Wednesday, November 30, 2022

FOOD: A LOVE STORY PART 1 – The Burning Platform - Guest Post by Hardscrabble Farmer


I’ve been eating food most of my life. I can honestly say that in more than sixty years I have never faced more than a few days without a bite to eat and then as a result of either sickness or injury. As an American it wasn’t something I really gave much thought to. In our home, as a child, the refrigerator and the cabinets were regularly filled, and if we were away from home at meal time we’d find something to eat wherever we were. It was the same for everyone I knew- friends and families, neighbors and classmates.

Sometimes I ate communally, in school and then the military, sometimes alone, but food itself, throughout that span of time was ubiquitous and affordable. I was unaware, except for a few exceptions like fishing and gardening done by my family, where all that food came from beyond the shelves of the grocery store. It wasn’t until we bought the farm when our children were young that we came to understand everything that went into the production and effort required to fill them up. The skills that were needed daily took years for us to learn, and the outputs depended upon far more than our efforts alone.

It is my opinion that what we have been doing these past years is something that is going to become far more common in the years ahead, like it or not. As the purchasing power of fiat currencies fall and the cost of fuel continues to rise, the realization will slowly begin to dawn those counted on the good times to continue forever, that perhaps they were mistaken. We are by the standards of the modern American Agricultural Industry, a non-entity. We raise poultry, sheep, hogs and cattle.

We have herding dogs and barn cats, a sugar house where we produce maple syrup every Spring. We care for gardens and pastures, orchards and ponds and host countless numbers of wildlife besides. We feed hundreds of animals and several dozen families including our own, but compared to the big producers we can hardly be called a farm.

I am by no means an expert on food and nutrition. I have no degrees, pursued no advanced training, and haven’t done much research beyond the experiences of the average Boomer. Growing up in a middle-class home on the East Coast during the 1960’s and 70’s provided me with access to a fairly wide variety of food. My parents tended towards the commercial, pre-packaged, canned and frozen assortments found in most grocery stores. We were brand loyal in our household; Pepperidge Farm breads, Mazzola oil, Wise potato chips, Coca-Cola and Hamburger Helper.

Both of my parents grew up with limited resources and multiple siblings and while they never went hungry, theirs was not the kind of life that allowed for visits to restaurants or epicurean indulgences. When you sat down at the table at my grand-parents’ home there would be a plate with sliced bread on it, a margarine container, a salt and pepper shaker and not much else. Your meal was made up on a plate by someone else and you ate what you were given and were expected to be grateful. It was a big deal to have meat or chicken, so fish and pasta were often the main course and those portions were not the kind that led to leftovers.

As my own parents began to slowly climb the socio-economic ladder and earn more than the monthly bills required, they tended towards stocking up the pantry and cabinets with things that had a long shelf life. We had Spam and Underwood Deviled Ham spread, jars of pickles, sardines, and cans of tuna fish. There were always backup bottles of Heinz ketchup and French’s mustard, but rarely snack foods beyond pretzel rods and the occasional box of popsicles in the middle of Summer.

During the hottest part of August, the family would gather to shuck bushels of corn, shell lima beans, and blanch endless baskets of fresh Jersey tomatoes to put up for the winter, but that was the extent of our fractured connection to the self-sufficiency. We’d sometimes be lucky enough to go crabbing down the shore or fish for catfish on the banks of the Delaware River to add to our diet, but even game beyond an occasional brace of squirrel or rabbit, was more of a memory than a reality for us.

There were of course the treats I recall vividly, cotton candy at the annual American Legion carnival, raw clams at Denato’s on the boardwalk at Seaside Heights, delicate hand thrown thin crust pizzas at Conte’s in Princeton, and big sweaty mugs of ice cold Stewart’s root beer with a side of piping hot fries served up on a tray they hung from the driver’s side window of my parents car right before we went to the drive-in movies. Those memories stay with you no matter how much time goes by because there is something about food and satisfying our hunger that hardwires itself into the deepest recesses of our remembrance.

In my teens I took a job washing pots and pans at Western Electric in Hopewell, and in the months before I reported for basic training, I got up every morning at 4 am to get to my breakfast shift as a grill cook at Bob’s Big Boy on Route 70 in Cherry Hill, where I learned how to make perfect eggs, any style, in under 5 minutes. At Fort Benning in the summer of 1980, I came to understand the visceral nature of true hunger as I had never known it before and how to eat as much as I could as fast as I could get it down before the drill sergeants shouted us back out the door of the mess hall. At that time, we were still being issued C-rations in the field- gray boxes packed with canned meat, dry crackers, an occasional can of sliced peaches if you were lucky, and a small plastic packet which held a single freeze-dried coffee, a sugar packet and creamer and interestingly enough, a small package of toilet paper and matches.

I can’t tell you how many of those meals I ate during my enlistment but it was considerable. It was, perhaps, that experience that led me to actually think about food in a way I had never experienced before. Filling your stomach is one thing, savoring something delicious was quite another. While I served in the South, I took my free time to explore the local eateries that featured food that was very different from what I been exposed to in the past. Brunswick stew, hush puppies, pulled pork sandwiches with a liberal dollop of slaw. I ate my first Mexican food at Fort Bragg at a little dive on Victory drive called Pedro’s and became addicted to their fresh fried tortilla chips and salsa. While the military was pretty big on serving calories without much in the way of flavor, when they decided to put on a feed, like on Christmas or the Fourth of July, it was pretty spectacular.

