Try this,” someone said, clipping a tuft of dirty-blond willows from a one-pint container. It tasted like…A rush of memory: I grew up in Clinton, Iowa, adjacent to one of the fattest sections of the Mississippi River. The ADM plant two blocks down the street made high fructose corn syrup. You could taste the sweetness in the clouds of grey that puffed from the towering stacks, ash that precipitated from the sky to pile into the corners of the local tennis court high enough to swallow up a tennis ball. I remembered TV commercials during Iowa Hawkeyes basketball games talking about black nightshade, and summer months lost detasseling under the sun. Butter. Salt. Pepper. The hot juice splurting from every kernel of the last row on the cob—
“Corn,” someone said. “Those are corn sprouts.”
Corn sprouts? No such thing! I’m from Iowa! I’d know! Except, there is! And they taste—wouldn’t you know it?—exactly like corn, only cornier than corn, in the same way that the pea shoots tasted more like the essence of a pea than anything I’d ever tried. The same way that the radish sprouts tasted more delicate in texture, more nuanced in flavor, than any mature radish root. If mature vegetables are nouns, completed statements, then their sprouts are verbs, questions in near-perceptible motion groping impatiently into the void.
The flavor of each sprout—this is no exaggeration—was, for me, revelatory; suddenly I was a child tasting each vegetable for the first time. And I thought to myself that maybe, finally, I’m just now starting to tap into the allure of molecular gastronomy. Each little sample reframed a taste, a food, I considered familiar; corn, a pea, a radish. I knew each of these things only in a particular incarnation. Until last week, I hadn’t had any of these things at their finest.
We all like to parrot the idea that food is medicine. I believe it so much that I’ve written books on the subject. Nevertheless, I recognize that the realities of time and money often force us to dine differently. We secretly know that that healthy twenty-minute recipe will actually take half an hour, or more, to prepare, not counting cleanup, and so we give in. We order out, postponing the enactment of the whole “food is medicine” thing for another day.
Cancer. Diabetes. Surveying all these vivid greens at Gilbertie’s farm, I thought of these words, and of the people I know, or knew, who have been subject to the effects of these diseases. And I considered the power of the life—is there a better word for it?—teaming all around me, growing an inch a week in real soil, a special organic substrate that allows for a biological, physiological, nutritional complexity you can’t get from hydroponically grown vegetables. I felt like a human stethoscope—part man, part plant—listening in as the prepubescent tendrils conspired to unfurl and burst into light.
And that’s why, even with all this sense of connection, I didn’t know what to say to my friend when we got to his decades-old Porsche and it wouldn’t start and he said, “Screw it. You wanna go back in and just hang out for a while? Do we have anything better to do?”
Cancer is such an ugly word. Much prettier are painted sage, and lamium maculatum, and showy calamint and cardoon. These are words that say, Come closer. Food is medicine. Isn’t Gilbertie’s Farm exactly what that belief looks like, played out in full color?
Oh, how I wanted to say Yes! to that question. To head back inside and stay a while among the burgeoning growth. But I’m too cynical now, too old.
There’s nothing in there, I told myself, save Nature. Nothing but health and life creeping over everything the eye can see. All those past wonders that we, as a species speaking through our actions, have officially said no to. The miracle cure isn’t hidden in some distant rain forest. All that magic bean crap is a lie sold to the desperate. The answer is right here, at Gilbertie’s Farm.
The whole world used to be this way, all that beauty spread out upon the earth. And what did we do with it?
There will come a reckoning.