Many years ago, a young woman from New York City came to visit on Bainbridge Island, brought by mutual friends who lived in Seattle. The Island amazed her; she said she had never seen so many trees.
She had also never seen a vegetable garden. As we walked the garden paths, she could identify tomatoes and cabbages, but pointed at a row of carrots and asked what they were. I pulled one up and showed her. A look of horror came over her face. “Carrots grow in the dirt?” She was horrified. “That’s so unsanitary!” Her feelings were hurt when we laughed.
We went in the house, and I washed the carrot – scrubbed it hard, actually. She still couldn’t bring herself to take even a single bite. We all apologized for laughing. The tension dissipated.
But later in the day, we went to visit another Island friend whose land included a very old apple orchard. Our mission was to fill the back of a small pickup with apples, take them home, and press a winter’s worth of apple juice the next day.
The orchard had several apple varieties, and we picked a few and started sampling them. When an apple was passed to her, she froze. “Aren’t these supposed to be processed or something before you eat them?” she asked. And once again, she could not be persuaded to take a single bite. She felt unsafe, out of place, and miserable. She sat in the grass nearby while we gathered apples.
It probably didn’t help that the lonely steer in the pasture next to the orchard was named Hamburger.
But during a dinner accompanied by a jug of wine, we were finally able to talk more comfortably about how different our experiences of food were, and what shaped our understanding of where it comes from, and what is safe to eat.
In her world, food came from the grocery store, period. She never had a reason to think beyond that reality. But hers was not the only failure of imagination or curiosity.
One guest at the table – another former city-dweller from the Midwest – confessed that she was well into her twenties before she learned that sardines were fish. They came in a can; they were salty and nice on a cracker, and what more did anyone need to know? It hadn’t occurred to her to wonder.
This prompted recollections of other canned foods, and people’s failures to think about what they were and how they ended up in cans. One person at the table hadn’t known that jellied cranberry sauce actually came from berries. He hadn’t known cranberries existed. And like the sardine-eater, it hadn’t occurred to him to wonder about it.
Things got uncomfortable again as dinner ended, when a wise guy broke the news that the gelatin in Jello came from pigs’ and cows’ hooves (actually, skin, other bones and tendons too). Jello had been a wiggly staple of childhood fun; that memory was slightly darkened by this grisly revelation.
We adjourned to wash the dishes.
We never saw that woman from New York again. But every once in a while I think about her, and wonder if – or maybe how – her Bainbridge visit changed her.
I think it did change the rest of us a bit. At least I hope so; we all got a lesson in not laughing at people whose experiences are very different than our own, and another lesson in being more curious about all the food we eat.
It’s still hard to imagine someone not knowing that a carrot is a root – it looks like a root! – but maybe only to those who know what roots look like. It’s hard to imagine anyone not knowing that something as fishy as a sardine couldn’t be identified as a fish – but maybe only to those of us who eat fish.
These many years later, have Americans gotten smarter about food? Have our schools, our culture, and our environmental awareness made everyone more knowledgeable about what we eat and where it comes from?
I wonder what you think about this.
Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers, and a small flock of chickens. She loves conversation among gardeners. Start one by emailing her at jill@theJOLTnews.com
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