Friday, November 19, 2010

It's Food. You Eat. Why Not: Pick Your Own 2010

Any time you begin feeling smug about the accomplishments of humanity; space stations, microwaves, that kind of thing, remember, for humbleness sake, all of the activities in the world that are still weather dependent. There are the obvious ones like picnics, hikes, and spectating outdoor sporting events, less obvious ones such as long drives, job interviews (nothing like 95 degrees and humid to make anyone look disgusting) and commitments to reading major Russian novels over the winter (Just try it during a mild winter. It's possible but far from ideal.). For all our art and science, for all of our ability to control some of our environment, for all of our technological advancements, there are still events, essential or important, in our lives that can be dramatically affected by the weather.

Every year, at the end of the farm share season, our farmer (Steve) lets farm-sharers (?) pick their own vegetables on a Sunday after or around the last farmer's market at which he sells. It's a chance for us to see where our food comes from, to experience a sample-size of some of the toil that goes in to feeding us, and to take a whole bunch of food, essentially for free. Americans, in general, are so isolated from our food, that a yearly field trip to pick vegetables, whether you participate in a CSA or not, seems like something close to a civic duty. And it's a chance to eat a leaf of arugula you picked seconds earlier.

But, even though we've put a man on the moon, can accelerate particles to virtually the speed of light, and have most likely found water on Mars, the weather can really bring down a pick your own day. Nothing says “Let's just eat take out for the rest of our lives,” quite like a cold rainy day spent convincing yourself you have a political and fiduciary obligation to stay outside, be cold, and pick vegetables. This year, however, the weather was perfect. It was just warm enough that one (well, one with Viking heritage, at least) could get by without any heavy layers of clothing and cool enough that one could be comfortable in the pants and long sleeves that serve other vegetable picking purposes. Furthermore, the sun had reached at least the minimum level of brightness for the lizard part of my brain to believe it was a day worth leaving the den for, but it was never so bright that I wanted sunglasses. (Important, since I didn't have any.) I could certainly sympathize with our farmer if he spent most of the day grumbling about all the wet, dark, cold, miserable mornings he'd spent over the season picking our vegetables, while we come down for one day, one freaking day, out of the entire summer and get an absolutely perfect day.

I was sent off, with a shovel and a pair of shears as my particular implements of destruction, to the rented field a little ways off with the expressed goal of digging potatoes. At one point, I was actually running with the bucket and shovel, with the shears in my pocket, to hop in the back of a pick-up truck for a ride over to the field. I was willing to go alone because I had a great ambition to think while digging potatoes. I'd never thought while digging potatoes and since I'm an intellectual, and one way to define an intellectual is as an individual who finds new situations in which to think, I was oddly excited by the possibility. (Anything can be romanticized if you have enough time to prepare.) I had hoped that, much like the vibrant intellectual productivity of the long walk or at least the active stillness of splitting wood, digging potatoes would provide me with some kind of ancillary intellectual productivity; maybe formulating a few topics for this very blog, or solving some problems in other writing projects, or maybe some kind of intellectual progress with the books I was reading. Such was not the case. Though my brain was not a void during the harvest; I spent about an equal amount of time concerned with the practicals of digging potatoes (is that mold or intransigent dirt?) and thinking about what I should be thinking about since I'd been thinking for a week about the chance to do some thinking while I was digging potatoes.

If there is one empirical, unquestionable fact one learns from a pick your own day, one life lesson that persists in the varying circumstances of existence, it's this: the volume of your vegetables is variable. You'd think, being physical objects (massive in the particle physics sense) they'd stay the same size regardless of time of day, state of pickedness, size of your car's trunk, or capacity of your freezer. Vegetables are not supposed to change size, unless something dramatic involving blades and heat is done to them.

But they do. When you're in the field staring at the bounty of a farmer's labor stretching for lush yards around you in the knowledge that nearly all of that food is slated for compost, it looks like one could always use another bag of chard, another few potatoes, another stalk of Brussels sprouts. At the car, it looks like either one of your friends or one of the buckets of parsnips will have to be left behind. Of course, once you've Tetrised everything into the trunk, the vegetables shrink again and you consider, just for a second, running back for another handful of carrots or another bunch of beets. It's food. You eat. Why not.

It would be a far cry from exaggeration to say that the vegetables simply triple in size once they get to your kitchen. Vegetables you don't even remember picking appear at the bottom of bags and buckets. You didn't even see fennel anywhere and there some is, right under some turnips you're already regretting. You start to feel that particular strain of melancholy that mixes regret with exhaustion. However, a little blanching and freezing and a couple of beers later it seems like there were hardly any vegetables at all and you feel that particular strain of melancholy that mixes a resurgence of vitality with regret. Newton was wrong. Everything is quantum. And picking the cilantro leaves off their stems after all that damn near killed me.

Whether it's the weather (Everyone catch the Simpsons reference? Good.) or the labor, there is something primal in the satisfaction nestled in the soreness in one's lower back after a day spent picking the vegetables one plans on eating for the next six months. One has taken active, direct responsibility for one of the few things one absolutely needs to do. I'm sure I'll have a slightly different perspective after another bag of frozen kale for dinner in February, but then I'll dig up all the political, cultural, and socio-economic reasons for getting a farm share. For now, the greens are still fresh, my back is still sore, and pick your own 2010 was still a good time.

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