A forkful of family

Jeff vonKaenel

I created quite a commotion at the Del Paso Heights Certified Farmers Market when I innocently asked if I could taste the bitter melon leaves on sale for $1 a bundle. Sacramento City Councilwoman Sandy Sheedy and her daughter, staff aide Tyson Sheedy, immediately started looking for some water.

Over the last three weeks, Tyson had moved heaven and Earth, and even more impressively, government bureaucracy, to make sure the Del Paso Heights Certified Farmers Market would open. Even though it was pulled together at the last minute, there were four farmers this week, and more to come next, selling fruits and vegetables, including … bitter melon leaves.

Looking amused, the market manager, 20-year-old Hlee Vue, said sure, I could try the bitter melon leaves. She called over her mother and master gardener, Bay Vue, to tell me more about them. Mrs. Vue told me that one usually sautés the leaves before eating them, but I was welcome to try them anyway.

So I did. Wow, those leaves packed a punch! Seeing only a couple of bundles of the bitter melon leaves, I asked how many they had sold today, the first day of the Saturday market. Mrs. Vue looked at her clipboards and told me, “Six bundles.”

All four of the certified farmers at the market grew their produce in the Del Paso Heights neighborhood. I asked Mrs. Vue how much time she spent gardening. It turns out that Mrs. Vue is much more of a life force than a gardener. Coming from Laos in 1980, she first moved to the very cold state of Iowa. She had nine children in a 13-year period, and now has 10 grandchildren, with more on the way. Each morning, she gets up at 5 a.m. to get ready for the grandkids she will be taking care of that day. The school-age kids drop by in the afternoon.

The large garden includes, among other things, amaranth, green onions, collard greens, garlic and lemon grass. It is not a solitary project. It is a group project with her grandchildren. Mrs. Vue became emotional when she talked about her grandkids helping in the garden and naming all the plants. I asked her what they enjoyed the most. She quickly answered, “Watering.”

At dinnertime, Mrs. Vue is tired. So her children come by and make dinner with the produce from the garden, and they all share a meal.

While I didn’t purchase any bitter melon leaves, I did pick up some delicious fresh strawberries and Mrs. Vue’s wonderful green onions. I appreciated that these onions had been watered by little hands holding a hose, overseen by a loving grandmother.

I did not know my heart had taste buds until I mixed those onions with my eggs.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.