To the annoyance of just about everyone I've talked to in the last couple of weeks, I'm reading The Omnivore's Dilemma and generally getting my world rocked. It's making me think very hard about the food I buy and how I can make better choices, better changes in our lifestyle. And I don't want to shut up about it, so it's driving everyone around me crazy. Poor Dug, the look on his face when I started explaining some things I'd read about industrial farming and then let it slip that I was only (at the time) sixty pages into the book. The section about organic farming hasn't made me feel much better, to be honest. But it has definitely provided a veritable banquet of food for thought.
My grandpa always had a huge garden. When I was a kid, he was growing just about every fruit and vegetable that you could conceivably grow in his Kansas back yard. It wasn't a strictly organic garden, but its edges were five feet from the kitchen door--the short travel time more than made up for the occasional use of chemicals, I would say. At the height of their food production I don't think it would be fudging it to say that my grandparents were leaving an infintesimal ecological footprint.
Every vegetable eaten in my grandparents' house was from the yard. If it wasn't eaten fresh the day it was picked, it was carefully stored in whichever was the most appropriate way: bagged and deep-frozen, or put in jars and canned. In the basement was a massive chest freezer, as well as a whole wall of shelves to store jars of fruit and vegetables. During the summers that we spent with Grandma and Grandpa, my sister and I were frequently put to work cutting green beans into 1" pieces, stuffing handfulls of fresh dill into jars full of cucumber slices, hulling strawberries, climbing cherry trees and not coming down until we'd filled our buckets. Neighbors and friends were beneficiaries of some of the produce, and Grandma and Grandpa always brought coolers full of frozen food and cases full of jars when they visited family.
Dinner at my grandparents' was the noon meal. There would usually be meat, and it was often fried, and it was usually just ordinary grocery store animal protein. And there would always be a plate stacked with slices of Roman Meal bread, which was the "house bread" (I suspect my lack of baking talent comes to me from Grandma). And then, there would be five or six, no shit, different vegetables and a fruit or two. For real. Some of them would be small bowls of leftovers from the day before, a couple would be freshly prepared, and there would usually be something on the table that had just been picked and washed off and thrown in a bowl to serve raw.
Supper was always simple--maybe something leftover from dinner, but more often just a sandwich. One of the greatest gustatory experiences of my life, and one I've never quite been able to replicate, is the sweet onion sandwich that was my evening meal during the summer: the aforementioned Roman Meal bread, green leaf lettuce (which I often had to go out and get for myself, bring inside, carefully wash and dry), thin slices of sweet onion (I'd have to run out to the cool, dry garage to grab one if there weren't any in the kitchen), a little salt and pepper and a dab of Miracle Whip. Maybe it's the fact that I've never had Miracle Whip or Roman Meal in my own house that prevents me from recreating this sandwich; more likely it's that I've never been able to walk out the back door to grab some lettuce. But I know that if I ever taste an onion like that again, it's going to be a Proustian moment.
Last night I made a very simple dinner. Only three vegetables were involved, and no meat. I didn't serve bread, but if I had, it would have been a baguette or a crusty peasant loaf.
I didn't grow the asparagus, or the onions, or the sweet potatoes. But I did grow the basil, and the lemon whose juice seasoned the dish. And I did go right out the back door to get them, right in the middle of cooking. That's something. That's a start.
I will never be a farmer. But reading this book, and thinking about my grandparents, and thinking about my kids, has made me look forward to having a basement someday where I can put my own chest freezer, my own shelves of jars. I look forward to having the counter space in a kitchen to load in a few cases of locally-grown produce from the farmer's market, and to packaging it and canning it and preserving it at its best so we can enjoy it year-round, having the girls sit at the table and cut green beans and stuff dill into jars. And I hope I'll always grow a little something.