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Here’s the thing about our 40-foot-tall lemon tree. Even when you consider yourself to be on the taller end of the spectrum of God’s Eve-like creatures, it is damn frustrating. There you stand, all five-foot-eight of yourself, with maybe another two feet of arm reaching over your head, grasping hundreds of yellow, beautiful lemons dangling there, but only one is within reach.
This matter is complicated by the fact that, if I had my druthers, my feet would remain firmly planted on the ground for the rest of my life. Me and heights? We’re not friends. Not at all. So I’m not climbing the damn thing, and I’m not even propping up a ladder and going up that. There are grocery stores. They sell lemons at ground level.
(Here’s the other thing about our 40-foot-tall lemon tree: It’s like that fish your grandfather caught on the lake that summer. Sometimes, when I talk about it, it’s 50 feet tall. And sometimes, it’s 30. But most often, it’s 40 or 50 feet of sprawling lemon madness. I haven’t measured it, so you’ll just have to trust my, um, estimate.)
Before The Unicorn and I even moved into this house with its gargantuan tree of sunshine, I mused with a friend about this particularly acidic dilemma. How to get at the lemons that one cannot reach? Is this a situation where one can just shake the tree and expect a rain of yellow grenades to fall about one’s shoulders?
“You should get one of those fruit picker things they use in orchards,” she said. “You know, the ones that extend like a long arm into the tree and grab the fruit?”
Obviously I did not know. I have experienced a lot, but I’ll admit I haven’t spent much time in orchards over the course of my life, and certainly not for the purposes of picking fruit.
(Now is the moment when I am especially appreciating all those who have, and do, and who will pick my fruit from orchards around the state and the world. Thank you, orchard workers.)
I filed this piece of knowledge away, and went about the hectic job of packing myself out of my old apartment.
On the day The Unicorn’s movers did their thing, we went out to a late lunch after the last box had been carried into the house, and then stopped at Home Depot on the way home to check out the grill we wanted to buy. “We should see if they have that fruit picker thing you were talking about,” he said, and off we went to the garden section, though I’ll admit I was skeptical. Why would someplace as generic as Home Depot carry a fruit harvester? Wasn’t the store all about suburban homes with their lawns and their patios and their retiling projects?
Of course, what I didn’t count on is that, in many parts of California, the backyard of the typical suburban home might, indeed, give rise to the need for a fruit harvester. And, thusly and therefore, there, hanging on a back wall of the garden section, were dozens of fruit harvesters, which looked an awful lot to my Mid-Atlantic Regional eyes like a lacrosse stick. A lacrosse stick with fingers and a cushion at the bottom of the pocket.
We took one off the wall and took it home, where I promptly snaked it into the lemon tree branches, twisted it, and pulled.
A lemon dropped neatly into the cushion at the bottom of the basket, and I stared at it as if it had been handed to me by an alien. “It works!” I said.
It was the perfect housewarming gift to ourselves.
I was cooking dinner when I heard Soleil Banguid had died.
I stepped away from the stove for a moment to gather myself. The pinto beans I was making could wait, and if there’s one thing I learned from watching Soleil cook, it’s that food should only be cooked from a place of love and happiness—tears and dinner do not mix.
Food served by Soleil and his wife, TJ, came with big hugs and even bigger smiles. This was not just about eating, it was about friendship and community and family. And Soleil served at the center of it all, clapping his hands together to punctuate great joy, smiling so wide it was as if nothing else mattered beyond those moments of connection.
I had no idea how fleeting those moments would be. When my parents visited at Thanksgiving, we took them to Soleil’s African Cuisine in Alameda for their last dinner before they flew back to Ohio. They had gone with me to Soleil’s restaurant in Coralville, Iowa, and I wanted them to see where he’d landed, here, in the Golden State, where he and TJ were turning out not just those same dishes we loved back in the heart of the country, but even more. I wanted to tell him that The Unicorn and I were engaged, because I knew he, too, had his own story of a journey to find real happiness in California.
I took home enough leftovers that night to make two more meals. I let nothing go to waste.
“I’m so sorry it’s been so long since we’ve gotten over here,” I told him that night. “But I promise we’ll be back soon.”
But these days, life moves at the speed of anything but African time, so we didn’t make it back to the restaurant.
When I lived in Iowa, Soleil’s food was like home, especially if you were me, adrift in the center of the country, grasping for something that reminded me of better times. His was the first pop-up restaurant I ever ate at. Steve and I would bring a bottle of wine and walk down Iowa Avenue through the icy air on a Saturday night, and turn into Lou Henri’s, where the usual smells of French toast and hash browns had been replaced by the scent of coconut and chilies. There was Congolese music on the stereo, and for Steve, who had served in Africa with the Peace Corps, and for me, who had spent time in Nigeria growing up, it was a cheap and imaginary trip away to something we recognized deeply.
He opened the restaurant in Coralville, and it was a wonderful and strange sun-yellow space with all kinds of tracts and African goods for sale at the front. But in the back, it was all about the food. It was a small menu, and he couldn’t always source as much tilapia as he wanted, but everything was delicious, and it all came with a hug and his ever-bright smile.
When he disappeared from Iowa, I puzzled over the fact that he was gone.
Then I moved to California and found him, and his marvelous cooking, again.
The last time I ate Soleil’s food, it was not at his restaurant, but at a Communications training here in Oakland in January. I was expecting the usual deli sandwich platter for lunch, but came around the corner to find trays of his Cameroonian Ndole, or chicken in groundnut sauce, his rice, and his Makemba, or fried sweet plantains. I ate two plates that day, barely waiting until everyone had gotten a first helping before I went back for seconds.
I remember feeling guilty, for a moment, that I was eating so much, but my three team members who were there with me went back for more, too.
I couldn’t have imagined it was the last time I’d get to eat his food. If I had, I might have eaten three plates instead of two. I might have wrapped some up, taken it home, and saved it for a night when I could have heated it up, played some Congolese music in his honor, and smiled, widely, in his memory. It wouldn’t have been the same as seeing him again, but it would have, mouthful by mouthful, been something.
It’s pretty pathetic over here at our place at the moment. Both The Unicorn and I have fallen prey to the ridiculous numbers of bugs ricocheting around the Bay Area, and we’re both rocking some variant of colds and/or flu. Let’s just say the door on the tea cabinet is getting a workout today.
I spent part of the day working from home and part of it napping (and will be able to put in a little more time working tonight), and The Unicorn got to charge a day to sick leave. That’s the kind of flexibility we’re lucky to be able to take advantage of in cases like this, but if we worked in the restaurant industry, we wouldn’t be so lucky.
It so happens that just today on BlogHer, a post I wrote about a new book that examines the state of working conditions in that industry went live. Among the issues the book looks at is the fact that many restaurant workers come to work sick because they don’t have any other options—they barely make enough money to survive if they go to work, and most of them don’t get paid sick leave. These workers need protection, and Behind The Kitchen Door by Saru Jayaraman tells their stories and provides great advice on how you can ensure the people who make, serve, and clean up after your restaurant meals have decent and fair working conditions.
I encourage you to head over to BlogHer and check out the post!