Buckhead Tales: The Vegetable Man

I grew up in Buckhead during a time when there wasn’t a supermarket on every block. Sure, there were a few grocery stores here and there, but they weren’t selling produce out of season. The shelves weren’t packed with “specialty items” like Himalayan salt or artisanal pasta. In the late 1950s mom used to shop at the A&P up at the corner of Peachtree and Piedmont. Sometimes she would wander a little farther down the road to the Kroger but that was about it. On rare occasions she would go to a tiny store at the corner of Roswell and Old Ivy called Matthews. I remember her telling me they had the best meat in Buckhead.

In 1962 we moved to a neighborhood near Chastain Park and the closest grocery store was the Big Apple at the intersection of Roswell and Powers Ferry. My sister, Dayna, tells me that when she was a senior at Dykes High School, now Sutton Middle, it was her job to do the weekly family food shopping every weekend. Dad would give her the giant sum of $40 and for some reason she would drive all the way to Lenox Square to load up on groceries. I think there was a Colonial over there. Not sure why she drove that far, maybe they had some cute bag boys.

This was during an era of change when the concept of “convenience foods” first invaded our noble community with corrosive effect. Somebody went into a laboratory and concocted food-like products like Hamburger Helper and Manwich and before you knew it, that is what we were eating. There were Pop-Tarts and Instant Breakfast and even “powered potatoes.” I kid you not, powered potatoes. They are still available with their wholesome ingredients like “emulsifiers” (mono- and diglycerides) and “preservatives” (sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium bisulfite, citric acid, mixed tocopherols). 

God help us all for allowing these pseudo-foods to enter the food chain. I’m hoping somewhere down the line we are forgiven for feeding this to our children. I guess I better climb down off my soap box. I’m preaching to the choir, at least I hope so. 

When we moved to Millbrook Drive something occurred that has stuck with me through all the years. One Friday afternoon in early summer I saw a truck parked down the hill under the shade of trees on Twin Springs Road. I was hanging out with Bruce Hampton and Pete Terrell and with nothing better to do we walked down the road to check it out. 

It was a Vegetable Man.

The back of his ancient truck had been fitted with wooden shelves and stacks of crates. A little canvas roof covered it all and from one corner of the roof hung a scale. Hand lettered signs proudly proclaimed his prices. There was corn, green beans, watermelons, okra, tomatoes, cantaloupes, and just about everything you could think of. If it was in season, it was in the back of his truck. He gave each of us a peach and told us to go tell our moms that he would be there every Friday afternoon.

Within a week or two the word had spread throughout the neighborhood like wildfire. That summer the Vegetable Man became a celebrity. No one knew where he came from or where he obtained his produce. Everyone– even we kids who knew nothing– recognized that we were being graced by something very special. His produce was not being shipped across the country or sitting in a warehouse for weeks. It was shocking to see fresh food. Our parents had been raised in a time when the road from the farm to their table was only a few miles at most. By the time I came along that road could stretch thousands of miles and into other continents.

That summer in 1962 I saw what my parents, my grandparents, and the long family line stretching back for centuries had seen. Food, real food, untouched by all that was surrendered in the name of commerce, logistics, and middlemen. The Vegetable Man was with us one brief summer until he failed to show up one Friday afternoon in September. All the moms stood around in the heat waiting for him to show up for a good 30 minutes before they got back in their cars and drove slowly home. He was gone and never seen again. He was a part of a vanishing breed that has now morphed into a caricature and become the gentrified upscale markets that populate the lifestyle of the privileged. 

Like the great herds of buffalo, the real Vegetable Men are gone. 

Oh, there may be a few of them left out there in the backwaters of rural America. I hope so, though I haven’t seen one in over 50 years. 

They say only a fool wants to turn back the clock and I can’t argue with that. But I’m hoping I don’t have to wish for a trip back to 1962. I just want to walk up to an old beat up truck on a hot August afternoon and have a Vegetable Man hand me a peach. Not a word needs to be spoken, just pass me the peach, and let me have one last taste of summer.

Jim Tate
Author, Buckhead Tales

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