Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Good 'n Plenty

Here's our supper this past Saturday night. There's some iceberg lettuce shipped from far away; some blue cheese and dressing courtesy of the food giant, Kraft; Kettle Cooked JalapeƱo Cheddar Chips with a banner on the bag trumpeting 40 PERCENT LESS FAT; a brat burger grilled by moi decorated with Grandma Millie's artificially green home canned sweet pickles and otherwise artfully condimented with HyVee ketchup and artisan sweet hot mustard. The wine is a mellow Sangiovese from Italy...tasty and inexpensive as befits the season of burgers and buns, but missing the appellation of "local" by an ocean or two.

Why should you care about what we ate this Saturday evening? Because this plate, with its burger sized smiley face, breaks all kinds of laws laid down by today's food police. The meat is processed...and grilled over a fragrant smoky charcoal fire. I bought the white bread buns on sale for 77 cents, but cancelled out that economy with the four ounces of blue cheese crumbles. I didn't have to forage for this meal...or skin it...or dig it; I picked up the fixin's in about 15 minutes off the shelves of our Atchison County HyVee.

Burgers and chips.  Fast and tasty.  And a bad taste in the mouths of what historian Rachel Laudan has dubbed Culinary Luddites.  What distinguishes a Culinary Luddite from those of us who eat our quarter pounder pluses with relish?  Her description follows:

"We hover between ridicule and shame when we remember how our mothers and grand­mothers enthusiastically embraced canned and frozen foods. We nod in agreement when the waiter proclaims that the restaurant showcases the freshest local produce. We shun Wonder Bread and Coca-Cola. Above all, we loathe the great culminating symbol of Culinary Modernism, McDonald’s — modern, fast, homogenous, and international."

Do you feel guilt? Have you lost your appetite? Wait because the historian is about to deliver the inconvenient truths about the foods we humans have eaten for most of history.

Far from enshrining the nostalgic family grouping around the heaping kitchen table, Laudan reminds us of the kinds of people who ate fast food in the past: shepherds and soldiers and hunters. Cooking food was dangerous in close quarters and fuel was as expensive as the food itself: street vendors provided fast hot fried convenience foods from China to Mexico.

Laudan dismisses the notion that folks in the country savored the best of the land, developing the tasty ethnic dishes we associate with artisanal food. On the contrary, peasants were subsistence farmers, eking out an uncertain unhealthy existence on what was left to eat after the more affluent society in the cities took the bulk and best of the harvest. No peasant kitchen concocted Italian lasagna or Chinese mooshu pork. No, "traditional"dishes like these were born of urban wealth and urban plenty.

It bears remembering, whenever the ugly hoary head of Culinary Luddism rears up, that the term natural, so overused and unfocused as to be banal, was not a compliment until modern times. Grains were indigestible; fruits were bitter and many vegetables were downright poisonous. It took the trial and error of human ingenuity to process natural foods until they were safe and generations of observation and selection to create foods that were tasty. In the author's words:

"Happiness was not a verdant Garden of Eden abounding in fresh fruits, but a securely locked storehouse jammed with preserved, processed foods."

Finally, despite the pleasure I take in picking my seasonal tomatoes and the convenience of my local HyVee, let us not forget how paltry our tables would be without the benefit of trade: before markets, before caravans loaded with spices, before tea from the east and ships bringing strange plants like potatoes and tomatoes from the west. “Local” is an attractive construct that sounds better than it tastes and primarily serves to limit choices, not expand them.

Before we consign my tasty burger, crunchy chips, and loaded iceberg lettuce to a postmodern food oblivion....let's listen to what Rachel Laudan has to say about our recent food history:

"Where modern food became available, populations grew taller, stronger, had fewer diseases, and lived longer. Men had choices other than hard agricultural labor, women other than kneeling at the metate five hours a day."

There is room enough in our plentiful food system for the food of the elite: artisanal dishes with names larger than their serving size artfully arranged and priced for a king. There's nothing wrong with fortifying 4 year old Josh a big bowl of boxed Mac 'n Cheese, the orange kind that he likes, food everyone can afford. The Culinary Luddites envision a food history that never existed. Those of us in the business of growing food in the real world know how difficult it is just to produce enough.

