Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Eating Local - Reclaim, Reuse, Recyle Depression Style

When I was growing up in 1970's era rust-belt Ohio, my father was a minister, or pastor, he would say, in a small town outside of Youngstown, Ohio. It was a predominantly Catholic area, and so the Baptist church was small, the members blue-collar steel and auto workers.

The older members of the church had grown up in the depression and lived through the World War II victory garden era. They all had backyard vegetable gardens, and grew tomatoes as big as houses, cucumbers the size of small engines, zucchinis a mile long, and green beans as tough as rubber with strings to rival violin gut that simmered down to soft sweetness when boiled forever with bits of bacon in the broth. In late summer, these things would flood into our house by way of church services, arriving at the church in bins and boxes, bushels and paper grocery sacks full, turning our house into a miniature food factory.

But one of the deacons of the church went one further, inviting the whole passel of us over for visits to see his garden and share in the bounty. He and his wife would host us in the long summer evenings, shadows slipping into gloom, elongated over the green grass until they seemed to stretch into infinity. One of my fondest memories--well, frankly, one of my many memories of a world that seems to have disappeared--is of those summer evenings at the McLains'.

They had a neat, tidy red cape that my father told me he'd built himself from scraps and whatever he could find to build with. Even when we knew him, in his 70's, he'd walk the roads picking up whatever odds and ends he found along the way. And in the basement, swept so clean you could have eaten off the concrete floor, bins and bins were ranked in careful rows, where he sorted his finds. Brass, steel, iron, screws, nuts, bolts, hub caps, pipes, what not. He'd use what he could and take the rest to the scrap yard to sell.

They had a garage, a big, midwestern kind of thing, two- or three-car-wide sized, or so it seemed to me then, and on our summer visits he'd walk us down the garden. Here were his beans, here his tomatoes, Big Boys, Early something or other, and here his rows of corn. And my father would quiz him on how he pollinated his corn. They'd talk and we would run, just run flat out, in the short mown grass, cool with June evening.

Then we'd eat on a long picnic table set up in the garage, or outside on the drive, depending, and after decamp to the screened in summer porch beside the garage or the porch swing out back of it. And the grown-ups would talk in long melodic ambling conversations, while me and my five sisters and brothers would run and jump and climb the giant maple tree above the swing.

That, it seems to me, is local eating, integrally bound up in a "use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without" style.

So I had to laugh last night, in Manhattan, when I saw a sign in a coffee shop--milk sourced exclusively from antibiotic-free local farms. Last time I checked, there wasn't a farm within spitting distance of Manhattan. And believe me, while I like my fair trade espressos and cappuccinos, my hand-crafted Brooklyn chocolates and my locally made artisan cheeses, the new "local" ain't got nothing on eating local 1970's midwestern depression-era style.

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