Food Gardens in the Central Highlands of New Guinea Image credit
Meh, food. I have been known to wish for human kibble, and sometimes eye the 20kg sack of dog food in the porch with a view to its nutritious qualities. Surely the children wouldn't mind finding a tub of that in their lunch boxes? I have a tricky relationship with food. My mother isn't known for her enthusiasm for cooking. Her favourite kind of soup comes in a can. My father can make toast. Once when I was very young and Mum was sick and safely confined to bed he decided to find out how many times he could put the toast back into the toaster to toast it some more. He only stopped when he set the toaster on fire. This is my culinary heritage. But my mum is a trooper. Even though she regards the act of cooking with fear and loathing, she has put a meal on the table three times a day every day of her adult life. I think that deserves a medal, right there. Despite my parents' non-interest in food, cooking or growing it, I grew up in the midst of a permaculture paradise. The highlands of New Guinea are the world's oldest continuously worked gardens, having been cultivated for around eight thousand years. In the 1920s when the first European explorers struggled over the mountains that ring the Wahgi Valley in the centre of Papua New Guinea they were astounded to look down into a valley that resembled the countryside of medieval England, with its squares of gardens edged with hedges and trees and little thatched villages. Fifty or so years later I lived in a small town there in the Highlands with my parents. Our houses were surrounded by gardens and fruit trees and my favourite place to play was inside the hibiscus hedge that surrounded the huge vegie garden in our back yard which was grown by the young local men who worked for my parents' missionary organisation. When I wasn't in the hedge I was climbing trees to eat guavas or stuffing myself with slightly unripe Cape gooseberries. Later we lived down on the tropical coast and Mum cut down bunches of bananas with a machete and stored them in the outside laundry until they were ripe. So although my parents weren't much into food, I grew up knowing that food comes out of the earth and drops down from trees. Much later, as a teenager, I lived in an Aboriginal settlement in the Northern Territory, where again, for tens of thousands of years a small population lived off the land and changed the environment to do that without breaking it. Extraordinary. We didn't do that of course. We went to the supermarket.
Much later again, as a young mum I moved into an old cottage with a big yard full of fruit trees. Peaches and oranges rained down, and I felt that this was how things should be, but I had absolutely no skills or knowledge to do anything with them. It was there that I first attempted to make jam, which turned out to be syrup. I didn't know what to do with that either, so I gave it away, then heard with grateful surprise that my friends loved it and poured it on their porridge in the morning. That was when I learned that almost everything you make is generally edible, but sometimes you have to relabel it. At this stage of my life I was just learning about cooking with actual, real food, instead of eating from jars and packets at the supermarket. It has been a long and interesting journey. Slowly I have learned that the food that drops off trees and springs out of the ground can be the staple part of your diet, and not just an occasional snack. That supermarkets are not really about providing us with the staff of life, so much as providing shareholders with dividends.
Food isn't always about eating. Sometimes it is about making unimaginably large amounts of money for people somewhere far away, who frankly, don't really need it. Ten multinational food corporations own most of the companies which make most of the food in the supermarkets. It is a racket. Most food in packets is made from corn, rice, wheat, soy and sugar. Most of this food contributes in various ways to making us very unwell. On top of this iniquitous peddling of nastiness, all the food in the packets relies heavily on oil - to grow the food, to process it in factories, to make its plastic packets, to transport it the average 1500 miles (2414 km) it takes to get to our plates. Then we have to drive to the supermarket, trudge around a giant ghastly architectural eyesore which is a blight on our urban landscape, shuffling behind a wonky trolley full of nasty food, and then we have to dispose of all the horrible plastic that this food leaves behind it in a trail of unsightliness.
Why do we do it? Because it is the easiest way to get food in a suburb. In Australia the two giant corporations that control 80% of our retail experience have made sure that there is a supermarket in every shopping centre near you. And me. And it's just part of our modern lifestyle.
But that is a very tedious and boring reason to do anything. There are much more fun and exciting ways to acquire food. Even if you don't live in the cradle of the world's oldest agriculture. Even in the suburbs. For instance, one of the verge trees at the end of my street is a small walnut tree. I have been keeping my beady eye on it, and now that the walnuts are dropping I come home with a heap in my pockets every time I walk the dog. Yesterday I went walking with a friend and we discovered a patch of blackberries that need a couple of weeks of sunshine to be perfect for picking. I say yes every time someone offers me food. This week I came home from Easter lunch with a bag of home-grown grapes, and a bag of feijoas that I foraged from under my friend Sandra's feijoa tree while everyone else was hunting for Easter eggs. I dried all that fruit to add to my muesli. Then my neighbour up the street gave me some kangaroo meat and some venison from his freezer that he had accidentally thawed thinking it was something else, so he gave it to me for the dog. This week Benson-the-carnivorous-puppy has been eating like a king. Because I had a long conversation with my elderly neighbour about the iniquity of waste, which both he and I disapprove of, he is now intending to send along all the leftovers from the deer and kangaroo carcasses that his mate the hunter brings him.. Benson will be eating well. Sometimes it is just being in the right place at the right time and saying yes. Another friend emailed the other day to ask whether I wanted some pork mince for $5kg because her farmer friends were killing their pigs, which have spent the last weeks of their lives snacking on acorns and strawberries. Oh, yes please. Mind you, I cultivate the right kind of friends..