"For all, Culinary Modernism had provided what was wanted: food that was processed, preservable, industrial, novel, and fast, the food of the elite at a price everyone could afford.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Vanishing Points

Anyone ever tear out the postage paid cards offering free vacation guides and roadmaps for prospective Great American Roadtrippers in the Better Homes and Gardens magazines in the checkout aisle? I was that kid, a sucker for free stuff, for maps, for sights to see and roads not taken. I diligently sent off for every free offer from any state from any magazine my mom subscribed to; magazines at the doctor's or dentist's or car dealer's were also fair game. Never mind that our family trips were predestined: no need for Delaware, Florida, or Maine. The maps themselves had power.
When the Missouri road map arrived, we unfolded to the listing of cities and counties to check the status of a place we had never been, never seen: a site as mythical as Brigadoon in our family lore. The state of Missouri listed every village, every borough, and, I assume, every wide spot off a lettered highway, including our very favorite town, a little place called Bado down in Texas county.

What made Bado special? With a population of just four people, it was the smallest town in the state of Missouri. We were entranced; not only with the notion of a place the size of our family being a town, but the fact that Missouri's highway map would recognize not just cities like St. Louis....but also a town like Bado, so unimaginably small that we figured its buildings must all be empty! The map told us Bado was a place, but it was also an idea, a coming together of the lines of perspective, a myth, a mist, that would disappear if we didn't check on it every year....or if we drove down to Texas county to find it.

Out here on the prairie, the wind, the rain, and time itself join forces to change landscapes until nothing is left but a name. A forgotten rural schoolhouse once stood south and east of Westboro along the gravel road I drive to work. For a while the rubble of bricks turned up at planting time, but the foundation is one with the soil any more.
There are a number of signs along the two miles of route O near the site of the old schoolhouse, put up several years back by a proprietor of Fourteen Pines farm. Alas, a casual traveler can no longer pick out the home place; age and disease have left nothing of the statuesque pines. I have enjoyed the place names on the signs in the fence rows, but they are deteriorating as well and will soon be as much a mystery as the name 'Rosebud' on a sled.
Farmsteads grow up and flourish, are absorbed or vanish; town centers migrate with the traffic patterns and schools consolidate, but while populations wax and wane, our cemeteries remain.
We honor those that came before: those who settled this country, built this country, fought for this country and ultimately came back to this ground to their earthly rest. Our cemeteries are beautiful places this time of year with the Stars and Stripes whipping in the wind and the peonies and irises in bloom. Our past is there...in all the names that seem familiar and the remembrances laid lovingly and dutifully alongside. But our future is there as well; for every tended cemetery is a mark of civilization and faith that our community will still be on the map in years to come.

A village in Morris Township. It was established during the Civil War (c. 1863) by Mr. Clabe Groce. The present (1933) postmaster has always lived within a mile of the office and has heard that it was so called because it was settled during the bad years. The name was used long before it became a post-office in 1888. (--Place Names.)
Bado was located at Section 34, Township 30 N, Range 11 W, on Highway M, south of Fairview, and north of YY.

Monday, May 11, 2015

There's Rosemary...that's for Remembrance

If you are a long time resident of a small town, you are no stranger to loss. The more rooted one is in a place, the more one recognizes the truth in John Donne's writing:
"any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,
 and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls;
 it tolls for thee."

This truth is seldom far from my mind.  Remembrance is in the very air you breathe if you drive the same road and walk the same earth and look at the same view through your windshield for decades at a time. 
 Barns fall down and families move away; trees die and fences are rolled up; farms change hands and farmers retire.  But the old times are near the surface and live as long as there are folks who remember around to talk about them.
When we moved to town in June 1980, right before Ann was born,  we lived just a block from Mrs. Florence Niedermeyer, mother to our family physician and grandmother to one of Blake's best friends from high school, Paul Niedermeyer.  Mrs. Niedermeyer was a gardener and was willing to suspend disbelief and accept me as a gardener too.  One of the plants she shared with me was a chunk of a peony root known as the Mother's Day peony, a scion of the plant carried over the plains...a pioneer, if you will.  When we moved out to the farm a few years later, I planted that peony in the front garden...and I think of Florence Niedermeyer every spring just before Mother's Day.
And that reminds me of Doc Niedermeyer himself.   Dr. Niedermeyer delivered our three babies ( and many many more!) and every Mother's Day week, weather permitting, he would drive his elegant antique roadster out to the greenhouse or call and order a fuchsia basket delivered to his home for Sue to hang in the kitchen window.  We did this for years, and then were privileged to pot up a long cedar planter to deliver to the cemetery after he was gone.
A year or so after we moved back to the farm, the family purchased an 80 acre farm owned previously by Floyd and Mary Parr. At the auction Blake bought a big console television...which never did work so we used it as a stand for our old TV, but for me the real treasure was Mary Parr's garden.  I had an empty slate to plan and plant at our new homestead and was never too proud to scavenge.  I made trip after trip with my spade, bringing home hostas and Virginia bluebells, a currant bush(a dreadful mistake) and a shrub rose with a tiny double pink bloom.  I dug two big chunks of old fashioned bleeding heart, a sentimental favorite from my childhood and several different peonies.  The whole process felt more like a rescue than a desecration as I built the backbone of my new garden from the treasures of a gardener I had never met.

