You Can Take the Girl Out of the Country, But…
by Gina Foresta
I grew up in the 70’s, the age of convenience. At that time, anything that made life easier was celebrated and embraced. Baby formula was best, and instant was a buzz word for coffee, astronaut-worthy orange juice, and mashed potatoes. We ate our fancy microwaved tv dinners on tv trays and celebrated the hi-tech and socially progressive promises of shows like the Jetsons, The Six-Million Dollar Man and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. As a little girl, I dreamed of hover crafts and female equality in a jaunty hat I could throw. Dallas and Fantasy Island showed us glamour and prestige that seemed not only attainable but defined success.
Equally as popular to these fantasy lifestyle shows were those of small-towns with home-grown values like the Walton’s, Little House on the Prairie and The Andy Griffith Show. We devoured these show plots too, feeling an undefinable connection. They evoked an obsessive nostalgia that was in our blood as we felt Aunt Bee’s warmth, rooted for Pa and said goodnight to John Boy.
Messages surrounded me as a child that we were now in a technological age that gave us the privilege of saying goodbye to hard work and household drudgery. Girls could be high-powered executives with huge salaries, easily attract a handsome husband and effortlessly raise happy, well-adjusted children. Perfume companies reminded us we could not only pay for that bacon, but fry it up with ease and have time to stay fit and beautiful at the same time. We could have it all.
But inside we yearned for the simplicity of Laura’s life. We were naive about the realities, how hard her family would have had to work, but there was honor and satisfaction to be gained from that work and they were fully present in their lives. Women and men were partners, and both genders’ abilities were celebrated and vital to a family’s survival. As we moved away from the land in our modern life, its pulse and vibration still resonated. We just couldn’t hear it at that time through the screams of messages from advertisers and tv personalities.
My mother grew up on a farm. She worked hard, harvesting tobacco, tending chickens, gardening and caring for her two younger brothers. She was expected to act like a mother at an early age. When she married, had children of her own, and entered the modern work force, her approach to householding changed. Perhaps it was a rebellious reaction to the initial disapproval of her parents for choosing my father to spend her life with, or perhaps she had just had enough of work she had no choice but to partake in, and she wanted to live her young adult life on her terms. Her approach to cooking held the biggest contrast to her former life.
Away from the farm and her usual food sources she entered the world of convenience foods and ready-made meals. At that time, it was encouraged and considered a sign of success if you could cook a whole meal in a microwave. When we were young, and she was at home with us, dinner was expected when my father arrived home. Convenience foods equalled survival on a crazy day with no help. Once she started working full time outside the home, she would come home from work, open the pantry cabinets, sigh from exhaustion and try to orchestrate dinner from cans and boxes.
Therefore, cooking did not look like fun to me as a child. My mother still maintained a small vegetable garden during most of my childhood, but because I had not yet developed my palate for fresh food, I don’t have much recollection of it. I was not required, nor was I lured into working in the garden. I was too busy planning my outfit for the skating rink or perfecting my cartwheels in the backyard between tanning sessions.
The times I did see my mother cook with enjoyment were with our extended family. We visited my grandparents’ farm frequently for dutiful visits or multiple annual family reunions. My mother would help her own mother make the familiar Southern dishes. The kitchen was full of women before, during and after the meal. While my mother certainly felt a sense of duty to help out at these events, she moved through the actions of preparing and serving food seamlessly. Cooking in her childhood home was comforting to her, familiar synapses firing into action. Before we departed my mother and her brothers would always disappear into the secret room in the barn, emerging with jars of pickles, jams and tomatoes. I had no idea why they found these jars so special, but my mother and her siblings knew the sweat and time that went into creating these magic jars.
I taught myself how to cook in college out of necessity. As I got married and started a family, I learned more about community supported agriculture, pastured meat production, and the importance of organic, local produce. I realized my grandparents’ farm had provided the food and raised the animals I was learning about. When my oldest child started public school, we learned to pack her a nutritious lunch instead of relying on the school cafeteria. It soon became apparent that children of this age need to be taught to eat healthily and to be exposed to nature and the outdoors. Five years ago, I started a school garden before I knew anything about gardening. I learned quickly with the help of a local farmer, books and trial and error. I was then hired to manage a large restaurant garden and the gardening gene kicked into full force.
The subject of my phone calls with my mother shifted to gardening talk, stories of local producers I found in my area, or questions about the produce I was learning to can. This inspired her to seek out local farms in her area from which to purchase produce, eggs and chickens. I could hear it in her voice when she told me of how perfectly her chicken roasted up, how yellow the yolks of her eggs were, or how vibrant and earthy the carrots tasted, that she felt a connection to her childhood and her life on her parents’ farm.
My children are now receiving an education. I tread lightly, trying to tempt them with beautiful vegetable plants and flowers, sweet berries, interesting insects and majestic butterflies. My son, while shunning most veggies on his plate, will happily eat what he can pick in the garden. He also knows the names of all the vegetables we grow. I beamed with pride when he found an errant ground cherry plant beside his school basketball court, exhibiting it to his classmates. My daughter loves to get her hands dirty both in the garden and kitchen. I try to get out of her way and not control her process, knowing this need and talent run deep. Whether she is holding a trowel or whisk, her DNA guides her hands.
I crack an egg from my local farmer and think of my mother as a girl my daughter’s age reaching under hens in the early morning. I pour milk from a glass jar from grass-fed cows and I think of my mother drinking the raw, warm milk from cows she tended in the pastures of her childhood. I dig up potatoes from chocolate-cake earth and think of my mother’s cream cheese mashed potatoes that she made for special occasions.
Perhaps young adults like my mother left family farms with the lure of a better, easier life in exciting cities. The American Dream didn’t include dirty, physical labor. It promised clean, pristine homes, shiny cars and automatic everything. But just as our bodies’ fight-or-flight response still serves to protect us from a saber-toothed tiger, our bodies still crave the feel of soil in our hands and need the electrons it provides. Our bodies crave real food yet we are an overfed but undernourished nation. Humans have not evolved to tolerate our modern life. We still need to work with our hands and create our own sustenance in partnership with the earth.
While my mother did not inspire me in my youth to cook or garden, she did plant the seeds. Her influence was there, maybe even just in the blood and life she gave me. It became an interest that bonded us in my adulthood. We have both rediscovered our connection to these arts. I am now trying to teach my own children the sacredness of caring for our food, our bodies, and our homes. I am showing them a personal definition of success; that stepping lightly on the earth, and enjoying food and family is more soul-stirring than champagne wishes and caviar dreams. These are tools and crafts they will take with them into adulthood, continuing the lineage. It is happening all around us; this revolution of returning to the land and its gifts. The resonance of the earth’s and our own heartbeats are calling us home.