Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Finding the Taste of Lettuce

Today I harvested. In total it was close to 15 pounds. This included kale, lettuce, and arugula…close to 15 pounds of leaves!

Today we also had lunch. Part of this lunch included some of the head-lettuce I harvested a few hours prior. I knew this lunch would occur, and had the thought of it my mind as I harvested…

There is an idea presented in “The Pleasures of Eating”, an essay by Wendell Berry that says truly enjoying food must first entail a responsible eater. I’ll try to explain the feelings I have on my “pleasures of eating” by drawing on my lunch today, and a time when I thought I’d enjoy a meal much more than I did.

The responsibility Berry speaks of comes from knowing. Berry’s critique is that most eaters do not know and cannot imagine food “until it appears on the grocery shelf or on the table”—food, to most, is mainly abstract. He argues (rightly) that eating has lost its connection to the land, and the result is “a kind of cultural amnesia that is misleading and dangerous.” Naturally, ignorance around food is exactly what an industrial food system wants and relies on. There is no pleasure in eating within the industrial food system.

Berry’s solution is one of an intuitive understanding: “Eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.” Eating as a relationship to the world.

Knowing and understanding this relationship, then, represents the “extensive pleasure” of eating. Knowing the garden, the farm, the farmer, the soil, the stream, the air, the farm sounds; everything we are ignorant to leads to “the pleasures of eating”.

In my case knowing when I planted seeds, all the hours I spent in the sun, the emotions of doubt, anxiety, loss, and then joy, excitement, anticipation…knowing the spot in the garden the lettuce grew, the hours it spent in the hot sun, the caterpillar I picked off a leaf before putting the head in my basket…(I could go on).

So this lettuce made its way from the spot shaded by the south wall to the kitchen—five (I think) heads in all—where Ozzy was preparing lunch; where I hear, “’hat come from the gar’en down ther.’” I washed the lettuce and put it in a bowl, whole. Then we began to get out plates and find a seat around the table. Then, as we were eating, I took a moment and a space started to fill inside me—I was starting to taste this lettuce. I saw everyone around smiling. I saw them laughing. Joking. And eating. The company around this meal was being enjoyed. As I ate the lettuce on my plate I couldn’t help but smile. At one point I said, “I am so grateful for everything right now.” And I was. The space that gratitude came from was a space of knowing all that knew about this lettuce. Today is the first time I have ever tasted lettuce.

I will further say the taste of this lettuce has as much to do with sharing as it does knowing.

I’ve eaten from this garden before. I’ve had entire meals of peas by myself on my porch, but this lettuce was the first time I shared the garden—not just produce from it—with multiple people.

The other side of this coin…well I guess eating is not a two sided coin, more like a round ball; there are an infinite number of ways to eat and think of food…anyway there’s this other meal.

A few weeks ago I ate at The Pit, a restaurant in Raleigh, North Carolina. Ed Mitchell is the pit master, and world famous for his East North Carolina style, whole-hog, BBQ. He is also known for working with local farmers and only uses local, sustainably raised pigs. I’ve been looking for such a restaurant for a few years. It aligns with many of my ideals. That said, it was a meal I thought I’d enjoy much more than I did.

I didn’t know. I don’t know anything about Eastern North Carolina. Nothing of their farms, their local food system. Nothing, really, of Ed Mitchell (though I did get to speak with him, which was nice), the restaurant, the town, the people of the town. Basically, I knew nothing of this meal. The pleasure I thought I’d experience wasn’t there. And I felt that space in the restaurant, and it felt empty; nothing like the lettuce.

The way I tasted lettuce today is essentially the reason I became interested in growing food. I needed to know and then share. Now I know (though I’m still learning), and eating means something totally different than it use to. My hope is that everyone will experience the taste of lettuce—the whole taste of food; the purest pleasure in eating.

I will leave you with another Berry quote: “In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend.”