Wants and Needs

Originally published on Kitchen Dancing on July 16, 2007. View original post here.

The first time Erica and I walked through the big barn doors into the cool shade of the CSA barn, we were struck by the commotion inside. The roof over the biggest room in the barn is held up by two 8×8 timbers. Both are surrounded by tables where big baskets overflow with lettuce, kale, and cabbage. On our first day carrots, radishes, and a few early chives were laid out on the table in neat piles as well.

Families and farmers milled around the tables of vegetables, while friends stood in the corners getting caught up, nibbling on the fresh produce they were carrying. The entire place smelled of warm dirt, kicked up from kids chasing each other in one door and out the other.

In our first weeks at the farm Erica and I arrived each day to pick up our share, with wide eyes. We marveled at the bountiful food and community that this place encompassed. We filled our canvass bags with nearly reckless abandon, taking everything we could take, as much as we were allotted. We then made our way over to the big chalkboard map of the farm’s many fields. The variously colored chalk outlines tracing the different crops. With scissors in hand we stomped out into the fields to gather strawberries, green beans, snap peas, and herbs. Some days we spent hours in the fields talking over the leafy rows about the days past or the week ahead.

The picking took on rhythm, as our eyes became accustomed to looking a little more closely at the world around us. So much of our daily life is spent surveying the world around us in epic swaths, staring through car windows at the road ahead, looking out office windows at the world outside, staring out at horizons and thinking far away thoughts. At the farm it takes a while to remember how to look closely and think immediate thoughts, considering the plant in front of you or looking for the beans hidden among the leaves. Picking draws your eye to individual stalks, searching not across horizons but through leafy canopies. But as we remember how to look and how to see, crouched down amongst the rows, our picking becomes a pattern, a rhythm, in which our limbs work simultaneously reaching in two directions, stepping deftly around plants or over rows, reaching between big leaves, or around the taught strings that the plants climb up.

Rhythm is a kind of addiction. As your eyes get acclimated to looking for the ripest bean or berry, you begin seeing them all around you. Each time you move to pick what you assure yourself is the last one, another cluster reveals itself. These, you think to yourself, must be picked or else they may rot there on the vine, and the loss of those few tomatoes or peas would be too much to bear. In this way, even after you have talked your self down from the ledge of frantic picking and plucking, even as you are coaxing yourself out of the rows, your arms reach at each tomato that catches your eye. Cherry tomatoes are perhaps the worst in this regard. Their shiny red and orange skin stretched taught and shining in the morning sun lures us in deeper and deeper down the rows. At times we picked until we couldn’t close our bags, or until the first cherry tomatoes at the bottom of the bag, began to collapse under the weight of our continued picking.

Looking back now, our frenzy at being let loose in the rows to pick our own food, is such a clear sign of how separated Erica and I have felt from the land around us. We both grew up with gardens, flower and vegetable, and can recall sweet memories of picking snow peas and eating them fresh off the vine. The taste of a tomato, eaten off the vine, still a little dusty from the field, reminded us both of beautiful corners of our childhood. But childhood was the last we remember of this kind of connection. And now, in our late twenties, we ran through the rows, like children again, unable to get enough.

Initially, our picking did not take into account anything but our wild joy and desire for the richness of this land and these vegetables. It did not honor the energy it took to plant these rows, the fingers that tied tight strings and turned over the earth. This picking did not feel the wet soil, or consider the gallons of water it took to quench the roots below our feet. It did not consider the neighbors who would come tomorrow to pick these plants, or even the people at the end of the row. We picked with a momentum that was only of the moment. It was a gift to be so present, but it was a gift given at the cost of forgetting.

Once home our harvest would usually fill up every available counter. The kitchen filled with the scent of fresh tomatoes and basil. We put the colander in the sink and the salad spinner on the stove and set to the task of washing all of the vegetables. Most weeks we froze some, canned some, and still had peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, and other greens filling the bottom two shelves in our refrigerator. If every extreme emotion has an opposite, then the passion of picking can only be balanced by the sense of responsibility one feels to make sure what you have harvested does not go bad.

Each time we left a head of lettuces a little too long and found the leaves turning black and dissolving in the bottom of the bag, or found half a cucumber in the back of the fridge, soft and deformed, we felt a pang of guilt. Erica and I quickly saw the impact of our harried harvesting. When we picked more than we could eat we spent long nights over boiling water canning the leftovers. 12 pints of tomato sauce, 32 pints of salsa, 6 pints of pickled dilly beans. Although we loved canning and the idea of setting aside food to enjoy over winter, we canned both for pleasure and for necessity. On long nights, boiling the jars, when we both just wanted to go to sleep, we had second thoughts about our picking habits.

Over the course of the summer, as we got to know the people who run the farm and the other shareholders, as we became more and more familiar with the fields and watched the crops rotate through the seasons, our picking changed. We wandered through the rows more gingerly, sometimes just picking a handful of tomatoes to snack on, or a few edamame pods to have with dinner. We planned ahead for weeks when we wanted to make salsa or chutney or jam. We set aside some of our share for friends, or invited them to come to the farm with us. We brought coffee and bagels and hung out on the edge of the field watching the day take shape. Even at the end of the season when we were gleaning from the plants, plucking the last resilient hanging cherry or plum tomatoes we left some for the people who would come later that day, or later that week.

Early on it was as though we had been let loose in the produce isle of the grocery store, on a shopping spree in the vegetable isle. We took as though there would be no end, as if next week the shelves would be stocked again. We picked with the theory that if we did not take them no one would. But over the summer we shared laughs and stories, traded recipes and canning tips, and thought more deeply about the gifts of those fields. When we picked slower and wandered more we met more people and saw more of the farm. We considered our wants and our needs, and realized that careful picking that fit our life, fed us in ways vegetables couldn’t.

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