Monday, August 08, 2011

Bringing Home the Bacon, Cooking Up the Love

by Zinta Aistars

This little piggy went to market ... this little piggy was only for a moment tempted to stay home. Another humid and hot Saturday, but I was getting an itchy brain from staying inside all summer, avoiding the intolerable heat. And, my sister had come out for a visit from Chicago. I wanted to show her a good time and share a growing passion (pun intended).

My plan was to make this Saturday a foodie day: early morning at Texas Township Farmers Market, including omelets for breakfast, made for us on the spot; a stop in Shelbyville as we headed north from Kalamazoo toward Grand Rapids (Michigan) to tour the Harvest of Joy garden where my weekly CSA (community supported agriculture) share is harvested for me weekly; a quick turn east to Middleville to find the local meat market and butcher shop I'd read about recently in The Feast Nearby by Robin Mather; back north again to Fulton Street Farmers Market in Grand Rapids; a late lunch somewhere in the city before heading south again, topped off with ice cream at Plainwell Ice Cream Shop in Plainwell, just before returning to Kalamazoo ... and maybe stopping in to check out the grand opening of People's Food Co-op as we rolled back into town.

Diane Glenn in the Harvest of Joy garden
My sister had been hearing me go on and on about eating local and eating organic for more than two years now. The whole family had observed it, my expanding knowledge on the topic and with that, my hardening insistence that I eat this way and this way only. Sure, now and then, I crossed the line to the dark side when going out for dinner with a friend who was less rooted in the cause. But recently I'd made a scrunchy face of disgust when my mother offered to make a quick lunch when I'd stopped by and held up a canned ham in promise. I couldn't help it. Before I knew it, I'd made a sound of disgust and was shaking my head, no thank you! My mother was used to me by now and took no offense. She scrambled a couple free-range eggs and dropped in a few bits of green onion, fresh from the garden.

Buddy and Amy Newday
Nor was my sister resisting my message, although I suspected she thought I was a bit over the top with it all. She would listen politely, nod and smile. But I wanted her to understand, in part because I wanted to share my delicious discoveries. This food tasted so much better. More than two years, and I was still discovering new foods, heirloom vegetables, intense flavors that had been missing from my table all life long. I had had no idea what I had been missing. I wanted her to have a taste, too.

I prattled on about the better health and nutrition, how bison was leaner and had more protein than beef, how heirloom tomatoes, now bursting into season, offered so many different flavors of tomato than the paltry two or three types available at the supermarket. How factory farms torment animals, penning pigs for their entire lifespans, feeding feces of poultry to livestock and farmed fish, chopping off the beaks of chickens who live out their lives in tiny wire cages, eggs dropping through the wire onto assembly lines. We won't even get started on the use of antibiotics in animals (well, yes, I did).

On and on I went, and one wonders that I didn't ruin our appetites, but when we walked into Texas Township market, I shut up and just let her see it all. Not like she didn't already know. She had long loved farmers markets, too. Both she and her husband were exceptional cooks. Indeed, she'd been the one to introduce me to the wonderful in-city farmers market in Cleveland many years ago, when we both lived there, and I suspect she visited the Cincinnati farmers market more often than I did when she lived there, and I lived just across the Ohio River on the Kentucky side. She'd gotten out of the habit, perhaps, because the suburb outside of Chicago where she lived had only recently started to organize a market.

We sat down at a picnic table in the center of this market with our just-off-the-pan hot omelets, filled with garden vegetables. The day was heating up quickly, although storm clouds had gathered at the edge of the northern horizon. Our totes were filling up fast with salad greens, blueberries, tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms, and smoked pork chops from a nearby farm. And cheese from The Cheese Lady, creamy golden slabs of it, and a little tub of chevre goat's cheese from Mattawan Artisan Creamery.

