When I was a child, my grandmother was forever hoping that she’d live to see me do something. “I only hope I live to see your picture in the Chronicle for being a hero,” she’d say, or “I only hope I live to see you play the piano on stage.” As childhood wore on and it became increasingly obvious that neither would ever happen, Grandma sarcastically scaled back her requests (“I only hope I live to see you watch someone play the piano onstage”), declaring I was now free to be pictured in the Chronicle “for being a hero and/or notorious for something.”
Around the same time, and undeterred by Grandma’s rapidly shrinking view of my prospects, I began selling flower seeds door-to-door. An outfit known as the American Seed Co. ran full-page ads in the back of Shazam comic books promising that kids who sold 50 packets of seeds would win prizes, by which they meant cassette tape recorders, instant-load cameras, portable typewriters, and other timeless treasures.
“Everybody wants American Seeds,” read the ad. “You’ll sell them quickly to family, friends and neighbors.” And so, armed with my box of seed packets, barefoot, and with June sunshine on my face, I canvassed the streets of Oak Forest. For a few days, it was like the poem that Whittier forgot to write, complete with turned-up pantaloons and merrily whistled tunes, until I realized I hadn’t sold a single pack of 30-cent seeds. I became consumed with self-loathing, as is my wont, until a next-door neighbor finally pointed out that the Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based American Seed Co. had sent me seeds for things like asters, bachelor buttons, and calendulas—plants for which the growing season in Texas is roughly February 15 to 17. I didn’t enjoy being lectured on seasonality by a woman who wore the same housedress every day for 12 years, but she had a point.
In her own analysis of my failure, Grandma invoked, of all things, the mysterious and special relationship between Houstonians and food. “People don’t want to grow flowers. You can’t eat flowers,” she said. The words were incantatory, life-changing. The next summer I sold 49 packets of vegetable seeds in a week, rewarding myself by purchasing the 50th for myself, a pack of burpless cucumber seeds.
The plants matured quickly and proved extremely prolific, essentially ensuring that no cucumber burp would be sounded in the area for centuries. Among the harvest, though, was one fruit that distinguished itself by growing to the length of a foot, then two, then four, and finally six. A six-foot cucumber was a rarity in those pre-Monsanto days, and word of its existence spread like wildfire from Oak Forest to Candlelight Oaks. Soon, strangers were showing up in our backyard unannounced and posing for pictures with, as Grandma put it, “our cuke with a pituitary problem.” I found myself thinking, and not for the last time, that only in Houston could food be a celebrity.
Naturally, Grandma put in a call to the Chronicle, several actually. To her everlasting embitterment, each and every one was answered by the same operator, a woman constitutionally incapable of appreciating the heroic and notorious feat that is growing a six-foot cucumber. “I only hope I live to see the day that bitch gets fired,” said Grandma, promising to visit the Chronicle’s offices in person and cause a scene. In the end, however, she held fire, fearing the repercussions it might have on my piano career.