Of all the suburbs of Boston, Belmont seems to me one of the most sedate. We have no bookstore, no public square where you can go sit around and talk to strangers, not a very well-stocked main public library, and not the kind of movie theater whose billboard you check impatiently. Notice that I do not mention restaurants (of which Belmont has had a recent infusion) because I would much rather cook a very good meal at home than be waited on at a second-rate restaurant. And that’s what these restaurants do–they wait on you, incessantly, dutifully, as though you were an infant in diapers needing vigilance and care. (“Leave me alone,” I want to say, “let me eat or not in peace.” Which is what they do so well in Paris, for instance, where they are stylishly indifferent, dish out the good food, and return some time later with the bill.)
But despite its lackluster offerings, this little suburb of mine has other things to compensate for it: great walking trails, general proximity of public transportation, beautiful verdant surroundings, and a farmers’ market which won Best of Boston last year. And on a day like today, the Belmont Farmers’ Market glitters with color and sound and animation, not to mention Monty, the dog, barking away and then exhausted, settling himself on the ground to watch passersby.
It blows my mind that Kimball Fruit Farm has 72 different varieties of heirloom tomatoes; that when you bite into Mamadou Bread you encounter a hard crust which slowly gives way to tender, soft chewing ; that our farmers’ market shares the runner-up position this year with one of my favorites in town, the Copley Place Farmers’ Market. I keep these things in my mind and will rattle them away when I sing the praises of my local farmers’ market, along with the excellent jams from Coutts, the salad mix from Kimball Farms, the green eggplants and swiss chard of the Farm School, and many other offerings that grace the Belmont Center parking lot each Thursday.
But there is one thing, one institution–and it is an institution–which has little to do directly with consumption of food. The Siracos of Siraco Sharpening Service–father and two sons–do not sell anything, neither cooked nor raw, neither sweet nor gently bitter. They sharpen knives and gardening implements, and have been doing so since 1953 when Dominic Siraco started the business.
Add Siraco’s service, if you want, to the long list of things that are disappearing from our lives, or being replaced by those flimsy things which you can get at Target for less than 10 dollars. Sharpening knives is the last thing these little implements will do even if you prayed on them for forty days. What you need to sharpen your knives is the skill and machinery which you get a glimpse of in the red truck of the Siracos, the noise and the dust and the old world implements cohabiting a tiny, messy space and two busy men–today, Dominic senior and Dominic junior–gliding the edge against the sharpening wheel. At the market, the elder Siraco gets a lot of attention and enjoys the casual conversations which people strike up with him. He has a dexterous hand and a sharp eye, and he will sharpen your knives and gardening tools to perfection, wrap them in newsprint and sent you on your merry way. Every year.
The ritual of having your knives sharpened is a bit like having your shoes repaired, which I do with equal enthusiasm if I can find a shoe that is leather-soled. An old tradition from a more frugal time. But sharpening knives has an element of danger in it–the dull edge suddenly transformed by the attention and skill of the Siracos of the world into a glistening surface whose powers you don’t want to test except on your kitchen board, and even there with some care. I remember as a child growing up in Beirut the man who sharpened our knives and cleaned our copper pots and pans had a simple call. Sakakin, sakakin (knives, in Arabic), and when we heard that sound, my grandmother would hand me all the knives and ask me to run to corner of the street where the man had set up temporary headquarters. “Be careful with the sharp knives,” she would say, before I whizzed out the door. “Be careful; they can hurt you.” Or the man would come to the house for glazing the pots and pants.
There was something slightly mysterious about it all. In Amman, the Jordanian capital, where I spent my adolescence, we called the man who performed these functions al-akhdar, (the green man) because he wore green from top to bottom and looked a little deranged. My heart would fill with trepidation when I heard the call of the green man as he came up the stairs of our second-floor apartment. Even his eyes were bright green; they looked burned, on fire.
Of course, Dominic Siraco and his son have none of these features. The father is a thin man with white hair and a contagious smile; the son seems equally affable and friendly. They visibly enjoy what they’re doing–making the chore of slicing and peeling and pruning and cutting so much more easy and pleasant.
Back at home, the newly sharpened knife peels the ripe tomato as though it were a piece of silk fabric. Then the eggplants and the peppers. And as I prepare this evening’s meal from the colorful vegetables that I’ve gathered here on the counter, the words come back: Be careful now. Don’t cut yourself.
I’ve done that many times, and then had to make a run to the band aid before anyone saw the blood oozing out of my fingers. I did it again and my index finger is now nicely bandaged. Some habits never change even here, in this quiet suburb of mine where I spent a gorgeous afternoon buying and talking and watching the knife’s edge against the wheel, Monty’s chin on the hot asphalt slightly visible behind the plants his owner is selling, the spread of the tomatoes red against the blue sky. I counted five varieties of eggplant today. I had never seen light-green eggplants until today. They peel well. And I have a zillion eggplant recipes to choose from. Let us go then, my eggplants and I…