By the time we were on the interstate heading north, the clouds had gathered and broken open. Rain was splattering on the car windshield. Then it stopped again. We took a turn into Shelbyville to visit Amy and Diane at Harvest of Joy Farms. They were in the garden, of course, checking out the Japanese beetles on the pole beans that left both of them in shadow. It was an organic garden, and any sprays that went on for pests were organically made. Mostly, they made do. The garden dog, Buddy, did his best to scare away anything that didn't belong there. Perhaps nibbling bunnies or curious deer from surrounding woods, but Buddy was too sweet to scare away much ...

Then on to Geuke's Market and compromise. I was disappointed to find that their meats weren't from grass-fed cattle, only corn-fed, so I passed on the beef, but did stock up on their thick slabs of their famous bacon. The customer service was down-home exceptional, with a tossed in extra discount for being first-time customers, and that was a big part of why I enjoy buying locally: it's nice to deal with someone who will soon know you by name. In a world that is increasingly connected with technology, many of us can attest to the simultaneous isolation, standing in long check-out lines, picking out shrink-wrapped packages, and never exchanging a word with anyone in those gargantuan stores. Shopping this way, from local sellers, was a way to connect with one's community and make new friends and strengthen old ones. It added to the local economy, helped to keep us all employed, and undeniably nurtured the spirit as much as the body.

By the time we headed up to Fulton Street Market in Grand Rapids, the sky had grown ominously low and dark, and the rain was coming down so hard that I had to slow on the country roads to see where I was going. We didn't fear melting. Out into the pouring rain we went, umbrellas overhead, and couldn't help giggling as we sloshed through puddles. In fact, I noticed most everyone there was grinning in the rain, even dancing a little. Farmers and vendors were still selling their produce, and we were still buying.

There, the heirloom tomatoes I'd been craving. I filled a bag with them, every color, striped green, chocolate brown, blushing red, golden yellow, orange. A round loaf of dill bread, baked that morning. Cream-top milk from Moo-ville Dairy, plus a bottle of their buttermilk ranch dressing. There was no comparison between these and store-bought.

Our skirts soaked and sandals squeaking wet, we escaped into the Erb Thai restaurant on Wealthy Street for our late lunch. Hot and spicy curry on a rainy day, just the thing. At least the temperatures seemed to be cooling from the downpour ...

... but once the skies cleared, the heat began rising again. My sister and I shared our dislike for the heat of summer, both longed for a cool autumn, even a white winter, but the bounty of gardens made this a season we could still enjoy, if only through our palates.

A foodie day, but after a tour through Russo's deli on 29th Street, picking up a couple bottles of Michigan wines, we couldn't resist Schuler Books, another shared passion. I held myself in check, books crowding me out of home, but my sister came out with five books in her hands, and a gift of a tee-shirt for me with Thoreau's Walden on it, a log cabin by the water.

Ice cream, then, icy cold, that will do! Made right there in tiny Plainwell. We stopped at the little brick shop and made our choices. Rum raisin for me, with chocolate chips and coconut for my sister. We licked those cones as slow as the ice cream would allow, savoring.

Daina in ice cream bliss

A quick stop at People's Food Co-op and I found the organic blueberries I'd been seeking. Five pounds of berries to eat now, freeze for later, bake into muffins and toss into morning crepes.

By the time we were home again, the day was spent and so was our grocery money, totes full and coolers loaded. Enough here to keep us fed for many weeks, freezers stocked. I couldn't imagine spending a day at the mall, a place I hadn't visited in many years, or wandering the aisles of a supermarket as an enjoyable pastime, but this day had been fun beginning to end.

I made BLTs with the just-baked dill bread, the thick slabs of smoked bacon, leafy greens and juicy slices of heirloom tomatoes. We enjoyed raspberries, strawberries and blueberries with Greek yogurt for dessert, and settled in to watch a movie for the evening, sipping Michigan wine.

Sleep came sweet with the patter of summer rain on the roof ...

... and Sunday morning almost too soon, but with another fun day planned in Saugatuck, we gulped down hot coffee and brushed aside sleep. Our parents arrived soon enough, and Dad's van was big enough to take all of us to Lake Michigan, where Saugatuck, artsy resort village, was side by side with Douglas, filled with art galleries.

