There’s a story behind my dresser and I don’t think I know the whole tale. It’s a beautiful dark, shiny, wood with small details that intrigue me. One of the wooden wheels is broken and I had to replace it, as is one of the original drawer pulls. The metal hardware that allows the mirror to pivot is beautiful. My prayer beads and the necklace for my little black dress hang on it. Given to my maternal grandmother by her mother, it’s over 100 years old and it is the only thing I own that was touched by my great-grandmother. Grandma has told me nothing else other than that she wanted me to have it. It is a piece of my matriarchs’ story. Grandma has only been willing to share bits of her youth, which was not easy on her, and, at 94, her memory is unreliable. These days she has taken to singing, in Czech, the songs from her childhood.
We live in such a disposable world, a world of cheap and mass produced junk, where humans have been largely removed from the value equation.
We are all guilty of it to some extent but I generally opt out of this part of our culture. My skin crawls when I am in staged houses full of the generic. I crave stories that make things special and give them significance.
Next to my dresser, and not matching at all, is a cedar chest that weighs a figurative ton. It was a gift from my husband’s paternal grandfather after our marriage, made by his hands, which were missing pieces from years of woodworking.
My dining set was where my paternal grandmother fed her large family and where I had Christmas Eve dinner as a child.
Our rocker, where I nursed my children, is where my mother sat to nurse me.
And so it goes, all over my home. This love of a story, history, something special and significant, trickles down to the smallest details.
One of my favorite things, despite my general disinterest in knickknacks, is a soap stone elephant with a small elephant inside. You can see it through the ornately carved sides. It’s all one piece and it’s creator is protected from exploitation by a group in India called Tara Projects. I love to support groups like this. The small elephant is lovely, inexpensive, not cheap, and has a pleasant heft in my hand. I enjoy the feel of soapstone. It was given to me by my parents. It makes me smile. In every way, it meets the criteria that make it worth having in my life.
Every morning, I pick up my coffee mug, an uncommon style that fits my hand perfectly, and breathe deeply. It was made by a potter in Columbia, Missouri and was a gift from my sister-in-laws. It makes the coffee, roasted by a friend of mine, even more special. I may not take time to meditate every day but I hold a story in my hand every morning and it makes me grateful. It, like the other stories around me, is a reminder of connection.
Food has a story, too.
My favorite way to know the story of my food is to grow it or know the person who did.
Part of my food’s story this week is that our heirloom Jutrzenka radishes are ready and taste much better in the soil that had a cover crop last fall than the same radishes had in the raised beds last fall. This has to do, not with soil alone, but with water and temperature. Part of their story is that we shared that less-than-wonderful crop with friends on our holiday visit to John’s Island, where we had a much needed visit and we sat and ate these radishes with good butter. That memory triggers the memory of the other food on that tray and on that trip and the absolute lack of work while we sat around eating all day and watching everyone catch crab off the dock.
I get all of that from a radish I just pulled out of the ground.
You might not like rashes but perhaps you remember eating a tomato warm from the sun in your grandparents garden. If you are paying attention, you notice that memory became part of the narrative of tomatoes for you, and may mean you find industrially produced, hard, flavorless red balls at the grocer unworthy of your plate.
Then there is the food our friends gave us this week from their farm. I know why they started growing produce, I know the path they have taken, the way they grow it and the time we have spent working together to get this food to our community. It’s special in a way the best narrative I can build around the food at my grocer can’t be. I can elevate that food, from the grocer, too, by knowing where and how it was raised and finding out the story behind the farmer, but it won’t be as special as the peas April picked for us when I know her back was hurting.
Let’s go back a little further.
Seeds have incredible stories. You can learn these stories by reading through Seed Savers’ Exchange or Baker Creek catalogs, by talking to the people at your seed bank or seed library or by getting them from someone who has saved them. Or you could save seeds yourself and become part of their story. One can even read the history of some seed’s lab development, when industry allows, online. Even the stories that seem brand new, fresh from a lab and a step backward, start with a seed that has a history. Our sunflowers are from seeds my daughter and son started saving years ago. They are part of this place and part of our story as we are part of theirs.
As we globally lose biodiversity and become more food insecure, it is important that we fight for the stories of our seeds, that we pass them down to the guardians of the future of our food.
Back further still…
Food is also special because it is culture. It’s the manifestation in the present of the history of a place and it’s people. ‘Buy local’ isn’t just a plea for food security or transparency in the supply chain but a vote for maintaining local culture. We all recognize the larger food cultures. But it is more nuanced than that. We lump all Indian food together but India is a huge place with food that changes significantly from one area to another. So are China, Mexico, Italy, and on and on.
It makes me sad to see the “westernizing” of other cultures’ food in restaurants here in the US just as it is sad to see our exporting of the shameful standard American diet (SAD) to the rest of the world. The result isn’t just illness, it’s the homogenization of their food and therefore culture, which is a loss we shouldn’t bear. I, too, would fight if I saw the contents of a standard American meal coming at me.
It is a realization most are too terrified to face that the hyper specialization of agriculture was an enormous mistake that is not only failing to help feed the world, it is fighting those who are, destroying the resources that allow for food security and in it’s wake, the cultures it cannot tolerate. The industrialized, mono-cropping, chem-ag system can only remain profitable by destroying small holding farmers and local agriculture in favor of it’s limited and fragile varieties. Everyone and every culture that dies in its wake is blood on our hands.
And then there is the significance of sharing food…
Eating with others is, or should be, special, even when it is common. Sharing food is a globally recognized, and internationally significant event. So many of the greatest narratives on earth involve not just food but the sharing of food. It is the fundamental way we disarm, welcome, tend, care and acknowledge.
From Eden to Passover,
the Last Supper to church potlucks,
first dates to sharing wedding cake,
breaking religious fasts to eating after funerals,
and tea services from China to Turkey to Kenya to Great Britain to my grandparents’ kitchen in the middle America,
food is not just physical sustenance, it’s relational.
In the world I want to perpetuate, the stories of seeds, people, and the resulting cultural dishes all come together to be a meal shared with others.
They are at our table and the tables of many in our tribe.
I hope you’ll join us.
Happy eating, Katy
For more on food as culture, check out Slow Food. Slow Food USA has chapters around the US to help you get involved in your own community.