And this is just the tip of the iceberg of finding sources of local food. This is without really paying that much attention. If I seriously applied myself, I am sure I could feed us all completely from local sources without spending too much. That is the kicker, isn't it? I could feed myself at enormous expense on local gourmet delicacies, because Tasmania is a foodie paradise, but I'm not about to do that, because I can't. But anyone can pick up walnuts from the side of the road..
And there is my garden. I love my garden, and like every gardener ever I am always saying, "Next year, I can grow even more food." And every year I do, but I am nowhere near the limit of the amount of food that an average backyard can produce yet. This week we are eating potatoes, tomatoes, silverbeet, rhubarb, capsicums and lemons from the garden, plus assorted herbs, and the last of the summer's garlic that I grew in pots. I still haven't managed to get a continuous supply of lettuce going, but I should be able to, because there is no month in Tasmania where it is impossible to grow lettuce in the open. It requires regular resowing though, which is my nemesis.
Do you know what I find hardest about eating from the garden? It's eating from the garden. Using what is right out there in the backyard for weeks on end - right now it is a potato glut - and then suddenly there won't be any more for the next nine months. It means having a hundred recipes for everything that is in season, actually cooking it, and not leaving it until next week when it will have gone off, or finding a way to preserve it. This requires a lot more organisational capacity than I actually possess, but I am working on it. At least if food goes to waste in the garden it goes straight into the compost to to be made back into food again, but I do get very cross with myself when I fail to take advantage of nature's mad bounty.
There are lots of ways to eat well and local even if you don't have a garden. There are farmers' markets. These can be expensive, but a lot less so if you stick to buying fruit and veg and stay away from all the lovely cheese and meat and artisan breads that are there to tempt us all away from the straight and narrow. There are fruit and veg boxes from local farms. There is foraging and eating weeds. This year I have started adding weeds to my salads. There are about half a dozen that I use now, and they are everywhere! There is making friends with farmers and food growers, and saying yes! whenever anything is available, and going to help them and buying food from them whenever possible. I buy my eggs from a work colleague who has chickens for much less than buying free range eggs at the shops. Hunting out local and affordable sources of food can be fun. I mean, who knew that I know someone who knows someone with pigs, or who hunts deer? Networking isn't just for people in suits. I also keep my eyes peeled when walking the dog or visiting friends. That's how I found the walnut tree. There are edible trees all over the place when you look out for them. Also, weird bits of them are unexpectedly edible. This week I discovered that new birch leaves are edible and you can add them to spring salads. Amazing!
And why is all this so important, you might ask. Well, of course you know. Less oil, less energy, less plastic, more food security. All that. But for me, what is also important is more life. We have given huge corporations power over the most central need of life. Our food. It is what keeps us alive. I don't know how much life we are getting from those plastic packets though. Even in the highlands of New Guinea there are supermarkets. You can buy frozen peas and beans in cans in a big warehouse there just as easily as you can in my local suburb. But if you want some real fun, go to a market and buy beans from the person who grew them, just like people have done for thousands of years. You may meet your friends and have a good gossip and get out in the fresh air, and make your local community more fun. Or you can have even more fun and plant some baby pea seeds and watch them pop out of the ground and wave their tiny baby tendrils around, and give them some sticks to grow up. Or watch bean vines twirl around their bean poles and wait for the world's most miniature beans to start peeking out of the bean flowers at midsummer.
What I discovered from my childhood of watching gardens grow, and trees drop food and pigs and chickens running around all over the place is that food is everywhere and is also pretty much a crazy carnival. What makes supermarket grocery shopping disappointing is that it is in no way a crazy carnival. It is dreary, because it is about money. Large corporations making money so that I can eat is just not fun at all.
My relationship with food is still tricky. I am not a natural born cook. I would honestly rather read a book than make soup. But I would rather make soup than eat soup out of a can. Because when you make soup out of vegies you grew in the garden or bought at the markets, or received in a bag over the fence from your neighbour, well, that soup is pretty special. It tastes good, and it is made out of community and life and fun, and not out of money. And now I am learning to make my own dog food so I won't have to buy giant bags of it from the supermarket. My children are probably slightly relieved about that..