And Then I Went Back to the Land
from Saltfront (studies in human habit(at) Issue 8
At the Konditori
In the back of the clean and well-lit room, past all the white tables and chairs, a small, curved glass case displays the selections, all created from locally-sourced ingredients – including savory and sweet treats labeled gluten-free and vegan. The women at the checkout counter stand in front of a huge wall display that lists the farms and locations which have produced the flour, butter, cheese, and fruits used in the desserts and lunch offerings.
The food is a work of visual artistry. The salad alone deserves to be captured in pastels: Beauty Heart radish slices, like a constellation of pink stars in a white sky atop on a bed of maroon and green mesclun dotted with crumbled glowing-white goat cheese.
I have driven two hours from my organic farm to this bakery café because our writing group is meeting and wants to support locally-sourced foods. But as I admire the small servings of delicacies, I am struck by the prices listed. I wonder what it means for our group to select this food when so many homeless people wander the streets of this very same city; when farmers in my rural neighborhood have always gone hungry.
At the counter, we read the list of offerings and ingredients, and I realize all of the baked goods have sugar – not at all a local product.
Sugar? I ask the server behind the counter That’s not local, is it? Why aren’t you using local honey?… It supports farmers.
Yes, says the server but the vegans don't eat honey.
No honey. They consider honey production exploitation of the bees.
But you source locally. What about maple syrup and sorghum? These are produced on the farms west of here.
Oh, I never thought of that. We'll have to check that out.
As we three writers settle in next to the large storefront windows, we shake our heads. We’re delighted that the café honors the farmers who produce their food. But local versus vegan? We do want to eat in a café that welcomes a variety of dietary needs, but we are struck by how tangled everything has become. With each trend, it seems some other food priority is lost from the queue of offerings. Who could imagine that the movement away from sugar out of socio-political concerns for workers in sugar producing areas and concerns for health would be superseded by vegan concerns for bees?
It's probably a mark of privilege that we have such choices and dilemmas, but food culture is always complicated. I consider the complexity from the past seven decades of my life.
Ancestral Foodscape: Immigrants in an Appalachian Coal Mining Valley
From the heritage of Great Depression survival: bread, butter, and catsup sandwiches, of doves and chickens in the backyard for meat. Of harvesting wild elderberry flowers for a sweet summer drink. Of raising food in a city backyard while foraging for food in forests, in streams, and along roads. Each garden edible, each wild edible gathered, a victory. Always, in the fall of the year, harvesting, drying, canning, storing, and preserving every possible food: potatoes, beans, onions, peppers cabbage, basil, apples, pears, peaches. Pickles, relishes, chutneys. Concord grapes from trellised vines on porches to fill wax-sealed jelly jars, to fill basement barrels with wine and vinegar.
From home doctoring, foods as medicine: bread with green mold (the original penicillin) and warm milk with garlic slices. For coughs, shot of hot honey, lemon, and whiskey with a pat of butter.
For winter holiday: a splurge five kinds of sugar cookies, a five-gallon lard tin of each, and purchased oranges delivered by train only for Christmas.
From the federal government as railroads go bankrupt and coal plays out, food from relief lines for commodity staples, brown cardboard packages and silver cans stamped with big black letters U S holding: oats, cornmeal, lard, and sometimes, butter or cheese; peanut butter or pork.
Childhood Amid Green Revolution
Vestiges of the Great Depression thread our foodscape and culture –backyard orchards, gardens, coops and corner grocery stores and Relief line and commodity foods are still shared among family members.
Twice weekly, my mother bakes loaves of white bread, crusty and thick, and it is served with the new butter substitute called "oleomargarine" for which we have to mix the yellow dye into a white greasy substance. Sometimes we just eat the white grease. The only time to taste real butter is when we are lucky enough to receive it in the relief line pickup. All meals are made from scratch – including egg noodles and cakes, Mama relents when there is a sale on Jiffy cake mixes at the A & P.
Our milk is delivered to the doorstep in glass bottles from the dairy van whose brakes screech to a halt on our steep mountain street.
Neighbors still keep chickens or doves in their backyards for some of their meat. We purchase lunch meats from butchers whose products are smoked out in the yards behind their stores. Entering their business means walking on a wooden floor covered in sweet piney-smelling sawdust. The butchers stand at a wood block counter. Behind them, wood-framed cooling lockers with large glass windows store their products. All purchases are cut on the block, laid on paper, weighed on an enamel scale, and brought to a marble counter to be bound with string. We wait, bathed in the rich fragrances of hickory and oak-smoke, and conifer.