I remember other gardeners, regular visitors to the greenhouse, by the flowers they loved.  Mrs. Barnard would make almost weekly visits to pick up one or two plants or just take a stroll to see what had changed since last week. She always had a friend or two with her during her outings.  She'd start out Easter weekend with pansies and follow up later with less hardy plants including the yellow sweet potato for the front light post.  I always hoped we had a good variety of herbs for Judy Munn when she and Rosalee came out for flowers.  Mary Lou Broerman planted lots of red geraniums and I was always afraid I'd run out before she got all she needed...Marnie Shaum needed lots of big dark red geraniums too. Those ladies were high in my estimation; I was a novice grower and salesman and I wanted them to be happy by having the right plants for their gardens.

Grandma Hurst would come get her flowers in her big red Crown Vic. She was done with vegetable gardening by the time I was around, but she had pretty pots and some perennials in front of the house after the big half dead evergreens were removed. We raised miniature roses for several years and Grandma really liked those.
Little Lee's first Easter; my dress from Grandma..

Not entirely put together..note the shoes!
 She would always buy us girls a new dress for Easter and a hybrid tea rose for Mother's Day.  I never have been very good with roses, I confess, having killed or let die uncounted victims.  But I still appreciate the gesture of one gardening generation to another, just as I remember fondly the women who treated an untested rookie gardener as their peer.....

"There's rosemary...that's for remembrance......and there is pansies, that's for thoughts"
(Shakespeare, from Hamlet)

Monday, May 4, 2015

Mighty Fine May

Monday, May 4th, a moist morning, not unlike the early morning eight years ago when Blake and I headed out to the greenhouse to work with some of our brain directed to the business of selling flowers, but all of our heart a few miles south where Ann and Matt waited for the arrival of the newest family member.

Today we make a stop at Casey's to pick up a dozen doughnuts, including the flower shaped ones we know are Lizzie's favorites. As she blows out her doughnut birthday candle, I think: is there anyone with better reasons to celebrate Mother's Day week than I?
Forget the whole greenhouse thing...Yes, for reasons both natural and man made, we anticipate a string of days jam packed with deliveries to landscapers, fund raisers, garden centers, and all matter of other ephemeral customers that appear like earthworms after a rain when the irresistible urge to dig and beautify comes over the populace.
But that meme is so commonplace as to be cliche. This week in May means more than corsages and coleus, ageratum in a Dixie cup or treating Grandma to a buffet after church.
To me, Mother's Day is the exclamation point at the end of a week when, eight years ago, this mom became a grandmother again....and again... and again... a momentous occasion and really quite a bit over the top in terms of Mother's Day gifts!
Celebrating Lizzie's birthday on the 4th and turning around to party again with Gabe and Abbie is sufficient reminder every May of the unutterable joy and miracle of their existence and the adventure that was May 2007.

Sometimes Millie's birthday falls on Mother's Day too!
 If she isn't otherwise occupied, I hope Millie will ride along with her oldest son on a plant delivery this week or next to pick out something pretty...a blooming shrub or some hardy hot weather bloomer. The plants are fun, but they are just a ruse for Blake to spend a half day with his mom this week of her birthday.
And then there is my own mother. As a youngster, I thought my mother could do everything well; she cooked and baked and sewed and cleaned. She painted and took pictures; she helped with Sunday school puppets and Girl Scout badges. These were accomplishments that were important and impressive to a little girl.
When poison ivy made her legs a mass of miserable blisters, she didn't stay home from our class field trip to the Planetarium...no, she whipped up a long gathered floral skirt and carried the look off with aplomb. My mother didn't join the work force until I was in high school, but in ten years, she was the director of personnel. She's been my father's right hand man for nearly sixty years....together they proscribed my more foolish activities when I was growing up, but never discouraged my imagination. My mother could make me a Winnie the Pooh...and explain calculus...develop photos in the kitchen and plant a garden tapestry like Monet. My father always told my sister and me she'd be perfect if she could only sing like Elly Ameling.

I can't sing either....
......... unless it's a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday....