I had played not house, but farmer: An excerpt from Joanna Eleftheriou’s This Way Back



Praised by Kirkus for its “impassioned and hard-fought sense of self and place,” Joanna Eleftheriou’s This Way Back—a highly anticipated memoir-in-essays from West Virginia’s series In Placewill be published October 1. 

If you live, as I do, in a world where an overabundance of food is more a plague than hunger, you might be given to scrutinizing ingredient lists, and so have seen the words carob bean gum before tearing the plastic wrapper from, say, an ice cream sandwich, or the foil from a tub of cream cheese. Small quantities of carob bean gum do the trick, and so this natural stabilizer appears at the ingredient list’s end, the part that even serious health food nuts expect to find uninterpretable (for me, it’s a list of plants I can’t quite place, and words I remember from high school chemistry). Carob bean gum sounds harmless, natural, salubrious, even—beans healthier than meat, carobs healthier than sweets—and, indeed, harmless the carob bean is. Such harmlessness is all most of us want to ascertain when we venture into the ingredient list’s largely chemical tail. I have never made the effort to learn what lecithin is, though I often see the word—ditto for guar gum, potassium sorbate, xanthan, and xylitol. There is a limit to how much thought we can devote to the origin of our foods, to their ingredients’ history.

I do happen to know, though, about the carob bean, about the little seed and its sweet-fleshed case. Alternately called locust bean and St. John’s Bread, the carob is a hand-length, inch-wide, woody pod that hangs from the branches of the carob tree. In late August, pale-green carobs ripen to a dark, chocolate shade, ready to be plucked from the trees and consumed. Carobs are grown in California, but the species’s origins lie in the Middle East. Today, the largest producer is Spain, followed by Italy, Portugal, Greece, Morocco, Turkey, and finally Cyprus. Evergreen, drought resistant, and squat (botanists call it a shrub), only slightly taller than the olive tree, smooth of bark, wide and deep green of leaf, the carob has held a key place in Mediterranean ecosystems since biblical times.

Its ecological importance notwithstanding, if my family had stayed in carob tree-less New York, I would never have learned anything about the carob beyond its failure to be like chocolate. But when I moved to Cyprus, where carobs abound, I became invested in the carob quite literally. My father had inherited acres of land, all of which was farmable if irrigated, but which was otherwise a wilderness of thorns, scraggly pines, terebinth, and carob trees. Among this independently thriving vegetation, the carob alone produces something to sell. For pocket money, each August I shook the pods from my father’s trees, piled them up in burlap sacks in our front yard, and sold them to a man who passed by our house with his little blue dump truck en route to the market in town. It was my first summer job, and the fulfillment of a dream—as a New York kindergartener, I had played not house, but farmer. I had believed that this was a job I could have, and I kept believing it as I read Little House in the Big Woods, kept reading books about self-sufficient families on the American frontier. I ended up a teacher, but still felt driven to the fields.

If my family had stayed in carob tree-less New York, I would never have learned anything about the carob beyond its failure to be like chocolate.

I wanted to work with my hands. I wanted to shake carobs off their trees. I loved climbing them, loved being alone inside their foliage. And I loved the way the carob tree depended so little on rain—I was attracted to the tree’s indifference to weather, to its freedom from need. I longed to need nothing but my own body, nothing but my muscles and the earth. Over the years in which typing and teaching have become all I know of work, memory has lent to the physicality of carob picking a certain Wordsworthian romance. I have learned all I can about the carob, for the tree has become, to me, a kind of symbol, a promise of something that I want.

In 1988, when we moved to Cyprus, I was a Greek American ten-year-old, aware of Greekness as an abstract marker of my identity, like my age, my gender, and a fondness for pizza, purple, and playing outside. At five, my brother knew fewer Greek words than I did, and as a result I could employ Greek to tell my mother things I didn’t want him to know. The purpose of our move, my father claimed after the fact, was “so that the children will know who they are.” The move away from suburban Queens, while hard for us all, turned out to be hardest for my father. As native a Greek Cypriot as he may once have been, he left his birthplace at nineteen, and didn’t start learning to be a Cypriot adult until he returned, a forty-nine-year-old history teacher who’d quit his job for a dream.

I loved the way the carob tree depended so little on rain—I was attracted to the tree’s indifference to weather, to its freedom from need.

Life was hard because we kids spent the first year reeling from culture shock, our tears putting a strain on our parents’ own efforts to adjust. We got used to our new lives, Dino and I—we learned standard Greek in school and Cypriot on the playground. We made friends, gained our new teachers’ favor, joined clubs, aligned ourselves with identity-supplying groups: Apollon soccer fans (Dino), and youth who rallied around our island’s national wounds (me). Asgáta’s grassless soccer pitch, along with the empty hills where I ran, replaced for us the jungle gyms of Queens. We learned that while in America we had to wait patiently in line, in Cyprus we’d need to shove our way to a crowd’s front if we wanted lunch. We became, in sum, little Cypriots.

In August, when the carobs turn brown, they may be ripe; but unprocessed, the carob is no treat. Nothing I know is similar to the ripe carob’s texture or taste. Woody fibers go down scratchy and dry. The carob’s syrup, tastier once extracted and poured over unsalted whey cheese, is aptly called carob honey (haroupómelo) because, like honey, it is sweet but has an added, incomparable twist.

In both Cyprus and America, I run a little recklessly, with neither cell phone nor ID, neither money nor keys. Such untethered movement exhilarates me. Once, though, running from Asgáta to Kalavasós too early in the day, before the sun had sunk behind the hills, I reached a nearby village and, parched, could find no public water fountain. With no money, I had to request a drink from a woman I could see through the back door of a tavern, who was standing at a stove stirring Greek coffee in an ibrik. This was the humiliation of need—abnegation’s failure, reliance on others, the inability to reimburse. She gave me water, and in return, I gave nothing but thanks. Before I reached home I was thirsty again, and I plucked a carob from its tree, dusted it off on my shirt, bit in, and tasted the disappointment that the carob’s sweet woodiness brings.

Read more in This Way Back.

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