Managing Editor Janine Pumilia finds joy in the local harvest and wonders if we’ve traded away too much quality in the complicated modern food industry.
One of the best things about a Midwestern autumn is the fresh produce arrayed on farmers’ market tables like precious treasure. No scene could better reassure me that the earth still works her magic, when handled with care.
Treks to these markets counterbalance some of the soul-sucking annoyances of modern life: ubiquitous strip malls; mysterious foods that should rot but don’t rot; and every phone non-conversation I’ve ever not had with an automated customer service “attendant.”
Reigning supreme, at the farmers’ markets, are the glorious tomatoes: large and tiny, ruby and citrine, some heirloom, all homegrown. One bite is a reminder that this fruit remains capable of spectacular scent and flavor, despite the mega-farms’ determination to eradicate both. The squash, string beans, Swiss chard, cucumbers, peppers and okra taunt me with their shades of emerald and peridot. The eggplants, from deep plum to lavender and cream, beckon me to touch their smooth amethyst skins. And is there anything happier than bright orange pumpkins?
There are stalks of sunflowers and bouquets of fuzzy magenta cockscombs; gourds shaped like geese; pots of precious perennials; and sunlit jars of liquid amber honey. Their beauty stops me in my tracks and asks me to contemplate the clear and buttery sunlight so peculiar to September.
I buy too much and linger too long, enjoying the chatter of familiar farmers. One teaches me how to plant the allium bulbs he sells to me. “I will make time to plant them,” is my mantra, as I juggle bags filled with produce so fresh, I can hear the nutrients singing something like the Hallelujah Chorus. The cells in my body hum back in anticipation.
Like so many Midwesterners, I’ve never lived on a farm, but my not-too-distant ancestors did. The miracle of growth – from seed to brilliant gem in six months or less – impresses and cheers me more than anything Microsoft or Apple will ever invent.
I grew up on a steady diet of my parents’ farm stories. These were meant to convince me I should be darned grateful to live the easy-peasy life of a soft suburban kid. But the folks were lousy at concealing the pride they felt about being reared close to the land. Tales of backbreaking chores morphed into wistful recollections of the “chickens that tasted like real chickens” and the tasty produce shared with kindly hired hands at the long kitchen table.
While they were successful at convincing me that I would not have enjoyed washing a cream separator or using a spider-filled outhouse, they also planted the seeds of my deep unrest about the degradation of our modern food supply.
Back in the day, food had full flavor and came pre-loaded with nutrients. Though not coddled, animals were treated like living creatures until they naturally matured for slaughter.
Folks had plenty of worries, but disease caused by lab-generated additives wasn’t one of them. People used full-fat milk, butter and sugar, not trans fats and artificial sweeteners, and rates of obesity and cancer were lower. No one had yet thought up “Frankenfish,” a genetically-altered salmon coming soon to a grocer near you, with no special labeling required. And if the eggs at one farm carried salmonella, they didn’t potentially threaten millions of Americans. In a U.S. Senate hearing this fall, it was said that one in four Americans are sickened by our food supply at some point and about 5,000 per year die from it.
We know that people have always contracted food poisoning, and that many advancements in food technology have been very beneficial. The story of food is a story of trade-offs; it’s complicated. To my thinking, it must be framed by the fact that 13 percent of all humans are hungry (2010 U.N. estimate).
Each of us has a personal stake (steak?) in the evolving food story. We want to feel safe when we eat. More than that, we want to feel proud of our homegrown products, whether or not our tender little hands have ever touched soil. Why else do we flock like lemmings to the apple orchards each fall, happy to pay inflated prices for the experience of seeing the trees from which our apples (and donuts) spring? I do it, and I enjoy it. Why else do we celebrate Cheese Days in Monroe, Wis., or the Cornfest in Dekalb, Ill.? Sure, the halls of commerce love these events, but so do the rest of us. It’s a primal thing. We can’t help it. Turns out we’re not so very different from those ancient harvest festival merrymakers after all, human sacrifices notwithstanding.
Curiously, this primal feeling about the harvest doesn’t carry over to other regional products. We don’t feel warm and fuzzy about, say, ball stud fasteners, and we don’t build festivals around electrical motion control accelerators, though Lord knows we’re glad they’re manufactured here.
Occasionally, husband Gary and I enjoy roaming the countryside together just for the heck of it. (It’s possible the homemade ice cream and waffle cones at Dairy Haus in Rockton, Ill., are a contributing factor.) We zig-zag down rural roads, just to see what’s over the next ridge. We admire the tidy farms and fields, and the harvest moon that beckons. And we make comments like: “That farmer’s harvesting corn already. Seems a bit early,” just as if we know what we’re talking about. We don’t. But the countryside has a way of clearing our heads.
Our farm fields and their bounty are woven into our core beings, both figuratively and literally. What’s produced here, and how it’s produced, matters. Our Midwest landscape steadies us; it reminds us where we came from and who we are, and to be thankful. It inspires us to be better. And it surely challenges us to consider the trade-offs we accept in our pursuit of “the good life.” ❚