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It was funny for only a few seconds; then it was jarring.
A vendor at the Cold Spring Farmers’ Market had just told me that children visiting her farm were upset to learn “McNuggets” come from a chicken. Wait until they hear about bacon.
The shock those kids experienced underlined how far removed from our food supply we’ve become — both mentally and geographically.
And it reminded me how lucky I was to grow up in rural Essex County, Ontario. My mom came from a farm, but we were not farmers. We didn’t even have a garden. We didn’t need one; fresh local food was everywhere — and not just from farms.
The hunter-gatherers of 2 million years might appreciate some of my family’s habits back then. As a kid I regularly gathered wild asparagus along fencerows and, mainly from the large cemetery, wild mushrooms. Because my older brother Terry forced me to hunt for them, I refused to eat either. Now, of course, they are two of my favorite foods.
My older sisters Nancy and Mary Anne didn’t force me to pick wild raspberries, both red and black. We ate them right off the bush, before taking a basketful home. The absolute best were the tiny, wild strawberries that grew along the railroad tracks. The taste exploded in your mouth. If I concentrate, I can remember that taste.
And my sisters taught me I had to wait until after the first frost for hickory nuts to fall to the ground. Fresh hickory nuts on vanilla ice cream are something to behold.
My oldest brother, Len, hunted pheasant and rabbit and was a good enough shot to provide the occasional meal. My only memory of those delicacies was a shotgun pellet lodged in the meat.
He also caught heaps of fish, a wildly popular pastime during the spring smelt run along the Lake Erie shoreline. The rest of my family loved fried smelt. I did not. I couldn’t get past the stench of yet-to-be-cleaned smelt.
Nothing more clearly illustrated how close we were to our food supply than the beef my mom served at supper, albeit always well-done. My parents knew the McKees, who raised cattle about 3 miles from our house. They’d buy either a full side or a quarter of beef. I remember parental debates over whether the front or hind quarter was better.
The McKees’ Herefords were slaughtered about 2 miles away at Weston Abattoir. I was close with the Weston family, and it was not uncommon for me to hang out at the abattoir with Neil, where he worked as a teen before taking over the family business.
Butchering was done at Oldcastle Cold Storage, a quarter-mile down the road. Before my parents bought a freezer, they rented freezer lockers there from Bill the butcher. When I was about 12 and bored, I’d go to the butcher shop and play a board game version of curling with the woman who worked there. I think she let me win.
When I spoke at my mom’s funeral, I said she had preserved everything but her kids, and that there were undoubtedly times she wanted to put the eight of us in Mason jars as well.
She did preserve, pickle and freeze an amazing quantity of food each year, all from our county. Jean didn’t do it to be a foodie; she did it to save money. Long basement shelves were filled to capacity with jars of stewed tomatoes, peaches, pears, apricots, apples, strawberries, raspberries, chili sauce, corn relish, beets, pickles, jams and jellies. And things I’ve forgotten.
Much of the food she canned came from “pick-your-own” farms. Strawberries stand out in my mind for three reasons; my younger brother Pat and I ate many more berries than ever made it home; the back of our big Plymouth station wagon would be totally filled with baskets of berries, and the excursion always included a stop at the North Ridge Dairy Freeze drive-in for soft ice cream. More than 60 years later, it’s still in business.
But nothing topped the food-based adventures I experienced while using thievery to help put food on our table. The word “stealing” was never uttered by parent or child, but, really, it was.
Green Giant grew 200 acres of sweet corn across the road from our house. Big mistake. Everyone in the neighborhood “liberated” corn from those fields, but we were the only family with up to 10 people around the supper table, all of whom loved sweet corn. Two dozen ears was the norm. Picking the corn was easy. But on the way back I had to be sure there was no traffic as I darted across the highway; field managers patrolled regularly, looking for thieves. The mad dash was always adrenaline-filled.
Don’t let any fancy chef tell you it’s wrong to boil sweet corn. Corn stolen at 5 o’clock and boiled 45 minutes later can’t be topped.
But “hooking” (think “stealing”) peas produced the most adrenaline-filled. Peas were transported to the processing plant in large dump trucks, capacity bolstered by high wooden racks. Trucks were grossly overloaded; pea-laden vines hung over the back, within easy reach. Terry and I, aided by the Milligan brothers, would wait in a ditch at a backroad intersection that featured a stop sign. When a truck stopped, we’d scamper out, frantically pulling off armfuls of vines.
The excitement was in not knowing how drivers would react. Rarely, one would yell, “Take all you want, boys!” More often they’d scream at us, using very graphic language, to remove ourselves from the vicinity of the truck. But most dramatic was when a driver would jump out of the cab and chase us. The age difference always saved us, but not without some terrifying moments.
My brother and I would come home with an enormous pile of pea vines, greeted by my beaming mom. My sisters beamed less; they had to shell the peas. Not nearly as much fun as “hooking” them.
Decades later, even with food seasons now far less distinct, I still wage two internal debates. Which tastes better: fresh local strawberries or fresh local peaches. And, perhaps more profoundly, which is more delicious: freshly “liberated” corn or freshly “hooked” peas. I have yet to decide.
I wish now I had eaten the wild asparagus and mushrooms. I have no such regret about the smelt. I miss the hickory tree. California strawberries are not the same. And when I see that supermarket sweet corn, I just smile.
I’m glad, that as a kid, knowing where my food came from was a way of life. It was such a privilege. And the food was great.