Food For Thought Writing Contest
This fall, the REAP Food Group put out a call for memoirs, poetry and works of short fiction on how Americans are reuniting with local, sustainable foods and “taking back the table.” Read on for the winners of the organization’s Food for Thought writing contest.
By Guy Thorvaldsen
As usual, our CSA renewal request arrives in early March, the most bleak, improbable time of year. Outside my window a brown, scraggly and litterswept landscape holds scant hope. The gray piles of snow offer little potential for green plants, much less the yellows, purples and luscious reds cheerily promised by our CSA farmers, Dave and Barb. But it’s good to have something to pull me through the desperately recalcitrant spring and that’s enough inspiration for me to get out the checkbook, even if just to honor Dave and Barb’s wild claims of deep vegetable dreams.
Three months later I lift my head from my desk and the view has improved; bud-laden trees fill the sky and the neighbor has cranked up the power mower to cut his one hundred square feet of grass. More importantly, it’s Thursday—the first CSA pickup day of the season. As I pedal the six blocks to the neighborhood drop-off point, my early spring doubts melt away. Now I’m as excited as a child on Christmas morning, more than ready to be done with pale, imported vegetables, ready to see what local gems Dave and Barb have dreamed up. And as I pull into the driveway, the boxes are there as promised, neatly stacked in our neighbor’s garage.
As I lift the box, it doesn’t matter that it is half-full; I’m happy. This is just the start of the concert and I remember how the score goes. The weeks’ offerings build on each other, from a simple spring melody to a late summer, full-throated jubilate. This year begins on a playful, friendly note: a bagatelle, a piccolo solo of tender, translucent mixed greens, unruly tendrils of curly scape and, at the bottom of the box, frost-sweetened parsnips—a light brown, slightly wrinkled reminder that even in a Wisconsin winter, not only Dave and Barb have been dreaming sweetly, but so has the earth. As each subsequent Thursday arrives the symphony broadens in complexity—the round oboe call of small white onions, a soulful bassoon solo of morels and, there, beneath the now ubiquitous lettuce, a sudden thrill of woodwinds as I lift a clear box of red, red strawberries to the sun.
With the arrival of June, a rush of high piano notes bursts free with my first bite into stunningly crisp and sweet snap peas. Violins, violas and brass horns join the fray, lift and carry me into and through midsummer with fistfuls of green onions, tart radishes, juggler pins of yellow squash and long, wrinkled fingers of honey-sweet carrots. A cymbal clash announces the first basket of taught-skinned cherry tomatoes while the deep hum of cellos carries the sheer elegance of burgundy eggplants, hand-perfect peppers, succulent greenorangetan melons. On Thursdays, passing each other at the pickup garage, we CSAers pause, beseech each other’s counsel for even more zucchini recipes, for wisdom about cooking with beets, for insight as to the nature of cauliflower.
Throughout the swelter of July and into the heated heart of August, I imagine them—Dave and Barb—striding through the fields, chests high, muscles singing, glistening with bright sweat as they conduct the harvest, pinching, pulling, picking, always sampling, gathering in as their vegetable orchestra swells, teeters on the precipice of chaos. They direct their workers here, no there, oh just everywhere! In town, the pickup garage nears chaos as well, offering extras. Rough burlap bags bulging with sweet corn; paper bags of thin-skinned, blushing-pink potatoes; string bags of gnarly Jerusalem artichokes; and smaller boxes of tender fingerlings. A shin-high pile of cucumbers sits directly on the garage floor with a crude cardboard sign sticking out of the pile: Pickle Me!
The end of August. We are near sated. Denouement is upon us. At the pickup garage, the afternoon light has changed and we move more slowly, listening to the solitary notes of autumn. We realize there has been no intermission, but there will be a finale. Summer has descended, been swallowed whole by the earth. A touch of melancholy leads us into new places within ourselves. In the now weighty box lies the deep perfection of purple cabbages, the multitudinous knuckles of Brussels sprouts and the myriad folds of kale challenging us to imagine a deeper green.
September. A melancholic French horn solo accompanies a clutch of tart winesap apples. The subtle drum of a lone pumpkin. Squat jars of mellowing, golden honey seem to hum, a finale resonant with pure promises, reminders of the sweet notes of spring, of summer, of dreams that dream the farmer through the winter and awaken a city boy to what is possible and good and altogether hopeful.
The Flavor of Friendship
By Sarah Brooks
The tent pops up, and the short Hmong vendor covers her table with red-and-white checked vinyl. It’s market day, and Mee Xiong’s young grandchildren drag crate after crate from her van, piling the vegetables high. Yellow and green beans. Onions. Potatoes. My boss’s stand is already set up across the sidewalk from her with sweet corn, melons and tomatoes—deep summer tastes of the Midwest that are not yet offered among her wares.
