It's much more civilized but less romantic.
When I was eight years old, I began to sell our vegetables at roadside stands in the towns near our farm. After my parents dropped me off, I would set up the table, umbrella, and signs, and wait for people to buy our tomatoes, zucchini, and sweet corn.
Stand duty was often lonely, and sometimes scary for a young girl, especially when it got dark. That winter, my parents took part-time jobs— Dad as a handyman, and Mom waiting tables at the Pizza Hut in Leesburg— to make ends meet. Only one year later, in , the first farmers' market in our area opened in the courthouse parking lot in Arlington, Virginia, and everything changed. We picked and bunched beets and Swiss chard and drove into town. Scores of grateful customers flocked to our vegetables, as if they had waited all their lives for roadside stands to come to the suburbs of Washington, D.
That summer we took our vegetables to three weekly farmers' markets, and soon we abandoned roadside stands altogether. With farmers' markets, we began to make a modest profit and farming became a lot more fun. Today, my parents are in their midsixties, and they still make a living exclusively from selling at farmers' markets. They sell twenty-eight varieties of tomatoes, a dozen different cucumbers, garlic, lettuce, and many other vegetables at more than a dozen markets a week in peak season.
We never liked the term back to the landers for people who gave up city jobs for farm life. How can you go back to a place you've never been? Yet that's what people called us. I always thought of us as farmers, because farm life was all I ever knew.
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I have no memories of being a professor's daughter with a stay-at-home, intellectual mother, only of my parents coming in wet from the morning corn pick in the very early days farming with the Newcombs. Even now, after living in Washington, Brussels, London, and now New York City, I still think of myself as a farm girl, happiest when I'm around tomatoes and bugs and creeks. She read about the pioneering experiments of Clara Davis in the s and '30s. Davis set out healthy, whole foods for infants and let them eat anything they wanted for months at a time.
The smorgasbord included beef, bone marrow, sweetbreads, fish, pineapple, bananas, spinach, peas, milk and yogurt, cornmeal, oatmeal, rye crackers, and sea salt. At any given meal, the choices babies made could be extreme: one baby ate mostly bone marrow; others loved bananas or milk. One occasionally grabbed handfuls of salt. Over time, however, the babies chose a balanced diet, rich in all the essential nutrients, surpassing the nutritional requirements of the day, and they were in excellent health.
The nine-month-old boy with rickets drank cod-liver oil rich in vitamin D until his rickets was cured; then he ignored it. The Clara Davis experiments were limited, and to my knowledge, never repeated. Proven or not, the idea made a deep impression on my mother.
She believed that anyone, even an uninformed baby or child— perhaps especially a baby or child— could feed himself properly on instinct alone if you gave him only healthy foods, and that was how we ate— at home anyway. There was some leeway for junk food on car trips Oreos were a treat , and on the rare occasions when we ate out, we could order anything we wanted. At home, however, there was only real food, and my parents never told us what to eat or how much or when.
My mother's other nutritional hero was Adelle Davis, the best-selling writer who recommended whole foods and lots of protein. Before dinner, Mom put out carrot, apple, or turnip sticks so we would eat raw fruits and vegetables when we were hungry for a snack.
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Main dishes were basic American fare: fried chicken, tuna salad, spaghetti, quiche, meatloaf, potato pancakes with homemade applesauce. There were many frugal dishes, such as chicken hearts with onions, and we ate a lot of rice and beans.
At dinner we always had several vegetables and a large green salad. Most of our food was local and seasonal, which is no doubt why I fondly remember the exceptions, such as the boxes of oranges and grapefruit we bought each winter. We drank fresh raw milk from our Jersey, ate bright-orange eggs from our free-ranging chickens, and a couple of times we slaughtered spent laying hens for soup. Our honey came from a local beekeeper.
