Friday, September 26, 2008
I grew up in Vermont, in a tiny town where my parents always have a garden and raise chickens and turkeys, and some years even pigs and beef cows. A few families In town use an informal bartering system: my parents trade chickens for lamb or eggs or maple syrup. They can some tomatoes and pickles, fill in the corners of the meat freezer with a few bags of beans, and even once tried a garbage can root cellar, but except for meat, once winter rolls around, they buy most groceries at the store.
It's a short growing season in Vermont. The majority of spring flowers don't start popping out until late May or early June. And early September is fall: it gets cold, there's serious frost, the leaves turn. After 9 years in Boston, I am still surprised when I see crocuses in April. And when summer really does extend into mid-September, I realize that for some places, the calendar makes sense!
I was fortunate to grow up in a community that placed great value on the health of our environment. Farms were small, everyone recycled and composted and gardened. I went to school for environmental science, though considered culinary school. I also have always loved food.
I am a good home cook. I want to feed my family delicious, healthy food that has been raised and grown in a way that is both respectful of the animal or plant, and also environmentally sustainable. I am tired of pink tomatoes in January. I've read "Omnivore's Dilemma" and I don't want to pretend any longer that organic also means that the animal had a good life, and a good death. I want to see where my meat grew up. I like cookbooks and cooking magazines, but very few address seasonal foods grown in southern New England. Even in northern New England, the growing season is shorter by a few weeks on either end, so I want something specific to my region.
I fell in love with Boston because it is a big city, but you can drive for 15 minutes in three directions and be in the country. I love that. It lends itself to farmers' markets and pick-your-own gardens because active farms thrive so close by--there's even one working farm within Boston's city limits. But information about exactly what to look for where and what to do with it once you get it home comes in piecemeal. If Keja and I know what we're looking for, perhaps we don't need to outsource. So we are starting a blog to journal our journey of discovering how to live in the city yet still eat locally-grown food. It's no secret that eating food in season is tastier and healthier. Don't get me wrong: I'm not going to give up pineapple or pomegranates or send back the amazing Nebraska steaks my husband's family treats us with. But, I am going to become more aware of what I eat and where it came from; I'm going to grow some of my own; I'm going to increase my family's intake of food grown in our area. There's a lot we can do in our little backyards to be good stewards of our planet and over the next year, I hope to maximize those things.
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.