She walks over to me, index cards and black marker in hand. “You spell for me,” she says. RASPBERRIES. RHUBARB. Those are always the hard ones. As I write, she sizes up the prices we’ve set for our own produce. The first shoppers appear at the market, searching for the ripest, the juiciest, the best of the lot, the ones on the bottom of the pile. Mee returns to wait on her customers.
Six hours later the market is finished and everyone is packing up. Mee crosses the sidewalk and presses tough stalks of lemongrass in my hand. “You take. Make soup,” and she pats my arm, as if her spare instruction was more than enough guidance for a good meal.
“Ua tsaug,” I nod. “Thank you.” Of all the Lao words she has tried to teach me, this is the only expression I remember.
More often than not, her offerings lie neglected in my refrigerator, prompting me to consider them each time I open the door. How much should I use? Do I peel it first? After it flavors the broth, am I supposed to eat it? Already this year a warty bitter melon turned slimy before I could experiment. Along with some billiard ball Thai eggplants, it ended up in the compost. Okra, however, has earned a regular place at the dinner table.
In return for her favorites, Mee has asked me how to bake apple pie and chocolate chip cookies. Her teenage girls want American flavors. “They like McDonald’s,” she shrugs. “You come to my store. We have kitchen.”
February in Wisconsin is still the off-season for growing vegetables, about the only time I know my friend is not working in her field. So finally on a cold wintry morning, I enter Yang’s Oriental Grocery unannounced, carrying an apple pie fragrant with cinnamon. My eyes take a moment to adjust to the dim light, but then I am walking down aisles of Laotian DVDs, huge mortars and pestles, and rolls of neon satin and beaded fabric ready to cut into special-occasion outfits. I spy Mee sitting on fifty-pound bags of rice, most of the brands unknown to me.
“Which is your favorite?” I ask. Her head bobs from one bag to another, and she laughs. “I love all rice—you love all pie!”
In the back storeroom, she sets the pie on the counter next to the largest rice cooker I have ever seen. The red light is on; the rice is cooking. She follows my stare. “Many people come. Eat every day. I cook lunch. Fish—over there.”
She points to a plastic bucket in the sink. Sure enough, a fish wriggles in a few inches of water. Whether snagged through eighteen inches of ice on the lake or delivered on the truck from St. Paul, I don’t know. Either way, lunch can’t get much fresher than this, pie or no pie.
The next time I see Mee Xiong, it’s June. We are once again selling vegetables at the market. She crosses the sidewalk to me. But instead of the usual spelling request, she says, “I bring for you. Lao food.” She hands me a warm foil packet, her eyes close and she looks as if she’s savoring something so delicious, so delectable.
I wonder if she has that big rice cooker in her van, and I begin to peel open the folds. I imagine a piquant dish scented with lemongrass and slivers of scallions, chili, mint, lime, all the flavors of Southeast Asia.
The steam fogs my glasses. And there is her shared treasure: plain rice.
She beams and starts to walk away. “I love rice.”
“Ua tsaug,” I smile, grateful for so basic a gift. “Thank you.”
We Eat the First Tomato
By Sarah Busse
So ripe it falls right
into your hand, a love-apple
snug as a baseball.
We slice thick wheels and eat,
deep in each other’s eyes.
Love, you know
all of time could stop
at just this first-bite moment.
Constellations rivet into place.
All the delectable, buttery red,
the potent tang, savor, and holy
From deep underground
a slow, heavy door scrapes open.
Eat every seed, slurp
every last scrap of flesh,
until the table is again bare.
By Julie Loeffler
Easter Sunday, 1963. The radio in Aunt Fanny’s red convertible played “Puff, the Magic Dragon” as I ran to her car, hopscotching over the puddles on the path from our ranch house to the gravel driveway that separated my grandpa’s old farmhouse from ours. As I reached her car, I heard a new song of cacophonous chirps burst from the back seat. In addition to the chocolate bunnies she gave us each Easter, our “town” Aunt Fanny had surprised us with three cheeping bundles of down, each tiny enough to snuggle in a child’s hand.
Aunt Betty, the unmarried aunt who lived with Grandpa next door, put these fluffballs in a small birdcage in their kitchen. The chicks ran across the kitchen floor, hiding under the table or behind the oil stove and generally being pests until Aunt Betty tired of their shenanigans and patiently corralled them into their birdcage home. We six kids oohed and ahhed over them until they became straggle-feathered, half-grown chickens. Then Aunt Betty moved them to the empty chicken coop behind the farmhouse.
