“Food and holidays and celebrations are at the center of everything. But it isn’t the food, it’s the fellowship. And it’s still this way in this house.”
Beyond Main Street, along pastoral green hills and fields, handwritten signs advertising eggs and firewood pepper the sides of the roads. In December, pick-your-own Christmas tree farms abound. Durham has been a farming village since the 1600s and with a population less than 8,000, it retains the essence of its rural past.
For four days each September the town comes alive with bright lights, live music and the smells of fried dough and apple fritters. Beyond the food booths and livestock barns, a quiet hall displays the Fair’s canning exhibition: a maze of tables stacked with over a thousand colorful jars: Peach jam, dill pickles, elderberry jelly, pickled eggplant, stuffed hot peppers, pickled honeydew. 74-year old Durham resident Phyllis Naples-Valenti has chaired and organized this exhibition since 1982.
Phyllis’ salt and pepper hair is cropped short, her clothing simple and practical. Despite her age she exudes a sense of physical strength. And although she is introverted and speaks quietly, there is an unmistakable glow that shines through when she talks about the things she loves: canning, her work as a farmer market master, and her farm.
Phyllis’ family has owned the 150 acres that encompass their Durham farm since 1923, when Arcangelo Naples bought the land from German farmers for $2500. To this day, wild berries still scatter the acreage, remnants of the orchards that populated the land during the 1800s.
A stonemason from Camposano, Italy, Arcangelo quoted poetry extemporaneously, and taught his children to do the same. He built the Naples family home and grain tower with micastone from the nearby Portland Quarry and the barn with cobblestones from brooks and fields surrounding their land. Ninety years later, the structures stand strong.
His wife Maria directed the family’s gardening. She grew up in a small town outside of Naples that thrived at the foot of Mt. Vesuvius. Its ash, Maria believed, created the best garlic in the world. When she left in 1900 at the age of 17 to come to America, she brought with her the experience of working in her family’s vegetable business- and cooking traditions that were as exemplary as they were ordinary.
Maria was “the heart, soul and everything” to the family and created an “open house” that welcomed intimate and extended family, and occasional strangers to their table. Their home was a sanctuary. During the Depression, relatives from New York City sent their children to spend their summers on the farm. They worked hard, and they ate well- food that Phyllis still makes today: vegetable stew, pasta fagioli, fried dough and Italian sausage with raspberry jam made from bushes on the farm. At night the assortment of teenagers slept “wherever they could fit—on mattresses, in the hay mows….” It was a cheerful gathering of intimate and extended family.
Maria was a meticulous and talented canner, and taught her daughters Carmella, Frances, Rose, Anna, Toni and Phyllis to can, freeze and preserve the produce that sustained the family throughout the winter: Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant. Her sons and nephews eventually built a canning pavilion where the family cleaned, prepared and jarred vegetables together. Up to twenty family members, including new wives and young teenagers made hundreds of quarts of tomatoes- a tradition that endures today.
When Arcangelo Naples died in 1945, he was still a young man, and his eldest son John became the family’s patriarch. Phyllis speaks of her brother with reverence, telling me “my brother John was probably the most brilliant person I’ve ever known in my life and my father figure for most of my life…”
Phyllis, Maria and John Naples, circa 1943
The farm’s income came from selling vegetables in the summer (“It was always organic, it just didn’t have a name back then.”) and wood in the winter, but that alone was not enough. The children all had “outside” jobs to support the farm.
When John returned home from the Second World War, he was so badly injured he couldn’t walk. But still, he found work at Connecticut’s Unemployment Compensation office in Middletown. Phyllis was a cost accountant at Pratt and Whitney for almost 40 years. Together, they worked the farm in the mornings, evenings and on their days off.
John’s work at the unemployment office spilled into weekends at their farm. He spoke Italian fluently and later Spanish, helping hundreds of people both in and outside the office to translate and fill out forms. Many weekend mornings Phyllis tells me: “you’d wake up and make coffee and then somebody would be knocking at the door in order to talk to John .… When he died hundreds of people I never met in my life came by and told me how blessed we were. He was a very special person.”
Since John’s death, Phyllis sits as the head of the farm and family. She describes to me the “piece of mind” and “tranquility” that comes over her when she is home. Nothing is more important to her than preserving this:
We all struggled with money…It’s not easy to keep land and dirt. … but John entrusted this place to me because he believed I would keep the family together…He says “As long as you have the farm, they’ll be here.” And that’s so true. When he died, he died of a heart attack in the barn….I completely went to pieces and [my nephew] said “Don’t worry, nothing is going to change”…and nothing has.
Phyllis has never lived anywhere else but on her family’s land, in the house her father built. Under her guidance, life on the Naples farm continues today much as it always has, despite the inevitable changes that occur as the years stretch further away from the immigrant generation. Crops of beets, eggplant, pepper, beans, tomatos and garlic grow every year, still without pesticides. The berries that grew on the land when the Naples first bought it still thrive. Younger family members- both through blood and marriage- are eager to learn how to preserve food, and Phyllis teaches them the methods her mother Maria taught her. Late in August, the family still gathers under the pavilion to can tomatoes. Where they once preserved 400 quarts, they now make 150. Weekly Sunday dinners endure with Phyllis’ nieces, nephews and an assortment of old friends and occasional strangers. They take turns making the food the Naples family has always made, in this country and in Italy. In preserving their land, and the fruits and vegetables that grow from it, the Naples have preserved their family. And like many families around the world, at the center of this preservation is food, and the fellowship that comes in sharing it.
Phyllis Naples and Niece Rosemary; November 18, 2012
Visit Phyllis year-round at the Dudley Farmer’s Market in Guilford, CT- of which she is Market Master.
*Watch me make Naples Family Vegetable Stew (Ciambotta) on WFSB’s Better Connecticut.
The recipe is also posted at Foodie Fatale.