I was talking with a friend of mine a couple of days ago about my recent blog posts exploring the complex intersection between the slow-local-organic movement and the pressures and expectations inherent in most women’s lives.
“I’m curious as to why you chose that topic,” he said. “I mean, it isn’t hard for you to make it to the farmer’s market. And you don’t have kids. What gives?”
“Oh, I’m just a selfless advocate for women everywhere,” I replied breezily.
We both laughed, and then I gave him the truthful answer. The truth is that for many years I lived on the extreme end of the slow-local-organic spectrum. I’ve briefly alluded on this blog to the fact that I grew up on 13 acres in rural Oregon. For reasons both financial (we were, to put it bluntly, poor) and philosophical (my mother was firmly against any and all processed foods, pesticides, herbicides and sugar), my family grew, prepared and preserved most of our food.
When I write about the slow-local-organic movement, I’m really talking about a significant portion of my life.
My family raised chickens and cows for meat and goats for milk. Our eggs came from a hen house rather than a carton. We made our own tofu. We baked all of our own breads, using flour we ground from hard red Montana wheat berries we bought in lumpy woven sacks. Our windowsills were lined with mason jars that contained sprouts of all kinds (alfalfa, sunflower, clover) in various stages of growth.
Every February, we converted our kitchen table into a seed-planting station, where we buried itty-bitty seeds from colorful packets into rectangular trays. When each tray was full, we carried it out to our enclosed porch and set it on a shelf system my father rigged up with lights, where the seeds would sprout and grow until they were strong enough to survive in the ground once the threat of frost was past. Our garden was a thing to behold; lush and gorgeous, a veritable jungle of slender green beans and round-bottomed tomatoes and tufty carrot tops.
On the other side of the house, we planted blueberries and strawberries and raspberries. Plum trees and apple trees. What we didn’t grow enough of, we drove to other farms and “u-picked.” Every summer, we washed hundreds of glass quart jars and canned about 125 jars of tomatoes, 150 jars of cherries, 100 jars of peaches, 50 jars of pears, 25 jars of apple pie filling and 75 jars of applesauce.
My childhood summers were full of chicken feathers and peach pits, blood and bones, apple peels and pie crust. Dramatic? Nope. Just life on the farm.
Which might have been why, when Animal, Vegetable, Miracle first arrived on my doorstep in an Amazon box, I was reluctant to open it. Been there, done that.
I forged on despite my misgivings, and I’ll be honest: I both loved it and hated it. I loved its clear indictment of our food system, which has been covertly doping us with ever-increasing amounts of toxic chemicals. I loved its careful analysis of food miles and the real cost of a pineapple or a banana. I enjoyed its can-do tone and its beautiful recipes.
I felt slightly uncomfortable about the idyllic picture Barbara Kingsolver painted of her family; apparently everyone was so darned happy to be working on this project together that they just couldn't wait to get up in the morning and weed the zucchini patch and gather in the evening to knead bread and make sorbet. Perhaps they really are the eco-friendly version of the Brady Bunch, but it would have been nice to hear more familial conflict, or at least to find out that the adorable Lily did complain one time. Given that Barbara's daughter Camille contributed to the book, I would have liked either she or Barbara to discuss the fact that when you choose to devote the better part of your time to growing, preparing and preserving your own food, your other choices do narrow as a consequence, and that yes, that just might be an interesting thing to examine, especially as a woman.
And when, on page 199, I read that: “canning doesn’t deserve its reputation as an archaic enterprise murderous to women’s freedom and sanity,” I had to put the book down for a moment and take a few deep breaths.
I had to remind myself that Barbara was writing as a woman in her 50’s, with a full, colorful life and an established career as a prominent writer. The statement was her truth, but it was not mine. This girl was up to her elbows in tomatoes and pears every summer, feeling alienated from her peers, feeling unable to connect with the world at large, and feeling acutely that the time she spent canning and weeding and making pies was time that she might otherwise have put towards other pursuits. This girl wondered how she could possibly get in to a college that demanded All The Right Requirements, when she didn't have a single one. This girl did experience consequences for spending her adolescence stuffing fruit into jars.
That doesn’t make Barbara wrong; I love what she did, and I greatly admire her book and all of the vital information it contains. I’ve been recommending it to everyone.
I just happen to know that such a lifestyle is a full-on commitment, and it does indeed come with a steep price tag. As enthusiastic as I am about the slow-organic-local movement (and I am!), I am also cautious about the romanticization of said lifestyle. I realize that my situation was highly unusual, and that most people will never even entertain the notion of living that way, but I did live the extreme version, so that’s the vantage point I’m coming from.
As I told my friend: “I’ve seen the dark side.”
Now go support a farmer.
And I promise to write about a different subject next time.
Pictured Above: One of my brothers and one of my sisters clowning around as only farm kids can. Please note that this was taken YEARS ago, and they are MUCH more sophisticated today, and they don't behave ANYTHING like this now, so don't even THINK of calling them hicks. Wink, wink.