I bought a bag of spring mix from a local grower at the farmer’s market today.
I only bought one bag, even though I can eat more than a bag a day. I knew as I drove away I should have bought more but at the time, when I was standing at the booth, I thought I wanted to try it before I came back next week and potentially bought much more. Since I’ve been both grower and worker at a farm market, I should’ve just asked if I could try it but sometimes we don’t think well in the moment and having two kids in an unfamiliar crowd can be distracting. This is where a little chatting from the farmer would’ve pulled me into a better transaction for both of us.
I ate some of it on the drive home and thought, “Of course this is better than anything that has been shipped. I should’ve bought enough for the week.”
As I finished the bag, sitting at my desk that night, right before I ate ice cream from the container in my bed, I thought about the lettuce I would be eating in a few months from my own garden.
Lettuce, like every piece of food, has its own story. I don’t know the story of the lettuce in my bag from the farm market, not exactly anyway, but I know much of the story of the lettuce I’d be harvesting soon because it’s a long road that started before the seeds went in the ground.
Is this going to be yet ANOTHER story about a single bowl of lettuce? You betcha and you’re welcome.
The story of my lettuce started generations ago with selective breeding and luck but let’s fast forward to when I became part of the story of my lettuce.
When I was a kid, no one near me had ever heard of any lettuce but iceberg. At least, I was left to think no other variety existed. Every bite was either without any flavor or a mouth full of bitter water. I couldn’t understand why we were expected to put this stuff in our mouths. The bowls full of leftover salad dressing were a testament to the fact that no one actually liked the lettuce. They had to drown it to get it down.
Fast forward to college and I’m working in a steakhouse. I’m trying to put myself through school so I don’t have money for things like food. Most of my meals are my roommate’s leftovers or extra food that never made it out of the restaurant kitchen. Sure, the manager is supposed to throw it away so as not to encourage mistakes by hungry employees but at least one kitchen guy and one manager took pity on us and would let us eat what was left at the end of the shift. Sometimes it was nothing, sometimes it was just wilted salads we had pre-made to help us through the dinner rush. Some of these salads were foreign to me. They were made with spring mix, an uncommon player in the mid-west a couple of decades ago.
I vowed I hated salad. I stole soup, instead. I said I wasn’t a rabbit. I hoped for an overcooked steak or extra loaf of bread.
This only worked for a while. As fate and circumstance would have it, I got hungry and my only option would be a salad.
To handle this event, I used both blue cheese and French dressing, a combo I had picked up from my boyfriend.
They say hunger is the greatest sauce. I don’t know if it’s hunger or blue cheese, but I ate that salad. The spring mix was nothing like the huge chunks of iceberg and thousand island of my youth. It tasted green. It wasn’t bitter. There was a freshness, even in the slightly wilted salad that, combined with every vegetable the salad prep space had to offer, was almost pleasant. I had a taste flashback to when I was little. My mother had grown some kind of lettuce in her little garden when I was a kid. I had forgotten, or, more accurately, the memory had been pushed out by nights and years of iceberg and thick dressing, on our table, at school, in every restaurant, coating the rural midwest. I had friends who thought ranch dressing was its own food group. But this, this was another food altogether.
I stopped avoiding the leftover salads. Then I started looking forward to them. Then I started ordering salads when I went out.
As the years went by I worked in better restaurants, the varieties and qualities of lettuce available improved greatly, and I eventually landed on my own piece of ground and grew my own lettuce.
Anyone can tell you that growing a garden is more than tossing a seed in the ground. It means finding fertile ground, taking care of it, sourcing seed that has what you want and will like your soil and climate. It means competing with the wild animals, balancing the insects, minding the moisture, and crossing your fingers.
My lettuce is the result of learning to tend soil each place I’ve lived, improving my methods, seeking wisdom, a little blood and tears and countless hours of sweat.
My lettuce is from catalogs vetted and poured over. Some of it is from seed studied and carefully collected by our family. Its history includes prep seasons and watching the weather, a bent back and an new hoe. Its life, before being cycled into my own cells, is already tangled up with my own.
So, it’s a long road to my spring lettuce but it’s a long road for every meal. There is always a story.
There are laborers planting it and picking it, washing, packaging, shipping, and stocking it. Someone has breed and harvested the seed stock and someone has cleaned the stockroom. The story doesn’t even end with you. Part of what you eat becomes part of you and all of it sends signals to your body about the world it inhabits. You will use what you get from that food to do whatever it is you do, maybe even raise some lettuce.
Happy eating, Katy