I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle from perhaps an unusual perspective. Kingsolver tells the story of her family’s move from suburbia to rural Appalachia, and particularly their transformation from eating what they purchased at grocery stores to raising – and killing – their own food. My journey has been more the reverse of this; I grew up in rural Appalachia and left there at 18 with no desire to return.
We would not have described ourselves as locavores, but we grew most of the vegetables we ate. Our next door neighbor had cattle and we got several roasts and packages of hamburger each year, in exchange for helping his wife with the butchering of several cows at slaughtering time. We had chickens for eggs and the occasional chicken dinner. What meat did my brothers and sisters and I like best? The very rare treat of a package of Oscar Mayer Bologna, neatly pre-sliced and packaged in plastic, ‘cause Oscar Mayer has a way with b-o-l-o-g-n-a, as the jingle told us.
Kingsolver describes “harvesting” roosters and turkeys, a rhythm of cut off the head, drain the blood, scald the body briefly, pull off the feathers, etc. I remember helping my mother and my granny, in good times, cook Sunday dinner starting with a live chicken and a bag of flour. Chicken and noodles from scratch requires several hours of unpleasant work. The results tasted very good, but to this day my preferred comfort food is Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup – out of a can, from the grocery store, a little bland, perhaps, but with no associated memories of unpleasant labor. It was a luxury for us back then, usually reserved for coddling a sick child who couldn’t face normal meals.
Kingsolver describes canning “big, bubbling pots of tomato sauce” in August as “an end-of-summer meditation.” I remember seemingly endless swelteringly hot August days with pots boiling on all four burners of the kitchen stove: scald, peel, chop and cook tomatoes, sterilize quart jars and lids in boiling water, fill the jars (wipe the rim carefully, put on the lids and rings, tight but not too tight) lower a rack of seven jars into the canner of boiling water, process for exactly the right time, lift the rack out again, remove the jars, let them cool, hear the “ping” when each jar sealed. All day long, several days a week, for several weeks.
Going back to school in September was a great relief. Yes, it was a comfort then to have the cellar shelves stocked with a rainbow of quart jars, and bins full of potatoes and onions. But soon after New Years, the smaller amounts of corn, carrots, peas, beets, cucumber pickles and such that we had canned would be gone. A long stretch of dreary green beans, breaded tomatoes (stale bread with canned tomatoes), and shriveled wrinkly potatoes ensued. We lived a very Protestant community, there were no Roman Catholics around us with their tradition of Lent, but we had a Lenten fast built in.
Coming of age in the early 1970’s, I did not embrace the hippie back-to-the-land movement. Been there, done that, glad to have escaped it. Today, I struggle with the ideas I’ve been reading about and discussing with our Green Team. I can see the advantages of local food. I can see the benefits to humans and animals and the environment of smaller and more humane farms. But I also remember just how hard we worked to eat and how dreary the months of limited choices were. It’s not a happy memory.