Thursday, August 13, 2009

Potato Bin Elegy

Gene, one of the great and beloved mentors of my life in Appalachia, passed away last fall. He taught me to grow things, as well as the art of patience, and exuded a sort of grace and quiet empathy that few old men possess. His eyes never ceased laughing.

Today I was reminded of him in an abrupt and tactile moment in the farmers' market, combing through a bin of dirt-flecked potatoes. Suddenly I saw his gnarled hands instead of mine, picking through another bin of potatoes, wedding ring winking in the half-light of the root cellar. My heart felt full and taut.

I wrote the following when I received news of his death this past October, and thought I might share it with those of you who still check this poor old blog now and then. I hope it conveys the love and gratitude I felt, and will always feel, for this strong, gentle grandfather.

Elegy for Gene

By the time I met you –
A Victorian doll clambering up your ragged
Denim knees, kissing silver stubble –
You did not till the earth,
Wear a soldier’s uniform,
Chop wood for the fire,
Touch your wife.
You did quiet, womanish things –
Picked cherries,
Took scraps out to the dogs,
Read a thousand books.
You wore dusty overalls and bragged about
Her pound cakes –
In fact, when you spoke, it was like a bottle uncorked
And the two of you sang folkwise duets
Lyrically impossible, but such sweet melody:
These were the songs of my childhood,
Raising me up in the soil.

It’s been years since you hoisted me into the cherry trees,
Since you fetched potatoes from the root cellar
Or shaved your own face.
Mostly you’ve slept,
Or half-slept in a medicated haze,
Curled on the couch –
Your face cool, but familiar to my kisses.

The last time I saw you
We sat together at the kitchen table in the farmhouse,
Each with a cool jar of water from the well
Though you didn’t drink yours, or even hold it.
You answered my questions sparely,
And didn’t speak beyond them –
How are you feeling?
And, I love you, I love you, I love you.

Later I peeled your white cotton undershirt
Off the weeping yellow lesions burned into your back –
Melanoma, just removed –
And spread antiseptic balm
With my fingers.
I helped you, gingerly, into a new shirt.
One fourth your years, or nearly,
I am for the first time an adult –
For the first time, permitted these intimate acts.
This is not an embarrassment for you, old father,
But an honor for me –
My fingers in your wounds.

I ate a warm wedge of pound cake
And you rolled your wheelchair back and forth
Over the one creaky floorboard,
A minuscule movement
Driving her to feigned distraction –
Exasperation covering her relief
That your playful self was still inside that gory husk
Just as your age and pain
Concealed your mirth.

The hummingbirds suckled a feeder at the window,
Their hearts in their ruby throats
Thrumming, thrumming
‘til the earth.

October 6, 2008

Friday, May 08, 2009

Global Grocer: Imports, Rarity, and the Case for Origin Labeling

*** Cross-posted from The Green Fork, the official blog of Eat Well - my new place of employment! ***

Like all domestic goddesses born in the midst of the Green Revolution, my mom has a complex grocery shopping technique that has never been never adequately summed up by her explanation, “whatever looks best.” It incorporates all five senses (much to the embarrassment of my twelve-year-old self, when she routinely sniffed the stem-ends of a dozen Costco cantaloupes), and is even synced with the artificial thundershowers in the vegetable section. Dewy, jewel-toned and blemishless, her picture-perfect produce always seemed to have just arrived from some seasonless supermarket Eden.

Which wasn’t far off, if you figure Eden was probably someplace in Mespotamia.

But some ancestral agrarian wisdom – residue of her Tennessee farmgirl past – also nudged her to adhere to the occasional seasonal law: asparagus in spring, summer strawberries, Christmas clementines. These items were dinner table treasures, redolent with rarity…if not always with flavor.

Because it turns out that, according to the new online shopping tool Global Grocer, there’s still a 75% chance that supermarket asparagus was imported from Peru or Mexico, even in springtime. In our supersaturated, season-free food culture, US food imports are rising at dramatic rates (importation of agricultural products has increased 50% since 2004 alone) and decimating domestic family farmers, local economies, the environment, and sometimes our health.

Developed by Food & Water Watch, Global Grocer is an interactive guide to your food and where it might be coming from. Browse the noisy animated aisles, pick your produce item (fresh, frozen or processed), and read the rundown on its origins, including top exporters and the probability that it was imported. Fill up your virtual cart, proceed to checkout, and find out how likely it is that you’ve selected imported fruits and veggies; the array of countries they came from; and how many pounds of jet-setting produce you probably purchase per year.

If these numbers alarm you – and they should – Global Grocer has some advice: shop at outlets that sell local food, and tell your supermarket that you demand country-of-origin labeling.

Though seemingly vestigial in the contemporary supermarket, seasonal impulses like my mom’s could help save small farms and the planet – but only if they’re supported by adequate origin labeling, so shoppers can distinguish between good, local, seasonal food and over-traveled, chemically ripened, unseasonable food.

Any locavore will tell you that embracing rarity, far from being an altruistic sacrifice, is actually a deliciously hedonistic adventure; my mother and I discovered that together – in the garden we learned to grow. But Americans can’t reclaim rarity as a cultural value until we are able make educated decisions about not just what to buy, but where to buy it from – and consequently, when.

Click here to embed the Global Grocer widget on your website.

Not sure what’s in season? Consult Eat Well’s Seasonal Food Map.