Occasionally, there was venison or blue fish when we let local people hunt or fish on the property. In those days, few farmers nearby were raising meat and poultry for local markets, so we had to buy those foods at the store, but today our beef, bison, lamb, and chicken come from farmers we know. Above all, we grew truckloads of vegetables. The simple act of picking vegetables for dinner— a pleasure known to all kitchen gardeners, one that feels maternal and generous to me— is positively extravagant on a real farm, where there are acres of fresh things to choose from.
In June I might set out from the kitchen with a basket and a rough plan of attack— to find lettuce, zucchini, and young fennel— and come back with a wheelbarrow-full, seduced along the way by the old spinach patch abandoned in the hot weather or by a head of green garlic, still too young to sell but irresistible. If I'm feeling lazy, there's no need to go to the fields at all. In the cool, dark basement, beans, eggplant, and peppers sit in baskets, ready for market.
Our berries, lettuce, herbs, and vegetables made a feast of every meal from April to November. In the old, strict days when every penny counted, the first picking, however tiny— a dozen spears of asparagus or two pints of raspberries— went to market, not to the kitchen. But once each crop was in full swing, we ate as much as we wanted. We grew only the best-tasting varieties, such as Earliglow strawberries and Ambrosia melons. What we didn't grow, we bought or bartered for at farmers' markets.
In the winter, we ate our own canned tomatoes and frozen red bell peppers. We all ate huge amounts of vegetables— four ears each of buttered corn, giant plates of sliced tomatoes, enormous green salads— and still do. I've never met anyone who eats more vegetables than my family. To me, a half-cup serving of cooked broccoli is silly, a doll's portion. Everything we ate was homemade. We made whole wheat bread and buckwheat pancakes from fresh flour ground in an electric mill, and apple, beet, and carrot juice in the juicer.
Making granola was a weekly chore for us kids. On winter car trips we packed our own food, typically large pots of beans and rice, bread, apples, and peanut butter.
The everyday dessert was apple salad with yogurt or mayonnaise, walnuts, coconut, and honey. When we had proper desserts such as vanilla pudding, cherry pie, and strawberry shortcake— which was not often— they were always made from scratch. Portions were big, leftovers prized, and nothing was wasted.
Eggshells and vegetable scraps went in a bucket for the chickens. It all sounds perfect now, but jars filled with blackstrap molasses and homemade granola did not impress me. I wanted American food, the kind normal kids ate. By far the biggest taboo in our house was junk food, and for that very reason it was deeply compelling. When I had stand duty in the town of Purcellville, I made a beeline for the High's convenience store to buy ice cream sandwiches— and told no one.
On my eleventh birthday, my parents said I could have anything I wanted for dinner, and I greedily ordered a store-bought cake. I can still taste the faintly metallic neon frosting.
Yet I ate it gamely, unwilling to admit that my hideous cake was inferior to the dessert my mother always made on our birthdays: chocolate eclairs with real milk, butter, and eggs, and good chocolate. The first time I laid eyes on an all-you-can-eat salad bar, at the Leesburg Pizza Hut where my mother waited tables that first winter, I ate a bowl of tasty-looking bacon bits with a spoon. They made me very sick— and embarrassed, too. No one told me you don't eat bacon bits— the lowest form of pork, if they aren't imitation bacon made of soy protein— straight.
These wince-inducing memories suggest that the Clara Davis experiments— sometimes referred to as proving "nutritional wisdom"— work only when all of the choices are good ones. Sure, the baby cured his rickets with cod-liver oil, like a little instinctive scientist, or a wild animal self-medicating by eating certain plants. But Davis gave the babies only good foods to eat. What if the babies could have eaten ice cream sandwiches, neon pink cake frosting, and bacon bits? To my knowledge, no one has tried such an experiment— unless you count our daily exposure to all manner of cheap junk food— but the evidence is not encouraging.
In the short term, at least, availability seems to determine what we eat, rather than instinct for health. Squirrels, given the choice between acorns and chocolate cookies, take the cookies. The natural diet of sheep is grass, but when offered dense carbohydrates— the ovine equivalent of store-bought cake— they will binge until they are listless.