Teach your children

For a rural kid, the first day of kindergarten is something of a momentous occasion. It’s the beginning of one’s existence in a larger world, populated by people who aren’t related to you. It’s also one’s first lesson in what it’s like to navigate the rock tumbler of social life, your sharp edges bumping up against everyone else’s and getting polished down into something new.

I have few memories that I can be sure are from the pre-K days, and most of them don’t involve any people at all. A major presence in these memories are the woods that enveloped our house, and the host of tiny adventures hidden in their shade. Those woods put a permanent canopy over my soul, and ruined me for open country.

I also recall a pony named (I’m not making this up) Clem Kadiddlehopper, and docile, alien-eyed milk goats Naomi and Leah.

Photos from this time remind me I wore things like plaid pants and Hee Haw overalls without any obvious sense of irony (I was a poor excuse for a hipster, even then).

I remember the feeling of being pleasantly swallowed by snow during an especially bad winter, and the endless fascination of the water bugs that skated across the still places in our little spring, doing what my grandmother had said only Jesus could do.

The grit between my teeth when I ate carrots pilfered from our garden was half the fun of pulling them in the first place.

Not much I remember didn’t happen outside, in little vignettes populated more by critters than people. When people come into these retained scraps of my earliest years, they’re my immediate family. If I knew other people before I started school, I’ve forgotten them.

On the first day of Kindergarten, a girl named Kay cried when her mother tried to leave her there. I was baffled, and a little embarrassed for her.

My first crush was on a boy in my Kindergarten class named Chris, who loved Ewoks and ran with his hands held flat open, scissoring the air with each stride.

Both Kay and Chris moved somewhere else after that year, but almost all of my other classmates would remain as we all worked our way up McCleary Elementary’s one long hall to where it culminated at seventh grade.

Kindergarten, perched in two classrooms at the young end of the building, had its own little playground, its own novelties, and its own rules. I saw my first Sesame Street here, and Mr. Rogers. I don’t recall being impressed by either. For naptime, we unfolded cushy vinyl mats. They squeaked when you moved, and stuck to any exposed skin in a way that made even the most stoic kindergartener long for her blankie. We were tested on our ability to tie our shoes and remember our home phone number and address, in addition to the expected A-B-C, 1-2-3 drills. Our report cards had two columns–one for academic grades and one for behavioral evaluation. I was an all-A student later; in the singular world of kindergarten I was all E’s (for Excellent).

All that Excellence aside, I committed my first crime in the elementary school multi-purpose room. At midday, the folding lunch tables came out, and that room–also the site of assemblies, phys ed, school plays, and graduation–hosted what became my least favorite part of the day.

Mrs. Horn had a rule for her K students: everyone had to eat at least two items off his or her lunch tray. In these days, there was only one lunch–entree, two sides, and milk–and everyone got the same thing. Salad bars, pizza buffets, and snack machines were unheard of. Some days I could stand: pizza, even at its greasy, fake cheese, doughy crust worst is, after all, still pizza. Some days I could skate by on a technicality, eating the applesauce and carrot curls off my tray’s margins, leaving the sad main course wilting in the middle. But some days there was no escape.

I wasn’t a very picky kid. I grew up on homegrown vegetables, pinto beans, and hot biscuits. Aside from a brief period in which I developed a strange aversion to the crunch of al dente onions in omelets, I’d eat pretty much anything. And I’d had my share of cheap meat–cube steak, salmon cakes, and bologna were perennial childhood favorites. It wasn’t a nascent tendency toward gastro-snobbery that led me down the crooked path. It was shitty, shitty food.

The burnt-orange grease soaking through the sloppy joe’s paper-white bun made the mushy canned peas look even more like something a very sick dog might barf onto the carpet. My wee palate couldn’t take it, and E-for-Excellent lunchtime behavior be damned, I wasn’t eating that crap.

I threw the sloppy joe on the floor under our table, where I hoped it would remain unnoticed like the other, smaller culinary offenses I’d similarly banished at lunchtime throughout the year.

But this time, I got caught.

Interestingly, I don’t remember what my punishment was. I’m sure I probably had to clean up the mess I’d made (rightly so). Maybe I had to eat a “fresh” (sic) sloppy joe. Maybe my mom got a note from the teacher. I don’t recall. The shame of public chastisement was enough to make me eat my horrible food like a good girl, at least for a while.

Jamie Oliver, you’ve got your work cut out for you. We’ve been feeding our children dreck for decades.

Flash forward to just last month, when my Man Friend and I went on a reconnaissance mission of sorts. We’re planning a long trip, and we’re prepping and dehydrating most of our food. (Even if I were able to eat wheat, six months of ramen doesn’t sound like a great idea.) For the next five months, we’re more than doubling our grocery bill, as we’ll be buying our usual provisions, plus enough for the roughly six months we’ll be on the trail. Any place promising huge savings starts to look pretty alluring.

