Two weeks after my sister died, my husband and I loaded our kids into the car and headed for the Sandhills. I don’t know that I was feeling much of anything at the time. I wanted my family near me and I wanted all of us to experience the soft comfort of those gentle, rolling hills. But most of all I wanted to return to my small and manageable world of interviews and writing.
I was relieved and anxious when George Johnson, subject of my story and founder of George Paul Vinegar, invited my family to stay with him and his wife Karen at their Cody, Nebraska home. From the perspective of a writer, I felt the proximity and time with the person I was set to interview would greatly enhance the story. As a mother of a then 2-year-old and 4-year-old, I thought well, my kids are going to trash this place and that will be the end of it. And, “Please God, no precious breakables within arms reach.” Inviting us to stay at his home was like inviting an army to storm the place.
“Come on out and bring the whole family,” said George. “It will feel like coming home. We’ll even have dinner ready.”
It was harvest time and the landscape was full of shimmering green and gold hills set against an impossibly blue sky. The drive was beautiful and serene, just as I expected it would be. Typically at this time of year Nebraskans think of corn and soybean, but I was headed for a grape harvest.
George was right; it felt like coming home. If your home included two of the nicest people on earth, and one of the United States most talented vinegar makers. I was there to discover how a man living in the Sandhills town of Cody, Nebraska created vinegars on par with international varieties and sought after by the region’s top chefs. He and his daughter, Emily Johnson, produce 8 varietals from Nebraska fruit and sold under the brand George Paul Vinegar, many of which have been featured in prestigious food magazines including Saveur and Food and Wine, among others. I learned his success has more to do with being a good father, a passionate person and a ferocious reader than it does with being a connoisseur of fine foods or frequenter of fancy places.
When we arrived at a blue house flecked with bright orange zinnias and rows of grape vines, a John Deere pedal tractor was waiting in the driveway, and Karen was busy forming ground beef into patties. George emerged from the tan stucco, straw bale vinegary next door to their home to greet us. With a smile and an outreached hand we exchanged pleasantries and he encouraged my son to ride the tractor his children rode decades earlier.
Eventually, we put the children to bed and I set up my laptop at the kitchen table. George, Karen and I enjoyed a bottle of their wine and I did my best to learn about vinegar. George, however, wanted to talk about his family, his marriage and his children. Every time I would steer the questions toward vinegar, he would, eventually steer me back to family. I gave in and realized his story was less about building a business and more about building a life.
Every person I wrote about for my book, New Prairie Kitchen, inspired me in some way, but George and Karen impacted how my husband and I parent our children. He said the secret to a strong family is listening to your children when they want to talk. While I understood the concept in theory, I was in a stage of parenting where I would’ve done anything for 10 minutes of silence.
“My kids influenced me and taught me more than anyone else ever has, they are really great people; I’m proud of them,” George said, taping the table where we sat. “When they were growing up we would always have a meal in the evening. If they would talk, we would sit here and listen. If you have a child willing to talk to you then all bets are off. If you are going to raise children responsibly, then nothing else matters. You listen.”
Perhaps I was feeling sentimental because I was coming from a such a fragile place. This was my first interview after my sister died and so much of me was reeling, but I remember every moment, movement and sound from my time at at George and Karen’s dinner table. I was there to write about him, to tell his story and he ended up writing a chapter of mine. I think of his words about listening to my children on a weekly if not daily basis. It’s something I have to practice and prioritize, but hopefully when I’m 40 years into my own marriage and my children are grown they will want to sit down at my kitchen table and talk so I can listen.
I spent nearly four years traveling through Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota writing about chefs, farmers and artisans for my cookbook, New Prairie Kitchen, which is available online now and will be available in bookstores in May 2015. Many of the people I encountered impacted me on a deeply personal level. The confines of print left me wanting to tell you more about them and my own evolution so I’m sharing a bit more of their stories in an occasional series called Backstory. You can read Part 1 here.