From the edges of yards and roads we still eat wild greens: dandelion salads. We collect fresh summer and fall fruits that come from trees and bushes in our relatives' and neighbors' yards. Along railroad tracks and wherever we can find them, we gather wild huckleberries and elderberries. Bananas are the only grocery fruit available year round – the oranges, dates, and figs appear in grocery stores in December. Winter through spring, our fruit comes packed in Mason canning jars. When talking about our food, we don't use the word "local" because we don't know much else. We instead, talk about what foods are "in season."
Our country begins to move toward "cheap food" mass produced through mechanized farming. While our traditional Appalachian diet continues with the seasonal palette shift from summer greens to winter browns, large scale food production and interstate highways bring more fresh produce than we could ever have imagined. Extensive advertising and packaging bring instant foods. Shake-n-Bake fried chicken seasonings. Imitation whipped cream. Instant mashed potatoes.
Commodity relief lines transition to food stamps, allowing purchases of highly processed foods. In my family, instead of canning garden food and baking bread, we purchase canned and baked goods. Eventually, we lose our tradition of home-processed local foods.
Out in the World: Great Lakes University Town in the Food Co-op Movement
In the 1970s, I am immersed in the Environmental Movement. Francis Moore Lappe's Diet for a Small Planet guides students like me to choose ovo-lacto vegetarian diets. In cooperatively-run ghetto apartments or in independently-owned housing co-ops, we cook meals based on combined proteins: whole grains/beans/dairy/seeds. We believe in a vegetarian diet because meat production requires land and grain. We make ethical choices, and learn to eat lower down on the food chain, the hierarchy taught in biology and ecology classes. We hope that by eating this way we can help curb soil erosion and give more people the opportunity to eat. We also believe that eating less meat is healthier. Because we have privilege of choice, we experiment with our diets, and we easily accommodate vegans by leaving out dairy in portions of our community meals.
In our food culture, Molly Katzen's Moosewood Cookbook recipes infuse our home and potluck dishes -- foods not unlike those of our immigrant relatives. We spurn hamburgers on soft white buns, cold-cut sandwiches on white bread, or canned meat-filled ravioli. Instead, we learn to use a wok to cook stirfry; perfect traditional casseroles; create dips and grain dishes from the Mediterranean, Asia, and Eastern Europe. We bake with honey instead of sugar.
My contemporaries and I volunteer at the many fledgling not-for-profit food co-ops to repack bulk foods: flour, baking supplies, dried fruit, nut butters, grains, and beans, for in addition to eating lower down on the food chain, we believe that we need to find ways to reduce packaging and encourage recycling. Our customers bring their own containers and spurn plastic bags. We cut enormous blocks of cheese into smaller portions, and we weigh and label each package by hand. We keep the co-op storefronts as clean as we can while unloading bulk foods from the truck deliveries and attempting to maintain failing used coolers.
Some of us dream of becoming part of the Back to the Land Movement where we'll raise foods and become farmers with a new ethic. We imagine ourselves on small farms, raising food by hand. We envision producing food without creating large-scale monoculture or using large, expensive agricultural equipment. We wish to save the life and integrity of the soil and bring flavor and wholeness back into our foods.
All at once in the early 1980s, gourmet foods appear. In gentrified city neighborhoods, coffeehouses offer drinks that are nothing like coffee and tea found in existing main street cafés in each small town and city. Coffee brewed from arabica high shade-grown beans is sold as an antidote to "American dishwater," the highly watered-down robustus coffee. The teas come from named estates. The air is scented with disdain for cheap mass-produced food, and as it perfumes our communities, the divisions between elite and those needing to eat become canyons. The word "Yuppie" is coined.
In this same decade, "organic" comes into its own to include milk, butter, cheeses, meat, vegetables, fruits, and even tea and coffee, all certified by agencies formed to guarantee standards of production free of, ironically called, "organic compounds" – chemicals produced from petroleum for fertilizers and pesticides.
As food co-ops become part of the larger food landscape, they become streamlined, and the standards imposed by health inspectors become stricter. Bulk foods require elaborate gravity bins, packaging greatly increases, and recycling of used containers vanishes. Over time, food co-ops enlarge and design their stores to echo the commercial supermarkets. They use similar displays and packaging, and like the grocery stores they emulate, they consume enormous amounts of fossil-fuel energy.
By this time, I work as a naturalist. Though the purpose of the work is to promote sustainability, we environmental educators cannot discuss values with our public (too scary, possible coercion) or share our own experiences (not scientifically validated) to figure out how community is best to survive.
