Monday, June 9, 2008

Locally, Globally

Share your food roots! Post a reply, or if you are set up to blog on Slow Food Tallahassee, log in and blog away. Here's my story:

I’ve always considered myself a foodie. I grew up in a family whose days were arranged around meals as we traveled through Europe picking up recipes, food customs and traditions along the way. Much of our food came straight from the rich, black soil around us, and I never considered it unusual or “alternative”. My mother grew herbs, apples, gooseberries, plums, runner beans, rhubarb, raddicio, frizee, and rockett, all interspersed with a stunning display of flowers, year round. She made friends instantly wherever we went, and friends brought an endless supply of treasures from their own gardens.

My earliest memory is from Hambrook, England, where we lived when my father had his first job abroad as a civilian doctor. I was in the back garden with my mother, picking apples and offering them over a stone wall to the neighbors’ horses.

Later, after a brief return to the United States where my father joined the Army, we moved back to Europe – Germany this time. We lived in a grand, four story vicarage, with huge wooden gates opening into a dark courtyard, where a bullet-mark riddled statue stood – it was used for target practice by soldiers in WWII. There was a foyered entrance, a spiral stair-case, a five-chambered basement for memorable Halloween parties, a ball-room, a second story glass garden room, and a huge attic, part of which had been converted into a little bedroom. I shared a bedroom, one with a sink and a balcony (it had been a second-story kitchen) overlooking the courtyard, with my younger sister.

Our landlady also offered her garden, a walk through town as part of our tenancy. My mother took me to harvest from the garden, it must have been in the autumn. I remember the apples littered heavily under their trees, the air around them humming with bees and yellow-jackets. The sweet smell of fermenting apples under the sun remains with me. I remember being hot and tired from walking. I followed my mother closely to avoid the stinging nettles, brambles, wasps and bees, and yet, in retrospect there was something undeniably, innately right and pleasing about the whole experience.

Our friend Frau Klein regularly invited us to her home. She had what seemed like an enormous back yard with giant cherry trees. I chased her sweet, spoiled, barrel-bodied dachshund outside and clambered up in a hammock slung between two of the giants that were literally dripping cherries. Out I fell, landing on a slick bed of brown, slimy, decomposing fruits.

She sent us home with baskets of cherries. We ate hundreds while we were stoning the cherries for my mother’s “rum topf," before realizing that each one housed a single, tiny larva. No harm to us!

We moved to Belgium, and then to England. Mr. Houghton, my seventy-something-year-old neighbor and dear childhood friend, made sure that my family was well fed. He knew where to find all of the edible flora for miles around. Weekends and summers spent rambling across fields and through hedgerows and streams rewarded us with a bounty of wild treasures: mirabelle plums, portabello and giant puffball mushrooms, watercress, burdock, horseradish, blackberries, beech-nuts, rose-hips and chestnuts, currants and elderberries. The same expeditions turned up for me a collection of clay pipes, roman coins, pieces of bronze, and ancient flint tools –used by those who subsisted on virtually the same wild offerings before and after Romans drained the land and farmed and fed the rich soil that had until then been mostly covered by marsh-water. We stocked up on carrots, leeks, onions, sugar-beets, and daffodils directly at the farms that produced them. Once a year we gathered tiny, bitter wild plums from farm hedgerows, called sloes, took them home and pricked each one before pushing it through the neck of an empty wine bottle filled partially with sugar before filling the gaps with gin to make a jewel-toned libation for the coming and subsequent Christmas Seasons. During hunting season, he received game birds from village friends – he always had them in braces – one male and one female. The birds hung for two days under burlap in the cool garage, and we shoed the flies away until they were ready. Ready meant that the birds had reached a critical fine line of perfection that can only be understood far away from the supermarket, close to their source. In the garage we plucked feathers from pheasants and partridges while he put horseradish through a grinder into a vinegar jar. His garden yielded asparagus, radishes, strawberries, lettuces, brussels sprouts, English peas, broad-beans, tiny waxy new-potatoes, and bouquets of flowers. We checked each leaf for caterpillars and eggs which we carefully removed and dispatched. Pesticides were a bit of odd wizardry, held at bay by the blessed recalcitrance of his aged experience.

In the Spring I watched lambs and goats being born. The sheep stamped ridiculous warnings as we passed with our Labrador retriever, and a single goose chased us outside the un-fenced border of an open apple orchard that we’d pinched the odd apple from before. Starlings on our roof mimicked a rooster. Fields of black Fen soil dressed with cow manure in winter were strangely pleasant; those dressed with pig manure assaulted the nostrils from miles away but were nourished and continued to yield. Every fall the winds (called gales) picked up and blew a fine layer of black soil over every surface, outdoors and in.

On some weekends my family visited larger towns, each one having a large open-air market. Produce was available, but the bounty of food at our doorstep was so copious that I don’t recall my mother purchasing any from the market. Instead, she bought cheese. Our own tiny village in England had a butcher shop, a green-grocer (run by an ancient woman who grew all of the vegetables herself – organically), and four public houses. In Germany, we walked down the street from our house to the bakery for brotchen and fresh jelly doughnuts, and picked up aufshnitt from the nearby deli. In Belgium, we drove into town for pastries and coffee on the square. In Normandy, we ate shellfish so fresh that it pulled back into its shell at the touch of a fork. Outdoor spaces in every town were punctuated by unmistakable smells of fresh meat, cheese, ripe fruit, and malt, from market stall, shop, brewery. Each town had its own unique smells and tastes, because each sustained its own essence, retained its own unique qualities. Words like local, sustainable agriculture, community supported agriculture were never uttered in any language – these simply were. As a child, I was oblivious to the uprise Italy against MacDonald's and the encroaching fast-food industry, which marked the beginning of the Slow Food movement. Still, fast food and homogenization of culture were encroaching, and after my adolescent and college years back in the U.S., I began to feel a strong personal desire to reconnect with the what has come to be called Slow Food, and the way of life attached to it. A child added to the equation, and the desire became an imperative.

4 comments:

secretary said...

fantastic, inspiring post! thank you, thank you, thank you!! :)

Rob said...

Thank you for your brilliant post. I sadly moved to an England where the ability to produce your own food was all but forgotten, and allotment owners were scoffed at and seen as old fashioned. Thankfully I have seen that attitude change in the past decade toward something more positive.

Your post is inspirational.

Food and Brew Love said...

Thank you, Rob -- I've heard and read about lots of change, mostly away from what we hope for. I'm happy if the pendulum is swinging back the other way in the past decade. (I can't believe it was more than a decade and a half since I left)!

alshreef said...

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