Neighborly Affection Springs from the Soil of a Bountiful Garden in Raleigh | Food Feature | Indy Week
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Neighborly Affection Springs from the Soil of a Bountiful Garden in Raleigh 

click to enlarge Mike Richardson preserves and shares what grows in his Raleigh garden.

Photo by Ben McKeown

Mike Richardson preserves and shares what grows in his Raleigh garden.

The doorbell rang early that morning. I was still in my pajamas when I peeked out the window and saw a familiar white truck backing out of the driveway. I ran downstairs and opened the front door to find a cardboard box of home-canned goods and a plastic bag brimming with garden tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, and squash.

I admired the beauty of homegrown vegetables and mason jars full of peach preserves, bread-and-butter pickles, and fig butter, all for my culinary pleasure.

My face lit up as I carried my box of goodies into the kitchen to examine it further. And I knew the person I needed to thank: my handyman, Mike Richardson.

More than fifteen years ago, when I first hired Mike to fix small things around the house, I would pay him his fee and give him copies of community cookbooks and kitchen gadgets. At the time, I was working as a features writer for The News & Observer, where I often wrote food stories and reviewed products.

One of those cooking tools, a mandoline slicer, became one of Mike's all-time favorites. "I have an expensive one, but I prefer the one you gave me for making bread-and-butter pickles," he says.

Mike's gift of produce is garnished with friendship. We share a mutual fondness for that sacred space where vegetables, herbs, and flowers grow. We understand, though, that there's more to a garden than what's planted in the earth.

The custom of giving canned goods and produce has always been a gesture of affection. My maternal grandfather, Papa, would give each of his dinner guests a jar of something from his pantry. You could not leave my grandparents' home in Lynchburg, Virginia, without pickled watermelon rinds, pear preserves, or bread-and-butter pickles.

After many years of our culinary exchange, I finally visited with Mike in his garden. There, I was transported to my grandfather's double lot garden all those years ago.

My memory takes me to the two apple trees whose branches once met in the sky, forming an endless bridge of hope for me. The goldfish pond glistened with bright orange swimmers. The smoke house, the dog house, and the rabbit cages all snug with their appropriate inhabitants. I can still hear my country cousins and my sisters chattering in the background.

But this particular morning, I'm making my way through rows of thirteen-foot-tall tomato vines, basil, thyme, dill, and oregano, which add a sweet perfume to the coolest air of the day in Mike's garden. He offers me warm, small Sungold tomatoes as we wander.

To witness nature in all its splendor is to sense a kind of spirituality. No words need to be spoken as we marvel at the large fig bush, brightly colored sweet peppers, a bounty of crookneck squash, and orbs of lush purple eggplant.

Several years ago, Mike progressed to canning. "My wife's grandmother canned a lot. I wanted to learn. It's kind of a dying practice."

He started with pickles and then jams and jellies. "It's another dimension of gardening."

In the past few years, he's won several ribbons for his hot pepper jelly and watermelon rind pickles. "They are nice and crunchy," he says of the rinds. "Plus they are sweet."

During Mike's childhood, his father had a backyard garden at their East Durham home. "I was always around it and a part of it," says Mike, now seventy years old.

He started to plant his own vegetables around the same time he started his family. Mike has been married forty-six years, with three grown children and eight grandchildren.

"[The garden has] always been therapy, a place to go when I wanted to get away from everything else," he says.

Mike earned a degree in industrial engineering from N.C. State University, which led to decades of working jobs in manufacturing and management for General Electric and Mitsubishi Semiconductor America in Durham. As the plants closed, he began working full-time at Home Depot.

Today, Mike is retired. But to fill his time, he has maintained a thirty-year handyman business—one that reinforces a cyclical gift of food.

"I would repair things for people, and, instead of paying me, they would give me produce," he says.

He recalls the early days of his business, especially when he visited his in-laws in the LaGrange area. He'd work for folks with little income; they showered him with gifts of homegrown watermelons, cantaloupes, and sweet potatoes.

At Asbury United Methodist Church in Raleigh, Mike is known as the collard greens man. He grows them in his plot in the church's community garden and then cooks them for the church picnic. "I love any kind of greens, beet greens, collards, Swiss chard, and spinach." He often serves them with his ribbon-winning pickled watermelon rinds.

Mike spends some of his mornings in the church's community garden mowing the grass between the assigned plots. Then he goes around spreading the bounty.

One woman loves his greens so much that she gives him free haircuts in exchange for his cooked collards seasoned with ham hocks. "It's a relationship I enjoy," he says. "I've always been a giver." He likes bringing containers of his freshly made pesto along with pita bread for the ladies in the shop to snack on.

Like her, I appreciate Mike's generosity, from his garden to my kitchen. My pantry shelf is well-stocked with his homemade preserves, chow-chow, and salsa. My freezer holds several bags of his cooked collards, beet greens, and Portuguese soup with chorizo and kale. I will be eating well through the winter. Even when his garden is bare, the warmth of his gifts remains. I feel forever blessed.

This article appeared in print with the headline "The Gift of Produce"


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