Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Touching Your Food

I'm sure some readers are picturing me eating those windfall apricots off the ground and thinking, "ew, gross". And others are retching at the very thought of eating something (even apricot preserves, twice boiled and THEN carefully processed with the Boiling Water Bath method) that a squirrel had held and even nibbled. After all, squirrels could carry rabies (and there's probably a deadly Squirrel Flu going around that hasn't hit the media yet).

Those are food boundaries that each person has to set for themselves. And we need to respect one another's boundaries. Just as someone being vegetarian or vegan doesn't offend me as an omnivore, someone not wanting to eat something a squirrel has nibbled on doesn't offend me. If you ever eat at my house, you are welcome to ask what has touched your food, and I will give you the most honest answer I can, and try my best to serve you food that doesn't push your boundaries. But I do invite you to consider your boundaries mindfully, and see if there are perhaps some inconsistencies in them. Most of us let inconsistent boundaries needlessly limit our possibilities.

I've been thinking about the issue of touching food a lot lately, because of a situation at Farmer's Market a couple weeks ago.

I plant my lettuce varieties in separate beds, because they grow better that way. Each one needs harvested a little differently, so I like to give them individual attention. I harvest them separately (usually) and display each variety separately at Farmer's Market, complete with variety names. Folks enjoy the names and the colorful display--you can really appreciate the different textures and colors in a row of 5 or 6 tubs of red, green, smooth, frills.

I harvest the lettuce into net bags (dollar store laundry bags, to be specific--there, a trade secret!), and plunge the filled bags into cold well water to rinse off any sand and to remove the"field heat" from the important step when picking in 80-degree weather. A 15-minute soak, then stacking the dripping bags in mesh crates in the shade, is all the refridgeration my lettuce gets. You'd be amazed at how well it freshens up and keeps that way, even if it's starting to be a bit "tired" in the garden by the time I'm picking the last variety on a hot morning. At any rate, it's hardly a careful washing--just a good dunk and swish.

I sell my lettuce by the pound, mix and match, often with interesting non-lettuce options available for adventurous salad-eaters. The customer "takes what s/he likes and leaves the rest", and I put it on the scale and calculate the price. Other vendors mostly sell pre-weighed, pre-packaged "large bag/small bag". Some customers like that they don't have to buy an entire "small bag," which may be quite big to someone cooking for one.

At first, I tried having tongs for customers to use. They proved clumsey, damaging to the lettuce, easily broken, and easily lost or left behind at home. After some thought, I just dispensed with the tongs. Now, customers are invited to use their hands "as a reminder that you need to wash it yourself when you get it home...I can't give it the careful attention you can when I'm picking so much."

I've observed that very few customers handle any lettuce but what they put in their bag. It's not a crop where one sorts out a particular size or shape (as with potatoes), and it's already sorted by type. The customer's hands are likely more clean than my own, since I'm handling more money as well as all the vegetables and wool products. Normally customers are perfectly happy with this arrangement.

But one customer stopped in horror when she was asked to use her own hands. "You mean people have TOUCHED this? Oh, I CAN'T buy it!"

I went through my "you need to wash it anyway" spiel, but that did not mollify her.

"No, I just can't shop at your booth! Here, I don't want these green onions after all." She dropped the bundle of onions, dirt still clinging to the roots, back onto the pile as if it were contaminated, shuddering in horror at the thought that someone might have touched food she had been hoping to eat.

"Yes, perhaps that would be best. You might want to try Dillons or HyVee." I tried to be gentle and friendly as she walked away, still muttering and shuddering.

I tried to think of vegetables never touched by human hands. Vegetables grown in factory-like conditions, with automatic sprayers and waterers and harvesters and packagers. Maybe organic, but industrial organic.

And THAT is the sort of production environment where the disease-tainted spinach came from a few years ago, and was shipped all over the country!

Many veggies are hard to harvest by machine. In thinking of conventional large-scale vegetable crop production, one must picture an endless monoculture field, rows upon rows of some crop dotted with workers bending over the rows picking. They are touching your food. Maybe they are in a foreign country where there is little regard for sanitation. Maybe they are very poor and not very healthy. Maybe they have Tb--migrant farm workers aren't required to be tested. Or some other contagious disease. Maybe toilet paper and hand sanitizer aren't part of their culture. Maybe they just finished spraying a crop, or smoking.

But you don't see it. It's remote, removed. All you see is the nice, uniform stacks of veggies in the supermarket--how pretty! The stocker tends the display, turning the most beautiful pieces up, fluffing and organizing, handling your food. Customers come there, too, and paw through the stack, touching your food.

Just personally, I want my food to be touched: by a farmer who loves growing it, and smiles into my eyes when I buy his/her gorgeous labor of love. By myself, gratefully picking out the perfect pieces I'll enjoy eating. And yes, by another customer who loves fresh veggies as much as I do, if that happens by chance. I think the people in my community are better qualified to touch my food than strangers half a world away. And the squirrels are part of my community, too--so the apricot thing doesn't bother me.

If the shuddering lady would rather have her food touched by a malnourished, uneducated child laborer in a far-off land, I guess that's her choice. But I pretty much guarantee many people have touched her food.

I hope she doesn't give it too much thought, and stop eating entirely.


Terry said...

Thanks for the laugh. Although it's really, really sad how disconnected people are from their food.

Barbara Kingsolver tells a really funny story about a kid observing her future husband harvesting some carrots in an urban area. The kid watched the man pulling up the carrots and asked in amazement, "How did you get those in there?"

Hope you are feeling better. I finally seem to have figured out how to thwart the zucchini squash borers -- so now I have the challenge of zucchini overabundance ;)


Natalya said...

Please do tell us all how you are thwarting squash vine borers!