This is an article about food — but it's also a call to convert the long-distance, industrial system of American food supply to a localized market, an urge to move beyond Peruvian fruits in December and stale tomatoes from the hothouse. The farm-to-table, locavore, organic movements have become a maelstrom of marketing glee; Jamie Oliver now puts our transgressions on display every Friday night, hosting his hit TV show Food Revolution and exposing our school lunch system for the shameful fraud that it is. This is about how you can pitch in and help.
From Alice Water's White House garden, to our own local heroes Adam Nemirow and Mike Lata of FIG, attempts at infusing the farm into the American ethos now run the gamut — from those who nostalgically remember the "good old days" when heirlooms were the norm to activist organizations dedicated to the local first movement.
But how is the average Joe to afford the price of a locally grown, organic, heirloom tomato that rings up at a delicious $5 a pound at the Marion Square farmers market? What are progressive folks to do when they realize that their pocketbooks can't match this newfound initiative? And what about that age-old American need for convenience?
In 1948, Italian immigrant Angelo Pellegrini found his way to Seattle. There he wrote a book titled The Unprejudiced Palate, which was dedicated to "classic thoughts on food and the good life." He may have been the first modern foodie this side of the Atlantic.
Long before the posh pizzas of Wolfgang Puck, or the elemental West Coast cuisine of Alice Waters, even before Julia Child brought French cooking to American kitchens, Pellegrini had something to say about food. His inspiration came from his experience as a child of an impoverished family in southern Italy, where, as a boy, he was relegated to collecting animal dung on the highway to sell as compost. Eventually, he made his way to America — to the open promise, the unbelievable bounty, and what he considered the crass wastefulness of the American commercial landscape.
Modestly employed as a university teacher in a bustling city, he set about recreating the ethic that he left behind in the Old World. Pellegrini planted an orchard, an herb garden, vegetables, and grapes, and operated a small wine production facility in his basement. His bounty extended to beans, peas, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, beets, artichokes, salad greens, carrots, celery, onions, chard, and more. And all of this was grown on a 53-by-125-foot suburban lot, not even a sixth of an acre. His house was an edible estate ordered by the seasons.
I found Pellegrini's book a dozen years ago. Since then it has come back into print, no doubt owing to the increased popularity of the local food movement. But for all its virtues and rants about austere self-sufficiency, I found his ethic hard to emulate. Not for lack of effort, nor dedication to the task, but simply because growing stuff in Charleston can be frustrating. Between hungry birds and the August heat, soil-borne nematodes and early blight, much of what looks great in a modern seed catalog bursts forth and dies in our subtropical clime — at least for the uninitiated. The common thread amongst those that claim success lies in an accumulated knowledge. For Pellegrini, this knowledge of the soil came from his Old World upbringing. For most of us in the Lowcountry, we look to each other.
Take, for instance, Arnold Postell, who tills his backyard into an edible bounty. Already his tomatoes are shooting forth, the figs are bursting into leaf, and small strawberries peek from little beds tucked around trees and play sets for the kids. There's a lemon tree in a pot over here, and some blueberries over there. Fragrant herbs perfume the landscape of his West Ashley yard. A small greenhouse reveals a full-fledged hydroponics lab.
Gardening success for Postell seems to come easy, no doubt enabled by a degree in international agriculture, his experience as a horticulturalist at the S.C. Aquarium where he currently works, and his days in the yard-design business with a company called Edible Landscapes.
His time spent with his grandmother near Hemingway, S.C., taught Postell the secrets of the Lowcountry garden, the main instructor being trial and error. "I still kill plants all the time," he says. "Every year there are different nuances to the yard. I tell people to simply plant it and experiment with what works."
Also essential to gardening success is sharing the knowledge of past generations. "Attend a Clemson Extension master gardener class," he says. "Find a neighbor that will share and talk to local growers at the farmer's market."
These will give you an idea of the important things, like what to plant when and where certain varieties will thrive. "I get frustrated when I go into a nursery or seed store, and these guys are passing off winter crops in the height of spring, stuff that is just going to fail or bolt immediately," he says.
To sit in Postell's backyard, amongst children who will grow up with an immediate appreciation of food's real source, brings the realization that real food is about more than activism or a sociopolitical platform. It represents a cyclical thread of knowledge that still resists the demise of the nuclear family and a way of life that perhaps is integral to the human experience.
Gardening, it turns out, is a lot like cooking. I like to do both. As a child, I spent hours in our family garden, which was a tenth of the size of my grandmother's one-acre plot. I helped harvest and preserve, and one of the meaningful activities of my youth was cooking with my dad or my "mom-mom" when given the chance. In this way, the activities of the soil were connected to the table, and I've found that those who truly enjoy food, professionally and as laypeople, often tell a similar tale.
Ask a local chef where they really learned to love food, and you will likely hear a tale about grandma's house or a mother's kitchen table. They'll describe communal activities and threads of knowledge and know-how passed down through generations. Traveling into the springtime countryside reveals garden plots — a patch of greens finishing up or a few tomatoes and squash peeking from behind a shotgun house just off the highway. Conversely, urban and suburban landscapes always seem somewhat bare, but not for lack of space if we are to believe the tale of Mr. Pellegrini. I imagine that what is lacking is the very seed that chefs so often point toward — the generational thread.
My grandmother, now well into her 80s, lives with us, and even though we call suburban West Ashley home, she has helped me turn our yard into an edible landscape. She has trouble digging, and I often find my four-year old daughter assisting, putting in a few lacinato kale or preparing a bed to sow zinnias. We plan weekends around compost, rather than television schedules. Our summer days are filled with canning and pickling, the winter with starting plants in the greenhouse.
Because we have a yard, and not a farm, we grow in any available space, tucking peppers between shrubs and using herbs and berries as green borders. And as the seasons turn, we learn more about what does well and where. We try new things, and all the while our knowledge stretches across four generations at once. We seek out people like Arnold Postell when we need help.
I imagine that this is what the future of "local" may come to look like, as aging Baby Boomers retire and move closer to offspring, as the surviving virtues of the current eco-local fads cement themselves into everyday life, and the great recession wanes into more consumptive times. At the height of the recession, seed providers reported record demand from home gardeners. Surely some of that influence will stick.
A current fashion of high-end restaurants seems to be establishing company farms. Perhaps this points to a revival of backyard gardens, urban and suburban landscapes whose affect will bring people closer to the food they consume and more sensitive to the impact that humans have upon the natural world. If nothing else, a first foray with mineral fertilizers will teach most aspiring gardeners that more is not always better and that natural means are always preferable as a first choice. Gardeners, like cooks, learn that success is determined by balance and informed by tradition.
In that we might find an Earth Day wish fitting for the fertile spring and aspire to refashion our landscapes into productive classrooms bridging young and old. After all, more "green" thumbs are invariably good for Mother Earth and leave her better poised to sustain future generations. The time together that such endeavors allow our family is priceless. Perhaps that is what it means to live the good life after all.