My grandparents met in a grocery store in the Bronx. My grandmother worked the register while my grandfather hauled around boxes of produce and stocked shelves. They were both from immigrant families just getting their feet under them in New York.
Later, my grandfather struck out on his own and opened a fruit and vegetable store called Quality Market in Manhattan near the George Washington Bridge. He stocked basics like bananas and apples and specialty items like endives and pomegranates. Each morning he arranged the best-looking produce on the sidewalk under an awning and inside the tiny store.
My grandfather rose each weekday in the dark to get the freshest produce from the Washington Market, the giant wholesale market. Occasionally, he took trips to farms in the Hudson Valley to select apples. According to family legend, he even crossed the frozen Hudson River once by foot to get apples when a bridge was closed.
My father remembers growing up without much money. New shoes were bought once a year, and he didn’t have many toys. But he also grew up eating gourmet produce like artichokes when most people still hadn’t heard of them. In elementary school, the other children were fascinated by the fruits my father pulled out of his lunchbox, like red bananas or unknown varieties of apples.
Later my father worked in the store, primarily waiting on Jewish customers from Germany and Eastern Europe. Sometimes he went out on deliveries and once delivered a box to Al Dark, one of his favorite baseball players with the New York Giants. Mostly, though, it was incredibly hard work with slim profits.
The produce business skipped a generation, and I grew up buying my produce in grocery stores. When I was in college, I was drawn to organic farming because I wanted to help fix industrial agriculture. I learned to love fresh, healthy vegetables.
It is getting late in October, and fall is gathering real momentum in the mid-Atlantic. Our farm has not been hit by frost yet, but the summer crops are slowing to a crawl. It is the greens that are glistening in the fields—emerald tatsoi, blue-green kale and light green bok choy.
After more than a decade of farming, the beauty of a bed of fall greens can still stun me. Sometimes when my fingers are cold and I am packing boxes, I think of my grandfather in his store. Was he ever stunned by the beauty of greens? Did he shiver while unpacking greens packed in ice?
By the time I knew my grandparents, they were far from their grocery days. Later, my grandfather finished college and became an accountant. They were able to enjoy a sweet retirement in a Florida condo with neighbors who also arrived there via Eastern Europe and the Lower East Side.
I can’t say my grandparents ever advised me to consider the produce business; it could be that our related paths are largely coincidental. But I will never forget my grandmother squeezing grapefruits and oranges for juice in the morning and discussing which varieties were truly the best.