As so often happens, the movement that will save us from ourselves starts small, and is at first scourged and ridiculed. Thirty years ago, before the first Earth Day, the words "ecology" and "ecosystem" were hardly in common use. People laughed at organic gardeners, disparaged them for their labor-intensive ways. But organic gardening grew into organic farming, as more and more people demanded clean, flavorful food. And now, another positive movement is infiltrating the country: Community Supported Agriculture. Almost all CSA farms are organic. When you join a CSA, you pay in advance for a share of whatever the farm produces, thereby providing the farmer with working capital and sharing the risk with him. You deal with the excesses and do without the crops that fail. Increasingly, small farmers in rapidly developing areas like ours are finding that Community Supported Agriculture will allow them to keep their farms and thrive financially. CSA farms link their participants directly to the farmer and the land that provides their sustenance. They allow us to do something direct about farmland preservation. And they return us to the glories of seasonal eating.
I've always loved to eat my vegetables--they've been the main part of my diet all my life. My mother cooked the good old Southern-style dishes that her mother grew up fixing for the field hands on her daddy's south Arkansas farm, and that's what I learned, too: Field peas, cornbread, and whatever was in season. An annual rite of spring in our house, and one that I still carry out, happens around Easter, when the first new potatoes and English peas begin to come in. Cooked together in a cream sauce, the little red knobs tasting of earth and the tiny green pearls bright with all the promises of fresh growth, this happy dish says that spring is in its glory--and that tomatoes are on the way.
To accompany the rich simplicity of the peas and potatoes, Mama would pile the cut glass relish dish with spring onions. Their hot tang perfectly counterbalanced the cream. And so flavor burst upon flavor as we cycled through the roster of the seasons. The abundance of crisp salad, so welcome after winter's cabbages and dark greens; the beautiful trees of broccoli; bold radishes. The first cucumbers, with their powdery skins and surprising bristly protrusions, yet so cooling and wet inside. String beans. Then the great tide of squashes, tomatoes, glossy peppers. Corn. Cantaloupe. Limas and purple hulls. And just when you thought it couldn't get any better--the furred pods of okra appeared. Eventually, though, after summer's brilliant profligacy, the sober collards, the baskets of dusty sweet potatoes, the mounds of dense cabbages and the onions and carrots that would supply the winter months, seemed almost a relief. In winter we would eat more meat, but even the Sunday roast would be dwarfed by the potatoes, carrots and onions piled around it.
It wasn't hard to eat this way when I was a child--in fact, it wasn't a "lifestyle choice." It was just how it was. Your grocery might be part of chain, and sure, the iceberg lettuce was from California, but the store still filled its produce bins with locally grown vegetables and fruit. And if those weren't good enough for you, there were farm stands here and there. And sometimes, when I was really little, you'd still get the leathery farmer in his overalls coming around the neighborhoods with bushel baskets in his old Ford truck.
By the time I was cooking for myself, though, all that was over or ending. Like so much else in America, food production had fallen victim to false ideas about economy of scale, and to the idea that everything should be available all the time. Increasingly, food was grown far away--who knew where--using lots of chemicals. Varieties were bred for uniformity and compatibility with the processes for cooling, transporting and storing them. Thus the cardboard tomato, devoid of taste. Thus the soggy cucumber in its greasy skin. Thus the peas with the flavor of pesticide, not promise. Eating these things doesn't make you feel your place in the chain of being. It is hardly any wonder that we have become a nation of fast-food eaters.
Being a city dweller, I don't have the option of growing my own vegetables, and buying organic produce from the formerly local chain has become an increasingly pricey proposition--and you still don't know where the food comes from. But last year, I saved myself from bad vegetables, I hope forever, by joining a CSA. This farm is a remarkable operation, a Shangri-la of vegetables. Not only is it organic, it has no gasoline-powered equipment--there are work horses instead. Rain water is collected and stored for irrigation. These folks live off the electric grid--they power their computers with solar cells. I wanted to tell you all about the farmer and his farm, but he's shy, and didn't want to be interviewed, so his name and location will remain unpublished.
But I can tell you this: The food he grows is holy. Just looking at it makes you feel more alive. In art, the vegetables, grains and fruit in still lifes and sculptures have a metaphoric value: They tell of plenty and of grace, and also remind us of the cycles of life and death. When I bring my overflowing sacks of CSA bounty into my kitchen, and spread them on my counter, I feel a surge of pure joy at being on this wheel of life. Joy like that can only be equaled by the unmitigated pleasure of eating that lovely food.
As much as I like my veggies, I'm not a vegetarian. But what to do when I feel the primal desire for meat? It has become difficult to buy good vegetables, but buying meat has become downright scary, what with the hormones, antibiotics, mad cow disease, packing house conditions, and so on. You never even see a butcher in the big grocery stores--is there anyone who knows anything about all those shrink-wrapped pieces of meat there in the counter?
Luckily, there are now a few alternatives in this area, a few places where you can feel certain you are getting good meats. The one I know best is Fowler's, in Durham--home of Your Meat Friend, Jeff Barney.
Barney brings an unusual set of skills and understanding to his butcher shop. He apprenticed in a small grocery in Flint, Mich., right out of high school, learning meat-cutting from the longtime owner, who told him: "Give your soul to God, boy, because your ass is mine." He taught Barney the careful, respectful, old-fashioned ways, which he later came to learn had fallen by the wayside in the high-volume supermarkets.
Barney eventually went to college, studying philosophy, film and literature, and over the years he worked at many types of shops, including a Kosher butcher, learning a great deal about first-rate food of all kinds. But he always returned to meat cutting. "It's a real meditative thing," he says. "There is a craft aspect to meat-cutting."
There is no craft without respect for materials, and this is precisely what is missing at the average meat counter--the sense of reverence for the animal life that meat represents. To watch a good butcher work is a fine thing, akin to watching a sculptor releasing the forms hidden in stone. And to watch the knife flashing as the butcher talks to you of "meat poetry" and the mystical process of dry-aging beef is enough to make one a little giddy. He'll tell you about steak, and about the "glory of filling the house with the scent of stew in the winter," and about slipping herbs under the skin of a roasting chicken, and about what to do with a sea bass ("the meat of the sea"), until you are ready to swoon.
The Meat Friend's love for his subject is very confidence-inspiring, but what about all those aforementioned problems? Barney admits to worrying over the steroids and hormones himself. "We are searching for someone who can raise prime graded beef organically for us," he says, and he's looking for a source of local, free-range chickens. But he insists that there is another important factor in how good meat is for those who eat it: "If you can't eat meat in good conscience," he says, "don't eat it."
For me, meat is not an everyday thing, but it has a psychic importance. The whiff of iron in the blood, the resistance of the flesh to my teeth, make me feel my animalism, make me feel linked very directly to the world of creatures. Perhaps that is barbaric, but when I eat an animal in full awareness that its life went to continue mine, and I feel grateful for that, I think it is fine. I wouldn't give up my vegetables for it, but as Jeff Barney says, meat can be "the most completely satisfying food--it is as if it immediately imbues your blood with nutritional intelligence." l
For more information about CSAs and related organizations, call the Carolina Farm Stewardship Foundation or the NCSU Center for Environmental Farming Systems, or go to www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/csa/csaorgs.htm. Another excellent compendium of links is at www.ibiblio.org/london/permaculture.html.