Colonial Williamsburg staff in 18th Century garb draw your eye and a fife and drum band may turn your ear, but never on a Saturday morning when a farmer’s market takes over Duke of Gloucester Street. The ancient street is lined with white canvas harboring wooden tables where local produce is on display—fruit, vegetables, eggs, and meat from Peninsula farms; seafood from the Chesapeake Bay; honey from county apiaries; homemade loaves and pies from local ovens. At the center of a vortex of food gathering, a group of Master Gardeners sit like sage Indian chiefs under an awning where they offer advice for people like me who grow their own.
Those coming early with swinging baskets will stagger away to the car park under the deadweight of the best meat and vegetables. Late-comers regret their sleep-in when they find only pickings have been left by the early birds, but at least they can enjoy chin-wagging with a stranger and the antics of dogs paraded by owners. A farmer’s market is so much more than buying and selling: it feels cool to be in the throng, and a world apart from joyless tramping around a supermarket. It is a place to stroll and gaze, to pause for the violin outside the Cheese Factory; it is a venue for meeting and making friends in a genteel society. If Thomas Gainsborough could set up his easel in the street, he’d capture a 21st Century version of the gentlefolk in The Mall in St. James’s Park.
Is this the future of food shopping? Are the headquarters of Industrial Foods America Inc. quaking as shop-troops dissatisfied with the victus quo walk the Street in green wellies, baskets raised against agri-business?
Well, not really! Farmers markets and community gardens are growing, but barely 2% of food grown in America is sold locally. Nor are the patrons (“locavores”) a typical cross-section of society. And how could they be when filet mignon sells at $28 and ground bison at $10 per lb? This is not an epicurean revolution, but it is a reaction by consumers who can afford to buy what they believe is more wholesome fare.
It probably is better, depending on how you measure quality, and you have to scratch around like a free range hen to find tidbits of data you can believe in. The food industry, driven by competition and a never-ending reach for higher yields, has transformed farmland and food-processing, and hence what we eat. Food is amazingly cheap, but there is another price—chemical spraying, agricultural run-off, virulent new strains of bacteria, and the obesity epidemic. Despite these concerns, people are becoming more doubtful whether government and nutritionists are effective, or even impartial, watchdogs over our food supplies. Remember their advice to replace butter with margarine, dietary fat with carbs, raw products with nutrient-rich processed products, and their sweet recommendations to enjoy refined sugar and high-fructose corn syrup?
It is a characteristic of most experts that they rarely apologize for blunders, as Michael Pollan points out In Defense of Food, his masterly critique of the food industry. They are also coy about admitting how little we really understand about the relationship between food and health, and a friend who is an authority on vitamins even admitted that it is “kitchen science.” Since Hippocrates advised, Let food be thy medicine, you might expect doctors to be fountains of nutritional knowledge. Don’t believe it. Have you heard platitudes like, “Mr. Brown, you must reduce saturated fat and cholesterol in your diet.” I remember some of my students at the Edinburgh Medical School asking to include more lectures about nutrition in the curriculum, but the faculty continued to serve them gruel, like Oliver Twist. As a physiologist, I ought to know what is best for health, but I simply follow Grandma into the garden.
Food was so much simpler and heartier in Grandma’s day, before it was industrialized and politicized, before drive-in counters and TV dinners, before we were bombarded with food ads and government advice. She enjoyed pulling lettuce and squash in her garden and buying local produce in season from a family-owned store. If it looked fresh, she trusted the rest—after all, who was she to question the quality of God’s bounty?
If dear old Grandma could parachute from her cloud she would be astonished today. Most of the little farms she knew have disappeared, weeds are now scarce in crop fields, fewer animals graze the meadows, stark factory farms and feedlots have sprouted up, raw milk is banned, eggs are sterilized with chlorine, fresh strawberries are available year-round, tomatoes are ripened with industrial ethylene. And if I explained how crops and animals are being genetically engineered, she would call it the devil’s business and ignore protestations that not every technology is bad. Nevertheless, we would agree, and sadly, that beside all those changes a precious culture is vanishing—the family mealtime when both body and spirit were nourished. Repeats of The Waltons are among the last preserves of this ritual.
I wish Grandma could join us on another trip to Polyface farm, which you would call “organic.” It is open for public viewing and the sort of farm that supplies our local market, but it is far away under the shadow of the Allegheny Mountains in the Shenandoah Valley. Rather surprising for a quiet corner of Virginia, the farmer’s voice booms across country. Joel Salatin is an iconoclast rallying troops that loathe the impact of industrialization and government control over local foods and farms. Describing himself as a “libertarian, environmentalist, capitalist, lunatic” would normally discourage me from opening his book, Folks, This Ain’t Normal, but after I had gotten past his rants about politics and the temptation to start up my wood-burning stove, I found the road-map to healthy and enjoyable food quite absorbing, and mostly persuasive. Salatin explains the challenges for small farmers, and doesn’t shrink from saying that we have to pay more for quality. Most memorably, he engaged university chemistry labs to compare his “pastured” meat and eggs with products from a leading company. The healthy differences were so striking that they should provoke a much larger study. Grandma would, of course, just nod sagely. And even if a study showed the nutrient content of, say, supermarket apples was the same as those grown “organically”, she would quip that those in her garden taste so much better.
As lads, my brothers and I were encouraged to help tend the garden. Few teenagers today can understand why it never felt like a duty, and in hindsight the contact with nature stimulated a curiosity that led to a job in the life sciences. But the immediate feelings were pure triumph as we hauled in our own, displaying the best in bowls as art objects that would have inspired the Impressionists. More than sweet and splendor, gardening also delivered life-lessons. Contending with heat, mud, and bugs for a reward that is never guaranteed demands hardiness for facing disappointments. It takes bloody-mindedness to grow carrots in Virginia clay, only to find the whole crop rotting in a storage bin. And after weeks of encouraging the broccoli (in whispers in case a neighbor called my wife), it is heart-breaking to discover grubs had visited them overnight, leaving only skeleton stems … Ahhh!
But the gardener shouldn’t feel crushed for long; he can do better next season, fortified with cabbage wisdom! And, meantime, there is the euphoria of plucking some victories from the earth—vine tomatoes before an invasion of ground hogs, crisp romaine before slugs slime up stems, and fingerling potatoes like yellow nuggets in my dirty palm. Gardener’s who can grow this gold never need buy at a farmer’s market.
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