And again the rain! When the downpour became heavy, we found ourselves exactly at the right spot, between here and there, and ready for lunch. Crane's Pie Pantry in Fennville was known all along this third coast for their delicious pies, fruit picked from their surrounding orchards. Peaches, apples, blueberries, raspberries, rhubarb. A la mode, of course, and warm. The bakery was busy, but we passed through into the restaurant to enjoy sandwiches first, then the pie. Walls were covered with antiques and vintage trivia, toy airplanes from days long gone by hung from the ceiling, and the floors were painted with big bright red apples to keep us on our path to our table.

It hadn't been so very long since all four of us had traveled north together, to the Keweenaw Peninsula for a week on Lake Superior. My sister and I had made it a gift for our parents' 60th anniversary. That was in May. We hadn't traveled together since we'd been children and they were young ... now, we all laughed, we were all four card-carrying AARP members.

As we found out on that trip north, our family dynamics had silvered to a fun level of family interaction. My sister and I were now the ones giving advice, making the big decisions, keeping us from getting lost. Our elderly parents were grateful for us to take the reins.

Saugatuck, Michigan

We all four had lousy memories, and that brought endless laughter. Sentences were started then broke off in midthought, unfinished, minds wandering onto another tangent. It wasn't long before we were laughing so hard that we were shedding tears, just as we had done in May. Fascinating how family changes over the passing of years, sustained in our mutual love for each other, but with ever changing roles, and sometimes role reversal, as we passed through the various stages of life. In many ways, we now sat at this lunch table as equals, and shared laughter as friends.

When my mother opened her wallet later, as we made a stop at a spice shop, my sister and I peered over her shoulder at the photo tucked into the plastic pocket. Our father, but from decades ago. We guessed ... at about the time I was born. Wearing a fedora, hair black as ink, chin leaned thoughtfully into the palm of his hand, wearing a tweed coat, he was gaspingly handsome. "Dapper and dashing," said the store clerk, noticing the center of our attention. He was. And still was, even as the passing years had changed him, as it had all of us.

It seemed now, whenever we came together as a family, we were all keenly aware of how quickly time was speeding by ...

So we treasured every moment, even when our feet hurt from walking up and down the main street of Douglas and then Saugatuck. We checked out all the art galleries, but let my father rest on the bench outside with his walking cane while we old girls enjoyed the boutiques. I showed him how to read on my Kindle, where to push the button to turn the pages. He shook his head with amazement that I had 93 books stored on this slim gadget, easily finding one that would interest him. I told him I could store yet several thousand more on it, and he sighed with wonder. Too much to grasp. He turned it in his hands, as if to find the secret compartment that held within it an entire library.

The rain clouds had long passed, dissipated over the edge of trees beyond, and the skies were blue again. The sun dipped lower. We headed home.

How many such weekends might we yet enjoy? Every moment a miracle. The passing of years deepened that appreciation. We were aware, we were always aware.

And if I had always appreciated my family, a thousandfold so now. I would still wonder at that bond that on a genetic level made us share so many traits. My sister and I love the same foods, both of us are mad for mushrooms, sauteed in butter, and both of us used too much salt, favoring savory over sweet. We both long to lose ourselves in northern wilderness, even as our lives now hardly resemble each other's at all. We can't resist a good book, or even a passable one, choosing to read over television any day. The older we got, the more we seemed to physically resemble each other, whereas when young we had each our own look.

I knew I had inherited several of my father's personality traits, his ease with solitude, the seemingly endless patience before suddenly bursting into flame. I shared his passion for the arts, as did my sister. And the three of us women could chatter and spurt giggles together like girls, while my father would look on quietly, a small smile turning up the corner of his mouth, until, when we would least expect it, he would deliver the one-liner that would put us into stitches.

If I'd taken little notice of such things when younger, I thrived on them now. The weekend ended too soon, but in that speeding time was an element of something that would never change, never tarnish, never grow old.


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