Sunday, January 19, 2014

Milk, eggs, and chicken - oh my!

My Dad grew up on a farm in the Upper Midwest. After WWII, he and my Mom married and settled into Minneapolis. I was born there and moved to the suburbs when about 6 years old - and lived there until I got married years later. So, my early years were urban and the rest of my youth was shaped by living in suburbia. I knew that milk came in glass bottles from the milkman. I knew that apples and oranges came from the green grocers. I knew that beef and chicken came in cook-able portions on cardboard or Styrofoam and was covered with plastic wrap. We visited my Dad's parents on their farm - where they had chickens, cows, beef cattle, sheep, and a large vegetable garden. But I never connected the food we ate with what they had on the farm. Except, in the late summer, I'd help Grandma pick vegetables and she'd cook them up for dinner. And oh! what dinners! Fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn on the cob, green beans, tomatoes still warm from the sun, pie, and homemade ice cream.  We kids loved the ice cream but hated having to hand crank the ice cream maker - it was hard work and we just wanted to play; threatened with the prospect of no ice cream we "cheerfully" cranked away.

One thing my Grandparents made me do was feed the chickens; I hated that, even though I had to do it infrequently. I was scared of those things: they made so much noise, would cluster around me, and would peck at my feet and legs. I mostly just threw the chicken feed at them and got out of there as fast as I could.

I remember the summer when I started paying attention to the workings of the farm. I saw a chicken lay an egg and was totally grossed out. And then I saw my Grandpa milk the cows and thereafter refused to drink milk from the pail. What were those things hanging down from the underside of a cow and why would one drink anything that came from there? My Grandma, probably a little amused by the suburban prissiness of my sister and I and probably a little aggravated too, kept a glass milk bottle in her refrigerator. Unbeknownst to us, she'd pour the fresh milk from the milk pail into the glass bottle and then when we were watching, into drinking glasses for us - and then we'd drink it. Eggs went from the barn basket into cardboard egg crates because that's where we knew eggs came from. But I gotta tell you - it wasn't until I was a teen that I figured out that the chickens I was so scared to feed were the chickens she'd kill, butcher, and fry for our delicious Sunday dinners. I almost became a vegetarian, but those  chicken dinners were so good!

Not too long ago, I spent a long weekend at a special summer camp. The weekend was a food writing workshop (hi to all my friends from that weekend; we still keep in touch with each other!); it was led by Greg Atkinson, a local chef with writing chops. We cooked and ate together, wrote, and critiqued each other all weekend. For example, for one lunch, Chef Atkinson took us on a little hike and taught us how to pick Stinging Nettles without getting stung. We brought them back to the kitchen and while Chef was preparing the kitchen, we wrote about that experience. He then showed us how to make a delicious lunch with Cream of Nettle Soup as the highlight. After watching him cook, eating it all, and cleaning the kitchen, we wrote about that and then critiqued the writing. It was a fabulous workshop.

Why I just told you this story was because this camp specializes in retreats and workshops and uses that money to partially support summer sessions for underprivileged urban kids. We were told that some of these kids, brought up on fast food and school cafeteria food, were amazed that their French fries originally came from underground and that their pickles originally grew on a vine on top of the dirt along with salad greens and tomatoes. When you're an adult, it's easy to be shocked by kids not knowing where their food comes from - but really, that was my experience too!

How about you folks? Any stories out there about where you thought food came from when you were growing up?

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