Rebellious Eating: Today’s food movements seen through childhood memory

peaches

By Shani Gilchrist I always smell a horse when I eat a peach. I close my eyes while chewing and am suddenly enveloped in warm, humid air, the musty mammalian fumes from the hot animal’s coat and the greenness that wafted up from the black dirt. My best summer days were spent on my family’s horse farm in the country.  I would sit atop my favorite horse and meander through the grounds, often reaching just above my head to snag a peach when we would pass beneath a tree.

When I was a teenager we had to sell the farm, as it was a large operation and too far from the hospital where my father took call on nights and weekends.  There were no major highways that led from the tiny stoplight-less town where we lived to the hospital in the tiny city where he worked. There were too many nights of pulling through the gates to find that he had to immediately wind the car 35 minutes back to admitting. Then, after finally getting back home at two or three in the morning he would have to get up, check in with the trainer and the grooms, then drive back to his office next to the hospital once again. Something had to give, and since no one of sane mind raises horses for profit, the farm had to be sacrificed.

At a certain time in South Carolina, where an average of 60,000 tons of peaches are grown every year, it is impossible to avoid the smells and lures of the juicy peach. During that time I am often transported back to the sloping grass that was home to most of our fruit trees. By the end of the summer I’ve been known to throw my children into the car and start heading out to the country, toward the direction of the old farm. The only cure for the melancholy that the flavors evoke is a trip to my old stomping grounds and a stop in front of the now dilapidated barn to dream of what the land could be if it were mine. I probably look ridiculous sitting in my big SUV in the driveway of a property whose current owners, I am told, are likely to come out with hunting rifles if they were to see me. Thankfully no one can see the silly look of nostalgia on my face, as if every time we sat around the kitchen table there was a full farm meal, complete with fruits from our orchards and milk that I had gotten from an imaginary goat that lived outside my bedroom window.  The truth is that our dinners often consisted of frozen lasagna, spaghetti with sauce that was doctored from a jar, or barbeque from up the road. There were many evenings when I scowled ungratefully at the food on my plate and wished for “real food.”

Right now there are tomatoes fattening on hairy green stems in terra cotta pots in my backyard. They are out there for two reasons. One is that I wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t kill them before we embark on planting a larger vegetable garden. The other reason is that one day, as my 5-year-old son scrambled his unruly limbs into his booster seat at school pickup, he declared that he wanted to grow tomatoes. This was one of those moments where my child’s words almost caused my forehead to violently meet the top of my steering wheel. My oldest child—the skinny kid with the infectious smile and cherubic curls—does not eat anything. And by anything, I mean he does not eat any food that one would consider for true sustenance.  Somehow we have kept him alive on a diet of strawberries, pepperoni pizza, pancakes, and a variety of cheeses. Needless to say, I was overjoyed to hear his sudden declaration that he wanted to grow vegetables of any kind.

The other day we picked our first tomatoes of the season. They were beautiful. And they are still sitting on the kitchen windowsill. My son recoils in incredulous horror every time I suggest that he taste one of “his” tomatoes that he diligently waters each afternoon. I had harbored visions of him being enthralled by the plants that he had nurtured into food for the table. It would be another step toward achieving the sustainable household that I’ve been trying to build. We will grow our own food. We recycle. I make my own counter sprays. We use cloth napkins. Then, a thought occurred to me as his top lip curled as I waved the sweet cherry tomatoes at him this afternoon.

 What if he spends the next thirteen years pushing back?

A friend of mine recently told me about her own childhood growing up on a farm. She was surrounded by everything she needed to feed and clothe herself, but all she wanted to do was go to Pizza Hut. The food on her table actually did come from her cows, goats, chickens and orchards, but it was the last thing that she wanted to eat. I listened to her story and thought about how much the teenage version of myself despised my days of drinking Diet Pepsi and eating whatever artificially-sweetened version of spaghetti sauce my mother had thrown together for dinner at the last minute. Now here I am, wanting every bit of food that sits on my table to be local, organic and at least seventy-five percent homemade.

My food memories don’t usually include the way I longed for dishes that didn’t taste like a garlicky Christmas elf had made it. My mother gave us the gift of insisting that we all sit around the table together each night to talk over our day, but “master chef” was far from being on her resume. My food memories are instead made up of the days that I felt self-important because I was eating a peach right off of a tree, with no packets of SweetN’Low anywhere near me. It was real, but most importantly it was different from the way my parents presented food to their children.

Is our current and beloved farm-to-table movement a similar reaction? It certainly has its perks… no one can really fight the sustainability argument… but now that the movement is heading down the path towards mainstream I have to wonder if our generation, like so many before us, isn’t sticking it to our parents for the quick-and-easy food approach of the 1970s and 1980s that is now being blamed for everything from obesity to cancer. Are our teenagers going to look at us like we are the ultimate dorks for spending so much time on things that could have been thrown into the microwave in another version? Most likely, yes. And their children will be horrified by their parents’ food hastiness.

Our most distinct memories are tied to our senses no matter what the quality of the thing we are experiencing. What remains poignant is that which is outside the realm of the everyday, and as humans, we naturally seek out experiences--large or small--that take us outside of our comfort zones. Everyone wants what they can’t have, and we don’t even notice this when it comes to food anymore because it comes in the form of righteous “movements”.  The farm-to-table movement is out to save the American small-farming industry and reintroduce the population to foods that don’t have as much potential to cause harm to our bodies. These are causes that are important and need to be championed. But the viral spread of such a movement has more to do with acting on our childhood statements of “When I have my own family, I’m going to do things differently,” as we stomped out of our dining rooms in our untied shoes. Our childhood rebellions will always stay with us, which is why at some point every summer I end up standing in front of a fading barn, looking at it as if it is the Taj Mahal, thinking of horses and tasting peaches.

[Original peaches photo by CaptPiper on Flickr]