Friday, September 26, 2008
I grew up in a California town of 600, closer to the neighbors’ farms than to the nearest grocery store. I was shocked when I moved to New England to realize that on a regular basis people pay for things that I have always thought of as dropping faster than anyone could pick, let alone sell: blackberries, plums, oranges… But I also grew up knowing the joys and pains of a little home plot and a commitment to sustainable agriculture, cooking, and eating. Generally for the good, and occasionally for the very gross, my mom is a dedicated food experimenter: 100% whole wheat pasta was gloppy, mushy, and bland, but was more than made up for by fresh fruit tarts to break up apple pie season, pressure cooker meats that brought Sunday dinners to Wednesday, and cous-cous with merguez that makes even the 100th zucchini of the month perfectly divine. California is bountiful but my parents’ home is in a small valley with limited sunlight and highly resourceful wildlife. For a few years we hung panther piss, which the San Francisco zoo gives away free if you’ll just come and pick it up, to keep away the deer, and on a recent visit I rigged a motion detector to a sprinkler system to ward off bean-plant-digging raccoons. No boring place-setting for me: climbing to the branches that could only support kid weight, pouring out beer for the snails, and squishing spit bugs was as fun to me as it was helpful to my mother. Though I do now balk at an apple picking adventure, saying, “but why on earth should I pay someone so that I can do chores for them?”
Twelve years into becoming a New Englander, I’ve begun to savor the quick succession of firsts and lasts that four season living offers. And I’m learning how chopping overflow zucchini on the porch on a breezy summer afternoon leads to warming the house with the sweet scent of fresh zucchini bread in February. I feel a little like a chipmunk, but my new commitment to seasonal food is turning Fall from a time when I mourn the end of summer’s bounty to such a flurry of foraging and storing that I yearn for the empty farm stands of midwinter.
I live in Somerville, the most densely populated city in the United States, and I try to pack into my postage stamp back yard a vegetable garden, a raspberry patch, a toddler’s pool, a sandbox, a fruit tree, and a compost pile. I had to shut down the compost pile because of rats, the raspberries jumped the fence to the driveway next door, and my son can’t seem to distinguish between ripe tomatoes and bouncy balls, but other than that it’s working out beautifully. It turns out that the tomato seeds sprout right where they fall so for every squished “ball” I get five new plants, and the neighbors love my raspberry pies so much they donated the back half of their driveway to the raspberry patch. I’m still searching for a fully rat-proof composter. If I can get a fifty percent alls-well-that-ends-well rate in the garden, maybe I can also expect to truly make half of my family’s meals local.
Local cooking in the city requires the combined efforts of more people than I can name: my son and my friends who (usually) eat my experiments, my neighbors who share tips, offer encouragement, and don’t look too far askance when they see or smell what’s going on in here, the neighborhood groups that arrange for the local farmers’ market, the farmers who come to the market, the city and state officials that regulate the market… and bloggers who read and share in our endeavor. But each little piece also carries multiple effects: our food tastes better (usually), offers more nourishment, carries less environmental impact, and strengthens our community.