The American dream had been a myth for me throughout the 30 or so years that I’d lived in the United States. I couldn’t fully grasp how the concept of “the pursuit of happiness” fit into a superbusy, superfast American life. It was not until I started to grow plants on the porch of my two-family house on a quiet street in Boston that I had an epiphany.
Gardening does not come naturally to me. I was not exposed to it as a child in Taiwan. The city where I grew up, Taipei, was a jungle of massive concrete high-rises in shades of gray. Between the monoliths were a few picturesque parks filled with ponds, gardens, and pagoda pavilions for people seeking a bit of tranquility.
My fellow Taipei residents didn’t seem to mind the absence of green. They lived in apartments and grew flowers in pots indoors, in concrete courtyards, on balconies, or on the buildings’ flat roofs to satisfy their gardening needs. No one grew herbs or vegetables. Why bother? Fresh produce was a plentiful bargain in daily markets nearby. Garlic, ginger, and scallions were given away as a token of thanks with the purchase of meat, poultry, and seafood.
The first spring after I moved into my Boston apartment, I drove to a nearby farm on a sunny day. The farm was small but sold everything needed for a city porch – pots, bags of soil, planting tools. I walked among aisles of bedding plants, taking in the pungent scent of topsoil. The flowers were splendid, but the young herbs and vegetables drew my attention: dill’s long, soft fur; basil’s round-bellied leaves; lemon thyme’s spotty, green foliage – like bugs bunching up on thin stems. Young beans’ heart-shaped leaves contrasted with a lettuce’s short rosette-like bract. As I rubbed a few of the herbs’ leaves between my thumb and forefinger and sniffed the sweet aroma, the prospect of having the freshest ingredients, grown at home, excited me: something for a nice summer salad or a freshly wokked vegetable.
I discovered that nothing makes me happier than harvesting produce that I’ve fastidiously cared for myself: checking them for moisture levels, making sure no animals get to them before I do.
As I grew my own food, I developed a deeper appreciation for the tending of plants. There were challenges along the way: leggy, overgrown plants; stunted, withered ones; mold; insect pests. Sometimes there was too much heat, other times not enough sun – and on and on.
For a couple of seasons, I had tomato troubles. I’d find half-eaten fruit left boldly behind. I made a habit, night after night, of moving plants indoors, so I would be the one to harvest, not some creature with four paws.
A tomato picked at the peak of ripeness is sweet and juicy. It bursts open in your mouth. A sprinkle of salt intensifies that succulent sugary taste. I eat them raw, roast them at a low temperature in the oven to make tomato pesto, cook them with farm fresh eggs, add them to salads, or sauté them with scallions, bean sprouts, and julienne beef. The ways to savor them are endless.
In a cycle of homegrown food – seeding, growing, tending, harvesting, cooking, savoring – I came to understand a different version of the American dream. The pursuit of happiness can be a matter of the heart’s achieving small steps of satisfaction, resulting from “neither wealth nor splendor,” in Thomas Jefferson’s words, “but tranquility and occupation.”