I’ve wanted for a long time to share a conversation that I had with my grandmother several months ago, but it never seemed to be quite the right time. Other posts overtook my good intentions; other topics became “more important.” But I haven’t forgotten, and it seems as convenient a time as any to write a few words to you all about two of the key ingredients that I think may be missing from our national food culture these days: Pride and Practicality.
My Gramma is 81 years old. Her parents were Swedish immigrants who ran a dairy farm in rural Connecticut. She and her three sisters and brother grew up working the farm alongside their parents, and while the farm itself no longer exists, the land and the houses that were there in my great-grandparents’ time are still standing, still inhabited — largely — by family members. Gramma’s younger sister still lives right in the farmhouse where they grew up, the one with the breezeway off the kitchen where my grandfather used to recall seeing whole pigs’ heads sitting in barrels as they were being turned into headcheese. (By the way, this is one of the best indications I had as a young child that my grandparents were truly in love; if whole pigs’ heads in barrels don’t turn off a teenaged suitor, then the girl he’s courting must be hot stuff.)
My great-grandfather, known to family history as Grampy, managed despite debilitating asthma and allergies to run an extremely successful farm; when the farm didn’t quite support the family, he drove trucks to supplement his income. But the mainstay of the family’s life was agriculture, the raising and selling of cows and pigs, milk, and vegetables. I never knew the farm in its heyday or my great-grandparents, both of whom passed away before I was born. But I knew by heart the stories — my mother catching streams of milk in her mouth as Grampy aimed the udders in her direction, my uncle falling in love with a sweet-eyed calf only to discover the cruel reality most farming children must confront someday on their dinner plates. I knew the smell of the family recipes filling the tiny farmhouse kitchen and the taste of the brown beans, the coffee bread, the meatballs.
Still, I never talked much with Gramma about her childhood on the farm. I didn’t ask many questions. So it was a surprise to me this summer when, as we enjoyed a visit together at my folks’ house, Gramma suddenly mentioned to me that her father had taken more than a little pride in the food he’d grown and sold to the people in their community.
“Oh, yes,” she said, in response to my newfound curiosity. “Dad and Brother used to spend hours picking through the potatoes. One spot, no matter how small, and he wouldn’t sell it. He wanted people to have the best.” The spotty potatoes, she said, would be divided into two piles: One for the family, one for the pigs. (I presume, though I didn’t ask, that the family got the better of that lot…)
As long as she was talking about the farm, and about the food they’d eaten when she was growing up, I seized the opportunity to ask questions. What did the family eat most of the time? How did they approach cooking, preserving, baking? Did they buy a lot of food items, or did Grampy and Nanny basically live off the land with their children?
Gramma paused and thought. “Well,” she said finally. “Almost everything we ate I remember came from jars that Mother put up. When we needed to fetch supper, you’d go into the pantry and take down some jars — the vegetables and maybe meat, sometimes. Mother canned and preserved everything and that’s what we ate, you know, along with bread or some other things from the cellar and that. And there was always plenty, but you ate what you had.”
It’s no shock to me, certainly, that a farming family in the 1930s and 1940s would live and eat this way. It’s just somewhat sad, in a way, to think of how far we’ve drifted from that way of life — how we’ve let the land go, as the small family farm became a less practical way to sustain an existence — how we’ve stopped providing so much for ourselves and have lost so much connection in the process. The average American household at dinnertime is a far cry from what my grandmother described as the scene in Nanny’s kitchen. The care, the time, and the pride my great-grandparents had to put into every scrap of food on their table, from growing it to harvesting it, sorting, washing, cooking, processing, preserving, and eating it…that kind of intimate relationship with the food we eat and the food we serve to others is so foreign to most of us that it’s almost uncomfortable to contemplate.
How differently would we feed ourselves and our families if our food and our very lives were as intertwined as they were back on Grampy’s farm? If every tomato had to be grown with our own hands, I suspect we’d waste less; we’d value each bite more; we’d savor our food more. If convenience foods and packaged items weren’t an option for us, if all we could eat was what we could grow and preserve ourselves, we’d probably be less “picky” about our food — but much more prideful. We’d care more about every spot on every potato and we’d nurture ourselves and our children with jars of lavishly, lovingly put-up vegetables and soups whose existence we could trace from seed in the ground to stockpot on the stove.
And we wouldn’t — we WOULDN’T — have so little pride and so little practicality as to allow our children to be served things that bear no resemblance at all to something that could have come from a farm like Grampy’s. Whereas he wouldn’t let anyone else buy a spotty potato to take home to their children, we’re letting our children be fed a steady diet of potatoes that are far worse than spotty — they’re heavily processed, adulterated, fried, frozen, and reheated. While Grampy had to teach my young uncle to reconcile himself to the realities of raising, slaughtering, and eating meat, we’re letting our kids open their gullets for a stream of chemicalized, ground, smashed, formed meatlike substances like mass-produced burgers and chicken nuggets. And while my great-grandparents used practicality to feed their family with every scrap of good honest food they’d produced — right down to that (shudder) headcheese — we hide behind “practicality” in saying that we haven’t got the time to devote to real food, so we’ll let some processing plant do the work for us. Because, after all, it’s just not PRACTICAL in this modern world to spend a bunch of time in the KITCHEN.
I’m not advocating that we all start eating headcheese, for sure, but it just seems to me that what many of us may think of as being a complicated system of feeding a family — all this growing, harvesting, cooking, and preserving — may actually be the refreshingly simple way to go. It’s a straightforward view that my grandmother has of food, inherited from her parents: You eat things that are grown by someone, you understand how to prepare them, and you choose things that are going to fill you and nourish you, because there’s no room for luxuries. Food should be enjoyed, yes; but your enjoyment should come from the fact that you’ve used fresh, high-quality ingredients, prepared them well, and are hungry enough to take pleasure in eating. And when you’re feeding yourself, or your family, this way, you should feel pride in having done your job well.
I know we can’t all go back to this quaint notion of the farm, but wouldn’t it be nice if we could all simply try to regain these two pillars — pride and practicality — in feeding ourselves and our communities? What kind of change would you see in your household if you held yourself to the standard of being truly proud of your work each and every time you put food on your table? What kind of change could we see in school cafeterias if every person involved in that food service chain — all the way up through the highest ranks of setting the standards and making the policies — expected to be purely proud of his or her efforts, and the results? And how differently might we view the frivolities in our diets — the chips, the snacks, the more-than-occasional treats — if we had to work hard to produce every single bite of food that went into our mouths? Given a practical choice between baking a batch of cupcakes and cooking that chicken dinner, I suspect most of us would cultivate a vastly different viewpoint on the value of a treat.
I challenge all of us to reclaim some small corner of pride in our food. Plant a garden, meet your farmers, learn to make something from scratch that you’ve previously only bought pre-packaged. Freeze something or can something and enjoy it later. Cut out a favorite processed snack for a week and replace it with something fresh. Cook one meal that you wouldn’t have cooked before — even if it’s just a weekday breakfast of pancakes and bacon instead of cold cereal. And be PROUD that you’ve made whatever change you choose to make, no matter how small. When you’re as far from headcheese and spotty potatoes as we’ve collectively gotten, it’s no minor feat to move back towards the center.