The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called The Town I Live In.
The massive corporatization of the food industry in America has had some positive benefits, and some serious drawbacks. On the positive side, getting food is now very convenient. All you have to do is drive to a grocery store and viola! Food. On the negative side, a lot of food is now genetically modified and filled with potentially hazardous preservatives and pesticides.
But there is a more fundamental, and more basic loss that has happened with this modern development...people have become more disconnected from the land they live on. I know almost nothing about how to plant vegetables, to care for them, to watch them grow, to feel a connection between the work of my hands and what I put in my body. This disconnect turns out to be more tragic than we realize. When we start to lose our connection with the natural world, with the world we inhabit, its plants and animals, it becomes easier for us to exploit it, to not care. But it was not always this way.
Jessie Corona de Montoya describes growing up in a pre-developed, more agricultural Fullerton. She helped her grandma grow the food in their garden, and they basically lived off that food. “The only thing we had to buy was potatoes,” she recalls, “We didn’t have potatoes in that garden, but we had everything else. Our fresh meat was the chickens.”
Montoya lovingly recalls her grandmother’s deep knowledge of growing and preparing food: “She raised squash, tomatoes, corn...when she harvested all those vegetables, she dried them in the sun. She dried her corn and string beans, and then she saved them in little sacks that she made, until wintertime. When wintertime came, she dropped these vegetables in boiling salted water, and it was just like they were just picked.” Near the garden, her grandmother had plum, apricot, and peach trees.
Montoya’s father would cure olives and peppers in large barrels, and he would bake bread. She recalls, “My father had built an oven outdoors out of fire brick and cement. When we were little it looked to us like an igloo; it was round...he used to bake enough bread enough to last all week.”
The time they spent planting, harvesting, preparing and eating the food created connections not just between people and the land, but between family members and friends: “My parents would plan to meet, maybe in the Santa Ana Canyon where the river runs, and everybody would take something to the picnic...the salsa was fresh California peppers, fresh tomatoes and onions.” Large groups of up to sixty people would get together for whole weekends of eating and hanging out: “There was always somebody who could either play the guitar or a violin for music. There were always musicians in the crowd.”
Is this deep connection to the land, to our food, and each other a thing of the past, of the “good old days” long gone? I don’t think it is. My good friends Landon and Ali spend a summer working on small, organic farms in Europe, through a program called HelpX, “an online listing of host organic farms, non-organic farms, farmstays, homestays, ranches, lodges, B&Bs, backpackers hostels and even sailing boats who invite volunteer helpers to stay with them short-term in exchange for food and accommodation.” Ever since that experience, Landon and Ali have begun growing their own vegetables. Just last week, I had some wonderful grilled zucchini that they grew.
In the future, gardening may become more than a hobby for people. As people become fed up with eating unhealthy, mass-produced food, there is a growing trend toward local growing and consuming. As I’ve said before, maybe the old folks had it right.
Here's a picture of Landon with a fennel bulb he grew on an organic farm in Germany. You can see more pictures from their trip on their lovely blog QUITE RADISH.