Although we worried that our chickens would not survive their rougher outdoor life, this move to wide-open spaces was when the fun really began. You see, the three chicks were growing into white Leghorn roosters, and Leghorns are noted for their nervous temperaments. And in our up-and-coming roosters’ case, a henless, monastic life led them to have what we’d call “issues” nowadays. They didn’t respond to our friendly overtures. Instead, those three young roosters turned into the most high-strung, aggressive cocks that ever strutted a farm. They patrolled our yards, the driveway and the paths to our houses, heads held high and wattles aquiver with motion and hysteria.
We kids were all reluctant to meet those roosters when they were in a certain mood, but they chose one target to terrorize, my younger brother, Joe. No matter how carefully Joey surveyed the landscape from indoors and found it empty, he had only to step off our front porch for the fearsome trio to come zooming toward him from an undisclosed location. This was the signal for Joey to take off like the proverbial shot, legs pistoning at high speed, to reach whatever safe haven he could—the car, the old lilac tree at Grandpa’s back door or the farmhouse kitchen itself. Yes, it was any port in a storm when under attack, and often enough one of the “big kids” was sent out to rescue Joey from a tree or the car and escort him to wherever he wanted to be, which was usually back at our house, crying piteously.
“Show 'em who’s boss, Joey,” Aunt Betty told him every single summer’s day. Aunt Betty had never heard the term alpha rooster in her life, but she certainly grasped the concept of becoming one. She mimicked for Joey the little rush straight at our unruly roosters, a run that stopped them short in their tracks, especially when coupled with a deep, threatening “Get!” But a short, skinny four-year-old kid was no match for three-against-one encounters when the three were almost up to the one’s waist. Those roosters took to pecking at my brother’s stick-like legs and the backs of his feet. With that development, our roosters sealed their fate.
“Well, there’s only one other way to handle a rooster that won’t behave,” declared Aunt Betty one evening. We kids learned what she meant after a brief talk with our dad. Dad was the undisputed head farmer at our place, but he was squeamish. So any unsavory job, like dispatching ungovernable roosters, Dad left to his sister, Aunt Betty.
Naturally, we were all sad and a little shocked that our roosters were going to the great stockpot in the sky. On the other hand, there was no denying that those roosters were downright unpleasant; we were tired of coming under attack whenever we left the house. And we were interested in how the roosters would meet their end, as any wild barbarian kids would be.
Remember, too, we were farm kids. Farm kids see a lot, but then they also know a lot. Back then, we knew where much of our food came from—we helped Aunt Betty milk our old Bossy cow, and drank the results or spread the thick, buttery cream that rose to the top of the milk over fresh-baked bread. We picked the strawberries in our aunt’s special patch and watched her make jam that went down cellar, a cellar with dirt floors and rough stone walls that smelled of damp and wine, where Grandpa kept his wooden grape press and made wine each fall from grapes he grew on an arbor north of the farmhouse. Mom nagged us to weed the green beans in our garden, a task I loathe to this day, even though I love those same beans, young, slender and fresh-steamed on the dinner table. All of us raced to pick and shuck the ears of corn that were cooked and served within fifteen minutes of their separation from the stalk. We ate venison and buckshot-filled pheasant occasionally.
Although strictly prohibited from witnessing the actual deed whereby my aunt ended the lives of our three renegades, we kids evaded our parents’ radar and sat on the front porch, watching Aunt Betty parade solemnly to the end of the driveway, roosters in hand. We had already seen her take the ancient axe from the toolshed and lean it against one of the stumps on our front lawn by the road, all that remained of two glorious elms whose lives had been claimed by Dutch elm disease a few years back. We didn’t know exactly what to expect but, fast as a blinked eye, the axe fell across the stump and off came the first head. So quickly did Aunt Betty complete her executioner’s task that within minutes, we saw three headless chickens, small in the distance, and learned the derivation of the expression “running around like a chicken with its head chopped off.”
For a long time, I puzzled over how to reconcile the Aunt Betty who’d coolly slain our roosters with the Aunt Betty who last summer wanted to save a newborn mouse that I rescued from our hayloft, eyes still birth-closed and only the barest grey fuzz of hair over its shell-pink skin. I hadn’t held it against her when she drowned my mouse baby by accidentally immersing its tiny nose in warmed milk as she tried to get it to drink from a tablespoon instead of an eyedropper; after all, Aunt Betty was nearly blind and the mouse’s nose was hard even for me to see. She cried over her mistake. I don’t recall ever solving this two-aunts-in-one conundrum, but I know I loved my aunt with all my might.
I don’t remember the when, where or how of eating the roosters, either, but I know we did because we lived on a farm and we ate from the land. And we loved our place with all our might.