So many folks in this affluent suburb are baking bread and returning to the range, raising chickens and bees in their quarter-acre backyards and jarring the fruits of our local farmers’ harvests. A buzz in the community newsletter referenced Michael Pollan without providing contextual clues for readers who lack subscriptions to The New York Times. I stopped by the kids’ mother’s house, and she answered the door in a flour-dusted apron. Just baking the day’s bread, she said, while participating in a teleconference. She sends the kids back to our house with date-labeled Ball jars full of jam and pickled heirloom tomatoes, which I eat with a mix a of gratitude and mild disdain.
Members of my community appear to be initiating a revival. They’re having their milk delivered in reusable bottles, and they’re befriending the butcher who carves up their grass-fed beef.
You know where this is going, right?
Before I have my critical say about this suburban revolution, I should mention that I have nothing against homemade goods or sustainable agriculture: I’ve disliked factory farms since the days when you were labeled a socialist for doing so (These days, I think “terrorist” is the new term for any kind of real factory farm protest*). And I was raised on seasonal picks from our large, backyard garden, supplemented by informal weekend visits to various growers—some professional, some just dawdlers with a lot of land and generations of knowledge of practical husbandry. My father referred to all of them by first or last name: “Let’s walk over to Wilson’s** and see what he’s got. Let’s ride over to George’s and see if the corn is ready.” I spent my summers consuming bowls of steamed Swiss Chard and boiled corn-on-the-cob. Whenever I visit my childhood home, I try to do the rounds, bagging up as many seasonal goods as I can keep and cook.
When I’m home, that is.
See, when I’m home, I can go to a local farm, walk into a barn, collect a pile of whatever happens to be in season—if it’s fall, maybe a couple of heads of cauliflower and cabbage, a peck of apples, some cider, a bunch of winter squash, some late-season greens, some beets—and the proprietor will look at my collection of goods and pretend like she’s adding something up in her head and then throw out some absurd number like, “Twelve dollars.”
There’s the rub.
I can buy similar, locally-produced and wholesome fruits and veggies in my town-square farmers’ market, situated near a consignment shop that pedals used Fendi handbags for $600 (OBO) and a boutique furniture store with signs on all the chairs that say, “Please refrain from seating yourself.” Just multiply those twelve dollars above by, oh, say ten, and I can have my country home right here in this posh metropolitan region. You can have anything you want for a price. You can take your kids on international vacations every school break, and you can still make apple butter.
Last summer, while listening to an organic gardener’s podcast***, I learned some equation for balancing money and time and labor. I don’t remember the mathematical construct, if he even shared that, but I remember his justifications for doing what he did—he used rabbit manure instead of fertilizer on the garden because it was cheap and plentiful. He fed the rabbits with garden waste, so he didn’t need to spend money on feed (And he ate the rabbits.). And he invested no time and effort in weeding his garden because the physical energy “costs” of weeding the garden would then be greater than the fuel energy supplied by its harvest. He saved a lot of money, fed his family, and—from what I was able to gather about his circumstances—didn’t take expensive vacations or own a GPS system for his bicycle.
Here’s what irks me about the suburban farm-to-table movement—it’s so expensive, and so conscious. It’s like seeing a completely restored, pre-eighties-gas-crisis muscle machine outside a two-million-dollar home. I still appreciate the car for what it is, for the nostalgia it evokes, but I know the owner just paid someone else a lot of money to do all the hard stuff with it before it ended up in his driveway.
But I think that analogy needs some work of its own, and I think I digress.
What sets the real homespun pursuits apart from those of the suburban breadmakers is, in my opinion, a matter of necessity. A friend of mine from back home keeps pigs in her garage, raises ducks and turkeys and chickens in her yard, and trades foul and pork for beef that her sister raises on her own, substantial chunk of rural property. Another friend of mine from the city survived a six-month layoff by living on whatever she could make from scratch with a ration of flour and oil, including her own daily bread. And some of my favorite childhood memories involve making elderberry jam with my mother, using the elderberries that we picked from overgrown patches along the roadside.
Necessity. One friend lives so far from her nearest grocery store that keeping a stock of fresh meat on her property is both healthy and economical. Another friend was flat broke. And my mother just didn’t want to see all those elderberries go to waste. Whether by choice or by chance, Mr. Organic Gardener and my mom and my friends who keep pigs in their garages have more in common with each other than my neighborhood nine-to-fivers who rush home in eight-lane traffic to feed the chickens. The former live a life of practical necessity. The math adds up.
I began this post with a caveat, that I have nothing against homespun pursuits. It’s true. In the big picture, it’s probably more noble to have your milk delivered to your doorstep 1950s-style than to decorate your driveway with an immaculate, 1950s coupe. Both acts are quite retro, but one is retro in the name of saving the earth and America’s health and the livelihood of the small farmer. The other is just fun (I salivate at the thought of owning a vintage American car with a V8 engine. I confess.). But whether we spend a lot of money in social protest or we spend a lot of money to make a social statement (Hey, this car still has the original chrome detailing…), it takes money to do it. It takes privilege. Because of the prohibitive costs of maintaining a diet of locally-produced fare, our suburban food movement is not so much a revolution as it is a fad. And unless the price of local apples plummets to something closer to that of a bag of them at the local WalMart, it will remain a fad until something takes its place.
* reference from Green is the New Red.
**all names have been changed to protect the identities of the now dead or feeble.
***can’t reference it because I can’t find it anymore.