Custodians of Taste and Fish in the Basement

Howdy, howdy,

So my thoughts are about diversity of foods, attention spans, and the ability of the mind and market to absorb specialized varietal differentiation.

Heron lent Marada a great book, which she has yet to read because I yanked it first, put together by the RAFT folks (Renewing American Food Traditions). This book is a means to highlight foods and food traditions that are imperiled by scarcity of seed, lack of memory transference, truck-based market demands, and/or general purpose ignorance.  They do this by designating food nations across North America, inspired by the historical Salmon Nation in the Pacific Northwest. For each food nation, they highlight these breeds of livestock or varieties of plants that in some way are part of the traditional food fabric of the region, and basically make an endangered list. They tell the story, offer a recipe, show glossy pictures, and throw down some rhetoric.  It’s great.

So I was reading along, enjoying myself quite a lot, learning even more, snickering just a little at the somber tone preaching to the choir, and remembering things I already knew about New England–that almost every household used to have their own named varieties of apples, that people get REALLY excited about breeding chickens, that households and farmholds used to be actual holdings, with a little bit of everything–when I stumbled across a great little piece of sermon in one of the profiles.

The authors, or perhaps curators, made the statement that farmers used to be the ‘custodians of taste’, that they grew the varieties and played benevolent gods selecting and breeding and husbanding, and that was the means through which flavor and robustness was preserved and propagated, both on farms and in the marketplace.

The case in point was a particular grape, a cross between our good ol’ Concord and a Seedless Thompson. The result was a tangy delicious grape with virtually no seeds, which prompted an avid following. The Achilles heel of this cultivar was the extreme delicacy of the skins of the grapes. They didn’t travel well, in fact an afternoon rain shower could burst the skins on the vine at its ripest stage, but this wasn’t a major issue to the public who couldn’t get enough of the juice of these suckers.

For a long time, it was a localized grape, selling throughout NYC and Long Island, and people understood its limitations and its superiorities. This all changed when trucks and transportability began dictating the market pressures. Because it didn’t travel, it was edged out by sturdier grapes and drifted into obscurity.

Another angle on this picture of our history and our heritage I’ll sneak in from another book. Anybody read L.M. Montgomery’s The Story Girl? Like most young girls, I read almost everything L.M. Montgomery ever wrote, tales of wholesome fun and identity challenges for farmgirls in Prince Edward Island. I left Ann of Green Gables to my red-headed sisters, but I was enthralled by The Story Girl. Hijinks and preteen psychology aside, two brothers are sent to live with their grandparents on the family farm in PEI, which is the setting and rich backdrop for all the action. In this book, almost as a matter of course, each of the members of the family has a fruit tree planted for them at their birth, or replanted or replaced if winter kill or mice and deer killed their namesake. Each was a different variety, and was harvested and labelled in barrels as Felix’s apples, or Victoria’s pears. They all had different properties and usages, and it was nothing out of the ordinary in 1800s Canada.

Flashback to today; why do I ramble on tangents about children’s literature and Bronx grapes? Because Maine is certainly a unique place, which is a Yankee understatement in and of itself. The truculence of some of our died-in-the-wool Mainers, and the back to the land movement have saved us from some of the knowledge decay the RAFT folks are real concerned about. Local food is one of our birthrights, which we’ll get to in another post, but what happened to the custodians of taste?

Most and many of our farmers have done a great job of educating our public about their veggies and special breeds–just look at Chantenay carrots, heirloom tomatoes, highland cattle, the plethora of greens available now, or the ubiquitous Yukon Gold potatoes. The activity and energy and passion of our past generations has done some astonishing movement in terms of public awareness and knowledge, and their reintroduction to their food rights.

I see an opportunity now, moving forward. The incredible attendance and proliferation rates of farmers’ markets has forged a first-hand relationship between eaters, farmers, and foods. With that kind of tight local connection, the renewal of our food traditions is there waiting for farmers to step up into the next evolution. Grocery stores won’t have the space to offer 12 varieties of tomato or pepper or carrot. But with the next push of education and awareness, direct shoppers will have the capacity and I hope the interest to learn and appreciate why their local farm has one variety of rhubarb, or why this scraggly looking apple is totally worth it.

Marada’s yet to be written thoughts on terrior have a lot to do with this–harass her if she doesn’t put something up soon.

All this said, I repeat, many of our farms are already in the midst and thrum of this, but I sound the clarion call to up the ante–it’s thought-provoking to contemplate how we can reclaim our food traditions, and what, in the end, are the tangible things that make us so goddamned special.

And so, once more into the breach, dear friends.

-Leah

PS

The fish: in January we moved into the Old Kennebec Bean Building in Vassalboro. We inhabit the smallest piece of this 3-piece mill complex that used to produce textiles. In years gone by, there was a concourse under all three buildings where they channeled the water to turn the turbines. More recently, it was closed off, because no one would want to use hydro power ….

This winter I went exploring, crawled into the gaping maw under one of our loading docks, and found myself gliding forward through my frosty breath on about 2 feet of very solid, very clear ice. The ice disappeared into the gloom, people called wondering where I was, so I emerged oh-so-Platonically into the light.

Come spring, I ventured back down, to discover 4 inch fish swimming in the clear water above the rubble of past constructions. Methinks the concourse is not completely sealed.

Perhaps this says something about me that I see fish in a basement as a sign of hope, but there it be.

Til next time.

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