By Scott Russell Sanders, March/April 2007
Rain darkens this march morning, here in the hills of southern Indiana. Despite the gloom, I rejoice at the prospect of making lentil soup today with my wife and our granddaughter, Elizabeth. I am washing dishes, glancing out the window at our soggy garden, wondering if it will ever be dry enough to plant, when Elizabeth bursts into the kitchen. At just over three feet tall and just under four years old, she arrives like a tiny whirlwind, flinging off her slicker, dragging her stepstool to the counter and clambering up, chattering about Grammy’s soup.
Grammy is Ruth, my favorite cook now through 40 years of marriage. She and Elizabeth gather carrots, potatoes and onions, mostly from last summer’s garden, as well as dried oregano, basil and thyme, also grown in our tiny backyard. The lentils are already soaking. With sleeves pushed up, Elizabeth plunges her arms into the bowl of water halfway to her elbows and gleefully swishes the lentils around, feeling for any stones that might have sunk to the bottom.
Surveying the ingredients, Ruth says, “Oh, Lizzie, we’ve forgotten something. What do we put in to make everything else taste good?”
Elizabeth withdraws her arms from the water, dries them, and ponders for a moment. Then she brightens. “Garlic!”
“That’s it,” Ruth says, and sends her to retrieve a few cloves. Ever since Elizabeth learned to go up and down stairs safely by herself, one of her jobs at home has been to fetch garlic from the basement and then to help squeeze the pungent cloves in a press.
Now she demonstrates to Ruth and me that she is strong enough to squeeze the press all by herself, and the kitchen fills with an earthy aroma, like the fragrance of thawing soil.
Perhaps remembering how, in October, she helped Ruth and me plant cloves from last year’s garlic for this year’s crop, Elizabeth scoots her stool nearer the sink and climbs up beside me to look outside at the humped, straw-mulched rows. At the time of planting, we explained to Elizabeth why the rounded end of each clove must be pressed into the dirt, leaving the pointy end on top to send up a shoot toward the sun. Today, Elizabeth notices green leaves spiking up through the mulch and drooping in the rain, and she asks me if the garlic is waking up. I tell her it is, although even in winter it was never entirely asleep, for the roots were slowly spreading and each clove was forming small bumps that would eventually swell into new cloves. She wants to go outside right now and dig one up and see the bumps, but I tell her we need to let the garlic grow.
I remind her that every day the sun is climbing higher in the sky, and soon it will shine over the peak of our house onto the garden, and then stiff green stalks will rise from the garlic bed. And during the summer each plant will form a bulb at the bottom and a flower at the top, and in hot weather the flowers will give way to seeds, the stalks will curl into crazy loops, and the leaves will wilt. Along about July, when the leaves have turned brown, she and I will take the spading fork and loosen the dirt and carefully tug the bulbs loose and lay them out on the picnic table to dry. And after they’re dry, we’ll brush off the dirt and braid the stalks into bunches for family and friends.
Elizabeth takes in the whole story before announcing, “Garlic makes me happy.”
“Me too,” I say, finishing up the last of the dishes.
Ruth meanwhile has cut up the vegetables. She sautés the onions and garlic in the soup pot, allows the pot to cool, then places it in the sink, within reach of short arms. Elizabeth pours in water, adds the lentils, tomatoes, potatoes and carrots, sprinkles in the herbs, then stirs the whole concoction with a wooden spoon.
Soon the kitchen begins to smell like the whole garden. Again I glance outside at the soggy earth. In spite of the rain, the day seems brighter. The green spikes thrusting up through the straw mulch, which had looked forlorn before Elizabeth arrived, now gleam with the promise of spring.
Scott Russell Sanders, author of 19 books including A Private History of Awe (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), is the Distinguished Professor of English at Indiana University.