Huge steaks with fat baked potatoes and sour cream, gigantic turkeys with all the fixings, lobster tails and drawn butter. It was the kind of thing that got you to thinking about how much better food could be if you could just find the right place at the right time. During my brief stint at Pratt after high school I had subsisted on a diet of bulgur wheat, brown rice, dumpster dived veggies from the Korean market on Willoughby Street in late 70’s Bedford Stuyvesant and little else. The army was a move up the epicurean ladder for me and for the first time in my life I actually began to put on some serious muscle.

During my 20’s once I’d left the service, I began to figure out how to cook for myself. My first dishes were things I had some experience with and which were, for a young man, the kinds of things I thought I should be eating; eggs, potatoes, steaks, lasagna, salads and sandwiches. My biggest extravagance in those days was to treat myself every payday to a meal at Peking Joe’s Duck House in Philly. I’d bring a book and a bottle of wine and enjoy the meal in a way that was hard to fully grasp. The spices that made up the menu were all new to me, star anise and ginger, orange zest and sesame oil.

Sometimes I’d treat myself to a whole Peking duck and take home the leftovers for the weekend, other times I’d go for the kung pao chicken or the garlic prawns, but every time I ate there, I knew I was getting something very special. They clearly loved the food they prepared and while they never showed it, I could tell they cared about their customers’ satisfaction with their dishes. By the late 80’s I had drifted into stand-up comedy and from there I travelled the length and breadth of a country I had previously only seen on the east coast.

I ate corn in Kansas. cheese curds in Wisconsin, Coney Island hot dogs, in of all places, Detroit. I learned a lot of important lessons about food having come to live exclusively on the output of dive bars, restaurants, diners, fast food joints and pizzerias. Never eat seafood in a landlocked state ( a very funny joke based on a very unfortunate experience), avoid restaurants on Mondays, and if the calamari comes in only those little circles, it’s not really calamari. I began to pick up a lot of smart eating habits as well. I wouldn’t eat anything until after I worked out- unless it was a travel day, but I could drink all the water- with fresh lemon squeezed in- I wanted.

No eating after a show, no snack food ever and when I was off for a day, I’d always check the local newspapers in whatever town I happened to be in and find a church supper for a real stick to your bones, family style meal that reminded me of home. The people were always nice, the food was always filling and it reminded me that life was more than just another town along the road.

During that part of my life, I went to whatever restaurant I wanted in whatever city I happened to be in, with whatever girl I was with at the time. When you have no real obligations financially, you’re making a decent income, and you’re trying to impress your date, the last thing you worry about is the cost of a meal, so I stumbled into the world of real chefs and wine pairings . I learned a lot more about food during that time than I did in the first thirty years of my life and ate an extraordinary number of unusually well-prepared meals.

I noticed the difference between a salad bar plate and a serving of arugula and roasted beets and learned enough to realize just how much I didn’t know at all. There wasn’t a specific moment when I began this trip back to being the source of my own sustenance, but I recall some moments vividly; the very first chopstick load of ahi poke, a small toast with a smear of creme fraise crowned with a glimmering spray of Sevruga caviar and a flute of icy cava. Dry aged beef and pommes frite with just the right amount of fleur de sel.

They made me think that maybe there was something to the difference in quality of really good food and what I’d been eating in the past, not only in its presentation and visceral enjoyment, but in where it came from and what went into producing it. And while it took me another decade to finally make the move and go all in as a neo-agrarian in the post-modern world, we somehow managed to get here. We’re not just consumers anymore, we’re the producers.

I spend my entire day feeding things, herds and flocks, neighbors and friends, the forest and the orchards, the secret world of soil, my family and our dogs. Every living thing finds a way to satiate its hunger and in the natural world the meal never ends. I’m the slaughterman and the butcher, the sous and the chef. I am the one who cures and smokes, dries and distills, ferments and pickles, and in the end, I am the diner as well. I think about every bite and know where it comes from in a way 98% of my fellow Americans will never experience and while it is work, hard work, it is exceedingly sweet.

We’ve grown accustomed to the idea that food will always be available, in mind-numbing varieties regardless of the season, and remain relatively inexpensive. Many would be surprised to know that this is not the norm, that through most of the world and for almost all of history it has been anything but. In times past- in fact in times current, most people have had to participate in the production of their daily sustenance in some form or another. If historians can be believed we have lived in a perpetual state of hand to mouth for upwards of 1.5 million years.

Our current state, particularly in the Western World has seen that alter dramatically in just the last century or so. If it weren’t for the industrialization of the last two centuries and the advent of the age of oil, we’d be eating the same kind of diet enjoyed a thousand years ago. We think nothing of the luxury of being able to eat ripe blackberries, airlifted from Chile in the middle of February, or any number of specialty foods from around the globe offered at almost every grocery store, daily.

The slow implosion taking place socially and politically has illuminated some of the flaws in that thinking. The term supply chain has become familiar to people who previously assumed that anything would be available anywhere, whenever, and for a low, low price. It is only now beginning to dawn on them that they are entirely dependent upon a ponderous chain, its links forged by countless others. There is an assumption that this sudden rise in prices and scarcity of certain items, the shrinking packages for an increasingly higher cost is an aberration, a blip which will pass shortly rather than to become the new normal.

Here is a fact; human beings eat food. Here is another; fewer than 1 person in a hundred produces the food the other 99 depend upon daily, at least in our corner of the world. Any rational, logical and reasonable person can see that such a ratio is seriously amiss and that there must be some kind of mistake. And there has been, a very serious and potentially catastrophic one that looms just over the horizon for 100% of us.

In Part Two I will try and address that problem and present a possible solution before it becomes impossible.

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