The weather turned out sunny and gorgeous, if a bit breezy, for the 43rd annual “Old Verona Days” festival, this past weekend. Judging by the town's name, you might think it was Italians who first robbed the land from the Shawnee people, but it was actually a group of French monks who named the place, brothers prone to romantic notions and a little over-optimistic about the microclimate of this valley with the sand hills sloping to the southwest. The monks accompanied a group of fur traders. Originally they planted vineyards of Corvina grapes, succeeding for a succession of unusually mild winters in the 1760's, and according to scant records they produced “Recioto” wine, which the Verona region in northern Italy is famous for. This sweet wine is made by drying the grapes for several months after harvest, before reconstituting the raisins in water.
I was excited for the weekend, as something like 20,000 people were supposed to swell and overwhelm our little town of 500, and I had forked over the sixty bucks to rent a booth space in the vending area, hoping to sell lettuce, arugula, and mustard greens in one gallon, ziplock bags. On Friday night I pedaled a bike over to Grandpa's and borrowed “the old gray mare,” his 1980's model Chevy that is mostly used for herding cattle. Saturday morning I woke up at four o'clock, sipped coffee for close to an hour, and ventured out in the moonlight with a knife and several laundry baskets, cutting the green and red salad bowl, leaf lettuce, also some heads of buttercrunch to mix in. The crop is beautiful, and in prime condition with the autumn weather. I kicked myself for having spent too much time sipping coffee, as the clock ticked and I washed the salad mix by the back porch light until the first rays of orange appeared to the east, when it was time to wake up my son, load the truck, and scoot on down to the festival.
Main Street was already bustling, almost like it was prior to the 1960's, when Verona had boasted a grocery store, bank, hotel, barber shop, train station, grain mill, chick hatchery, cannery, and brick factory. Now, aside from the old mill which is now mostly a distribution warehouse for chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and the Verona bank, where the local farmers do their business, the town is void of commerce — except for the past weekend. At the volunteer fire station, where the guys were frying fish, I met up with one of the organizers who looked my name up on the chart and led me past the old Verona gym. This structure is the community hub, the last lingering remnant of what was once Verona High School, constructed with bricks produced from the local clay hills that surround the sand dunes of our valley and stands as a testament to the past, much like the Roman coliseum in our town's namesake. The friendly, event organizer led me past the gym, past all the food vendors, past the gun and knife vendors, past the junk dealers, to the very last booth space right along the highway.
“Well,” I said to my son as we unloaded the table and the pre-bagged salad greens, “at least being this close to the road we'll be able to get back to the farm and cut more lettuce if we sell out.”
If we sell out, I'd said. After sitting for a couple hours and watching the perusing, twitching, wide-eyed dudes and chicks in black leather biker gear turn the corner in the last aisle, thinking they'd reached the last booths, I had to walk down to Main Street where my neighbor and former classmate, along with his wife, mom, and sister, were selling their honey and bags of apples. “Hollow Log Honey” is probably one of Indiana's largest producers, and Paul ships his bees around the country, to various orchards. The bees actually spend springtime in the almond orchards of northern California, and most of them summer in the alfalfa and clover fields of Wisconsin's dairy region, though Paul supplies local melon growers with a few hives. “I have to keep them away from corn and soybeans,” he told me in the spring. “The insecticide they use to coat the seed is so strong that it gets into the pollen and kills the bees.”
To which I'd instantly thought, if this stuff persists in the plants' sap from germination to flowering, some fifty days or so, and is still strong enough to kill off hives of bees, doesn't it stand to reason the same chemical would still be present in the corn and soybeans? Yum. Not that we omnivores consume much of that grain, directly. Rather, we eat the pork and chicken from animals that dine on corn and soybeans every day of their dark, confined lives. Yum yum.
Hollow Log Honey was doing frenzied business on Main Street, where they were pressing apples for cider, had country music bands on stage, and featured guys dressed in buckskins like French fur traders or Shawnee Indians, armed with muskets and blunt-tipped arrows, re-enacting the battle at Fort Verona. After visiting with those folks — Paul was a classmate in high school, I walked down to the Bluebird Cafe and bought a six pack of beer, thinking this was going to be a long day, and returned to the booth, where the few folks who walked by squinted and frowned at the sign I'd made, “Local Organic Lettuce, Washed and Ready to Eat.” I might as well have written in French. The middle class folks whose kids were getting their faces painted didn't venture past the gun and knife booths. As I sipped beer I imagined that the rows of junk peddlers were a filtering system, distilling the reddest of the rednecks, so by the time they reached my absurdly juxtaposed organic lettuce greens, you got toothless, cranked-out toughs with bad hair who fit the stereotypes that you might think were too exaggerated to actually exist. Worse, yet, most of the women wore black T-shirts with pink ribbons, breast cancer awareness, and as I got bored and started asking around, sure enough, everybody around seemed to be plagued with cancer. “Find the cure,” the T-shirts claimed. Never mind the causes, support the Cause.
About three o'clock an Amish fellow about my age ventured past, donning the black Sunday hat and corresponding dress duds. He spotted the bag of lettuce on display, and his eyes lit up. His family was selling home-crafted, hardwood chairs and tables, he said, and he was stoked to purchase a bag of greens, even engaging in conversation, telling me he was from a mostly Amish community near New Philadelphia, a few miles south and east of our farm, that he milked goats, etc.
My son had a great day, buying a sturdy fishing pole worthy of the ocean so he could reel in those giant flathead catfish, and we packed up at about five, with a couple of his friends joining us for the ride home where they were going to spend the night camping and fishing at the river which is now the East fork of the “White,” though the French settlers had originally dubbed it the “Adige.”
Sunday morning we showed up a little late for the community church service in the old, brick, Verona gym where I and most of the other men and women had played basketball in grade school, sitting in the bleachers while the Lutheran minister actually preached a sermon on the parable of the vineyard owner who was trying to get his harvest in before a rain storm and ended up paying everyone the same at the end of the day, whether they'd harvested for 12 hours, eight, four, or only one. Making some effort to connect with the times, he mentioned Robert Mondavi as the vineyard owner, and had the original hirelings hail from the local grape-pickers' union.
Later, when the minister happened past our booth on his way out of the festival, I called him over and insisted he take a couple bags of salad greens for his family. “Enjoyed your sermon,” I said. “Liked the part about the vineyard owner in California, except have to say that in the vineyards I knew of, I don't think too many workers were union. Many of them were probably undocumented.”
He agreed. “Thanks for the lettuce. See you in church next Sunday.”
“Yeah.” The afternoon was warm, and I grew increasingly bored, watching the skeptical expressions of the festival goers if they even noticed my little organic lettuce sign, thinking that I had a lot in common with the optimistic French monks who'd tried growing Mediterranean grapes in this continental valley. A fellow walked past, clutching a brick that was spackled with mortar on the sides.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Did you just purchase a brick?”
“Yeah!” Enthusiastically, he displayed the lone brick, one side of which read, “VERONA.” “They don't make these anymore.”