Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Food for Thought

Every year for the past few years, Madison's REAP Food Group (Research, Education, Action, and Policy) puts on this Food for Thought Festival, in which it brings in speakers and chefs and food demonstrations and activities in order to help the town "explore and celebrate our many opportunities to eat more pleasurably, healthfully and sustainably." This year, my muse Michael Pollan will be giving the keynote address. And, the opening act before the big guy comes on will be readings of the winners of the Food for Thought's writing contest, in the areas of fiction, poetry, and memoir. Well, I couldn't pass up the chance to open for Michael Pollan, and so I threw my writing into the mix. I guess this one goes in the category of memoir, but only because they don't have a creative nonfiction category. This also helps to sum up what my work in the kids' garden was like this summer (in one word: inspiring):

“Taking Back the Table: Real Food Connections”

September 2, 2009

The path from bus to basil plants to outdoor kitchen was clear. June and July had passed, leaving behind a trail stamped flat by Martell's colorful and dusty sneakers. His mornings at the garden were always spent in the kitchen, no matter how pet-able the chickens were nor how sweet the mulberries tasted. Martell's feet always remained firmly planted under the yellow tent, where he directed the food preparations, serving as head chef to his sous chef classmates. Black eyes sparkling with the inspiration of a thousand artists, he sawed away at the basil leaves with the (ever child-friendly) butter knife.

“Put those in here!” he directed, as he held the handle of the hand-crank blender tight. “Just a little more olive oil,” he might add, even as the other kids snuck in some lettuce, perhaps a raspberry or two, expanding the range of pesto flavors. On the brightly-colored plastic cutting boards, the other kids hacked away, chopping garlic scapes in June, obliterating hefty garlic cloves in July, producing a pungent mash with little clods of northside Madison dirt mixed in for good measure. LaTia pooh-poohed the metal garlic press, showing me and the other kids the proper way of smashing garlic--pressing on the top of the clove with the flat side of the knife--as her dad had once shown her. Into the hand-crank blender it all went, swirling around in a sea of green. The kids each took their turn, cranking the handle faster and faster, turning to me only when the rickety plastic handle flew off and needed re-attaching.

Martell directed his friends in laying each cracker just so upon the cutting board “serving trays,” so that the pesto could be spooned atop.

Kids become chefs. Kids become waiters. Kids become experts.

Toward the end of summer, when the budget allowed for it and the grocery store run just had to be made for non-garden supplemental items, a container of pine nuts appeared in the outdoor kitchen. When I picked them up and brought them near the blender, Martell immediately eyed them with a look of suspicion.

Pine nuts? In pesto?

“There are no nuts in pesto,” Martell assured me.

“But…” I began, as his black eyes flashed with conviction. “Ok,” I said, as I backed away.

I know that he is right. There are no pine nuts in kid's garden pesto. At least not on Thursday mornings when Martell's group comes to the garden. Instead, there are mulberries and broccoli leaves and the occasional green tomato. There are haphazardly chopped basil leaves, garlic cloves that the kids themselves planted, sometimes hastily grated parmesan cheese. Pesto is as the kids make it, a culinary creation imbued with the authority and expertise of this particular brand of children's garden freedom.

And so the appropriately pine-nut-less pesto was blended. Round and round the hand crank went. And out came the savory delight. The kids eagerly reached in with their butter knives, scooped up clumps of dark green pesto, and brought the knives from blender to cracker, dripping basil juice and olive oil all the way. They spread the crackers with the utmost care (or the utmost-est care that ten-year-olds can offer), beaming, and tripping over each other with “Ooh! I want to carry this one!” and “I'll take this pesto over to the music machine!”

The kid waiters spread out around the garden, offering their wares to the kids planting flowers, to those chasing Oreo the black-and-white chicken*, to the ones running around with butterfly net in hand, to their friends banging on old pots and pans and overturned plastic buckets, to the girls already munching unripened grapes (a part of their cultural cuisine). And the kids ate, finding joy in this hand-made spread, this synergistic product of the garden's goodness. They ate, appreciating the handiwork of their culinary classmates, silently acknowledging--perhaps?--the power that the homemade and homegrown can bring.

Martell hung back in the kitchen with me, putting the used dishes through the garden dishwasher--a bucket of soapy water, a tub of rinse water, and a final splash in the clean water bath--and quietly approving of the work he and his friends had done, the work that now came so naturally, that felt to him like an extension of any normal eight-year-old activity.

Now, when I eat pesto, it tastes, more than ever, like summer. It tastes like accomplishment and knowledge and authority. Pesto, when spread thick, even tastes a little like childhood glee. And it doesn't even need the pine nuts.

* May she rest in peace. (The day before this memoir was written, Oreo--after 6 or so happy years at the Troy Kids' Garden--met her gruesome end at the claws of a watchful hawk, who circled round and round before targeting its prey, leaving Oreo's bunkmates, Pearl, Regina Marie, and Carmella, squawking with fear and, possibly, grief, as their fallen sister lay dead beside them).

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