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Life as Performance Art

By G.C. Stoppel
My parents had a “kitchen garden” where we grew fruits and vegetables. We ate some of the bounty in a style later called “farm to table.” Some we gave away to people who didn’t have gardens. Everything else we ate was either canned or frozen.
Today some would say we “were privileged to have a garden with fresh fruit.” There was nothing privileged about weeding in hot, mosquito-filled weather, endlessly shelling peas and snapping beans, much less picking tomatoes the morning after the slugs got to them first.
The “Olds” had grown up in the Great Depression and food rationing of the 1930s and ‘40s, and we were living in the specter of Nikita K and his no-goodnik henchmen dropping the bomb on us.
Father built food storage shelves in the basement bomb shelter, and the freezer was just outside the shelter door. He was convinced we were ready for worst. Thank goodness the worst never came because we were under-prepared.
It was also the era where junior high school boys took shop and girls took home ec classes. Learning how to build wooden shelves or preserve and put food by was a small measure of American patriotism and carrying on old traditions.
Over the decades our culture changed. Shop and home ec classes were slowly dropped by many schools but generations of young people still think there is nothing privileged about weeding and maintaining gardens. In the process, however, they learn basic lessons about do- it-yourself food.
Those of us now “Not Quite So Olds” who grew up on Capt. Kangaroo and Sesame Street might remember when public television began the “Victory Garden” series. It started during the worst of the gasoline crisis of the Ford and Carter years.
To help Americans save money and become more self-sustaining, the program emphasized planting vegetable gardens, just as The Olds had dug and planted Victory Gardens during World War II years. The all-inclusive series ranged from turning and enriching soil to creating home-cooked meals. At about the same time the Foxfire books were published, also teaching valuable lessons in food preparedness along with other old traditions.
Such lessons remain important. Realizing that many urbanites live in what are called “food deserts,” many churches and municipalities set aside under-used property for community gardens. An allotment is marked off and staked, then rented for the season at a very reasonable rate. Some such gardens have been successful; others collapsed due to lack of interest or people simply not wanting to put in the time and muscle power to have their own vegetables.
Other groups schedule bring and take events where those with too much can bring their extra produce to a designated location and share with others who could make good use of it.
One overlooked and spooky sideline about the war in Ukraine is that country produces about 9 percent of the world’s wheat crop. While we have been primarily focused on Russian petroleum, a potential grain shortage also looms. Ukraine has always been the breadbasket of Europe which might explain why Putin wants to own it.  
Ukraine is also one of the world’s largest producers of fertilizer, especially potash. Even though American farmers and hobby gardeners get most of their potash from Canada, the rest of the world will find it a challenge this year and perhaps far into the future. No potash means a lower crop yield to feed a hungry world.
The pandemic and this war are stark reminders of the fragility of our food system. Add to that the changing climate, global supply chain problems, fuel and transportation challenges.
The most obvious solution to that perpetual problem has always been right in front of us: Put down the smart phone, go outside, plant food for our own use and preserve part of it for future needs.
To be sure, a row of lettuce, a few tomato plants and other vegetables will not be a very big safety net. It takes the better part of an acre for a family to eat well for a year. With that acre comes a lot of hard work in the garden itself, then processing and preservation.
Among joys of last summer’s Allegan County Fair was wandering through the 4-H barns and agricultural buildings. The county’s biggest pumpkin might catch our attention, but the important parts were the garden vegetables on display tables. All resulted from hard labor, provided nutritious food, plus growers’ self-satisfaction and accomplishment.
We are lucky to live in an area just about perfect for growing our own food. We have everything we need to move, if only incrementally, toward food self-sufficiency.
The Rabbi Robert Marx and his wife would occasionally invite Pat and me to their home for dinner, where the meal always began with Mrs. M saying the blessing and lighting candles.
Rabbi would lift a bread loaf, break it, take a piece, pass it around the table, noting, “You say the blessing; you must eat the bread.”
We’re blessed with the good soil, rain, sunshine and opportunities to grow our own food. Now let’s do the work.

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