I watch in dismay as coworkers race to fast food chains along the highway on their lunch breaks. These same people had, earlier in the day, led their students in environmental education activities to trace a hamburger and bun to their sources. The purpose of the activity is to raise a generation who will consider where their food comes from and how many resources are used to produce it.
I am frustrated by the disconnect between values and actions. I want to say to these naturalists Have you ever traced the origins of your own food? Do you know where the fast food chains obtain their raw ingredients and how it is grown? Have you ever considered the potential for organically produced foods to support our environment? Would you make purchases that costs a little more up front, or require a little more of your time to support the soil and water resources? What would happen if you walked the talk?
And then I went back to the land.
1990s – Present
Back to the Land: Upper Mississippi River Valley
I join in family with a man building a solar house on land in a depressed farm area in the Great Lakes region. A place settled by families a century-and-a-half earlier who continued to live on very low incomes, hunting not only deer but squirrel and wild rabbit to stay fed. A place of collapsing contiguous dairy farms. As the rural economy vanishes altogether, sweeping away feed mills, lumber yards, and grocery stores – the suppliers for farmers and the mainstay of each rural small town – I go back to what I know: gathering fruit from trees and bushes in summer and fall, canning or processing orchard and garden harvest for the larder in winter and spring. Raise chickens for eggs. Foraging for food in forests and fields.
Over time, as interest in local food expands, my family takes on milking goats and builds an artisan cheesery. We become swept into the farmer market system.
Farmers' markets begin to flourish across North America. But the farm producers of food still cater to a large system. It's difficult for families such as ours to weekly or biweekly pack food and make a two-hour journey in the wee hours to a city far from home. It's hard on family life, and the rhythms and chores of the farm still have to be maintained when someone in the family leaves for a night and a day. The markets serve urban patrons who, outside of a few small purchases, do not support the rural economy. Community Supported Agriculture farms (CSA's) is a move in the right direction, bringing due-paying members onto the site to help with some of the work, but our culture has yet to make this specialized exchange ubiquitous and affordable to the people who have lived the longest in depressed rural areas.
At the same time that farm markets continue to blossom, food deserts spread in our cities. Sometimes the two realities meet, and people in need of food are able to use food relief tokens at farmers' markets. The larger reality is that we have land in urban places that could help produce food, but which require organization and capital. I am heartened when I hear the intention of a Detroit mayor to create farms in abandoned residential neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, I wrestle with my thoughts each time I walk into the food co-op in the nearby small town. The bulk items that I expected to find in co-ops years ago are, in this place, mostly gratuitous. Packaging and advertising cover the small-volume, highly-priced foods. Organic and grass-fed meats are a centerpiece of the food served at the co-op's hot bar. While some people in my rural neighborhood eat squirrel, highly educated and skilled retirees as well as college-educated transplants move to this small town, make online commutes to work, and they purchase expensive and specialized foods from this co-op because they can afford to. Although there are new farmers from within the subset of transplants, they live a life and food culture quite separate from the generations of people who have lived, farmed, and lost their farms here.
Serving the Sustainable: Dreaming into the Future
The meals served from my kitchen are spiced by all of the food movements I have lived through.
I work with multigrain dough, harvest wild and garden foods from my land, and like the immigrants in Appalachia I grew up among, I work as hard as I can to preserve as much as I can for my family's meals. We purchase organic foods from the farmers alongside our stand at the city market and buy staples from a flourishing co-op. Though we struggle to survive in farm country, we have food, and monthly, my family contributes to a rural food pantry.
I often wonder how to help our community survive into the future. And I wonder, when we are offered so many food stories and choices, what can we do for sustainability?
My deep belief is that we need to honor the soil we walk on by encouraging everyone to grow something – to plant and watch over even one fruit tree or bush – and then teach a food tradition. Indigenous people in the Food Sovereignty movement across North America are doing just that as they grow, harvest and prepare food from saved indigenous seeds. For my part, I share my stories, showing friends and neighbors how, for example, to use the dandelions and nettles from their lawns for beautiful food, and I ask them for stories of land and traditions.
I remain hopeful that we can transform our world together through food. I dream of places where people who have space to grow food take the time to do so – and invite children to help. I dream of community potluck suppers as there used to be, and I dream of lovely cafes where we can all sit together at tables to share foods foraged and raised right outdoors, richly spiced with our stories.
Catherine Young is author of the poetry collection Geosmin (Scent of Earth) published 2022 by Water's Edge Press. Her writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays. She worked as a national park ranger, farmer, mother, and educator. Her ecopoetry and prose is published in journals nationally and internationally. Rooted in farm life, Catherine lives with her family in Wisconsin. Find her writings and podcasts at: http://www.catherineyoungwriter.com/