We don’t have a Costco around here, which is “better”, according to People I Know. But we do have a Sam’s Club just up the road. (I’m not linking to either of these. You can find them, if you must.)

I had reservations. Since I gave up on “normal” grocery stores (except for the occasional beer or toilet paper run), and I avoid WalMart like the plague that it is, I had certain preconceived notions about what I would find behind those smiling greeter/bouncers posted at every Sam’s front door. Specifically, I imagined hordes of boneless scooter pilots, a la Wall-E, glassy-eyed, perusing acres of individually wrapped corn syrup delivery systems and molded plastic things. Unfair? Maybe. But not wholly unfounded in reality.

Does the unflattering image I’ve presented make me an elitist? Anti-American? A Communist? A dirty hippy? Or just your garden-variety smug pain in the ass?

You can decide for yourself on that one. For my part, I think the “boon” of cheap shit available to all at any store whose name involves “Mart” or “Dollar” (and many that don’t) has been a grand Trojan Horse scheme that ultimately doesn’t bring any good to anyone. So I keep my participation to the utmost minimum.

And yet, there we were, strolling the aisles and taking notes about how much a person might save by buying beans twenty pounds at a time.

The experience was both sobering and enlightening.

For one, it served to remind me how far outside the mainstream we live–and we’re still pretty darn normal when it comes down to it, 4WD gas guzzler in the driveway, on-grid electric lights and heat, two cell phones, two computers, two bathrooms and all. I can pass in normal company, so long as I don’t start talking about composting toilets. But I was struck by the dearth of real food available in this mighty temple of retail, and by the gall of food marketing in general. Words like natural and fresh long ago lost any real meaning; words that ought to have a very specific, clear, and obvious meaning are quickly being co-opted as well. Organic and artisanal are next. The only way to really know what’s in your food is to have direct knowledge of what went into it, by making it yourself or knowing the people who did.

For the last nine months or so, I’ve been buying my vegetables, fruit, meat, cheese, and eggs directly from the people who grew or raised or made them. I know their names. I know some of their kids. I’ve met the goat who produces my milk (her name is Luna, and she makes me miss Naomi and Leah). I find this profoundly satisfying and comforting–and it’s something I’d love the average Sam’s shopper to share. I don’t know that I personally am better than anyone else simply for the consumer choices I make, but I do believe that those choices themselves are better for everyone. There’s a difference.

I really do believe in working out one’s own salvation with fear and trembling. I am keenly aware of the privilege inherent in even having a conversation about choosing organic or fair trade when lots of folks barely have access to food of any kind at all. I do indeed have an agenda–in the sense that I deeply believe that “normal” is on the wrong path and I’m doing what I can to take it off course a little–but I don’t stand over the Thanksgiving potluck table lambasting the person who brought the Tyson turkey or the dozens who are enjoying eating it.

Is it really any surprise that the little girl who was revolted by a commercially produced sloppy joe has become the woman who gets a stomachache in the grocery section at Sam’s?

Aside from my moral revulsion (and I do believe that how we produce our food is a moral issue), the Sam’s trip was a dose of reality: while I adamantly believe that even the poorest folks–especially in this country, where “poor” doesn’t mean what it means other places–can still feed their families wholesome, healthy food, I understand a little better now why people will argue the opposite position so voraciously.

It all comes down to $1.98 a pound beef.

That’s the line in the sand. The people on the other side won’t cross it until and unless they agree that a low, low price isn’t worth the cost of filthy CAFOs, drug-resistant bacteria, artificial hormones, poor nutrition, environmental impact, and the money taken out of the local farmers‘ pockets. Nevermind that corporate meat and conventional produce just doesn’t taste good. Even the most diehard WalMart shopper I’ve talked to will agree that his grandma would say that food just doesn’t taste like it used to.

The day after the Sam’s trip, I ran some numbers and was almost swayed to join.

The day after that, I realized I’m not comfortable with the trade off. It’s not worth a few hundred dollars–just a couple extra shifts at work, to put that into perspective–to participate in a corporate system that’s fundamentally at odds with my values. It’s not worth diverting money away from local farmers, from organic producers, from sustainable practices just to save me a little extra work.

The sticker shock from the quarter-wheel of cheese I bought yesterday had me briefly rethinking that strategy, but only sort of. (Side note: want to garner some funny looks in the grocery store? Buy cheese eight pounds at a time.) At the end of the day, I’d rather turn down my thermostat (set at 60 right now) and buy good cheese. My money is going toward nourishment for my body, and so much more. My money–a citizen’s prime expression of power in a capitalist world–is supporting my own health as well as the health of farm workers, my neighbors, livestock, wildlife, and the soil, without which we’d have none of the former.

The little girl with a mouthful of her mother’s garden dirt knew this truth. And she still remembers it.

2 responses to “Teach your children

  1. Thanks, Jess.

  2. Well said! Now I am thinking you’ve clearly stated one of my wishes for our daughter: I want her to taste our garden dirt. Sounds a bit funny but, of course, you understand.

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